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To My Fellow Skeptics (and Believers Too)

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The first few times I heard about God, I was already suspicious. My earliest clear memory of it was when I was five, leaning against the screen door of our small town home with my older sister, watching a midsummer thunderstorm unfold.

We were in awe, like I have been at every thunderstorm since. I don’t remember if I asked, but my sister said it was God who made the lightning and thunder. Not that she was ever religious, that’s just what her eight-year old mind told me that day. I took note.

At that point, nearly all of my ideas about God had come from Family Circus comics. The kids each prayed every night before bed, depicted casually as if it’s something every normal person does. In one comic, Dolly prays for her father to make it home safely from his trip to New York. The opposite panel shows a rainy street scene in which a six-foot translucent hand stops her Dad from stepping in front of a speeding taxi.


Later on, in my teenage years, I would recognize the Family Circus to be a conservative, unapologetically fundamentalist cartoon, but at the time I wasn’t aware of the play of politics in the things I read and watched. I just knew that the God they depicted didn’t make a whole lot of sense. This was the idea of God I had, and I rejected it, because it made sense to do so.

Sometime in junior high, when I was becoming more politically aware, I remember being shocked one day when I realized that ordinary adults — too old for the likes of the Family Circus — actually still believed in this God thing. Not just the crazies on televangelist shows either, but real, respectable adults who could be found in church on any given Sunday, singing hymns while looking upward with their eyes closed, really believing that they were in contact with this big translucent man, presumably when he’s not busy casting lightning bolts over my hometown, or saving Bil Keane from the natural consequences of wandering into traffic without looking both ways.

Before then I thought God was meant to be something like Santa Claus. As you grow into an adult, reason and knowledge would eventually descend on your world, like it or not, and you’d have to leave certain ideas behind, along with whatever comfort they brought you.

Whenever I questioned adults about the sense in believing in this God, I got a lot of wayward explanations but the gist of them was that this was an area where reason didn’t really apply. God was so powerful that he was off limits to the kind of deductive reasoning or doubt you’d eventually develop about the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy.

By eight, Santa Claus was dead to me, and so was God.

The The God Delusion Delusion

As a teenager I learned about religion’s violent track record throughout history, the inquisitions and crusades, sexual abuse and repression of science, and developed a vicious disdain for it altogether.

Had I known about him, Richard Dawkins might have been my hero. Dawkins is a brilliant Oxford-taught scientist, known for his work on genetic evolution, but perhaps moreso as one of the world’s most prominent advocates for atheism.

Last week I borrowed the audio version of his anti-religious book, The God Delusion. In it he attacks any and all arguments for the existence of God and the practice of religion.

Pausing briefly at the outset to exclude Taoism and Buddhism from his criticism, on the grounds that they are philosophies rather than religions, he goes on to dismiss any style of theism, of belief in any interpretation of any God for any reason, as irrational and delusional. Agnosticism, too, he brushes aside, as less logical than de facto atheism.

On that level — logic — he’s right on. His arguments are thoroughly rational, laid out in hard words, inviting inspection by the reader, impervious to all the traditional arguments.

And that’s the problem. He seems to take for granted that rational thinking is the only way to come to dependable understanding of the universe. For this too, he gives his reasons, and I can’t really argue with them.

He made the same mistake I did as a teen. He associated a certain idea with God, the contemporary one: a contrived, wishful idea of an unstoppable Big Brother who will ultimately keep us from harm — and blasted every mention of the G-word to pieces, under the rigid belief that there can’t be anything real or meaningful behind it.

Listening to the audiobook (read by an openly scornful Dawkins, with his wife for backup) I got a strong sense of baby-with-the-bathwater carelessness. He found a mental position he liked, fortified it with logic, plugged all the holes, and started shooting. I returned it after a few CDs.

A letter to my fellow skeptics

What if, Dr Dawkins (or any fellow skeptic), you had an experience of a particular kind that you can’t really explain?

You catch a fleeting glimpse of, well, you can’t really say. Words fail you, but you try anyway: “I’ve witnessed, uh, something… some distinct experience in which I’ve seen the perfection and limitless beauty of the world. I believe, no… I know that I was seeing with utter clarity, and that it was not the way I normally see the world. I saw clearly that I was one with the universe, that unconditional love is its basis, and that I am an eternal being and not a hapless, mortal creature.” Already you sound nuts, even to yourself.

You search for the terms to explain the quality of it, and cringe when the only word you can summon is “divine.” Every stab you take at conveying your experience only amounts to a disappointing, evasive-sounding cliché:

  • There is something more to us
  • Everything is in its right place, we just can’t see that
  • There is a higher intelligence behind all this

Whatever it is, you have a very strong sense that its cultivation is immeasurably valuable, not just as a means of achieving peace and ease in your life, but for others to do the same. It is, clearly, exactly what humanity needs in order to overcome — no, transcend — its current palette of troubles. For this reason you feel it is important for others to have this experience too.

But nothing you can say about it, no anecdote or soliloquy can help you describe it without sounding (to yourself and undoubtedly to others) as a quack, a nutcase — or worse — religious.

Nor can you find any evidence for what you’ve experienced, and you know that there is none, because it is something that happened to you, and not to the material world in front of you. There is no objective, physical evidence for you and a fellow person to examine and share your conclusions about it. No peer reviews, no replication, no leg to stand on in a debate.

What would you do with these feelings?

Would you toss them out, on the grounds that they are unprovable, incommunicable, unscientific? Would you attempt to quantify them somehow, do a study on it? With nothing to measure, nothing objective to observe, you know this is impossible.

When you discover the sheer impossibility of conveying your discovery in conventional, rational terms, you find yourself talking in spiritual-sounding “pointers” — vague, cryptic clues that make you sound like a pretentious Zenster wanna-be.

It’s not something you can let go of though. And that’s because, even though you’d never say it out loud, you know beyond all argument that it is the Alpha and the Omega, it is the peace that passeth all understanding, the sound of one hand clapping, the noise of the tree that falls in the forest with no one around, and all that.

It’s unmentionable, unmanifested, the opposite of “things” and “stuff”, beyond thought — all sorts of other descriptors that are perfectly meaningless and hokey to the staunchly scientific, rational thinker.

Skeptics will always reject your “pointers” as mumbo jumbo, because they don’t provide the skeptic’s only demand: evidence. Your personal experience is wholly subjective, so no matter how profound it is to you, it leaves nothing with which to convince others.

And convincing people isn’t possible anyway, because your discovery isn’t a belief. It is knowledge, but it isn’t a fact. It isn’t a story, or a version of something or other. You could call it a “truth”, maybe adorn it with a capital T, but then you sound like a flake again.

Perhaps you’re stuck with this private understanding — which you don’t really understand, at least not in the same way you might understand, say, the rules of Major League Baseball — and you can’t just pass it along to somebody else like any other knowledge. You can either talk about it in vague, roundabout terms, confusing people all along the way, or just keep it to yourself.

Yet, other people throughout history and today’s society seem to have discovered the same thing, and not all of them strike you as nutjobs. In fact, most of them appear to be unusually sane.

Faithful Skepticism

About five hundred years ago, skepticism became the dominant attitude among the scholars of Europe. They had discovered, quite rightly, that human knowledge is more dependable when you require it to be supported by evidence. Simple enough. What was called “Natural Philosophy” came to be called science, and human understanding of the universe quickly mushroomed.

The advances were so great and so beneficial, that the attitude evolved from a helpful rule of thumb, to what can only be called a dogma. To most scientifically-minded people, including the world’s most brilliant minds, knowledge can’t be knowledge without evidence.

That means claims of anything that happens only to an individual, with no external indicators to confirm it to others, gets rejected categorically, often with ridicule.

Not everyone was on board with this. Michel de Montaigne, a French essayist, showed that skepticism could undermine itself. Just as it can be used to refute claims without evidence, it can cast doubt on human reasoning and evidence as well. Evidence, too, must be taken on faith, and therefore the skeptic is better off embracing faith as his guide.

He advocated faith as the basis for one’s entire life, avoiding rigorous attempts to accumulate worldly knowledge, because by regarding empirical knowledge as categorically more certain than faith, it becomes dogma.

“God is Dead.”


I’m not saying I’ve come to believe in God. I mean, I could say that, but it would be misleading. The common conception of God is still some version of the Family Circus one: an omnipotent, impossibly convenient (and sometimes horrifying) creature, intervening in the material world in the most arbitrary and incomprehensible ways, helping the New Orleans Saints win the Super Bowl after nearly obliterating their hometown. And he loves you.

It makes no more sense to me than it ever did. That materialistic idea of God suffers from the exact same affliction as Dawkins’ over-reaching rejection of the whole thing: it defines God in objective terms, makes a mental picture of it — I won’t say “Him” — which is bound by words, defended with argument (as if winning such an argument could matter!), clenched desperately with emotions and ego, fought over like it’s anything but a personal revelation.

God is misunderstood, I think most of us can agree on that.

But as I get older, as I explore more philosophies and traditions, I’m seeing rather clearly what God was meant to be, before being mangled by religion, before being argued into meaninglessness and conceptualized to death.

I’ll talk more about what the word God means to me in a future post. I think it may make sense to you.

I am still an advocate of skepticism as a mindset, but I don’t think of it the same way anymore. I know now that you can know something without evidence, without the approval of others. And I know that all of us, Dawkins included, are incurable believers.


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DiscoveredJoys August 30, 2010 at 4:33 am

Interesting post. There is undoubtedly a desire in some people for “spiritual” experiences and also undoubtedly people who, like yourself and I, experienced some “spiritual” feelings.

But does having such an experience mean that it was real (i.e. pointing to an existence of something independent of your brain/body), or was it a cognitive illusion? How can you tell?

We know from our own experience(!) that optical illusions persist (e.g. two parallel lines terminated with inward and outward facing chevrons). Even when we measure the two lines and ‘know’ them to be the same length we still ‘see’ as different lengths. The illusion overwhelms knowledge.

Similarly people can experience ‘spiritual’ feelings through Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation – your brain experiences the ‘other’ at the flip of a switch.

Now I’m not saying that the ‘other’ doesn’t exist, or that it isn’t a powerful and possibly life-changing experience. But a simpler explanation, supported by some experiments, is that brain processes are sufficient to generate those experiences.

Those experiences are no less wonderful though.

David August 30, 2010 at 7:16 am

But does having such an experience mean that it was real (i.e. pointing to an existence of something independent of your brain/body), or was it a cognitive illusion? How can you tell?

You can’t, and that’s the point. You must either take it or reject it, on what is ultimately faith.

I can’t say I know what you’re talking about when you refer to Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, but optical illusions are different because the nature of the illusion can be exposed and explained to us. You can sight down the page to see that the line is indeed straight. You have access to all the necessary angles.

Ethan August 30, 2010 at 2:49 pm

I believe DiscoveredJoys is referring to something I was talking about in my comment below about the scientists I read about on NPR. Basically, they stimulated different parts of a subject’s brain with weak magnetic fields. They found that when targeting his temporal lobe, they could induce a sort of “sensed presence” as if someone else, or something supernatural, was in the room with the subject. Here’s a link to the article: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=104291534
As for the stuff I was saying about prayer and meditation… I was a bit off. Your occipital lobe experiences more activity (for concentration) while your parietal lobe decreases in activity (for decreased sense of self). Link: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=104310443
Anyway, I think that in talking about all the subjective/objective stuff in my other comment gave me a much better understanding of headlessness, which essentially plunges you straight into the subjective mindset for perceiving the world (that is, experiencing without thinking/attaching labels). I think I have a better appreciation for my no-thingness now lol.

Maik August 30, 2010 at 4:35 am

This strikes me a bit as a straw man argument. Those hyper-logical, purely materialistic hard-boiled atheist anti-spirituals (or whatever you’d call them) do not exists. Dawkins himself is a great counterexample. On several occasions he has called his feelings towards scientific insight as “religious”, and he very often talks about the spiritual fulfillment his research brought him. In his book “Unweaving the Rainbow” he fully explores this thought, and I very much share his sentiments. Knowing that the sun is a giant fusion reactor millions of miles away doesn’t make watching a sunset any less beautiful, on the contrary. Understanding what it is and that something so huge and powerful and rare as a G-Class star in an almost empty universe is the very reason I exist makes me feel special and blessed, much more than any empty phrase like “God made it and put it up there” ever could. In my religion (and I’m not using that word ironically here) any beliefs that stem from personal incredulity belittle the wonders of our world and should be considered heretic.

Humans are illogical and irrational creatures and we absolutely need deep beliefs and spiritual experiences. Science is done by humans and all great scientific insights came from people that were passionate and held deep convictions. At no point science was meant to purge us of our human nature – it compliments us, strengthens or understanding of the world around us, and helps us building more sound, more fulfilling beliefs on that understanding. And no one requires you to hand in your personal spiritual revelations for peer review, nor will any truly mature human being disregard them because you cannot offer a scientific theory for them.

By the way I’m very skeptic when people try to extend concepts so much they become tautological. If every spiritual feeling is being called “God”, that word means nothing else than “being human”. However it has way too much baggage coming with it, and most people (as you mention yourself) associate a lot of very stupid and dangerous ideas with that G-word.

And I didn’t like the “God Delusion” either. Arrogance and scorn will not convince anyone. But one has to admit he is at a full-blown war with the right wingers and religious nut jobs, and as always war brings out the worst in everyone, sometimes necessarily so. From the side lines both parties seem to act destructively.

David August 30, 2010 at 7:09 am

A reverent, humbled view of nature is not what I’m talking about when I refer to God. That too is dismissive, because it interprets God as a supernatural concept. I think Dawkins shares this misunderstanding with the fundamentalists he hates.

I never said science purges us of our human nature, but you must admit it does attempt to reduce it to concepts. Science is completely necessary but I don’t think it always strengthens our understanding of the universe, as long as we believe it is our only means of knowledge. Dawkins seems to think it is, I used to think it was, and we weren’t alone by any stretch.

The word does have a lot of baggage, and that’s why I avoid it. But there is something more to it than its contemporary concept suggests.

Yu August 30, 2010 at 4:42 am

Wow, am I glad to hear this. I went through the exact same thing you did, although Santa is still semi-alive :p

But no in all seriousness, when asked if I believe in God or not I tell them that I believe and don’t believe at the same time. Its not like I actually believe in God in some material sense; no bibles, no prayers, no rituals, but God just seems to be there in a separate way. Of course I disbelieve God in the traditional sense in favor of scientific methods and logic, but even on that same level we have not been able to prove if God exists or what it is supposed to mean to us.
I definitely think God is misunderstood. It seems like religion is where people went wrong, not God.

David August 30, 2010 at 7:17 am

It seems like religion is where people went wrong, not God.

I think you’re right on the money here.

gustavo August 30, 2010 at 2:40 pm

I agree with both of you.

The God you are talking about cannot be described, and religion is a rigid effort for describing what God is, and what he – he?- wants from us.

I like what Ghandi said once:
” It is beyond my power to induce in you a belief in God. There are certain things which are self proved and certain which are not proved at all “.

@Yu: I’ve checked your blog. Congrats, you have good stuff there.

Lisis August 30, 2010 at 7:03 am

Ironic, isn’t it? You can’t PROVE God exists… you have to have faith (they say). And you can’t PROVE God doesn’t exist… you have to have experienced enlightenment (of some sort). And neither faith nor enlightenment can be given to another person, they both have to come from within each individual.

So all the arguments, conversations and conflicts over who is right are completely irrelevant. These are not issues that can be settled with words… no matter how clever or eloquent.

I’ve found that the only way I can express what I *know* is to be a living example of it. When others notice the peace in my life they, inevitably, want to know how it came about… how they can have it too. But they don’t ask, and I don’t tell. We live it together.

(Yeah… I know I sound like a nut job. I’m OK with that.)

David August 30, 2010 at 7:10 am


You’re one of my favorite nut jobs.

Lisis August 30, 2010 at 8:58 am

“One of…”? I thought I topped the list! ;)

Rosa August 30, 2010 at 3:12 pm

“Nut job”, that’s a new expression for me :) You are both wonderful nut jobs. Haha :)

David August 30, 2010 at 4:30 pm

You wouldn’t believe the competition you have

Christopher Kabamba August 30, 2010 at 9:50 am

This is beautiful.

gustavo August 30, 2010 at 2:45 pm

I’ll repeat what Gandhi said (because it fits well here and because I like it a lot)

“It is beyond my power to induce in you a belief in God. There are certain things which are self proved and certain which are not proved at all”.

He also said “My life is my message”.

Jay Schryer August 30, 2010 at 7:12 am

So quoth Mr. Spock:

“Logic is the beginning of wisdom. Not the end.”

Once upon a time, I was a hardcore atheist. It was easier to carry than the hatred I had for God before then, and it was comforting in it’s own way. That period of my life ended when I had a spiritual experience unlike anything I could have possibly imagined, and I began to seek out alternatives. Ultimately, that line of questioning led me to this blog post today, and I am thankful for that. I am thankful for the people I have met and the experiences I have had as a result of my spiritual journey.

Becoming more spiritual has made me more peaceful, more happy, and more confident. It has brought more love, more happiness, and more beauty in my life. Even if I’m wrong, and there is no God, at least believing in one has made my life better, and that alone makes it all worth it.

David August 30, 2010 at 5:25 pm

Ah, I would have thought Spock would be a hardcore empiricist. :)

Andy Parsons August 30, 2010 at 7:38 am

Perhaps all you’re really saying David is that there is a “spiritual” side to human existance.

If so then surely that’s something nobody could seriously deny unless their life contained no love, no passion, no happiness, sadness, grief or for that matter any emotion or meaningful feelings at all. All these things are spiritual in nature and cannot be measured or explained by science, yet all of us experience them and KNOW that they exist.

I’m not convinced though that the same argument could be made for the existance of God, except perhaps using the very loosest possible definition of God, which is basically to say that all the feelings I have described above are the only manifestations of God, and the only ways in which “God” exists.

I may have missed something in the above (admittedly very quick) analysis, and I personally still describe myself as agnostic rather than atheist because I do remain open to the possibility that there may be a God. By that I mean there may be some sort of “higher power” if you like that has some kind of influence on the universe. I doubt it, but I remain open to the possibility.

One thing I am fairly sure of is that there are almost certainly (I stress only ALMOST) a lot of things about the universe and indeed about our own planet and things going on around us which we do not fully understand.

Given the size of the universe and how little of it we have explored, and given that science is still slowly making new discoveries all the time, I’d say it would be nothing short of extremely arrogant to declare we understand everything.

David August 30, 2010 at 5:30 pm

What I was trying to say is that faith is not necessarily unintelligent, and it’s something we all employ, even if we don’t call it that.

I wouldn’t say I was arguing that there is a spiritual side to human existence, because I don’t really know what spiritual means. I was arguing that much of the religious rhetoric surrounding God is clearly (at least in my experience) based on something real and practical, and therefore it is foolish to reject God and all its advocates on the pretense that there is no evidence for God. This is what I used to do, and I know there are many many others who do.

Ethan August 30, 2010 at 7:52 am

Yes!! Awesome post!! I’ve had a few run-ins with such scientific-minded individuals, as you describe, who seem to completely take away the value of SUBJECTIVE knowledge – or just experiencing something’s existence without attaching labels. I kept trying to say that all anybody ever has are beliefs, and I was told not to push onto them my “subjectivist dogma”. That’s not really what I was going for, I was really just trying to drive home the fact that everything we consider as “evidence” for our “theories” is really only “evidence” because we BELIEVE it pertains to the theory. Weather it does or does not is irrelevant, the point is that, like you said, one way or another we put our beliefs into our “knowledge”, supported by evidence (or obviously sometimes not).

This makes me think of These scientists I read about on NPR who were talking about a genetic predisposition to believe in God. I think they were a little overzealous to describe it that way. Like you mentioned, people have been having this one-with-the-universe feeling for thousands of years now. How do you describe such a feeling? The careless description leads one to assume they’ve felt the touch of God or the creator, but what really happens is something much more significant.

When you pray, or meditate, the brain does something neat. The occipital lobe (responsible for sensory data interpretation, giving you a sense of self vs the world) actually deactivates! You lose your sense of self and experience “oneness” with the universe!

Now, going back to subjective vs objective knowledge…. and trying to give such subjective knowledge an objective meaning…. and this may just explain the reason why religion exists at all. People from various cultures and traditions came across this experience, one way or another, and tried to define it in objective terms. Rather than conveying the true meaning of their experiences, however, they ended laying down the belief structure which would later be turned into dogmatic practice.

Anyways great topic Dave! Looking forward to the next post!


David August 31, 2010 at 6:45 am

What you say about the occipital lobe sounds really cool. I’ll read more about it.

Ethan August 31, 2010 at 1:11 pm

Yeh, I posted a reply to DiscoverdJoys comment because I believe they were talking about that when they mentioned the Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation. I was actually a bit off. The occiptial lobe actually increases in activity (due to the concentration needed for deep prayer/meditation) while the parietal lobe is the one that deactivates, and the parietal lobe is the one responsible for interpreting sensory input. I was kinda in a rush to get out the door when I posted this comment, so it’s a little garbled. Anyways here’s a link to the NPR article I read about it on (if you missed my reply one DiscoveredJoys’ comment above): http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=104291534

Partha August 30, 2010 at 8:22 am

You’ve hit it on the nail. That’s the nub of this whole thing: this extra-normal experience.

But here’s where the problem lies:

In only a very few, very very rare instances, does that experience come unsought. For those thus blest, there is no problem: unless they’re outright fools they’ll do their best to explore this further.

But what of the rest? The vast majority who are not blest with unsought-for “spiritual” experience?

There are many spiritual schools, “paths”: but they involve huge investment of one’s time and effort: and only a fool would invest all that time and effort unless he or she were sure. On the other hand, there IS no way one can be sure until one HAS that experience?

So what’s the way out of this chicken-and-egg predicament?

David August 31, 2010 at 6:50 am

I don’t think it is rare for “religious” experiences, or experiences of God, to arrive in someone’s life unsought. I’m not referring necessarily to enlightenment or satori, just a convincing experience of something divine. I do have to be careful how I describe this though — words have always gotten in the way of communicating about this. I think most ordinary people probably have the kind of experience I’m referring to at some point or another, but they may not describe it as I have.

Partha August 31, 2010 at 8:57 am

That sounds a bit tricky. I mean, if one simply has a deep-rooted “feeling” that there’s something, someone out there, a not-easily-seen depth, etc, well, that’s great, but so what? It’s just a feeling. And to move from that feeling to actual supra-normal states (or, for that matter, cessation of suffering), and to effort to reach those goals, isn’t that a H-U-G-E jump?

Here’s what I’m driving at :-
(And I keep on resolutely driving at it because it is at around the top of the hundred-and-ten things that seem to confound me at this time, on the off chance that somewhere I’ll get the answer, and who is to say here is not that place?)

Let me personalise it just to illustrate: Let’s say the question is: should YOU meditate regularly? Now if you’re one who’s already had a satori experience, that’s a no-brainer (unless you are, as I’d said earlier, an outright fool). However, if you have NOT had a satori experience, then, irrespective of whether or not you’ve had an intuitive feeling about this, you can do one of two things: (a) you DON’T meditate, in which case you risk missing out on the whole point of your life; or (b) you DO meditate, in which case you run the risk of, like some sucker, end up wasting God knows how many hours of your life (and more importantly, perhaps change the focus of your loife) following something that simply isn’t there at all.

That’s what I’m saying: you CAN’T believe in supra-normal states unless you’ve “seen” them; and you CAN’T have those supra-normal states unless you’ve spent donkeys years following some path (unless you’re one of the exceptions, one of the few unsought-for-satori-wallahs).

Incidentally, this applies not just to supra-normal states but also to simple “cessation of suffering”. Buddha had said that that’s how it goes, but who is to say he wasn’t speaking through his hat, spinning some crazy theory that sounds half-reasonable but has zero practical application? You can’t have a meaningful view one way or the other unless you follow his path yourself; and to follow that path without proof is to invest substantial parts of yourself in what may turn out to be a scam or at least moonshine.

So what do you do?

And how do you properly justify (and therefore generalise) your decision?
(So saying, heck it’s my life that’s what I choose to do with it, it’s my decision and I’ve decided, why, well because, period — that answer won’t work. If one does random things, well then, one does it (or not), but that doesn’t answer the question.

John January 12, 2011 at 9:31 pm

there’s no logical (note my use of the word logical) answer to your question. you can’t “properly” justify anything. that’s why he has resorted to faith. logic is fallible. there is no ultimate proof. logic is based on axioms that we take to be true regardless of what we think of them. even if he came to his conclusions through a proof of some sort (i.e. relied on some logical system to prove something (i.e. used the axioms)) this would be equivalent to placing faith in the axioms (which we just assume to be true). there’s no escaping it really.

this is also the reason why people say that science is a religion. it’s based on assumptions that people assume to be true (that their machines display true results, that they are interpreting them correctly, that what they see is true, etc. etc. etc.)

Danny Tumbleweed August 30, 2010 at 9:14 am

Hey David,

Just this weekend in a book by Ralph Metzner I read a description of the scientific approach to reality undertaken by William James, author of The Varieties of Religious Experience. I was pretty jazzed to come across it, because it gels so well with my own approach. Here, in James’ own words:

“I give the name of ‘radical empiricism’ to my Weltanschauung. . . .To be radical an empiricism must neither admit into its construction any element that is not directly experienced, nor exclude from them any element that is directly experienced. For such a philosophy, the relations that connect experuiences must themselves be experienced relations, and any kind of relation experienced must be accounted as “real” as anything else in the system.”

Totally relevant as James was so deeply concerned with personal religious experience…and what is a religious experience if not a deeply personal one?

David August 31, 2010 at 6:55 am

Hey Danny, good to hear from you.

That makes perfect sense to me, and I like the way he put it. It must all be based on personal experience, because personal experience is all that exists. All observations, scientific or non-, are personal experiences.

Alex Drelles August 30, 2010 at 9:52 am

I’ve been reading your blog for a couple months now and felt it was time to say thank you. I was turned on to you site through a friend at my Unitarian Universalist church, he runs the SHAAG group(Secularist, Humanist, Agnostic, Atheist Group). We both agreed that we’ve had some of the same experiences as you, but you’ve got the discipline to write it down and share it with us. For that reason I applaud your effort.

David August 31, 2010 at 9:54 pm

Hey thanks Alex!

Erin August 30, 2010 at 10:03 am

I love love love this post. And here’s why. I do believe in a spiritual force, maybe of the mind, I don’t know. I was raised catholic but through my years as an adult I’ve become extremely disillusioned with the biblical version of God. And although I can empathize hugely with Agnostics, and Atheists, especially with my own personal frustrations of secular religion, I’ve never ever stopped believing in something because of a very powerful experience I had when I was 8 years old. And like your article discussed, I don’t often tell people about it because when I talk about it out loud I sound ridiculous. And if I were to hear the same story from someone else, I would brush it off as a “trick of the mind”. But the experience was so unlike anything I’ve ever had before or since that it’s stayed with me, and I do believe there is some force. What I think is absurd is to think we have any full comprehension of what “it” is/thinks/wants.
My idea’s of God have always been malleable. I try not to stick to a rigid picture of who/what it is. And in that way I agree with agnostics. We don’t know really. But I depart from them at the line of knowing there’s SOMETHING. I just don’t know what exactly it is. But it’s spiritual, and it’s within and around me and it’s powerful. And certainly if I was going on hard line evidence I might even be atheist. But that would mean declaring that I know with certainty there’s nothing. And that’s a lie to myself, because I’ve experienced otherwise, and I would be denying myself. And if we deny ourselves we deny what it is to exist.

David August 31, 2010 at 10:00 pm

My idea’s of God have always been malleable. I try not to stick to a rigid picture of who/what it is. And in that way I agree with agnostics. We don’t know really.

I think this is a really important point. Agnostics are often criticized by hard-line atheists because the atheists think it’s lame not to just admit that they don’t really believe in the God the churches talk about. But that assumes that the Agnostic’s version of God is the contemporary church version. More than anything, I think the Agnostic position is that they don’t really know what God it is they’re supposed to believe or disbelieve, and the theists and atheists often take for granted what God is supposed to be.

Jelke Wispelwey August 30, 2010 at 10:31 am

Hi David, my first post….
Some years ago I wrote a post to a group about religion with the title: ‘The coming and going of the Gods.’ As I don’t seem to be able to locate it, here’s an abreviated version of it.

Humans seem to want an explanation of what happens around them. They ask themselves: What causes thunder and lightning, what causes the wind to blow, what caused this world to come to be etc. etc.

Their explanations depended on their level of knowledge and often on their geographical location. The only ‘noise’ early man knew about was that of a horse-drawn wagon on rough land so they ‘explained’ thunder by projecting a God ‘up-there’ driving a wagon over the clouds. As for lightning, all they knew was the reflection of sunlight of the shiny blade of their axes so they gave this God an axe which he threw down one in a while creating lightning. Similarly with the wind: blow on your hand and then hold your hand into the wind: same feeling isn’t it? So they put four (one in each corner of the world) Gods ‘out-there’ blowing their heads off every time it was windy. (In older books they often had them pictured: one in each corner of the page, blowing as hard as they could).

These Gods are all gone now, thanks to the fact that we have learned much about the world we live in. The wind is explained by air moving from a place of high pressure to one with a lower one and lightning by electrical discharge. We now use it everytime we start a vehicle: lightning inside the engine and thunder coming out of the exhaust pipe. So the Gods have been replaced by natural processes.

However, there is still one God left: the creator of this world. How come, ‘he’ is still there? Why hasn’t science as yet found a natural process that explains the existence of this world? The reason is very simple: the ’cause’ of the world is by defintion outside of this world and is thus unreachable by science as it limits itself to what is observable. Once science starts to include the subjective part of our experiences, it will find this ’cause’ in the center of our being. Of course, it is in the center of all beings but only accessible ‘here’. But is this cause an anthropomorphological being like all the other Gods? Not at all. Like them ‘he’ turns out to be purely natural process which as yet we do not fully understand. The ancient Vedic Sages called ‘It’ Sat-Chit-Ananda meaning pure being, pure consciousness, pure happiness (pure in the sense of not depending on anything). All the plants, animals and humans can be seen as aware-beings and are thus ‘expressions’ of this ultimate Essence.

I wrote this in a bit of a hurry and tried to keep it as short as possible, likely resulting in obscurity…..Sorry…


David August 31, 2010 at 10:10 pm

I think you’re right when you say that God must be a purely natural element, whether we understand it or not. Why would we split the universes’ workings into two categories, natural and supernatural? It’s all part of the same scheme. The only reason to make a supernatural category is so that we can cheat while talking about how much we understand, by attributing arbitrary, wishful ideas to some “supernatural” being that, conveniently, doesn’t have to fit into the rest of the scheme.

Laurie August 30, 2010 at 10:50 am

Great post! Jay’s comment made me smile because it reminded me of Pascal’s argument for theism. I used to be an atheist and then an objective agnostic, whatever that means. Now, I don’t feel the need to label myself. Sure, I’m a Catholic, and yes, I do believe. But faith is active and is always searching; if anything, I’m kind of tempted to say doubt, skepticism, keeps a person’s faith healthy. Faith, after all, is more than a mere religious feeling or experience. (As loving someone doesn’t always mean you feel ‘in love’ with that someone all the time.)

A problem I have with a lot of arguments against the existence of God is most of them are really criticizing religion, not the existence of God itself. Take Freud, for example, when he says we use God to make the world ‘safe’ or Marx with his opium for the masses. What’s objectionable to them is how religion interprets God and, like you said, God is pretty much misunderstood.

If there’s any argument against the existence of God that I find difficult to argue with, it’s the presence of evil. If God is absolutely perfect and absolutely good, why is there sin? An argument I can come up with is that our concepts of good and evil are human and God is beyond our comprehension. Furthermore, hope always seems to override despair (but this can just be an assumption of mine; one I’d like to keep believing).

David August 31, 2010 at 10:28 pm

A problem I have with a lot of arguments against the existence of God is most of them are really criticizing religion, not the existence of God itself. Take Freud, for example, when he says we use God to make the world ‘safe’ or Marx with his opium for the masses. What’s objectionable to them is how religion interprets God

Yes! Well put Laurie.

About the presence of evil… I tend to think of evil as just the word we use to describe the results of unconscious human behaviors, such as impulsive or ego-driven behaviors.

The word “Sin” has an interesting history. Before it took on its current meaning of a moral infraction, it only meant to make a costly mistake — it carried no moral implication. An archer missing a target in a competition was a sin, a character flaw was a sin. I believe “sin” was given a moral spin by religious institutions as a means to control their flocks, by creating an excuse to punish people.

I think sin, in the spiritual context, originally meant to do something that would have karmic consequences — an unconscious action that creates suffering for yourself and others. The ‘punishment’ for sin comes from the natural cause-and-effect of the universe. If you steal, there are social, emotional, and practical consequences, even if nobody else imposes judicial or moral consequences. This is a major idea and I could go on, but I’ll give it a post of its own.

Tom K August 30, 2010 at 11:06 am

If materialism is true, all our thoughts are produced by purely material antecedents. These are quite blind, and are just as likely to produce falsehood as truth. We thus have no reason for believing any of our conclusions — including the truth of materialism, which is therefore a self-contradictory hypothesis.

– J.E. McTaggart, Philosophical Studies, 1934
(via futilitycloset.com)

Dave, check out Franklin Merrell-Wolff (Pathways Through to Space, and: The Philosophy of Consciousness Without an Object). He coined the term *introception* for the “experience” you write about in this post.

More info here: http://www.merrell-wolff.org/

David August 31, 2010 at 10:30 pm

I downloaded some Merrell-Wolff a long time ago and never got to reading it. I’ll give it a look.

Phil August 30, 2010 at 2:08 pm

You put words to some very specific ideas that are very difficult to put words to, and you did it superbly. Thank you for sharing, David.
I find that many atheists are not really atheists, but merely anti-religion. Many of them are immediately unreceptive once they hear the word “God” because it has been misused and abused for so long by so many; absurdly giving “Him” human qualities and temperaments. But many “atheists” have a certain reverence for things they cannot explain, the willingness to believe that the illogical is very much real, and an ingrained belief that things happen as they should (karma). In my eyes, that’s as good a definition of God as any.

Thanks again for a wonderful post.

gustavo August 30, 2010 at 3:01 pm

Putting aside those bad atheists (those that are really looking for labeling themselves as intellectuals or rebels), I have a big respect for those who just say “Don’t tell me what to do” or “Don’t tell me what is right or what is wrong”.

I believe that the well indented atheists are not really against God, but against the “authority”.

There is a big point there because, accepting the “ authority” of the one who tells you what is good or bad, makes you give up the possibility of seeing things as they really are. Because: you cannot see reality if you already have a previous image of it. It’s like trying to fit a panoramic view into a small frame.

David September 1, 2010 at 7:12 am

I think you’re probably right, though for me religion was never an authority in my life. It was never pushed on me and I never took seriously anything it told me about what to do. But as Laurie said there are a few reasons for why people object to Theism, and the plausibility of a God is only one of them.

Lisis September 1, 2010 at 8:16 am

An intensely Christian friend of mine just sent me the book, “I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist,” in an attempt to persuade me to “see the light,” I suppose.

I find it interesting that people try to prove to me that God exists by quoting the Bible… which is supposed to be the book about what God said and did. But if The Book is just a book to me, how is anything it says supposed to convince me of some greater truth? Wouldn’t I first have to believe the Bible is legitimately “the word of God” in order to trust it as a source? And, if I did… wouldn’t I already be admitting there IS a God, who said these words?

It’s the logic that surpasseth all understanding!

Michael September 1, 2010 at 8:53 am

It’s the funny thing. They try to prove God with the Bible, but who can prove the Bible?

Rosa August 30, 2010 at 3:18 pm

I used to see God that way, like Santa Claus, I thought it was something grown ups told kids to calm them and make them happy and that one day you just get over it. And as I grew up I was always surprised to see so many people blindly believing and following religions. Right now, I still like to think there’s something out there, a higher intelligence, call it Universe, God, or whatever, something bigger than all of us that makes sure everything happens the way it’s supposed to. But then, I’ve opened my mind to so many different possibilities, so many people believe so many different things, I just don’t know what to believe. You could say soo many things about God and religion and it’s all so subjective it’s overwhelming, but I am very interested in what you’ll say next, David, I almost always agree with you. :)

Brenda (betaphi) August 30, 2010 at 4:29 pm

Regardless of what Dawkins says, you have to admire the way he says it. The man is a master elocutionist, kinda like you are with these posts of late. I wish you all the best in trying to decipher this god thing.

David September 1, 2010 at 7:14 am

Yes, he is razor sharp when it comes to language and reason.

David August 30, 2010 at 5:22 pm

Wow, I just got home from work, and what a bunch of awesome responses. Thanks everyone. I want to get to each of them but I don’t have a lot of time before I have to go to a function tonight, so I’ll get to the rest later.

Zack August 30, 2010 at 6:03 pm

The “future post” in which you talk about God should be the next one. Just saying. ;)

David September 1, 2010 at 7:15 am

It won’t be because it’s tricky to find the proper words, and I’ll need a lot of time to do it right. Soon though.

Lisis September 1, 2010 at 8:19 am

If words fail you, you could try posting a video of your expressive dance interpretation. :)

James M. Convey August 30, 2010 at 6:52 pm

In simple terms and to maintain ones sanity, one must, after deep thought hopefully, conclude that it is an impossibility either scientifically or spiritually given our current scientific and spiritual limitations, to prove or disprove the existence of a”GOD” A word with many definitions! (And Hitchens theories be damned! They are simply opinion, like all else in this matter)
That we are as humans, participants in a human experience while certainly attached it seems, to this inexplicable force (spiritualism) is the great conundrum, as to the purpose and existence of mankind! Without doubt and with no fear of contradiction, I maintain that it is an insoluble problem! The matter of faith becomes then a personal issue therefore, and thus not a debatable point? The issue of mysticism however, is more a matter for proper debate. As to the values of the theistic movements and their effects and limitations upon mans evolution as a scientific being? I respectfully submit one opinion I wrote some time ago as to this issue and I trust you will have time to click to access the article: http://www.jamesconvey.com/uploads/3/3/8/3/3383644/catholic_church_a_force_for_good_in_the_world.pdf

Martin August 30, 2010 at 7:07 pm

Hi David,
I don’t agree with Dawkin’s attack on religion. He doesn’t separate the politics from religion. Governments have used science for war to create weapons of mass destruction, pollution and cruel experiments. What I am trying to say is that science have caused it’s own fair share of problems. That doesn’t make science bad, it has just been miss-used. The same can be said about religion. Politics have become a part of religion and been used to incite violence. I believe at the core, religions try to promote harmony and is the message being promoted by http://charterforcompassion.org

I look forward to reading your view of God. As you might of guessed, I do believe in God but have always struggled to put it into words. When pushed I explain God is part of my awareness, I can’t ignore the presence. God is my faith.

Claire August 30, 2010 at 8:36 pm

David thankyou! I am a Christian. An involved committed true believer that longs for people to see God more clearly, without the filters and bad experiences and preconceived ideas and man-made nonsense that surrounds ‘Him’. And to be clear, I wish this for Christians and non-Christians.

You ‘letter to my fellow skeptics’ perfectly captured the sense of something ‘else’ and the experience of trying to communicate that sense to others without sounding like a loon.

Again, thanks, and I will be looking forward to your next posts about this!

Aaron August 30, 2010 at 8:56 pm

I appreciate the attitude of Sam Harris, who is the only one of the 4 horsemen who seems to really value such things as meditation and “spiritual” experience. I also agree with him that the term “atheism” is not productive.

One of the strangest contradictions about Dawkins is his reference to how “beautiful” the universe is, as some sort of rationalization for not being some type of a nihilist. Of course, taking his own naturalism into account, the very concept of beauty evolved either directly or as a byproduct of some sort of neurological illusion that successfully gets primates to recognize their environment, have sex, live coherently in groups, and survive… just like all of our attributes. Just as easily one can look upon the universe and see exploding stars, chaotic destruction, colliding galaxies, animals tearing each others’ flesh and living for no purpose, people’s lives motivated by religious fairy tales, people killing men women and children with machetes by the thousands in Africa, children with cancer, dementia, unimaginably horrific disorders and abuses that happen continuously over the globe… need I go on?

By whose lights is it really beautiful?

The spiritual experience ultimately is probably a biologically based illusion. Just a depressed person sees the trees as depressed, the rocks as depressed and everyone else as depressed, the person having a spiritual experience sees everything as part of a whole. Should we treat these subjective interpretations as different? Or are they equally illusory?

David September 1, 2010 at 8:24 pm

I think I know what he means when he describes the universe as beautiful. Taken in pieces, like you’ve described it, it’s easy to identify ugliness. But the way it works together is beautiful, to my mind, and apparently to Dawkins’s mind too. I interpret that beauty as not just an evolved human sensibility towards certain aesthetics, but as having some sort of intelligent order behind it.

Petr August 30, 2010 at 10:24 pm

Atheists and religious zealots share a single- and a simple-mindedness: Some form of deity, like a human only with super-powers (Santa Clause…), is as much a conceit as the deliberate rejection of long held traditions. They both end in arrogant tautologies. Belief, however, is not a middle ground in this… it is an entirely different direction and it starts with humility. As I read your article, I sense some measure of humility, and that is good. Beware, tho… That, too, gets corrupted. Humility has come to be thought of as a deliberate abasement and can be worked into a program of denial and penury. This is just self-violence. True humility begins with understanding that you can’t really understand it, but believing that there is a Creator who can, and will, take an active interest in your seeking. You must let God be God.

Dawkins, and even more so, Hitchens make the same childish mistakes you once made (and have, it seems, overcome…); they extrapolate the absence of God merely from the inability of other humans to articulate precisely enough to satisfy their peevish and, frankly, bluntly self-serving judgements. However inchoate the experiences with God or any re-telling of such encounters with the numinous, no inference can be drawn to obviate the object of those experiences… any more than Dawkins’ own scientific papers, however well or badly written, can make greater (if well written) or nullify (if poorly reasoned…) the subjects of his research.

I can’t quite agree with your assessment that “500 years ago skepticism became the dominant attitude among[st] the scholars in Europe.” One of the more important events of about 500 years ago was the protestant reformation (Martin Luther, John Calvin, et al…) which was a refutation of dogmatic approach to religion but is apart from skepticism. I think you might mean ‘rationalism’ which is different from skepticism (though I can see where you might see them entwined…) and, as espoused by Descartes, Kant, Leibniz, etc, had a thorough grounding in a belief in God… Spinoza, also considered a rationalist, went at it from the other direction and postulated that God was the ultimate expression of all the expressions possible in the world: that is to say created by the world, rather than the creator of it. I don’t much agree with that view and much of his reasoning is deep yogurt… But the point is that rejecting dogma in favor of a reasoned approach isn’t, per se, skepticism. Be careful of investing too much in one word or phrase.

Drew Tkac August 30, 2010 at 11:26 pm

“God” is the name our collective human minds came up with to describe something that is not comprehensible by our collective human minds. So any attempts to understand god with our mind will fail. It is like the book “Flatlanders” filled with two dimensional beings. Could they conceive of a three dimensional world. Could our three dimensional minds conceive of a four, five, six or seven dimensional world? Or even something beyond all dimensions.

Yet, religious folks throw the word god around like we all perceive the concept in the same way. We can not even be sure that two people perceive the color blue in the same way, and that’s just a color, not the creator of everything!

As an example of the misapplication of logic we only have to ask the question that cannot be answered: “If god is all powerful, can god create a rock so heavy that he cannot lift it” Sayings like this tell me that god is above logic. Logic and the scientific method is a wonderful thing but both can coexist. Science and logic are tools. God is something else.

It seems that the new world (last few thousand years) tries to take the teaching of the Bible and other religious doctrine literally. This misses the point completely. Most of these writings are stories to nurture the non logical part of us. The only part of us that, perhaps, could catch a glimpse of god. Taking these writings literally uses our mind, and that’s the last part of us that could conceive of god.

David September 1, 2010 at 8:33 pm

“God” is the name our collective human minds came up with to describe something that is not comprehensible by our collective human minds. So any attempts to understand god with our mind will fail.

I think you nailed it again Drew. One of the biggest problems human beings have is that we presume anything that can be known can be known by the rational mind. The concept of God is a concept of something that cannot be understood conceptually. It’s like a photo album, with words instead of photos. No image can be captured or represented that way, no matter how fine the language.

Francis August 31, 2010 at 6:27 am

Great post David as usual. Love posts on God from a philosophical stand point.

Even though I’m more agnostic now, coming from a former Catholic upbringing, to be honest when I first started reading and when you presented Dr Dawkins, I thought “Oh God (pardon the pun), not another pro-atheist post/rant”. But was much relieved by the balancing out of your argument to hint at something an individual may experience but still cannot explain fully, the way a typical “Dawkinian” would be satisfied with. I’ve had only a few of those ‘wide awake’ experiences in my life where it felt for the briefest of time that I saw/felt/experienced something divine not eluding to God, but something bigger than me and much clearer, but definitely ineffable.

I also like in the later part of the post you used the word “passeth”… very biblical :)

Great post David and look forward to more posts on God.

Jessica August 31, 2010 at 9:11 am

“You search for the terms to explain the quality of it, and cringe when the only word you can summon is “divine.” Every stab you take at conveying your experience only amounts to a disappointing, evasive-sounding cliché:

* There is something more to us

* Everything is in its right place, we just can’t see that

* There is a higher intelligence behind all this”

David, you do a great job explaining things that can’t be explained. I read your words often and feel as if it is my own voice expressing realizations and experiences I have had.

I have lived in different “religious” communities and through my own experimentation and analysis I think that I have come to the same place in the “search” like you mention here,

“But as I get older, as I explore more philosophies and traditions, I’m seeing rather clearly what God was meant to be, before being mangled by religion, before being argued into meaninglessness and conceptualized to death”

There may be different levels of interpretation that correlate with different levels of consciousness. I don’t know. If God is an experience of an inner-voice, deep knowing and connection and peace, then that is the God I am talking about if I use that word. For others who may not experience this, it could be something different, and that is the beauty of the concept of God in the first place, perhaps, there is NO wrong answer? God could be whatever you as an individual experience.

Personally I am working on uncovering more and more of what is Real, beyond words and concepts, but engaging in what is true in the moment. For me it feels like this is what it actually means to Love God, to love what is real, what is. Not fighting reality but being open to the beauty that it is.


David September 1, 2010 at 8:38 pm

For others who may not experience this, it could be something different, and that is the beauty of the concept of God in the first place, perhaps, there is NO wrong answer? God could be whatever you as an individual experience.

I’m going to play devil’s advocate here and suggest that there are plenty of wrong answers. I’m sure many people have conceptual thoughts about this or that — hunches and other unexplained feelings — and they tell themselves it must be God. Of course, everyone can call their experiences whatever they like, but I believe the God referred to by early mystics was the same thing for all of them.

Jessica September 1, 2010 at 9:15 pm

Isnt that like saying the color orange looks the same to everyone? How can we know what someone else experiences? I do not think that God is exactly the same for each person, how could that be? And then, How can we use the terms “right” or “wrong” when we are talking with finite words about something we are saying is infinite? And from here I go to thinking about the quote, “God is too big to fit into one religion.” I think this is true and I think God, is big enough to hold everything, because it is everything.

What Douglas Harding talks about experiencing I can relate to as being what one may call God and therefore how could I say that anything else someone might say is not, as long as they are sincere?

I find questions to be more valuable in these kinds of conversations because we know and we don’t know. : )

David September 1, 2010 at 9:59 pm

Isnt that like saying the color orange looks the same to everyone? How can we know what someone else experiences?

Well, yes. The color orange might not appear the same to everyone, but effectively it is. My orange might be your blue, but you’d still describe carrots as orange. It is the comparisons people make, by using words we’re familiar with and symbols we understand, that allow us to share the qualities of experiences. Words are not interchangeable for experiences but they can go a long way to lead us to see whether we’re having the same experiences as other people.

By “wrong”, I meant a material concept of God, like you might hear about from Billy Graham or even David Koresh, as opposed to the nonmaterial, nonconceptual God I have been referring to. If God appears different to different people, it means they are experiencing their concept of God and not experiencing a nonconceptual God. In other words a God that makes people out of clay or speaks english words in people’s heads is not the one I’m referring to. If that is God to somebody, then that’s fine, but that’s the misunderstanding of God I’m talking about in the post. The God I’m referring to is without detail and without describable qualities, because it is not an object, it’s not a thing or a creature of any kind. Yet describing what God is not is possible, and that’s why there can be wrong answers. But there can’t really be right answers, because any answer is a concept and therefore is only a pointer at best.

When I use the word subjective here I don’t mean it is something different to everyone, like it’s subjective whether raspberries tastes good or not. I mean subjective in terms of “occurring to the subject” — directly to the observer where nobody else can see it directly. Something outside of the subject, like a test tube, can be looked at by many different people from many angles. It is an object, and any observations can be corroborated.

It is really tricky to talk about this, because we’re referring to something nonconceptual, and by doing that, we can’t help but form concepts. We just have to remember that any concept of something that is nonconceptual must by definition be inaccurate. So there are bound to be misunderstandings here.

Brad August 31, 2010 at 9:33 am

It’s sort of like when you know something is really funny. An utter rationalist might try to explain away the joke, but you cannot just stop laughing.

David September 1, 2010 at 8:40 pm

Yes, that’s it! Great analogy.

Erin S. August 31, 2010 at 12:18 pm

Nice post. So many people have been deeply wounded by organized, man-made religion. And so many terrible crimes have been committed in the name of God. Focusing on the intolerance and what separates us instead of what we hold in common has caused only suffering for thousands of years.

I believe we are spiritual beings. I know there is a God, and each of us is made in his image. But how can I define the indescribable with small limited words? I am always sad when we are not encouraged to find that connection with God on our own. We are able to build the spiritual side of our lives without the guidance and guilt of religion. People expect far too much of organized religion and the government. The care of your spirit involves some personal responsibility.

If people only knew they are cherished spiritual beings; it could change the world. If people would seek out the greatest visible symbol of God which is to love and care for each other; there would be no doubt of a higher purpose. I pray each person catches a glimpse of something beyond the day to day uninspired routine. Let us each find and use the unique gift we were born with; the one that contributes to the well being of the world. That is what life is all about (finding and sharing what we have to contribute). Let no one travel this journey neglecting the spiritual facet of their being.

David September 1, 2010 at 8:46 pm

Great post Erin, I think you’re totally right.

I think nothing has done a better job at getting between people and God than religion. What could inhibit a person’s understanding of God better than being told by an institution what God is? It has become all about political affiliations and idolatry and identifying with worldly things.

Meg - Minimalist Woman August 31, 2010 at 2:23 pm

Excellent post. I’ve long considered religion as clutter, man-made, fear-based mental clutter that insults both people’s inner post-empirical knowledge and the idea of God itself. What is the point of God if we claim to know it’s parameters and wishes–isn’t that simply trying to fit a Creator inside the minds and language of beings who themselves were never designed to create a universe? Bah. as Yu said, I both believe and don’t believe. I do believe that what most of us have been taught to believe wouldn’t begin to cover the truth, and only keeps us from learning and evolving and, well, knowing.

Science helps a lot in revealing the extent of what we don’t know as well as what we think we know, but scientific and religious extremists are actually two sides of the same limited-value coin.

David September 1, 2010 at 8:48 pm

Well said Meg.

Drew Tkac August 31, 2010 at 2:43 pm

Nice post. I can’t remember the last time I created a universe. So I’m a little fuzzy on how to do it!

I have always thought that we created god in our image (in our minds) not that god created us in his image as religious doctrine suggests. I think they shuffled the clauses of that statement in the Bible.

My favorite George Carlin line, “Anyone can protest war, it takes balls to protest religion.” But that’s what need to be done. So many lives were lost in the name of religion, not to mention the multitudes that are being controlled by it.

Nea | Self Improvement Saga August 31, 2010 at 6:59 pm

Awesome awesome post. This is a sensitive subject, but you courageously addressed it with honesty. Personally, I’m okay with the fact that there is something out there that I don’t know about. I don’t have an issue with God, Gods, Goddesses, or spirituality. However, I’m a long way from being religious. I think the word God means something different for everyone. For me, it just references something in the Universe that I’m not evolved enough to fully understand. It’s very hard for people to accept that they don’t know, their parents didn’t really know, their pastors don’t know….hell, nobody really knows. We all have books that are called proof, but we’re all truly in the same boat. We ca have blind faith in what we’re told by someone else who has blind faith; but we still don’t freakin’ know. I’m cool with that.

Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) August 31, 2010 at 9:10 pm

Seeing ourselves as separate from what exists in our world gets in the way of the conceptualisation of Godnessness. Waves are still the Ocean.

David September 1, 2010 at 8:50 pm

Yes, that’s what conceptualization does: it fragments the universe as we know it. It chops it into symbolic bits that don’t really exist and don’t work together like the real thing.

Angela August 31, 2010 at 10:30 pm

I read The God Delusion too. Here are a few more to check out: Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution (Kenneth Miller), The Untethered Soul: A Journey Beyond Yourself (Michael A. Singer) and Your Inner Fish (Neil Subin) – haven’t read the fish one yet, but it’s on the list.

I grew up in a place where the 2nd question that anyone asked you is “Where do you go to church?” I was one of the few in my area that didn’t belong to a church. The daughter of my advanced biology teacher in middle school couldn’t have a sleep over with me because her mother didn’t want her in my house.

My grandmother is a wonderful Christian woman, but in the true Southern (United States) sense of the word. Sweet, loving and forgiving. My dad taught me evolution and astronomy at home. We subscribed to OMNI magazine. My mom stayed neutral.

I will always be skeptical and I will always have faith in something greater than me. I am thankful that humans still exists on the planet. That is a miracle, no matter which way you look at it. Remembering that is the hard part.

David September 1, 2010 at 8:54 pm

I will always be skeptical and I will always have faith in something greater than me. I am thankful that humans still exists on the planet. That is a miracle, no matter which way you look at it. Remembering that is the hard part.

Loved this, thank you.

Quite often when I’m driving I notice how much life and motion there is around me. Living plants, cars zipping around… and I get an image in my head of the same place after all the life is gone from it. We’re living in this fleeting sliver of vitality, and we have a habit of finding so much wrong with it.

Jason September 1, 2010 at 12:11 am

I’d like to echo Aaron and promote Sam Harris as a more thoughtful critic of religion. There is an excellent exchange between Sam and Andrew Sullivan on beliefnet: http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/Secular-Philosophies/Is-Religion-Built-Upon-Lies.aspx
But I would really suggest those interested read “The End of Faith.”

“I know now that you can know something without evidence, without the approval of others. And I know that all of us, Dawkins included, are incurable believers.”

These last 3 lines trouble me. Personal experiences and anecdotal evidence can be called “knowledge” but that doesn’t make them equivalent to the objective, empirically-derived knowledge of science. When you say “without the approval of others,” basically you mean without evidence – meaning any psychological state is game from dreaming to schizophrenia. There are all sorts of spiritual experiences in the pscyh ward…or among the LSD users…is this perception of “truth” equally valid “knowledge?”

Many people have “experiences” – some see the Virgin Mary, some see UFOs, some see Hanuman, some just feel at one with the universe. Being powerful emotional experiences, they are clinged to and analyzed again and again. A new sense of meaning is derived and the ego which is perennially insecure latches onto it and then the God is this/that/the other mumbojumbo begins. That’s how religion started and that’s what fuels the new “spirituality” today. Worship of a subjective “experience” is not better than worship of a book, statue, or thumbtack. It’s somewhat worse because you lose the community aspect of traditional religion and are stuck with your own personal, isolating “knowledge” instead of the shared delusions of the group.

Anyways, I appreciate what you are trying to say…but ultimately reason is with the skeptics and the subjective realm is treacherous – having an “experience” and continually reflecting on it can be a hindrance to the awakening of intelligence.

Michael September 1, 2010 at 1:03 am

But then even Science can be mistaken as time passes and theories are reformulated, so albeit far more reliable than religion or spirituality, it is still not perfect. I have said before, the only difference between religion and Science is that Science has more to work with and, thus, more “evidence,” because it applies to the physical world, whereas religion applies to a “world” we can’t even see, let alone analyse.

I thought it was interesting you had mentioned personal spiritualities. I am an advocate of such – I feel a community with a shared “delusion” is very dangerous, as you can see that religions often give birth to fear, hatred and violence. Add an entire community to that and you’ve got the recipe for conflict.

A personal spiritually is adapted to our own self and thus is much more effective. If people are taught how to think for themselves, then that personal spirituality, allied with reason, can become a self-improvement tool rather than the opposite. By exploring other people’s own spiritualities, you can actually create a community where every individual has his own part. I feel that is much more constructive and improving. Unfortunately, the majority people isn’t ready for such a thing – they’ll just call it silly because they can’t imagine the potential of it. That’s one of the things I find most unfortunate in society these days.

Michael September 1, 2010 at 1:07 am

Oh, and one last thing. I do not entirely agree with your last remark – it all depends on how mature the person is. I find that reflecting on unusual experiences is actually a fine way of broadening my mind and my reasoning ability. Really, I have my own current reasoning capacity to prove that. Of course, if your mind is still immature, then you might end up seemingly-crazed like the many people we see in the news and other documentaries. But I feel it’s the constant recycling of already-existing material that turns people, namely scientists, into the insufferable square-minded disgraces I have met and shook my head for.

David September 1, 2010 at 9:08 pm

I never said subjective conclusions are equivalent to objective conclusions. How could they be? I view empirical evidence as generally more reliable and more useful than uncorroborated observations. But that doesn’t mean they are worthless, or that you cannot know something just by observing it alone. There are many people who believe it makes sense to dismiss anything for which there is no evidence. Experiences that can only be observed from one angle (as in any experience happening to the Subject) cannot leave objective evidence but that does not mean they have no value, it just means it’s really hard to convince others of what you’ve observed.

I would argue that seeing the Virgin Mary in your cereal is not an experience, but a self-serving projection of one’s desires upon an experience, which is that of looking at a bowl of cereal. Nobody who is non-religious reports seeing the Virgin Mary anywhere.

Jason September 2, 2010 at 1:42 pm

I think we are dancing around what makes a subjective observation into objective knowledge – consensus. Through standardized measurements, we agree that red is a certain wavelength of light, that a tree is a living being, that the Sun is 93 million miles from the Earth.

Though all experience is subjective, consensus allows us to arrive at evidence-based conclusions (evidence is simply repeated and recorded observation of a phenomenon).

So when you say it is hard to convince others, it is because the experience is an outlier and not easily measured or verified – this should be a warning that whatever it is; it is more likely a cognitive illusion or “self-serving projection” than an experience of “truth.”

Why is seeing the Virgin Mary in your cereal different from feeling “headless” or “at-one” with the universe? Isn’t that the experience you wanted to have? We all want to own “truth” in one way or another and that search for satisfaction is the source of most “spiritual experiences.”

Copernicus September 2, 2010 at 2:10 pm

Jason says: “I think we are dancing around what makes a subjective observation into objective knowledge – consensus.”

Absolutely, absolutely. I fully concur.

The whole world agreed, with me, that the Earth is at the centre of the universe, and the sun and the planets revolve around the Earth. That’s concensus for you, scientific and observable evidence.

Now this nutcase — what’s his name, Galileo, or some such — he’s cooked his brains by staring at the sky through bent glass, and, just like some see the Virgin in cereals (or beer skim — that’s what we have for breakfast, beer: look up your history books) — anyway, so this Galileo chappie claims the Earth goes round the Sun. What bunkum!

Thanks, Jason, old chap, for sticking up for me and for concensur.

I’ll put in a word for you to my old friend at the V-town, and he’ll make you a Count or something if you’re lucky. Keep praying, laddie!

David September 2, 2010 at 7:29 pm

So when you say it is hard to convince others, it is because the experience is an outlier and not easily measured or verified – this should be a warning that whatever it is; it is more likely a cognitive illusion or “self-serving projection” than an experience of “truth.”

Why is it likely to be an illusion just because it is not easily measured? What I’m saying is that when it comes to questions whose answers don’t lend themselves to measurement, there’s no reason to throw them out categorically.

Why is seeing the Virgin Mary in your cereal different from feeling “headless” or “at-one” with the universe? Isn’t that the experience you wanted to have? We all want to own “truth” in one way or another and that search for satisfaction is the source of most “spiritual experiences.”

They’re all individual judgment calls, like every other conclusion. Being headless or being at one with the universe were never experiences I yearned for. They never validated any existing beliefs or fulfilled any doctrine I had identified with. For a long time the “At one with the universe concept” meant about as much to me as the Loch Ness monster. And Harding’s Headless method would have been pretty forgettable if it didn’t really do anything for me. If I didn’t have a meaningful experience when I experimented with either of those experiences, I probably would have left them alone and investigated something else. I don’t talk about those things because I want anyone to believe me, I just want to see if other people have discovered the same things.

Michael September 1, 2010 at 12:54 am

The whole anti-religious babble sounds just as funny to me as that of fundamentalists. In fact, I have come to realise that atheism is very much religious, only on the inverse. Atheists don’t prove that God doesn’t exist, they just tell you over and over that it doesn’t, because that’s what they believe in and it’s their word and that’s that. Just like a religious person would say about how God does undoubtedly exist. Thus I back away from both religious and atheist fanaticism. It’s pointless to even bother argue.

Personally, I can’t see how difficult it is to accept that there _could_ be a God and the divine. I’ve never had that kind of experiences, nor am I a religious person, but I don’t say no. Who am I to say what is and what isn’t? Who are any of us? We’re little compared to everything around us. We are grand, at the same time, but still little.

It is much more functional to accept the possibility and move on. That way, the fight between religion and Science ends peacefully as both sides coexist. Why is it so difficult for people to understand that? They are not opposites, they are just siblings.

Then, on experiences, I do share some thoughts about things that have happened that I find unusual. No one can tell me I’m wrong – I experienced it so it’s true for me. Others have no say in that. Even if I were delusional, it still occurred. I can imagine that many atheists themselves have experienced something they unimaginable and are simply in denial. That makes them even more ridiculous than religious zealots.

David September 1, 2010 at 9:11 pm

Great post, thanks Michael.

Lisis September 2, 2010 at 1:06 pm

Zealots of any sort are ridiculous, but being an atheist is not the same as being an anti-religious zealot. It literally means one believes there is NO GOD.

The religious are convinced God exists. Atheists are convinced there is no god. Agnostics believe: “It is much more functional to accept the possibility and move on.”

All equally valid personal truths.

Michael September 3, 2010 at 3:11 am

Equally valid until they start preaching it upon you, that is.

I understand and can see truth in both sides of the story – I never said religious people or atheists were wrong. However, most atheists I know, when you try to have a discussion about God with them, they’ll just blast how God doesn’t exist and how they are very much convinced so, without even letting you pose the possibility. It’s like a reverse religious person. That’s what I don’t enjoy, and that’s what I was referring to.

Of course, just as only a part of religious people are fundamentalists, only part of atheists are as such.

Clearly Composed September 1, 2010 at 9:06 pm

When I was around 7 I had a very serious two way discussion with my Creator. Hard to not believe in something after that. People complicate it so. For me? I come from love, I am filled with that love and I will return to love even though I never really left it. :) I am pretty good with knowing that and leave religion to those find value in it.

Vanessa September 1, 2010 at 9:34 pm

sometimes the weird event is someone’s blog post topic being eerily dead-on to where your thoughts have been taking you recently. I actually cried at one point while reading this. Only a few days ago I posted on facebook that I was in a state of developing faith, and I have never applied that word (faith) to myself before, ever. In fact, I deleted it because it felt so strange. But, that’s where I’m at. I look forward to reading more of what you have to say on this topic. Truly, enjoyed reading this.

David September 2, 2010 at 7:36 pm

I never would have used the word faith in reference to myself until recently either. It was one of those I associated with people that were very unlike me. And now it’s gaining a meaning for me. That’s where I’m at. I’ll write more on this.

kay September 2, 2010 at 1:31 am


Not greatly relevant to this great post (as always) but definitely a text everyone should have in their collection. I hope you and everyone who stumbles on this comment will check it out.

Take care c:

Jason September 7, 2010 at 12:36 am


What is obvious to me is that “spirituality,” like “religion” is an ambiguous term used to describe any mysterious or awe-inspiring experience one has. You assume that I am using the term “religion” and thinking of just the big 5 major religions. I do mean those but also religion in its root meaning of link, tie, or dependence on the divine. So you can certainly quote the Buddha or Christ on one hand and make claims about what spirituality is as opposed to religion but they are just informal and formal ways of saying the same thing – an unexplainable experience or feeling occurs, one thinks it over and gives it a name, one yearns to have that experience again because it becomes a source of meaning, one tells others about this new “truth” and eventually rituals and books follow. From a psychological point of view, this is very obvious.

“And spiritual truths and beliefs can very well be proved, and spiritual falsehoods (even if widely believed) disproved.” Please prove/disprove to me that Christ was born of a virgin and came back from the dead. Or that souls are reincarnated based on past deeds. Perhaps you will claim these are authority-based dogmas as opposed to “spiritual truths” but then I have to ask – aren’t many of these dogmas originally based on “spiritual experiences?

Onto the scientific method…I think you were chasing a red herring there…I never claimed that science excluded inspiration, intuition, subconscious rumination, etc. What I did say is that the scientific method is rational, self-correcting, and non-ideological. By incorporating a feedback loop, science weeds out bad theories and keeps good ones, thus building knowledge. Not fully understanding the mathematics behind general relativity doesn’t preclude me from knowing that it’s a pretty good description of how the physical universe works. Is it true? Science isn’t really out to prove or disprove what is truth (Popper, et al). Furthermore, I trust math because I understand the logic that underlies it. So while a physicist will use math that is well beyond me, I know that the reasoning behind their conclusions is logical, consistent and subject to the scrutiny of other physicists.

“So if some Yogi in India sees the entity in his heart Chakra that I was talking about, and merging with that deity gives him empirically verifiable powers (or insights), why on earth would anyone baulk at that?”

Quite a leap there…why should anyone doubt any transcendental (religious or spiritual?) experience is real? Well, I have already stated it but let’s be clear – our biology/neurology is pretty amazing – we are capable of seeing/experiencing all sorts of things that are both there and not there. Hallucinations, illusions delusions, etc are very “real” phenomenon. Any simple psychology or neurology textbook will include multiple examples. Whether you invest one day or multiple decades “practicing” witchcraft, astrology, or numerology; you will be no better position to say whether any of these is true or false because there is no objective basis for disproving the belief-based conclusions that underlie these systems of thought. Which isn’t to say that believing in and practicing such things can’t be rewarding on an emotional or social level.

“Investing a great deal of himself” is telling. Sunk cost and choice-supportive bias are active enemies of objectivity. We are all seeking meaning and we are all primed to get attached to whatever it is we find.

Alexander Gieg September 12, 2010 at 6:03 pm

Trying to share such an experience with someone that hasn’t had it can be difficult, or even impossible. The usual example is that of a person that can see trying to explaining to a blind-from-birth on what colors are like. Saying that “red” is “warm” and “blue” is “cold” is the best you can do.

That’s not the case, however, when you try to share it with others that also had such experiences. In this case a terminology is derived with which to discuss these experiences, their nuances and variations. And such discussion lead, over time, to the development of different “schools of thought” on them, each with its own approach to the thing.

All major religions have, each one, one or more such “esoteric” schools (not to be confused with occultism). On some religions, such as Islam, they’re acknowledged but sharply distinguished from the non-esoteric (a.k.a. “exoteric”) mainstream. On others, such as Eastern Orthodox Christianity and many branches of Buddhism, they are so merged with the mainstream practices you cannot easily draw the line on where the exoteric ends and the esoteric begins.

However, whatever the shape, they offer something people having spontaneous experiences really need: a framework in which to better understand what they’re experiencing and, more importantly, techniques to develop such experiences in a productive way. That’s because, as is the case with empirical sciences, you don’t start from zero by directly entering Ph.D. territory. Lots of previous “researchers” traveled the path before, so it pays to study the simplified basics, then deepen it in the, so to speak, “high school” level of the matter (which also starts teaching you the many ways in which one can err and how to avoid it, think practice lab), deepen it way more via the “undergraduate” route, advance the specialization into a “master’s degree”, and only then begin doing the actual “new stuff” Ph.D.s are known for.

So, if I can make a suggestion it’s that, if you’re interested in developing this, you’d try determining which religion among the major ones is more in line with the way you are, then find about its esoteric schools and which one, in turn, is more akin to help you develop the experience in fruitful ways.

Authors in the field of comparative religion and, within it, “comparative esoterism” (as far as I know this expression doesn’t exist, but there are authors out there that clearly specialize on this aspect) can really help. A lot.

IMHO, Buddhism, in its non-theistic versions (Theravada and Zen come to mind), is the most comfortable one for people that came to dislike the idea of gods, so that’s a safe bet. Otherwise, Eastern Orthodoxy is quite nice too, specially given how “near” (hence less strange) it is to Western culture.

Just take care to stay away from occultisms, theosophy, new age movements, and similar things. They seem similar to esoteric schools at first sight, but once you become familiar with the later you start noticing quite clearly how much the former lack in any kind of depth.

These are my 2 cents. I hope you find them useful.

Henway September 15, 2010 at 5:56 pm

Very good post. Also, in a sense the scientific method is actually a “leap of faith” of some sorts. You have faith in the idea/concept that developing experiments and observations will always lead to truth, but recent science experiments such as the observer/observed physics one show that observing can actually influence the results. A real skeptic would say “Hmmm.. maybe the scientific method isn’t everything after all.. can we really trust it in all cases?”

Also, when it comes to cultivating inner peace and developing meaning in our life, we can’t afford to wait for some science finding, or experiment to tell us what we believe is absolutely, positively right. It’s not a matter of being sure you’re right, it’s a matter of inner peace. You can be right, and still have existentialism =)

Most of the good philosophies though, such as Buddhism don’t depend on a leap of faith. You practice it and then see for yourself what’s true, and what’s not.

Adam October 2, 2010 at 6:33 pm

“I am still an advocate of skepticism as a mindset, but I don’t think of it the same way anymore. I know now that you can know something without evidence, without the approval of others. And I know that all of us, Dawkins included, are incurable believers.”

I know exactly what you mean.

I find it interesting that most of us often overlook “the enlightenment” part of “the period of enlightenment” that roughly started with Descartes. The revolutionary realization among the giants of science at the time was that we are born without innate ideas, and that knowledge is instead determined only by direct experience derived from sense perception. The core of their ‘aha’ was to “remain skeptical of all existing concepts and beliefs and trust direct and present experience”. So it really isn’t an either or question as much as a melting together of skepticism and present experience which results in a more complete state of attentiveness. Thus one has a taste of how the objective world can be observed differently and yet remain verifiable by others.

This is really no different from what Taoism, Buddism or Zen teaches us. Both science and religion inherently make “progress” by the same means. Both science and religion essentially make progress towards truth by backing away from untruth. The main difference is the aim – science aims to understand the objective world, while religion aims to make sense of subjective experience.

Karl Popper, one of the most influential philosophers of science of the last century, actually denied the existence of evidence and the scientific method itself. His insight is that there is only one universal method – the negative method of trial and error.

“It is through the falsification of our suppositions that we actually get in touch with ‘reality’. It is the discovery and elimination of our errors which alone constitute that ‘positive’ experience which we gain from reality.” – Karl Popper

The history of scientific discoveries bears support to his observation that scientific discoveries are arrived at not through some positive method of discovery but through a constant process of trial and error, repeated rigorous experimentation and the discovery of the false contents of our assumptions.

If one doubts fully(concepts and beliefs) one will come to a deeper experience(of either object or subject) and if one experiences deeply one will fully doubt. They’re one and the same thing just different entry points.

This is one of the few blogs I actually enjoy reading. Just a great blog.

Mosa October 17, 2010 at 9:23 pm

all these time i thought you perfectly make sense in every post. but this post changed my mind.

Chris January 11, 2011 at 10:22 pm

I suppose a lot of critically thinking people have gone on similar paths to the author, myself included. I went from a religious upbringing, to skepticism, to atheism. At the same time I went from a mainly emotions-based logic system to one more rational and based on psychological research and attitudes. Knowing just how much our brains work against us is comforting in a way the other areas aren’t.

Humans are an animal, the smartest animal of them all. This intelligence came with the cost of us wondering “why” we existed. Science is, in my opinion, the best answer to these deep questions. Neuroscience keeps coming closer and closer to getting at the quirks and emotions of being human that haven’t been explained yet and chalked up to some sort of spirituality.

Does a dolphin think it has a soul? It doesn’t, but it’s self-aware and even, like humans, enjoys masturbating. What is so terrifying about finding out that your behavior, even your intellect, is mainly genetics, culture, and those genetics’s electrical impulses in your physical brain? We’re here on Earth, a place we’re rapidly destroying, in a universe that we’ve come to more understandings of through science than we ever did with religion.

As for that spiritual feeling — besides doing drugs, which I have done, I once encountered an amazing feeling of happiness and contentment after reading a book about a certain CBT (cognitive behavior therapy) called ACT that features some buddhist ideas in it. Thanks to the therapy, I was in a zen state of mind for a couple days (before worry about bills and other things started to set in). If that isn’t what spiritual transcendence feels like, I don’t know what is — but it was simply a method of making my brain work better for me and avoiding the mental pitfalls that plague our species. No ‘god’ in any sense involved.

David January 12, 2011 at 6:22 pm

Hi Chris. Great comment, thank you.

There is a problem with deferring only to science. Science can only deal with objective data that can be corroborated.

Science is good at investigating things that can be measured, and seen by more than one person. This makes it suitable for assessing almost everything in the physical world.

But it cannot help us understand phenomena where there’s nothing apparent to measure, or no form to observe objectively.

Look at psychology. It’s meant to be the study of the mind, but it isn’t because most people reasoned it wasn’t possible to study the mind the way we study, say, chemistry. William James was a proponent of studying the mind’s activity directly, through personal meditation, but the scientific community rejected this approach because it would have to be based on subjective data. After all, nobody can look into another person’s mind. So psychology became the study of behavior, and anything it tells us about the mind is indirect — our knowledge about the mind can only be inferred from what the subject is observed to do.

Neuroscience is great but we can only use it to learn about consciousness indirectly by observing behavior and biochemistry. Observing brainwaves is not the same as observing thought. The observation of thought and other mental phenomena is something that can only be done by an individual, upon himself, and it can never be corroborated or quantified.

I love science. But there are areas where it is just ill-suited for advancing our knowledge. The nature of human consciousness is not something that can be studied very well from a conventional scientific approach. I believe all the major religions were initially intended as inquiries into the potential of human consciousness, through the cultivation of lifestyles shown to be conducive to reaching higher human mental states. All of the mythology and dogma surrounding religions today are irrelevant offshoots of their original intentions. Wisdom became rules. It ceased to be about personal transformation and became about political allegiance and worldly power.

Those who believe science is the only viable approach for understanding the universe are dogmatists too. That it is suitable for every inquiry is an enormous assumption many don’t realize they’re making. It is an assumption that your “Zen” state of mind was the result of some biochemical process in your brain, and that spiritual transformation is nothing but brain activity. This is a belief — it has not and cannot be corroborated. Science is a way of generating reliable beliefs, not that you came to yours scientifically.

I suspect God is not the conceptual Family Circus overseer that today’s religion seems to characterize, but rather an as-yet-only-glimpsed aspect of human consciousness — which is not what it appears to be, and almost certainly isn’t reducible the electrical brain activity biologists think it is.

To get at these notions, we should put scientific conventions aside for a moment, noting their usefulness but also their limitations. The inadequacy of a scientific approach is why we end up with so much poetry, analogy, allegory, non-conceptual riddles and seeming nonsense when we talk about religion – we can’t go the scientific route to these understandings because there is nothing to test, nothing duplicable, and nothing observable by more than one person. It must be gotten to individually, aided by hints that are bound to go over the head of most people, who will either dismiss it as nonsense, or think that they get it and make up some explanation about why it’s true and what it means.

If the answer to the deepest questions you mention can only be realized by observing human consciousness directly — and I’d bet they are — then science can’t help us find them, because it can only deal with phenomena two people can see.

Jason January 12, 2011 at 7:01 pm

David, I think you are defining science rather narrowly and then conveniently rejecting it as an approach to the “deep questions” of existence and human nature.

Science more broadly understood as methodical rational inquiry can include subjective experimentation like introspection and meditation. As long as someone is observing a phenomenon, making inferences and hypotheses, and then testing it with further observation or experimentation, they are doing science. If the scientific community rejects this, they do so more out of lack of proper standards and techniques of measurement rather than rejection of the method. Luckily, advances are always taking place.

So you can observe thought and call it science…indeed observation of thought is the beginning of philosophy, the seat of science as systematic, logical inquiry into nature. Neuroscience is an extension rather than a replacement for this first science. It is the gradual refinement of tools and techniques to get at the answers we are seeking.

What science and logic doesn’t accept is irrationally derived, anecdotal evidence as valid for a generalization to reality. “For example, I was walking in the woods and suddenly felt the presence of the divine is not science.”

Lastly, there is always something apparent to measure or no measurement would be attempted.

Chris January 12, 2011 at 7:49 pm

“Everything is in its right place” is absolute bullshit. Tell that to the starving and the dying. The world is a product of million of years of adaptative chaos. You’ve written about this topic before, and while your argument that constantly thinking about suffering isn’t doing much has some merit, I also think most people will take that as an excuse to think the world is just dandy and once again become complacent. It isn’t. We’re all selfish, just in different degrees, and that’s what is ruining everything. I don’t think I’m special, a unique “energy”. I’m just human.

You are a human being that has lead a relatively privileged existence, so much so that you can start to think about your thinking (metacognition) and the “magic energy” behind it all. I can get behind a lot of the stuff on this blog — the pitfalls of consumerism, using self-reflection, and appreciating what’s given to us — especially because you haven’t been shoving an ebook down your readers throats. But if self-help really worked, the genre would’ve stopped a long time ago. When will “Raptitude” stop? I feel like this genre of blogs just keeps pushing out content that is all essentially the same message. When is enough enough?

It is time now in the history of humanity to throw away the outdated notions of “being respectful of ones religious beliefs.” There are absolute moral right and wrongs that must be enforced when the technology exists to destroy the world in a day. The leader of North Korea is a madman. So are Islamic terrorists, and while Christians against homosexuals are less dangerous, they still are dangerous. When an organized religion such as Islam condones shaming women for being women, not to mention stoning and burning them, then we have a situation which does not benefit the human species. Religion is an outdated way of thinking that proved beneficial to our species but has outstayed its welcome. Science doesn’t have all the answers, but it’s a better approach to questioning.

The theory of evolution has so much overwhelming evidence, that it is both theory and fact. They can coexist, which people who are anti-science can’t seem to understand. Those that decry rational, skeptical thinking believe that the skeptics aren’t fully “living”. That’s also false — I believe that something like “love” is an abstract idea that feels physically palpable in my body, and I think it’s a great sensation us humans have. You see other animals being nurturing to their partners. We just make it more complicated since we’re more advanced creatures. That doesn’t mean I haven’t “loved” someone in the romantic sense. I just don’t over-romanticize it and think it’s some mystical thing. It’s incredibly important to our lives, but it’s a byproduct of the evolutionary need to reproduce.

In a way, David, you think you have it figured out, in that you view the traditional thinking ways of society to be ineffective. That’s why you started this website. I’ve heard the whole thing about how the “common conception” of God is wrong, but this spiritual energy is the real way. It’s what a person smart enough to realize the ridiculous of the monotheistic Abrahamic god thinks when they realize that story is a myth. It’s what the hippies thought. Their beliefs were revolutionary, but look at where we are now.

Blogs like this are self-help, and more and more are cropping up with people traveling the world and blogging about it, using website and ebook funds to maintain, for a little while, a non-sustainable lifestyle. They generally use positivity pseudo-psychology and feelings-based rationalization. I’m not saying that it’s non-beneficial — I’m sure your readers get some sense of relief in agreeing with your posts. But that simply proves that inquiry into the suffering of our lives, and a search for answers, is something humans have been at for thousands of years. You’re simply another person giving opinions.

David January 13, 2011 at 9:27 pm

You’re all over the place here, I don’t really know what you’re trying to say.

But it’s clear you think people can be divided cleanly into archetypes, and that you’ve met me a thousand times before. I am primarily a science-minded skeptic too, but recently I’ve realized that it had become a dogmatic position for me, so I’m re-examining other schools of thought and I’m finding that maybe I didn’t have it all figured out.

What you typed above is your belief system. Those positions are similar to the ones I had maybe five years ago. Today my belief system is less firm, less certain, and that feels like progress to me.

If you think I’m just Tony Robbins waving a different flag, then you shouldn’t waste your time here. The internet is a big place.

John January 12, 2011 at 9:53 pm

i think your writings have been insightful. we have similar… thought processes i guess? i’m not sure what we share exactly, but i feel like i can understand you 90% of the time on a fairly intuitive level. that’s how i know you’re not just pulling it out of thin air. i just wanted to say thanks for the writing. i look forward to seeing more of it.

Katie February 15, 2011 at 9:06 am

Wow…this perfectly depicts what I have felt deep within for many years. My jaw dropped at least 5-6 times as the article continued and you would say something I have thought specifically while on my own path to understanding. (I prefer to replace “God” with “All” when it comes up…but still, it just isn’t possible to explain it fully or correctly to an outsider…this subjective knowing of the Truth.) Very well shared, David. Thank you!! And thank you for your site overall. A friend linked me here this morning and I have only read a few posts thus far but each one is reality and incredibly insightful. I look forward to scouring the rest of the site and learning from your wisdom. Peace and Love! -Katie

David February 15, 2011 at 6:08 pm

Hi Katie. I don’t want to use the word God either, it just stirs up too many misleading connotations. And I don’t want to use another word in its place either. That’s why this is so hard to talk about. :)

sui April 19, 2011 at 2:00 pm

Have you read this story? I think you would like it :) http://galactanet.com/oneoff/theegg_mod.html

By the way, I’ve been reading your articles & delurking myself with this comment– so much of what you’ve written fits my life exactly at the right time I read it, and we agree on quite a number of things. Awesome! ♥

Doddly March 26, 2012 at 1:14 pm

Hey David! I was wondering if you will write more articles on this subject of god and spiritual experiences. I know its hard to describe it but its would nice to challenge people’s ideas and beliefs once in a while

David March 26, 2012 at 1:22 pm

Yes, I will. I haven’t gone in this direction for a while.

Goran March 5, 2013 at 8:48 am

What a way to wrap up the series. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the idea of Headlessness. Throughout the series and especially in this post I was reminded of something Carl Sagan said: “We are the universe experiencing itself”. For me, this aphorism neatly packages everything you’ve written bout, from zen, to god, to science, to headlessness and everything in between. Respect for putting it all down in words so articulately — your writings are very much appreciated!

PianoManGidley September 2, 2013 at 2:32 pm

Just out of curiosity, are you familiar with dimethyltryptamine, a.k.a. “The God Drug”–a naturally-occurring chemical that activates a certain region in the brain that has been measured to give a strong feeling of spirituality? It’s just interesting that you talk about having a personal, subjective spiritual experience that cannot ever be measured by science or understood by skeptics, yet science has been able to do just that…at least in some degree.

I understand that the experience that you’re talking about can never REALLY be summed up with concepts in science or anything else, due to its wholly subjective nature outside of thought, but I think that understanding DMT’s role still offers valuable insight into this.

David September 3, 2013 at 9:59 am

> It’s just interesting that you talk about having a personal, subjective spiritual experience that cannot ever be measured by science or understood by skeptics, yet science has been able to do just that…at least in some degree.

I think DMT is a perfect example of how there is absolutely no scientific quantification or understanding possible of certain experiences. A physiological or psychological understanding of what is happening in the body during a DMT experience, no matter how complete, is something utterly different from a DMT experience. Science is very helpful in understanding certain properties related to experience, but it does not convey the experience, or understand the experiential aspect of any phenomenon. A scientist could study DMT his whole life and know absolutely nothing about the DMT experience if he does not experience it.

Dan November 20, 2013 at 8:54 am

Wow. Seriously stunned at how closely how paths parallel (right down to the Dawkins audio book and having the exact same impression). While I can’t say I’ve ever personally experienced that expanded oceanic feeling that you describe so wonderfully, I’ve read such a myriad of accounts that I don’t doubt its occurrence or implication.

Speaking of which, this is one of my favorite such accounts. In fact, it occurred to a scientist who, at the time, had considered himself a “materialistic atheist” (background and commentary are all there):

“My Experience of Cosmic Consciousness” by Allan Smith

That’s actually a great site to explore, with every account submitted by a scientist. Not all of them are to that degree, or even of that “Cosmic Consciousness” variety, but they are all worth checking out. Otherwise, this article highlights those that are most similar to Smith’s:

Scientists Get a TASTE of the Transcendent

Here is Sadhguru recounting his experience:


Also, saw a comment on here mentioning DMT, which reminded me of this essay from Alan Watts worth checking out:

Psychedelics and Religious Experience

Thanks for the fantastic post.

Jason September 2, 2010 at 2:29 pm

That’s a bit unfair Copernicus. Of course there is room for insight and new theories to upset the status quo – how many revolutions in thought have shaken the scientific world in its continual progress to uncover reality? Progress that has come at the expense of religion and superstition.

My critique was not meant to be a defense of the status quo…there is plenty of mystery left to go around and there will always be Galileos, Darwins, Keplers, Mendels, Newtons, Einsteins, Hubbles, etc. to shake things up. If the evidence is sufficient, the better theory will win out.

There is a huge gap between how science and religion operate and to ignore that is willful blindness. Subjective religious experiences are not made with telescopes or the aid of mathematics, they are completely internal.

Michael September 3, 2010 at 3:22 am

Though a bit rash, I thought that was rather inventive of you, Copernicus. :D But anywho. Jason, these experiences may not be scientific evidence, but often they are a starting point for precisely those geniuses you mention. Think of it as a draft for something to come, like an inspiration. Not every experience is religious in nature, it could be just a certain kind of physical or emotional experience. You’re “religifying” it a bit too much, I’d say.

And I fully agree with David; these things must mean something to you, you must discover something from them that is actually meaningful, otherwise, if you believe in them without any kind of feedback, then you’re just having a blind faith. I’m not a religious person at all, though interested I do not follow such conventions, but if I were to step in a church and have a vision of any religious figure, surely I would give that some credit, even if only for myself. That doesn’t mean I was looking for that kind of self-serving projection, – I didn’t even think about it before – it just happened.

Copernicus September 3, 2010 at 6:09 am

You’re right, Jason, that WAS a bit unfair, or at least, a bit overly caustic and rather rude, at least that’s what I felt when I came back here today, and for that I apologise.

What I was driving at is this: what we need to beware, to fight tooth and nail and claw with, is the tendency to keep our minds closed. To not unmindfully let the status quo rule our minds. And small incremental steps in science don’t really upset the status quo. See, when Galileo challenged Copernicus’s (and the Church’s) world-view, that was a HUGE paradigm change. In contrast, when Einstein suggested a universe that was so very different from Newton’s, or when the quantum-wallahs found a world very different even from Einstein’s general-relativity-led concepts, well, those were massive, massive advances and paradigm shifts, but still, not quite the tectonic shift that Galileo’s ideas were, but now that science is entrenched in our minds, we accept these changes (even large changes) as something NOT out of the world. That’s why I took the Copernicus-Galileo experience.

Back a couple of centuries ago, the status quo (at least in Judea) was firmly materialistic. So when Jesus showed the world (or at least, that part of the world) the world of the spirit, all that world could do was crucify him. In the middle ages, blind allegiance to Church doctrine was the status quo (at least in Europe); so when Galileo challenged that status quo, they almost killed him, and forced him to recant. Today, it is the so-called scientific method that is the status quo. So, when anything that is beyond what is thought to the scientific method comes up, that is treated as heresy, and its proponents burnt at the stake of ridicule or mistrust.

Like David mentioned somewhere here in this post, this dichotomy we insist of placing on knowledge, between scientific knowledge and the “supernatural” is, to me, as weird as the thought that what you, I and the fellow across the corner will think is to be dictated by the Church. And I am sure one day this weirdness will acknowledged as “consensually” weird.

There is very wide consensus indeed that if you can focus your attention at the heart Chakra, then there you see a thumb-sized entity, and if you further focus on that deity, you can merge inside that deity.

Now what do you say to that? That that is nonsense, because YOU don’t see it, and your friend who lives next door to you doesn’t? You don’t, only because you haven’t put in the effort required to understand and see.

There is this coterie of people who proclaim the in-the-teeth-of-common-sense theories of relativity and quantum physics. You simply believe, there, don’t you? Can you of your knowledge say that these ideas are true? Can your neighbour? You can’t, but only because you haven’t “paid the price” in studying physics and mathematics. If you had, you would. Well, likewise.

It is this close-mindedness is what we need to break out of. Consensus does have its uses, but establishing truth (I won’t say “scientific truth” because, to me, that would be a tautology) isn’t one of them.

Michael September 3, 2010 at 7:40 am

“Today, it is the so-called scientific method that is the status quo. So, when anything that is beyond what is thought to the scientific method comes up, that is treated as heresy, and its proponents burnt at the stake of ridicule or mistrust.”

Oh, my. Perfect words. Science is becoming the new dogma, or has already become, rather. It’s getting to the point where any new external input is ridiculed – what next? Back to burning people on the stake for, well, thinking? Don’t agree with the Big Book of Science, then out you go! How sad this all is. Really.

I do not accept that of religion – I will certainly not accept that of Science. Relative truth is no excuse for authoritativeness and that hideous mightier-than-thou attitude I so detest. Even if mostly-powerless against it, I will certainly not conform to such a vile mindset.

We so easily accept all Science has to say even if we do not experience or analyse it ourselves. Yet when something outside of common Science is presented, we immediately disregard it without even allowing it a chance to reveal itself. How hypocritical is that?

Jason September 3, 2010 at 1:01 pm

Apparently I can’t reply to the reply of the reply…haha.

David, I am more in your camp than my posts may indicate…exploring new ideas is great as long as you don’t throw out reason and embrace feel-good metaphysics with abandon. I have seen too many people reject religious dogma but then grab onto a hodgepodge of New Age beliefs just to fill the hole religion left. Finding an alternative book, person, idea to worship is not progress in my view. What is needed is not more religious ideas of which plenty have come and gone in the millennia of human evolution but a “rational spirituality” that doesn’t require faith and wishful thinking.

As to Copernicus and the critique of the “so-called” scientific method, I urge you to rethink this. Doubt and questioning are integral to science as is repetition and peer review. It is self-correcting over time.

Religion/spirituality is dogma and mysticism – it can’t be confirmed or completely denied because there is no way to disprove its claims. I can’t disprove that chakras exist anymore than the idea that invisible fairies and gnomes tend my backyard garden while I sleep. I’m not going to spend my time trying to either.

There is a very real dichotomy between rational thought and belief that can’t be conveniently swept aside. Whereas natural phenomenon can be very strange (quantum physics), it can be proven via mathematics and detected via experiment like the LHC. Belief-based thoughts have no such avenue for verification…they only have the charisma of their originators and our deep desire to find simple patterns and meaning.

So back to what I originally meant by “consensus.” I think Thomas Jefferson wrote the American Declaration of Independence. Why? I wasn’t there. It happened centuries ago. How can I be sure that my textbooks and teachers didn’t lie to me? Because a consensus of experts who rely on evidence and reason conclude that he wrote it. I admit the possibility of it not being so but again, I’m not going to spend my time trying to disprove it. I should have been more careful that I was referring to this kind of consensus, not that of non-rational based endeavors.

Michael September 3, 2010 at 7:16 pm

We’re not worshipping anything – just analysing and learning from things. The point of it all is that these experiences have something we can extract from them and add to our repertoire of knowledge. It’s not about indoctrination, it’s about assimilation. It’s philosophy. Every bit of knowledge, whatever its kind, always has some contribute to us.

I think what Copernicus is trying to say is that the repetition and peer review part is taking the lead and doubt and questioning are mostly forgotten. No one questions Science anymore, not in a powerful, meaningful and revolutionary way. We need new paradigms and for that, new inspirations that can lead to new ways of thinking and new discoveries.

I feel that these “experiences” should have some credit if they do occur for someone. It’s not hard to imagine that they could perhaps hold truth in them, beyond our comprehension, perception and imagination. We live in such a chaotic, unexpected universe; don’t be so hasty to think you know how it works. We discover so many new things about physics and astronomy and all else that the way we view it all is ever-changing. Science makes us feel like we know everything, but that’s quite presumptuous. I know for a fact Nature has a liking for showing us the impossible when we feel most omniscient.

I suppose they cannot be proven by Mathematics… yet. You seem to forget we were once in the Dark Ages… Can you imagine where we’ll be in the future? The Quantum field is opening many doors to us and it could perhaps, in time, actually help prove or disprove some of these spiritual things.

David September 4, 2010 at 9:51 am

exploring new ideas is great as long as you don’t throw out reason and embrace feel-good metaphysics with abandon. I have seen too many people reject religious dogma but then grab onto a hodgepodge of New Age beliefs just to fill the hole religion left. Finding an alternative book, person, idea to worship is not progress in my view. What is needed is not more religious ideas of which plenty have come and gone in the millennia of human evolution but a “rational spirituality” that doesn’t require faith and wishful thinking.

I agree we don’t need more ideas. None of these ideas are new. What I’m trying to say is that our capacity to understand goes beyond rational thinking.

Acknowledging that the usefulness of rational thinking has limits is not the same as throwing it out entirely in favor of feel-good beliefs.

If we assume rational thinking will always take us to the next step, we limit our capacity for understanding to what concepts can teach us. Spiritual concepts like Zen are famously impossible to understand using rational thinking. As soon as you have a concept of Zen — meaning, as soon as you think you know what it is — you have lost it. This demarcates the limits of rational thinking, yet it is not the limit of human understanding.

The way I see it, the same is true for God, which is probably no different than Zen except in the peripheral ways we discuss and name it.

What makes it so difficult is that God has been highly conceptualized in our society (particularly by religious people) much moreso than Zen ever was. Hardline atheists have adopted the same unlikely conceptual model of God as mainstream religion has. This makes God into a ridiculous caricature, and makes it hard for rational people to take seriously.

Copernicus September 4, 2010 at 12:49 pm

(aka Partha)

I’m sorry to be hogging your Comments, David, and I do hope I’m not flogging the subject to death. But I couldn’t resist getting back. Because it’s so difficult not to loft a loose ball for a six. And because, obvious though what I’m saying is, it isn’t always obvious to many people; and because, odd though it may appear, this sort of confused thinking is much more commonplace than one would imagine, and it causes a great deal of trouble in the real world.

I think Jason’s got it totally wrong on two counts (hate to keep picking on you, buddy, but I believe an astonishingly large number of people make these very errors):

First, he doesn’t know what spirituality really is. He imagines that spirituality is dogma, and it can’t be confirmed or disproved. Wrong! What you’re saying does apply to doctrinaire religion, and unfortunately that’s the only religion a vast number of people know of. But that is emphatically not what spirituality “really” is. Spiritual truths are nothing if not experiential / empirical. You must have come across that famous exhortation of Buddha’s: “accept no authority, no holy books, not even what I myself am saying, no authority at all, but what you yourself experience”. And spiritual truths and beliefs can very well be proved, and spiritual falsehoods (even if widely believed) disproved.

And second, he does not really understand what the scientific method really entails. He seems to imagine that science is simply a rational, logical extension of already existing thoughts. That’s so not true! You’ve heard of String Theory, haven’t you? The guy who thought it up wasn’t rationally extending existing thought. That was pure inspiration: and accepted (well not totally accepted yet, but at least provisionally accorded provisional acceptance) by the man’s peers because, weird though it may appear, it so well explains so many otherwise inexplicable things. Why just the string theory, what I’m saying applies to that now universally-accepted chestunt, Einstein’s relativity, as well. (After all, if we’re really honest, without the necessary math. and the subsequent vindication via experiments, isn’t what Einstein postulated straight out of cuckoo land? I mean to say, warped space? Variable time? The only thing that holds it up is the math. But does it? Do I know that? Do YOU? The answer’s NO.)

So if some Yogi in India sees the entity in his heart Chakra that I was talking about, and merging with that deity gives him empirically verifiable powers (or insights), why on earth would anyone baulk at that?

Not that I’m saying that’s so. Not at all. I, for myself, haven’t ever had that kind of transcendental experience thus far (despite quite a bit of effort), and, well, I do admit of the possibility that all this transcendental stuff is indeed moonshine (which is an extremely depressing possibility for me, but let’s not get into that long by-lane). What I’m saying is, I admit of both possibilities, and don’t see the logic in not doing so (and insisting on this non-existing dichotomy between “science” and “the supernatural”).

And, just as the only person who can justifiably assert that old Albert hadn’t been off his rocker is a mathematician (and not a butcher, or a painter, or a Yogi), similarly, the only person who can justifiably say that transcendental truths exist (or not) is one who has invested a great deal of himself in testing it out for himself in the correct way (and not a butcher, a painter or a mathematician, at least not unless they do this kind of thing in their spare time).

Michael September 3, 2010 at 3:12 am

Reverse religious fanatic, I meant.

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