Freethinker Book Club – faith, reason, and the religious experience

My Freethinker club started a book discussion group and we had the first meet yesterday. The book we’re reading is called Reason & Religious Belief: an introduction to the philosophy of religion. Our book group leader, a philosophy professor at the university, suggested it as a good place to start. We had to read the chapters on religious experience and the relationship between faith and reason.

Religious experiences first:

In order for an experience to fit the criteria, the person has to come out of the experience feeling like some supreme being had a hand in it. One of the fellows in our group had been in seminary school as a younger man and gave us an example out of his own life. He and a good friend had spent a nice evening out walking and talking about the any and the all, as good friends do. They paused to watch a spectacular show of northern lights and that’s when he thought he saw a sign – tendrils of light forming themselves into the shape of a man kneeling before a giant fish. His friend claimed to have witnessed the same, but friends and family who were later told about this amazing event were skeptical.

Apparently a lot of people claim they’ve seen signs and they’re never verifiable. Now that he’s an atheist, he wonders if it was a hallucination. The two of them had been talking about where to go in the future and the man kneeling by the fish could easily have been a “message” for him to head for missionary work like Job was trying to avoid and couldn’t. That was certainly the way he wanted to rationalize and justify his vision at the time, when he wasn’t questioning it.

In the book, the writers give an example from Augustine‘s Confessions. It seems he was at a crossroads in his life, questioning purpose or something, when he heard some kid singing or hollering the words to a game. Whether it was the actual phrase of the game or not, he thought he heard the kid say, “Take it and read, take it and read.” This he took as a sign to open his bible and read the first passage he saw.

It was important enough to this great Christian philosopher that he just had to write down what happened. Did anyone ever question him? Did no one tell him he must have imagined it? Apparently not, if people still quote the guy’s so-called religious experience.

How is Augustine’s experience any different from, say, people who think they hear messages in white noise, or a mishmash of garbled syllables that become a mantra about not getting dinner or some damn thing? He heard a completely random thing and attributed meaning to it that would fit what he thought he needed at the time.

Like that hasn’t happened to just about everyone at some point. The difference is, most of us attribute those experiences to chance or coincidence rather than assuming it was a message meant only for us from some greater being being subtle instead of obvious.

The relationship between faith and reason:

The prof talked about the Platonic approach to thinking of perfect forms from which all lesser forms are a flawed copy. Christianity in particular borrows a lot from Plato’s divisive world view – perfect heaven and an imperfect earth. The perfect god and imperfect humans made in His image and left to strive for what is impossible to achieve.

He also mentioned Hegel and the revamped dialectic – a method of arguing to prove a point of view, or at least persuade people to agree with it. It starts with a thesis, the opposing argument is the antithesis, and the end result should be a synthesis where both points of view have reached an agreement. The more this is done, the closer we get to the Truth, I suppose, whatever it is. Closer to that perfect, virtuous level of knowledge. I’ll borrow from Wikipedia for an example here.

In the Logic, for instance, Hegel describes a dialectic of existence: first, existence must be posited as pure Being (Sein); but pure Being, upon examination, is found to be indistinguishable from Nothing (Nichts). When it is realized that what is coming into being is, at the same time, also returning to nothing (in life, for example, one’s living is also a dying), both Being and Nothing are united as Becoming.[21]

Sounds like pure hokum to me, but I suspect philosophers live for that kind of esoteric Idea behind the idea stuff. That’s high falutin’ rootin’ tootin’ thinkin’ when they’re thinkin’ like that.

They think that reasoning things out can get you closer to the ideal. Faith, on the other hand, often seems to require no reasoning at all. Take the leap of faith. No proof is required in order to believe what you do and often no proof seems to be wanted.

A mathematician named W.K. Clifford was mentioned in the book. He was of the opinion that belief needs to be questioned, needs to be challenged. It’s not good enough to just believe something is true without proof, without good reason. Since religions so rarely offer evidence that proves beyond a doubt, religions should be taken to task for that and discarded – or at least be willing to discard what isn’t provably true. Since that would probably be everything.. well, so be it. Fideism, on the other hand, rejects that very idea. It rejects the need to use reason or rationalize beliefs at all. They take God as a given, basically, and work from there.

Kierkegaard was a fideist. He’s mentioned in the book as heaping scorn on people who seek evidence in the face of faith. Since rationalizing is only an approximation, there is always more evidence that must be measured. He sees this is as a colossal waste of time, apparently. He’s quoted as saying, “every moment is wasted in which he does not have God.” There’s a concern that proof would negate the need for faith. Personally, I don’t see that as a bad thing, but Kierkegaard thinks that this quest of objectivity stands in the way of truly knowing God. You don’t have to Know; you have to Believe. Faith is a commitment to a risk and a lot of people like it that way.

Of course then the question becomes, which faith is worth the risk? As an atheist, it’s a non-argument. They’re all equally invalid and pointless and offer me nothing I desire. For someone who feels they need a faith in order to be whole, it can be a big deal. But the catch-22 of fideism means that a person can’t really weigh and measure which faith is best because that means having to question each faith and make critical, positive/negative decisions about each one. A fideist is solidly against measuring faith in any way, shape or form.

If they do have to measure, they measure with their beliefs as the given – the thing that doesn’t need proving. The book gives an example from Martin Luther who’d heard of the earth revolving around the sun even though the bible clearly states the opposite. Martin Luther had no trouble believing the bible had it right by using Joshua 10:12-14 as his proof – the fight where God held the sun in the sky for a whole day. The sun had to be circling the earth in order for that to work…

There are people today who argue for biblical truth that way. You show them a contradiction between the Word and reality and they’ll try and show you the truth of the Word anyway. Their faith in the Word cannot be shaken no matter how much evidence to the contrary you have in front of you. It’s evidence of commitment to the risk and they revel in the solidity of their faith every time.

It’s amazing, really. It’s amazing how people can trick their minds into believing all kinds of bizarre things. And about mind tricks: after this meeting we decided we ought to see if we can hire a hypnotist to come to a meet up and show us how that works so we can talk about how much of church ritual resembles hypnosis.

Next time around we’ll be reading from the chapters on evidentialism, religious language and whether or not science and religion are compatible.

About 1minionsopinion

Canadian Atheist Basically ordinary Library employee Avid book lover Ditto for movies Wanna-be writer Procrastinator
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3 Responses to Freethinker Book Club – faith, reason, and the religious experience

  1. 1minionsopinion says:

    Sweet. I’ll pass that on. Thanks for the suggestions.

  2. Hmmm… The Non-Existence of God isn’t exactly good bedtime reading. Unless you want to get to sleep fast. I use it more as a quick reference.

    I’ll add a few books to the list:
    Sense & Goodness Without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism
    The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason

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