Divine Inspiration and Religious Guilt
November 17, 2002
I was writing a reply to a post, and thought that my idea was significant enough to merit an essay. Here goes:
Many theists claim that some sort of “spiritual connection” is a universal part of human experience and valid proof of some sort of spiritual realm. Furthermore, some Christians claim that if one tries hard enough, he will feel a “connection” and experience “proof” that some sort of spiritual realm exists. While such a spiritual feeling certainly exists, when properly identified, it indicates the greatest flaw of religion, rather than proof of an omnipotent being.
First, many widespread religions have no concept of a “spiritual connection” and are inherently atheistic, such as Buddhism, Taoism, etc. They may have spiritual elements, but they do not claim that mediation, prayer and such allows any connection to some sort of higher being. More importantly, only a few sects of Christianity believe that one should believe in God because of internal spiritual evidence. Certainly the old (Jewish) testament, traditional Catholicism, etc attempt to give evidence of historical events as proof of God, not internal “connections.” Furthermore, Judaism, Islam, and most other major religions focus entirely or mostly on external evidence for God, not “feelings” or any such evidence. Thus, it is not factually accurate to claim that “all” religions accept some of spiritual connection as proof of God, Jesus, Vishnu or any other such being.
Now, even if such a belief were universal, it would be no indication at all of whether some sort of spiritual world existed or not. Certainly, before the scientific process was invented, it was almost universally believed that gods, demons, etc. ruled nature and caused rains, volcanoes, seasons, and other natural events. However, this idea has been completely discredited by science. Spiritual feelings are no indication of external reality and are not accepted as valid evidence in any field – and should not be considered conclusive evidence of a God.
For example, suppose that when Einstein came up with his theory of relatively, the scientific body replied that they simply “felt” that Newtonian laws were true, and no exceptions were possible. Certainly, they had spend their whole careers accepting the validity of Newtonian physics, and since classical physics was almost universally accepted and embedded in their minds, they certainly “felt” them to be true, and relativity wrong, but no one tried to argue the absurd argument that feelings constitute proof in science – any neither should one say that in theology.
Nevertheless, it is true that many people experience a strong feeling during prayer and religious services, and it is worthwhile to examine its nature. Let me give a brief personal account of “spiritual connections” at this point. When I was six, I read several novels by Jules Verne and Arthur Conan Doyle (author of Sherlock Holmes.) These authors taught me to apply “philosophical detectivism” to my study of the world, and rely in logic and the validity of my own conclusions. Ever since, I have applied a critical approach to all my studies, and when I was first exposed to religion at 10, I attempted to do the same. I attended Jewish Sunday school for eight years, eventually becoming an assistant Sunday school teacher for three years. I studied various religions and different views on God, attended services of different religions and denominations, and tried very hard to feel the “connection” that everyone was talking about.
I did experience the emotion commonly described as a “spiritual connection,” and since I believe that my feeling is what most people refer to when they talk about divine connection, I would like to describe what I experienced in particular and my conclusions on the nature of religious feeling in general.
Initially, when attending Sabbath services, I felt nothing but unease and awkwardness at being unable to understand what was going on --especially since at the time I did not speak English or Hebrew – the two languages used in Jewish services. I was like a native to whom a missionary was trying to sell religion. Eventually however, I learned the format of the service, and was able to read and understand both the English and Hebrew prayers. After several years, I became familiar with not just the literal meaning, but also the theological and historical significance of the prayers and rituals involved in services. I studied Jewish history, spent a summer in Israel, and immersed myself with trying to understand theology.
I began to experience a strong emotion during services, which I suppose many people would call “God.” However, since I knew that oftentimes my emotions were proven wrong by experience, I attempted to define and verify the nature of my feelings. I realized that the feeling I felt during services was much like the feeling I felt when I heard politicians and preachers talk about things like “freedom,” “a cause greater than oneself,” “justice” etc, etc. Such words, whether in the forms of prayer or political rhetoric, where a projection of values and goals to my life, which otherwise had no apparent end or purpose that I could derive on my own (at the time). In short, the feelings I experienced during services and while reading and listening to “deep thoughts” about the meaning of life involved the projection of the proper purpose of man’s life on earth and the proper beneficiary of his actions.
Giving a purpose and meaning of one’s life is certainly both a noble and crucial goal for anyone who wants to have a meaningful and happy life. It is only proper that realizing the mission and function of your life should be accompanied by a feeling of great joy and self-fulfillment. This is why many (most?) atheists who believe that religion is the only thing capable of giving life a purpose become either depressed or hedonistic, (unsuccessfully) seeking to give meaning to their life by drugs, sexual experimentation or New-Age mysticism.
However, adopting a religious basis for the purpose of one’s life creates a problem commonly mentioned but rarely identified: regular cycles of inspiration and guilt. Every single religious person has a cycle of going to a religious service and experiencing relief at the fact that there is after all a greater meaning to his or her life, and then finding their religious ideas impractical, idealistic, unattainable, or just hard to apply to real life. While this conflict varies greatly by person and religion, every single religious person experiences the feeling of guilt that arises from being unable to fully live up to their religion. Every Sunday (or whatever day they have their services) the guilt is absolved and the theist is newly inspired and motivated by their particular God, and as soon as their leave their church/temple/shrine the guilt begins to accumulate and the cycle begins anew. The greater the persons devotion to their religion, the greater their guilt at not being able to live up to it, and the deeper the emotion they experience during their weekly fix.
I know this, because immediately after my trip to Israel, I briefly went through this weekly cycle, and I have had many friends who have described exactly the same cycle to me. For some (like born-again Christians), the escalation of this cycle leads to life-long fundamentalism, for others it leads to a periodical ups and downs of depression and devotion, and for others, it leads to a complete rejection of religion, never to be tried again.
My initial bout with atheism happened when I was 15, during a Sunday school retreat that culminated a yearlong discussion on God. After a weekend of discussing our “relationship to God,” we were having our closing ceremony, lighting candles, singing songs, and the usual. All throughout the weekend I critically examined the different “relationships” that were talked about, and other than the feeling mentioned above, I could find no proof whatsoever that they led to the existence of God. Finally, right in the middle of a song proclaiming my devotion, I suddenly realized how silly and irrational the words I was singing were, and firmly rejected the whole notion of God. In the next few years, I discovered Spinoza and toyed with deism, and “cultural” religion, but shortly after beginning college, I examined all the evidence I had on theism and religion and rejected the whole enterprise for good.
Back to the topic at hand, my discovery of the philosophy of Objectivism filled in the holes in my understanding of emotion and morality. I realized that feelings are not random chemical reactions or hormones reacting in your head. Neither are they forms of divine inspiration guiding us in all our actions. Rather, feelings are the near-instantaneous reactions to things and events based on subconsciously and consciously held values and beliefs. “Divine inspiration” is simply the reaction to our need to give our life a purpose and meaning, not evidence of a supernatural being sending us messages.
Unfortunately, while a good life does need to have purpose and meaning, using religion for this purpose has several major flaws, which lead to the aforementioned cycle of guilt and inspiration. A proper discussion of religious ethics is beyond the scope of this essay (see http://hobbes.resnet.tamu.edu/forums/showthread.php?s=&threadid=10666 for a hint) but suffice it to say that religious values are impractical because they strive towards a non-existent spiritual world while ignoring the means needed for a happy and successful life in the real, physical world, leading to the eternal conflict and ever-present guilt because one is not able to fully live up to either. When I discovered that the world was natural, I finally felt free to find my own meaning and purpose, experiencing a feeling aptly described by Robert G. Ingersoll in “Why I Am Agnostic”:
When I became convinced that the Universe is natural – that all the ghosts and gods are myths, there entered into my brain, into my soul, into every drop of my blood, the sense, the feeling, the joy of freedom. The walls of my prison crumbled and fell, the dungeon was flooded with light and all the bolts, and bars, and manacles became dust. I was no longer a servant, a serf or a slave. There was for me no master in all the wide world -- not even in infinite space. I was free -- free to think, to express my thoughts -- free to live to my own ideal -- free to live for myself and those I loved -- free to use all my faculties, all my senses -- free to spread imagination's wings -- free to investigate, to guess and dream and hope -- free to judge and determine for myself -- free to reject all ignorant and cruel creeds, all the "inspired" books that savages have produced, and all the barbarous legends of the past -- free from popes and priests -- free from all the "called" and "set apart" -- free from sanctified mistakes and holy lies -- free from the fear of eternal pain -- free from the winged monsters of the night -- free from devils, ghosts and gods. For the first time I was free. There were no prohibited places in all the realms of thought -- no air, no space, where fancy could not spread her painted wings -- no chains for my limbs -- no lashes for my back -- no fires for my flesh -- no master's frown or threat – no following another's steps -- no need to bow, or cringe, or crawl, or utter lying words. I was free. I stood erect and fearlessly, joyously, faced all worlds.