The Virtues: Be Rational

The third of the Virtues is rationality, a crucially important but often overlooked element of the virtuous life. I do not mean to say that being a good person requires being an atheist or a skeptic – for obviously, someone can believe in all manner of pseudoscience and superstition and still be a generous, benevolent and loving person. As always, how one treats one’s fellow human beings is the only true marker of morality. Nevertheless, I believe that all else being equal, the rational person is more virtuous than the irrational one. In this post, I will explain why that is.

Being rational means wanting to know what is true and taking steps to find that out for oneself. The intellectually lazy complacency that is all too common among humanity, in which we are content to accept the received wisdom without examining it too closely, is at best a path to stagnation, at worst a short road to self-delusion. Instead, we should live our lives in a fearless and honest quest for knowledge, absorbing and building on the expert work of others, but never accepting another’s word as the final authority without question or dissent. A life of learning and tireless seeking after truth, where we perceive the vast weave of history that lies behind every event and the subtle connections that tie everything together, brings far more opportunity and far more potential for true happiness than the unvarying obedience to small and inadequate dogma.

Being rational means being skeptical of every radical new claim. The all-too-common desire to have something for nothing, when paired with rejection of the tenets of evidence-based thinking, leaves us open to deception by all manner of frauds and charlatans. Not only does falling victim to these impostures harm us and those who depend on us, it also rewards and enriches the snake oil salesman and con artists who may use their ill-gotten gains to launch more malevolent plans. The public good, not just private good, compels us to make reasonable doubt a virtue.

Being rational means relying on evidence to guide one’s decisions, and not guesses, faith or assumptions. When the choices we make have the potential to affect the lives of our fellow human beings, whether for the better or for the worse, it is even more important that those choices be the right ones. And the only way to make good choices, those which are based on and accurately reflect what exists in reality, is to examine the facts and let them guide us. Reality will not bow to our desires, and when decisions are based on faith, or tradition, or wishful thinking, or any other method that does not have a built-in ability to track the truth, they almost always end in disaster and cause harm to ourselves and those around us.

Being rational means respecting the right of others to disagree with you, and encouraging fair and open debate among informed equals in the assurance that the truth will prevail. Allowing only one side to have their say, no matter how much confidence we may vest in their opinions, will inevitably lead to degraded partisanship, hollow professions of loyalty made out of self-interest, and an institutional blindness and complacency that will lead us to overlook new and potentially important ideas just because they clash with conventional wisdom. The rational person trusts that, no matter how tenaciously any one side may cling to its favored opinions, from the cut and thrust of free debate the truth will inevitably emerge.

Being rational means measuring one’s emotion to the occasion and keeping in mind a sense of proportion. When we react to every trifling difficulty or disappointment that life has in store with excessive anger or frustration, we end up wasting energy, losing our own peace of mind, and causing stress and unhappiness to those around us, all for no good reason. The rational person, therefore, works toward developing a sense of patience, both for their own failings and with others, and bears life’s troubles with grace and good humor whenever possible.

Most of all, being rational means focusing one’s time and effort on the real world, the only one that exists and therefore the only one that is truly important. As I wrote in the post “Why Do We Care?“, in the end everything people care about that is not really true or that does not really matter takes away from the things that do. When we dedicate our lives to bowing to the altars of superstition or chasing after mirages of unreason, we divert energy and resources that could have been spent improving this world for ourselves and our fellow human beings. Such a waste, especially when engaged in by people of vast resources who otherwise could have made a great and meaningful difference, is lamentable and even potentially immoral. There is need here, now, in this world, and we should all be working to quell it rather than turning away from our fellow humans to live in an imaginary and ultimately pointless realm that bears no correspondence with reality.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • James Bradbury

    Perhaps an example could be Jehovah’s Witnesses denying their children blood transfusions. (Silly people. If they’re going to interpret the bibble in a bizarre way, they could at least make it a harmless bizarre way.)

  • Alex Weaver

    As an aside, this series could use an “other posts in this series” thing like some of the others.

  • http://www.johnnysstew.com/cool/coolwet J

    As I wrote in the post “Why Do We Care?”, in the end everything people care about that is not really true or that does not really matter takes away from the things that do. When we dedicate our lives to bowing to the altars of superstition or chasing after mirages of unreason, we divert energy and resources that could have been spent improving this world for ourselves and our fellow human beings.

    Hmm. Well I agree that religion is often enough a grand distraction from doing anything useful (I’ve still yet to understand how, even in a religious context, offering to pray for someone is offering any help at all).

    But doesn’t that sentiment–”Everything people care about that is not really true or that does not really matter takes away from the things that do”–also potentially rule out a lot MORE than just religion? Lots of things can be posited as “not mattering”: Games, sports, art, music, hobbies, having pets, historical conservation, reading fiction, doing crosswords, gourmet cooking, drinking beer, etc.

    There was a column in Seed magazine (“Science Is Culture”) a six months back or so by cognitive scientist Geoffrey Miller in which he said that our culture has abandoned physical science in preference for electronic entertainments. I think he was half-joking in many of his arguments–i.e. saying Victoria’s Secret and Sony have replaced Boeing and Raytheon as America’s corporate powers–but he also made some pretty outrageous statements. His conclusion was essentially that if human beings aren’t A.) Doing physical science research or B.) Reproducing as fast as we can, then we aren’t really doing anything of value. He says, “We can assume that when and if we meet species of spacefaring extra-terrestrials, they won’t be a race of novel-readers or video-game-players.”

    Like I said, I think Miller was being only 51% serious–he was being outrageous just to get attention. But I think his argument has serious problems with “hyper-materialism”: His assertion that that which does not deal with the purely physical simply doesn’t matter and is nothing more than a masturbatory distraction. (First of all, where does that leave cognitive science, eh Prof. Miller?). Games and art and amusements can be taken too far–think of your stereotypical “fanboy” living in his mother’s basement at age 34–but most people who are passionate about something “immaterial” are still able to put together a reasonably coherent adult existence. I play quite a bit of Dungeons and Dragons, but I have a wife, a car, a job, pay all my own bills, take reasonable care of my hygiene, etc.

    Anyway, it just seems like we need a more nuanced distinction between “everything people care about that is not really true or that does not really matter” versus “the things that do.” Maybe it’s specifically devotion to beings that cannot be really demonstrated to exist that really interferes with attending to things that matter (like other living beings who are alive here and now).

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    But doesn’t that sentiment–”Everything people care about that is not really true or that does not really matter takes away from the things that do”–also potentially rule out a lot MORE than just religion? Lots of things can be posited as “not mattering”: Games, sports, art, music, hobbies, having pets, historical conservation, reading fiction, doing crosswords, gourmet cooking, drinking beer, etc.

    Ah yes, the dilemma of the fungibility of resources. I think it’s a valid question: Is it moral for me to spend $10 on a movie ticket when there are people starving or dying of treatable diseases that I could be helping instead? In fact, how can I justify permitting myself any sort of luxury at all when there are people who need that money far more than I do?

    This is a moral dilemma too deep to delve into in a single comment. But to address your specific concern, J, I do think superstition and other irrational beliefs are intrinsically more harmful in this regard than, say, hobbies or sports. There are two reasons for this:

    First, because religion, superstition and pseudoscience take up a lot more of people’s time than other pursuits. Although there are a lot of pursuits to which some individuals devote themselves to the point of obsession, religion in particular is so widespread as to consume, in the aggregate, a substantial fraction of our society’s free time, effort and money. In this case, the sheer scale of the waste is what merits particular attention and criticism.

    Second, and more importantly, the other hobbies you mentioned can be pursued in parallel with moral efforts, without either interfering with the other. But religion and other superstitions tend to directly compete with productive and useful efforts to help people in need. Every irrational belief about refusing blood transfusions or vaccinations directly impairs people’s ability to seek useful medical treatment for themselves and their children. Every belief that contraception is a sin directly harms efforts to keep our population to a sustainable level. Every belief that the world is ending soon and that this is desirable directly impedes efforts to protect the environment, establish world peace, and other worthwhile and useful efforts carried out with an eye to the future of humanity.

  • anti-nonsense

    Perhaps an example could be Jehovah’s Witnesses denying their children blood transfusions. (Silly people. If they’re going to interpret the bibble in a bizarre way, they could at least make it a harmless bizarre way.)

    I agree, another example would be the Pope telling Africans not to use condoms when AIDS is running rampant over there. That to me is just inexcusable. That particular comment made me very angry.

  • http://www.auniversenamedbob.com Matt R

    Ebonmuse,

    Sweet new site design! I really like it. I have a question. Are you implying that all theists base their beliefs on “…guesses, faith or assumptions”, or that only irrational theists do this?

    Also, if someone is convinced that something is the truth, and it makes him happy, and he has no way of knowing that what he believes is not the truth, then is it not acceptable for him to continue in his belief?

    In other words, do you condemn the “honest theist” as irrational?

    I also would like to point out that UU is based on happiness, not truth as the objective basis for all morality. Now, we can assume that real truth will always lead to happiness, but what if there are some perceived truths that also lead to happiness? If they lead to universal happiness and reduce universal suffering, then they are morally right, regardless of their truthfulness.

    I suppose you could simply say that such perceived truths do not exist. If you say that, then I will have the task of imagining ones that do. This would delight me as making things up is one of my favorite things to do!

    Regardless, I think you are absolutely right that rationality is a virtue. I think that it is reason that leads people to God, not religion, God. Religion can be irrational and usually is in some way, but the real God who is there is the originator of logic, the foundation of the universe, in my opinion.

    Good post!

    Cheers

    M.R.

  • anti-nonsense

    Reason does not lead people to religon. You cannot say that and then say that religion is irrational. That is a contadiction in terms.

  • http://www.auniversenamedbob.com Matt R

    Anti-nonsense,

    Absolutely correct. I believe that reason leads people to God. Religion is man’s attempt to get to God. Sadly, the practices and doctrines of religion can be quite irrational at times. This makes me think that those particular irrational practices or doctrines do not lead to God or describe God fully or accurately.

    Our universe operates in a logically meaningful way. There is order at the very foundational levels of our reality. As we push the boundaries of human knowledge further and further, we continue to find order and rational relationships between particles and forces. In short, our reality makes sense. Therefore it is reasonable to expect that the creator of reality, God, also should make sense.

    The reason I am a Christian is because I think that Christianity* is very reasonable and rational. If it was not and I could not make sense of it, I would be anything but a Christian. Reason may not lead people to religion, but reason is what keeps reasonable people there. If a religion is unreasonable in the eyes of a reasonable person, that person will eventually leave.

    I have heard many atheists describe this very phenomena. Some cannot accept the doctrine of hell. Others cannot accept the idea that those who have never heard of Jesus will still be judged on the basis of whether or not they believe in Jesus. Some cannot accept the fact that Jesus has not returned yet. Others cannot accept the Bible as factual if it is not a completely literal account. Some cannot accept the Bible if it has factual errors in it.

    I think one of the biggest problems is the tendency of religious leaders to provide answers that are intellectually unsatisfying or meaningless to the intellectual person. Few people could be described as “intellectuals”. Most people are not interested in thinking about things. Most people like to do things or watch things on TV and other such activities. These are fine things to do and valid in my mind. These people will never realize that certain assumptions do not fit with reality because it takes time and effort to think things through. If you do not exert effort over time (do work) then you will most likely not realize some of the more complicated things in life.

    Religious leaders are human just like everyone else. They relate to people who are like them. So a religious leader who is not interested in the intellectual aspects of existence will not be adapted to communicating with someone who is.

    So, people who are not die-hard intellectuals will most likely not interpret the Bible in a way that is meaningful to a die-hard intellectual. I think this is why it is hard for the rational person to accept Christianity.

    Cheers,

    M.R.

    *Although there are some rather odd traditions within Christianity, I think the foundational message and basic principles are utterly in agreement with reality and describe reality quite well.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Hi Matt,

    Are you implying that all theists base their beliefs on “…guesses, faith or assumptions”, or that only irrational theists do this?

    It would, of course, be foolish and arrogant of me to claim that anyone who believes anything different from me is being irrational, and I don’t think that’s the case. There’s plenty of room for honest disagreement, and I wouldn’t say someone is necessarily irrational simply because they believe in God.

    However, I would question the rationality of anyone who claims definitive knowledge of what God wants us to do. The idea that God demands we all bow down to him five times per day, or believe that the death of a single man thousands of years ago is the key to salvation, or treat a certain ancient book as if it is the sole repository of his wisdom – all these beliefs or many others like them are, I believe, impossible to verify in any substantive way. All the efforts I have seen to prove these propositions true ultimately end in faith, and I will assert without fear that faith is an irrational basis for decision-making.

    I also would like to point out that UU is based on happiness, not truth as the objective basis for all morality. Now, we can assume that real truth will always lead to happiness, but what if there are some perceived truths that also lead to happiness? If they lead to universal happiness and reduce universal suffering, then they are morally right, regardless of their truthfulness.

    I suppose you could simply say that such perceived truths do not exist. If you say that, then I will have the task of imagining ones that do. This would delight me as making things up is one of my favorite things to do!

    I too can imagine falsehoods that would lead to greater happiness than believing the truth. But most of those cases, though possible, are highly contrived. My point in promoting rationality is not that seeking the truth will always and in every circumstance make us happier; but I do believe that, all things being equal, knowing the truth will lead to greater happiness than believing a falsehood in the large majority of realistic circumstances.

  • http://www.auniversenamedbob.com Matt R

    Ebonmuse,

    I understand. Good thoughts. I like your virtues so far too. Now if people would just follow them…..

    and I will assert without fear that faith is an irrational basis for decision-making.

    I assume you are speaking of irrational or unfounded faith here. For example, a married man who knows his wife well and knows her strength of character could decide to let his wife go on a business trip with a male co-worker because he has faith that she will be faithful to him. I think this is a good type of faith to base ones decisions on.

    I am fairly certain the faith you are referring to is the type of faith that says “don’t think, just believe”. I agree that that sort of faith is an anathema. One of my favorite authors, Francis Schaffer, gives the example of a mountain climber lost in the fog on a mountain. He could jump over the side of the mountain, hoping to land on a ledge that is not in the fog from which he could make his way down. This would be a foolish sort of blind faith. But if he heard a voice from the fog that identified itsself as another mountain climber who could tell where the first one was, and told him that there is a ledge that he could jump to, then the mountain climber could then question the person speaking to ensure that he was truthful. After ascertaining the reliability of the voice, the mountain climber could make an informed decision to jump. There is an element of faith, but the faith is grounded in fact and rational thought. I think this is an acceptable “faith” to make decisions by.

    Do you agree?

  • James Bradbury

    I know this question wasn’t directed at me, but I’m going to rudely jump in anyway and make my observations.

    I would say that to call what you describe (an uncertain, but rational decision based on the balance of probabilities) a kind of faith is to cloud the issue of what faith is. I would prefer to say estimate, best guess or when said of people, trust.

    I suspect many theists might like to confuse things by saying that we’re all (incl. atheists) irrational and believe things on faith merely because some things are uncertain or (better yet) can’t be proved.

  • http://www.auniversenamedbob.com Matt R

    James Bradbury,

    I did not mean to say that everyone is irrational, but that faith can be rational. I am delineating two types of faith. One is based on nothing and is fanciful and silly. The other is based on reason and is analogous to the concepts of estimating, “best guess”, and trust. The second definition is quite commonly found in Christianity. Very few serious Christian theologians say things like “just believe”. They try to base their beliefs on reason. Some fail, some succeed, but they try to be rational.

    My point is to show that it is neither fair nor accurate to characterize theism as requiring “blind faith”. It does not. By no means was I trying to insinuate that nobody is rational. That would be a silly thing to say and I would be begging for mounds of ridicule to be piled upon my theistic head.

    Cheers,

    M.R.

  • James Bradbury

    Matt,

    Sorry didn’t meant to imply that you were saying everyone is irrational or at least has some irrational beliefs, but this is a common theme among theists.

    However, I do disagree with your second point. I think theism does require a certain degree of blind faith because for me and I’m sure many people, the arguments just don’t add up. IIRC for you it’s the argument from personal experience, which someone said is “utterly convincing to those who have it and utterly unconvincing to those who haven’t” or something similar.

    For me the first stumbling block I discovered for myself as a teenager is that God’s justice (as described in the bible as by Christians I know) isn’t just. If you’re born in the wrong place or the wrong time you could be doomed.

    In my experience words like “Have faith” are used by priests in similar situations to “God moves in mysterious ways”. Which to atheists sounds like, “Yes, I know it doesn’t make sense but you really should believe it anyway!”. It’s a cop-out, a surrender to ignorance. I’m sure you don’t see it that way, but to me there are too many illogicalities and the attempts at explanations are far to contrived for me to accept religion without lying to myself – which I don’t think I could knowingly do.

    James

  • http://www.auniversenamedbob.com Matt R

    James,

    I understand your position perhaps better than you might expect. There are many aspects of “orthodox theism” that I think are strange, however I can see how they rationally fit together.

    I really cannot conjecture about your experience and what you find convincing. Perhaps for you, theism would be blind faith. If that is the case then I think you are justified in rejecting it. I will say that many times it seems that people are turned away from God by people rather than God. You, for example, were turned off by the things people told you about God. When I hear people say things about God that do not make sense, I disregard them. When I hear things that do make sense, I listen and think about what has been said. I am convinced that there is an entity that has cognitive function which is involved in reality somehow. I think that if we were to face the reality of this entity, it would be very different than anything we might have expected. There is always the possibility that we cannot directly perceive the entity because it exists in different dimensions of reality than we can perceive.

    Basically the things I have seen in science make me think that something put everything together. The experiences I have had are too convincing for me to pass off. I know that there is something there. Christianity, though it may have some parts that seem odd, is a very practical belief system when applied rationally and I think that Jesus’ behavior matches that which I would expect from a good God.

    I do not expect everyone to believe everyone else’s subjective opinion of God, but I think that it is possible to understand the key aspects of God through an evaluation of the objective reality around us.

    All the best,

    M.T.

  • anti-nonsense

    there is no evidence that a God exists, therefore if you believe in God you ae exercising blind faith.

    The “mountain climber” line is an inaccurate paralell. “Faith” is a belief in something for which you have no evidence. Trust generally is based on past experiene (ie: most people aren’t out to get you). Beleif in science is based on reason and evidence.

  • http://www.auniversenamedbob.com Matt R

    Anti-nonsense,

    The evidence is objective, the interpretations is subjective. The same world is around the two of us, yet we come to different conclusions about it. This is a great mystery.

    You have defined one form of faith, but there are other meanings of the word. The “mountain climber” is a perfect example because my faith is based on past experience. At dictionary.com, the first two definitions of faith are the two I have described above. Observe:

    1. confidence or trust in a person or thing: faith in another’s ability.
    2. belief that is not based on proof: He had faith that the hypothesis would be substantiated by fact.

    The first likens faith to trust, like the mountain climber. The second is closer to the “blind faith” connotation of the word.

    I do not mean to be quarrelsome or offensive but the fact of the matter is that there is evidence for God’s existence. There is enough for a reasonable person to believe that God is there. To be fair I will say that I understand why many people do not believe that God is there. There are things that suggest that God is not there. As with anything, each one must make up his own mind and find his own path.

    Have a nice day,

    Matt

  • anti-nonsense

    Evidence for God’s existence? I don’t see any. Perhaps you would like to enlighten us? I would be interested to know what you consider to be evidence for God’s existence.

  • http://www.auniversenamedbob.com Matt R

    I do not think that I can enlighten you as your definition of “enlightenment” is probably completely opposite of mine. I suspect that my idea of “enlightenment” is folly and ignorance to you. Regardless, the following are things that suggest that there is a Creator.

    The first four are objective. They are observable by everyone, for the most part. How you choose to interpret the objective data is your choice and prerogative as a choosing being.

    1) Design in the fundamental workings of our universe (evolution)
    2) The “personality” of people
    3) The anthropic principle
    4) The Bible

    My personal “clincher” is by far the personal experiences I have had. I find that following Jesus does not produce nice emotions in me, it produces goodness in me. As Ayn Rand defines happiness, so Jesus has produced happiness in me by helping me accomplish that which is valuable.

    Clearly my personal subjective experience will mean little to you, so I naturally do not expect it to affect you much. To be completely honest I am quite expecting you to remark that these pieces of evidence are not proofs or that they are insufficient for a “rational person” to believe, or that you do not find them convincing. That is fine. I know there are many people who disagree with me. As with many other things, I base my life off of what makes sense to me. I expect that you will do the same.

    I hope this helps you understand the perspective of the theist.

    Have a wonderful day,

    Matt

  • James Bradbury

    Matt,

    Thanks for being specific on the points here, it’s an interesting thing to see. Predictably I am unconvinced, sorry! I’ll address your points below, but first I’d like to ask about your personal experience. Of course really, you should be asking yourself about it.

    I’m sure you are sincerely convinced that the effect was genuine and supernatural, whatever it was, but you’re not the only one to claim to have experienced this sort of thing. Many people, I’m sure sincerely in many cases, believe that they are having a supernatural experience. So what if that experience is unlike yours? What if it involves a completely different religion? Are you both right? What if Jesus tells them to kill people? Who’s experience is genuine?

    You might say that such people are mad or just wrong, but I expect they may think the same of you. Sanity is a difficult thing to measure objectively.

    If you were mistaken, how would you know or how could you work out that you were?

    1) Design in the fundamental workings of our universe (evolution)

    Strange, I think many people think evolution suggests the lack of a god, perhaps partly because this was seen as God’s arena previously. Certainly evolution is an exceptionally neat and elegant theory, but it in no way requires the involvement of a god.

    Perhaps you were thinking of the cosmological constants which are all set “just right” so that interesting things can happen in the universe and life can exists.

    3) The anthropic principle

    It seems even stranger that you suggest this! The anthropic principle is what explains the above! If the constants weren’t set just right, we obviously wouldn’t be asking the question. For all we know there may be a large, perhaps infinite number of universes in which the constants vary. The one in which we find ourselves is always going to be one hospitable to our kind of life. We can speculate about how life might be possible in very different ways if the constants were in some other configuration.

    The same applies to the hospitality of the Earth. What would be surprising is if we found ourselves on a planet or in a universe which wasn’t just right for us! Dawkins explains all this and more rather well in The God Delusion, which I can recommend.

    2) The “personality” of people

    What in particular? The fact that people have personalities at all? I find that quite to my expectations, given the genetic variety between us. Plenty of animals have been observed as having personalities. While our personalities and psychology is complex, I don’t think it is inexplicable without resorting to God.

    4) The Bible

    I’m sure you’re aware that the bible has a lot wrong with it, inconsistencies, atrocities, immoral teachings (if not look at Ebon Musings’ Bible Atrocities).

    You’re obviously a bright and decent guy, so I doubt you think slavery is ok, or that women are inherently inferior to men, etc. In which case what use is the bible? If you’re smart enough to tell for yourself which bits of it are wrong, then you’re smart enough to know wrong from right and live your life by your own moral standards.

    Secondly, is this the only holy book you’ve studied? How do you know it’s the right one?

  • http://www.auniversenamedbob.com Matt R

    James,

    I appreciate the respectful way you word your comments. It does you much credit and reflects good character. There is much to be said in response to your comment and I will address the most important part first, my experience. If I had not had the experience that I have had, I think that I should be very much less likely to continue seeking and following God. I should probably even doubt his existence.

    Perhaps what I am about to write will sound arrogant. I assure you, I do not write these things to boast, for there are many who have accomplished far more than I. I write these things to give you a small look into my life, so that you can have some context for my life experience.

    Just to give you some context on my life experiences which produce emotion, I have stood on top of mountains and watched the sky fly overhead in the jet stream from west to east for miles and miles. I have lain on the bottom of the ocean and observed the myriad abundance of life from tiny to large. I have connected with children in other countries who neither speak my language nor understand my culture. I have witnessed war torn nations and seen the toll on humanity. I have carried dead men who gave their lives for their country and stood in formation as their bodies are loaded onto C-130’s to return to a home they will never see again. I have succeeded greatly in some endeavors and failed miserably in others. My life is not one of sheltered existence. When I speak of experience, I speak with a frame of reference.

    When I use the word experience, I use it in a similar manner as when one says “childhood experience” or “life experience” and not in the sense of a single experience. I have experienced God not in a few isolated moments of epiphany, but as a progressive growth and in every aspect of human experience. I have experienced God on the intellectual level, emotional level, spiritual level, social level, and the practical level.

    I experience God on the intellectual level when I observe those objective realities which I have already alluded to. My experience is not limited to an emotional high or sentimental sensation, but is in agreement with observable fact.

    My emotional experiences with God are very different in content and inducement than the more commonly held view of “spiritual experiences”. From the brief summary of my life experiences, you can see that I have done many things which correspond with having a spiritual experience. Although each of these events produced strong emotional reactions, they were different than the emotional experiences associated with God. The experience was similar but clearly different. From what I understand through conversation, reading, and observation, the peace I have in life is something special and rare.

    The spiritual experience differs from the emotional in that it is transcendental in nature. On two separate occasions during private worship I have had transcendental experiences in which the room spun much as it does when one is drunk. This happened concurrently with a feeling of absolute euphoria and a fullness within my chest which felt as though every good thing in the world had been packed inside of me and threatened to burst out. Although this may seem like a violent, frightening idea, it was quite wonderful. I have experienced similar feelings, to lesser degrees and without the spinning, on many occasions during prayer, worship, or reflection.

    On a social level, I find that I identify with other people more readily and more fully. I find myself able to love them and care about them in ways which I had never thought possible or even really wanted to. I now realize what a selfish and uncaring person I have been in the past, as I find myself more and more interested in the welfare of my fellow man. It is not as though I did not know that I was supposed to be kind to people, everyone knows that. It is as though I was unable to love people in the way that I do now. Discovering this kind of love for people can best be described as discovering a new primary color. I could not have realized that I did not have it before because I could not imagine such a thing. It was quite beyond my capabilities. It is the same way with morality. It is not as though I did not know what was right or wrong before, but now I have the ability to do right consistently. I desire to be good and I revel in it. Being good is almost an end in itself now. This is certainly a change in me.

    On the practical level, I find that God answers prayer. When I am in a bind, and ask for help, it comes. I find that God has made my marriage very wonderful through changes in my wife and I. I was subject to an addiction for a large part of my life. It threatened my marriage and it terrified me because I could not control it and I did not know where it would lead me. When I asked God to take it away, it left. The addiction was broken and I was able to say no. I liken it to trying to do a bench press. Before the addiction was broken, trying to resist was like trying to bench press 500 pounds. I just could not succeed. Afterwards, it was like trying to bench 100 pounds. It still required effort to resist, but it was far less and I was able to do it consistently. I will add that I have never fallen back into the addiction and the longer I go without the addictions, the less the bench press gets. It’s around 20 pounds right now.

    My life experience is such that if it were somehow proven, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that there was no heaven in store for me on the other side of the grave, I would still follow God. I do not follow because I fear death or because I hope for a reward someday. I follow because I love the life I have found in God. It is a reward unto itself.

    Based on my life experience, I think that I am either quite delusional or that God exists. That is how dramatic the effect has been on my life. I am sure that some readers will just write me off as a “nut job”. To them I say that I have served as an officer in the Army, I am currently enrolled in a graduate level program for the health sciences, I have a wonderful marriage, am financially stable, own a house, have two vehicles which are both paid off, am in above average physical condition, participate in community activities, have a large circle of friends, have an excellent friendship with my parents, and I even get along with my mother-in-law! I do not say this to brag, but to show that by any measure of mental health, I am mentally healthy and normal. If the sole reason that one classifies me as mentally unhealthy or abnormal in some way is because I disagree with them on the matter of God’s existence, then I think that it is an inconsistent and unfair assumption, especially considering that normal is a relative term and I am by no means in the minority regarding this belief.

    Furthermore, based on my life experience, I think it would be folly to abandon the belief system which has led me into such a state of fulfillment and prosperity, especially when I can find no rational or evidence-based reason whatsoever to do so.

    Have a nice day,

    Matt

  • anti-nonsense

    Matt

    I don’t consider you a “nut job”, I reserve that particular term for the fundamentalists that shoot abortion doctors and such.

    Religion does sometimes help people escape from a truly destructive habit like drug abuse by giving them comfort and making them feel supported, in those cases it is beneficial as drug abuse is far far more inherently damanging then religion to the person.

    I would personally give the credit to your own willpower for getting you out of your addiction, and I believe this is far more respectful of human dignity then assuming you cannot do anything goood without help. I’d also credit your good life to your own efforts and those around you! I believe that we make our own life through our choices and that it’s healthy to take credit for our accomplishments when credit is due!

  • James Bradbury

    Matt,

    Thanks for your explanation. Just to reassure you, I don’t consider you arrogant nor a “nut job”. You seem a very reasonable and intelligent person from what I can gather. If I thought that losing belief in God would put you back to where you were without self-respect and of less moral character, then of course I’d prefer you kept your beliefs and better moral values!

    However, as an atheist your story does not make me impressed by God, but by you. As I see it, you singlehandedly turned your life around and for that you should be commended. Please note this is not intended to encourage you to be conceited or proud, it’s just the way I see it. As far as I am concerned, while you may need God in a psychological sense you clearly don’t need him in a genuine physical sense because as I see it he doesn’t exist. Not only are we solely responsible for the things we do wrong, but also those we do right.

    In my opinion, goodness is its own reward and due to the very social nature of humans it’s natural for us to feel good about helping others. Perhaps the church/religious friends encouraged you to do charitable things for people and this no doubt helped you to feel worthwhile, respected and moral – which are very important to anyone’s mental health. Some psychologists now recommend people to get a pet or do charity work as it helps them to feel good about themselves. I have seen this work and think it’s a fantastic idea – everyone is a winner!

    Individual experiences are subjective and if you say you’ve got a headache how can I know otherwise? However, they might be explained by a part of the brain I’ve heard about which appears to be responsible for religious experiences. I don’t know much about it but I’ve heard that when artificially stimulated, the subject is likely to see visions of whichever deity/spirit with which they are most familiar. I heard of a guy who had some kind of overactivity in this area and who saw cosmic significance in everything he witnessed. Not only did he believe in God, but he came to the conclusion that he was God.

  • http://www.auniversenamedbob.com Matt R

    Hello anti-nonsense, James,

    Thank you for your kind words and thoughtful remarks. Just to clarify, I do recognize that it takes effort to do the morally right thing and I do strive for it. I just think I get help. :)

    I too have heard of the “religious experience” center of the brain. I am not terribly surprised by the fact. Neurologists can stimulate other parts of the brain and the patient will feel sensations in various parts of his body. This does not mean that all the sensations he feels are simply in his head, it simply means that there is a part of the brain to process those sorts of experiences.

    I will address more of your post, James.

    1) Design in the fundamental workings of our universe (evolution)

    Strange, I think many people think evolution suggests the lack of a god, perhaps partly because this was seen as God’s arena previously. Certainly evolution is an exceptionally neat and elegant theory, but it in no way requires the involvement of a god.

    No, it does not require the involvement of God. It does, however, suggest the involvement of a cognitive being to me. To think that our universe happens to have seen set up in such a way that immensely complex things like humans have developed, it suggests planning to me.

    There is always the matter of abiogenesis, too. I have seen convincing evidence for evolution, and I accept it as a probable account of what happened. I have yet to see any convincing propositions for abiogenesis. But, I have never been one to promote a “God of the gaps” so I do not expect you to change your mind because no one can explain how life got started in the first place. Furthermore, I think that declaring something impossible is the best way to never figure things out. So I think that study of Abiogenesis is helpful as it could lead to many practical innovations in the medical field and other fields as well.

    3) The anthropic principle

    It seems even stranger that you suggest this! The anthropic principle is what explains the above! If the constants weren’t set just right, we obviously wouldn’t be asking the question. For all we know there may be a large, perhaps infinite number of universes in which the constants vary. The one in which we find ourselves is always going to be one hospitable to our kind of life. We can speculate about how life might be possible in very different ways if the constants were in some other configuration.

    To me it seems simpler to postulate a single Creator whom I have evidence for in my life, than to postulate an infinite number of unknowable, unobservable other universes.

    2) The “personality” of people

    What in particular? The fact that people have personalities at all? I find that quite to my expectations, given the genetic variety between us. Plenty of animals have been observed as having personalities. While our personalities and psychology is complex, I don’t think it is inexplicable without resorting to God.

    When I say the personality of people, I do not mean personality in the sense of “he is a happy person” or “she is a thoughtful person”. I mean personality in the sense that humans have a quality that utterly separates them from all other organisms on the planet. No other species is anywhere close to us. I think chimpanzees are a distant second because they use twigs to fish termites out of the ground. Sure, apes can learn sign language, but we have to teach them. There is something about humans. Something special. It is not just expressed in the area of technology, but in other areas of abstract thought. For some reason we like to sit around and just talk about stuff. We like to be entertained. We like to create things which have no purpose other than to be there, or possibly to express our idea.

    Of course all of these things could be the product of mutations caused by careless cosmic rays playing billiards with our nucleic acids, but the “personhood” or “manishness” of humans suggests to me that there is something behind the impersonal universe which gave rise to us (if indeed abiogenesis is possible sans God).

    Have a nice day,

    Matt

  • James Bradbury

    Thanks Matt, I am having a great day and enjoying your posts.

    But, I have never been one to promote a “God of the gaps” so I do not expect you to change your mind because no one can explain how life got started in the first place. Furthermore, I think that declaring something impossible is the best way to never figure things out.

    Glad to hear it. Taken to its logical conclusion this line of thinking would have researchers abandoning their quest for knowledge and ascribing anything unknown to God or gods.

    To me it seems simpler to postulate a single Creator whom I have evidence for in my life, than to postulate an infinite number of unknowable, unobservable other universes.

    Simpler in what way?

    Granted, the idea of multiple universes is as unfalsifiable as any God, but logically it’s a pretty simple concept and we already have the example of our own universe which we can resonably assume to exist. Any creator or designer has to be quite complex in itself, which in turn raises more questions – so where did She come from? Pretty improbable, isn’t it that She could exist just by chance?

    Doubtless we all find it “simpler” to believe things which already fit in with our view of how the world works. I’ve lately been making an effort to see the way other people’s views fit together.

    I mean personality in the sense that humans have a quality that utterly separates them from all other organisms on the planet. No other species is anywhere close to us.

    Actually the examples you give are good and I don’t think there’s as much difference as many people would like to think. We’re certainly more mentally complex than other creatures, but we have much in common. I don’t think we’re fundamentally different from animals. Watching nature documentaries recently has revealed to me societies, clandestine affairs and complex relationships. In my experience whenever someone has said, “well, animals don’t do this…” you soon hear of an example of species which does and has done so for ages without us knowing.

    Secondly, I am wary of this argument (can I dub it “The argument from human superiority” or has it already been claimed?) because it seems similar to thinking that we’re so important that God would put Earth at the centre of the universe.

    Just for fun I’d like to finish with this Douglas Adams quote:
    “…on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much — the wheel, New York, wars and so on — whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man — for precisely the same reasons.”

  • http://www.auniversenamedbob.com Matt R

    James,

    Thanks. I continually return here to post because the readership of this Blog exhibits manners, dignity, and respect for others that far overshadows what I have experienced elsewhere both on the theist and atheist side of the house.

    Simpler in what way?

    Simpler because I have reason to think that I have interacted with God and no reason to think that I have interacted with other universes. I do not try to say that it is more likely that God exists than infinite universes because there is only one God. That just does not make sense. If we are talking about the absolute first thing, the thing from which all other things stem, I do not think that probability enters in to it. Probability is a contrivance of the human mind to describe complex systems for which all of the variables cannot be considered. In all actuality, probability probably does not even exist! :)

    So basically I leave it at “it just makes sense to me”. Clearly that is influenced by who I am and what I have experienced. I do not expect that everyone will view it as I have, and that is okay.

    Actually the examples you give are good and I don’t think there’s as much difference as many people would like to think. We’re certainly more mentally complex than other creatures, but we have much in common. I don’t think we’re fundamentally different from animals. Watching nature documentaries recently has revealed to me societies, clandestine affairs and complex relationships. In my experience whenever someone has said, “well, animals don’t do this…” you soon hear of an example of species which does and has done so for ages without us knowing.

    As somewhat of a nature buff, I was very careful in my examples because I am aware of the many similarities. I am not sure if it is possible to determine to everyone’s satisfaction if the difference between man and beast is qualitative or quantitative. To me, the difference seems qualitative because I do not like to lick my own butt or lick the butts of others in greeting, but I could be wrong. :)

    Just a little joke there. I think that it is a qualitative difference simply because of the vast gap we see between animal and human behavior. Certainly there are analogous behaviors, but humans (theists especially) are noted for seeing what they want to see. It is just a really hard question because we have to infer what is happening inside the animal’s head based on their behavior. Really tricky.

    No doubt there are good arguments on either side of the issue. I liked the Douglas Adams quote alot.

    Cheers,

    Matt

  • Jacob

    It is very encouraging to see some contructive discussion, as in so many other websites there are angry arguments that lead to nothing, but anger to each other’s beliefs. I myself would call myself a theist or a Christian. I would consider myself to be very lacking within discussion of complex logic and philosphy but none the less, I continue.

    I really don’t know if this discussion has ended or not. I can only type a little more, because I am very busy with other things so I will end typing as it is.

    Again, I really do appreciate this discussion because of its including of understanding amongst seperate beliefs and am intrigued to join in on it.

    Have a nice day,

    Jacob