Meaning and Proof

Ravens over Newgrange

Thorn Coyle posted a quote on her Facebook page on Sunday and asked for responses:

Truth to drum into the next generation:  trusting your religious experiences have meaning is stupid. You have to *prove* they have meaning. – Vinay Gupta

My first response was to wonder about the context of the quote.  I did a bit of googling on Vinay Gupta and didn’t turn up anything specifically related to this quote.  He appears to be a futurist along the lines of John Michael Greer, only from a tech perspective instead of JMG’s historical and religious perspective.  He seems to have some good ideas but also seems rather arrogant, but that’s a first impression after a quick look around the internet.

I still don’t know exactly what Vinay Gupta was trying to get across with this quote, but I think it’s worth examining it on face value.

I’m an engineer with training in math and science: “prove” is a very strong word.  It’s certainly stronger than the legal standard of “a preponderance of the evidence” in civil cases and strictly speaking is stronger than the criminal standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt.”  So to say you have to prove your religious experiences have meaning sets a standard that is impossible to meet.

Even if we use the looser colloquial definition, we’re still faced with the fact that most religious propositions are inherently unprovable.  I believe I have experienced the presence of numerous individual Gods and Goddesses, but I can’t prove it – not even to myself.  Perhaps I experienced an aspect of One Great Deity.  Perhaps I experienced an archetype.  Perhaps I experienced a hallucination.  Perhaps I made it all up subconsciously.  I can’t prove that any of those possible explanations are – or aren’t – true.  The strength and consistency of my experiences are convincing, to the point that I order my life as though they are absolutely true.  But that’s not proof.

Furthermore, the statement implies that we have to prove our experiences have meaning to someone else.  Now, I’m not someone who thinks religion is entirely a personal thing.  Religion is best practiced in community, and communities of co-religionists tend to have similar – though not identical – interpretations of their experiences.  But the only person you have to convince that your experiences are meaningful is you.  And conversely, if everyone else in your grove / coven / church / temple tells you your experience is wondrous but it doesn’t have meaning for you, then it is quite literally meaningless.  Be informed and guided by your religious tradition but in the end you are the sole arbiter of meaning for your experiences.

That said, many of us are too quick to interpret and assign meaning to experiences, religious or otherwise.  Conventional wisdom tells us to “go with your gut” and to accept the first meaning that occurs to us.  When you’re trying to sort through your feelings there is some wisdom to this approach, but when you’re trying to interpret a religious experience – anything from a casual omen to full-on deity possession – more helpful meanings generally follow more deliberate reflections and interpretations.

Deliberative interpretations lower the risk that we’ll read something into a religious experience that isn’t really there.  Several months ago there was a big discussion on the Pagan internet about religious anthropocentrism – the idea that it’s all about us.  Other species have their own wants and needs.  Perhaps the bird who looked you in the eye on your morning walk was there as a message to you from Morrigan, but perhaps he was just being neighborly.  My experience is that while there are many signs and omens in Nature, most of them are for the world and humanity in general rather than for any one individual.

Our religious traditions help us to interpret our experiences using the collective wisdom of our ancestors and predecessors.  Your exact experience is unique to you, but it’s not entirely unique – other people have seen omens or have been touched by Gods or have melted into Unity.  The interpretations of others aren’t binding on you, but they’re a good place to start.

There is one ultimate proof that our religious experiences have meaning, and that those meanings are proper:  are they helpful?  Do our interpretations of our religious experiences help us live in alignment with our values?  Do our experiences of the Gods help us to model the virtues of the Gods?  Do they help us live in harmony with other people, other species, and other ecosystems?  Do they honor our ancestors and do they help us build a better world for those who come after us?

Do they help us cope with the human condition of being alive but knowing we will die?

If they do, then you have all the proof you need – and all the proof you’re going to get.

I do wish I had more context to Vinay Gupta’s quote.  Insisting on proof of the meaning of religious experiences is an arrogant demand for an impossible task.  But advocating for a deliberate approach to interpretation is wise counsel.

About John Beckett

I grew up in Tennessee with the woods right outside my back door. Wandering through them gave me a sense of connection to Nature and to a certain Forest God. I’m a Druid graduate of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, the Coordinating Officer of the Denton Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans and a former Vice President of CUUPS Continental. I’ve been writing, speaking, teaching, and leading public rituals for the past eleven years. I live in the Dallas – Fort Worth area and I earn my keep as an engineer.

  • Nathan Boutwell

    This is very helpful, John.

    Lately, I’ve been sensing that Aphrodite is poking me to represent her in public, and if you follow my Facebook updates, you know that I suffer from rather extreme agoraphobia (which is why I don’t show up very much at D-CUUPs circles). I don’t mind demonstrating philios to the community if that’s what she wants, but about twelve years ago, I set out on a stupid journey because I thought it was the will of another deity in another faith to become a minister and … bad ending! You understand that I do not want to do that again.

    This is helpful. My comment is probably totally unrelated, but to me, it isn’t. It’s all right to ask questions, it’s all right to ask if what I’m sensing is really a goddess speaking or just another case off too much fried chicken.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      I think this is quite relevant – it’s all about what you really heard or felt and what it means.

      FYI, one of our members is Hellenic. You may want to talk with him, as a co-religionist who may have had similar experiences.

      • Nathan Boutwell

        Thanks, John. I was concerned that my comment was just rambling — it had been a bad day.

    • https://undertheowlswing.wordpress.com/ Conor O’Bryan Warren

      Hey Nathan,

      I am a Hellenist myself and actually maintain a shrine to Aphrodite. I’d be thrilled to talk with you if you’d be of the mind to.

      If you want to talk with me you can reach me on facebook: https://www.facebook.com/fathergia or reach me by e-mail: captainspellingerror@gmail.com

      I also show up to just about every D-CUUPS circle that I can, if you can ever make one or simply decide you’d like to have lunch or coffee or whatever just let me know, I have a flexible schedule these days.

      • Nathan Boutwell

        Hey, Conner. Thanks! I will certainly email you.

      • Nathan Boutwell

        And forgive me for misspelling your name!

  • Vision_From_Afar

    Though I agree with what you’ve said here, oddly enough mathematical and engineering proof wasn’t the first thing that I gathered from that quote (though as a fellow engineer, it was the second!) but rather this:

    In the future, it won’t be enough to say religious experiences have meaning. It won’t be enough to say “This God/Goddess/spirit/ancestor gave me a religious experience and it has deep meaning to me.” There are reasons people have experiences, whether it’s to force them to recognize/change something about themselves or how they interact with the mundane or spiritual worlds. It won’t be enough to have the experience in and of itself. That person will have to prove it has meaning by doing something, however small or insignificant. It won’t be enough to speak, but only proof in deeds will grant an experience its meaning and depth.

    That’s a future I can get behind, whatever religion or belief a person ascribes to. Anywho, keep it up, love the work! :D

  • http://www.theunderstandingapp.com Kevin Osborne

    A way of looking at it is, we exist within, and as, an interconnected operating system. We operate the system by looking at viewpoints from other viewpoints. We individually and absolutely decide where to look from and toward, consciously and unconsciously. So, meaning, or the relationship of experience to the rest of existence, is what we choose it to be. Others may or may not have had experiences they call similar or may or may not be open to experience they have not had. It makes no difference in your experience. It is all real. Unless you decide to take the viewpoint it is not real, in which case it will be both real and not real.
    There is seeing more of full awareness, or God, and that is part of the path but you’ll know when that happens and it will not matter who questions it.

  • gimpi1

    “I believe I have experienced the presence of numerous individual Gods and Goddesses, but I can’t prove it – not even to myself. Perhaps I experienced an aspect of One Great Deity. Perhaps I experienced an archetype. Perhaps I experienced a hallucination. Perhaps I made it all up subconsciously. I can’t prove that any of those possible explanations are – or aren’t – true.”

    Congratulations on understanding this. I’ve had many discussions with people who can’t seem to get that their experience with the divine isn’t an automatic guarantee of absolute correctness, a mandate to direct others. I’ve had my own experiences and they are real for me, but not for anyone else. They could be any of the things you describe above. I make decisions about my life based on them, but I can’t reasonably expect anyone else to. I can describe them, but not share them. I could be wrong. Remembering that is an important reality-check.

  • hexayurt

    Context on Gupta https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EkQCy-UrLYw&feature=kp gives a sense of where it’s all coming from…

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      Interesting talk with some very good points. While I’m in general agreement, it doesn’t really address the quote about proving your religious experiences have meaning.


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