When it comes to religious matters, I have been alternately atheist, agnostic, religious, spiritual and now, again, agnostic. I will likely alternate between spiritual and agnostic for the rest of my life, but it is very unlikely that I will adopt religiosity again.
I have had powerful spiritual experiences, three of which I would like to relate. In the first, I was having unprotected sex with my wife and I had a strong feeling (without a shadow of a doubt) that I shouldn’t be doing it. At the time I didn’t know why it “should” be so. Afterwards, we found out that my wife became pregnant from that liaison and I had a strong feeling (without a shadow of a doubt) that our child would die. At first, I didn’t say anything to my wife about it. Eventually, we both admitted to each other that we had had very similar feelings at similar times. Weird, right? We had the child and he almost died, but there came a point, after saying a prayer in the hospital, that I had a strong feeling (without a shadow of a doubt) that he would be okay, and he was and is okay many years later. Amazing, right?
The second story is less dramatic: I was interviewing for a new job and I felt really great about it. My wife felt really great about it. But I didn’t get an offer. I know what you’re thinking: cool story, bro.
The third story mirrors the second, except that I knew I would get the job and I had sort of known for years that I would work at this place (a place I drove by often and always somehow knew I’d work there someday). I did get the job.
The interesting thing about these stories that I’ve been pondering for some time now is how these stories reflect confirmation bias. All of these experiences (and other similar experiences) included a “feeling” about a turning point that would eventually be resolved factually. Two of these experiences resolved in ways that I “knew” they would. The other resolved incongruently with my prior feelings on the matter.
In short, these spiritual experiences, though the substance of them was factually resolved, were such that they were open to interpretation as to meaning, and the meaning was supplied by me both during the experience and also afterwards, subject of course to revisionist history. In each case, at the time, I was more religious and more spiritual than I am now, so in each case, I interpreted my feelings at the time as promptings from God. But what to do about my feelings about that job that I didn’t get? Like a rock in my mind’s shoe, it triggered my natural defense mechanisms against cognitive dissonance and…presto!…I rationalized away the discrepancy. After all, who has known the mind of God?
But this has always been unsatisfactory to me. What if my defense against cognitive dissonance had cut the wrong way? How is it that a guiding principle of my life should rest on an assumption? If I assume God exists and guides me or if I assume that religious authority is correct, confirmation bias tells me that I’ll find the evidence I need, or interpret what evidence I have in such a manner as, to support my a priori assumption. This…this just isn’t me.
I have always been more like Job: “Surely I would speak to the Almighty, and I desire to reason with God.” (King James version of Job 13:3; other versions translate as “argue my case with God.”) And I would expect God to respond to me as to Isaiah: “Come now, and let us reason together…” (King James version of Isaiah 1:18, other versions translate as “let’s settle this” or “let us discuss this”.) In other words, rather than starting with the assumption of a perfect God and finding supporting evidence or explaining away deviations as due to my human limitations, I’d rather start with something I know: I know that I am experiencing via my physical senses, my reasoning capacity, and my emotions, and maybe it is my conception of God that needs to change to fit what I experience.
Certainly my experiencing is fallible, but why would I choose to question that which I know notwithstanding its limitations, as opposed to that which I do not and cannot know, but which I assume to be limitless? In either case, why would I denigrate that which I am, particularly if God made me this way? If God wishes me to understand, wouldn’t he show me in a way I can understand? Imagine God, walking around the busy streets of Manhattan, allowing himself to be totally visible, but only in wavelengths of light other than visible light and ranting (inaudibly to us), “Why the fuck won’t you idiots acknowledge me?” It’s a ridiculous concept. Why is it any less ridiculous to waive away serious questions by reference to the “mysteries of God.”
Mysteries, my ass. Listen God, if something’s that important, you should just tell me. If you can’t, it must not be important. I can’t believe in a god that is as provincial and petty as many religions, or at least religious adherents and authorities, make you out to be.