Thursday, December 07, 2006

OK, so back to the topic at hand. A couple of months ago I downloaded a recording of Julia Sweeney on a radio program called This American Life. She was talking about her experiences with her own and her brother's cancer. I really enjoyed it, and made a fool out of myself cracking up while driving around alone in my car. So I decided I would download more of her stuff. So I found interviews with her on both Fresh Air and To The Best of Our Knowledge (all three of those are great public radio programs, check them out sometime). She was talking about her new one-woman show called "Letting Go of God" in which she describes her experience in first of all coming back to the Catholic church as an adult after something of an epiphany, and secondly her subsequent decision to leave the church because she just couldn't buy it. She now considers herself an atheist. She is, as always, very entertaining and very interesting and she brings up a lot of excellent points to think about. Both interviews are very good.

Recently I've been having yet another of my ongoing periods of questioning everything. I've had a few moments where I've stood at the brink of atheism and looked over the edge and thought about taking the plunge. I think there are people out there who are raised in a religious environment, as I was, who take this plunge easily-- they decide they can't do religion the way they were raised, walk out the door and never look back. But for me, it would be huge. It would be an entirely new way of looking at the world. Even though I left the religion of my youth some twenty years ago, I've never ceased to believe that there is something beyond our conscious selves that we can connect with. I'm not sure what it is (God, Nothing, collective subconscious, who knows). To believe that there is absolutely nothing beyond that which can be perceived with our five senses, would be an extremely different way of looking at things.

But on the other hand, I'm also fascinated by some of the implications. When she initially returned to the church, she did so because she had had a spiritual experience. In a really low moment in the middle of the night following a divorce and illness, she had a profound experience of the presence of what she thought was God-- a sense of light and warmth and connection with all of everything, and a definite sense that there was something/someone there that she had connected with. So she went back to the church she had been raised in (Catholic), and it was her experience of closely investigating Catholicism that led her to leave the church and seek explanations elsewhere. Where she eventually found answers that made sense to her was in science, which led her to become an atheist. So of course Terry Gross asked her, so now that you're an atheist, what do you make of that experience, that spiritual epiphany? And her response was that she now thinks of it as the random firing of neurons in the right front parietal lobe of her brain (or something like that, I may not have gotten the terms right).

Now I've heard this argument before and I don't get it. How does the fact that we now know which neurons fire during moments of profound spiritual experience prove that we're not having the spiritual experience??? That makes no sense. The fact that we know which neurons fire when we smell garlic doesn't mean the garlic isn't there. I'm not arguing with her decision to become an atheist, I'm arguing with her explanation of what happened when she had that moment. Every time I listen to an atheist talk about their beliefs, I get the same impression. They want to believe they're being totally rational and logical, but they have no explanation for spiritual experiences beyond the obvious: neurons firing. And I've had a number of what I consider to be spiritual experiences. So for me to ignore those and say, "Oh, it was just neurons firing," would be as irrational as it would be for someone who has never had a spiritual experience to take a leap of faith just because someone else says so. This isn't saying what I want to say, I may have to try it again later.

The interview from "To The Best of Our Knowledge" also had a couple of interviews with other people in the same program. And with both of the atheists interviewed, the inconsistency seemed the same. The part of their argument which is very valid isn't with spirituality, it's with religion, and with people who use religion as an excuse to not think. And I think that this is an excellent point and one which all of us who are believers should take very seriously. But it doesn't prove that spirituality doesn't exist. It doesn't even prove that God doesn't exist (which one of them acknowledges). I think there must be some middle ground somewhere, where you don't allow your faith to let you take shortcuts into muzzy-headed reasoning, but you also allow for the fact that there is an element of human experience that is spiritual. So that we work on figuring out what that means instead of just saying, "oh, it's random neurons firing."

So in short (ha! I gues this hasn't been short). OK, so in summary. These interviews are fascinating, I highly recommend listening to them. They made me think a lot. But in the end, they weren't particularly convincing to me in deciding the questions that I'm dealing with right now. I may still end up deciding that there is nothing out there. But neither of these atheists convinced me that their way of thinking is that much more reasonable than the way believers think.

I'm starting to think in circles here so I will stop. I'm sure there will be more on this topic because I've barely scratched the surface.

Oh, joy, you're thinking.

the goose is getting fat....

Aunt BeaN

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