Is Spirituality Irrational?
How do we use reason and research to approach spirituality?
Posted Jan 19, 2017
Spirituality and rationality seem completely opposed. But are they really?
To get at this question, let's start with a little thought experiment. Consider the following two questions:
1. If you were given a choice between reading a physical book (or an e-book) or listening to an audiobook, which would you prefer?
2. If you were given a choice between listening to music, or looking at the grooves of a phonograph record through a microscope, which would you prefer?
But I am more interested in the answer to a third question:
3. For which of the first two questions do you have a stronger preference between the two options?
Most people will have a stronger preference in the second case than the first. But why? Both situations are in some sense the same: there is information being fed into your brain, in one case through your ears and in the other through your eyes. So why should people's preference for ears be so much stronger in the case of music than books?
There is something in the essence of music that is lost in the translation between an audio and a visual rendering. The same loss happens for words too, but to a much lesser extent. Subtle shades of emphasis and tone of voice can convey essential information in spoken language. This is one of the reasons that email is so notorious for amplifying misunderstandings. But the loss in much greater in the case of music.
The same is true for other senses. Color is one example. A blind person can abstractly understand what light is, and that color is a byproduct of the wavelength of light, and that light is a form of electromagnetic radiation... yet there is no way for a blind person to experience subjectively the difference between red and blue and green. But just because some people can't see colors doesn't mean that colors aren't real.
The same is true for spiritual experiences.
Now, before I expand that thought, I want to give you my bona fides. I am a committed rationalist, and an atheist (though I don't like to self-identify as an atheist because I'd rather focus on what I *do* believe in rather than what I don't). So I am not trying to convince you that God exists. What I want to say is rather that certain kinds of spiritual experiences *might* be more than mere fantasies made up out of whole cloth. If we ignore this possibility we risk shutting ourselves off from a vital part of the human experience.
I grew up in the deep south (Kentucky and Tennessee) in a secular Jewish family. When I was 12 my parents sent me to a Christian summer camp (there were no other kinds in Kentucky back in those days). After a week of being relentlessly proselytized (read: teased and ostracized), I decided I was tired of being the camp punching bag and so I relented and gave my heart to Jesus. I prayed, confessed my sins, and just like that I was a member of the club.
I experienced a euphoria that I cannot render into words, in exactly the same way that one cannot render into words the subjective experience of listening to music or seeing colors or eating chocolate or having sex. If you have not experienced these things for yourself, no amount of description can fill the gap. Of course, you can come to an *intellectual* understanding that "feeling the presence of the holy spirit" has nothing to do with any holy spirit. You can intellectually grasp that it is an internal mental process resulting from (probably) some kind of neurotransmitter released in response to social and internal mental stimulus. But that won't allow you to understand *what it is like* any more than understanding physics will let you understand what colors look like or what music sounds like.
Happily, there are ways to stimulate the subjective experience that I'm describing other than accepting Jesus as your Lord and Savior. Meditation, for example, can produce similar results. It can be a very powerful experience. It can even become addictive, almost like a drug.
I am not necessarily advocating that you go try to get yourself a hit of religious euphoria (though I wouldn’t discourage you either -- the experience can give you some interesting and useful perspective on life). Instead, I simply want to convince you to entertain the possibility that people might profess to believe in God for reasons other than indoctrination or stupidity. Religious texts and rituals might be attempts to share real subjective experiences that, in the absence of a detailed modern understanding of neuroscience, can appear to originate from mysterious, subtle external sources.
The reason I want to convince you to entertain this notion is that an awful lot of energy gets wasted by arguing against religious beliefs on logical grounds, pointing out contradictions in the Bible and whatnot. Such arguments tend to be ineffective, which can be very frustrating for those who advance them. The antidote for this frustration is to realize that spirituality is not about logic. It's about subjective experiences to which not everyone is privy. Logic is about looking at the grooves. Spirituality is about hearing the music.
The good news is that adopting science and reason doesn’t mean you have to give up on spirituality any more than you have to give up on music. There are myriad paths to spiritual experience, to a sense of awe and wonder at the grand tapestry of creation, to the essential existential mysteries of life and consciousness, to what religious people call “God.” Walking in the woods. Seeing the moons of Jupiter through a telescope. Gathering with friends to listen to music, or to sing, or simply to share the experience of being alive. Meditation. Any of these can be spiritual experiences if you allow them to be. In this sense, God is everywhere.
Things to ponder:
Why are spiritual experiences in general so strongly associated with irrationality? Is it possible that spiritual experiences *causes* people to become irrational?
Do you think comparing spiritual experience to music is an apt analogy? What about comparing it to a psychedelic drug?
What are the benefits and drawbacks of seeking spiritual experiences? On balance, is it a worthwhile thing to do?
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Bio: Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is an author, speaker, consultant, coach, scholar, and social entrepreneur specializing in science-based strategies for effective decision-making, goal achievement, emotional and social intelligence, meaning and purpose, and altruism - for more information or to hire him, see his website, GlebTsipursky.com. He runs a nonprofit that helps people use science-based strategies to make effective decisions and reach their goals, so as to build an altruistic and flourishing world, Intentional Insights. He also serves as a tenure-track professor at Ohio State in the History of Behavioral Science and the Decision Sciences Collaborative, and published over 25 peer-reviewed articles. A best-selling author, he wrote Find Your Purpose Using Science among other books, and regular contributes to prominent venues, such as Time, The Conversation, Salon, The Huffington Post, and elsewhere. He appears regularly on network TV, such as affiliates of ABC and Fox, radio stations such as NPR and Sunny 95, as well as internet-only media such as podcasts and videocasts.