Religious Experience and a Month of Skepticism

As part of my twelve-month long “God Project,” I spent the month of December exploring atheism.  I had two main goals: (1) bring my own doubts about God to the surface, give them words, and see where they take me; and (2) identify problems in my current beliefs about God.  For more on my mindset going into this month, check out this post.

I am happy to report that both goals were met.  I’ve learned a lot from the “Atheism for Lent” recordings, Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, and old episodes of the Reasonable Doubts podcast (which I’ll continue to listen to throughout my project).  I turned my vague doubts into questions, and I picked up a few more along the way.

For what it’s worth, I think that popular atheists are more convincing than the conservative Christians who usually debate them.  Contrary to some rumors I’ve heard, atheists are not a bunch of immoral, irrational, depressed people.  Morality, life on Earth, the apparent “fine tuning” of our planet, human reason – all of these have more-or-less satisfying atheistic explanations.

Of the many reasons to not believe in God, these are the four that I find most persuasive:

  1. There appears to be very little (if any) good evidence of God’s frequent intervention in the world, especially in the case of intercessory prayer
  2. Science can explain our world and its origin without adding God into the equation
  3. It is unclear to me how, exactly, a non-physical deity could interfere with physical events, including human brains
  4. Recent history is full of failures of a loving God to intervene, from the Holocaust to the persistence of cancer

(For more detail on these objections, check out this post.)

Kind of like evolving species on planet Earth, my understanding of God must either adapt to its new environment or die.  After all, belief in a God that is completely unknown and un-knowable is virtually indistinguishable from atheism.  As I had hoped, my month of skepticism has cleared plenty of room for me to re-imagine and re-discover who exactly God is and how God interacts with the world.  Some of my beliefs about God will need to change, although I’m not yet sure which ones.  My heart and my mind are open to what will come.

Next up: Religious Experience

My God Project is organized into four consecutive stages: Tradition, Skepticism, Religious Experience, and Contemporary Theology.  When I arrive at the final stage around mid-March, I’ll spend roughly six months learning what a range of influential Christian theologians have said about God in recent decades.  (My reading list is here.)  Maybe they can help me hammer out a plausible notion of God in the fires of skepticism.

In the meantime, I will be taking some time to reflect on religious experience, which I consider to be the source of most theological ideas, including ideas about God.  In addition to continuing my own spiritual practice (a mixture of centering prayer, other forms of prayer, lots of Bible-reading, and church participation), I’ll read a 16th Century mystic’s treatise on the absence of God, an anthropologist’s study of the American Evangelical relationship to God, and a book about how human experience leads to an idea of God that is found across many cultures and religions.

The main reason that I haven’t become an atheist yet is that I have a history with God.  It is difficult (though certainly not impossible) for me to explain my experiences without invoking some sort of transcendent spiritual reality.

But religious experience – both mine and “in general” – can point in skeptical directions, too.  Just as I’m pretty sure that I’ve experienced the presence of God in private prayer and corporate worship, I’ve also felt the frustrating absence of God’s presence in those activities, sometimes for long stretches of time.

With the New Year, I begin reading St. John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul, which reflects on the painful experience of God’s absence.  Although my month of skepticism is technically over, I am not finished exploring the absence of God.

For more on my “God Project,” click here.  If this project seems interesting to you, the best way to follow along is to find “Follow blog via email” at the bottom of this page.  If you enter your email address into that box, you will receive an email update with each blog post (typically one per week).

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