Saturday, May 17, 2008

Religion, hardship, and belief

In Screw Bronze!, Elizabeth eloquently discusses the way that her old church friends have deserted her, offering weak promises of prayer instead of comradery. In the comments, Gaina inquires how Elizabeth can remain "a christian after everything you're experiencing"?

As an atheist, I wish to respond to that: Why shouldn't she?

I was once a Christian, but am not any more. I didn't drop Christianity because bad things happened to me. Bad things happen. I think monotheism creates an unnecessary problem of evil, but that's an intellectual standpoint, not an emotive one. Of all the former Christians I know, and I know plenty, not one of them stopped being a Christian because of bad things happening to them.

People who remain religious either don't feel the same degree of intellectual dissonance with their religion or find enough comfort in its myths, rituals, and world view that their dissonance is minimal in comparison. And that's pretty much all there is to it. And if believers and nonbelievers alike are willing to look past the vocabulary differences they have and get right down to meaning, generally they find they have more in common then they have as differences.


Gaina said...

Thanks for the link, I appreciate you taking time to contribute to that.

I am very much about fact and logic, which is why any kind of faith is so hard for me to get my head around.

yanub said...

Glad to be able to say something useful. I tend toward the plain facts myself, but having been on both sides, I sometimes think I have an easier time with the language and intent from either side.

Stephanie said...

I've always found it kind of odd that some people assume that part of God's job is to never let any really bad things happen to people. Then if bad things do happen, it is taken proof that God doesn't exist after all.

In my experience, the value of God isn't to keep bad things from happening, but in giving a person inner strength to carry on despite the bad things.

Relating to this idea in a science way, I have become fascinated by recent research showing that the temporal lobes of the brain seem to be connected to this feeling. Temporal lobe epileptics often experience spiritual ecstasy when they have seizures and experiments where electro-magnetic frequencies applied to the temporal lobes invokes a feeling in some people that they are not alone.

Even if there isn't actually any God out there that is being sensed, for the brain to able to produce that feeling seems to me to be a valuable survival trait.

Google for research in the field of neurotheology for more.

yanub said...

Stephanie, you sound like a rather liberal religious person. You simply use religious terms where I would use nonreligious terms to describe the same phenomenom.

As to the feeling of never being alone, having been severely depressed with some psychotic symptoms, I can say from personal experience that I don't find it an invariably valuable survival trait. Happily religious people forget that it isn't always a loving supportive sensation that comes from temporal lobe activity. I dare say Andrea Yates would have preferred to have felt alone. And one can have a pleasant feeling of never being alone without ascribing that feeling to the existence of a supernatural entity.

Stephanie said...

Hi yanub. First of all, I categorically reject the label of being "religious". I have no religion. As I commented over at Beth's blog, I have no "belief" in God, or any theology at all. All I have is my own subjective experiences of being connected to something that is beyond me. If it turns out that this is nothing more than a purely psychological phenomenon, then I am OK with that.

I only use religious terms since this discussion started out as a question of religion, and those terms tend to be the lingua franca in our society when discussing spiritual feelings. In my own internal dialogues I never use religious terms, but the terms I do use would take explanations to convey the concepts to the average person, so as a shortcut, I tend to rephrase them into the popular jargon, even if it doesn't completely translate the ideas I am trying to convey.

You are right about about the feelings not always being experienced in a positive way. One of the researchers in this field, from Laurentian University, described a case of a woman who was referred to him because whenever she woke up in the morning she had a strong feeling that there were ghosts in the room. He scanned her home for strong sources of electro-magnetic radiation but the only possible thing he found that may be affecting her was the clock radio beside her bed. He tried removing it from her room and her feelings of being haunted went away completely.

The feelings we have are there, but how they affect us depends on how we interpret them. One man I saw interviewed is an atheist. During his temporal lobe seizures he has had extremely real feeling encounters with devils and demons, yet when he is back in a rational state, he is still an atheist.

I have had drug resistant depression for 35 years and, like you, it has frequently brought on psychotic symptoms. I may be fortunate in that in my childhood when I rejected the christian theology of a vengeful, genocidal, tantrum-throwing god as being incompatible with my inner experiences, I also implicitly rejected christian demonology and any idea that there are external supernatural forces that are trying to do me harm.

I probably also benefit from an overactive prefrontal cortex that helps to stop me from acting compulsively on the feelings I have at any given moment.

This may be moving off at a bit of a tangent, but there was an interesting article in the New York Times Magazine a couple of months ago about auditory hallucinations ("hearing voices"), which is usually diagnosed as schizophrenia. There are many "sane" people who experience auditory hallucinations but are not troubled by them and thus don't seek psychiatric help. New treatment strategies being tried, particular in England, rely less on trying to make the voices go away with drugs (which for the majority may dampen the voices but never make them go away completely) but instead helping people understand that what the voices are saying may be a reflection of their inner feelings about themselves and by being able to acknowledge and face those feelings, they may be able to relieve the distress that the auditory hallucinations are causing them.

Sorry, I didn't mean to turn this post into a dissertation, but when somebody calls me "religious", those are fighting words to me. ;-)

yanub said...

No sweat, Stephanie. When we write, we often don't manage to clearly represent who we are or exactly what we mean. Who hasn't written a long post only to discover later that you managed, by word choice or forgetting a word, to come off exactly opposite of how you meant it?

I have read of the English strategies. I think they are wise. It demystifies what can be a very frightening experience and gives power back to the person hearing the voices. Interesting about the woman whose feeling of being haunted was relieved by removing the clock next to her bed. I wonder how many people may be very sensitive to electromagnetic frequencies.