The Subtle Bunkum of Faith

December 23, 2014

In today’s New York TimesDavid Brooks offers his obligatory annual column of holiday woo. In “The Subtle Sensations of Faith” he plumps for faith as a near-universal human experience. He depicts it as the response to genuine “glimmering experiences … of wonder and mystery,” “magical moments of wonder and clearest consciousness, which suggested a dimension of existence beyond the everyday.” Clearly, Brooks accepts without question that these are experiences of something genuine – that is to say, that there factually is “a dimension of existence beyond the everyday.” Sorry, Mr. Brooks, I don’t buy it.
Taking a triumphalist turn, Brooks shares a provocative quote from poet and Yale Divinity School professor Christian Wiman:
When I hear people say they have no religious impulse whatsoever … I always want to respond: Really? You have never felt overwhelmed by, and in some way inadequate to, an experience in your life, have never felt something in yourself staking a claim beyond yourself, some wordless mystery straining through word to reach you? Never?
No, Prof. Wiman, never. I have never had a religious experience. I have never felt oceanic oneness with the cosmos. No wordless mystery has ever struggled to reach me. My experience – consistently, continually – has always been that there is no hint of a realm beyond the physical, that reality truly seems utterly, thumpingly, totally mundane. The absence of any sort of religious experience in my life was one of the factors that helped to propel me from the Catholicism of my childhood to my atheism today.
I realize that other people, religious and nonreligious, have had such experiences. They have had them, in Brooks’s words, “during childbirth, with music, in nature, in love or pain, or during a moment of overwhelming gratitude and exaltation.” I don’t doubt that in most cases, people’s accounts of these experiences are accurate – that is, that they genuinely experienced what they say they did. But that doesn’t mean that such experiences convey knowledge of reality. Just because some people experience a transcendent realm doesn’t mean that a transcendent realm truly exists. Indeed, there are sound reasons to suspect exactly the opposite: that these fleeting “transcendent glimpses” are not glimpses of anything real, but simply bursts of illusion. Far from being moments of “clearest consciousness,” they are more probably moments of delusion, of cognitive anomaly.
Rather than being glimpses of nirvana – that is, proof that nirvana actually is – I suspect that transcendent experiences are actually just (pardon the inelegant expression) glittering brain-farts.
Though I’ve never had a transcendent experience, I know atheists who have – and who remained secure in their naturalism. All it takes to do so is a firm acquaintance with Occam’s Razor.
We know that human sensation, cognition, and memory are imperfect. We know that our experience of being in the world is mediated – continually reconstructed by our brains as they process input from the sensory organs, the limbic system, and so on. And we know that our stream of consciousness can – and often does – go off the rails and deliver counterfactual experiences. We view optical illusions with appreciation and amusement, but without ever suspecting, say, that that vase is really turning into two human faces and back again. So-called numinous experiences can be interpreted the same way – as experiences of, perhaps, immense power and beauty, but never to be understood as experiences of something real. Occam encourages us to reason in that way, because a cosmos in which the world of everyday experience is all there is – and in which people frequently have false experiences of a transcendent realm – is so very much simpler than a cosmos in which everyday reality actually has the sort of supernatural overlay that transcendent experiences might lead us to suspect.
In other words, I don’t think that I am spiritually blind. I feel confident in assuming that spiritual people are seeing things.
And so I say to Mr. Brooks and his Yale colleague Professor Wiman: “I have never felt overwhelmed by, and in some way inadequate to, an experience in my life. I have never felt something in yourself staking a claim beyond myself, some wordless mystery straining through word to reach me. Never.”
And by the way, happy just another day.