Faith Ep 03 – Belief: The God Emotion
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The question of God’s existence is so controversial because, for many people, this is an extremely emotional topic. The typical believer often claims to have a close, personal relationship with God, which has been cultivated through strong emotional experiences derived from hours of worship and prayer, rather than anything physical, such as seeing or even engaging in direct conversation with God.
But can one’s perceived emotional bond with God really serve as evidence of the divine? Do personal “feelings” about God’s existence have any basis in objective reality? And if there is a God, how can the believers of opposing faiths appear to have relationships with God if only one religion is the true path to salvation?
It appears one of the major reasons the followers of any religion accept the teachings of their own faith is due to an emotional attachment to their beliefs that has been fostered at a very early age by their parents, teachers, religious leaders, and so on. However, those that accept religious teachings later in life most often do so as a reaction purely stemming from emotion or coincidental events, rather than physical, scientifically verifiable evidence.
In fact, many religions prey on emotional attachments to strengthen their follower’s resolved to remain in the faith. Such emotions are often created by supplementing the love one might feel in a human relationship for a relationship with God. For example, some congregations instruct their teenage members to refrain from dating their peers, instead, encouraging them to make a pledge to “date God for a year” — a very questionable tactic used to instill an emotional bond with their LORD, God.
Certain Christians have also been known to equate their love of God with the love for a father figure. However, some Christians add a very disturbing twist by reenacting the murder and torture of their Heavenly Father, which appears to further cement their emotional attachments to God. For instance, take the “Hard as Nails” ministry founded by Justin Fatica. Justin encourages the members of his congregation to strike him with chairs, demonstrating the pain he is willing to endue for his love of Christ, which he claims is nothing in comparison to the pain Christ suffered in redemption for our sins.
In fact, Justin instructs his followers to reenact the crucifixion of their beloved Christ, so they can glimpse the sheer terror and suffering Jesus had to endure in order to save their immortal souls. Can you imagine the kind of emotional turmoil these people must be putting themselves through by actively participating in the humiliation, torture and execution of a figure they believe to be their own FATHER?
But this practice is not as isolated as some might think. In Christian summer camps all throughout the United States, Jesus’ crucifixion is reenacted year after year, as Children look upon the sight of their Heavenly Father bloodied, beaten, and nailed to a cross.
On a personal note, one summer, as a young child, I attended a Bible camp where I witnessed a crucifixion reenactment for myself. I remember how troubling it was to see someone I dearly loved and cared for murdered in front of my very eyes, even if it was only a reenactment.
Although the religious claim to feel God’s presence when they meditate or to have developed an emotional bond with God by seeking him through scripture and prayer, are personal feelings and emotions suitable evidence to validate the beliefs of a particular religion? Before we can explore this question, we must clarify the usage of certain words.
In the English language, as in many other languages, words can have several different meanings. For instance, the word “belief” can be used in two distinct ways. Take the statements, “I believe slavery is wrong” and “I believe there is only one God.”
In the first instance of the word, belief applies to the acceptance of a firmly held conviction. If one is against slavery it is your “firmly held conviction” that enslaving other human beings is against your moral values. This statement is in reference to our understanding of the destructive nature of a known practice, and we are not making a positive claim that could not withstand objective verification — that is, anyone can examine the practice of slavery and make the same determination according to an agreed upon standard of justice and equality.
However, in the second use of the word we are referring to a claim that requires an article of faith in order to trust such a concept exists, despite what little to no evidence there is in support of said claim. Therefore, when the followers of religion make statements about God they ARE making positive claims about a subject that cannot be objectively verified according to a standard of evidence. There is no debate over the existence of slavery and that such a practice is immoral; however, there is a considerable difference of opinion on how many gods exist or if any gods exist at all.
Keeping in mind the different usage of the word “belief”, if I were to ask, “How strong is your belief in the existence of gravity?” You would likely consider my question to be foolish, for gravity is a physical force, it is neither a firmly held conviction nor a concept that requires an article of faith. Therefore, why should you merely believe in gravity if it can be shown for a fact that such a property actually exists. No matter who you are or where you are from, you accept scientific principles like the Theories of Relativity and Electromagnetism without hesitation, because their existence can be irrefutably demonstrated — that is, there is no need to “believe” in order for it to be true. Gravity’s existence is observable and quantifiable regardless of one’s belief or lack there of.
However, if I were to ask “How strong is your belief in the existence of miracles?” The response would greatly differ from person to person, even among those in the same religion, for by definition a miracle requires the suspension of natural laws through divine intervention. Therefore, it cannot be reliably demonstrated under experimental conditions that miracles exist, and hence, belief in such supernatural events requires an article of faith.
However, some believe God’s presence is not the same as a physical force, such as gravity, that can be tested through an experiment, but rather, God is to be perceived more abstractly, akin to concepts like beauty or love. So how can we determine whether abstract concepts truly exist? Well, if you’ve ever experienced beauty for yourself, then you have unequivocal, first-hand knowledge that beauty does indeed exist. Although the concept of beauty does exist, it is a subjective value we place on certain objects, and we often find beauty in things that are perfectly symmetrical. Research has shown that people with symmetrical faces tend to be the most attractive. In contrast, people with non-symmetrical faces, like a droopy eyelid or some other cosmetic anomaly, are not considered to be as beautiful by comparison.
However, even objects that do not fall under the traditional view of beauty can still be labeled as “beautiful”. This Jackson Pollock painting sold for 140 million dollars. Obviously, someone finds great value in this abstract piece of art — as the old adage goes, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. Although the concept of beauty does indeed exist, what we perceive as beauty is purely a subjective opinion.
Love is another abstract concept, although it can be tested and quantified. Even someone that has never experienced love could know that love exists by designing an experiment. You could observe the reunion of a mother with her long-lost child. Or, you could hook someone up to an EEG and examine the electrical activity of their brain while they experience the sensation of love in a controlled setting. You could even induce this feeling with drugs, like MDMA (or ecstasy), which was originally used by psychotherapists in couples counseling before it was made illegal. The point is that although “love” itself is purely conceptual, meaning it cannot be physically touched, heard, tasted, smelt, or even seen, it is still able to be observed and tested.
Now, let’s say every living being in the entire Universe were to die. Do abstract concepts like beauty and love still exist? Is love something that can exist without the mind? If no one is there to experience love, then how can love exist? Love is simply the label we have given the interaction between certain neurotransmitters and chemical receptors within our brain. Therefore, even though the concept of love is an intangible, subjective emotion, someone that has never experienced love, who cannot say from personal experience that love exists, can still perform an experiment to test love’s existence.
Can we say the same thing about the existence of God and someone who proposes to have never experienced a relationship with such a being? A spiritual person might claim he feels God’s love all around him, but how can we truly know if it is God or the projection of love this person is feeling for a god he simply wishes to exist? Theists don’t believe God is a subjective emotion, do they? Therefore, even though God is claimed to be a non-physical being, his existence should be just as verifiable as everything else that is known to exist.
But if God’s existence cannot be verified, then what value can be derived from placing belief in a deity? For a moment, consider your belief in the existence of alien life. What benefit would there be in “believing” aliens exist without having evidence to support this belief? Of course, it would be amazing if extraterrestrial beings came to Earth and taught us about the nature of the Universe, gave us advanced technology, and so on, but should we have FAITH that they will? Right now there could be invisible spaceships monitoring everyone’s actions all across the globe, but without tangible evidence that can be investigated and learned from, what would be the point in merely believing in something that is impossible to verify?
Questions like, “Is there an afterlife?” or “What is the purpose of human existence?” hold absolutely no meaning, because any attempt to answer them is purely speculative and only holds subjective value for a particular individual. The answers we provide to questions about God are just like the price tag of the Jackson Pollok painting, because no matter what beliefs an individual might hold there are millions and even billions of other people that maintain alternate, subjective opinions. So even though it might make someone extremely happy to “believe” aliens will someday visit earth and give us advanced technology or that after we die we will ascend to heaven to spend a blissful eternity with our loved ones, such beliefs can serve no practical purpose because the verification of truth cannot be obtained through the personal feelings we place on these concepts.
The only way for a concept to move out of the realm of opinion and into our lexicon of facts is by having objectively verifiable evidence that anyone can examine and say with a degree of certainty that a particular concept has a basis in reality. For example, were human beings able to escape the Earth’s gravity and walk on the surface of the moon by simply believing that they could or wishing for it to be so? Of course not, it took decades for the most brilliant scientists and engineers to workout the mathematics, designs, and the means of putting human life on the surface of a hostile celestial body and returning them safely home. Until all the data was collected and the equations were solved it was anyone’s subjective opinion whether man could ever walk on the surface of the moon. However, this achievement would have never been possible if it were not for the scientific method that allows us to collect information from our surroundings, interpret the results, and implement our findings with a degree of certainty. The fruits of our labor is how we know science actually works and that the concepts we discover truly have a basis in reality.
Now, contrast all the discoveries human beings have made through the scientific method, against the concepts proposed by religious doctrines. Monotheistic religions claim there is only one god. But, HOW do they know? Why couldn’t there be two gods, five gods, hundreds of gods, or even zero gods? From what source are they receiving this cosmic information and by what standard are they evaluating it’s validity?
Every imaginable tribe, culture, or civilization at one time engaged in a form of belief attributed to the divine. Native Americans revered nature, achieving strength and wisdom through their relationships with animal spirits. The Aztecs performed human sacrifices, up to 100 virgins at a time, in the effort to achieve balance with the spiritual forces that were believed to controlled their fortune. The ancient Greeks imagined a complex mythology consisting of hundreds of Gods who were believed to influence the events and destinies of humans on Earth. For thousands of years, generations of Hindu and Buddhist monks have been engaging in rigorous meditation in the effort to achieve control over their minds, reach enlightenment, and escape the cycle of life and death.
Some additional cultures historically known to have engaged in religious practices include the ancient Sumerians, Egyptians and Babylonians, Norsemen of Scandinavia, Maya of Central and South America, Taoists of China, Shintoists of Japan, Zoroastrians of Iran, Inuit of the Arctic, Aborigines of Australia, countless tribes throughout the African continent, and the list goes on and on.
It appears despite believing in a vast array of different gods and spirits, the followers of all religions, throughout the entirety of human history, were able to achieve the same kind of spiritual rewards and a sense of connectedness to their deity or deities of choice. But the fact one may achieve spirituality through a particular religion, does not necessarily mean the corresponding belief system is any more valid than another.
Say you were to measure the spiritual achievements of two people belonging to different religions. On what basis could you claim a Christian doing the bare minimum his religion requires has a greater form of spirituality than the most accomplished Buddhist monk, who is able to meditate for days without eating, drinking, or sleeping? This is such an important issue because each religion engages in different practices that if followed incorrectly could lead to very serious consequences. For instance, according to Christian doctrine it does not matter how spiritually enlightened a Buddhist might be, he will go to hell if he does not turn his life over to Jesus Christ.
So how do we explain the fact that spirituality can be achieved by anyone, belonging to any religion, so long as one takes the initiative to seek out God? Well, since the act of finding God is similar in every religion, spirituality can be achieved by all who seek it. This appears to be consistent with the way other human concepts work as well — much akin to a self-fulfilling prophecy.
For example, if you tell yourself you are not good enough or that you cannot succeed, then you will most likely fail to achieve your goals; and if you surround yourself with negativity and hatred of others, you will in turn reciprocate hate. In contrast, if you focus on the good by maintaining a positive outlook, you will tend to live a happier, less stressful life; and if you open your heart and provide others love you will in turn reciprocate love. But unlike human beings, we are told that God IS love, and through God we can achieve a relationship unparalleled with that of another person.
But what if God was LITERALLY just love — that is, the personification of a human emotion. This is not a new concept, in fact, the ancient Greeks personified their gods in anything imaginable, ranging from bodily functions, like Hypnos the God of Sleep, to alcoholic beverages, like Dionysus the God of Wine, and even human emotions, such as Aphrodite the goddess of love.
By opening our hearts and minds to the possibility of God’s existence, the ground work is lain for a spiritual relationship to take root. This is why many Jews, Christians, and Muslims claim God remains hidden from those who do not actively seek him. We must have faith and strive to obtain a meaningful relationship with God before we can ever hope to understand the Bible, which contains passages that are often contradictory and confusing.
Therefore, by offering love to what is perceived as an all-loving God, the happiness and tranquility the believer longs to achieve is inevitably reciprocated by and personified in what I call the “God Emotion”. For this reason it is possible to achieve the kind of spiritual relationship one desires, regardless of what religion is put into practice.
If God is simply the personification of our emotions, how can one feel they are in a relationship with someone that presumably does not exist? Well, keep in mind that if you adhere to a particular religion that claims to follow the one true God, then by default all other religions are engaged in spiritual relationships with false gods. For the sake of argument let’s say a god does exist; however, it is a god belonging to another religion that you do not believe in. Although you are unknowingly worshiping a false god, your perceived relationship does not seem any less real, otherwise, you would have never started believing in your god in the first place.
But let’s flip the scenario and say you do believe in the correct deity. Now, it is the rest of the world that maintains a relationship with false gods, which seem just as real as your relationship with the true god. If this was not the case, and the people worshiping false gods believed their spiritual relationships were not genuine, then why would any of them continue to believe? The point of this thought experiment is to demonstrate that IF a god actually exists, it does not change the fact that people belonging to the wrong religions can still have meaningful and loving relationships with false gods.
Indeed, it is a historical fact that human beings have regularly engaged in personal relationships with gods that do not exist. One thousand years ago, in what today is Cambodia, there lived the Khmer people, responsible for building the great temple complexes of and around Angkor Wat. Their expansive city was filled with thousands of statues depicting the various Hindu deities, who were enshrouded in fine robes, provided offerings of food, and worshiped on 24 hour cycles. The Khmer’s lives were utterly consumed with service to a collection of statues that were treated as living beings, and the ruins of their once great civilization is a testament to their devout faith in the relationship they had with the gods.
An almost inconceivable array of supernatural beings have been imagined throughout the millennia, into which were poured the hopes, dreams, and desires of their worshipers. Overtime, as cultures died out or their inhabitance became conquered and absorbed into other kingdoms, gods once believed to control the fate of mankind were stripped of their powers, today, all but forgotten.
If the criteria for the existence of God is the perception that one is engaged in a relationship with said being, then the ancient Greeks were no more justified in claiming Zeus is “King of the gods”, than the Maya were in claiming Quetzalcoatl is “ruler of the gods”, or Christians in claiming Jesus is the “son of God”, or Muslims and Mormons in claiming Mohammed and Joseph Smith are the respective prophets of God. It seems as if we are the butt of a great cosmic joke, for every religion appears true on the basis that you can achieve spirituality through its practice, but every religion also appears false on the basis that their tenets contradict one another as well as fails to be accurately reflected in the natural world.
Not a single piece of evidence can be obtained from our reality that reveals the secret information religions claim to possess. When pressed to give an account of how they know with certainty there is only one true God, monotheists reluctantly admit their beliefs are based on “belief” — without any objectively verifiable evidence — and thus, they are engaging in the highest form of intellectual dishonesty. If the concept of God is base solely on faith and not evidence, then what makes the mere opinion of one person, or one denomination, or even an entire religion, any more valid than another? Exactly where do religious believers get off telling everyone else how to live and what to believe when they know all too well there is absolutely no foundation upon which to support their OWN beliefs.
We must always strive to be honest with ourselves and refrain from claiming to have knowledge beyond what can actually be known. One should never be complacent with accepting something on faith, and a certain degree of skepticism is a healthy trait one should apply when presented with ANY claim, whether buying a used car, accepting a scientific principle, or choosing to follow the tenets of a religion.
The only way followers of monotheism have come to understand the concept of a “one true God” is through their holy books, which are some of the most reinterpreted, subjective pieces of literature ever produced by humankind. For if this was not the case, then why are there so many denominations within a single religion, and why do such schisms often result in violence and persecution of opposing belief systems?
Can a subjective piece of literature open to interpretation truly serve as the gold standard by which we should judge the nature of reality? But even if we were to accept the idea that a man-made book could serve as reliable evidence of supernatural phenomena, then all religions with a holy text are equally valid, including the polytheistic traditions.
In the next episode we will explore additional conflicts and contradictions that arise with the idea that words themselves can be used as evidence of the divine. And ultimately, when the words contained in scripture are put to the test, they fail to meet the objective standard by which true evidence is defined.