Please bare with me as I work through my thoughts on Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. I’m a suburban housewife, not a philosopher. The only philosophical discussions I ever have are with people on-line, so I realize Goldstein’s arguments are completely out of my league. But I have a ton of jumbled thoughts after reading the book and I just want to try and sort through them.
Overall, I genuinely enjoyed the book and had a good time reading it. One of the major points is that religious experience has very little to do with religious arguments. I think this is an important point. However, I suppose the implication, given that Cass’s book is called The Varieties of Religious Illusion and that all of the theists are somewhat delusional (or at least extremely manipulative), is that all religious experience is based on delusional emotional experience. Much religious experience is delusional. There’s no getting around that. But is all religious experience delusional?
St. John of the Cross and the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing immediately come to mind. St. John of the Cross had a very specific method for achieving mystical transcendence and it doesn’t look anything like what Goldstein presents in her book. In fact, he functions very much like an early psychologist, cautioning against the standard magical experiences of his time and counseling those who are ready on how to get through the “dark night of the soul”. Transcendence is a transcendence of the ego. It is a sort of unknowing which demands we let go of all definitions and labels of God, the Universe, existence, etc. in order to experience it. It is not a rational experience because reason demands definitions, symbols and labels in order to make sense. The experience is not magical. In fact, St. John of the Cross cautions that people be very careful about proceeding if they experience magical events. He warns that the existence of magical events is more likely a decent into madness than a movement toward transcendence. A fine line divides the two.
Goldstein shows Cass having a euphoric experience toward the end of the book, and equates this to religious euphoric experience. But simple euphoria is nothing like the transcendent experience that many mystics report. What Cass experiences is more akin to the experience of gratefulness – a feeling of overwhelming well-being and love. According to Meister Eckhart and modern day mystics like David Steindl-Rast, gratefulness is a form of prayer. It is a practice that can give us an inkling of the ground of our being. But an inkling of transcendence is not transcendence. It’s just a glimpse of it.
That remains my problem with the so-called “New Atheists” who lump all religious experience together and claim it is delusional. If they have not experienced what St. John of the Cross or the author of The Cloud of Unknowing have experienced, how can they know it is delusional? Just because the experience is nonrational/nonpersonal (an experience from nowhere, nowhen, no center, and no “I”) does not mean it is irrational. It is transrational/transpersonal. Although it looks similar, the transpersonal state is very different from that which is experienced in prepersonal state. The prepersonal state is that which comes before the emergence of a stable, coherent, individuated self . The transpersonal state can only occur after the self is fully individuated. What Goldstein is arguing against is religious experience based on prerational thought, not transrational thought.
As far as I can tell, the closest she comes to touching upon transrational thought is Spinoza’s argument (No. 35). I’ve never read Spinoza so I don’t know if she adequately dismisses his argument or not. All I know about Spinoza is that he is credited with saying that we live, move, and have our being in God/Reality. Whether or not this implies Spinoza’s God is the universe, I cannot say. If this is Spinoza’s God, then I don’t see how it can be considered transcendent since the universe is tangible.
You can’t reasonably argue that transcendence exists because reason relies upon either/or thinking. Either it is true OR it is false. A transcendent God “is” AND “is not”. Either/or thinking cannot comprehend that which “is” and “is not”. All religious people who claim God IS and refuse to acknowledge that God IS NOT are likely stuck in either/or thinking, just as the atheists who claim that God IS NOT. Most people who claim to have had a transpersonal experience, however, have no trouble understanding what is meant by God “is” AND “is not”. Outside of either/or thinking, the question, “Does God exist?”, makes no sense whatsoever. Whichever way you answer it, the answer does not point back to a truth. It merely points back to a demand that things be one way or the other.
I agreed with every single one of the arguments, obviously. There is no way to prove that God exists. I have no problem with that. And I don’t really care if people think God exists or not. I just don’t like people telling me I should believe what it is they believe. I took some notes on a few of the arguments…
Argument #1: The Cosmological Argument. Everything that exists must have a cause. The universe must have a cause. Nothing can be the cause of itself… Goldstein says this argument begs the question, “Who caused God?” She calls this the Fallacy of Using One Mystery to Explain Another. So why not just let the buck stop with the first mystery, which she says is the universe? I don’t necessarily disagree, I just wonder if the universe is truly the first mystery. We perceive the universe as extant. Maybe the buck should stop at the perception of the universe rather than the universe itself. Or maybe that’s just splitting hairs.
Argument #11: The Argument from Miracles. I have no argument with this, but different religious folk define miracles differently. According to A Course in Miracles, for instance, miracles are strictly distinguished from magic and what this argument refers to (according to ACIM) is magic, not miracles. A miracle, according to ACIM, is a shift in perception. There is nothing magical about a shift in perception. Yet a shift in perception is truly miraculous because it allows us to see things completely differently than we saw them previously. Miracles happen “in time”. They do not defy our sense of time, nor do they require transcendence. A revelation, on the other hand, is beyond a miracle because it collapses our sense of time. It is transcendent. But it isn’t magical or irrational.
Argument #22: The Argument from the Consensus of Mystics. Goldstein says that it is not unreasonable to think that mystics are all deluded in the same way because non mystics can be made to have mystical experiences in scientific lab experiments. Euphoria, Nature Oneness, Benign experiences of Oneness like Cass experienced, or experiences of Oneness like those experienced at political rallies are not transcendent experiences even though they are often termed “mystical”. I’m sure such experiences can be mimicked in a lab. But I highly doubt that transcendent mystical experiences have been mimicked in labs simply because an immense expansion of awareness is usually accompanied by such experiences. People don’t just feel euphoric, they are completely changed by the experience. Have lives been completely changed through lab experiences?
Argument #27: The Argument from the Upward Curve of History. This argument relies on the idea that there is an upward moral curve to history. I don’t really have a problem with the argument, just the assumption. Are we more moral? Starvation exists on a scale never before experienced. The wars over the past century have killed more people than could ever before been imagined. We have the potential to kill ourselves several times over thanks to nuclear technology. Ethical treatment of animals is at an all-time low thanks to the massive food industry. We are potentially destroying the environment beyond repair. Slavery still exists in various forms around the world. Maybe its just plain arrogance that makes us believe we are more moral than our ancestors. Things were handled completely differently when the world was divided into tribes. The emergence of civilizations required a new way to deal with moral issues so ethics came into being. But that doesn’t mean civilized folks were more moral than tribal folks – just that the tribal ways did not work within civilized societies.
Anyway, my jumbled thoughts for what they are worth.