OK, this post is going to get a bit crazy (literally) so just try and follow me down the Rabbit Hole, please.
First, let me make a few things clear: I am not one of these New Age people. Crystals fascinate us because of their parallel arrangement of atoms, allowing for photons to pass unimpeded through their solid structures, which makes them translucent but also, to a mind lacking in scientific knowledge, appear to be magic. Aside from this remarkable property, crystals hold no supernatural power. I also don’t believe in ghosts, psychic phenomena, or any of the claims made by religions. When my skeptical, well-educated, and philosophically-minded coworker excitedly told me about “UFOs existing,” after recent claims made by the Pentagon, I rolled my eyes with incredulity. Why are all these reports so vague? And why do the UFOs in all of these videos look like black dots? Does no pilot have a zoom lens on their cameras? I am not saying with certainty that beings from other worlds don’t check us out from time to time, I just remain skeptical as to what these citings actually show. When it comes to dubious claims, I tend to err on the side of rationality.
But I wasn’t always like this. I grew up in a religious household, and attended a strict Baptist School, where the word of God was hammered into my head on a daily basis. Even our science textbook was called “God’s World.” But even as a 3rd grader, I started to question what we were being taught. Why did the Chinese, who never heard of Jesus, deserve Hell? My teachers could only answer with, “missionaries,” but that didn’t satisfy my doubts. Nobody in our school would be convinced by a Buddhist, Hindu, or Hare Krishna missionary, so why should people in other countries be convinced because some pasty-faced American shows up at their place of worship thumping a Bible? My belief in God really took a plunge when I got into dinosaurs. Our Christian library included an apologetic for children, claiming that before the Fall of Man and the eating of the “apple,” T-Rexes roamed alongside Adam and Eve, and that their serrated, steak-knife teeth were actually intended for nuts, while the triceratops’ horned skull was not meant for defensive purposes, but to lift bushes for food. All these explanations sounded preposterous to me, and it led me to real science and the theory of evolution. By the time I was in college, evolution solved every riddle my religious upbringing never could. Jesus taught that carnal thoughts are equivalent to adultery, but why would God make us so that, upon hitting puberty, we become obsessed with sex? Boobs and butts never tempted me as a child, but after turning thirteen, the Devil had an inescapable grasp on me. Why? I also couldn’t see how lust could be equated to stealing and murder. Evolution, by contrast, made sense of sex, and the world as a whole. Still, another decade would pass before I could truly rid myself of irrational thinking. I started down the familiar road, taken by most people coming out of religion, where the Bible becomes a metaphor, to conceiving of God as a spiritual energy source to, finally, viewing God as no more than a comforting idea. I made my last prayer in 2004, when my wife went to the hospital to give birth to our first daughter. Her diabetes and inability to eat for three months made her pregnancy a nightmare of complications, and that scared me enough to ask God to intervene, to deliver my child and wife to safety, knowing full-well that the world was full of tragedies, remembering how a stranger had kidnapped an elementary school girl from her bus stop, raping and chopping her to pieces before leaving her body to be found in the woods near where I live. If God hadn’t intervened to stop that from happening, why would he care about me and my family? Clearly, God was either apathetic to human suffering, or simply did not exist.
But here’s the thing. Praying made *me* feel better. It gave me hope, admittedly an irrational hope, that everything would turn out OK, and it did.
I’ve lately become preoccupied with Matt Dillahunty’s call-in show, The Atheist Experience. Listening to Matt debating theists can be an intensely entertaining pastime, especially between drives to and from work. He frequently hangs-up on callers, or just tells them to “shut the fuck up.” Considering how rude he can be, it amazes me that after sixteen years, people still call in to his show. No doubt, he’d be yelling at me to “shut the fuck up” if I were to ever call, despite agreeing with him 98% of the time.
But Mr. Dillahunty is no dummy. He has an excellent grasp on epistemology, and as an atheist, he takes the position that he has, ” no sufficient evidence to believe in a god.” This is an important distinction, one that is often mischaracterized by his detractors. Even I, at some point, have fallen into the trap of suggesting that “atheists have no evidence for atheism.” Still, I cannot shake the feeling that something is missing in this strictly rational view of the world, something, it seems, Matt fails to recognize. The people calling in to his show are passionate believers, and will go to absurd lengths to justify their beliefs, and having grown up in a religious home himself, he appears sympathetic to their rationale. Matt counters that their beliefs are based on indoctrination, from what they were taught as children, or that they fear death or losing the protection of an all-knowing, all-loving Sky Wizard. But I find this view lacking, in that it doesn’t explain his callers’ innate desire to accept all sorts of unjustifiable things, whether that be ghosts, alien abductions, Q-Anon, Flat Earth, or the Hebrew god of scripture. The vast majority of human beings believe what they want to believe.
In his book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, Sam Harris points out that billions of people claim to have had a spiritual experience, and that this has an important and profound impact on their lives. To ignore every supernatural claim as the nonsensical ramblings of an irrational mind is reductive. Clearly, something significant is going on here. All around the world, and throughout history, people have found meaning and purpose outside of reason. So, while the Matt Dillahunty’s of the world continually make the case that they are not convinced of a god, I am equally unconvinced that a belief in a god, however false, serves no justifiable purpose. I think there is a rational case to be made for the irrational. When three out of every ten people in Europe died from the Black Death, the religiosity of the populace went up, not down. Likewise, the Israelites, who have known persecution more than any other group in history, define their cultural identity by their religious beliefs and traditions. Clearly, humanity turns to a belief in god in times of emotional distress, without questioning his absence when great calamities occur. It’s easy for atheists of today, living in the comfort of the modern world, to be dumbfounded by the persistence of irrational belief. But I would not be surprised if Matt Dillahunty were to reconsider his views, should he find himself in a post-apocalyptic hell-scape.
Harris defines spirituality as the realization that the self is an illusion. This realization, he posits, can be attained through meditation or hallucinogenic drugs. But his beliefs, I feel, are largely shaped by his time spent in the Far East, learning from yogis and mystics, and while he rejects all supernatural aspects of Buddhism, he nonetheless subscribes to many of its core tenets. It forces me to wonder whether he might have come to similar conclusions regarding the efficacy of prayer, if he were to have spent time in the monasteries of Greece, where I have had similar spiritual experiences.
For the past ten years, I have been battling anxiety and depression. It isn’t something I like to talk about, because when I do, the trolls come down on me like vultures. Whenever I write a “woe is me” post, they smell weakness, and I am subjected to suggestions that I kill myself. One guy went to the trouble of screen-shotting my Amazon page, to show me how badly my books are selling. Take that, person with hopes and dreams! And, from a strictly rational standpoint, I shouldn’t even be attempting to become a famous writer. The statistical chances are so much against me, I might as well be basing my retirement on winning the lottery. At six years old, when I started my literary career path, every adult I knew told me I was being stupid, especially my parents, but I never listened to them. I was driven by the irrational belief that I was destined for greatness, not only that I could succeed, but that it was a predetermined fact. The best decision I ever made in my life, incidentally, was entirely based on irrational thinking. When I met my wife, she was staying in the U.S. on a study visa from Morocco, and she had no plans to remain here. We faced opposition from my family, who wanted me to marry a Greek girl, and we dealt with religious pressure, since I was baptized in the Orthodox church and she was Muslim. But at the time, I was stubbornly convinced that we were meant for each other, that destiny had meant for us to meet and to marry, and that nothing could separate us. I was a crazy romantic, and that thinking led me to where I am today, happily-married for twenty-years. I am not sure whether 40+ year old Nick would have taken the same risks as 20+ something Nick.
Now, please don’t get me wrong. I am not claiming that “faith in love” or “faith in success” in any way equates to “faith in god.” The word “faith” has different meanings, and the one has nothing to do with the other. What I am saying is this: sometimes, an irrational thought process can lead to positive results, and this process is an important part of how our brains work. In Waking Up, Harris documents how hallucogenic drugs can have a profoundly positive effect on people suffering from mental disorders, particularly when it comes to people nearing death. Terminal cancer patients given LSD find peace at the end of their lives. The effect of these drugs mirrors those of religion, because they both tap in to the same regions of the brain where irrational thinking derives. More and more, I am convinced that humanity’s yearning for the transcendent, or supernatural, is a critical function of how we think, a defense mechanism helping us to overcome our worst fears, our anxiety and depression.
No doubt, this is a dangerous slippery slope. More often than not, irrational thinking leads to terrible consequences. We don’t want Flat Earthers, Q-Anoners, or people avoiding the Covid vaccine out of a fear of being microchipped. Then again, for someone like me, who has spent the last decade trying to live a life of absolute rationality, something is missing.
Last night, as I was finishing up work, I was hit with the usual bout of anxiety and depression (they come in pairs). To distract myself from the negative thoughts that ensue, I decided to check out an article on my phone, “Glitches in the Matrix,” (I highly recommend checking these out) personal accounts of some very eerie, unexplainable things. Now, I find these sorts of tales laughable at best. As a writer, I know how the “sausage is made” so to speak, and I know how words can be used to invoke fear and other emotions in readers. Occam’s Razor would suggest these accounts are either entirely fabricated, or the people reporting them suffered from some mental delusion. That being said, given how Elon Musk and Neil deGrasse Tyson, among other scientists, have entertained the idea that the universe is, in fact, a simulation, I decided to open myself to the possibility that maybe . . . just maybe . . . these stories are true, and in that moment of suspension of the rational, I felt myself lifted, and my anxiety and depression disappear.