A Rational Defense of Spiritual Experiences

December 5, 2006

Spiritual experiences in people are both common and natural: standing in awe before a sunrise or listening in ecstasy to your favorite music are both experiences that greatly improve the value you place upon your life. As William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience makes abundantly clear, spiritual experiences are psychological realities.

Perhaps the most basic spiritual experience is the feeling of God, a feeling that the universe was created and exists for some purpose, though no one can with certainty say what that purpose is. Faced with the question “Why does the universe exist?” no one can claim certainty to an answer; our religious texts make various hypotheses—mostly metaphorical ones—as to why the cosmos (and our place in it) is the way it is. But no text makes any claim that can be tested. No text deals with the fact that all life on Earth evolved from a common ancestor; an ancestor birthed in the dawn of our Earth’s creation.

There may be an evolutionary advantage to having experiences that transcend our verbal and rational ability to describe. Perhaps such experiences may improve quality of life and for that reason they are selected for both genetically and memetically. But it may also be true that such experiences are merely a by-product of a vastly complex—and still poorly understood—neural system: In the realm of mental phenomena, spiritual experiences may live in the neural neighborhood of delusion and dementia.

An evolutionary advantage to believing in God has yet to be demonstrated.

But I also don’t need a Hypothetical Creator to stand in awe of creation.

Do those two statements require reconciliation?