Is Spirituality Irrational?

[Origi­nally pub­lished at In­ten­tional In­sights in re­sponse to Reli­gious and Ra­tional]

Spiritu­al­ity and ra­tio­nal­ity seem com­pletely op­posed. But are they re­ally?

To get at this ques­tion, let’s start with a lit­tle thought ex­per­i­ment. Con­sider the fol­low­ing two ques­tions:

1. If you were given a choice be­tween read­ing a phys­i­cal book (or an e-book) or listen­ing to an au­dio­book, which would you pre­fer?

2. If you were given a choice be­tween listen­ing to mu­sic, or look­ing at the grooves of a phono­graph record through a micro­scope, which would you pre­fer?

But I am more in­ter­ested in the an­swer to a third ques­tion:

3. For which of the first two ques­tions do you have a stronger prefer­ence be­tween the two op­tions?

Most peo­ple will have a stronger prefer­ence in the sec­ond case than the first. But why? Both situ­a­tions are in some sense the same: there is in­for­ma­tion be­ing fed into your brain, in one case through your ears and in the other through your eyes. So why should peo­ple’s prefer­ence for ears be so much stronger in the case of mu­sic than books?

There is some­thing in the essence of mu­sic that is lost in the trans­la­tion be­tween an au­dio and a vi­sual ren­der­ing. The same loss hap­pens for words too, but to a much lesser ex­tent. Sub­tle shades of em­pha­sis and tone of voice can con­vey es­sen­tial in­for­ma­tion in spo­ken lan­guage. This is one of the rea­sons that email is so no­to­ri­ous for am­plify­ing mi­s­un­der­stand­ings. But the loss in much greater in the case of mu­sic.

The same is true for other senses. Color is one ex­am­ple. A blind per­son can ab­stractly un­der­stand what light is, and that color is a byproduct of the wave­length of light, and that light is a form of elec­tro­mag­netic ra­di­a­tion… yet there is no way for a blind per­son to ex­pe­rience sub­jec­tively the differ­ence be­tween red and blue and green. But just be­cause some peo­ple can’t see col­ors doesn’t mean that col­ors aren’t real.

The same is true for spiritual ex­pe­riences.

Now, be­fore I ex­pand that thought, I want to give you my bona fides. I am a com­mit­ted ra­tio­nal­ist, and an athe­ist (though I don’t like to self-iden­tify as an athe­ist be­cause I’d rather fo­cus on what I *do* be­lieve in rather than what I don’t). So I am not try­ing to con­vince you that God ex­ists. What I want to say is rather that cer­tain kinds of spiritual ex­pe­riences *might* be more than mere fan­tasies made up out of whole cloth. If we ig­nore this pos­si­bil­ity we risk shut­ting our­selves off from a vi­tal part of the hu­man ex­pe­rience.

I grew up in the deep south (Ken­tucky and Ten­nessee) in a sec­u­lar Jewish fam­ily. When I was 12 my par­ents sent me to a Chris­tian sum­mer camp (there were no other kinds in Ken­tucky back in those days). After a week of be­ing re­lentlessly pros­ely­tized (read: teased and os­tra­cized), I de­cided I was tired of be­ing the camp punch­ing bag and so I re­lented and gave my heart to Je­sus. I prayed, con­fessed my sins, and just like that I was a mem­ber of the club.

I ex­pe­rienced a eu­pho­ria that I can­not ren­der into words, in ex­actly the same way that one can­not ren­der into words the sub­jec­tive ex­pe­rience of listen­ing to mu­sic or see­ing col­ors or eat­ing choco­late or hav­ing sex. If you have not ex­pe­rienced these things for your­self, no amount of de­scrip­tion can fill the gap. Of course, you can come to an *in­tel­lec­tual* un­der­stand­ing that “feel­ing the pres­ence of the holy spirit” has noth­ing to do with any holy spirit. You can in­tel­lec­tu­ally grasp that it is an in­ter­nal men­tal pro­cess re­sult­ing from (prob­a­bly) some kind of neu­ro­trans­mit­ter re­leased in re­sponse to so­cial and in­ter­nal men­tal stim­u­lus. But that won’t al­low you to un­der­stand *what it is like* any more than un­der­stand­ing physics will let you un­der­stand what col­ors look like or what mu­sic sounds like.

Hap­pily, there are ways to stim­u­late the sub­jec­tive ex­pe­rience that I’m de­scribing other than ac­cept­ing Je­sus as your Lord and Sav­ior. Med­i­ta­tion, for ex­am­ple, can pro­duce similar re­sults. It can be a very pow­er­ful ex­pe­rience. It can even be­come ad­dic­tive, al­most like a drug.

I am not nec­es­sar­ily ad­vo­cat­ing that you go try to get your­self a hit of re­li­gious eu­pho­ria (though I wouldn’t dis­cour­age you ei­ther—the ex­pe­rience can give you some in­ter­est­ing and use­ful per­spec­tive on life). In­stead, I sim­ply want to con­vince you to en­ter­tain the pos­si­bil­ity that peo­ple might pro­fess to be­lieve in God for rea­sons other than in­doc­tri­na­tion or stu­pidity. Reli­gious texts and rit­u­als might be at­tempts to share real sub­jec­tive ex­pe­riences that, in the ab­sence of a de­tailed mod­ern un­der­stand­ing of neu­ro­science, can ap­pear to origi­nate from mys­te­ri­ous, sub­tle ex­ter­nal sources.

The rea­son I want to con­vince you to en­ter­tain this no­tion is that an awful lot of en­ergy gets wasted by ar­gu­ing against re­li­gious be­liefs on log­i­cal grounds, point­ing out con­tra­dic­tions in the Bible and what­not. Such ar­gu­ments tend to be in­effec­tive, which can be very frus­trat­ing for those who ad­vance them. The an­ti­dote for this frus­tra­tion is to re­al­ize that spiritu­al­ity is not about logic. It’s about sub­jec­tive ex­pe­riences that not ev­ery­one is privy to. Logic is about look­ing at the grooves. Spiritu­al­ity is about hear­ing the mu­sic.

The good news is that adopt­ing sci­ence and rea­son doesn’t mean you have to give up on spiritu­al­ity any more than you have to give up on mu­sic. There are myr­iad paths to spiritual ex­pe­rience, to a sense of awe and won­der at the grand tapestry of cre­ation, to the es­sen­tial ex­is­ten­tial mys­ter­ies of life and con­scious­ness, to what re­li­gious peo­ple call “God.” Walk­ing in the woods. See­ing the moons of Jupiter through a telescope. Gather­ing with friends to listen to mu­sic, or to sing, or sim­ply to share the ex­pe­rience of be­ing al­ive. Med­i­ta­tion. Any of these can be spiritual ex­pe­riences if you al­low them to be. In this sense, God is ev­ery­where.