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Mar. 9th, 2011 at 8:06 am
It seems that athiesm is undergoing another of its frequent vogues. Witness the parade of best-sellers: Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation, Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great, Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, and Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, to name some of the most prominent ones. Each of these books takes the position that atheism is the only natural, logical, and rational way to view the world and our humanity. If you page through these books, however, it is not long before you are struck by something else: none of these men have ever had a firsthand spiritual experience with the divine.
To point this out may seem obvious to the point of pedantry, but it is actually an important observation. Atheists and pro-religion humanists suggest that religion came about as a way to comfort widows and children, or to reduce the terror of death and civilize us, as Freud believed, or to anesthetize the masses, as Marx did, or (perhaps most colorfully of all) it was merely “the effect of a frenzied mind” as Korihor put it (and which Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and Dennett would most certainly agree, I feel confident).
But in fact, as William James observed in his Varieties of Religious Experience, most religious people come to their religious beliefs through personal experience with the divine. They believe, not because of the “foolish traditions of their fathers,” but because they have personally experienced “a mighty change” and “come to know these things of themselves.” A 2008 study came to the same conclusion, suggesting that 70% of the American population experienced God as a personal being. An additional 12% came to a belief in a deistic God through the practice of their reason, which, interestingly, is the same percentage who came to disbelieve or doubt the existence of God through their reason.
Such a high percentage of believe suggests that on some basic level we are “wired” to believe in God, and it leads me to wonder if these famous atheists lack this wiring. (I hasten to point out that the existence of some physical or genetic apparatus for religious belief does not prove that God is not real, any more than discovering the location of my cable TV tuner and unplugging it during the Superbowl proves that the Green Bay Packers do not exist, no matter how ardently Steelers fans may wish them not to. )
Now, most of the time, if the vast majority of humanity carries a certain trait, and a small minority lack it, the small percentage lacking the trait which is presumed to be abnormal (this is, in fact, the very statistical definition of “normal“). It is a credit to Harris et al’s chutzpah (as well as arrogance) that they have turned this vast numerical advantage around and now the rest of us are supposed to be the defective, deluded ones. It is as if a colorblind person insisted that red and green were the same color, and the rest of us who claimed to see a difference were insane, liars, or fabulists.
Instead, carrying this analogy of colorblindness further, could there be such a thing as “Godblindness”? J. Reuben Clark seemed to think so:
President Clark was of course referring to a milder form of the irreligious than the atheist, but I suspect the same thing holds. I certainly noticed a great deal of people like this when I would have religious conversations with people on my mission, as well as since. What are the moral and spiritual implications of being Godblind? Are they as accountable for their actions as those of us who have had spiritual experiences with the divine and then denied them, or lived contrary to those experiences? I think not. Are they damned because they do not seem to be able to experience God firsthand? Again, I think not.
At any rate, the scriptures seem to make provision for those who have not had firsthand experience with the Divine. The first case is in John 20:29, when Jesus says to Thomas, “blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”
And when the scriptures list spiritual gifts, this one is prominent: “To others it is given to believe on their words, that they also might have eternal life if they continue faithful.”