It's been half a year since I read Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. At the time, you may recall, I was not impressed. But with a little time for marination, do Dawkins' words become any more appetizing?
Sadly (or happily, depending on your point of view), the answer appears to be no. Take, for example, Dawkins' dismissal of what he calls the "Argument from Personal Experience."
If you've had such an experience, you may well find yourself believing firmly that it was real. But don't expect the rest of us to take your word for it, especially if we have the slightest familiarity with the brain and its powerful workings.
- Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion
Dawkins devotes an entire section to various "arguments" for faith. Some of them, such as the Argument from Scripture, the Argument from Beauty the Bayesian Argument, or even classical arguments like Aquinas' Cosmological Argument or Anselm's Ontological Argument, aren't convincing even to me, so I can see why Dawkins would not be impressed. And I can understand why he might not want to just take someone's word that their personal experiences are proof of the existence of God. I wouldn't either.
Still, there's an outright arrogance in the wording of Dawkins' dismissal. "You may well find yourself believing" that your own experience was real. But Dawkins, along with those who "have the slightest familiarity with the brain and its powerful workings," know better than you do about your own experience.
Twenty years ago, when I left my parents' farm to go to college, I became aware that some of our neighbors didn't think too highly of higher education. "They won't learn you nothin' at that college," offered one older farmer. "Them folks may be smart, but they ain't got no common sense."
My experience tells me that most college professors do, in fact, got common sense, but there are a few who get so wrapped up in academia that they lose touch with the real world. The author of The God Delusion -- or of the book's source -- appears to be one of the latter.
The truth, as any old farmer can tell you, is that first-hand experience is a much better teacher than any amount of book learning.
I discovered this first-hand after graduation, when I spent a month in Spain. Though I had studied Spanish for three years in high school and college, I learned more in three weeks just by being there. The "brain and its powerful workings" work even better when spurred by an external stimulus.
Another example: Many people enjoy adrenaline sports such as skydiving, bunjee jumping, or extreme ironing. If you've ever had such an experience, you may well find yourself believing that it was real. Alas, that adrenaline rush was all in your head.
And therein lies the problem in Dawkins' argument: The brain and its powerful workings can produce some incredible sensations. But if we are to take the brain's response to an experience as the experience itself, then we really don't understand what is happening. For if we can doubt the reality of religious experiences, we can surely doubt the reality of a host of other experiences. It's the same brain, producing the same chemicals in response.
But some will object: We can verify that the person actually jumped out of the plane. We can't verify a private religious experience.
And yet, not all religious experiences are private. Even in modern times, seemingly unexplainable events have been witnessed by crowds of thousands.
On July 9, 1850, a firing squad gathered in a courtyard in Tabriz in northwestern Iran to execute Siyyid Ali Muhammad, known to his followers as the Bab ("gate"). The Bab announced that he was sent as a messenger to proclaim the coming of one who would usher in a new era of justice and peace. The ruling authorities -- as authorities are wont to do -- proclaimed him a rebel and a heretic, and condemned him to death.
When the guards arrived to take the Bab before the firing squad, he told them that no earthly power could silence him before he finished the message he was sent to deliver.
The Bab and one of his followers were suspended by ropes against a wall, and were fired upon by three groups of 250 soldiers each.
Some 10,000 people were in the courtyard to witness the event, including Western diplomats. One of these diplomats, Sir Justin Shiel, wrote back to London, "When the smoke and dust cleared away after the volley, Bab was not to be seen, and the populace proclaimed that he had ascended to the skies."
All 750 soldiers had missed. The Bab's disciple was unhurt, and the Bab himself had disappeared from the courtyard. He was found soon enough: He had returned to his cell to give final instructions to one of his students. His message completed, he willingly returned with the guards to the courtyard, where he was executed.
Perhaps there was nothing miraculous about the Bab's remarkable escape. Perhaps he was just fortunate to have been missed by all 750 shots, and took advantage of the opportunity and the ensuing confusion to impart some last words of wisdom to his followers. Or perhaps the hand of God really was evident in this. Honestly, I can't say with any authority one way or the other. I don't think God's mysterious ways must be limited to my own faith tradition.
A little closer to home -- temporally, geographically, and religiously -- are the events of October 13, 1917 in Fatima, Portugal. Leading up to that day, three children had led a growing number of townsfolk to the Cova da Iria fields outside of town to witness a series of visions in which they had seen the Virgin Mary appear in the sky. These visions had occurred on the 13th day of every month beginning in May of that year. Month by month the crowds grew. In September the children were told by Mary that the following month they would see a miracle "so that all may believe."
On the promised day, October 13, some 70,000 gathered in Cova da Iria to see what would happen. Avelino de Almeida, reporter for the liberal newspaper O Seculo, described the events this way:
From the road, where the vehicles were parked and where hundreds of people who had not dared to brave the mud were congregated, one could see the immense multitude turn toward the sun, which appeared free from clouds and in its zenith. It looked like a plaque of dull silver, and it was possible to look at it without the least discomfort. It might have been an eclipse which was taking place. But at that moment a great shout went up, and one could hear the spectators nearest at hand shouting: "A miracle! A miracle!
Before the astonished eyes of the crowd, whose aspect was biblical as they stood bareheaded, eagerly searching the sky, the sun trembled, made sudden incredible movements outside all cosmic laws---the sun "danced" according to the typical expression of the people.
After being castigated by his peers in the secular press, Almeida wrote two weeks later, "Miracle, as the people shouted? Natural phenomenon, as the experts say? For the moment, that does not concern me, I am only saying what I saw... The rest is a matter for Science and the Church."
Exactly what happened there is perhaps unknowable to us today. But something was witnessed by tens of thousands of people that afternoon.
Does Richard Dawkins have an explanation? Indeed he does:
On the face of it mass visions, such as the report that seventy thousand pilgrims at Fatima in Portugal in 1917 saw the sun 'tear itself from the heavens and come crashing down upon the multitude', are harder to write off. It is not easy to explain how seventy thousand people could share the same hallucination. But it is even harder to accept that it really happened without the rest of the world, outside Fatima, seeing it too.
Dawkins' reasoning makes sense, as far as reasoning goes. But if we're going to doubt the testimony of 70,000 people who apparently saw a rare celestial dance, then surely we can doubt that half a dozen people survived a jump from an airplane because they were each carrying a backpack full of nylon.
It's one thing to be skeptical about religious experiences. It may even be wise to look for natural explanations, as some skeptics have done for both the Bab execution and the Fatima sun dance. But if someone -- even a bright guy like Richard Dawkins -- dismisses all religious experiences a priori as hallucinations, without taking the time to even consider other explanations, I'd have to agree with the old farmer: He ain't got no common sense.