Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Dreams, wishful thinking, and religious belief

This post is, honestly, a question rather than an answer.

I know I come across as critical of religion at times, and in my own defense I have to say that usually it has to do with the kinds of things that religion incites people to do -- such as Pat Robertson's recent pronouncement that Christians are being oppressed by gays, and that Jesus would have been in favor of stoning gays to death, and evangelist Tristan Emmanuel's recommendation that Bill Maher should be publicly whipped because he's an atheist.

But as far as the religious beliefs themselves, mostly what I feel is incomprehension.  When I've asked people why they believe in god -- something I tend not to do, being that I'm not so excited about being publicly whipped myself -- I usually get answers that fall into one of the following categories:
  1. Personal revelation -- the individual has had some kind of experience that convinces him/her that a deity exists.
  2. Authority -- being raised in the church, and/or respecting its leaders and their views, have led the person to accept those beliefs as true.
  3. It's appealing -- they'd like there to be a god, so there is one.
My problem with all of that is that I'm not especially confident of my own brain's ability, in the absence of hard evidence, to tell truth from fiction.   I know there have been times that I have desperately wanted something to be true -- usually in the realm of personal relationships -- but my own dubious ability to read the signs correctly, plus a regrettable tendency toward wishful thinking, led me to the wrong answer on more than one occasion.

So how likely would I be to land on the right answer with respect not only to whether or not a god exists, but what his/her/its nature is, given the thousands of different answers humans have come up with over the centuries?  It'd be pretty embarrassing, for example, to spend my life worshiping Yahweh, and then die and find out too late that I should have been making sacrifices to Anubis or something.

[image courtesy of Jeff Dahl and the Wikimedia Commons]

I ran into an especially good example of this yesterday on the site Charisma News, where a writer tried to explain how to know if your dreams come from god or not.  Because, I suppose, if you buy into that worldview, there are three choices: (1) your dream comes from god, and you should obey whatever it says; (2) your dream comes from the devil, and you should not do whatever it says; (3) or your dream is just a dream and you shouldn't worry about it.  I suspect that most of mine fall into the last category, because they tend to be bizarre, like my dream a couple of nights ago wherein I was trying to fight off a werewolf by spraying it in the face with a garden hose.

But Audrey Lee tells us in the Charisma News article that it's a real problem, and we don't want to get it wrong:
It would be naive and irresponsible to suggest that all spiritual dreams result in a true God connection.  Dreamers who mistake their own subconscious thoughts or even demonic influence as divine instruction can make grim and historic mistakes.  Recently a woman in a rural village sacrificed her child in the river out of obedience to what she thought was a dream from God.
So, yeah.  That'd be bad.  Lee goes on to tell us that there are four criteria that we should use to determine if our dreams are god-induced: (1) the dream's content doesn't contradict the bible; (2) it's "convicting" [sic]; (3) it lingers in the memory; and (4) it predicts things that come to pass.

So based on these four criteria, I'd guess the werewolf-and-garden-hose dream doesn't measure up except for the fact that I still remember it.  But it does raise a question, which is, couldn't you have a non-bible-contradicting dream that you remember and find convincing, and it still is just a dream?  Doesn't the whole thing still turn on your kind of looking at it and saying, "Yeah, seems right to me?", without anything resembling hard evidence?

I simply don't find that sort of thing a reliable protocol for determining the truth.  Maybe it's because I don't trust myself enough; but I think that our brains come pre-installed with so many ways of getting it wrong that we need to have an external standard in order to be certain.  For me, that standard is science -- i.e., evidence, logic, and rationality.  None of the "internal ways of knowing" have ever really made sense to me.

Now, I'll admit up front that I'm no philosopher, and deeper minds than mine may well have a better answer to all of this.  If so, I'm open to listening.  But until then, I still can't see any dependable way to get at the truth other than hard evidence -- much as my wishful thinking would like to say otherwise.


  1. The garden hose is your subconscious… the element of water gently fighting off your rabid rational mind!

  2. "Homosexuality is a meaningless exercise because it doesn't go anywhere." (Pat Robertson) Hmm, I wonder if my children would agree with that. This IS the type of religion-bound statement that awakens my skepticism in spite of being raised within the bounds of christian fundamentalism.
    What I WANT to believe conflicts with what I THINK is actually the truth.

    I WANT to believe in a supreme being that is holding the world together and that everything will turn out all right.
    I WANT to believe that the supreme being knows just how many hairs I have on my head and cares about my every move.
    I WANT to believe that the choices I make every day make little difference to that supreme being and so my laziness matters little.

    I THINK I am equally as special and non-special as every other being on earth - human and non-human.

    I THINK humans have individual and collective power to change things for both better or worse, and that we choose both ways on a daily basis.

    I THINK we are all responsible for taking care of each other.

    While I was raised to see these views as mutually exclusive, in general I don't think they are. Thanks for poking me along a little, Gordon. Maybe one day, I'll get it all figured out...and maybe not.