It doesn’t happen often but there are times when I have been asked why, knowing many of the difficult logical, historical, and even ethical issues surrounding religion and dogma, I maintain faith or a hope in divine presence and meaning. The short answer, of course, is that religion and dogma have absolutely nothing to do with faith but this answer, while true, is not terribly satisfying.
The entire business of metaphysics is to explore questions of both consciousness and reality. Given the incredible advancements made possible by empiricism and the scientific method over the past 500+ years, it may be tempting to claim that only that which can be observed and measured is “real.” Similarly, consciousness — and with it all of human emotion, philosophy, intellect, etc. — may be reduced to the functioning of our nervous system and brain. Within a specific context both of these views are correct and I would disparage no one for taking such strict and exacting positions on science and empiricism. This is a perfectly logical view assuming that what we can observe and explain using the tools of science and interpreted through our five essential senses, is truly “all there is.” In my experience, however, there are relatively few people who take such a strong position. They freely admit that science does not address questions of faith, religion and metaphysics. And yet, there are many brilliant and prominent scientists who feel compelled to weigh in on subjects where science has little, if anything, to add to the conversation. Likewise, some religionists impose their dogmatic views on science. Science has nothing to say about God or gods. Religion has nothing of importance to say about science. When either science or religion attempt to usurp each other, the result is quite often nothing but dogma-fueled polemics at best, and pure nonsense at worst.
This is not to suggest, of course, that religion and science cannot have an informative and enlightening interaction. In fact, it is where faith (and not necessarily religion) converge, that I find a sense of incredible awe and wonder. Regardless of whether you accept a transcendent God, pantheon of deities, or view the world as the manifestation of a singular Self, the universe and the reality of our very existence is, indisputably, miraculous and awe-inspiring. To think that all we know; our experiences, relationships, triumphs and failures have emerged from a set of elementary particles (or energy in the form of vibrating strings if M-Theory is to be believed) is truly amazing. Regardless of an ultimate origin, the emergence of sentient beings who are capable of contemplating not only their own existence but also explore the depths of space and the inner-workings of an atom shows, as Carl Sagan has observed, that “we are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” Whether this act of the cosmos coming to know itself is the ultimate result of a rapid expansion of space-time with the subsequent formation of elements, galaxies, and planets or a product of divine action is immaterial to the fact that sentient beings exist and have a moral obligation to one other, the Earth, and ultimately the whole universe.
Some, like the brilliant Christian apologist William Lane Craig, argue that ethics and morals cannot exist without God because there would be no objective framework from which to form moral principles. No moral law giver and therefore, now moral law. And while I have great respect for Craig, I fundamentally reject this argument as being completely fallacious. In my view, ethics and morals emerge from the cosmos just as do hydrogen or helium molecules. The universe and everything contained within it has inherent value; a value recognized by all sentient beings. It is this value which provides an objective measure of right and wrong. The ramifications of this value can, and should, be debated vehemently and examined closely. Thousands of years of moral philosophy demonstrate that there are no simple or straightforward answers when it comes to moral law. However, the fact that we 1) consider the question and 2) have the capacity to develop, refine, and share these ideas should be evidence, in itself, that sentience is unique and with special value.
Ultimately, the reason I choose faith is because I do not draw a distinction between the reality of effable and ineffable experience. That is, my personal experience with divinity is just as real as the feeling of stepping into a warm bath. The difference, of course, is that I cannot share the ineffable. I cannot instruct others on how to gain a similar experience. It is for this reason that I believe divinity is a direct experience rather than a demonstrable fact. It is for this reason that I do not allow my experience of faith to drive any specific dogmatic position. I do not find dogma to be supported by the experience of faith as, in the many cases, individuals and institutions tie aspects of culture, heritage, economics, and other pedestrian human affairs to the ineffable direct experience with divinity.
In the end I try and take a “live and let live” approach to my interaction with others. If a person’s faith, beliefs or dogma provides comfort and a sense of purpose and meaning to their lives, then wonderful. If however, an individual or group attempts to impose dogma and beliefs on others, I do take exception; strong exception. Even when I may agree with, or rather, be sympathetic to, the viewpoint being expressed. Each of us must walk our own path and allow others to do the same without interference or molestation of any kind.
The experience of divinity is neither rational nor irrational. It simply is.