I had a comment on my article about the Atheist Argument from Diversity that made me think. Freja wrote:
Since we are unable to gather evidence for or against religious claims, they can be disregarded as unscientific and for many that will mean that they cannot be debated as they cannot be refuted. This doesn’t disprove a god or spirituality but it does mean that religions cannot claim to be ‘right’ or ‘more right’ than another religion and if no religion can claim to be right, then why subscribe to one at all?
I would quibble with the statement that you can’t claim one religion is more correct than another. For example, Christian fundamentalism, which contradicts science, is clearly inferior to Zen Buddhism, which does not. I agree that no current religion can claim to be “right”. I would say Zen Buddhism offers a plausible hypothesis for the meaning of the spiritual experience, but there is currently no way to verify it scientifically.
But the real kicker is that final question. Why subscribe to a religion at all? For me, the simple answer is that you shouldn’t, but you should explore the spiritual experience. Why? Because it’s worthwhile. On a purely pragmatic level, there are health benefits. But more important, when you reach the point that you have met all of the lower needs that we all have:
- Physiological needs (food, sleep)
- Safety needs (clothing, shelter, personal safety)
- Love and belonging (mating, family, tribe)
- Esteem (respect, admiration, belonging)
You will come to the higher needs:
- Self-actualization (purpose)
- Self-transcendence (altruism)
The first of these, the need to “be all that you can be”, and even the second, what Stephen Covey calls the need to “leave a legacy”, can be achieved without subscribing to a religion, but I don’t believe either can truly be satisfied without contemplating what is really important in life.
Self actualization requires knowing yourself. What is really important to you? What do you love, and why? What is beautiful to you? Science cannot help you with these questions. Religions can (not by subscribing to them, but by learning about the good they have to offer). Spirituality can as well. Spiritual experiences can be some of the most meaningful you can have. I would say taking the time for self contemplation is the single most import thing you can do to find your purpose.
As for the highest need: before you can become an altruist, you need to examine the question of morality . Without morals, we are merely utilitarians rationalizing our actions. Morals do not come from science, or from nature. They come from the mind. Moral axioms are, like the axioms of mathematics, things that are obviously true. While I don’t believe that religion is required as the source of morals (in fact, quite the opposite), I do think that there is value in examining what the religious have to say, right and wrong, on the subject.
If you haven’t found the need for a purpose above meeting those first four needs yet, then go live life, and get your basics taken care of. Once you do, you will likely reach that wonderful point in life that we’ve come to know as the mid life crisis. Then science won’t help you; science doesn’t care about your feelings. If you’re lucky, you will stumble upon something that leads you to search for truth in spirituality, literature, art, and maybe even religion (feel free to visit; you don’t have to emigrate).