“I know that Jesus loves me.”
No, you don’t.
“How can you say that? I feel it in my heart.”
Wait, do you know it or feel it? Those are different things. Knowledge (or belief) is different from feeling (or emotion).
When challenged about their professed “beliefs”, folks often reply with what sounds like evidence from introspection. They say things like, “I feel it in my heart.” But a feeling is not a belief. A feeling is a direct, non-verbal, bodily experience; a belief is a commitment to an idea – as Thomas Jefferson put it, “the assent of the mind to an intelligible proposition.” You had a feeling, which was originally non-conceptual, and then you connected that feeling with a concept – that of ‘god’. This association in your mind, between a warm feeling and a fuzzy concept, is then presented as the answer to whether you have a belief in god. But neither the feeling, nor the concept, nor the connection between them, constitute a belief.
If you diligently practice any of various styles of meditation, you will eventually have the kind of experience that many people refer to as ‘transcendental’. In fact, one of the reasons you meditate is that you’ve heard reports of this kind of thing and you want to experience it for yourself. And there’s nothing wrong with that. So one day you’re sitting and this thing happens to you, and it’s amazing. It’s like – it’s like – how to describe it? Words are such feeble things compared to this thing, or place, or idea you’ve just seen, or felt, or understood!
Well, that might be true. But I know something that is definitely true. There are words waiting for you. They’re all around you. They’re literally in the air you breathe. People say them all the time. You can choose the ones you like. You had a ‘transcendental’, or ‘spiritual’, or ‘enlightenment’ experience. You reached ‘nirvana’, or ‘satori’, or ‘the Void beyond awareness’. You ‘became one with the Universe’. You ‘saw the face of God’. Take your pick; there are hundreds of them.
I’m not even saying that any of these descriptions is necessarily incorrect. That’s not the point. (Nor do I mean to suggest that such experiences should not be sought, or enjoyed, or valued.) The point is that if you’re old enough to have this kind of experience, you’re old enough to have heard the words for it – that is, the descriptions favored by the culture where you grew up. You can’t have the experience without having been ‘primed’ by that terminology. While in that exalted state you might be able to push aside such thoughts – this being a special aspect of such experiences – but not afterwards, when you’ve returned to not-so-transcendental consciousness. Then you’re going to call it what you’ve heard it called. If people around you tend to call it ‘higher awareness’, that’s what you’ll call it; if they say ‘cosmic consciousness’, that’s what you’ll say too. And if they call it ‘seeing the face of God’ or ‘feeling Jesus in your heart’, not only will you call it that; chances are it will feel like that.
But it isn’t that.
Again: I am not saying you shouldn’t do it. Quiet meditation is a Good Thing. I’m just pointing out that meditative states are frequently misdescribed. “I had a beautiful experience” is one thing; “I saw the face of God” is another. The former report may be accurate; the latter cannot be.
How do I know? Well, ultimately I know because I have noticed that the very concept of ‘god’ is incoherent, so not only are there no gods, but the idea of their existence is not even a coherent proposal that deserves careful rebuttal. But we don’t have bring out the big guns. We can observe, much more modestly, that feelings and beliefs are different things.
When you meditate (or in whatever circumstance it occurs), you have these feelings. They are powerful, special, beautiful and interesting. They do not come with a serial number, barcode, or owner’s manual. They are utterly non-verbal. For thousands of years, adepts have assured us that trying to convey such experiences with words is pointless. We have thousands of pages of such disclaimers – and attempts, by the same authors, to convey their experiences.
By the way, I am not convinced that the reason meditative states are so hard to describe is that they are so sublime. It may be simply because they are essentially non-verbal; they are feelings, not knowledge. All feelings are hard to put into words, even the everyday kind. Can you put into words exactly how you feel when you’re stuck in traffic? Could you make someone understand it who had never endured it?
In any case, feelings are, by definition, wordless. We have feelings, and on the other hand we have names for them. The original experience was wordless. That’s part of why it was so great. So, I can call my spiritual experience ‘touching the Void’ (for example), but I know that this is a label, added after the fact – that even the word ‘spiritual’ is a label, for something that originally had nothing to do with words.
Well, I should know this. But it’s easy to forget, especially in religious contexts. Because the churches have great cabinets stocked with words for us to use. And churches are more interested in our words than in our feelings. Tell your friends and neighbors in your local Baptist Church about a feeling you had this morning, while praying, of “a kind of warmth or welcoming or safety – sorry, it’s hard to put into words,” and you’ll get some half-hearted smiles. But if you say, “I felt Jesus’s love in my heart,” well, Glory Hallelujah, you’ll be a star.
Feelings are non-verbal. You can interpret them as meaning something specific, but it’s always going to be an interpretation. If you have a feeling that you attribute to the love of God, or the awareness of the Universe, or whatever, you are going beyond the data of experience and proposing a theory about what caused the feeling. Now if you hypothesize a physical agent, you can get some traction. Maybe you’ve ingested certain substances; or practiced certain psychological exercises; or you have epilepsy. Physical things can cause you to have certain experiences. Non-physical entities that don’t exist, except as words, cannot. If your theory involves an immortal spirit or a transcendent reality, no conceivable data will support it. Once you postulate an immaterial cause, you’re in the unfortunate position of trying to find an immaterial effect. You’ve painted yourself into a corner. You’ve sawed off the branch you were sitting on.
(Don’t get hung up on the idea that thoughts and emotions are “mental” rather than “physical” events. People say things like, “Love can have overwhelming effects, even though it’s not physical.” This is not correct. Mental-versus-physical is a false dichotomy. But clarifying this point is beyond the scope of this book. Try the first half of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.)
As another reason that your feelings cannot validate your religious beliefs, let me reiterate the point I mentioned in passing, a few paragraphs back. You cannot believe an incoherent proposition. No matter how much you want to, you can’t. Belief does not work that way. Just as there are no socks without a place to put your foot in, because if there’s no place to put your foot in it’s not a sock, so there are no beliefs that are not about some proposition, because if it’s not about a proposition it’s not a belief. Someone who says “I believe that bibble bobble beeble” is using the word ‘belief’ improperly. This is because bibble bobble beeble is not a proposition; therefore, the transitive verb ‘believe’ has no object; therefore, the sentence makes no sense in English. And similar considerations apply to all religious propositions. That’s how religious propositions are constructed. They are designed to be incoherent. Coherent (communicative) statements do not perform religious functions, and vice versa.
If the foregoing is true, then everyone who thinks that they can justify their religious beliefs, by any method at all, is mistaken, first of all because they don’t have any religious beliefs. No one does.