September 18, 2007
Mother Theresa and signs from god
In the previous post, I wrote about Mother Theresa's unfulfilled yearning to get a sign from god that he existed and that her faith was justified. What is most surprising to me is that she did not receive such a sign.
Most people who desperately want to believe in god, like Mother Theresa clearly did, are quick to seize on random events and coincidences that we all experience in our lives and interpret them as signs from god. If you really need a sign from god, it is not hard to manufacture one to your satisfaction. Surely there must have been many such instances in her life that would have served her purposes, such as receiving a generous donation for her mission at a time when they desperately needed money or having one of her charges unexpectedly recover from near death?
For example, just last week I myself had a powerful experience of god's presence. I had been discussing with two friends the lack of evidence for god and had come home with them. My friends went into the living room while I went to the kitchen to get some refreshments. While there, I suddenly felt two powerful hands gripping my shoulders and forcing my head through some sort of invisible screen. I found myself on the other side immersed in something like water except that I could see patterns like galaxies and stars swirling all around in a blue watery haze. I could breathe quite easily but could not hear my friends in the next room and could not call out to them. It was manifestly clear to me that I was under the influence of the Holy Spirit who was revealing his presence to me and showing me his power. When the Holy Spirit released me after a brief time and I could move freely and speak and hear again, my first reaction was amazement at receiving such a direct signal from god, followed by wondering how I would explain to my friends in the next room what had happened and whether they would believe me. I also realized that I would have to abandon my atheism and revise my entire personal and scientific worldview, and write about these changes on my blog.
And then I woke up.
I tend to have quite vivid and detailed dreams, especially if I have been eating chocolate (Freud would have loved having me as a patient) and can often trace their content to things that I had been thinking about that day or the previous one. The Mother Theresa story had been on my mind and I had been wondering whether I should blog about it so the fact that I had such a dream was no real surprise to me once I woke up. But while the dream was going on, the events seemed very, very real, so much so that it took me a little while even after I woke up to realize that it really was just a dream and that there was still no god.
If I had been a religious person going through a period of doubt, I might well have interpreted this dream as a sign, that the powerful hands holding me were those of the Holy Spirit (hands being a common image invoked in Christian circles for this mysterious entity), and the whole experience was done by god to reassure me that my faith was true. I suspect that when religious people talk about having had a personal experience of god, it is due to something like this. Strong emotional feelings released by dreams or a spectacular view of nature or some major event in their lives such as the birth of a child or a recovery from an illness or the feeling of euphoria that religious people sometimes experience during religious observances, when the singing of a favorite hymn, coupled with the sun shining through stained glass windows and a sense of personal peace, can all be misinterpreted as a spiritual other-worldly experience.
When I was young, I used to sometimes spend school vacations at my aunt's home in rural northern Sri Lanka. On Sunday mornings we would wake up well before dawn and go to the nearby ashram (a kind of religious retreat) where there was an open-air rustic church. The service would begin while it was still dark with us all sitting on the ground. The a capella singing of hymns, the chanting of prayers, the blowing of gentle breezes, the chirping of birds and other sounds of life awakening in rural areas as the sun slowly rose up over the palm trees, often combined to give a real sense of peace, easy enough to interpret as something spiritual.
Given Mother Theresa's clear anguish over the lack of a sign from god, she must have experienced dreams or experiences similar to what I have described. Her inability to interpret such things as evidence of god's existence suggests that she had greater skepticism and a much higher empirical standard for evidence of god than most religious people. It actually reflects creditably on her, suggesting that she was not that credulous, and required something more convincing than a run-of-the-mill 'spiritual' experience.
Daniel Dennett writes that this kind of agonized disbelief among the formally religious is not uncommon.
Mother Teresa’s agonies of doubt are surely not all that unusual. What is unusual is that she put them in writing and now they are being revealed to the world, in spite of her explicit wish that they be destroyed. I get mail all the time from religious leaders who admit to me in private that they do not believe in God but think that the best way to continue their lives is to swallow hard and get on with their ministries, concentrating on bringing more good than evil into the lives of their parishioners and those for whom their churches provide care. I would never divulge their names without their consent, but I do wonder: How many millions of priests, pastors, rabbis, imams, nuns and monks around the world are living lives of similar duplicity? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the outing of Mother Teresa inspired a few thousand of them to come out of the closet and acknowledge their atheism! Then it might start being obvious not only that faith in God is not a requirement for morality, but that the loss of faith in God often goads people into living more strenuously helpful lives, as seems to be the case with Mother Teresa.
Mother Theresa is not the first high profile religious figure to try and suppress her deep doubts by loudly and publicly proclaiming her faith and certainly will not be the last. She is but one example of the kinds of people described by the philosopher David Hume who said that "[t]hey make a merit of implicit faith; and disguise to themselves their real infidelity, by the strongest asseverations and most positive bigotry."
Dennett's claim that there are many more like her is supported by Richard Dawkins in his book The God Delusion (p. 324), where he describes the story of Dan Barker's "gradual conversion from devout fundamentalist minister and zealous traveling preacher to the strong and confident atheist he is today", recounted in Barker's book Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist.
Significantly, Barker continued to go through the motions of preaching Christianity for a while after he had become an atheist, because it was the only career he knew and he felt locked into a web of social obligations. He now knows many other American clergymen who are in the same position as he was but have confided only in him, having read his book. They dare not admit their atheism even to their own families, so terrible is the anticipated reaction. Barker's own story had a happier conclusion. To begin with, his parents were deeply and agonizingly shocked. But they listened to his quiet reasoning, and eventually became atheists themselves.
It will be interesting to see what fallout, if any, occurs from the revelation of Mother Theresa's doubts. Religious apologists have quickly moved into damage control mode. As is usually the case with religion, whatever happens is taken as a justification for belief. If Mother Theresa's letters had revealed an unwavering confidence in god, that would have been taken as a sign of her deep faith. Now that they reveal the opposite, that is also taken as a sign of her faith.
Ideally, though, it should make people more comfortable about expressing their own fears and doubts about their faith publicly, rather than feeling the need to suppress them or to seek confirmation in 'evidence' that is nothing more than coincidence or tricks of the brain.
POST SCRIPT: Rewarding failure
Keith Olberman shows how no one in the Bush administration pays any price for lying or incompetence, as long as they are loyal Bushies. Instead, they get rewarded or promoted