I recently had a debate with some atheists on the whole topic of theism. Two of them were very reasonable and polite and made their points well, and I thank them for it. They made their points far better than I did. One, on the other hand seemed to be a radical that held belief in deities were delusions. Another, one of the more reasonable of the three, held such beliefs were irrational. I brought up that there were many that have had spiritual experiences and these could be used as evidence there may be deities. The two more reasonable ones dismissed this by saying such things can be explained by neuroscience. I disagreed, but accepted that they felt this to be so. Need less to say, I learned a lot from this debate.
What I took issue at, and still do is the use of the words delusion and irrational. Lets tackle delusion first. The word delusion implies that we have positive proof deities do not exist, and therefore any belief in them is imaginary or a symptom of mental illness. That the odds of deities existing are so great as to make their existence seem implausible. Therefore, that being so, folks that believe in deities must be deluded. I do not think that is the case. While some may feel that the existence of deities is implausible that does not make the chance of their existence impossible. Many may feel that life outside Earth is implausible, that does not mean it is impossible. I therefore maintain that belief in deities is not a delusion. As long as it has not been proven positively that deities do not exist I do not feel I am being delusional in my belief in them. I feel the same of others that believe. Barring some obvious problem like a mental illness I have little reason to doubt they believe deities exist.
Now lets tackle the word irrational. They maintained that the existence of deities was implausible based on the idea that we have no proof of them. And that believing in something we have no proof or evidence of is irrational even if at some point we do have proof of them. I argued it is not irrational if there is some evidence of the possibility of their existence. Lets make a comparison using science. At one point in time we could not prove the principle of relativity. We could not prove it until Einstein developed the Theory of Relativity. Does that mean that those that believed a formula could be made that would describe relativity were being irrational? General relativity, one of the ideas explained by Einstein’s theories was proving troublesome to formulate in the very early 20th century. Some may well of thought it impossible to explain general relativity. Does that mean they were being irrational?
To me to say one is being irrational is to say they are acting on emotions. The fact is that many who believe in deities have arrived at that belief by weighing the evidence they have had at hand. They have reached the conclusion that there are deities through a rational, not emotional means. Does that mean their reasoning is faulty, or that there is not enough evidence on hand to make a reasonable conclusion? I think that is more a matter of opinion than anything else.
The argument goes back to what evidence we have as to whether deities exist. Now the atheists dismissed my argument that many have had spiritual experiences. They argued that such experiences can be duplicated in the lab by being induced, and therefore this cannot be used as evidence of the existence of deities. Now that is all well and good. I accept that certain chemical reactions happen in the brain when one is having a spiritual experience, and that these chemical reactions can be made to happen in the lab through various means in many cases. However, I have yet to see evidence that all spiritual experiences can be duplicated in the lab. Indeed, what I have read of ideas in neuroscience on near death experiences and other spiritual experiences are that they have hypotheses such as the REM intrusion hypothesis, but these have yet to be proven. There is no theory as to how these brain changes take place so as to create the spiritual experience. And while they argue that there is more evidence for such hypotheses than there are for the idea of people actually going to another plane when going through a near death experience, they cannot prove it. The same is true of many other spiritual experiences. They cannot prove that it is changes in the brain that is causing the spiritual experiences, and not the other way around. And you have Harvard graduates like neurosurgeon Eben Alexander maintaining there is a spiritual explanation for such experiences. There is far from positive proof that spiritual experiences all stem from changes in the brain. There is room for doubt.
So what evidence is there of deities and spiritual experiences. Well, for one we have the many narratives of people that have had near death experiences or out of body experiences. They have many things in common, and this would lead one to believe there is a neurological cause. However, there are those with unique events associated with their experiences. Sometimes, those that have undergone an out of body experience can describe in detail the operating or emergency room they were in despite being unconscious when brought in. Of course, even if near death experiences are real, that is not proof there are deities. However, there are the studies in the power of prayer that may. It merely shows there may be an afterlife. Studies such as that of David R. Hodge, an assistant professor of social work in the College of Human Services at Arizona State University have found that prayer has a positive affect on those being prayed for. And as prayer is seeking the intercession of deities, that would seem to be evidence of their existence. Of course, there may be other reasons prayer may work, but the existence of deities certainly is one of the reasons.
Which brings us back to the ideas that belief in deities are delusional or irrational. I suppose it depends on what one chooses to believe. One can believe one of the unproven hypotheses on the neuroscience of the brain and spiritual experiences, or one can believe the unproven beliefs of many people some of whom happen to be scientists. One can argue about the amount of evidence or the quality of evidence, but I maintain until we have proof positive deities do not exist it is not delusional to believe in them. And I do believe that there is enough evidence that deities exist and that there can be true spiritual experiences to be had that one does not have to be irrational to believe in them. That evidence may be slim, but I resent the idea I believe in deities due to some mental defect. I would accept the idea that my critical thinking may be flawed. And I freely admit that the vast majority of evidence has been obtained by subjective and not objective means. I can accept that perhaps I am lowering the bar for the evidence of deities, but not that I am being delusional or irrational. My whole point is the jury is still out on whether deities exist, and so long as that is so, I will believe in deities, and I do not believe I am being delusional or irrational in doing so.