Why the God Delusion Won’t Go Away

A Baltimore mother accused of joining a cult and starving her child says she was acting on her religious beliefs. … Continued

A Baltimore mother accused of joining a cult and starving her child says she was acting on her religious beliefs. What’s the difference between extreme religious conviction and delusion? Between a religion and a cult?

Children believe that their mothers love them. The proof they have is the same as the proof of God – a subjective feeling. The fact that God is subjective doesn’t make the deity unreal, but it radically shifts the burden of proof. All subjective states are personal and therefore impossible to verify objectively. There is no way to tell if two people looking at a daffodil see the same shade of yellow, much less that they are referring to the same thing when they use the word “God.” Even brain scans provide nothing more than a rough location for where such thoughts occur, nothing about their validity.

Skeptics make hay out of this situation. In his wildly popular book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins marshaled the force of science against God almost entirely by making one point over and over: God can’t be objectively verified. He didn’t seem to realize that the point itself is pointless. Beauty, truth, love, morality, ethics, and every other aspect of our inner life cannot be verified by science, either. Shifting the burden of proof to the inner world leaves scientific measurement behind, but it doesn’t make beauty, truth, morality, and the rest false. If I find Picasso beautiful and you don’t, our disagreement isn’t a matter of who’s right and who’s wrong. Each person’s consciousness is a domain of personal experience that relies on itself. Having a right to your own opinion, however bizarre, is the same as asserting your own awareness.

Of course, the inner and outer world blend, and therefore they sometimes come to blows. Society tends to be happy with organized religion but unhappy with cults (even though organized religion can be defined as a cult with a large following). There’s not much debate on the spiritual side when either one breaks the law. Pedophile priests in the Catholic Church are prosecuted, as the members of the One Mind Ministries will be if they participated in starving a child. As for whether any of them are delusional, we refer to psychiatrists to make that determination on a medical basis.

Here again skeptics have a field day. They see no difference between thinking that Christ rose from the dead and thinking that a poor starved child in Baltimore can do the same. But they overplay their hand (Dawkins being particularly egregious) by lumping all spiritual experiences together. Many of the greatest figures in history have had profound spiritual experiences without being delusional. Their experiences have done more to shape human destiny than any other force besides war. To call Socrates, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Buddha hopelessly deluded because an academic pedant like Richard Dawkins feels superior to them is absurd.

What this all amounts to is that religion is entangled with the best and worst of human behavior. It is probably unique that way. In the name of loving God devotees have inflicted untold violence and composed the most beautiful poetry and music. It may be past time to radically reform organized religion or even dispense with it altogether (as I tend to believe). But the reason won’t be to cleanse the world of delusion. The reason will be that a better, more fulfilled spirituality wants to be born.

Deepak Chopra
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  • volkmare

    “There has been no historic organized religion that has escaped the curse of power.”Would you consider it an exception if you found a religion in which none of its clergy are paid or compensated in any way and all members are considered equals, all the way to the president of the faith?Mark

  • bcass05

    “…a better, more fulfilled spirituality wants to be born”. Indeed such a birth is always waiting to happen, and if it shows the least signs of success, the seekers of power co-opt it. They organize it. They use it to control the behavior of others, manage communication in its favor, dole out the benefits to those who sign on, and limit the options of “unbelievers”. There has been no historic organized religion that has escaped the curse of power. The only way to keep spirituality spiritual is to limits its power to doing good, enhancing life, and using gentle persuasion as its tool. I’m open to a better idea if there is one.

  • snapclohessy

    “There’s not much debate on the spiritual side when either one breaks the law. Pedophile priests in the Catholic Church are prosecuted. . “Sadly, even now, this is rarely the case. Roughly 2% of all credibly accused predator priests are prosecuted. Worse, Catholic officials continue to fight hard in legislatures (in New York and elsewhere) against reforming archaic, predator-friendly laws that would enable victims to use the open, time-tested justice system to expose molesters, warn parents and protect kids.David Clohessy

  • edbyronadams

    “There has been no historic organized religion that has escaped the curse of power.”There is no organization, secular or spiritual, that can exist without a hierarchy. That’s power and it corrupts. Trying to maintain organization keeping a central message that empowers individuals is a difficult task, one that my own religion/philosophy struggles with today.

  • clearthinking1

    Mr. Chopra,An excellent article. You wrote, “It may be past time to radically reform organized religion or even dispense with it altogether (as I tend to believe). But the reason won’t be to cleanse the world of delusion. The reason will be that a better, more fulfilled spirituality wants to be born.”You are a student of Vedanta and many of your ideas come from Vedanta. Vedanta is the philosophy that defines the complex and purposefully disorganized “religion” called Hinduism. The philosophy of Nonduality or Unity that comes from Vedanta provide the basis for a more fulfilling spirituality. No need to reinvent the wheel.

  • spiritmancer

    “Beauty, truth, love, morality, ethics, and every other aspect of our inner life cannot be verified by science, either.”Did you just say that truth cannot be verified by science? What do you want to verify truth with then?”It doesn’t make beauty, truth, morality, and the rest false”It doesn’t make truth false? I would hope that nothing can make truth false…

  • bcass05

    Volkmare,Your description doesn’t quite make the grade as an “unorganized” religion simply because clergy are uncompensated. If there are clergy, and if there is a president, then there is organization. I recognize full well the difficulty of spreading and supporting the best of charitable or religious or civic groups without some sort of central organization. Yet we must hedge them around with mechanisms that limit them…build limits into their procedures and bylaws. It sounds crass and unspiritual, but history shows the wisdom of doing so.

  • khote14

    a mother’s love and any gods’ love differ significantly. This is just a ploy believers use to redefine the word faith, to give their faith in their god a greater veneer of reality. A mother’s love can be tested, it can be predicted, it can be falsified. We can describe the behavior indicative of a mother’s love, and we can test it.When we try to do the same with any of the gods people believe in, we end up with excuses, such as “god … mysterious ways … we’re too small and wormlike …” when the direct proof is required.Here comes a hurricane, prove your god loves us by making it go away. Oh, he’s got bigger things to do, he’s testing our faith, blah blah blah.Just like the intelligent design mockery, comparing human love and god love is an attempt to go around reality in order to support the ridiculous premise at the basis of it.

  • wpJohn

    From Pew Research Org an article entitled, “What Brain Science Tells us About Religious Belief” their researcher writes, “What one might argue in that context is, “Your brain shuts down so you can allow the Holy Spirit to speak through you; this is how it works.” On the other hand, if you don’t believe speaking in tongues is really a spiritual event, then you might say, “Perhaps there’s some other part of the brain that is taking over, that is causing this thing to happen. It’s not the normal parts of the brain doing it, but it’s some other part of the brain.”It looks like nobody can win but good debate is still fun.