Recently the world’s most famous atheist, Richard Dawkins, writer of The God Delusion, The Selfish Gene and The Greatest Show on Earth, has been in Australia. Last Monday night he was on the ABC program Q and A, with a number of Australian guests (some more intelligent then others) each with religious faith of some kind. While Dawkins spoke with his usual skill and intelligence, there were many things he said that irked me, especially when he stated that faith had no positive psychological effects. But I’ll ignore most of these for the time being to focus on a moment when Dawkins revealed just how little about spirituality he actually knows. It starts at about 2:30 in this clip:

Here’s the transcript of what was said:

JACQUELINE NINIO: There’s an amazing Jewish philosopher who said the second you start to define God, you already limit God. God is un-understandable in some ways by humanity and so the second we try and grapple with it, we’re already limiting what God is. I think that there’s an unfolding understanding of God as you change and as the world changes and all we can do as human beings is to approach it from where we are and from our understanding and what we know in that moment.

TONY JONES: Now, before we come to our questioner down the front who had his hand up, Richard, do you regard that as just clever sophistry?

RICHARD DAWKINS: I was wondering what on earth it meant, I must say.

I wish Jacqueline Ninio, a Rabbi, wasn’t so easily intimidated by Dawkins and didn’t back down from what she said, since it was such a clear elucidation of what gaining an understanding of God is all about. The key statement Ninio says here is “The second you start to define God, you limit God”. This key point appears to have gone over the head of Dawkins, who nevertheless speaks as though he has a full understanding of religion.

The God Beyond Conceptual Thinking

A connection with God or Allah or Source or whatever name you’d like to use is made on an emotional level, through direct experience. Once we translate this emotion from the direct experience itself to an abstraction, we miss a massive part of the reality of the emotion. Let’s say, hypothetically of course, that you have some kind of religious epiphany, in which you feel a connection with God deeper than you ever thought possible. How can you tell others about it? Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do, as your descriptions of this experience will always fall short of the experience itself. So through trying to define the experience, you limit it.

This difficulty is not something exclusive to the spiritual world. In fact it applies to the understanding of pretty much everything. If we abstract an emotion, an experience or an object into words, we can only define a few of the properties of what these are. It’s impossible for us to tell what it is in its totality.

Experience is Deeper Than Abstraction

Imagine a person who has never fallen in love. Interested in the topic, they read every science journal, every factual book, and every peer-reviewed text on the subject of love. Then, he or she actually falls in love. Now, since they’ve already read so much on the subject, will the person be unsurprised about the nature of the experience? I seriously doubt it. In fact, they’ll become acutely aware of just what the science journals missed. Namely, the direct experience itself.

The same is true of understanding God. It cannot be done completely through abstract understanding. It must be felt.

Sceptics such as Dawkins see emotions as something that’s not to be trusted. They’re unreliable, unprovable and far too wishy-washy to be taken seriously. Yet it’s self-evident that experiences are more real than abstractions and conceptualizations. An abstraction is only a tool for defining and understanding truth, not truth itself. The experience of love is far more complex and intricate than anything that can be put into words.

If I experience a connection with some kind of infinite force, how can I put this into words without somehow limiting the actual reality of the experience? Is it any wonder that those who see the world purely in terms of abstraction do not understand those who claim a connection with God?

The God That Wasn’t Definable

That God is not something that can be easily defined is a point lost on fundamentalists of all kinds, whether they are religious or atheistic. The idea that we can be told what God is, and then we’ll have reached a full understanding, is simply not true.

 

Dawkins’ understanding of God is as a bearded man in the sky, one separate from reality itself. Yet intelligent, grown adults who are religious often do NOT share this simplified understanding of God. In How God Changes Your Brain, Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman found that this easily understandable abstraction, seeing God as a man in the sky, is most commonly held by young children, whose idea of God becomes increasingly complex as they grow older.  As Jacqueline Ninio stated on Q and A, what God means to her is constantly being re-evaluated and redefined, and since each definition will have its own shortcomings, this is perfectly natural.

With a purely scientific understanding, abstractions are seen as absolute truth. An experience of love is simply understood as the firing of neurons and the release of serotonin in the brain.

This is completely correct, of course. But where sceptics go wildly wrong is by making an addition to the sentence: “An experience of love is the firing of neurons and the release of serotonin in the brain…and that’s it”. This assumption would mean that direct experience is unreal, while abstraction is the deepest truth possible. In fact, the opposite is true.

Due to the infinite nature of experience, any useful definition will also have its shortcomings. It’s perfectly possible for a connection with religion and science to both be useful tools for understanding reality. Engaging in different religions is also possible. So long as we keep away from fundamentalism, which is the act of adding “…and that’s it” to the end of our conclusions.

Understanding God Directly

How, then, can we experience God for ourselves? One thing shared by many religions (despite Dawkins’ incessant claims that they have no deep connections) is the need for meditation. What is meditation? Simply the act of experiencing the present moment without letting our minds turn it into abstraction. Through meditation, it’s possible to understand the infinite nature of reality, and the impossibility of defining our experiences without also limiting them.

This is just one way to gain a real connection with God.