Beating exceedingly long odds (1 in 146 million), someone in Oregon just won $340 million in the Powerball lottery. This got me to thinking, what are the odds of someone winning the God lottery? That is, of choosing the right religion or spiritual practice and enjoying a really big prize: salvation, enlightenment, heaven, gnosis, god-realization.
I’ve enjoyed reading the comments to my previous “I’ve been fired” post. Some I agree with, some I don’t. This statement by Robert Searle (mildly edited for clarity) got me pondering probabilities:
I am coming to the conclusion that the much despised term "blind faith" can be very essential because after all it is the only real way to find the truth...after one has undertaken intellectual research of course. Remember too it is fifty-fifty. Sant Mat is either right, or wrong. Why not take a bet...accept the Teachings again. You have nothing to lose. It is either right, or wrong. If it is right you have everything to gain. If you are wrong then you know for certain when you leave this world.
Since I’m a believer in objective reality, I agree with Robert that Sant Mat or any other religion is either right or wrong. But what are the odds that a spiritual path actually leads to the claimed destination? (God, the Absolute, the One, Ultimate Reality, Buddha nature, the Tao, whatever you want to call it)
I don’t see any reason to say that it is 50-50. How could this be true, given that there are so many widely divergent world religions? Thousands, if not tens of thousands, counting the great and small. Assuming that there is indeed an objectively true spiritual domain, what are the odds that any particular religion possesses an accurate knowledge about this realm and how it is possible to reach it? (or become it)
Extremely small. For as is the case with almost everything, there are many ways to be wrong and only a few ways (or a single way) to be right. Again, this assumes that there is an objective criterion by which wrongness or rightness is gauged.
If God is whoever or whatever I claim him/her/it to be, then obviously there’s no way for me to be wrong. But if the reality we call “God” is really real, then some of the hypotheses about God that form the basis of religions are going to be wrong and some are going to be right.
What are the odds that my religion or your religion is a jackpot winner? I don’t know. It just seems likely that the odds are a great deal less than 50-50, especially when you consider the probability that no religion is a winner. For in all of recorded history, no conclusive proof ever has been provided that God or a higher metaphysical reality exists.
So let’s be generous to spirituality and say that the odds are 50-50 that there is anything other than materiality, leaving aside the question of what this “anything” might consist of. Then, let’s be optimistic about the odds that if there is indeed something spiritually real, any particular religion has a 1 in 100 chance of being correct about it (given the thousands of competing metaphysical philosophies, these are generous odds).
If you and I are religious believers, this leaves us with 1 in 200 odds that our chosen faith is correct. By contrast, an atheist has a 1 in 2 chance of being correct, given the assumption above. These are, of course, arbitrary numbers picked out of the blue. Nonetheless, I keep coming back to the basic question, “What are the odds?” Greater than most faithful generally consider, I suggest.
A big reason why I’ve come to sound like a heretic within my previously chosen faith, Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSSB), is that I have been seriously pondering this question. To me, this is a hopeful sign of humility, not a distressing portent of spiritual backsliding. I no longer assume that, out of all the myriad religions in the world, I’ve been blessed enough to choose (or be chosen by) the very best one.
Likely, I haven’t. Perhaps because there isn’t any “best,” all religions being on a wild goose chase in their quest to know a non-existent God. Perhaps because there is indeed a clearly superior path to God and I haven’t recognized it yet.
I’d like to improve my odds from whatever they are now. Robert said that if I’m wrong about a chosen spiritual path such as RSSB then I’ll find that out after I leave this world. This strikes me as an unwise strategy for playing the God-game. If I don’t seem to be getting the rewards that have been promised, the wiser approach seems to be to change what I’m doing.
As the saying goes, “If you keep on doing what you’re doing, you’ll keep on getting what you’re getting.” I realize that religions promise a big payoff after death, but I’m no longer into promises. Having reached the age of 57, and growing older by the second, I want the real deal. No more promissory notes, thank you.
Lastly, there’s another way to look at this “What are the odds?” question. What are the odds that I could seriously pursue a spiritual path for thirty-five years and find myself at the same place from which I started? I’ve changed over the years. A lot. We all do. We change physically, mentally, emotionally, and, yes, spiritually.
Being an optimist, I consider that most of these changes in us can be called “growth.” Even going downhill physically can be an opportunity to grow in other respects, coming to gracefully accept the inevitable aging process, for example. Yet a religion generally decries any change in a believer that causes him or her to believe differently. People grow while religions, by and large, stay constant.
This creates a tension. A person either has to deny evident growth or at least some tenets of a previously-chosen religion. I’ve chosen the latter course, because what I directly experience is much more real to me than abstract dogma.
When the choice is between loyalty to the truth or to a religious institution, keep in mind this story in Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions:
Lincoln Steffens has a fable of a man who climbed to the top of a mountain and, standing on tiptoe, seized hold of the Truth. Satan, suspecting mischief from this upstart, had directed one of his underlings to tail him; but when the demon reported with alarm the man’s success—that he had seized hold of the Truth—Satan was unperturbed. “Don’t worry,” he yawned. “I’ll tempt him to institutionalize it.”