About a week ago Marina, a visitor to this blog, asked me to explain why I left the spiritual organization that I'd belonged to for about thirty-five years. She then reminded me that I hadn't answered her question, asking again:
What made you leave RS [Radha Soami Satsang Beas] – a major thing or a nagging feeling over the years?
I pointed her to a partial compendium of posts that I've written for this blog, quite a few of which addressed this question. But something kept nagging at me as I thought about her first three words.
What made you...
Had I answered this in my previous posts? Could I answer this query better if I made a fresh attempt? And more basically: Is it possible for anyone to answer a question that begins with "What made you..."?
Somewhat strangely, given my churchless inclinations, I'll address this last basic issue by starting with a memory from my true believing days.
A woman, Signe, who used to give talks at our local RSSB gatherings, liked to say, "We justify our karma." Meaning, when something happens to us that's the result of something we've done in the past, we make up a reason for why it happened.
Because we humans don't like unanswered why's. Mystery is irritating. Our ancestors didn't know what produced lightning and thunder, so they made up stories about Thor and other supernatural powers that govern worldly phenomena.
Now, I no longer believe in the sort of past-life karma that Signe was referring to. However, her essential point still rings true to me.
We are strongly drawn to stating reasons for what happens in our lives, whether a happening seemingly is outside of our control (a plane we're about to leave on has a mechanical problem) or is freely chosen (we order a large coffee rather than a small one).
Neuroscientists, though, know that most of what happens in the brain occurs outside of conscious awareness. I'm going to share a fairly lengthy excerpt from the book "Living as a River" because it is so interesting and germane to this question of whether we can offer up reasons for what we do.
[Background: when someone has split-brain surgery the corpus callosum that allows the two halves of the brain to communicate is severed, so the halves no longer can exchange information and work independently.]
In one intriguing experiment, split-brain subjects were presented with two cognitive tests simultaneously -- one to each side of the brain. (This is possible because of the way in which the left and right visual fields are wired up, respectively, to the right and left hemispheres of the brain.)
The subjects were presented with a picture and asked to point to an object that went with that picture. Both sides of the brain performed perfectly. When the left hemisphere was shown a chicken foot, the right hand would point to a chicken. When the right hemisphere -- simultaneously -- was shown a picture of snow, the left hand would point to a shovel.
But now the subject had to explain why he made his choice. And he had to do this using only his left hemisphere -- the side of the brain that deals with language. But the left hemisphere had only seen one of the pairs of images!
The responses -- typically something like, "I saw a claw and I picked the chicken, and you have to clean out the chicken shed with a shovel" -- made no sense at all. These "explanations" were in fact fictions -- post hoc rationalizations -- because there was in fact no causal connection whatsover between the actions of left and right brains, which were acting in an uncoordinated way.
Thus this experiment shows that even when "I don't know" is the true answer, people will still give made-up reasons for why they did something.
The human brain is largely unknown territory. It's got a lot of hidden layers. To scientists the brain is as difficult to fathom as "God" is for religious believers. Both the brain and God work (or in the case of God, is said to work) in mysterious ways.
I come down on the side of science, which finds our conscious explanations to be poor reflections of unconscious brain processes. But if someone is religiously inclined, he or she also is justified to doubt whether it's reasonable to offer up reasons for what we do.
Karma. God's will. Destiny. Fate. Influences of a higher (or lower) power. These are supernatural notions which, though quite different from scientific findings, point in the same direction:
We can't say why we do what we do, because that information isn't available to us.
So this is a long non-answer to Marina's short question.
I really don't know why I joined Radha Soami Satsang Beas, and I also really don't know why I left the organization. I also really don't know why I married and divorced my first wife, or why I ditched my Nokia cell phone for an iPhone.
Like someone with a split-brain, all I can do is say how things seem to me. Instead of seeing myself as justifying my karma, now I view myself as justifying my unconscious brain processes.
I'll end with this observation:
It seems to me that people are much more apt to ask for a specific reason why someone left a religious organization, than for a specific reason why they joined it. Christians, for example, are pleased to accept "I was moved by the spirit" as an explanation for why someone accepted Jesus as his or her savior.
But if that same person leaves the church, true believers aren't nearly as willing to accept "I was moved by the spirit" as a reason for the de-conversion.
Why not, though?
Isn't it as likely that a mysterious divinity guided someone to join up, as to leave, a spiritual faith? Or, more scientifically, that no good reason can be given for either action, because we aren't privy to the most powerful because's in our brains?