Part Fifteen: Mystical Experiences
The concern I have about the preceding discussion is that it makes the nonrational aspects of our religious beliefs sound like these ideas that we just "shop" for or choose easily, as if beliefs automatically obeyed the will. But oftentimes it is not at all clear that we can just pick and choose certain beliefs; sometimes our beliefs just have this indescribable force, and we cannot easily dismiss them or even question them.
This touches upon another aspect about the belief in God. Many people claim that the belief in God is justified if and when someone has a mystical experience that suggests to this person that God exists. What exactly is a mystical experience? Although it is somewhat inherently vague, many thinkers including William James have described some of its basic features. Mystical experiences are said to be spontaneous, happen when the recipient is passive, are forceful, and are virtually indescribable.
The feature of spontaneity means that mystical experiences do not necessarily follow from a chain of reasoning in which thoughts and ideas lead to some religious conclusion. Instead, the content of a mystical experience seems to spring into one's mind without the mind prompting it forward or seeking it out. This links closely with the feature of passivity, because the experience impinges itself upon the recipient without the person trying to have it. But when the experience does happen, it is strong, convincing, and undeniable to that person; that is what it being forceful means. Unfortunately, the mystical experience, though intense, is said to be difficult to describe in words.
If these are some general characteristics of mystical experiences, what sort of content do they hold? The answer seems to be a variety of things, but usually mystical experiences lead to spiritual, personal, and religious ideas and beliefs. Perhaps some common experiences that may be considered somewhat mystical would be like falling in love, feeling a sublime satisfaction at beholding certain works of art, or just having a sudden, intense feeling of satisfaction in certain pleasant situations. Another sort of mystical experience can be one that supports the belief that God exists. Many theists have this sort of personal experience, and in the past some have called it the "conversion experience." This certainly counts as a nonrational conviction for the belief in God, and it accounts for the vaguer and more intense feelings many of us feel about the issue of God and Godlessness. Many philosophers nonetheless question whether this kind of experience truly justifies the belief in God or not. Does mystical experience justify theism?
First of all, mystical experiences are not arguments for certain beliefs nor would mystics claim that they are. They are personal experiences that convince certain people who have them, and no more. Secondly, the answer from the pragmatic point of view seems to be that mystical experiences are indeed justified so long as they are not terribly impractical and their recipients really believe the experience to be living as an option. Nonetheless, many philosophers are not so pragmatic, and they require a more rational answer that seeks to find general truth and not just personal conviction.
Many thinkers have thus attempted to defend mystical experience in a more general, rational manner. One common defense is that mystical experiences are as justified as sensory experiences because both share the same phenomenological qualities. For example, think of what happens when you read the words on this page. The image of these letters seems to spring directly into your vision, and through your vision to your mind. Secondly, the sensory image impinges itself on you; all you need to do is open your eyes, and images fill your vision. This then indicates the features of spontaneity and passivity, just like mystical experiences have. Thirdly, there is a forceful quality to the things that we see. When you read this sentence, it seems undeniable that the letters you see are there. The image is vivid and it convinces us that the image we see is accurate. Fourthly, it is somewhat hard to describe exactly how sensory experience works. You may find it easy to describe what you're sensing in words, but to describe the sensorial experience itself is rather difficult. Just imagine trying to describe the experience of sight to a blind person. This means that sensory experiences are also forceful and relatively indescribable, just like mystical experiences.
This defense concludes that if sensory experiences are trusted and justified, why can't mystical experiences be justified as well? They seem to do the same thing and share the same characteristics, so why should we trust our senses and ignore our mystical experiences? Though this defense seems plausible enough in a general sense, there are nonetheless two distinct and crucial differences between sensory and mystical experiences: 1) Sensory experiences are sustained while mystical experiences are brief; 2) Sensory experiences can be shared by anyone with the physical capacity to sense them, while mystical experiences seem almost strictly personal.
These differences make all the difference, I think. Sometimes a mystical experience occurs and it seems completely convincing and forceful; but even just a few hours later, it fades away and may even be forgotten. But when you wake up today and everyday, no matter what, sensory experiences will work in full effect and with virtually the same vividness as any other time. I think humans have a natural intuition that consistency like this suggests accuracy and truth about the content of an experience in question. Similarly, I can ask you, "Did you see that tree over there?" and you can say "yes" or "no" because seeing trees is an experience we can both share. But if I ask you whether you had a sudden and intense belief in God just now, it seems unlikely that you could relate. Even if you had a theistic mystical experience at the same time as someone else, your experience would be very different because it is so personal. Though I may perceive a certain tree differently than you (because I don't see as well, for example, or because I'm standing in one place while you're standing in another), our experiences are nonetheless very similar. This too suggests their accuracy.
Mystical experiences are so personal that they can even contradict or oppose one another among various people. You may have a mystical experience that convinces you that a Christian God exists, while someone else has a mystical experience that some Greek God exists; it seems strange to think that you're both right in this case. Sensory experience, on the other hand, is public and shared by most everyone. If I saw something, I can invite people to see the very same thing; but if I had a mystical experience about something, no one will be able to observe it like I can.
Ultimately, I think there is no strictly rational justification for mystical experience like this last defense attempts to provide. However, it is its nonrational conviction that interests me most in this case, and whether or not mysticism is perfectly rational is beside the point pragmatically. Mystical experience seems ultimately justified just because of its liveliness and intensity for the person experiencing it. But though I understand and accept that some people may have mystical experiences that convince them that God exists, I do not find that to be a convincing reason for myself, personally.
Mystical experiences are so personal that they only seem to bind the person experiencing them to them. If you had a mystical experience about God, it just doesn't seem fair of you to try to bind me or hold me accountable for the content of that experience. It would be analogous to holding someone accountable for liking Paris even though they've never been there like you have. I also don't see why someone couldn't have an experience that suggested that God didn't exist; Godless mystical experiences seem as plausible as Godly ones, even if they seem less common.
This raises a pragmatic issue about mystical experience: Does the fact that mystical experiences can convince various people of opposing or contradictory beliefs suggest that they are impractical? It would seem so in certain circumstances. If I feel mystically justified to abort a child while you feel mystically justified to prevent abortions, we're in trouble, aren't we? Who is right? Neither can be right based on mystical experiences alone, because one mystical experience is just as justified as another. There is no "tie-breaker" when mystics clash as there is with sensory experience or rational matters. If we disagree about what we see, we can look again and look closer; if we disagree about a math or logic problem, we can reason it through to find an answer. But mysticism is far too personal to resolve this way. As a result, it may lead to confusion and disagreements that are not easily solved nor resolved.
Still, I think it's important to take mystical experiences into account in our discussion about theism and atheism. Nonrational convictions play a strong role in our religion, and these mystical, vague experiences contribute a great deal. There may be personal difficulties or unresolved questions related to them, but I think it is better to at least recognize their power and influence, however flawed, as opposed to just ignoring them because of their flaws. They are a factor in the religious equation because they're a factor in the human equation; they thus deserve to be recognized and discussed, if nothing else.
I have taken some effort in this document to give theists due credit, and at times, the benefit of the doubt. At every turn and at every stage in my discussion, there were possible remedies to those problems I found with Christianity. I didn't always mention them explicitly, but I have encountered far too many sensitive and intelligent Christians to think that were not some potential solutions. However, a Christian would be far better qualified to explain them than me.
I am not trying to convert theists to atheism. Many theists lead very normal and happy lives, and I would not want to unnecessarily jeopardize that peace with strong words and bold themes. But the truth is, there are some problems that need to be settled about the belief in God and the nature of God. I fear that some of the Christian sentiments are becoming antiquated in an increasingly changing world; but I leave that discussion to my atheistic, humanist comrades who address problems such as prayer at public schools and a creationist origin of the universe being taught in science classes.
I've also seen some strange and disturbing manifestations of Christianity and God. Who hasn't? The fervor I find in the television evangelists scares me; criminals and maniacs oftentimes twist Scripture into supporting their actions, and that fact is equally frightening. I can breathe a sigh of relief, however, knowing that these extreme examples are nonrepresentative of theism in general. This negative stereotyping happens to atheists in a similar fashion; there are some really crazy atheists out there, such as many anarchists, and though they give atheism a bad name, they do not and should not be representative of atheism as a whole.
There are still less extreme problems that I see facing Christianity. I am concerned about its submissive message to humankind; meekness can be valuable, but many times there is a dangerous leaning toward self-degradation. Humility is one thing and humiliation is another. I'm not sure how seriously Christians take to heart some biblical passages that promote this kind of sentiment. Though most seem to take it in stride, many clearly handle it poorly. There is still great emphasis upon guilt regarding one's sins, a judgmental attitude regarding other people's sins, and sometimes an almost complete obsession with quoting and referring to the Bible.
So although I am very pleased that Christianity has brought joy to so many people, it is a cautious pleasure. I am concerned about what it does to our esteem as a human race and where it puts humankind in the place of the universe. I think theists are worried that atheists make too much of humans by placing them on too high a pedestal. But that simply isn't true. The atheist can have a healthy appreciation of their own humble place in the scheme of things; just look at the size of the universe and the size of humans in it and one is humbled enough.
Christians are not these pitiful and dejected creatures, to be sure, but what if some of them could only learn to better appreciate their own abilities and opportunities in this world? I worry that for all of the attention and emphasis placed by Christians on God, the Holy Bible, and other such otherworldly conditions, there is an overextension of our labors into something beyond the human condition. When the Christian wrongs someone, they may choose to make peace with God about it, or if Catholic, go to Reconciliation and confess that wrong to some priest to be forgiven. If the atheist wrongs someone, their only options are to apologize directly to the person whom they wronged, or just internalize it. For what cannot be faced or dealt with, such as having wronged someone who is now dead, the atheist must learn to forgive themselves. I firmly believe that the latter method would lead to a greater personal peace among people.
For every great work of charity and humanism Christians have been responsible for, there has been some twisted and self-serving manifestation of that very same religion. For all of the great humans born into Christian idealogy, there have almost been as many criminals using that same theology. For all of the peace that Christianity promotes so wisely, there have been religious wars and persecutions based upon the same doctrines. It is hard for me as an atheist to assess whether Christianity has overall helped the human race more than it has hurt it.
But putting history and the big picture of the present aside, I have witnessed the tranquility and satisfaction Christianity has brought to many people's lives. When I first became an atheist, I was very wary of Christians; I argued about God and Godlessness very passionately. But as I have grown older, I have learned to enjoy quiet conversation with theists and avoid those heated debates. Through my conversations, I can sense that despite what I consider to be some potential philosophical flaws, many Christians are quite satisfied to believe what they do.
A more important quality about my conversations is the general reaction I get from Christians when I tell them that I am an atheist. Most people are extremely respectful of my opinions and our conversations are civilly engaging. I hope that perhaps these kinds of pleasant dialogues, perhaps vaguely reminiscent of Plato's Socratic dialogues, can replace the argumentative debates most Godly discussions digress into. Talking about God and matters related to this subject are so often held at a debating style forum, where positions and counterpositions are flung about like strategic moves upon a chessboard. There is an element of wanting to compete, to win, and to seem better than the person one is debating.
But quiet conversation drops this combativeness, and from this springs an attitude of mutual respect and cooperation. I feel this cooperative attitude is paramount to my message to Christians and theists. For all of the metaphysical and personal differences that theists and atheists have, we are still basically human and we share a common concern for the human race. Humanistic ideals are clearly shared by both parties, and let that never be forgotten when we disagree. Too often I see the line drawn between God and the Godless, and as a result, there arises a deep sense of opposition. But if a Christian has something heartfelt and intelligent to say to me, I will not turn them away.
I ask that Christians and all theists do the same for atheists. Christians have reconsidered and reinterpreted many doctrines in the Bible, and I wish they would take the passage that degrades atheism into more consideration as well. (And while they're at it, possibly reconsider biblical attitudes toward women, people of different sexual preferences, and animals too). Tolerance is the virtue that the present day and age is learning, and Christianity ought to do its part.
I do not think that God is dead. That is, I do not think that the concept of God is a meaningless and outdated one; but it's beginning to ebb in its power over humankind, and it's going to have to change if it is to stay alive. I ask that theists take to heart and mind the nature of their beliefs, reflecting upon what I have said earlier in this work. Hopefully along the way, there will come a slightly more respectful and educated awareness about the Godless.
Surely there will be some atheists reading this book thinking that perhaps I have given theists too much credit. This would not surprise me at all, because many of the atheists that I have encountered generally hold a more aggressive stance toward theism. It is as if after a long history of silence and persecution, atheists are now making up for lost time. But as reasonable thinkers, we sometimes have to give those with whom we disagree the benefit of the doubt. My goal is to represent both sides of this issue fairly, and that isn't intended to fence-sit or to avoid controversy. It's done to try to show the brand of atheism I would like see wielded by my ideological comrades.
Atheists have certainly prospered in the 20th century, using the progress of science and logic to support them. "Reason" is the catch-word of atheism, and I find that faculty to be a fantastic virtue to promote in our society. But as the pendulum had swung too far toward Christianity for the last two millennia, atheists are perhaps striking out to swing the pendulum too far the other way today. I've spoken with some really cocky, logic-wielding atheists who frankly discourage me.
I would like to see the modern atheist resemble the figure of Socrates more than the Sophist. One of atheism's great qualities, one that I have spiritually enjoyed, is the freedom to explore the world, unshackled by spoon-fed beliefs and decisions. There is no bible holding the atheist down, nor any creed committing the atheist unnecessarily to any one doctrine. The atheist must take those necessary pragmatic risks of belief, but has the potential to do so with less restriction. The atheist has potentially more personal and intellectual power and opportunity to change their mind.
But I have often marvelled at the typical scene of an atheist and Christian debate. The Christian speaks their mind, and then the atheist, out of all the things they can say in response, invariably chooses to debate why the Bible is wrong, or point out all of the negative things Christianity represents, or why the concept of God is a paradox. Certainly we are free to discuss what we will, but I feel that atheists can do their part with more varied and positive arguments. In this book, I certainly indulge in criticizing Christianity and theism, but that is in the attempt to level the playing field for atheists. I want to provoke questions and concerns, but little more. I also hope I was able to convey some of the richer aspects of the atheistic life. I did not want to share too much of my personal testimonial, but I at least try to describe why atheism succeeds at being a very real and legitimate religious choice for some people.
This much is clear: Atheists deserve a lot more attention, representation, and respect than they been given. The government still has an incredible tendency to lean toward Christianity, from conducting prayers to labeling the currency with "In God We Trust." When the new atheist first realizes just how strongly the world ideologically leans against them, it can be discouraging and maddening. In turn, the atheist's reaction tends to be an angry one, or at least more aggressive.
There might very well be a better policy for doing what atheists want to have done than this intellectual aggression. That policy is one I try to outline and exemplify in this text, one I am sure has been used for centuries. I have every respect for formal argumentation, but there can nonetheless be a stilted and unappealing quality to it. Philosophical issues become too much the stuff of classroom curiosity and coffee shop conversation pieces. The most in-depth discussions have become inaccessible to the masses, for they have become readable and understandable only by those select scholars in the academic community who play by the same stylistic rules and understand the same special jargon.
But philosophy was not born in the classroom, and philosophical issues do not disappear when the school-bell rings or the coffee mugs empty. We carry philosophy in the pocket of our minds and hearts, 24 hours a day, influencing every action, decision, and opinion we make. I'm trying to take this discussion of God and Godlessness to the level where it moves us most; not in the classroom with eloquent rhetoric, but with a more subjective and human accounting for religion. This is why I moved toward a discussion of pragmatism and more emotional convictions.
When I first began to become a more morally responsible atheist, I was appalled by the lack of literature on the subject. When I finally did find books about atheism, I was even further shocked by the incredibly negative and clinical positions taken in nearly every text. I admit that I too have contributed to many disrespectful conversations against Christians; that fact seems to pervade the Godless movement in this country, but it will never advance the cause very far if it continues.
Because history is so stacked against the atheist, I do not expect to see a complete respect given to the Godless in my lifetime. Things can only change so fast, after all. But I feel that the next step towards a greater and more long-lasting change has to come from atheists internally. When the atheist brings the discussion of God to the human level where it was born and treats it with the respect, humility, and cooperative spirit that it deserves, then atheism will be in a position to make itself better known to the world. This move may not be as easily done as said, but it is at least an alternate route for the atheist movement.
I ask atheists earnestly: Represent your cause, whatever it may be, with honor and respect toward those who disagree with it. No one can rightfully condemn the honorable thinker, and behind all thinkers with or without a God, there is the solitary human individual. Let the new humanism extend itself patiently and cooperatively to those who would oppose the Godless, and I can almost guarantee that we'll be moving in the right direction.