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Bruce, Have You Ever Had a Supernatural Experience?

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A commenter on this blog, T34, recently asked the following question on the post titled, Is Christianity a Blood Cult?

I read a few of the articles [on this blog] and none of the titles seem to answer my question. Please know I [am]not an evangelist. I honestly am searching for answers. I want to know if Bruce has had any supernatural or spiritual (not religious) experiences or relationship with God or another? I would like to understand more why Bruce chose to be an outright atheist as opposed to just non-religious or agnostic. And if he has had any supernatural or spiritual experiences I’d like to know what they were and what he thinks of them now.

Polly and I typically listen to The Atheist Experience on Sunday nights before we go to bed. This week, Matt Dillahunty, one the hosts, mentioned the difficulty in defining the word “spiritual” or “spirituality.” Ask a hundred people to define these words and you will get 101 different answers. “Spiritual” to a Baptist is very different from the way a Catholic, Buddhist, Pagan, or humanist might define the word. T34 equates “spiritual” with “supernatural,” so I will proceed using that definition, understanding that there is no absolute textbook definition for these words. For example, a Charismatic Christian considers speaking in tongues to be “supernatural” experience. An Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) Christian, however, considers speaking in tongues a tool used by Satan to lead people astray.

Before I answer T34’s question, I do want to answer one claim that she makes: she suggests that supernatural and spiritual experiences are not religious. I don’t believe that at all. It is religion, in all its shapes and forms — organized or not — that gives life to supernatural and spiritual claims. Without religion, I doubt humans would have much need for such experiences.

My editor pointed out that non-religious people can and do have paranormal experiences. Are paranormal experiences such as “seeing” ghosts supernatural in nature? Maybe, but I suspect that if naturalism and science had a stronger hold on our thinking, thoughts of ghosts would likely fade away. I’m deliberately painting with a BWAPB — Bruce’s Wide Ass Paint Brush. I recognize that there could be some experiences that might not fit in the box I have constructed in this post. Unlikely, but possible.

I had a church piano player in Somerset who was certain that her dead lover (long story) appeared next to her when she played the piano. I never saw him, but she swore he was right there cheering her on as she played “Victory in Jesus.” Could her story be true? Sure, but not in the way some people may think it is. Her story is true in the sense that she “thinks” it is. In her mind, this man is very real, even though his dead body is planted in the nearby cemetery. Thus such things can be “true” without actually being factually and rationally true.

I was part of the Christian church for 50 years. While I spent my preschool years in Lutheran and Episcopal churches, once I started first grade in 1963, I attended Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB), Southern Baptist, and garden variety Evangelical churches. I spent 25 years pastoring Evangelical churches in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan, pastoring my last church in 2003.

When I discuss the spiritual/supernatural experiences I have experienced in my life, these events must be understood in light of the sects I was raised in, what my pastors taught me, what I learned in Bible college, and my personal learning and observations as a Christian and as an Evangelical pastor. My understanding of what is spiritual/supernatural is socially, culturally, tribally, and environmentally conditioned. A Southern Baptist church can be located on the northwest corner of Main and High in Anywhere, Ohio and a Pentecostal church located on the southeast corner of Main and High in the same town. Both preach Jesus as the virgin-born son of God, who came to earth, lived a sinless life, and died on the cross for our sins. Both preach that all of us are sinners in need of salvation, that one must be born again to inherit the Kingdom of God. And both believe Satan is real, Hell is sure, and Donald Trump is the great white hope. Yet, when it comes to “experiencing” God, these churches wildly diverge from one another. The Pentecostals consider the Baptists dead and lifeless, lacking Holy Ghost power, while the Baptists consider their Pentecostal neighbors to be way too emotional, to have a screw loose. Both churches “experience” God in their own way, following in the footsteps of their parents, grandparents, and older saints who have come before them.

As a man who pastored several churches in desperate need of change, I heard on more than a few occasions church leaders and congregants say, when confronted with doing something new or different, “That’s not the way we do it!” Behaviors become deeply ingrained among Christian church members. Our forefathers did it this way, we do it this way, and we expect our children and grandchildren will do the same. A popular song in many Evangelical churches is the hymn, “I Shall Not be Moved.” The chorus says:

I shall not be, I shall not be moved.
I shall not be, I shall not be moved;
like a tree planted by the water,
I shall not be moved.

That chorus pretty well explains most churches. Whatever their beliefs and practices are, they “shall not be moved.” So it is when determining what are real “spiritual” or “supernatural” experiences.

supernatural

As a Baptist, I believed the moment I was saved/born-again, that God, in the person of the Holy Spirit, came into my “heart” and lived inside of me, teaching me everything that pertains to life and godliness. It was the Holy Spirit who was my teacher and guide. It was the Holy Spirit who taught me the “truth.” It was the Holy Spirit who convicted me of sin. It was the Holy Spirit (God) who heard and answered my prayers. It was the Holy Spirit who directed every aspect of my life.

As a pastor, I typically preached a minimum of 4 sermons a week. I spent several full days a week — typically 20 hours a week — reading and studying the Biblical text, commentaries, and other theological tomes. As I put my sermons together, I sought God’s help to construct them in such a way that people would hear and understand what I had to say. Daily, I asked God to fill me with his presence and power, especially when I entered the pulpit to preach. I always spent time confessing my sins before preaching, believing it was vitally important for me to “right” with God before I stood before my church and said, “thus saith the Lord.”

I expected the Holy Spirit to take my words and use them to work supernaturally among those under the sound of my voice. I believed that it was God alone who could save sinners, convict believers of their sin, or bring “revival” to our church. I saw myself as helpless — without me, ye can do nothing, the Bible says — without the supernatural indwelling and empowerment of the Holy Spirit.

As a committed Christian, I was a frequent pray-er. I prayed for all sorts of things, from the trivial to things beyond human ability and comprehension. I believed that with God all things were possible. In the moment, I believed that God, through the work of the third part of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, was working supernaturally in my life, that of my family, and of my church. My whole life was a “spiritual” experience, of sorts. God was always with me, no matter where I went, what I said, or what I did, so how could it have been otherwise?

In November 2008, God, the Holy Spirit, along with all of his baggage, was expelled from my life. For the past twelve years, I have taken the broom of reason, science, skepticism, and intellectual inquiry and swept the Christian God from every corner of my mind. While I wish I could say that that my mind is swept clean of God, dust-devils remain, lurking in the deep corners and crevasses of my mind. All I know to do is keep sweeping until I can no longer see “God” lurking in the shadows.

T34 wants to know how I now view the “spiritual” and “supernatural” experiences from my past life as a Christian and Evangelical pastor. As an atheist, I know that these experiences were not, in any way, connected to God. I have concluded that the Christian God is a myth, that he/she/it is of human origin. If there is no God, then how do I “explain” the God moments I experienced in my life? Does Bruce, the atheist, have an explanation for what “God” did in his life for almost 50 years?

Sure. The answer to this question is really not that difficult. I spent decades being indoctrinated by my parents, pastors, and professors in what they deemed was the “faith once delivered to the saints.” This indoctrination guaranteed the trajectory of my life, from a little redheaded boy who said he wanted to be a preacher when he grew up — not a baseball player, policeman, or trash truck driver, but a preacher — to a Bible college-trained man of God who pastored seven churches over 25 years in the ministry. I couldn’t have been anything other than a pastor.

And so it is with the “spiritual” and “supernatural” experiences I had in my life. My parents, churches, pastors, and professors modeled certain beliefs and practices to me. I “experienced” God the very same way these people did. Social and tribal conditioning determined how I would “experience” God, not God himself. He doesn’t exist, remember?

I sincerely believed that, at the time, God was speaking to me, God was leading me, and God was supernaturally working in and through my life. But just because I believed these things to be true, doesn’t mean they were. A better understanding of science has forced me to see that my past life was built upon a lie, a well-intended con. This is tough for me to admit. In doing so, I am admitting that much of my life was a waste of time. Sure, I did a lot of good for other people, but the “spiritual” and “supernatural” stuff? Nonsense. Nothing, but nonsense. And saying this, even today, is hard for me to do. It’s difficult and painful for me to admit that I wasted so much of my life in the pursuit of something that does not exist.

T34 asked why I “chose to be an outright atheist as opposed to just non-religious or agnostic.” I am not sure what an “outright” atheist is as opposed to an atheist. Remembering what I said about the connection between religion and the “spiritual” and “supernatural,” isn’t someone who is non-religious an atheist or an agnostic? While such people may not carry such labels, aren’t non-religious people those who do not believe in deities? If someone believes in a God of some sort, be it a personal deity or some sort of divine energy, they can’t properly, from my perspective, be considered non-religious.

Granted, there is a difference between people who are non-religious and people who are indifferent towards religion. An increasing number of Americans are indifferent towards religion. They simply don’t give a shit about religion, be it organized or not. I suspect that many of these NONES will eventually become agnostics and/or atheists.

I label myself this way:

I am agnostic on the God question. I am convinced that the extant deities are no gods at all; that the Abrahamic God is a human construct. That said, I cannot know for certain whether, in the future, a deity might make itself known to us. I consider the probability of this happening to be .00000000000000000000001. Thus, I live my day-to-day life as an atheist — as if no deity exists. I see no evidence for the existence of any God, be it Jehovah, Jesus, Allah, Vishnu, or a cast of thousands of other gods. The only time I “think” about God is when I am writing for this blog. Outside of my writing, I live a God-free life, as do my wife, dog, and cat.

Bruce Gerencser, 63, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 42 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen awesome grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

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Kindred Spirits in a Pathless Land — Part Eleven

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Guest post by Kindred Spirits

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, Part Eight, Part Nine, Part Ten

So you think science is the antidote to sloppy emotional thinking as shown in the last few posts? Alas, scientists and scientific funding are subject to our non-rational brains too. Richard Feynman was a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project creating the atomic bomb in World War II. In the essay below, Feynman discusses some of the many challenges that scientists face which are examples of the “…first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.”

Cargo Cult Science, by Richard Feynman:

We have learned a lot from experience about how to handle some of the ways we fool ourselves. One example: Millikan measured the charge on an electron by an experiment with falling oil drops and got an answer which we now know not to be quite right. It’s a little bit off, because he had the incorrect value for the viscosity of air. It’s interesting to look at the history of measurements of the charge of the electron, after Millikan. If you plot them as a function of time, you find that one is a little bigger than Millikan’s, and the next one’s a little bit bigger than that, and the next one’s a little bit bigger than that, until finally they settle down to a number which is higher.

Why didn’t they discover that the new number was higher right away? It’s a thing that scientists are ashamed of—this history—because it’s apparent that people did things like this: When they got a number that was too high above Millikan’s, they thought something must be wrong—and they would look for and find a reason why something might be wrong. When they got a number closer to Millikan’s value they didn’t look so hard. And so they eliminated the numbers that were too far off, and did other things like that. We’ve learned those tricks nowadays, and now we don’t have that kind of a disease.

But this long history of learning how to not fool ourselves—of having utter scientific integrity—is, I’m sorry to say, something that we haven’t specifically included in any particular course that I know of. We just hope you’ve caught on by osmosis.

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that.

In another essay, Feynman argues that religion has a role in ethics, despite the metaphysics of religions being doubtful. He also investigated various mystical and alternative mental states (e.g., from sensory deprivation chambers), and seemingly decided that while the phenomena existed, it didn’t prove that any of the religious metaphysics was true.  You can read more of his thoughts in: The Relation of Science and Religion, by Richard Feynman.

Lastly, Feynman worked on creating the atomic bomb. Originally, he joined knowing that the Germans were also working an atomic bomb. However, after the Germans surrendered, the target was switched from the Germans to the Japanese who were not developing an atomic bomb, and he didn’t even question that change of the target at the time. (In an interview I saw, he seemed to think it was an ethical failure on his part. Alas, I could not find the video clip.)

So the question is, did science help Feynman make this ethical judgment? Did he make the correct ethical judgment?

Kindred Spirits in a Pathless Land — Part Ten

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Guest post by Kindred Spirits

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, Part Eight, Part Nine

The Vagaries of Religious Experience

Psychology experiments showing how logic can be short-circuited in our brains:

The Vagaries of Religious Experience, Edge, 2005,by Daniel Gilbert

…First, explanations that rely on the inexplicable are not explanations at all. They have the form of explanations, but they do not have the content. Yet, psychology experiments reveal that people are often satisfied by empty form. For instance, when experimenters approached people who were standing in line at a photocopy machine and said, “Can I get ahead of you?” the typical answer was no. But when they added to the end of this request the words “because I need to make some copies,” the typical answer was yes. The second request used the word “because” and hence sounded like an explanation, and the fact that this explanation told them nothing that they didn’t already know was oddly irrelevant.

In another study, experimenters approached people in a library, handed them a card with a $1 coin attached, and then walked away. Some people received the card on the top, and some received the card on the bottom:

card-one

card-two

Although the two extra questions on the bottom card —- “Who are we?” and “Why do we do this?” — provide no information whatsoever, they do give one the sense that puzzling questions have been posed and then answered. The results of the study showed that the people who received the bottom card were, in fact, less curious and less delighted twenty minutes after receiving it than were people who received the top card because only the latter felt that something wonderful and inexplicable had happened. In short, what William Paley did not realize is that statements such as “God made it” can satiate the appetite for explanation without providing any nutritional value.

Read the full article for additional examples of how our brain sees agency in random events.

Why are We Happy?

Another example of how many of our projections of how we would react to events turn out to be wildly wrong is a TED talk by Gilbert titled The Surprising Science of Happiness:

Video Link

Or, for those that prefer reading, there is an interactive script of Gilbert’s speech. (If you click on any phrase, it takes you to that part of the video):

From field studies to laboratory studies, we see that winning or losing an election, gaining or losing a romantic partner, getting or not getting a promotion, passing or not passing a college test, on and on, have far less impact, less intensity and much less duration than people expect them to have. This almost floors me — a recent study showing how major life traumas affect people suggests that if it happened over three months ago, with only a few exceptions, it has no impact whatsoever on your happiness.

And of course, in psychological studies, there is the infamous Milgram Experiment, and the Stanford Prison Experiment, neither of which I’ll get in to, but you’re welcome to follow the hot links for more information

The overall point though is this: how our brains actually work and make decisions is not nearly as logical as we’d like to think it is. We’re all subject to these strange decision processes, and are largely unaware of them.

Kindred Spirits in a Pathless Land — Part Eight

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Guest post by Kindred Spirits

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven

Susan Blackmore — Out of Body Experience

Susan Blackmore had an out-of-body experience in 1970 that she thought was astral projection at the time. She later earned a PhD in Parapsychology. She’s now an atheist, practices Zen meditation on retreats but does not consider herself a Buddhist, and researches consciousness, out-of-body experiences, and memes, among other things. (Her website)

An account on her website of her out-of-body experience, which links to another web site with a more complete discussion of her out-of-body-experience, due to additional notes and comments made long after the original writing.

“Out-of-the-Body, Explained Away, But It Was So Real…..”, by Susan Blackmore:

“The next day I tried to check up on things I had seen and immediately discovered that some were wrong. For example, I had ‘seen’ old metal gutters on the roofs of the college when in the morning I realised that they were modern white plastic ones. I had seemed to travel through rooms above Vicki’s room which were not in fact there, and had seen chimneys which did not exist. This led me to all sorts of sceptical questioning, but more to elaborate my astral theories than to abandon them. For many years I continued to think of my experience as an astral excursion.”

[…..]

I do not believe I would ever have become a parapsychologist had I not had this experience. Yes, I was interested in the paranormal before it happened, but parapsychology did not become an abiding passion until this night. Afterwards I knew that there were other non-ordinary states of consciousness – other ways of being – that seemed somehow more real, more right, more direct than ordinary life. This had two effects on me. One I wanted to repeat the experience, and two I wanted to understand it.

As far as understanding is concerned I assumed, initially, that I had to understand the nature of the astral world and astral travel. I knew that my lecturers at Oxford would not countenance such ideas and that science in general rejected them utterly. I assumed that only parapsychology could help and therefore conceived an overwhelming desire to become a parapsychologist and to prove them all wrong. The story of how I set about to do this, and how I ultimately changed my mind, is told in my autobiography In Search of the Light.

[….]

Meditation

Many years later I began to realise that it was the clarity of awareness that I wished to find again, not the out-of-body experience itself. I began learning meditation in about 1975, but only intermittently. In 1982 I went on my first Zen retreat, and in 1986 I began to practice mindfulness (being in the present moment in daily life) and took up regular daily meditation which I have continued to this day. I have described some of this in In Search of the Light and in various articles. Through this practice I have found that the confusion of ordinary awareness can be dropped, or let go, and clarity is simply there. It is not something to be sought or obtained. I no longer try to have more OBEs.

Reading her story, imagine if someone with a different starting set of assumptions had the same experience, what conclusions would they draw? E.g., would a Christian assume they had been drawn up to the seventh heaven, as Paul was, and therefore believe that all the Bible was true? (Also, would Paul have experienced galaxies, given that the cosmology of the time did not know they even existed?) Would a Hindu devotee of Krishna have assumed that therefore all of the Bhagavad Gita was therefore true? Ie, Does anything about the experience support any particular religious tradition over another? Does it require that all of that tradition is therefore true? That all of that tradition’s dogma and doctrine is true? Salvation by grace vs good works? The details of the trinity? Papal infallibility? Young earth vs Old earth creationism?

It was interesting that she had an insightful perception about the chimney’s early on, and yet it still took quite a while before concluding psi and astral projection were not real. And it can’t be blamed on childhood indoctrination. Also, it took many years of experimenting with drugs and other attempts to repeat the out-of-body experience, before she concluded she just wants clarity of insight into the real world, and meditation gets her that. In short, our own ability to fool ourselves is quite strong!

There are additional essays on her website that are interesting, although it’s been too long since I’ve read them to recommend any particular ones – just sample any topics you’re interested in.

Kindred Spirits in a Pathless Land — Part Seven

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Guest post by Kindred Spirits

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six

Continuing from the last installment regarding “The Big Silence” documentary, and the thoughts of Maggie Ross the 30+ year professed solitary and theologian…
Maggie Ross’ view of the relationship between silence and religion is shown in one of the essays in her book “Writing the Icon of the Heart.” According to Ross, the Church began losing its understanding of the role of silence during the 1400s, with disastrous consequences of not understanding the metaphors contained in the Bible. In particular, she’s a stickler for the use of the world “behold.” My understanding is that the types of experiences you get from extended silence, as demonstrated in “The Big Silence” documentary, are what “beholding” is about. (Although she also makes a distinction that most of the actual resulting of sitting in silence and beholding isn’t the “experiences,” but the changes that occur in the subconscious that one is not even directly aware of.)

You can read excerpts from the book online at the publisher’s website: Writing the Icon of the Heart, In Silence Beholding;

From the Introduction:

This silence is not the absence of noise; it is the vast interior landscape that invites us to stillness. At its heart, in our heart, it is the Other. Silence is not in itself religious, but to express the ineffable joys found in its depths is almost impossible without metaphors that frequently sound religious.

Silence and beholding coinhere, mutually informing one another.

Beholding, also, is not in itself religious; the primordial silence we engage in beholding is unnamable and not an object. Beholding leaves traces in its context and bestows an energy that is likewise often expressed in religious metaphor.

If the silence and the beholding that underlie these metaphors are not acknowledged and understood, we cannot interpret any of the texts that refer to the processes of the interior life, including Scripture. For example, in the Bible the imperative form of the word ‘behold’ has more than 1300 occurrences in Hebrew and Greek. After God has blessed the newly created humans, the first word he speaks to them directly is ‘Behold’. This is the first covenant, and the only one necessary; the later covenants are concessions to those who will not behold. In the NRSV the word ‘behold’ appears only 27 times in the Old Testament and the Apocrypha, and not at all in the New Testament.

[….]

One of the reasons for writing this book is to attempt to make more accessible the assumptions about silence and beholding that underlie the often arcane language of the interior life. To do this, I have often referred to key functions of the brain that are familiar to everyone. The paradox of intention is the one most critical to both silence and the religious metaphors that refer to it, and it turns up in these essays in a number of guises. I have illustrated some of these observations about the mind with quotations from Isaac of Nineveh, whose unsurpassed writing on the spiritual life is underpinned with a psychological acuity that was widespread among ancient and medieval writers. In many ways they knew more about the way the mind works than we do; some of the most basic insights—such as how we arrive at insight—have corollaries in recent neurobiological studies. This correlation does not ‘prove’ anything, however; it rather shows convergence at a cellular level with what had been common knowledge for millennia until about the middle of the 15th century, when the practice of silence was suppressed by the Western church.

A summary of some of the things that change in your life once you embrace silence, which she writes about in a blog post titled Ethics Issuing from Silence IV:

It is something of a shock the first time you walk into a big store and realize that not only is there nothing you want to buy but that most of what is on offer looks shabby and sad (not to mention a waste of natural resources). It isn’t a matter of like or dislike but rather of indifference and compassion.

[….]

You seek wisdom. Slogans, half-truth, political insincerity, being told what someone thinks you want to hear (he or she is often trained to manipulate instead of relate) as opposed of being told the truth becomes so naked that you wonder why anyone falls for these ploys—until you look at the faces around you and see the expressions of lostness, bewilderment and pain.

In short, there is good news and bad news. The “bad” news is that you will never again feel at home in the culture around you. The good news is that you now lead a life whose riches were once unimaginable.

Heaven Can’t Wait

And another example of Ross’ views, “Heaven Can’t Wait,” demonstrating that she doesn’t follow the “official” views regarding heaven and hell. The first part is excerpted below, with links to the remaining parts that are serialized on her website:

Heaven Can’t Wait, by Maggie Ross

“What do you think happens when we die?”

My eighty-year-old mother had the pedal to the metal. We were hurtling through spring sunshine and green hills, past the long sparkling lakes that mark the San Andreas fault just south of San Francisco. I was careful, very careful, not to express surprise at her question. Religion was an unmentionable subject in our family, a topic loaded with dangerous intimacy.

Her Edwardian outlook, capacity for denial, and inability ever to let go of anything were hallmarks of her life, yet she had grown old with unusual grace. Paradox was her métier: when facing a difficult choice she would worry and fret, twist and turn, her anxiety levels skyrocketing. But when the dreaded task could be avoided no longer, she would walk serenely through the jaws of whatever it was she had feared as if she were going to a garden party at the Palace of the Legion of Honor.

She liked to present herself as a grande dame but she had a wild streak, which I encouraged whenever it peeked out of its elegant shell. The car we were riding in was the consequence of one of these glimpses. Little did I know that it was a mild flutter compared to the escapades her envious, more conventional friends would recount after her death.

“What do you think happens when we die?” Her question was costly; how long had she been waiting for the right moment to ask it? What had provoked it? She was not requesting a story or a discussion but demanding a naked truth that would bridge the abyss between our conflicting perspectives. Underneath my mother’s studied nonchalance lay barely controlled terror; for me, death was as familiar as my own face.

I shifted slightly, as far as the bucket seat, restraints, and g-forces would allow, trying to respond as casually as she had asked the question, laughing a little at the existential and cosmic incongruities.

“My views on this subject are mindlessly simple. I think the universe is made of love and that when we die we are somehow drawn deeper into that love.”

Having obtained the information she desired, Mother withdrew into her own thoughts, and we traveled the rest of the way to Palo Alto in silence. I have no idea what she thought about heaven. She was an obsessively private person and not an abstract thinker. Until the last four nights of her life, when she had no other choice, this single exchange was as close as she would ever allow me to come. To ask for comfort would have been, for her, a serious moral lapse.”

Read all 5 parts at her blog:  Heaven Can’t Wait, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5

Kindred Spirits in a Pathless Land — Part Four

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Part One, Part Two, Part Three

Guest post by Kindred Spirits

Sam Harris

One of the more interesting and surprising people who has spoken in favor of mysticism is Sam Harris, one of the so-called “new atheists.” Harris has a PhD in neurosciences and an undergraduate degree in philosophy, and spent considerable time studying Hinduism and philosophy and going on silent retreats.

The neuroscientist and rationalist has made his name attacking religious faith. Who knew he was so spiritual?

From a Newsweek article entitled Rationalist Sam Harris Believes in God:

The neuroscientist and rationalist has made his name attacking religious faith. Who knew he was so spiritual?

For his praise of the contemplative experience in The End of Faith, Harris has received criticism from atheists. [….]

“I see nothing irrational about seeking the states of mind that lie at the core of many religions. Compassion, awe, devotion and feelings of oneness are surely among the most valuable experiences a person can have,” he writes. [….]

Though he prefers the Eastern mystics, he sees some wisdom in the Western mystical tradition as well. “If I open a page of [the 13th-century Christian mystic] Meister Eckhart, I often know what he’s talking about.”

In the following speech from 2007, which appears on his blog, he makes some interesting observations, excerpted below. The first half of the speech is an attack on organized religion, as one would expect from Harris, and you can skip it if you’re pressed for time, but definitely read the second half, which is far more interesting, as it’s quite positive regarding mysticism or contemplation, and makes some interesting analogies.

The Problem with Atheism:

One clue as to how daunting most people would find such a project is the fact that solitary confinement—which is essentially what we are talking about—is considered a punishment even inside a prison. Even when cooped up with homicidal maniacs and rapists, most people still prefer the company of others to spending any significant amount of time alone in a box.

And yet, for thousands of years, contemplatives have claimed to find extraordinary depths of psychological well-being while spending vast stretches of time in total isolation. It seems to me that, as rational people, whether we call ourselves “atheists” or not, we have a choice to make in how we view this whole enterprise. Either the contemplative literature is a mere catalogue of religious delusion, deliberate fraud, and psychopathology, or people have been having interesting and even normative experiences under the name of “spirituality” and “mysticism” for millennia.

[….]

Leaving aside all the metaphysics and mythology and mumbo jumbo, what contemplatives and mystics over the millennia claim to have discovered is that there is an alternative to merely living at the mercy of the next neurotic thought that comes careening into consciousness. There is an alternative to being continuously spellbound by the conversation we are having with ourselves.

Most us think that if a person is walking down the street talking to himself—that is, not able to censor himself in front of other people—he’s probably mentally ill. But if we talk to ourselves all day long silently—thinking, thinking, thinking, rehearsing prior conversations, thinking about what we said, what we didn’t say, what we should have said, jabbering on to ourselves about what we hope is going to happen, what just happened, what almost happened, what should have happened, what may yet happen—but we just know enough to just keep this conversation private, this is perfectly normal. This is perfectly compatible with sanity. Well, this is not what the experience of millions of contemplatives suggests.

Not excerpted above, but he also asks where astronomy would be if each person had to make his own telescope and was unable to borrow anyone else’s telescope. Contemplation is like that — no one else can meditate for you.

Apparently, while many neuroscientists study consciousness, relatively few of them actually engage in silent retreats and regular meditation. In other words, they study consciousness from the outside, but rarely evaluate it from the “inside,” despite there being a long trail of various meditation efforts in various cultures around the world. Sam Harris seems to be one of the few that does both.

Harris, reading the Eastern and Western mystics, understands and has experienced many of the same phenomenon that those mystics wrote about, and yet does not ascribe those phenomena to a “god,” at least not “god” as defined by most Fundamentalists.

More recently, Harris has written a book about meditation: “Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. I have not read the book, but I think I read a few interviews about it when it first came out, and it appeared to be in line with the excerpts above, but with a lot more technique on how to go about meditation. I also downloaded and listened to one of his guided meditations.

To be continued…

Kindred Spirits in a Pathless Land — Part Three

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Guest post by Kindred Spirits

Religious to Atheist to Religious Again

And now, a couple examples of Stage IV people, both from the Christian tradition, and as much information as you want about the way they think (since each has written books). Both were religious when younger, then became atheists, and then later in life became Christians again. (Umm, well mostly. Not exactly sure what religious label Karen Armstrong identifies as. She is a religious scholar, and seems to put a great value on religion though. So I’ll put her in Stage IV in Peck’s framework, as I think it fits reasonably well.)

From the quoted excerpts below, I think it’s fairly clear that they are not fundamentalists. You’re unlikely to hear either quote read from the pulpit of a church, including more liberal churches. So clearly they don’t blindly believe the Bible as inerrant. And yet both find some level of profound truth in the Bible and in religion, although their beliefs are quite different from their views when younger, and quite different from fundamentalists too.

Leo Tolstoy

Yes, that Tolstoy. The famous Russian guy that wrote the monstrously large books that you probably haven’t read but are meaning to someday.

The Kingdom of God Is Within You by Leo Tolstoy by Leo Tolstoy:

“The significance of the Gospel is hidden from believers by the Church, from unbelievers by Science.”

The Gospel In Brief by Leo Tolstoy:

“I regard Christianity neither as an inclusive divine revelation nor as an historical phenomenon, but as a teaching which-gives us the meaning of life. I was led to Christianity neither by theological nor historical investigations but by this-that when I was fifty years old, having asked myself and all the learned men around me what I am and what is the meaning of my life, and received the answer that I am a fortuitous concatenation of atoms and that life has no meaning but is itself an evil, I fell into despair and wanted to put an end to my life; but remembered that formerly in childhood when I believed, life had a meaning for me, and that for the great mass of men about me who believe and are not corrupted by riches life has a meaning; and I doubted the validity of the reply given me by the learned men of my circle and I tried to understand the reply Christianity gives to those who live a real life. And I began to seek Christianity in the Christian teaching that guides such men’s lives. I began to study the Christianity which I saw applied in life and to compare that applied Christianity with its source.

The source of Christian teaching is the Gospels, and in them I found the explanation of the spirit which guides the life of all who really live.

But together with this source of the pure water of life I found, wrongfully united with it, mud and slime which had hidden its purity from me: by the side of and bound up with the lofty Christian teaching I found a Hebrew and a Church teaching alien to it. I was in the position of a man who receives a bag of stinking dirt, and only after long struggle and much labor finds that amid that dirt lie priceless pearls; and he understands that he was not to blame for disliking the stinking dirt, and that those who have collected and preserved these pearls together with the dirt are also not to blame but deserve love and respect.”

If you’re interested in more detail of what his view of religion is, you can get more of the meaning from reading the 5-6 page Prologue, and the one page “A SUMMARY OF THE CHAPTERS”, and get most of the ideas clearly.

Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong details her life story in the introduction to the book A History of God. She started out religious, even joining a convent, then left, became an atheist, did a television show arguing against religion, then later in life, became a religious scholar. I’m not sure whether she considers herself a Christian or not, but she’s certainly friendly towards religion.

The History of God is about how the notion of God has changed over time among the major Abrahamic religions (i.e., Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.) For example she talks about how the very early Jews were polytheists, then became monotheists. (Personally, I’ve only read the first chapter or so of the book. It’s interesting, but all I had time to read.)

The quote below should clearly differentiate her from fundamentalists, essentially saying that atheism is true, and yet, it proclaims that there is value in religion anyway! (You can read more in her book to get more explanation of how the notion of God evolved over time, and how it is worthwhile.)

From the introduction to A History of God:

When I began to research this history of the idea and experience of God in the three related monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, I expected to find that God had simply been a projection of human needs and desires. I thought that ‘he’ would mirror the fears and yearnings of society at each stage of its development. My predictions were not entirely unjustified but I have been extremely surprised by some of my findings and I wish that I had learned all this thirty years ago, when I was starting out in the religious life. It would have saved me a great deal of anxiety to hear – from eminent monotheists in all three faiths – that instead of waiting for God to descend from on high, I should deliberately create a sense of him for myself. Other Rabbis, priests and Sufis would have taken me to task for assuming that God was – in any sense – a reality ‘out there’; they would have warned me not to expect to experience him as an objective fact that could be discovered by the ordinary rational process. They would have told me that in an important sense God was a product of the creative imagination, like the poetry and music that I found so inspiring. A few highly respected monotheists would have told me quietly and firmly that God did not really exist – and yet that ‘he’ was the most important reality in the world.

To be continued….

Kindred Spirits in a Pathless Land — Part Two

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You can read part one here.

Scott Peck  was a psychiatrist and author of The Road Less Traveled. His framework was more conclusion than starting point for me, as I’d done a lot of reading before I stumbled across his work. However, it seems useful, and should give more clarity to where some of the authors in later series posts fit in.

Of particular interest, he posits that skeptics, agnostics and atheists, are actually more spiritually advanced than fundamentalists! (Not something you’re likely to hear preached from pulpits.) However, he also noted that after going through an atheistic stage, some went back to being religious, but not the same sort of religious views they held before. He labels this Stage IV as “Mystic.” (Note that mystic is a very problematic term, since it’s used by such a wide variety of people, from monks in monasteries, to tarot card readings at the county fair. The tarot card reader is probably not really a mystic as it’s used here. Alas, I’ve yet to find a better commonly understood term.)

The description of the types of people rings true from what I read. The description of how groups of people of various stages get along (or don’t) in a group was also interesting.

An excerpt to whet your appetite appears below, but follow the link to read the full description of the stages and how they interact with each other:

M Scott Peck Stages of Spiritual Growth (link no longer active)

Over the course of a decade of practicing psychotherapy a strange pattern began to emerge. If people who were religious came to me in pain and trouble, and if they became engaged in the therapeutic process, so as to go the whole route, they frequently left therapy as atheists, agnostics, or at least skeptics. On the other hand, if atheists, agnostics, or skeptics came to me in pain or difficulty and became fully engaged, they frequently left therapy as deeply religious people. Same therapy, same therapist, successful but utterly different outcomes from a religious point of view. Again it didn’t compute–until I realized that we are not all in the same place spiritually.

With that realization came another: there is a pattern of progression through identifiable stages in human spiritual life.

STAGE I: Chaotic, Antisocial. [….]

STAGE II: Formal, Institutional, Fundamental. [….]

STAGE III: Skeptic, Individual, questioner, including atheists, agnostics and those scientifically minded who demand a measurable, well researched and logical explanation. [….]

“Despite being scientifically minded, in many cases even atheists, they are on a higher spiritual level than Stage II, being a required stage of growth to enter into Stage IV. The churches age old dilemma: how to bring people from Stage II to Stage IV, without allowing them to enter Stage III. ”

STAGE IV: Mystic, communal. [….]

You can also read more in the Wikipedia about M. Scott Peck and the Four Stages of Spiritual Development.

Peck seemed surprised that there were different types of religious people, i.e., Stage II and Stage IV, with very different perspectives, despite both claiming to follow the same religion. During my reading prior to this, I’d also been surprised to find a few religious authors with whom I could actually agree with respect to much of what they wrote that seemed to fit into Peck’s Stage IV. Essentially, I was slowly becoming aware that this other category of mystics even existed, and I suspect that many others are also unaware that such a category exists.

Some liberal Christians are probably at the boundary between stage II and Stage III, and they simply waffle back and forth. They are usually uncomfortable with some of the fundamentalist theology, but aren’t quite willing to become atheists, and often have no clear explanation for why they accept some parts of the Bible but not others. However, some liberal Christians are Stage IV. I’d guess they have a clearer idea of what they believe and don’t believe, and why.

My guess is that most of Bruce’s readers are at the boundary between Stage II and Stage III, or solidly in the Stage III camp. Stage IV people are pretty rare overall, and hence probably rare among Bruce’s readers too.

To Be Continued….

Kindred Spirits in a Pathless Land — Part One

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Guest post by Kindred Spirits

Preface-Truth is a Pathless Land

I was raised in a mainline church, but became an agnostic (de facto atheist) about 1980 (and continue to be agnostic). I had thought you either believed it like the fundamentalists, or religion-lite with the same supernatural god but kinder/gentler somehow, or you didn’t believe it at all. Or maybe switch to a different religion, but with the same choice of fundamentalist/literalist, or somehow kinder/gentler with a little less supernatural. I never realized there were any other choices. And so I rejected church and organized religion. And after about 5+ years of trying to debate/discuss religion with other people, and realizing that I heard all the same weak arguments, and never learned anything new myself, and never persuaded anyone to change their mind, I essentially ignored religion for decades, other than that part which influenced politics.

Starting about 2002-2003, I began to realize that there was a shit storm of epic proportions brewing between the war-mongering, the housing bubble, peak oil production, and all the subsidiary problems these would bring. Since then, I’ve been researching various topics to deal with this storm, from homesteading to spirituality to architecture, and trying to see through the various deceits and unsustainable factors in the American way of life. Attempts to discuss any of this with others led nowhere for the most part, because it required re-thinking their various beliefs, which most are unwilling to do. Which led to researching how and why people think what they do, about politics, about religion, about progress, etc. In short, it is mostly a solitary, often alienating affair.

Along the way, I stumbled across a variety of people along the spiritual dimension, often in surprising places, that didn’t quite fit in the above categories of fundamentalist/religion-lite/atheist, and I wasn’t even aware of their existence. For lack of a better term, I’ll use the phrase mystics and contemplatives as a general category, although there are a host of problems with those terms.

I’d guess that these people are much less that 5% of the population, probably much less than 1%. And I’ve never really found any group that has a majority of them or even a notable minority. Mostly it’s an author here or there (usually long dead). So there’s no group or organization one can join, but if you keep your eye out, you can find them, and realize that there are others that have trod the same path as you, and left a few breadcrumbs for you to find.

Some of the frequent characteristics of these people are:

  • willingness to discard those aspects of religion that don’t make sense,
  • interpret religious texts as mythological stories rather than facts
  • willingness to be critical of both religious organizations and the religious theology
  • generally have some sort of universalist perspective, open to other religious views
  • meditation, contemplation, or some other aspect of quietness and solitude to their lives
  • although they may have had some sort of mystical experience, they don’t emphasize it, or otherwise fall into “spiritual materialism”

And so the rest of this series is not much about me, but about little breadcrumbs related to spirituality from these other authors that I’ve collected over the last decade or so, letting me know that despite the seeming loneliness of my path, there are in fact many others that have gone before. Admittedly, it’s a small tribe that’s willing to forgo conventional thoughts and lives, but for those readers here who have also become disillusioned or alienated with the conventional American life, perhaps some of this will be useful or inspiring or offer hope to you on your own path.

About the format: In general, while I’ll usually offer excerpts to entice you, you should expect to follow the link to read the original article to get the full concept I’m trying to get across. The posts themselves might be relatively short, but the amount of reading at the linked source, if that particular author suits you, will take a longer time. Hence, the posts are broken up into a series of posts, given that you won’t be willing to read large amounts of text at the same time.

And now for the original comment that sparked this series. (i.e., the person to blame for my verbosity!)

Introduction

On July 26, 2016 anotherami said:

 

“If it were not for my own personal experiences, I would have rejected God decades ago. Instead, I am left with a form of faith that has no formal theology, no denomination, no organizations or institutions, no pastoral care, no actual fellow believers. In fact, this is one of only 3 blogs I read, or any news source for that matter, that focuses on religion. It is a confusing and often lonely place to be.”

Lots of people, currently and throughout history, are at the same place you are, but they’re spread out, and not concentrated. Deist founding fathers, Voltaire, etc. It will always be that way.

Hitchens and Dawkins and company are great for seeing the bad arguments in Christianity, but they’re combative.

Bruce is great if you are in the inside trying to get out of fundamentalist religion. And he’s also great if you’re on the outside, but want to understand the worldview of fundamentalists to understand how they’re likely to react in various situations. If you understand the internal mental models people are using, they become much more predictable, even in you disagree with their worldview.

Lots of people, currently and throughout history, are at the same place you are, but they’re spread out, and not concentrated. Deist founding fathers, Voltaire, etc. It will always be that way.

Hitchens and Dawkins and company are great for seeing the bad arguments in Christianity, but they’re combative.

Bruce is great if you are in the inside trying to get out of fundamentalist religion. And he’s also great if you’re on the outside, but want to understand the worldview of fundamentalists to understand how they’re likely to react in various situations. If you understand the internal mental models people are using, they become much more predictable, even in you disagree with their worldview.

J Krishnamurti

J. Krishnamurti was chosen at a young age to be the “world teacher” by the Theosophical Society, and given training for years until he was an adult. Three years after he was made head of the organization they created for him, he dissolved it. Here are excerpts from the speech he gave on why:

I maintain that Truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect. That is my point of view, and I adhere to that absolutely and unconditionally. Truth, being limitless, unconditioned, unapproachable by any path whatsoever, cannot be organized; nor should any organization be formed to lead or to coerce people along any particular path. If you first understand that, then you will see how impossible it is to organize a belief. A belief is purely an individual matter, and you cannot and must not organize it. If you do, it becomes dead, crystallized; it becomes a creed, a sect, a religion, to be imposed on others. This is what everyone throughout the world is attempting to do. Truth is narrowed down and made a plaything for those who are weak, for those who are only momentarily discontented. Truth cannot be brought down, rather the individual must make the effort to ascend to it. You cannot bring the mountain-top to the valley. If you would attain to the mountain-top you must pass through the valley, climb the steeps, unafraid of the dangerous precipices.

[….]

The moment you follow someone you cease to follow Truth. I am not concerned whether you pay attention to what I say or not.

[….]

“You will have no following, people will no longer listen to you.” If there are only five people who will listen, who will live, who have their faces turned towards eternity, it will be sufficient. Of what use is it to have thousands who do not understand, who are fully embalmed in prejudice, who do not want the new, but would rather translate the new to suit their own sterile, stagnant selves?

[….]

You have listened to me for three years now, without any change taking place except in the few. Now analyze what I am saying, be critical, so that you may understand thoroughly, fundamentally. When you look for an authority to lead you to spirituality, you are bound automatically to build an organization around that authority. By the very creation of that organization, which, you think, will help this authority to lead you to spirituality, you are held in a cage.

To Be Continued….