This is the second in a series of posts on why I no longer believe that supernatural experiences are evidence for God.
Bubbles of beliefs
During my years in the ashram, I lived in a bubble of faith. I was 100% surrounded by people who held the same beliefs. My beliefs were confirmed and my faith protected from doubts. The spiritual teachings, library, and language in the ashram convinced me the saints, sages, and yogis of all religions, were proof of direct personal experience of God. But, what made me think I too could experience Spirit personally?
My background in Christianity gave me a solid foundation for faith in the supernatural. And, my conversion to yoga meditation was grounded in traditions of Christian and Eastern mysticism. We monks were taught to believe, “Peace is the first proof of presence of God” (Yogananda). And, to “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalms 46:10). The Autobiography of a Yogi and SRF Lessons were packed with claims that proper practice of yoga meditation would prove direct, personal experience of God.
Inside the ashram and out I’d had many, many personal experiences from my meditations, prayers, and intuitions “proving”, to my satisfaction, I’d had direct and personal experience of a Supernatural Deity. Meditation and metaphysical practices gave me proof, just like I was taught! And, believed.
Mystical experience defined
The word yoga has been interpreted to mean union. Mysticism is the belief in union or absorption into a supernatural deity, and the perception of knowledge beyond the intellect. (In future posts, I will discuss fear of intellect among believers). Personal, subjective experiences (like faith, mysticism, and supernatural perception) are the opposite of impersonal, objective experiences that are perceivable, verifiable, and describable by others.
We both can agree what an orange looks like and verify the fact by grabbing an orange from the fridge, looking at it, touching it, tasting it. But with personal (subjective) experiences, no one else can really “know” our experience, and the experiencer cannot demonstrate their experience to others. This puts the person claiming personal experience of God in an impossibly awkward position to prove or demonstrate it to others.
Proof of God?
In my monk days, coincidences that I viewed as good or positive were attributed to Divine Grace, good Karma, results from my meditations, etc. I often felt a Supreme Being personally cared for me, guided me, and filled me with wonder, sometimes even bliss. Because many of my personal experiences seemed transformative and mysterious, perhaps even miraculous, my faith compelled me to believe my experiences were “signs and wonders” that proved the existence of God. But where they?
Now, I see all my so-called “mystical” experiences are really part of being human, and that we all experience sacredness to one degree or another. Regardless what we are taught to believe: joy of seeing a radiant sunset, bliss of being in love, and contentment with our lot in life- all are emotional sensations we can feel in our lives. (No magic, no wishful-thinking required). My fellow monks and I daily trained ourselves, using yoga meditation and other metaphysical practices, to enter altered states of consciousness where we believed we communed with Spirit, Atman, or Soul. We “attuned” and “surrendered” ourselves to be “receptive” to what we believed.
“The question is not whether one believes, but what evidence one’s beliefs are based on. All beliefs are based on something”, says Greg Epstein, Humanist Chaplain of Harvard University and author of Good Without God. “Beliefs in supernatural events such as miracles are based on tradition- such as reading about it in a book we’re told is sacred- or intuition- as in those moments when it seems there must be something looking out for us. Sometimes traditions and intuitions are correct. But they are not reliable ways to determine whether something is true…The scientific method, while imperfect, is the most reliable tool human beings have ever known for determining the nature of the world around us”.
Inevitably, after I left my ashram bubble, I was exposed to contrary evidence. Gradually my supernatural faith was inoculated with reason and science. I no longer believe supernatural explanations are necessary. Many of my old beliefs may have been harmful and delusional.
No Religion Required
Lest someone say my heart and mind are now closed, I am, in fact, quite open to being shown contrary evidence and willing to revise my beliefs or lack thereof. As a nonbeliever, I no longer need to fill God into the gaps or mysteries of life or the world around me. And, as a nonbeliever, I still have as many, if not more, keen sensations of awe, wonder, and beauty, coupled with moments of intense peace and bliss.
Many human experiences can give us the “spiritual” feelings believers attribute to a supernatural cause. Psychological therapies can give us a sense of heightened self awareness, so can hypnotic trance, positive self-regard, or sensations of personal alignment with self and the universe. I can feel bliss while I ride my bike on a mountain trail in the woods
Personal experience fails as evidence for the supernatural
The way we interpret our personal experiences, feelings, and intuitions is dictated by our traditions, biases, and beliefs. We get trained by our cultures, whether Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, New Age, or Atheist. Everyone has had intense personal experiences we could label or interpret anyway we choose. Personal experiences are part of being human, not divine. Therefore, faith in personal experience or mysticism is not a reliable way for determining the existence of God or the supernatural.
1 Bible, Psalms 46:10, King James version
2 Eden, J., Why Personal Experience Fails as Proof of the Existence of God: Deconversion series, Installment 13. 18 Jan 2013. Web. 20 Jan 2013.
3 Epstein, G., Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe. HarperCollins: New York, NY. 2010. Print.
4 Yogananda, P., Where There is Light: Insight and Inspiration for Meeting Life’s Challenges. Self-Realization Fellowship: Los Angeles, CA. 2000. Print.