in Skepticism & Post-Faith

Spiritual Experiences Won’t Prove Existence of Gods

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

Bubble Mathematics photo by tlindenbaum on Flickr

Bubble Mathematics
photo by tlindenbaum on Flickr

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?

Question mark sign, photo by Colin_K on Flickr

Question mark sign, photo by Colin_K on Flickr

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.

Stromlo Downhill 14 photo by Trevor_Page on Flickr

Stromlo Downhill 14
photo by Trevor_Page on Flickr

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.

Works Cited
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.

Leave a Reply

  1. Great points. I think a key is “I no longer believe supernatural explanations are necessary.” The world works in mysterious ways not because there is an unseen intelligence guiding us (and doing a terrible and cruel job of it) but because we don’t understand the world and how it works. There are wondrous levels of complexity in the universe. We can’t even begin to imagine the questions to ask to understand things and that will just lead to other questions! But an unseen entity guiding things is not necessary to explain the world. An unseen entity is not needed to feel love or caring or concern or joy.

    And on a humorous note if there is an all knowing all powerful ruler – you are doing a terrible job! Pain and suffering and hunger are rampant and your influence is doing what? Oh, but thanks for the nice parking space the other day. It was right next to the entrance to the store!!

    Thanks for the thoughts.

  2. I’m still not an atheist. But this was well written. And quite interesting.

    I’m not even looking for supernatural experiences, per se.

    For me, I would settle for seeing the church live out the commands of scripture (such as the sermon on the mount,) and would even consider THAT to be SOME evidence for the existance of divine power working in the lives of people. Unfortunately, even that is almost impossible to find.

  3. This is nice to read Scott. I started to think this way by the age of 12 but I disregarded the tendencies to avoid unwanted attention. Unsurprisingly I started to escape the unintentional indoctrination after I left Missouri, and the transformation was set in stone after the car accident. Certain friends claim that I am close-minded now, but I know it is precisely the opposite.

  4. Mike: I totally agree. We, humans as a species, are only just beginning to scratch the surface of knowledge about the universe.
    Now that I’m outside of faith and a skeptic looking back, the mystical or supernatural claims I used to believe in appear to be a form of self-delusion. A delusion I bought into, but has since “vanished as though it has never been”. Yeah, there are so many unanswered questions about the universe. I don’t think its necessary anymore to resort to a God of the Gaps argument when science doesn’t yet have answers but some prophet or saint claims she does. And, how disingenuous to say “The Lord works in mysterious ways” when we can’t provide answers or when circumstances are terrible with pain and suffering. I ran the tests in my own life and found I have the same human experiences, with or without attributing the good, bad, or ugly to intercession of an Invisible Divine Friend. It would be nice if wishful-thinking made things so, and that if I affirmed “THY will be done” enough times I’d eventually nab the best parking space right at the entrance of Blockbuster store.
    Thanks for engaging in discussion and sharing your comments. Always helpful to hear other’s perspectives, whether we agree or not.

  5. Hi Aaron,
    Kudos to you for being open to listening to my viewpoints and exploring on your own terms. Nothing but respect, from me to you, for that.

    I am putting my posts out there for anyone who wants to comment or give me sincere critique. I want to know if and where my thinking may be off. Putting my ideas out there in public is intended to help me explore and discover my mistakes, more than it is an attempt to try to convert anyone to my line of thinking. I don’t have expectations of making atheists of anyone or of giving anyone simple answers to complex questions. Each of us must seek and find whatever is out there on our own terms, in our own time.

    You mentioned that you “would settle for seeing the church live out the commands of scripture (such as the sermon on the mount)”. I wonder which commands you specifically are referring to in the Sermon on the Mount. As I type the word “command” it makes me curious WHAT or WHO is actually doing the commanding in scripture. (The bible was written by men who seem to have put into stories what they interpreted from supernatural visions, voices, or feelings they themselves had or what they heard someone else experienced).

    My observation from living in a monastery for 14 years is that no matter what scriptures, churches, or divine commands are used people are human, and will behave imperfectly. I lived with supposed saints, with many admirable qualities, but they still had the human qualities and quirks that lead me to realize they were really just human after all as much as I’d wished I could see some living examples of “divinity” or the Word made flesh.

    I like your line of questions, though and I’ll try to write a post about these topics in more detail in future.

    My opinion, which science seems to back through studies of people and primates, is that human beings have an innate *morality* that has evolved to help ensure social order (the golden rules) and survival of the species. Basic rules like: play nice, be fair, or you will get bonked with a banana or club by your neighbor. I don’t see a need why humans need an Invisible Lawgiver who has to mete out His justice if “neighbors” play mean and don’t seem to get bonked, smited, or cast to hell for their sins.

    Have you had a chance to read the “Jefferson Bible”? Thomas Jefferson apparently stripped the New Testament of all supernatural claims and left the kernels, just the moral teachings or sayings of Jesus. I haven’t read it myself, but I’ve heard this Jefferson Bible is an interesting read without the stories about walking on water, rising from dead, and changing water to wine, etc.

    Thanks for reading my post and sharing your comments. Feel free to share your thoughts or opinions with me anytime. It helps me explore on my own journey.

  6. Hi Shannon,
    Yes, I would imagine growing up in Missouri (the clasp of the Bible belt) you would have had heavy exposure to Christian-supernatural indoctrination. You’ll have to share with me your experience in Missouri and your transformation after your car accident.
    I remember this accident very well, as I saw and heard the cars crashing and was one of our group who helped direct traffic while the ambulances and fireman rescued you from underneath the wreckage of the two cars.

    In a way, it seems like a “miracle” you survived that horrible accident. (Yes, my mind naturally said “miracle” from sheer disbelief of the *odds* someone could survive such a terrible crash). All of us are grateful you gradually got your health back and are now racing bikes again! I imagine your experiences would raise questions or comments about “thanking God” or wonder about a Supernatural Power that might be looking out for us in times of need.
    Thanks for reading my posts and sharing your thoughts. Please feel free to share your thoughts or experiences. If not comfortable doing that publicly, perhaps privately. Scott

  7. I think it’s important to understand in the Vedanta that yes there is a presentation of how to cultivate a personal or subjective relationship with ‘God’ but also there are far more impersonal and objective relationships to Life and ourselves, we must recognise that various Paths are put forward in Yoga.

    In the Advaita we meet the Divine without attributes. In the Teachings of Buddha no God or mystical framework is referred to. There is a humanistic sense of our own Nature.
    An understanding of which leads us back to an appreciation of the conventional religious forms afterall.

    The mind-body consciousness creates sensation-feeling-thoughts, the particular sense of me, they all appear as objects that arise within our field of Awareness. Self reflected consciousness allows us to know ourselves. And we come to know that level of personal self.

    The Awareness itself has the nature of knowing…identity….it is the space in which relationship occurs, a Sea, with the waves of individual consciousness sensations, feelings, thoughts, passing through.

    So in our everyday experience our ourselves we are both the experience our personal selves, our mind- body consciousness.
    And we are the larger Awareness space that the individual me appears in. Awareness envelops us.

    The meditator is encouraged to spend time clarifying Awareness to experience a more fundamental level of our deeper sense of self and reality. It is in this domain that other dimensions of self or life arise.

    Awareness is regarded as the Soul, but This is still very much our own Nature.

  8. Hi Jeff: Thanks for taking the time to write and share your thoughts. I’m happy for people who meditate or who are able to find ways to experience greater wonder or tranquility with life as it is. Not what they wish it to be.

    Your liberal and generous heaping of phrases with words like Awareness, Nature, Self or God sound profound but are intellectually hollow. Some would call those phrases deepities.

    Check this out New Age Bullshit Generator. “Deep” sayings like that can be randomly generated. Funny and spooky that we humans “feel” that intellectually empty words sound profound.

  9. Hi Scott,
    you might like to look at my new blog which i try to keep factual rather than speculative.
    evidence for existence of God is yet to be put into words in this blog; there is possibly enough already to digest for most people.

  10. Hey David: Congrats on your blog, which I find both interesting and unconvincing. Interesting in that it is good you have your own website to express yourself, your ideas to world wide web. Unconvincing in that I don’t believe the extraordinary speculations that there are humans who are holders of special wisdom or persons with psychic powers. Cheers