Mysticism Demystified: Three Arguments for God

Under the Influence of Mysticism

Mysticism can be like a drug. It has an intriguing and intoxicating appeal for individuals around the world, in nearly all cultures. Our attempts to solve the mysteries of the universe and seek the unknown are noble AND necessary for human progress. As monks, leaving the chapel after hours of deep meditation we’d say we were “drunk” with peace, bliss, or God. We’d get buzzed on bliss.

http://www.fotopedia.com/items/flickr-8519115092
Panchmarhi 2013. photo by marjoleincc on Flickr

Most cultures have mystical beliefs and traditions. In the Pre-Christian era, Pythagoras emphasized the mystical interconnectedness of numbers, nature, and the soul. Plato too was influential on Western mystical traditions. The Christians and Catholics have a plethora of mystic saints including St. Teresa, Padre Pio, and St. Francis. Judaism has Kabbalah, and Muslims the Sufi mystics (Janz). In the East, mysticism is part of Zen Buddhism, Hinduism, Yoga, and Sikhism to name just a few.

Mysticism is, therefore, a global phenomenon and belief system. Fascination with mysticism and mystical experience was a huge reason for my becoming a meditating monk for 14 years. The bible of Self-Realization Fellowship is Autobiography of a Yogi. Throw a dart blindly at any page in this book, written by Paramahansa Yogananda, a yogi mystic, and you will get a fantastic story of saints and mystics in India. Some who were immortal, had two bodies, could live without food, and many other unusual yogic feats (Yogananda). But, what really is mysticism?

What is mysticism?

Mysticism (noun)

  • belief that union with or absorption into the Deity or the absolute, or the spiritual apprehension of knowledge inaccessible to the intellect, may be attained through contemplation and self-surrender.
  • belief characterized by self-delusion or dreamy confusion of thought, esp. when based on the assumption of occult qualities or mysterious agencies.

– Oxford Dictionary

Let’s unpack the belief system and “logical” arguments used by apologists and believers of mysticism. Below are the three main arguments that once seemed quite convincing and compelling to me. Without these three arguments I probably would not have dedicated 14 years of my life to practicing yoga meditation in a monastery.

The best “rationale” and explanations for believing in mysticism are based on three arguments from the consensus of:

  1. Mystics;
  2. Holy books;
  3. Humanity.

The argument from consensus of the mystics:

  1. Mystics (eg. christs, prophets, saints, yogis) experience extraordinary states of consciousness, union with god, supernatural perception, etc.
  2. Mystical experiences can’t be understood through the five senses, intellect, or ordinary human experience.
  3. Unless all mystics are deluded, supernatural experiences must be true.
  4. Therefore, a supernatural Deity exists.
Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Paris, June-July 1907. Oil on canvas, 8' x 7' 8". Pablo Picasso
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Paris, June-July 1907. Oil on canvas, 8′ x 7′ 8″. Pablo Picasso

The argument from consensus of mystics has numerous flaws. Premise 2, is basically stating “If we don’t have a better explanation or know what mystical phenomenon are, then these experiences must be supernatural or God”. This is known as argument from ignorance (Skepdic). There are many explanations that rational thinking and science could use to explain mystical experiences. Some of them include: Many psychoactive chemicals, like LSD, natural substances, such as Peyote (Lal), or sensory deprivation, like flotation tanks, can induce “altered” states of consciousness, visions, feelings of oneness. Many people “under the influence” of these therapies have testified to religious or mystical experiences.

Premise 3 is flawed since it is possible that all mystics could be deluded in the same way. Scientists and skeptics suspend belief until there is sufficient, objective evidence. If we don’t have an explanation for a certain experience or phenomenon it’s OK to say “we don’t know”. There’s a danger in interpreting subjective “mystical” experiences as if they are certain truth claims.

Along with my fervent readings of Autobiography of a Yogi and many other spiritual books it was not surprising that I found comfort and faith in this next argument.

The argument from consensus of holy books:

1. Holy books reveal the word of a Deity.
2. The word of a Deity is necessarily true.
3. The word of a Deity reveals the existence of the Deity.
4. God or a Deity exists.

The argument from consensus of holy books is circular. To argue that a book or bible makes valid claims that a Deity or revelations exist and therefore that the Deity itself must exist is just reasoning in circles and nonsensical. All holy books were written by humans, not gods (Park). I’ve heard arguments that holy books were divinely inspired. That could be. But arguing that holy books are divinely inspired just puts us full circle back into the flaws of argument from consensus of mystics above.
Lastly, is the third argument that supported my rationale for mysticism and supported my faith in personal experience of a Deity.

The argument from consensus of humanity:

1. Nearly every human culture has believed in a supernatural Deity.
2. All humanity could not be wrong or could not all be deluded.
3. Therefore, God or a Deity exists.

1950s Bristol Shoppers queue to get a bargain in the sales. photo by brizzle born and bred on Flickr
1950s Bristol Shoppers queue to get a bargain in the sales. photo by brizzle born and bred on Flickr

This is a circular argument that assumes because many humans believe something it must be true. Just because many people hold the same beliefs doesn’t mean they are true. Which humans or gods should we believe? Zeus, Thor, Shiva, Yaweh, Mother Mary? Humans used to believe the world was flat. Then science proved the world was round. In the medieval era, humans thought plagues were punishment for sins from Satan. Then science discovered germ theory and that microscopic bacteria causes diseases and viruses. Wishful-thinking, mass-delusion, and irrational belief is only countered by rational-thinking and willingness to revise beliefs based on impartial, unbiased evidence.

Unfortunately, before I’d committed 14 years of my life to mysticism in a monastery, I was not privy to the flaws of the three arguments above. If I had, I might have made better decisions and not wasted so many years of my life pursuing my mystical dreams. It took me a few years after I left the monastery to develop reliable skeptical- and critical-thinking skills. What is skepticism and how does it help humans make better decisions?

What is skepticism? 

Skepticism is a practical approach when examining mysticism and all unusual claims, whether in advertisements, from con artists, friends, or mystics. Skepticism is simple and straight-forward. Skepticism means not believing something before you have credible proof. It is nothing more than thinking and withholding belief until adequate evidence is presented. Also, skepticism means keeping an open mind, being ready and willing to change your mind when better evidence demands (Harrison).

Are there more convincing arguments, than the above, for belief in mysticism or existence of a Deity? I’m open and willing to know where my thinking my be off. Please share your favorites or sources.

Works Cited

36 Arguments for the Existence of God. Goldstein, Rebecca. The classical arguments and perspectives on their flaws. PDF. Web. 10 Oct 2013

DMT: The Spirit Molecule video documentary. 2010.

Janz, Bruce. Roots of Western Mysticism. 2011. Web. 12 Dec 2014.

Harrison, Guy. Think: Why You Should Question Everything. Print. 2013. Prometheus Book: NY.

Lal, Erika. “Psychedelic Drugs and the Religious Experience: A Study of Neurological and Mystical Relationships”. Azusa Pacific University. 2011. Web. 15 Feb 2014.

Park, James. Which Gods Do Not Exist? No Gods Wrote Holy Books. University of Minnesota. 15 Feb 2014.

Skepdic, Skeptics Dictionary: argument to ignorance (argumentum ad ignorantiam). Web. 15 Feb 2014.

Yogananda, Paramahansa. Autobiography of a Yogi. Self–Realization Fellowship. 1998. Print. 2 Feb 2014.

7 comments

  1. letsliveinpeace

    Hi Scott,
    Glad to run across your website! It’s been awhile since last connecting.
    I enjoyed reading your article. It’s given me impetus to revisit my own beliefs and assumptions regarding spirituality, mysticism, etc. from the standpoint of all that drew me to enter the ashram and ultimately to what led me to leave. During my early years in the monastery, my spiritual beliefs (like reincarnation, karma, guru-disciple relationship, etc.) were like a warm, cozy blanket that gave a sense of meaning and purpose…and meditation technique promised a way through the “insoluble mysteries” of life. It was all very neat and tidy…at least in the beginning. After about a dozen years or so in the ashram, it became glaringly apparent to me that I had reached a wall with my meditations and spiritual practice beyond which I could not go beyond. In other words, I wasn’t experiencing the sublime mystical states that I had yearned for and read about. It was easy for my mind to deduce that “my attitude was off” or that “I wasn’t trying hard enough” or that “I needed to be more disciplined”…and on and on. My mind and belief system would not let me explore the “messages” that were showing up all around me: I was getting physically sick, broken down; I felt stuck, confused, disconnected from the body and with others in the community. Without getting into lengthy details, I got to the point of physical and mental exhaustion wherein I no longer wanted to continue the “good fight.” It became too arduous to continue holding onto a belief system that felt more and more like a straight jacket. My rigidity was killing me. I let it all go, ashram and all.
    What had taken its place in the ensuing years? After the wild ride of fear and chaos and dissolving of all that I had previously held dear, in letting go of the ashram (and my cherished belief system), a simplicity of Being and a natural play of energy in my body seems to have gently entered my field of awareness. I still meditate everyday, not because I feel that I have to, but because it is pleasurable to do so. The irony here is that what years and years of disciplined spiritual practice could not do for me came very quickly when I let it all go…and the visceral connection that I now experience with the spinal energies (Kundalini/Bliss) is so different and far removed from what I had previously believed or thought it would be. I understand now that my rigid and narrow focus on meditation practice and techniques insulated me from the exquisitely fine nuances of the subtle spinal energies.
    Thoughts regarding spirituality, the guru, enlightenment, etc., no longer have much meaning or interest for me… and what moves/dances through the field of my body (especially the spine) is still a great mystery. God? Spirit? I don’t know and I have no desire to create a story around the experience. It is enough to just Be with what moves so deliciously through the body.
    Thanks again Scott!
    Bruce

  2. Scott at SkepticMeditations.com

    Hi Bruce,
    Your revisiting of your beliefs and assumptions is admirable and fantastic. You are a courageous artist in your life and works. I admire you. Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts about my blog and my “spiritual”-atheist journey on this website. You made my day! To read and hear from you gives me hope that what I’m sharing here on this website can help make a difference for others to engage, think, and question everything.

    From the days we were young, naive, but sincerely devoted Self-Realization Fellowship monks, friends like you made my monastery experience worthwhile. A great benefit of my experience as a monk was compadres like you whom I see as pioneers, artists, willing to let everything go- EVERYTHING! Most people don’t realize that, unless they were renunciant monastics, giving up on your faith or the cherished ideas you hold most dear is probably THE most difficult and disorienting human experience. For a clue, we just can look how people react when their cherished ideas, faith, or religious identity is challenged. We all get defensive, angry, sometimes even violent- some to the point of killing fellow humans- when our comforting beliefs are threatened! Yet, we say our fragile faith and delicate religious ideals bring us peace and comfort!

    Letting go, like you say, of your cherished belief system is the only chance at real peace and comfort with reality and uncertainty. As you said in your comment you originally thought, when you were struggling as a monk, that ‘“my attitude was off” or that “I wasn’t trying hard enough” or that “I needed to be more disciplined”…and on and on.” When taken too far any “spiritual” or faith path is, indeed, harmful to our bodies, minds, and to others. Happy to hear you seem to have come out healthier and happier after recovering from your “faith” and life in the ashram.

    In my website and blog posts, I don’t do this for financial gain. I’m trying to write for creative outlet and to channel my overflowing junk drawer of ideas into something either useful, provocative, or useless. It’s my way of questioning and engaging with cherished belief systems. Pushing my limits of humanity and creativity. As an entrepreneur of the mind, I won’t know ‘til I try. “If you’re not living on the edge you’re taking up too much space”.

    Thank you, Bruce, for sharing your creativity and thoughts with us through your blog, book “Flights of a Runaway Monk”, and artwork. Feel free to post information about your book or relevant topics on my website. I will link to your blog, Accessing Your Higher Self, so we can share our works with others who may be interested. I aspire to be as creative everyday as you, in my own style and way. Keep your comments and creativity flowing!
    Scott

  3. letsliveinpeace

    Thanks for your kind words Scott! I, too, have fond memories of our friendship in the ashram…and I agree that, from a personal perspective, releasing my spiritual belief system was “THE most difficult and disorienting” experience that I had ever gone through in life… and yet I also know that the feeling of free fall and having no ground to stand on–so to speak– allowed me the first glimmer of the spinal currents that had eluded me during so many years of meditation. Letting go of the whole structure of my “cherished beliefs” and all the accompanying assumptions and expectations seemed to open up a field too vast for my narrow mind and body to integrate… the sensations of base fear and panic gave me the first intimations of a mysterious vibration that seemed to emanate from the deepest part of the spine. That vibration/sensation has a way of naturally, automatically drawing the attention within…and following that sensation is now my meditation. I also understand now, that the simplicity of this approach (and ensuing connection with the subtle spinal currents) could only happen with the drastic release of the tight control grid of my narrow “square foot” of my spiritual beliefs.
    Thanks again Scott! I admire your beautiful and clear way that you express yourself. I’m looking forward to reading more of your thoughts and perspectives on SkepticMeditations.com.

  4. Brent Shaw

    Hi Scott and Bruce, I was just wondering what your views are on Yogananda’s mortuary report, the way his body didn’t decompose and such. If none of the srf stuff is true and Kriya yoga doesn’t work and it’s all just fiction, how do we scientifically explain the otherwise unparalleled mortuary report? I’m trying to investigate and get to the bottom of these things! Haha

    Thank you,

    Brent

  5. Scott

    @Brent: The question we ought to ask is why should we believe reports of bodily “incorruptibility”? I’ve not found any to hold up to scientific scrutiny.

    There’s plenty of information available about why we should doubt such claims, especially when they come from SRF or other devotees who wish to make their favorite saint out of their guru.

    Look at the discussion about Yogananda’s “incorrupt” body on the SRFBlacklist. Then search and read up Joe Nickell’s numerous investigations into claims of paranormal, including incorruptibility. You have lots of homework. Then report back after you read something else besides what SRF wants you to believe.

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