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.
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?
- 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:
- Holy books;
The argument from consensus of the mystics:
- Mystics (eg. christs, prophets, saints, yogis) experience extraordinary states of consciousness, union with god, supernatural perception, etc.
- Mystical experiences can’t be understood through the five senses, intellect, or ordinary human experience.
- Unless all mystics are deluded, supernatural experiences must be true.
- Therefore, a supernatural Deity exists.
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.
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.
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.