in Mystical Experiences, Skepticism & Post-Faith

Mystics and irreligious people both get the same epiphanies. The context changes but the experience does not. Mysticism merges with atheism after we stop giving form to the formless.

Self-deception is not difficult. Most of our brain’s processing goes on unconsciously, without our awareness. Our brain needs tricks or shortcuts so that we can function in our daily lives. But we must understand we can never trust these tricks of our brain completely, especially when we are trying to decide truth from fiction. We are highly susceptible to errors in our thinking and perceiving.

There’s two common and natural errors in our thinking that everyone should be aware of:

  1. Pareidolia – recognizing patterns where there really is only randomness.
  2. Anthropomorphism – attributing human characteristics to nonhuman things and events.

Seeking Meaning In Toast and Buns mysticism atheism

You know what pareidolia is when the image of Mother Teresa shows up in a cinnamon bun, or when the Virgin Mary can be seen on a piece of toast, or, my favorite, when Jesus decides to appear on Fido’s buns. Pareidolia is the tendency to recognize patterns, shapes, or familiar objects in vague and random experiences. Our brains try to “make sense” of meaningless information. There are many cases of people seeing visions, ghosts, and other likenesses in what is actually only random patterns that just happen to look like those things.mysticism merges atheism

Faces In Clouds

Anthropomorphism, attributing human characteristics to nonhuman things and events, is at the core of religious experience. If we subtract all the humanlike qualities from our notion of god or deities, there’s nothing left to these notions, according to Stewart E. Guthrie, Ph.D. from Yale University, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Fordham University. People find a wide range of humanlike beings plausible, such as gods, spirits, Bigfoot, HAL the computer, and Chiquita Banana. We find messages in random events such as earthquakes, weather, and traffic accidents. We say a fire “rages,” a storm “wreaks vengeance,” and waters “lie still.”

Guthrie says that our tendency to find human characteristics in the nonhuman world is rooted in a deep-seated perceptual strategy: in the face of pervasive (if mostly unconscious) uncertainty about what we see, we bet on the most meaningful interpretation we can. If we are in the woods and see a dark shape that might be a bear or a boulder, for example, it is safer policy to think it is a bear. If we are mistaken, we lose little, and if we are right, we gain much. But, survival or fight and flight methods aside, what would happen if we stopped giving humanlike qualities (anthropomorphism) to nature and the universe? Isn’t belief in cosmic intelligence, itself, just a projection of a humanlike quality? Can you name a divine or godlike quality or attribute that is not also humanlike (anthropomorphic)? We have made gods in our own image, rather than the other way around.

Silence Is Not A Religion

If a God is inconceivable, that is, if He is beyond all time, space, and matter, then nothing justifies conceiving of Him as a Person, Creator, Protector, Benefactor, the embodiment of Justice or Love. This is where mysticism merges with atheism, says Comte-Sponville, one of France’s preeminent contemporary philosophers. If nothing can be said of a humanlike God, then neither can it be said that He exists or that he is God. All the names of God are either human or anthropomorphic. But, an unspeakable, indescribable God without a name would no longer be a God. Ineffability is not an argument. Silence is not a religion, claims Comte-Sponville.

Though we hear, all too often, that an Infinite God is beyond our finite human intelligence, believers and atheists must use the same concept of God. God is a humanlike Subject or Spirit, and he made us in his image. But atheists deny that ultimate reality is neither subject nor spirit, but rather reality is matter, energy, nature without humanlike attributes. Non-believers say gods are made in our image. Religion and irreligion both operate from the same concepts, both are without proof (Comte-Sponville), but the the irreligious aren’t fashioning gods from meaningless patterns in a random universe.

The concept of God, Supernatural Power, Spirit, Deity, or in whatever other term the essences of Theisim may have found expression, has become more indefinite and obscure in the course of time and progress. In other words, the God idea is growing more impersonal and nebulous in proportion as the human mind is learning to understand the natural phenomena and in the degree that science progressively correlates human and social events (Goldman).

We give form to the formless, name to the nameless, and make gods in our own image. We can find human agency- spirits, souls, ghosts, demons, demi-gods, energies, life forces- in nature, our bodies, the wind, the weather, virtually everywhere and anywhere we let our human imagination run rampant and unchecked.

Kali's mala of heads peaking through her hair, photo by Proxy Indian on Flickr

Kali’s mala of heads peaking through her hair, photo by Proxy Indian on Flickr

Killing Buddha and Destroying Kali

The ninth-century Buddhist master Lin Chi is supposed to have said, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him (Harris)”. A great master, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa, who saw God constantly as Mother Kali, conversing often with Her, later said: “I had to destroy that finite form of my Mother with the sword of wisdom, to behold Her as the formless Infinite (Yogananda)”. Even the spiritual masters realized there is no humanlike god and their ultimate enlightenment was to destroy the “god concept” in themselves. Eventually, these mystic sages came to worship only formless, nebulous phenomena that is neither called god nor religious.

If you meet Mother Kali or Buddha on the road, kill her, kill him. It’s inevitable that the progress of science, rationality, and critical-thinking will kill gods off anyway.

Read my other posts on Mystical Experiences

Works Cited

Comte-Sponville, Andre’. The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality. Penguin Books. London. 2007. Print. 9 Apr 2014.

Goldman, Emma. The Philosophy of Atheism. The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever. Selected and with introductions by Christopher Hitchens. Da Capo Press. Philadelphia. 2007. Print. 9 Apr 2014.

Guthrie, Stewart. Religion as Anthropromorphism. Religious Studies Project podcast 2/10/2014 interview with Stewart Guthrie.

Harris, Sam. Killing the Buddha. Shambhala Sun. March 2006. Web. 9 Apr 2014.

Yogananda, Paramahansa. “The Right Understanding of Scriptural Guidance for the Conduct of Life: Embracing the Divine and Shunning the Demonic.” God Talks With Arjuna: The Bhagavad Gita, The Royal Science of God Realization. Ch 7, verse 24. Self-Realization Fellowship. 1999. Print. 2 Feb 2014.

Leave a Reply

  1. You are, in my opinion, conflating the results of two different types of meditation practice, and creating a “one size fits all” explanation for two entirely different perspectives of the world based on entirely different physiological states.

    Meditation practices that are associated with mindfulness and concentrative practices bring about a destruction of sense of self in the long run, while other meditation practices result in a a strengthening of sense of self.

    The ultimate outcome of such practicing such techniques may be different in fundamental ways, even if a superficial reading of the descriptions says they are the same.

    It’s a case of “self is everything” vs “self doesn’t exist” on the most fundamental level of human existence: the functioning of the brain.

    The phrase “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him,” ultimately takes on a different implication depending on the perspective of the enlightened person making the statement.

  2. Lawson: I agree with you that any concept of “self” exists inside the brain. Meditation, as practice, is only a “process”, a tool, technique, or a means to an end. If meditation ever becomes an end in itself, then I say meditation is a waste. Any road can potentially “lead to Rome”. Meditation is one road to somewhere, or maybe nowhere in particular. It’s up to the traveler or meditator (or the guru they follow) to set their agenda. Some roads or paths may be faster or slower for different travelers who are going to whatever destinations they choose. “Self” is personal, subjective experience, just as enlightenment seems to be. There’s no real or objective measure for enlightenment. Followers don’t make someone an enlightened being. Nor do old holy books or electronic brain scans. There’s no “enlightenment” other than personal.

  3. The “self” that results from long-term TM practice is different than what results from long-term mindfulness practice. You can describe the resulting physiological state using myriad terms, but the result, if I am correct, will always be in one of two broad categories: self is an illusion or self is all that there is.

    There’s no reconciling the two perspectives: they are based on the most fundamental way in which the brain can interpret its own activity and they are due to entirely different styles of brain functioning. It’s not just “all roads lead to Rome.”

    And there’s certainly an objective measure of enlightenment. I’ve already linked to a video that shows the fundamental EEG of someone who is starting to become enlightened in the style of brain functinoing that TM promotes. When EEG coherence in the alpha-1 band becomes strong enough in the frontal lobes, its pretty much inevitable that the person starts to describe “self” differently than when alpha-1 EEG coherence in the frontal lobes is markedly lower. What specific degree of coherence might be required for this to occur likely varies a great deal from person to person, but the correlation of reports of a sense of non-changing, featureless sense of self with higher levels of this physiological feature are pretty consistent.