Tagged: post-God & post-faith

Goodbye Summer 2011 image

Leaving God and Monastic Order

Monastic life was supposed to be an exalted path to self-realization, spiritual enlightenment, and God. But the pain of feeling “stuck” was greater than my fear of leaving the Order. I had to get out.

Reasons why I left the Order and left God was the focus of my conversation with Scott D. Jacobsen, Editor at Conatus News, and Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing.

Our conversation was published on Patheos / Rational Doubt1 blog. With permission from Rational Doubt editor and cofounder of The Clergy Project2, Linda LaScola, my interview with Scott Jacobsen is reposted below.

Scott Jacobsen: You published the story of your personal transition from being part of a monastic order called the Self-Realization Fellowship Monastic Order to not being a part of it. The story is on The Clergy Project website, dated May 27, 2015. You were known as Brahmachari Scott. Now, you’re just Scott (me, too). For those leaving monastic orders, what are important things to keep in mind?

“Scott” creator of Skeptic Meditations: It was a big deal to leave the Self-Realization Monastic Order (the Order or SRF) after 14 years. It was a pivotal decision in life. I joined the Order when I was 24, expecting to be a monk for the rest of my life. I took vows of loyalty, obedience and chastity. All, purportedly, for finding God and self-realization. My justification for being a monk was that purpose. But it was complex.

For reasons as complicated as life can become, I felt out of place. I realized the monastery was not for me. This wasn’t the end, though. In the most important ways, my journey unfolded when I chose to come back to the world.

Before leaving the Order, I spent months acclimating myself to the outside world. It was like dipping toes into cold water before the plunge.

Instead of attending the regularly scheduled monastic classes, I joined a local Toastmasters club. I practiced public speaking. Rather than turn my doubts and fears inward—as I did for decades, I visited an outside psychotherapist, and confided my hopes and fears to her. Before seeing that psychotherapist, I spent years weighing the pros and cons of staying in or leaving the Order. I built an underground support community of trusted current and former monastics, church members and biological family.

At the time, I had a motto:

I’m not moving away from anything. I’m moving towards something.

Something great, I hoped. I did not know, but I felt I was moving towards something great based on a vision. I was developing a plan for a new life. That energized me. The pain of feeling “stuck” was greater than my fear of leaving the Order. I was one of the lucky few. I escaped. When I say “escaped,” I mean physically and psychologically.

Many monks from the Order I lived with still live in the monastery. Many others left. However, some of those who left still psychologically stuck within the Order. The monastery is still with them. It is more important where one resides psychologically rather than physically, in my opinion, speaking now from over a decade of experience. Some people have the privilege to move. Several monks stayed in the Order who were instrumental in helping me become who I am today. For me, leaving the Order was about moving towards, rather than away, from something.

What are some expected difficulties—personal, familial, and professional—in transitioning out of a monastic order?

The difficulties included learning how to reintegrate into society. We had extremely limited access to the outside world. The monks were allowed to watch one movie a month, and even that was censored. The Monks’ Library contained only censored materials: books of saints and yogis, the LA Times newspaper and magazines like National Geographic and Sports Illustrated. Access to the internet, during my tenure, was blocked or filtered and our phone calls were monitored for ‘billing’ purposes. We were charged for long-distance calls, which discouraged outside contact. Censoring of our exposure to the world, we were told, was for our own spiritual development.

Life inside was like a cult.

Upon re-entry into the world, I felt woefully inadequate in practical matters of daily life.

To transition, I learned how to be an adult, and to be assertive, to negotiate and pay my bills. I had to reintegrate into society, rebuild my life, relationships, and start a career. When I left, I had no job, no home and no family to live with. I had to prove to myself that I could make my way in the world. Within two years of leaving, I enrolled in university and graduated with a bachelor’s and a master’s degree while working for a corporation.

 

I was intrigued by your description of monastic life on The Clergy Project website:

…monks didn’t just sit all-day chanting, praying, and navel-gazing.

Monastery routine consisted of meditation, classes, recreation, 9-to-5 jobs: ministering to a worldwide religious congregation at the Self-Realization Fellowship churches, temples, meditation centers and groups, and spiritual retreats. Each monk received $40 per month cash allowance, room and board, paid medical care, and all-you-could-eat lacto-ovo vegetarian buffet.

You were working in rather extreme conditions. What was running through your mind? What is the insight gained since you left about monastic life, e.g. working conditions?

I was convinced by church doctrine and the spiritual mythologies. They stated that renunciation and self-sacrifice was an exalted path to God, self-realization and spiritual freedom. However, a few years after leaving, I was able to step back and take a stern look at the conditions of the Order.

In the monastery, I lived inside a closed, cult-like system. SRF is a Hindu-inspired meditation group.

The followers—consciously or unconsciously—buy into false premises taught by the church. Once one believes the false premises, it becomes easy to surrender to the work and spiritual routine for hours, days, weeks, months and years. You hand over control to teacher, guru, church or religion.

SRF puts a premium on meditation techniques as the highest way to spiritual development or self-realization.

Examples of some of the premises3 we believed:

  • You are unaware. Meditation is the way to unbroken awareness. If you are not fully aware, keep meditating.
  • You are one with God, but don’t know it. Meditation is the path to God. If you don’t know God, keep meditating.
  • You are asleep and don’t know it. Meditation is the way to wake spiritually. If you are asleep spiritually, keep meditating.

Now, I look back and regret having spent precious years in the pursuit of the Order’s false premises. But, better late than never, I outgrew them.

The Scientific American article was the linchpin to becoming an atheist within your social circle, friends and family. What seems to be the main reason for transitioning out of monastic life?

There’s so many reasons why I left.

Mostly, I needed to change and grow. The Order wasn’t about change or growth. Lord knows, I tried. Ultimately, the church and its leader were about perpetuating the “revealed” teachings of the teachers. I was lucky; I saw through the false premises of the church. I never regretted leaving it.

There are local agnostic, atheist, humanist, and freethinker organizations to provide support for people. How can friends and family give support?

Family and friends play a vital role in supporting people like me who leave extreme religions or cult-like groups.

My family accepted me. I can not think of anything special that family and friends can do that is different that what true friends and family do: laugh, care, and do things together. Naturally, different friends and family serve different needs for us. It was most helpful for me to connect with a variety of people from different cultures or worldviews. Having a good therapist helped, I did not become a burden for friends and loved ones with my issues.

You created Skeptic Meditations as well. It is a general resource on skepticism with a blog. How can people become involved with Skeptic Meditations?

I created Skeptic Meditations to critically examine the supernatural claims of yogis, mystics, and meditators, and to muse and critique my experiences inside the SRF/the Order.

Christians have many resources to question and doubt, if they choose. After coming out of the Order, which is a Hindu-inspired meditation group, I found precious few resources for people like me who had left Christianity and questioned Eastern religion, especially yoga meditation. Skeptic Meditations explores the hidden, sometimes darker, side of yoga, mindfulness, and meditation.

Thank you for your time, Scott.

I’ve enjoyed your questions and chatting with you. Thank you.

After our interview was published, I asked Scott Jacobsen his reasons for founding In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing.

Jacobsen: Whether religious leave or irreligious find religion, I want individuals to have the freedom to choose the path for their own lives. Often, danger comes from restriction of belief, conscience, and movement of people caught in unhealthy communities, which are often religious or cultish, or outright cults”.

Scott D. Jacobsen, interviewer and founder of In-Sight, may be contacted at Scott.D.Jacobsen@gmail.com.

Question for readers: In your own life, in what unhealthy communities may you have been “stuck”? What did you do to leave, to learn and to grow after leaving the group for your better life?

Notes
1,2. Patheos / Rational Doubt is a blog where the public and non-believing and doubting [religious] clergy can interact. Contributors include founders of The Clergy Project, including Linda LaScola, and both “out” and “still-closeted” members of a private forum. Active or former clergy-persons who no longer believe in their faith in God, Higher Powers, or supernatural can learn more about The Clergy Project private forum.

3. Read my post Duped by Meditation? for an explanation of false premises peddled by many meditation teachers and groups.

Idealist or realist? On religion

Religious, metaphysical, and ethical beliefs are greatly influenced by whether a person is predominantly an idealist or a realist.

This post contrasts idealists and realists and their worldviews, and aims to better understand ourselves and others, and to explore the impact that idealism and realism has on our thoughts and behaviors about religion, metaphysics, ethics and more.

It is important to clarify upfront that few people are pure idealists or realists. Most of us land somewhere between the two conceptual extremes of pure idealism or realism. We will examine this further below, but first let us define what we mean by idealist and realist.

Definitions: Idealist and Realist

First, let’s define Idealists and realists. Each have different perspectives; with idealists tending to focus on ‘what could be’, and realists focusing on ‘what actually is.’1

Idealists typically see the world, life, and people as moving towards some ideal or perfection. Realists, on the other hand, tend to see things in a more practical or actual “as is” view of the world or situation, and may be overly pessimistic.2

The Idealist-Realist / Realist-Idealist Continuum

Most people land somewhere between the two conceptual “pure” ends of idealist or realist. In other words, few people are pure idealists or pure realists but are a combination of the two to one degree or another. People tend to be either an idealist-realist or realist-idealist depending where the land on the continuum of idealism and realism: an idealist with stronger or weaker worldview of realism, or, a realist with stronger or weaker beliefs about idealism.

Idealist.Realist.Continuum-min

The Idealist-Realist Continuum graphic depicts, conceptually, that idealists and realists are actually a mix of both on a continuum. Both idealists and realists often hold religious or scientific-oriented beliefs. Some realists may adhere also to a weaker or stronger form of idealism that could include religious beliefs. While some idealists, on the other hand, may harbor beliefs that, for instance, science can help achieve world peace or human utopia. Most people are somewhere on a continuum between the two contrasts of pure idealist and pure realist.

Contrasting Idealists and Realists

Pure or strong idealists and realists are a stark contrast in terms of worldviews of religion, metaphysics, and ethics.

Idealists are often much more religion-friendly, and sympathetic to otherworldly ideas. Realists are often much more science-friendly, and tend towards a this-world emphasis.

Below is an itemized list3, gleaned from Dr. Stephen Hicks, Professor of Philosophy at Rockford University, that contrasts idealist’s and realist’s beliefs about metaphysics, knowledge, human nature, religion, ethics, and liquor.

View of Idealist Realist
Metaphysics Supernature

(higher, superior realm, or realm of the spirits, gods, or goddesses)

Nature
Knowledge (epistemology4) Mysticism, revelation (direct communion with higher realm or god), faith, (occasionally “pure” reason) Integration of senses, reason, interaction with this world

(empirical)

Human nature Dualist

(spiritual and physical are two distinct substances, often in conflict with each other)

Badness: original sin

Integrationist

(mind and body ordinarily function together, no opposition between the two)

Tabularasa (born with blank slate) or some may argue born with original goodness

Religion Human is microcosm (lower) of macrocosm (higher) realm, distaste for natural lower/physical world

Born with predestined abilities/capacities [eg. Karma, original sin]Religionist: God didn’t make world according to strict laws but according to His/Her wishes and whims, a God who intervenes through miracles, answering prayers, god may be angry, punish, or destroy (Noah’s flood)

Born with unlimited moral and mental abilities/capacities (eg. tabularasa)

Religionist: God made an orderly world, nature just like scientists find. Not a whimsical god. Often is a more hands off kind of god (eg. there had to be some sort of Divine Being or Intelligence before the Big Bang)

Some may say it’s immoral to act on “faith”. God gave us our senses and reason to act in physical world. God doesn’t want us to be antagonistic toward science but use it to come to better understanding of His universe and to appreciate Him.

Nothing wrong with our bodies, God made mind and body. God wants us to enjoy our bodies and natural world.

Ethics Mind or spirit values (often disparagement or denial of physical body and sensual pleasures: food, money, sex)

Motivated primarily by duty and obligation (sacrifice of self for higher authority or duty, often for happiness in next life)

Mind and body values

Motivated primarily by pursuit of happiness in this life, living a flourishing life, liberty

Liquor Leads to weakening of body and morality (temptation to resist, exists in the world as a test of our character or from a bad force, eg. devil) Ben Franklin, religious realist: “Beer is proof God loves us and wants us to be happy.”

The contrast and continuum of idealists and realists may give insight into ourselves and others.

Most people are somewhere on the continuum between two extremes of pure idealist or pure realist. A person may, over time, flip from idealist to realist or vice versa. Case in point, I flipped.

I used to be a strong idealist, especially during the decades I was an ordained, meditating monk in the cloister of Self-Realization Fellowship. As a strong idealist, I devalued the natural, physical world and overemphasized the value of the higher or spiritual realms, beyond this world. True knowledge and wisdom supposedly came to me through intuition, meditation, and revelation from a guru, from Supernature or Divine Intelligence. During those days I never touched a drop of liquor and imagined pleasures of the flesh to be harmful, spiritually dangerous.

I used to be a strong idealist. Today, I am a strong realist and weak idealist. I believe that human flourishing arises from letting go of overly idealist beliefs and embracing nature, reason, and human experiences in this world. I am optimistic that we humans have the capacity to learn and develop, but am concerned that strong idealists put us at risk of danger by overemphasizing imaginary otherworlds.

Hopefully we humans can bridge the chasm between strong idealists and strong realists, rather than destroy each other and the planet. I could improve by being more patient when listening to some strong idealists, and watch that I don’t step into the dogma of a too strong realist.

Where are you on the idealist-realist continuum? Strong or weak idealist or realist? How can the contrasts be used to improve ourselves and others?

Notes
1 The DifferenceBetween website elaborates further on the “Difference Between Idealism and Realism” http://www.differencebetween.net/miscellaneous/difference-between-idealism-and-realism/#ixzz41OwOGbVu

2 A short video Is This Glass Half Empty?

offers insights from science about idealists, “glass as half full” types, who tend to be more optimistic. Whereas, realists who may see the “glass as half empty”, though not necessarily as a negative, may view situations as less optimistic or maybe even as pessimistic.

3 The list was gleaned from an excellent YouTube video series presented by Dr. Stephen Hicks, Professor of Philosophy at Rockford University. For Professor Hicks’ brief introduction to the Idealism and Realism watch Introduction: Contrasting Realist to Idealist Philosophy, Clip 1
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wxYvYR3M3oo&list=PL3ED4A5B0BF91CACD&index=1. To jump straight to the beginning of Professor Hicks’ white board discussion of contrasts between idealists and realists start with Clip 2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ilt-gP4dehs&list=PL3ED4A5B0BF91CACD&index=2

4 epistemology, or the theory of knowledge, is the study or philosophy of how we come to know or believe that which is important, true, and real of the world or the realm beyond us. Read Wikipedia Epistemology https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epistemology

Nonbeliever Ex-Monk

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For 14 years, I was a monk. After leaving my religious profession, I stopped believing in supernatural entities. I felt alone as an nonbeliever, ex-monk in a world of believers.

That is, until I joined The Clergy Project.

The Clergy Project is a network of 6491 current and former religious clergy that do not hold supernatural beliefs. In a private online community The Clergy Project members may safely discuss being a clergy person who has rejected the supernatural, the family stresses related to their rejecting the supernatural, and the unique challenges of leaving their religious career.

Roughly 95% of The Clergy Project members are currently within or formerly from Christian denominations2: Methodists, Baptists, Catholics, and so on. I’m one of the exceptions being formerly from an Eastern-Hindu Swami Order. The Clergy Project featured a story about me on their public website.

Below is an edited version of my story that originally appeared on The Clergy Project

I was known at the time as Brahmachari Scott. For 14 years, I was ordained a monk of Self-Realization Fellowship Monastic Order, a religious organization founded in the U.S. in 1920 by Paramahansa Yogananda, the acclaimed Yogi who wrote Autobiography of a Yogi and was the first Indian-Swami to permanently make his home in the West.

Mom raised me Roman Catholic. I attended weekly Catechism classes and Sunday masses. By age 16, I rejected church doctrine–my questions were terminated with the same refrain, “you just have to have faith”. I stopped believing and attending church, and became indifferent towards organized religion. What I had been taught to believe about the supernatural as a Catholic‒-about God, Jesus, and the saints‒-only slept for a few years. Later on my beliefs would be dramatically reawakened when I discovered Eastern religion and meditation.

Autobiography-of-a-YogiAt age 19, in college and at a party, a buddy’s Uncle introduced me to a book: Autobiography of a Yogi. The Autobiography captivated me. I devoted myself as a student, meditated twice daily, and regularly attended Self-Realization Fellowship temple services. The endless spiritual answers, meditation experiences, and like-minded religious friends were comforting.

I quit college, sold my small business, and left home for good without telling family. I was going to live as a renunciant at the Hidden Valley Ashram Center near San Diego.

Monastery routine consisted of meditation, classes, recreation, 9-to-5 jobs: ministering to a worldwide religious congregation at the Self-Realization Fellowship churches, temples, meditation centers and groups, and spiritual retreats. Each monk received $40 per month cash allowance, room and board, paid medical care, and all-you-could-eat lacto-ovo-vegetarian buffet.

To say that I renounced my quest for truth by leaving the Self-Realization Order would be incorrect. Ironically, reliable “realization” came as I questioned and thought deeply about what I was taught by religious tradition and spiritual authorities.

CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Transitioning from the monastery and back into the world took years. Day-by-day, I met new people, challenged old ideas, built a career, and went back to university to complete bachelors and masters degrees.

Only family and close friends knew that I was an ordained monk in a Hindu-Swami Order. While I read an article in Scientific American magazine I told myself “I’m a nonbeliever, a skeptic of gods and the supernatural”. Then I began to come out to others that my 14 years as a meditating monk lead me to nonbelief and skepticism.

Beliefs in supernatural entities adds layers of complexity that aren’t necessary. The world makes more sense as it is without postulating that there’s some divine being who is somehow in charge of things.

I’ve never regretted leaving the monastery, nor looked back after renouncing religious life. Down-to-earth, practical pursuits are enough to fill me with wonder: things such as cycling on backcountry roads, engaging in discourse on ethics or business, or volunteering to help community or hanging out with family and friends.

Originally from Scott – The Clergy Project

Notes

1 At the time of this writing The Clergy Project private online community had 649 members. Membership has been growing steadily since the group first started with dozens of members in October 2011.

2 See Religious Affiliations: The Clergy Project for a complete list of current or previous religious denominations of the members of The Clergy Project

Skepticism & Nonbelief

Profane Revelations?

Whirling Dervishes, photo by shioshvili on Flickr
Whirling Dervishes, photo by shioshvili on Flickr

Mysticism and profane revelations

Asking clergy about religion’s mystical aspects – Many religions have a mystical component. In this article, a rabbi talks about Kabballah/Jewish mysticism, an Islamic chaplain discusses Sufism/Muslim mysticism, and a Charismatic Christian pastor discusses speaking in tongues as mystical aspects of their faiths. Mystical experiences feel real and can be transformative. However, what do we read into personal visions or feelings? See my post Spiritual Experiences Won’t Prove Existence of Gods.

Acclaimed journalist Barbara Ehrenreich takes on the mysteries of her own youth in 'Living With a Wild God.'
Acclaimed journalist Barbara Ehrenreich takes on the mysteries of her own youth in ‘Living With a Wild God.’

Famously tough-minded Atheist-journalist takes on mysticism in new memoir: “Living With A Wild God”

There’s quite a stir going on in the media about a staunch atheist coming out as a “mystic”. Or, at least, she’s advocating that we keep our minds open to the possibility there is a mystical presence. I concur and will keep my mind open while  searching for any objective evidence. Barbara Ehrenreich’s story hinges on an experience, the most vivid of a series of experiences that she had as a teenager that most of us might call mystical, but that she labels “dissociative.” She was 17 in May 1959 when one early morning while traveling through Lone Pine she was subject to a moment of perceptual chaos that, more than 50 years later, she has a difficult time describing. You can also listen to an interview with Barbara about her book, Living with a Wild God, by clicking the audio podcast link below.

Two podcasts:

Living with a Wild God: Barbara Ehrenreich on Atheism and Transcendence, Point of Inquiry, Interview April 14, 2014.   See the Famously Tough-Minded Atheist news above for more info.

Consciousness and the Social Brain, interview discusses book by Michael S. A. Graziano
Consciousness and the Social Brain, interview discusses book by Michael S. A. Graziano

Consciousness as Social Perception, Brain Science Podcast 108. In this interview with Princeton neuroscientist, Michael Graziano, discusses his scientific investigations and his latest book “Consciousness and the Social Brain”. One of the most important points he makes is that consciousness is probably only a “quick and dirty model” of what is really going on, which means that our intuitions about consciousness are not necessarily reliable.

Graziano gives many examples that clearly illustrate this. In fact, humans have a strong tendency to over-attribute awareness to the world around us. This is part of the social circuitry that has made us the most successful species in the earth’s history, but it can also lead to amusing results (as anyone who has interacted with Siri on an iPhone has no doubt observed). Listen to this podcast interview now for a fascinating and entertaining exploration into Dr. Graziano’s experiments and his scientific explanation of consciousness.