If God is universal energy, permeating the cosmos and all human beings, then everything is God. I believed. Human beings are a “spark” of Divinity, a soul. Religions, and particularly “spiritual but not religious” people, dearly hold these beliefs. Why? An intimate connection between the God Source and all human beings is considered natural and self-evident. But specific explanations are rare1. Instead, we find just a collection of suggestions that convey general beliefs without bothering with specifics, such as:
Divinity can be found “within”, in the soul;
Human beings contain a divine essence, a Higher Self, a divine spark or ray;
We have an intimate Cosmic connection, we are a droplet or wave of the Cosmic Sea;
We are Channels of the universe, potentially perfect expressions of God;
Human beings connect (or disconnect) with Source through sacred rituals, prayer, and meditation.
Catholic teachers promise us faith, prayers, and sacramental rituals will save our souls– so we swallow communion wafers and confess sins to priests. Eastern Spiritual Masters say we are gods, and that the Spirit dwells within2. (Though most of us appear to be sleeping gods in need of awakening through special initiations and meditations). Modern spiritual seekers crave initiation into mindfulness and meditation practices. Is it natural or self-evident that we have a connection with universal energy, Self, or God? Specific explanations are rare indeed.
If everything is universal energy and we are already connected with that energy or God, why are we separate? Why do we need meditation or sacred initiations to reconnect with our Self? Or, to disconnect from our self? More importantly, why are human beings fallen, sinful, or in need of salvation? Specific answers are rare. Instead, we find only a collection of suggestions that convey general beliefs.
Questions for readers: Any thoughts on “I am God” beliefs? Any key points I failed to mention?
pg 204 New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought, Hanegraaff, Wouter J., State University of New York Press, 1998. Print.
“Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?” Bible, 1 Corinthians 3:16, King James Version
Newberg thinks it’s essential to examine how people experience spirituality to fully understand how their brains work. As to what’s going on in their brains, Newberg says, “It depends to some degree on what the practice is“. Prayer, speaking in tongues, or mantra-based meditation can activate our brains. Neurotheology, or spiritual neuroscience, attempts to explain religious experience and behavior in neuroscientific terms.
Neurotheologian, Dr. Andrew Newberg in his latest book, The Metaphysical Mind: Probing the Biology of Philosophical Thought studies the neurology of religious and spiritual experiences. He’s looked at 150 brain scans, including those of Buddhists, nuns, atheists, Pentecostals speaking in tongues, and Brazilian mediums practicing psychography—the channeling of messages from the dead through handwriting.
When study participants speak in tongues or function as a medium, activity decreases in the front of their brains and increases in the back of their brains. That is where incoming sensory information flow to many parts of the brain. Newberg’s findings suggest speaking in tongues is being generated from some place other than the normal speech centers.
Beliefs In the Brain
Believers could say this proves that another entity is speaking through the practitioner, a supernatural explanation. While non-believers look for a neurological or natural explanation.
It’s debatable whether these practices are more effective when founded on religious or spiritual beliefs. Dr. Dean Hamer, author of the book, The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into our Genes, discovered that research subjects with a particular variation of a certain gene were more susceptible to self-transcendent, spiritual experiences.
This spiritual tendency also depends on a person’s environment, according to Hamer, which can direct their innate spirituality to particular religious beliefs, or steer them away from religion altogether. He says that science will never replace spirituality because a reliance on facts alone will never have as much emotional appeal.
If the euphoria a person experiences during a meditation practice can’t be integrated into their pre-existing belief system, these feelings may become disturbing. Newberg gave as an example a meditator who sought out a clergy member to talk about his practice and felt a bit brushed off by the cleric. When meditation practices enhance a rigid, authoritarian belief system, Newberg said they can lead to more intolerance and violence towards those of different beliefs. In the book he co-authored with Mark Robert Waldman, Why We Believe What We Believe, he writes that due to some overlap between spiritual beliefs and psychological disorders, patients with obsessive compulsive disorders often develop rigid religious beliefs.
Spiritual beliefs are influenced by a person’s genetics and environment, says Newberg, and meditation practices are more effective when they reinforce a practitioner’s belief system. “I got beyond my brain. I got beyond my ego self…” claim some mystics, channelers, and meditators. [How could a practitioner know this other than through their belief system in their brain?]
To obtain brain scans, Newburg uses functional magnetic resonance (fMRI), and single-photon emission computerized tomography (SPECT) imaging. The book Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience, lists their technological limitations. The authors, Drs. Sally Satel and Scott Lilienfeld, write that one limitation of brain imaging is that researchers can’t make a neat map of the brain centers. Satel is skeptical that knowing a person’s neurochemical and other physical processes will ever provide a detailed understanding of someone’s subjective beliefs.
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
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?
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.
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.