Sacred Tension Mini Episode: On Atheistic Mysticism
I consider myself a mystic, and yet I am an atheist. I don’t believe in God, gods, the afterlife, or the supernatural. How is this not a contradiction in terms? Isn’t supernaturalism and woo central to the experience of mysticism?
I was recently reading Sam Harris’s book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion and came across an excellent passage which helped me to articulate this seeming contradiction. Because this is the internet, though, I need to give one annoying caveat: I have strong disagreements with Sam Harris, many of which you can read here. However, like all authors, Harris is a complex moral and intellectual creature with whom I have some agreements and some disagreements, just like every other human being on this planet. I can have grave misgivings about a public intellectual even as I admire other areas of their work.
Authors who attempt to build a bridge between science and spirituality tend to make one of two mistakes: Scientists generally start with an impoverished view of spiritual experience, assuming that it must be a grandiose way of describing ordinary states of mind—parental love, artistic inspiration, awe at the beauty of the night sky. In this vein, one finds Einstein’s amazement at the intelligibility of Nature’s laws described as though it were a kind of mystical insight. New Age thinkers usually enter the ditch on the other side of the road: They idealize altered states of consciousness and draw specious connections between subjective experience and the spookier theories at the frontiers of physics. Here we are told that the Buddha and other contemplatives anticipated modern cosmology or quantum mechanics and that by transcending the sense of self, a person can realize his identity with the One Mind that gave birth to the cosmos. In the end, we are left to choose between pseudo-spirituality and pseudo-science.
I encounter this dichotomy between pseudo-spirituality and pseudo-science on a regular basis. Many progressives and secularists assume that when I talk about mystical practice, I’m referring to a lovely walk I had in the woods, or an evening drive under the stars. Those experiences are incandescently wonderful and lend great richness to life, but they are nowhere near what I mean by mystical experience.
By mysticism, I mean the complete annihilation of my experience of self through meditation. I mean altered states of consciousness. I mean dream work that leads me to psychedelic and transformative cosmic experiences. I mean having tactile hallucinations and full-bodied bliss by way of yoga. I mean language centers in my brain shutting down and speaking in tongues and having narrative visions. I mean reading tarot as a meditation aide and doing occult ritual for cathartic transformation and release.
When I mean mysticism, I mean mysticism.
On the other hand, I encounter a wide range of unverifiable woo in spiritual spaces. Quantum mumbo jumbo is ubiquitous, and I have gone on leave from the yoga world because I find the amount of conspiracy theories and dangerous pseudoscience alarming.
Harris goes on to defend a marriage of full-blown mystical experience and scientific rigor in a manner that happens to converge nicely with my own personal views as a member of The Satanic Temple, the fifth tenet of which reads, “Beliefs should conform to our best scientific understanding of the world. We should take care never to distort scientific facts to fit our beliefs.”
Few scientists and philosophers have developed strong skills of introspection—in fact, most doubt that such abilities even exist. Conversely, many of the greatest contemplatives know nothing about science. But there is a connection between scientific fact and spiritual wisdom, and it is more direct than most people suppose. Although the insights we can have in meditation tell us nothing about the origins of the universe, they do confirm some well-established truths about the human mind: Our conventional sense of self is an illusion; positive emotions, such as compassion and patience, are teachable skills; and the way we think directly influences our experience of the world.
I am a proponent of mystical experience, but not because I believe it tells me anything fundamental about the cosmos. I practice these disciplines because they enhance the quality of my life and, I sincerely believe, make me happier, kinder, and more compassionate. They are also unbelievably fun. I don’t think there is any contradiction between engaging in practices that press us up against the deepest mysteries of consciousness and holding a fundamentally skeptical and scientific worldview. Enchantment and skepticism are, in my own life, healthy bedfellows.
Giving up mysticism because I no longer believe in God is like giving up orgasm because I no longer believe sex is between one man and one woman. Like orgasm, mysticism transcends religion, despite the fact that religions have spilled oceans of ink on both subjects and have insisted through human history to be the ultimate authority on both sex and spirituality. Sam Harris agrees, writing,
Spirituality must be distinguished from religion—because people of every faith, and of none, have had the same sorts of spiritual experiences. While these states of mind are usually interpreted through the lens of one or another religious doctrine, we know that this is a mistake. Nothing that a Christian, a Muslim, and a Hindu can experience—self-transcending love, ecstasy, bliss, inner light—constitutes evidence in support of their traditional beliefs, because their beliefs are logically incompatible with one another. A deeper principle must be at work.
My personal religious experience is rich with dichotomies, and this is a central one: in the same way religion and atheism are a false binary, non-supernaturalism and mysticism are, too. So, if you are a nontheist and have an irresistible draw to the outer fringes of ritual, mysticism, or altered states of consciousness, don’t let yourself be shamed into avoiding those life-giving experiences by fellow atheists. Conversely, if you are a religious person who fears that giving up God also means giving up the benefits of mystical bliss, be not afraid. You can still retain the best parts of religion without the false consolations and unverified claims of supernaturalism.
But that’s just me. What do you think? Let me know your thoughts by leaving a comment below. If your comment is excellent, I might feature it in my monthly Best Comments series. You can also become a patron and ensure that I bring you interesting content every single week, forever. And by the way, most discussion of my posts takes place on my discord server, and I invite you to join in the conversation there