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Mystical Experience in a Godless Universe

Posted by spritzophrenia on February 12, 2010

I’ve always found something about deserts beautiful. When I was sixteen, two friends and I spent 5 days tramping around Tongariro National Park. Much of the landscape is volcanic desert and I still have a memory of walking out alone into the rocks and sand of the Oturere basin. The sense of loneliness, sadness and beauty in the evening sunset was profound.

Yesterday I wrote about atheist spirituality, which generated a reasonable amount of traffic and a few comments. From this I can deduce that a) Atheists find talking about their spirituality interesting or b) Non-atheists like atheists talking about their spirituality or c) Google’s finally found me (but Google doesn’t actually find a great deal) or d) It’s really kinda hard to interpret much from traffic stats. Anyway, I want to follow up on a few points.

For example, do atheists pray? Does this violate some kind of atheist code, is it the unforgiveable sin? There’s an old saying – which I’m sure many atheists hate – “There are no atheists in foxholes.” Well I’m not so sure that screaming “Fuuuuck!” in your head counts as prayer. Actually, it probably does – I rather like how Anne Lamott‘s prayers mostly go “Help!”, and she’s not an atheist so that makes her an expert. From my experience, many christians would agree with her.

As an open agnostic, I can pray. I just don’t know if anyone is out there to hear me. I guess atheists wouldn’t pray, it would be inconsistent, right? They might meditate, but if we meditate, it would need to be totally divorced from g0ds or the Buddha. I’ve already written about the common misperception in the West that Buddhism is an atheistic religion. One former Buddhist writes

Once inside Buddhism you find out that belief in afterlife (rebirth), karma as a moral retribution law, the omniscience of Buddha, miracles of Buddhas and Bodhisatvas, pure lands, complete obedience to one’s guru, sins (bad karma), gods (“devas”), supernatural powers, etc, are all seen as fundamental beliefs in Buddhism.

Perhaps we can turn to more naturalistic spiritual experiences? Viewing a nice sunset perhaps? Being caught up in the beauty of music? Comte-Sponville’s “mystical” experiences involving a sense of “infinite happiness”, an “eternal sense of peace”, and the “dazzling presence of the All” sound rather like drug experiences that can be had on MDMA (ecstasy) and certain hallucinogens. An ex who is a committed user of such drugs nevertheless insists that drugs are not a spiritual experience. But then, maybe she’s not defining spiritual experience very well? If spiritual experiences are really just intense emotional or mystical experiences and don’t require a g0d or spirit world then maybe these drug experiences are, in fact, spiritual experiences. This topic is one I’m planning some guest blogs and a little debate on.

Atheist Left Coast Librul writes: “Human beings are by their very nature spiritual. I wonder if theists would resist atheists quite so fervently if we were more willing to admit that simple fact.” Non-atheist Lou Kavar suggests some definitions of spirituality that doesn’t necessarily require a g0d, although the rest of his post probably goes beyond what most atheists would be comfortable with: “Spirituality is a dimension of life we each have. It is the dimension that enables to us to create, discover, or encounter something about meaning, purpose and value in life.”

Julian Baggini concludes his article on Spirituality for Atheists with “Personally, I’d like to banish the word ‘spiritual’. It misleads us into thinking that we need more than the world we live in as physical, organic beings. What we think of as ‘spiritual is simply those things – love, morality, values and meaning – that make us creatures with rich inner lives.” Sabio, a commentter on yesterday’s blog would also like to leave the word “spirit” out.

Agnostic Pentecostal, commented yesterday and asks of atheist spirituality

how it’s possible? In my mind, even a pantheistic-type (or panentheistic) “other” is still representative of something/one beyond. To me, this is a “theos,” regardless of the nature we ascribe it, whether we call that Eywa, great spirit, Nature, Universe, or God…even if it has a lowercase “g.” I like the idea of atheistic spirituality but in my mind, whatever you replace “God” with is still a God.

Of the two friends I shared my desert spirituality experience, both were atheists. Ross blew his brains out with a shotgun several years ago. Tony, who argued vehemently with me over theism in his late teens moved to England, got married and is now a christian. Me, I prefer just being alone in the desert. I think it’s about time I went camping there again with my son. Perhaps if g0d is real she might choose to meet me there.



listening to Blue Oyster Cult | Don’t Fear the Reaper
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5 Responses to “Mystical Experience in a Godless Universe”

  1. Lou Kavar said

    Since I was given an honorable mention in this posting, I wanted to elaborate.

    I understand spirituality as a dimension of what makes us human. Just as having a body is part of what makes us human, so spirituality is also part of being human. While this is clearly an ontological statement, research demonstrates that this is true at the genetic and neurological level.

    I understand spirituality as that aspect of people which enables us to create, discover, or encounter meaning, purpose and value in our lives. For example, I find meaning in my work. That, in turn, helps to make my life meaningful. I value the life I share with my life-partner, which adds a certain value to my life.

    While spirituality may include a deistic belief system (or some other kind of faith dimension), it is also experienced in and through the other dimensions of life. Spirituality is related to the human ability to transform things like hard work, which could be drudgery, into something meaningful which a person willingly does. Among other things, spirituality is rooted in the neurological capacity for self-transcendence and the experience of union or communion with something outside of ourselves.

    Bottom line: while I am deistic in my own belief system, in terms of the fundamental experience of spirituality, I understand a deistic or religious belief as totally optional.

    • Thanks Lou, I’m hoping others will find your blog via mine. I’m sure I’ll quote and link to it again when appropriate.

      I like the way you emphasise *meaning* as a part of spirituality. That whole “meaning” thing was a key part of starting my investigation of spirituality, starting with a fairly conservative, but well-educated form of christianity.

      I hadn’t yet found your self-definition of deism. Most interesting.

  2. Max said

    Just got here from Google – an interesting topic you’re taking on, I hope you continue to explore it. As a former HARDCORE atheist / reductionist rationalist who was whalloped into a much more humble and awe filled and positive perspective by a mystical experience in nature, this is right up my alley!

    I also enjoyed Lou’s discussion of meaningfulness – even atheistic meaning – as the ground of spirituality. Keep up the conversation, looking forward to it.

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