Transcendence in Mystical Atheists

How can atheists have “transcendent experiences”?  What would that mean?
Tom Rees at Epiphenom just posted on a recent experiment locating the parts of the brain responsible for transcendence.  The definition Tom gives for “transcendence” was:

the belief [sensation] that you are connected in ineffable ways to the world around you, that you are not limited by your body but can go beyond it in mysterious ways.”

You will notice that I just corrected his definition.  That correction is not just nitpicking, but critical to understanding atheists with transcendent experiences.  Key to that understanding is that many “beliefs” are created after a “sensation” and that for any given sensation, any number of beliefs can be attached.

I recently offered a tool call “Atheists, declare thyself” where atheists or agnostics could describe aspects of their beliefs, experiences and expressions of atheism.  My hope is that the tool offers a method to enhance both dialogue and self-exploration.  This post is an attempt to further these dialogues by exploring the “Mystical Perceptions” category on the table.   The mystical category may seem odd to many atheists.  But I, for one, have had many “mystical perceptions” over the years and yet consider myself an atheist.  Yet as most of the Atheists that have filled out this table to date, I see that most describe themselves as “non-Mystical”.  Are non-mystical atheists the common variety. Perhaps those with mystical perceptions seldom become outright atheists.

I personally feel that most theists don’t have mystical experiences in general either.  Indeed, mystical experiences feed our normal sense of religion.  But a theist and an atheist will walk away from such experiences with different explanations.

Mystics are traditionally despised, excommunicated or at best sequestered by most orthodox monotheisms.  I sense a trace of the same tendency in the atheist ‘community’.   Mysticism is threatening because it reeks of individual interpretation, direct experiences and easily escapes the standardization demanded by orthodoxy.  I feel  A-mystical A-theists are too quick to judge the many altered states of awareness that they themselves may never have experienced — they label those who experience them variously as insane, confused, pathological, crazy, illogical and/or irrational.   These judgmental atheists, limited by their experiences, make false judgments of the world, others and the nature of meaning.   While it is fair game to criticize the beliefs about a perception, to go further and view the experience itself as pathological is, I feel, a mistake.  And indeed, in Rees’ article, there seems a hint of the judgement that mystical perceptions are pathological and yet Tom acknowledges that many Buddhist practitioners have intentionally trained to have such perceptions.   Such a judgment, in my eyes, is similar to a person who has never had good beer, good sex or heard good sitar,  cynically debating anyone who valued beer, sex or Indian Classical music.  Is such cynicism justified?

So, how many atheists have mystical inclinations?  Well, Christopher Hitchens has been the talk of town since he was interviewed with a Unitarian Universalist minister by Vanity Fair.  Eric Reitan, a liberal Christian, does a good piece on it in Religion Dispatches called, “Christopher Hitchens, Religious in Spite of Himself?”  Reitan puts forward this question because Hitchens uses Rudolf Otto‘s term numinous to describe “a feeling of awe or wonder” and states that “everybody has had the experience at some point when they feel that there’s more to life than just matter.”  Has Hitchens had mystical experiences?  Should something as simple as “awe” or “wonder” be considered “mystical”.  I will talk about these in another post.  But for now, this points at the complexity of talking about such subjective experiences.  But here is my point:  You can’t easily dismiss the experiences of others just because you have not had them.  The operative word here is “easily” and also note that I am not saying you can’t debate their interpretations of these experiences.

Let’s look at another New Age Atheist — Richard Dawkins.  Could someone help me find a YouTube post I saw months ago where someone claimed to have developed a magnetic induction device to trigger altered mental states?  Dawkins apparently tried the device and felt nothing while other of his atheist colleagues tried and did have altered states.  Was this pure placebo effect for those that felt something or are some of us built (or trained) to perceive such states more easily than others?   It does not really matter.  Perhaps Dawkins really is less inclined toward mystical experiences.   Or, are these New Atheists so bent on characterizing all religions as fundamentalist that they are a bit short sighted of others who share many of their perceptions?

Luke, at Common Sense Atheism, describes an enthusiastic attitude toward a naturalistic view of the universe which he calls Enchanted Atheism.  This optimist enchantment points to yet another set of emotions, which I feel are different than the mystical sensations explored by the article mentioned at the beginning of this post and thus, in my table, I listed mysticism and enchantment in different categories.

In conclusion, it is important to understand that we should not allow our limited range of experiences and emotions to narrow our ability to understand others — atheists or theists.

Questions for readers:

  • If you are a Atheist/agnostic, how do you feel about this issue?
  • If you are a Theist, how do you incorporate these science findings into your world?

Related Triangulation Posts:

  • My Worldview: the first two lists are of my mystical and supernatural experiences (not beliefs).
  • Beliefs, what are they?:  my attempt to understand the nature of beliefs


Filed under Consciousness, Philosophy & Religion

35 responses to “Transcendence in Mystical Atheists

  1. Kinda going from the inside of this article out, I’d first address the snippet from the Religious Dispatches article.

    If what Hitchens feels is a sense of awe or wonder, then I don’t think this feeling should be labeled “mystical.” Labels like “mystical” and “divine,” and nouns like “God” and “deity” are full of connotation that — even if we may not agree on the particulars — we can sense that there are connotations. The connotations behind mystical, divine, God, etc., don’t fit the same connotations around mere wonder and awe. (Ironically, these connotations can change with time, since didn’t “awe” used to denote as well as connote a deeply religious, Godly experience?)

    I am prone to believe that the sensation and the belief aren’t so far apart. I think that some people experience a sensation that is qualitatively different enough that it causes them to describe it and quantify it in certain belief terms. So, while I may feel inspired by music, or may feel awe from something, or may feel love, these things don’t qualitatively feel like they should be quantified as godly, mystical OR divine. If there are sensations that should be quantified as any of these things, then these are different sensations.

    Otherwise, we can get into a game of giving substandard definitions to words that definitely connote different qualities. E.g., God is love. If you’ve felt love (or believe in love), then you should believe in God. Actually, no. I think most people understand that God is qualitatively something just a bit different than love. Maybe a higher form thereof, maybe a purer form thereof, but love =/= God.

    I can buy that a mystical sensation could exist. But be careful, because you risk falling into a trap. By valuing mystical sensations so highly, you make it a kind of “sixth sense,” so to speak, and those who don’t value it (perhaps they haven’t experienced it) are “blind” in that sense. They are deficient insofar as they lack some sense or sensibility.

  2. Sabio, I agree entirely with this post. The transcendent experience can be interpreted in many ways – it’s not intrinsically religious, and it’s not intrinsically unhealthy.

    However, what the study did seem to show (and what other studies have shown) is that people who experience these sensations are likely to interpret them in a religious way, and to have their religious beliefs strengthened as a result.

  3. I would like to point out, after reading about the reseach, that it is far from conclusive. The results of the research do not incontrovertibly imply causation, nor can they be generalized to all mystical experiences.

    I appreciate your honesty on this and other issues, Sabio. On both sides of the God debate individuals are too often willing to embrace any means to advance their beliefs. . .

  4. I also put non-mystical in my chart, but I believe that I didn’t interpret it the way you describe here. I too go after and relish in these “sensations” you describe, but I never considered it to be mystical. Perhaps a better understanding of the definition would help me out?

    What does it mean to be mystical, really? I relate better with the term, “transcendence” over “mysticism.” I suppose to me, when I realize I am connected to everything, that I am made of elements throughout the universe, and that “I” am impermanent, I think that connection with “ultimate reality” is not an irrational thought to me in the least, but a perfectly rational thought and sensation.

    I hope this makes sense. I feel like I started to ramble.

  5. Regarding the magnetic induction device, you should look up the work of Michael Persinger and Todd Murphy.

  6. Temaskian

    I had no transcendent experiences in church, i.e. speaking in tongues and hearing the Holy Spirit. As a result, I felt inferior. Whereas those who had the above (or claimed to have had) were placed on a higher pedestal than the rest of us lesser mortals.

    In my opinion, people who have transcendent experiences are just more muddle-headed than average. That does not preclude them from being successful lawyers and doctors, and being happy. In fact, such are often more happy than clear-headed ones. Just as imbibing drugs may make for a happier experience. Or drinking coffee, etc. I envy such a little, actually. I mean the mystical types, not the druggies and coffies.

  7. As an atheist, I’m not sure what is really meant by mystical experiences. Perhaps a feeling of awe is one? Or perhaps ecstasy? Without a clear-cut definition, it’s hard to answer this question fully.

    And I must agree on the point that those with mystical are inclined to become religious. There’s a well documented human tendency to search for patterns in fully chaotic systems, to give inanimate objects personalities, and to give seemingly unexplainable events a supernatural explanation.

  8. Fantastic comments.
    I will talk a few posts to answer them in the future but try to put on some lighter posts prior.
    Here are the issues I hope to address

    (1)Defining “Mystical
    It is a vague word. “Transcendence”, the study of this article, is only one aspect. Do we want every intense feeling to fall under here? Should we separate superstition, irrationality and mysticism.
    (asked by Andrew, Nate, Hypatia, Darren)

    (2)Atheists Using Religious Language
    Is it a sell-out to use religious language with all its connotations? What should we do instead?
    (asked by Andrew)

    (3)Those with Transcendent Experience drift toward religion
    (emphasized by Tom, Darren)

    (4)Making Mystics the Special Ones
    (objection by Darren, Andrew)

    I look forward to working on these. Meanwhile, I must say: “transcendent” sensations are had by a significant part of the population. If we think that there is something better for them to interpret them with besides religious doctrines and ideas, we need to have something interest, enticing and valuable to offer. We can’t ask them to ignore them.

    Thanx again for the thoughts.

  9. “…many ‘beliefs’ are created after a ‘sensation’ and that for any given sensation, any number of beliefs can be attached.”

    This has been my experience as well. Many feelings that I once attributed to God I still experience today. My theist friends have experiences and sensations and credit God, while I can have similar experiences and sensations and credit no one.

  10. Thanks, Mike ! That is exactly one of the main thrusts of this article. I am glad it is clear to you. So, are some of the experiences you have hard to put in words whereas they were in you god-language days? Have you embraced any new terms? Have you re-written any old ones?

  11. I don’t really try to put them into words, partially because when I have tried in the past someone tries to claim them. “Oh, that’s (insert religious construct here)!”

    I’m not ready to be certain again, so I don’t really try to pin any of this stuff down.

  12. @ Mike — I can see that.

  13. Who knows, though, someday I might be ready to start pinning things down again. Though my only certainty is that I’ll never be certain again. 😉

  14. Boz

    I’m an atheist

    A few days ago, my wife and I were in the car, and I heard my wife say my name at a moderate volume. I responded and she said that she did not say anything.

    Either she is lying or I had an aural hallucination – I’m pretty sure it was the latter.

    I find this to be quite suspicious. Is this transcendance, or my mind playing tricks on me? I don’t know.

  15. @ boz
    Imagine your same scenario but your wife is not in the car. You call your wife and tell her you just heard her voice and bang! we have a miracle.

    My take: our brains dream constantly — “daydreaming” is just flipping out of distractions of waking state and hearing/seeing/thinking the dreams during the day. The voice you heard was a dream — a “day” dream, if you will.

    “Transcendence” , used in this article, is not any of these “hallucinations” but instead blurred sense of self and sometimes body. They are a different set of brain experiences.

    Does that make sense?

  16. I think using words with heavy supernaturalist connotations like ‘mystical’ is a mistake in the long run. Just as Einstein’s statements about ‘god’ have been misinterpreted to seem to be supporting theism, so secular interpretations of ‘mystical’ and ‘spiritual’ will be misinterpreted to seem to support ‘mysticism’ and ‘spirit’ in the supernatural sense.

    I’ve replied about this topic on a few other places which may be of interest:

    My strategy is to try to re-discover or re-work vocabulary which will help to save these natural human emotions/feelings from the ‘spiritual’ ghetto. A great side-effect of this is that it’s a powerful argument against the common Argument from Religious Experience. I don’t think atheists lack these feelings, I just think they don’t interpret them in a supernatural way.

  17. geoih

    Quote from original article: “A-mystical A-theists are too quick to judge the many altered states of awareness that they themselves may never have experienced — they label those who experience them variously as insane, confused, pathological, crazy, illogical and/or irrational. ”

    What other reasoned response should we have? Somebody says they’ve had some mystical experience, of which there is no physical evidence and all we have is their word that it happened, why would we automatically accept their claim?

    It seems to me most of the research on these experiences have only shown that they really are only in people’s heads. I can accept that they’ve had the experience in their mind, but that doesn’t make it any more real. Conversly, I can drink a beer, have sex, and listen to music. I might not think these experiences are mystical or even enjoyable, but the experience itself is not solely in my head.

  18. From geoih:

    It seems to me most of the research on these experiences have only shown that they really are only in people’s heads. I can accept that they’ve had the experience in their mind, but that doesn’t make it any more real.

    Wait, this doesn’t follow. If someone has had an experience in his head, then that *is* real. If research can show anything about these experiences — even that they are inside of people’s head’s — then there IS physical evidence of these experience — within the neurons and neutotransmitters and whatnot of the brain.

    What we *don’t* have to accept is that these experiences are anything but *subjective* and *internal*. But being subjective or internal does not mean “not real”.

  19. Boz

    sabio, I think that makes sense – transcendence being different to hallucination.

    Andrew, good response to geoih.

    The experience(hallucination, etc) likely actually happened, but the interpretation (allah did it) is often wrong.

  20. geoih

    Quote from Andrew: “If someone has had an experience in his head, then that *is* real.”

    If I imagine a unicorn in my mind, it doesn’t make the unicorn real. It only makes my imagination real (and only in my mind).

  21. @ Geo

    I see this as an unnecessary quibble, but I may be mistaken.
    I think you both hold similar beliefs but are warring over words.
    Adjectives & definitions are the best way I have found to get around word-fights. Or at least they help narrow the battle. Boz tried to be a peace maker in this tug-of-war over the word “Real”.

    If we try:

    Subjectively Real(SR): Meaning the person is not lying about their experience, they are being honest about what they experienced.

    Objectively Real(OR): An actual object outside the person caused the experience.

    Then what is being said is:

    People have SR experiences of transcendence. — Andrew
    Experiences of transcendence are not based on OR. — Geo

    Isn’t it that simple? Is there more here?

  22. @ Wonderist :
    This issue of how to use language that is historically packed with undesirable connotations is a debate in many communities: Gays, Blacks, Feminists have all debated what strategy to use. As I wrote above, I will post on this and start a thread there. I will have to go read your site on the Nexus to see your opinion. Thanks for the links.

  23. geoih:

    If I imagine a unicorn in my mind, it doesn’t make the unicorn real. It only makes my imagination real (and only in my mind

    And that your imagination is real is most important. That your imagination is connected to neural activity is important. That it is “only in your mind” is critical, since your subjectivity (how you perceive the physical neural activity) is the most important thing you’ve got. I like Sabio’s distinction of subjective real vs. objective real (he’s very secumenical), and I was always going for subjective…my entire point is that subjective real, in many cases, is MORE important than objective real.

    For example, when you FEEL love, it doesn’t matter that there isn’t some external pool of love, or that love isn’t external or inherent to the object of love. It is perfectly fine for love to be “in your mind.” In fact, that it is “in your mind” (and that’s what makes it real) is ENTIRELY the point. When you PERCEIVE beauty, it doesn’t matter that there isn’t some external entity beauty, or that beauty would not exist but for subjective beings to perceive it. It is perfectly fine for beauty to be “in your mind” (albeit impacted by social considerations and some biologically evolved advantages). That fact is ENTIRELY the point.

    If not, the other alternatives you must come up with are trying to make beauty or love objective (which doesn’t *work* very well), or downplay beauty and love completely (which doesn’t *feel* very good.)

  24. geoih

    Quote from Sabio Lantz: “Isn’t it that simple? Is there more here?”

    I think the use of the word “real” only adds to the dispute. Thinking of something in your mind doesn’t make it real. It only makes the thinking real.

    I can acknowledge that you’ve thought of something in your mind (e.g., love, beauty, unicorns, god, etc.) but that doesn’t make that something real, either in the sense of it being made of matter or energy, or even being the same thought within my own mind.

    Quote from Andrew: “In fact, that it is “in your mind” (and that’s what makes it real) is ENTIRELY the point.”

    Perception is not reality. At best it can be a very close approximation of reality. At worst it is a delusion that has nothing to do with reality.

    I may percieve love, beauty, anger and revulsion, and my perceptions may even agree with other’s perceptions, but they still only exist in my mind.

  25. I am pretty sure Andrew, like you, and me holds to Scientific Realistm. Maybe Andrew could declare himself, and since GEO does not have a web site [yet], he will just have to tell us. See how useful declaring your beliefs can be.

    As I read Andrew, I am not sure what he is declaring either. I do think it is just an unnecessary confusion, though. But maybe GEO is onto something.

    But I think Temaskian is wrong about people having transcendant experiences being muddles (being one myself). But then, he may be using the word broadly and thinking of all sorts of other things like Speaking in Tongues or rolling on the floor in a healing spasm or such.

    Words can make even those who agree spill beer during arguments.

  26. geoih, the problem is that since we ONLY interface with anything via perceptions, it is the only useful thing. Reality is much lower on the totem pole.

    That is why, for example, solipsistic arguments are not a problem. If reality drastically differs from perception, then we simply discount or ignore reality. Instead, we rely on the appearance and perception of things.

    So, continuing to point out things that only exist in your mind misses the point. Things that exist within your mind – whether they originated from there OR whether they are an interaction with some sense data – are the most important considerations. Noumena mean nothing next to phenomena.

    since your thoughts and perceptions do correlate with neurological activity, then YES, thoughts are REAL. Thoughts relate to matter and energy, unless you are some kind of dualist.

    Sabio: when I fully understand what all those terms mean, maybe I’ll declare. I will say I think science detects phenomena — things as they APPEAR. So, geoih’s division between perception and reality is a bit misplaced, but it’s on the right track.

    His use of reality hints at objectivity…noumena. Things as they truly are. Whereas perception is subjective, phenomenon.

    The problem is we can ONLY interface with subjectivity, appearance, phenomenon. So while we should be aware that “reality” could diverge drastically (e.g., the universe was made last Thursday to appear billions of years old in every way), these considerations shouldn’t make us lose sleep because perception is king. If the universe is perceptibly old in every single way, then it doesn’t matter what the true age is.

  27. Temaskian

    Perhaps muddle-headed sounds pejorative. All humans are muddle-headed at times, but in different ways. We’re biological, not digital machines.

    Some people are absent-minded, some are forgetful, others are irrational, and some have ‘experiences’. These are instances when the mind is performing in ways that are not normally ideal. I do agree with Sabio that such experiences can be happy, just like getting drunk can be a happy experience.

  28. Temaskian
    Is our mental state during sexual orgasm also “muddle-headed”? How about when we win are hard won battle. How about when we drift asleep? How about when we laugh uncontrollably?

  29. Temaskian

    Yes, when I referred to the transcendent experience, I was referring to the more extreme forms, definitely not the normal, happy feelings we get when we listen to music, or when we’re looking at a beautiful scenery.

  30. Temaskian

    About the examples you gave… perhaps they are also instances of muddle-headed-ness, but in a good way, I guess. Like I said, ,normally we would prefer not to be muddle-headed, except when we’re relaxed and just want to have fun.

    For example, during Chinese New Year, many Chinese like to drink and gamble, and drive. Saw many accidents on the road these last few days. People just want to have fun after a hard year of work.

  31. @ Temaskian
    Indeed, knowing how to safely enjoy various states of mind is important.

  32. I am an atheist, and I find ultimately that transcendence beyond materialism and the objective, sensual world must ultimately be attained for maturity and also quality of psychological experience. Atheism obviously shouldn’t be a free-for-all ticket to materialism and capitalism. Atheism merely says: religion is fraught with hypocrisy and the god most people discuss is a fiction in their minds that they have constructed in their imagination. Atheism states that religion is primitive, but it is also primitive to be solely materialist, and since people grow old and die, it’s necessary to rise beyond the physical body.

  33. mysticatheist

    Atheists are way more than “no gods”label.
    We come in many shades.

  34. @mytica[l]atheist,
    Atheist just means “don’t believe in a god — it is a label created by theists. So yep, even “Recyclists” like you can be labeled an “Atheist” by theists.

  35. John Rork

    Altered states are part of what it is to be human. Mythic tales arose as language developed, and they can be intensely meaningful without being “real”.

    The problem is that today there are no boundaries between the various traditions and cultures, and that results in conflict that would not exist if peoples were separated. The joy of our age us for those of us who appreciate the richness that these cultures and traditions bring, but I fear that most feel threatened and will react very badly to it. We also have extended our power and influence far too widely and deeply than is healthy. We are as Sorcerer’s apprentices, and fallout of our unchecked power and influence/effluence will persist for 100’s of millennia. We have to grow up – very quickly – or fail the matriculation exam for our species.

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