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: