Saturday, July 5, 2014

The Appeal of Mysticism

I wish to talk for a little while about my journey. Having not written here for a while, it seemed appropriate to put this down for others to see.

Nearly two years ago, I publicly announced that I was leaving my faith on this blog. What's happened since then has been both harder and more inspiring than I thought possible. It's changed me in ways I never thought would change, and I've moved on from many things I've written here, while embracing others.

You see, when I first asked the questions that lead me away from the faith of what I've come to think of as my "past life," I was just doing business as usual. Stuff came up, information about the scientific method, history, comparative religion, theology, and more than anything, the epistemology of mystical experiences. It was a messy time with a lot of messy questions, and I've come to believe that I should not have said things how I did at the time. However, had I not done so, I never would have come to understand the way people struggle.

You see, I was a member of the majority where I live. Sure, I was a Christian with some weird ideas and beliefs, but I was still a Christian. I thought it was persecution when arrogant Christian academics would call me a heretic or say I wasn't really a Christian, but there was always a network of people to fall back on, and you can always make new connections through the network that is the "church," as vague of a term as that is. I had never really learned what it meant to take people as they are, despite valuing it so highly, because everything had to fit into a framework where God exists and controls everything and if people don't believe in God, they can safely be disregarded.

I had never thought about what it was like to be disregarded until I found myself in this undeniable position of agnostic atheism through my studies, and through my experiences. I can talk to you about evolution, church history, the holes in theological systems and the ways people try to account for them, and even get into more advanced stuff like abiogenesis, metaphysics, and cosmology. These are all things I've looked at and studied, and there are those who have studied them so much they make me look like I know literally nothing. That's the trap of academia, you never have read enough. Your opinion, if it differs with that of another academic, is uninformed, uneducated, able to be disregarded. Yes, this applies to more than just religious academics.

I've realized one thing of late: I am no academic, at least not in the sense that some people I've met are. I do not wish to disregard others any longer, and I find compassion and acceptance much more valuable than rational certitude. Even writing this is hard for me because of how many times I have been told over the years that I don't care about the truth, because I differ from others in beliefs. I have committed the cardinal sin in the eyes of some: I have changed my mind based on new data, and correction has come to be an exciting experience, in most cases, unless it is one of the many condescending "corrections" that I've had to learn to deal with since my deconversion.

It is with all of this in mind that I have taken a long, hard look at mystical experiences. You see, god always exists in what we don't know, or perhaps she exists in the realm of the laws that allow our universe to function. Perhaps she exists within our minds, a byproduct of psychological complexity, consciousness manifesting and mirroring itself onto our thoughts in such a way that we transcend ourselves. That is beautiful, and I doubt I will ever stop thinking so, but why call this, the emergence of our consciousness into higher levels of self-awareness, "god"? Perhaps it fits for some, but for others, it carries way too much baggage.

One day, a long time ago, I was put in spontaneous tears a few hours after seeing the beauty in two of my friends deciding to spend their lives together. It's the only time I really remember crying in public, and it was a beautiful moment that was quickly interrupted by a man trying to help me, but assuming I was crying in shame and praying with me about sin in my life.

I have never forgotten this happening. It was probably the biggest turning point in my religious journey, and I've come to see what it represented as the biggest reason I have made my exit from religion. You see, this man had no idea what I was going through, what I was thinking, or what was happening inside me, but he took it on himself to bring correction to me, to make it okay. It disturbed and embarrassed me, brought me out of that place where I was appreciating something great, where I was feeling how far I had fallen short of that dream (I had just ended a relationship that was very serious weeks before), where I was seeing two people embrace something truly greater than either of them individually, and it had become a prayer session. A prayer session about shame and sin and correcting oneself.

In retrospect, I was disturbing others with my outburst, and he used a good method to bring that disturbance in line with the expected environment at the time, and probably just wanted for me not to suffer, as though it were a bad thing.

This is not an odd story in a religious setting. It's actually quite common. There are stories about people that can "sense" sin on others, and they use the social or religious power they have to try to correct it. I am certain that the man trying to help me in that instance had the best of intentions, but he lacked respect for another person's experience, he made it about his perceptions, and he imposed those on me in a vulnerable state.

When people ask me why I left religion, I often give academic answers. I've come to see this as an approach that should rarely be taken, as religion is not about that. I've often challenged religious people and have read multiple expositions on why someone believes in the face of our science, our history, and the lack of good evidence in each of these for a god. The answer always comes down to faith, or subjective mystical experience that somehow convinces a person that an institution that's endured for two millennia has power over every aspect of their lives, and they choose to live that way, falling in line with the authority.

To put it another way, a subjective question requires a subjective answer, because subjective experience is, in fact, of enormous value. However, religion attempts to move subjective experience toward an objective system, and we've seen the results.

My subjective experience with the church is one of abuse, disrespect, assumptions, and, probably the most damning of all, people being wrong. Being wrong is not a problem, it is an opportunity to learn, but when someone insists on their wrong subjective conclusions in the face of correction by people who would know (like the person they are concluding things about), there is a problem. When people are wrong about dogmas that cause significant suffering and rejection in the lives of others, that makes me mad.

I have nothing but respect for those who have had experiences that convince them of the existence of a god. I'll discuss Jesus, church history, theology, science, mystical experiences, or whatever with a person, but the moment it becomes about their experiences, that is not my territory to judge, and it never will be my place to say anything about it unless they want an opinion. 99% of the time people don't want an opinion, they want to be listened to, and to have another person accept them at face value.

My journey through atheism has lead me to value mystical experiences and peoples' religious convictions in their lives, but it has lead me to violently reject any and all authoritarian religion. In retrospect, this began a long time ago, and it's probably some of the cause of people calling me heretical or sub-Christian or whatever other word they wish to use. The Christianity I've experienced is about authoritarian submission, and that's a force I've learned to be extremely wary of. The only "type" of Christianity I've ever encountered that is not subject to this has nearly nothing to do with historic Christianity, and I find that to be interesting. The early church, the formation of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, the Protestant Reformation...they all smack of rejecting previous authority and then imposing their own, and there's been enough blood shed over that nonsense, though I'm sure there will be plenty more. By stark contrast, there are those who wish to share the joy in what they've experienced, who do not have an agenda, who do not wish to force people to believe anything or disregard those that make them uncomfortable, and they freely help those less fortunate, often with no recognition whatsoever. I aspire to be one of those people, though I doubt I'll ever call anything good in someone's life a "god" or "jesus" thing.

There is nothing wrong with my experiences leading me to where I am now. I have not "only encountered hypocrites," I have encountered a lot of nice, generous and good religious people as well as those attempting to impose authoritarianism on everyone they can, and I will continue to encounter all of the above. My experiences are not "less" than another person's for any reason, though there are many more to have, many more things to change my mind about, and much more adventuring to do.

If there's one thing I have become convinced of by all of this, it is that I cannot make an objective conclusion from subjective data. So sure, god exists, but she exists in the minds of those who believe in her. Hence, I am an agnostic about the existence of god due to insufficient objective evidence, and that is the best description I can come up with for where I've arrived. It should be interesting to see where this goes.

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