Thursday, September 26, 2019

Shrugging off Mysticism

Mysticism is like an odorless toxic gas, and just as dangerous. It often goes undetected precisely because people generally have not learned to recognize consistently the distinction and proper relationship between consciousness and its objects and understand the profound implications of this distinction for their view of reality, of life, and of themselves. Sadly, the distinction between reality and imagination is therefore blurred, often beyond recognition. A thinker who fails to grasp the proper relationship between consciousness and its objects and the fundamentality of this relationship to the entire sphere of thought and action, is thus vulnerable to a wide assortment of cognitive hazards, whether in the form of gratuitous suggestibility or gullibility, of overwriting the things one perceives with fantasy, categorical subjugation to other minds, and so on.

Given its departure from reality and its opposition to objectivity and rationality, it may very well be fruitful to ask whether or not the love for mysticism is in fact the root of all evil. Mysticism lies at the heart of injustice in its two most insidious forms: the pursuit of the unearned and intellectual default. In its essence mysticism involves, however implicitly, a claim to knowledge that one does not have and has not earned. Knowledge is the product of more or less systematic effort conducted within the constraints of reason and guided by objective principles. Intellectual default is essentially the failure to govern one’s mind rationally and act accordingly. Injustice results from efforts to seek the unearned, including resources, power, influence, approval, etc., and is made possible to proceed when people who know better or should know better fail to act to oppose such efforts. Mysticism encourages a willful blindness which dares not call out its root error or its complicity in injustice. 

Developed forms of mysticism typically include defensive methods to protect the faithful. These can take a variety of forms and often have a ring of truth to them. I remember having conversations with several readers of the Tarot back in the 80s and marveling at their answers to my questions relating to the legitimacy of their art. Some were quite open in saying that their best method of defense was to cease all discussion with “a-Tarotists” (“they’ll never understand!” was the going rationale) while others had ready answers which probably served more to keep their wielders faithful than to attract newcomers to the system. It’s not surprising to find Christian apologists using very similar tactics and having very similar effects.

Sometimes mystics will denigrate outsiders as though they were culpable of some grotesque contradiction by failing to adopt their mystical views or at any rate simply too stupid to see their obvious truth. Such self-serving expressions of course are not going to be very effective at attracting outsiders to those views or persuading critics that they are in fact true. But they do serve the purpose of closing the door to any escape from the grip that their mysticism holds over them.

Steve Hays of Triablogue provides a classic example of this in his entry Living like an atheist, where he writes:
Life in a fallen world is full of paradox. Here's another: on the one hand, many atheists live as though the world was designed by God. Many embrace the effects of a world made by God while denying the divine cause. Many believe in right and wrong. Many think human reason is trustworthy. Many think human life is valuable.
It’s curious that Hays would say this when Cornelius Van Til, a theologian-apologist enormously celebrated in Hays’ own reformed camp, affirmed outright that “faith adores the apparently contradictory” and that “all teaching of Scripture is apparently contradictory” (Common Grace and the Gospel, p. 48, 142). Of course, apologists agreeing with Van Til will quickly exclaim that what faith adores and the scriptures teach is not really contradictory. However, when Christian faith essentially boils down to the worship of a walking contradiction, one can be forgiven for the suspicion that we’re being conned.

Now when I read statements like Hays’ above, I’m naturally inclined to ask myself if the gist here applies in my case, since I am an atheist and statements like this are intended to characterize at least some atheists. Hays’ use of “many” in “many atheists live as though…” suggests that he’s open to the fact that at least some atheists, dastardly as they may otherwise be, do not conform to the stereotype he describes. Moreover, out of the “many” who do fit Hays’ description, I wonder what percentage of those were raised from childhood with the idea that a form of consciousness resides “back of” (as Van Til would put it) the reality in which we live, a consciousness which not only designed and created reality, but also “ordains” its apparent orderliness by some intentional activity. After all, many atheists I’ve known personally were raised with some degree or another of religious influence when they were children, thus launching them into their lives with the assumption of the primacy of consciousness, a presupposition accepted long before they had any philosophical awareness and carried into adulthood without question. This is one of the ways how religious teaching in childhood sabotages a mind at a most fundamental level. In fact, many atheists so raised never become philosophically informed on the issue of metaphysical primacy and inadvertently end up exchanging one form of mysticism for another (cf. what some have called “statheism,” which may be characterized as atheistic state-worship).

For myself, I neither assume that the world was designed by a supernatural mind, nor do I live as though it were so designed. I’ve used this example before to illustrate my point, and I’ll use again here. When in my own humble backyard I find a pebble on the ground, reach down and pick it up, and proceed to examine its features, nothing about the pebble suggests in the slightest that it was created by an act of consciousness, that it was essentially wished into being. Even further, what I’ve learned from my study of geology, this particular pebble was formed from pre-existing matter, perhaps through volcanism or sedimentation, very possibly millions of years ago, eroded from a larger mass, pushed to the surface by seismic forces and transported to what is now my property by a flood, or what have you. The specific engines of nature which caused the pebble to wind up in my backyard are not of critical import here; rather, what’s significant is the fact that the pebble I hold in my hands is a lump of matter composed of material which has, in some way, shape or form, or series of such, always existed. It will likely continue to erode and over time become pulverized into tiny bits which themselves will continue to exist in some form, perhaps as part of the soil or as loess, then compact into another aggregate, and so on and so on. I have no evidence suggesting that the pebble or its material components were willed or commanded into existence “ex nihilo,” out of or from nothing, that it was “designed” by a conscious agent (indeed, why design dirt?), that its origins were initially seated in the thoughts of a divine mind, or any mind. Moreover, I have no evidence that it’s even possible for matter to be wished into being in the first place. And, given my acute awareness of this relationship between consciousness and objects, namely the primacy of existence and the inability of consciousness to simply wish matter into being, I certainly do not live my life “as though” the world were designed by a conscious being which has such an ability.

Now, that said, I wholly grant, as I have before, that it is certainly possible to imagine that there exists a consciousness with such ability, that it is possible to imagine that the pebble I find in my backyard was essentially wished into being, and that it is possible to imagine that “the world was designed by God.” But then I’d be imagining, and by self-imposed habit of mind given my devotion to reason and rationality, I’d be aware that I was merely imagining, and, thanks to my familiarity with rational philosophy, I recognize on a most fundamental level the profound distinction between what is real on the one hand, and what is merely imaginary on the other. My worldview makes this distinction explicit.

I’m also aware of the fact that it’s possible, in fact quite easy, for an individual to imagine something while not fully realizing that he’s imagining. When we imagine, our consciousness tends to be trained on what we’re imagining, not on our act of imagining itself. Being cognizant of the latter requires, as it were, a heightened stage of self-awareness, a skill that seems to escape many and which must be practiced deliberately in order to be habitualized so that awareness of the distinction between what is real and what we’re merely imagining can become consistent throughout one’s thinking. That would be an example of a virtuous habit to say the least!

If one imagines that the universe were created by a supernatural being, it would easily follow that he imagines that the way the world therefore behaves is also a product of said supernatural being, given its active guidance in commanding and controlling everything it has created. Thus anyone living in the world is then living “as though the world were designed” by said supernatural being. But that would be an assumption premised ultimately in the imaginary.

Hays continues:
On the other hand, God makes some Christians live as if there is no God. God makes it seem as though they're living in a godless universe. God is silent. They pray in vain–or so it seems. They are forced to live like an atheist in the sense that the outward circumstances of their lives seem bereft of God's felt presence or benevolence. No sign of his intercession. They must live as Christians, must live by faith, despite the dark night of the soul. A night without a dawn. They wait for first light as they stagger in the dark.
Of course, when the tasks of the day vie for the believer’s focus and concentration, there will naturally be times when his efforts to sustain the pretense of belief start to weaken. As he’s preparing a meal, driving to work, working on his finances, etc., he may find it necessary to snap himself back into belief mode: “Oh yeah! Lord, I’ve forgotten to imagine you for the past half hour. Please forgive me! I’ll start imagining you again now, beginning with your merciful forgiveness!” It’s precisely because the activity of living a human life in the realm of the actual requires an individual to operate within reality on its own terms. As Bacon put it, “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” The normal human mind has automated this orientation to reality since the milestone of object permanence reached in toddler days.

Whereas a classic Jethro Tull song insists that “He’s not the kind [of god] you have to wind up on Sundays,” theism’s god is something one can never stop winding up in order to keep it front and center in one’s consciousness and daily activity. Thus serious-going Christians seek to be ever-active participants in church life, whether it’s Sunday worship service, Sunday school, men’s community fellowship, choir rehearsal, servants’ convocation, witness coaching, bingo night, Bible verse karate, glossolalia practice, and whatever else may be needed to keep the bounce house of sanctified devotion fully inflated. Idle hands, says the old saying, are the devil’s workshop, so believers need to keep each other busy with the Lord’s business (for the Lord needs rest from all that toil!).

Essentially, for the serious believer, reality is one big distraction. This is why Mark 4:19 warns believers about “the cares of this world” which have the power to “choke the word” and make it “unfruitful.” Even worse, interacting with reality in an effort to get anything accomplished will always serve as a subliminal reminder of the inconvenient fact that consciousness does not hold metaphysical primacy over reality, thus buoying the ever-present potential that one may discover, however implicitly, that the entire metaphysical scheme of religion is completely contrary to what is real. Because existence holds metaphysical primacy over consciousness, reality is not subject to commands and wishing will not make it so. One can imagine and believe that characters he’s read about in the sacred storybook are real and pulling the levers behind everything he sees, touches, and smells, but that will not make them real.

In another post, Hays outlines what he calls “a stereotypical deconversion narrative.” The steps he lists in that outline, which he calls “hallmarks of social and emotional immaturity,” are as follows:
1. Boy grows up in "fundamentalist" church.  
2. Boy loses his "fundamentalist" faith when he goes to college or reads a book by the pop atheist du jour (e.g. Dawkins, Hitchens, Ehrman), or discovers atheist websites.  
3. Boy regards his deconversion as an "escape from fundamentalism".  
4. Deconvert goes on a crusade to share his newfound enlightenment. Spoiling to get into fights with "fundamentalists".  
5. Deconvert has a checklist of cliche-ridden objections to "fundamentalism". Every deconvert has the same checklist. Each deconvert expects every Christian he meets to start all over again by going through the same checklist of cliche-ridden objections to "fundamentalism".
Clichés? I can think of a few:
“You just hate God!"  
“You just want to keep sinning!”  
“You can’t account for [X]!”
But I guess those don’t bother Hays.

Now, if the trajectory Hays envisages here in fact represents “hallmarks of social and emotional immaturity,” what does that say about fundamentalism’s capacity for developing children raised in that tradition into functionally stable adults? In his eagerness to discredit apostates, Hays unintentionally implicates religion’s shortcomings. If the pattern Hays describes here is something that is “endlessly repeated,” which he says is happening, then perhaps “church” needs to do a better job of preparing young minds for adulthood. I recommend shrugging off mysticism and adopting a pro-reason approach to life.

The process which Hays outlines may in fact track what some atheists have experienced. Then again, most adults on the planet today were in fact raised with some degree of religious indoctrination. Consequently, if you encounter someone who identifies himself as an atheist, a strong possibility exists that he went through some kind of “deconversion” from a religiously-influenced youth. Some people do in fact grow up, and that invites the potential of growing out of the confessional investment of religion. Nevertheless, deconverting from a religion does not in any way automatically ensure the shrugging off of the core essentials of mysticism. All too often, those essentials persist unexamined, unchallenged, and unrestrained. In this way, apologists like Hays may in fact be recoiling against a mirror image of themselves when they denounce atheists and malign their character. The stereotypes he lambastes may very well have their basis in mysticism.

Now I would hasten to point out that the steps Hays identifies are not the path that I took. For while I was raised by parents who on occasion affirmed religious beliefs, we were by no means a church-going family, and the occasional religious suggestions which my parents did invoke were at best perfunctory, as though they were trying to satisfy some sense of duty that they themselves had been raised with. So we were certainly not “fundamentalists,” and when I was a youth I couldn’t tell you the difference between a Calvinist and an Anglican. My parents did not have me baptized, and we were not members of any church. We didn’t even go to church on holidays, and looking back it is pretty clear that my parents looked on “organized religion” with suspicion while still holding “the Holy Bible” in high regard as divinely authoritative. But as a family we were by no means practicing Christians; we did not pray at dinner time and my parents showed at best superficial familiarity with the teachings found in the bible. Their familiarity with the New Testament did not extend much beyond the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer (though Dad did always have a fondness for Proverbs). And in defense of her theism, the most my mother could ever offer was to repeat “you can’t have design without a designer,” which, sadly, only showed that she herself had been conned. So Hays’ step 1 does not describe my experience at all.

Moreover, in fact it wasn’t until I was in college that I converted to Christianity. There were a number of reasons why I took this turn at that point in my life, but the background hum of my mind that was the fundamental precondition making such a transition possible in the first place was there all along, namely my implicit acceptance, since childhood, of the primacy of consciousness metaphysics. I certainly did not know what this meant at the time (indeed, had I known, I would likely have rejected it given its obvious falseness), but it had dramatic impact on how I looked at the world, and it required great efforts to outrun its reverberating contradictions in my understanding of things. Acceptance of the primacy of consciousness is the mental virus that afflicts humanity at large. It doesn’t have to, but it persists because we dare not identify it, and its persistence inevitably leads to habitual compartmentalization and conflict. Entire empires are built on the free reign of the primacy of consciousness, from the Vatican to Hollywood, from ideological factions to high school cliques. There is evidence that the primacy of consciousness is strongly present in the motivational psychology of serial killers, obsessed as they typically are by fantasies of control and ecstasy. But it was the acceptance of the primacy of consciousness on a most implicit basis that made me vulnerable to a wide variety of mystical seduction, just as it does to anyone else.

Additionally, it was a series of emotional pressures that steered me towards Christianity, which I ended up adopting in a most sudden manner – not unlike those “unexpected conversion” moments we find romanticized in the writings of the church fathers. A compounding storm of fears, worries, and anxieties sent me into a deepening spiral and edged me closer and closer to exhaustion and desperation, making me acutely vulnerable to Christian illusions. This was before the internet, so I was not being influenced by websites, either Christian or atheist, and I had never heard of Dawkins & co. at the time. In fact, if you asked me back in the day, I would have likely exhibited the reflex so desired by the churchmen at the mere mention of atheism, namely that of revulsion and repugnance. My acceptance of the primacy of consciousness metaphysics ensured that the distinction between reality and imagination was blurred beyond recognition in my understanding and thus left me defenseless against Christian propaganda, including not only the promises of love, peace and brotherly fellowship, but also the holy terror of a divine vindicator determined to exact his vengeance on the world. The hook had already been baited and I had already bitten down, since my childhood; all that was needed was for a Christian fisher to come along and give the line a yank.

Some time into my Christian walk I gradually became more aware of what I was supposed to do in order to be an obedient Christian, namely suppress my conscience, actively squelch my subliminal awareness of the presence of profound contradictions between what I was supposed to believe and what I knew to be the case, and pretend that I was thereby living in holy righteousness. I was to give primacy to imagination and relegate reality to the category of illusion, or at best a staged setting in which I was to be tested by that which was merely imaginary. This cognitive self-immolation was clearly expected of me as a professing Christian, as the grand culminating act of self-sacrifice demanded of me as the final consummation of my devotion. The challenge of being a Christian, then, was not the temptation of worldly pleasures which would lead me astray, but holding on to my adoption of Christian doctrine in spite of the burning dissonance it created in my conscience. Some people willingly allow their conscience to wither and die; such people are toxic and can be very dangerous. But my conscience has always played at full volume in my life, and the slightest flaw or irregularity has always caused my conscience more discomfort than pain in my flesh.

In fact, I came to realize that Christianity’s preoccupation with worldly temptations is really just a distraction from the main event of the Christian devotional system, which is the damage it causes to the adherent’s psychology. (Consider the many reports of chronic depression from the faithful; Triablogue just posted an entry titled Severe Depression which mentions how depression has driven even Christian pastors to suicide!) They say that misery loves company, which may be one of the contributing factors that attracts likeminded believers to organized fellowship.

What propelled me to renounce Christianity was not teachings at college or in atheist publications, but in fact my own conscientiousness. Sometime after I had embraced Christianity, I did a big no-no: I confronted my own mind with unflinching honesty. Needless to say, given Christianity’s requirement to fake my own mind about things, this was not an easy task. But since my childhood I’ve been very conscientious and thus not very successful at suppressing contradictions, self-deception, and other forms of cognitive dissonance. Even before my sojourn into Christianity, I had made great effort to always be honest to myself, and having habituated myself toward brute honesty (I recall a girlfriend of mine once telling me, “You’re so honest it hurts”), I had some serious uphill challenges, to say the least, if my “walk with Christ” was going to have any success. But (some might say “Thank God!”), my conscience got the better of me. You see, all along I knew deep down that I was imagining Jesus, God, angels, demons, the devil, etc., all along, just as I would imagine Winston Smith, Makar Devushkin or any other character in literature. Essentially, when contemplating the characters described in the many pages of the bible, I found that I was performing precisely the same kind of mental activity as when I read literature that I knew was fictional in nature. And with this recognition, the whole façade started to crumble, and very quickly!

So that’s two strikes so far for Hays when it comes to my experience.

At this point one might suppose that Hays’ third step (“Boy regards his deconversion as an ‘escape from fundamentalism’”) would start to apply in my case. Maybe, but only so far as one might consider a career in a professional office an “escape” from manual labor. Rather, it was not what I leaving behind that motivated, but what I had discovered and achieved by simply being honest to myself and following my own conscience, namely being my own person, being whole, being genuinely authentic. Knowing that I had stepped out on honesty rather than faith, I found real peace with myself, for no longer did I need to pretend, either to myself or to others, that I believed or knew something that really I did not. I did not need to surround myself with others encouraging me to keep of pretenses through shows of their own pretenses, nor did I need to distract myself with busy toil in order to calm fears of temptation. I could fully embrace my own humanity, and everything about myself, and move forward working with what I was and with what I had. I no longer waved the impotent flag of surrender in the face of challenges, praying under my breath “Help, O Lord! Help!” Instead, I examined my challenges and rose to overcome them through my own ability, strength and determination. I didn’t need to wait for the universe to be brought into submission by a supernatural power rewarding me for my pretenses; I was now a free man, and I learned to think with my own mind.

Hays “cliché-ridden” apostate then “goes on a crusade to share his newfound enlightenment. Spoiling to get into fights with ‘fundamentalists’.” But this actually seems to implicate apologists more than any atheists I know. After all, it’s religionists who come knocking on my door seeking to propagate their mysticism, not atheists. True, there are some who enjoy the sport of sparring, who love the soot of brawl and skirmish – indeed, where would professional Christian apologists be without them? It seems a match made in heaven!

But in fact, for me, I saw a world perishing from mysticism, and I was eager to help spread the word, even if one by one, that there is in fact a better way. I’ve asked numerous adults what kind of courses they took in grade school. The usual answers are quite predictable: math, spelling, reading, writing, science, art, P.E., social studies, etc. But, when I ask them if they had ever taken a course on reason, they contort their faces in confusion and surprise, coughing up a “No…” and reacting to the question as if it were somehow profane. And yet the same persons will curse the world for its ages of serial injustices. Is trying to persuade adults to think rationally really on the same level as “spoiling to get into fights”?

Hays’ last step in his projected stereotype path states that the “[d]econvert has a checklist of cliche-ridden objections to ‘fundamentalism’. Every deconvert has the same checklist. Each deconvert expects every Christian he meets to start all over again by going through the same checklist of cliche-ridden objections to ‘fundamentalism’.”

Again, this points the finger directly back to church teaching if you ask me. Such uniformity as Hays observes here must have a common source. What could that be if not church teaching itself? It won’t do to accuse “atheist websites” here because, as pointed out above, the vast majority of atheists actively criticizing Christianity are most likely themselves former Christians, so any uniformity observed among what has been produced there is likewise covered to some degree or another in residue accumulated since childhood days being raised in the faith. Hays does not specify what’s on the universal checklist, but I suppose it would include bible contradictions, the problem of evil, the sins of Christianity’s past, etc., all of which Hays thinks he and other apologists have answered in favor of Christianity. Unfortunately for Hays & co., those “Bible objections answered” series tend only to impress the in-crowd, those who are confessionally invested in defending their faith against objections. We can observe the same kind of phenomenon among climate alarmists, Scientologists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc. Faith-based beliefs are not based on evidence to begin with, so evidence which contradicts faith-based beliefs will simply be dismissed out of hand or construed in some way as supporting evidence. One can cite the Katyn massacre, the pogrom against the kulaks, the purge of the late 1930s, the entire complex of Siberian labor camps, etc., but you’re not going to convince the Grover Furrs of the world that Joseph Stalin was a bad guy. The same opposition to reality, facts and truth governs in each of these cases. As I often heard the faithful say in church, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” and thereby the mind shuts down to any input which might call any tenet of the faith into question or disrepute.

What’s noteworthy is the lack of uniformity in Christian treatments of the problem of evil. Apologists for centuries have long sought to finally conquer this nagging pebble in the preacher’s shoe, and any number of inventive solutions have been proposed. The production of a variety of answers to the problem of evil only suggests that apologists are essentially left to their own devices in addressing the problem, and yet the problem continues to haunt religion. While the problem of evil is not my primary objection against theism, several of my blog entries do touch on the matter to one degree or another; see here for a list of my posts tagged to the issue.

Speaking more to Hays’ point here, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with checklists as such. In fact, they can be quite helpful in ensuring that certain tasks get accomplished or appropriate settings be in place before moving forward. So if industrious thinkers have checklists prepared for engaging other thinkers, more power to them I says! But Hays’ concern here is that the checklist in a deconvert’s possession might happen to be “cliché-ridden.” Of course, regardless of what Hays means by this characterization, determining whether or not one’s checklist is “cliché-ridden” or not would require familiarity with said checklist; otherwise, we would have an uninformed evaluation here, and that would be intellectually irresponsible.

Now I can understand Hays’ frustration with the expectation that the believer “start all over again” in answering a canned list of objections. Christians are not the only ones who encounter such expectations. And in fact, I know many Christians, some even family friends, and being the live-and-let-live sort that I am, I expect no apology from any of them on the topic of their beliefs or why they believe what they believe. If anything, they’re far more inclined to probe my reasons for not believing than I am theirs for believing. And while it is a topic category that I love to discuss and learn about, I typically encourage those whom I know to just use their best judgment and be the most virtuous people they can be. Such encouragement does not require me to delve into questions about the dating of the gospels, what the 500 brethren allegedly saw, or whether or not the OT really does prophesy Jesus’ life and ministry. I do make my commitment to reason known, and that’s important for setting expectations within a relationship as well as defining parameters of what I consider acceptable behavior, especially within my household. Anyone who has a problem with that is welcome not to return.

In terms of dialoguing with apologists, I would not necessarily expect them to “start over” addressing a bullet points on a checklist, though they should not be surprised if anyone produces one (aren’t believers supposed to be “always ready” to give answers?). Rather, what I think is reasonable is for the apologist to identify his starting point and explain how he arrived at his theistic beliefs. What could one’s ultimate starting point be other than the fact that existence exists? It seems that either one starts with existence, or one starts with non-existence (and then has the dubious project of explaining how existence came to be). But we know that existence exists – i.e., that things exist, that there is a reality, so what could possibly warrant starting with non-existence? What the theist apparently finds objectionable is starting with existence without a consciousness which is responsible for creating existence. But even though this is an outright absurdity, it’s essentially what theism entails. And since we know that wishing doesn’t make it so, why not be honest and acknowledge that existence exists independent of consciousness and embrace objectivity instead of mysticism?

It works for me. Why wouldn’t it work for anyone else?

by Dawson Bethrick


Ydemoc said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ydemoc said...

"...and whatever else may be needed to keep the bounce house of sanctified devotion fully inflated."

Love it! That's where I'm at in reading your latest entry.

Thanks again, Dawson!


James P. Caputo said...


You're always insightful and thought-provoking. Thank you for your work.

- james