Some people have reacted to my recent blogs by more or less accusing me of being unfair to atheists. No, I’m being critical of people who are closedminded about anything to do with religion, a crowd that includes many people besides atheists. Why am I bothering? For the sake of those who can still grow, and anyone who decides to can do that.
Consider a devoutly religious person who believes, with no doubt at all, that God exists, and a devout atheist who believes, with no doubt at all, that nothing divine exists. They are alike, in being unable to doubt, unable to think that they might be wrong, and therefore unable to learn anything new. If you, on the other hand, can doubt yourself, if you know that, however much you know, what you know is incomplete, even miniscule compared to the infinity of knowledge that probably exists, then you are openminded—and you are an agnostic, not an atheist. Agnosticism is a viable philosophical position, is consonant with the scientific method, and is the foundation for Christian and all other theologies. I know that last bit sounds paradoxical, but I’m talking about a territory many people never get to explore or even hear about.
Let me begin from a current phenomenon: a public “debate” between a “scientist” and a “religious” person. This is not a new phenomenon; it’s been going on since the Enlightenment. I use quotation marks because this phenomenon is actually just verbal speechmaking between two persons who cannot or will not comprehend the philosophy that the other is espousing; typically, they aren’t even addressing the same subject. They do think alike, in finding excuses to explain away any new information that might require them to revise their maps of reality; they are ingenious in discussing the details, but strangely blind to the real questions. They are equally closedminded.
Scott Peck points out in The Road Less Travelled that much evil in history has been caused by people’s refusal to revise their maps of reality when they are faced with new information. They refuse to accept it, find reasons to discount it, and, worse yet, shoot the messenger, hoping the message will go away. But then reality overtakes them.
Rejection of the scientific method is rather pathological, but let us look at the behavior of those who espouse it. To think that you have refuted Christianity (or any other faith) because you have made fun of Sunday School beliefs is ridiculous, a straw man argument. It is analogous to criticizing a person for doing algebra wrong, when in fact the person is doing tensor calculus, which you have never heard of. The actual theology of Christianity (or any other faith) is just as abstract and difficult as higher mathematics.
You might say to me, “Fine, explain to me what this theology that’s like math is all about.” No, I won’t, because I don’t owe you a free college education, let alone a free doctoral program. The information I’m talking about is not oath-bound or otherwise secret. It is freely available, but you need to do the work to find it—and laziness does not justify ignorance.
Of course, you will face a logistical problem. One of my graduate teachers commented one day, “On any subject, especially in religious studies, there are a thousand books in the library. Of these, only a hundred are still worth reading at all, and ten of them are the best. One of those is the best of all, and in it one chapter will summarize the essential information; given that, you can keep up with current research. The real task of a graduate mentor is to tell you how to find that chapter, because life is too short to waste time on those other 990 books.” Even without such a mentor, you can find current books that give adequate guidance, although you first need to read enough to figure out which ones they are.
I can give you a start on such a reading list. It was Alan Watts who began mine. I recommend several of his books, especially The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, Behold the Spirit: A Study in the Necessity of Mystical Religion, and The Supreme Identity. A classic that Watts discusses in detail, and my favorite, is The Cloud of Unknowing (in which “unknowing” means “agnostic,” among other things), attributed to Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (giving a name to Anonymous). The writings of the great mystics, such as St. Teresa of Avila, Meister Eckhart, St. John of the Cross, and St. Bonaventura are also useful. (Note that the Franciscans, the great scholars of their day, named San Juan and Ventura in honor of the latter two.) There are equivalent writings in the literature of other faith communities; those of the Hindu traditions are sometimes more comprehensible to Pagans than writings from the Christian traditions.
I doubt I could have understood such writings at all if I had not had two Awakenings before I read Watts. If you’ve never had one, you might face that problem. Still, I’m discovering lately that far more people have had them than one might guess, since Americans have a cultural taboo against discussing such experiences.
Let me give you here a bit of writing inspired by Watts, back around 1963. This was not writing I had to think up. Rather, I just had to write fast enough to keep up with the flow.
The reality behind all religions is the immediate experience of union with the Gods; do not let anything else obscure that reality. Every person can achieve such an experience, which is the only kind that can give real, permanent meaning to human life, though every person must seek after it in his or her own way.
All religious symbolisms and myths are a means for expressing the knowledge of the Gods gained from the direct experience of the Gods; they are clear and true if perceived in its light. They are easily understood in that way, worthless if not understood in that way.
The knowledge of the Gods is first and most important. The direct experience of the Gods is the most joyous and ecstatic one that we can know; it lights up the world from inside, and gives direction and perspective to life.
So it’s foolish to look for the Gods in gloomy preoccupations; they tend to come unannounced and break down your door when you least expect them. Instead, seek them through joy, through intuition, through what your heart tells you is most important.
The Gods are joy, the Gods are love, the Gods are ecstasy. They might come to you in a moment of pain and trial, but that is no reason to purposely make your life a trial. They do not live in gloom; they live in joy and light.
The Gods cannot be found by your looking for them, there is no method for finding the Gods, because they are always already here. It is only your ignorance that keeps you from knowing them; the knowledge of the Gods is the Gods themselves dwelling in the soul. You must get yourself out of their way, for it is your ordinary self that prevents you from seeing that the Gods are already acting in such a way that you may know them.