Practical Theology, Part One: In which I wander blithely from hard science to far-out mysticism

“Most witches don’t believe in gods. They know that the gods exist, of course. They even deal with them occasionally. But they don’t believe in them. They know them too well. It would be like believing in the postman.” –Terry Prachett

Every so often someone asks me, with varying degrees of politeness, how I can believe in that witchcraft magicky Goddess stuff. How do I know it’s real? And don’t I worry that having Gods talk to me means I’m crazy?

The answers are, in order, 1) people believe all kinds of things—have you seen the Internet lately? For that matter, have you paid close attention to religion in general? or, say, politics?  2) I don’t, but much like gravity my life goes more easily when I concede the probability; and 3) I have better things to worry about. An even shorter answer is:  It works for me.

All right then, my work here is done. I can knock off for a beer now, right?

…O very well.

First I think we should begin with the premise that people actually experience the world differently. I have come to see myself as a born mystic, by which I mean that as long as I can remember I have always perceived a numinous radiance underneath the surface of the world, and things most other people don’t seem to notice. Cognitive science keeps discovering new ways in which we don’t actually all live in the same world, perceptually speaking. There’s a scientific basis for the experience of empathy…where you actually feel someone else’s emotions…in mirror neurons, and solid evidence that some people have significantly more of them than others. The most attention has been paid to the absence of mirror neurons in individuals who fall along the autistic spectrum, but there are also people who have many more of them than most people, and consequently have such a high degree of sensitivity that they may find the emotional states of others anything from blazingly obvious to downright intrusive.  My psychic powers tell me that many people reading this are now thinking, “Well, hell, that explains a lot.”

As an interesting and possibly relevant aside, I personally can consciously process visual and auditory information that most people miss…in the case of sound, nearly down to my ear’s physical ability to distinguish between tones.  I know this because I have a friend who got her PhD in cognitive psychology and I was one of her favorite test subjects because I was a reliable outlier.

It’s also provable that structures in the brain respond to religious activity such as prayer and meditation. People have gone so far as to posit a “hardwired” predisposition to believe in God, and to write papers about “neurotheology.” Read up on it and you will find a few scientists making the claim that, because they can artificially stimulate the experience of “seeing God,” that proves God doesn’t actually exist. I might point out that you can create all kinds of visual and auditory hallucinations by directly stimulating the brain; this does not prove that light or sound don’t exist. Nor does the production of ways to stimulate the “God experience” make religion obsolete, any more than sex is obsolete because somebody invented a vibrator.

This “God structure” in the brain is in the limbic system, and there’s a direct conduit between the mirror neuron system (which is in the part of your brain that plans actions) and the limbic system, which generates and processes emotions. So there’s a pretty obvious connection between the experience of empathy and the experience of spritual transcendance that the neurotheologians are so interested in. There are also pretty solid and obvious reasons to believe that some people are just born with more of all that than others…born, if you will, with a kind of built-in antenna that makes them more sensitive both to their fellow humans and to whatever the “God neurons” are there to respond to. It also seems likely that someone can increase their sensitivity with regular meditative or other religious practice; that’s what a lot of the neurotheology research points to.

We have words for people like that. “Mystic” is one. “Shaman” is another. I contend that Europeans in the past (and sometimes in the present) used the word “witch.” I personally think that producing a shaman every so often had strong evolutionary advantages for our ancestors, and that’s why shamans and mystics are a world-wide phenomenon.

In any case, regardless of why you think they happen, those experiences are definitely real. They are measurable, if not yet explainable in a way that is satisfactory to all concerned. Mystics and shamans and witches really do perceive the world a bit differently.

That’s not a pitch to get on the crazy bus with me, or to place great credence in my statements about Gods and what not without corroborating evidence, such as your own experience. As Raven Kaldera, whose entire essay I recommend, put it, “it is discourteous at best, and damaging at worst, to try to force someone to believe in any deity that is not speaking to them personally.” I don’t expect anyone to believe in something he or she cannot perceive. On the other hand, try to accept the idea that just because you can’t (or do not currently) perceive something, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. For one thing, I am not the only person in the world who talks like this, not by a long shot. From my own observation, it’s far more common than anyone realizes, even the people who do it.  Furthermore when I say that I am a mystic, I am placing myself in some pretty well-known company. I sometimes find the people around me perplexing, but I find Rumi and Mirabai and Julian of Norwich all perfectly understandable. They are speaking my language.

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  • Rinan

    Don’t think anyone knows what life is all about. Was a chem. major in college, yet the metaphysical makes more sence than the physical. Great article.

  • Nor does the production of ways to stimulate the “God experience” make religion obsolete, any more than sex is obsolete because somebody invented a vibrator.

    Nearly lost my morning smoothie all over my laptop at that. Nice one.

  • Sara A.

    Nice one

    Thank you, thank you, I’ll be here all week.