Various threads I’ve been thinking about lately seem to be intersecting.
Consider the ongoing “debate” between, for example, Creationists and Atheist-identified Agnostics. It is not an actual debate, because neither side understands what the other side is actually trying to say nor, apparently, is consciously aware of what they themselves actually believe. Certainly neither side is aware that there is far more to “religion” than they think.
By “Creationists” I mean people who think they already have the “Truth” and refuse to learn anything new, whereas “Atheists,” in my experience, are almost always dedicated to a search for truth, love the scientific method because it reveals indisputable facts, and almost always know that there inherently can never be an end to their search. There will always be a never-ending supply of new facts to be discovered.
Yes, that sort of atheism is a far more mature view of reality than that of “True Believers.” Nevertheless, there is more to the story. I observe that many atheists fear that this “rest of the story” would involve regressing into a state of unquestioning childish belief. No, it does not. All I have gathered shows that people who advance into the next stage are even more skeptical than most atheists, because they must question the unexamined cultural assumptions that True Believers and Atheists share, but do not know that they share.
The practical problem with such advancing is that it results from being confronted by evidence that, by its nature, is outside the sphere of what can be investigated by means of the scientific method. That evidence consists of nonreplicable personal experiences. A science-oriented skeptic almost always supposes that such experiences are epiphenomenal, hallucinatory, or otherwise symptoms of mental illness. True, some of them are such symptoms—a lot of people in human societies are not wrapped very tightly—but not all of them are. Many such personal experiences fall into consistent patterns that seem to be culturally independent, that have been described in almost the same terms by many different people in many times and places. Four major patterns among such experiences I can label as Awakenings, Interventions, Visitations, and Revelations. But I don’t want to go into a detailed discussion yet of what each of those consists of. I want to get on to my proposal.
Reliable social research (for example, by the National Opinion Research Center in Chicago) has shown that a significant fraction of the US population has had at least one such experience. Given other data, I suspect that a majority of the population may have had one. But nobody talks about them. Why?
An anthropologist I heard long lectures from in my first semester at UC Berkeley commented that Americans are far more willing to discuss their sex lives than their personal finances. An even stronger cultural inhibition applies to these nonreplicable experiences. (They are nonreplicable because you cannot have one by merely deciding to.) If people discuss them at all, it is only with their closest and most trusted friends. The NORC researchers could gather data on these experiences only by proving themselves to be trustworthy and by promising absolute anonymity and confidentiality. Why? Because almost everyone fears that everyone else might think they are “crazy” for admitting what they have experienced.
Then a question popped into my mind this morning on the back porch: what if it became possible to talk more freely about these experiences? What if one had something like a support group where it was safe to open up and talk about what had really happened, about how that experience was a watershed, transforming experience in one’s life? And I realized, yes, that can be possible. And yes, that might begin to benefit our society, might begin to leaven the lump. And what could I actually do about that? And I realized I can think of at least one way to do it, that all these disparate threads are beginning to weave themselves together. And that sort of “Aha!’ is itself a common and not scary example of the kinds of experience I mean.
How might one begin to form such a group? I know some people who have shared with me about their experiences, others who are openminded about such matters, others I know from AA or church groups or other associations who do not seem to be stuck at a childish or adolescent stage in their personal growth. I could invite them over for coffee or meet at a quiet restaurant, talk through the possibilities, and decide if we want to try it.
We would not need to reinvent the wheel. I can see how to adapt some of the principles and practices of the Twelve Step programs to work for such a group. I can see how to use many of Scott Peck’s insights in The Road Less Travelled for such an experiment. And I could use some of what I learned from cofounding the NROOGD about how small groups function.
This would not be a “power trip” for me. That sort of character flaw is the major danger for any new group concerned with anything “religious.” But I have had the perhaps unusual experience of being a creative force in growing two religious organizations. With each, when it was functioning stably, I let it go and stepped away. I helped create each of them because the people I knew needed them—and so did I, of course. My beloved Erif, the inspiration for the NROOGD, wrote that those of us who had intellectual parents needed an alternative to their “glum and boring agnosticism.” Others needed an alternative to the pathological tyranny of the churches we had been raised in—but it had to be an alternative compatible with an ongoing search for truth. I did not help create those groups because I wanted to run them—far from it. As Gandhi said, the trouble with being a leader is that you get followers. I probably do not know all or even much of what I am supposed to be doing with my life, but administering an organization is definitely not on the list. On the other hand, writing this blog today does, at least at this moment, seem to be there.
I feel these are enough words for today. I teach tomorrow. Perhaps on Friday I will share some ideas about how and why such a spiritual support group might function, or perhaps about the details of the experiences I mean. We’ll see.
I love to reuse a wonderful line from the Beatle’s Help: More will be revealed.