Guest Post: “Not Believing Anything” by C. Luke Mula

Guest Post: “Not Believing Anything” by C. Luke Mula May 30, 2012

C. Luke Mula is the author of The Way to Actuality blog, which was “founded to foster the discussion and discovery of Purpose wherever it can be found, regardless of religious or secular context”.  In this essay, Luke shares his experience of a liberating loss of belief and discusses the role that spiritual practice continues to play in his life.

“When thinking leads to the unthinkable, it’s time to return to the simple life. What thinking cannot solve, life does.”

– C.G. Jung, The Red Book

Growing up, I believed a lot of things.

As a faithful member of the Assemblies of God, I believed with varying levels of intensity all of the 16 Fundamental Truths espoused by my denomination. The Resurrection. Speaking in tongues. Second coming of Christ. You name it, I pretty much believed it. And even where I disagreed with the General Council, it was a disagreement based solely on my beliefs and disbeliefs.

My beliefs eventually brought me to a point where, in the middle of a ministerial internship, I had a crisis of religion. I had begun to study the history of Christianity as secular historians saw it, and this more than anything else changed what I thought I knew about God. And it was fucking terrifying. Here I was, being trained to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ, and I was seriously questioning whether or not God even existed. Even worse, I was afraid that my doubting would be found out, and that I would be kicked out of the internship completely. At one point things got so bad that all I could do was cry out in frustration, “Who the fuck are you!?” to God during a time of prayer.

So eventually I let go of my belief in God, but I knew that there were some real things about my experiences of God, and I didn’t want to let go of those experiences. I realized that the mass majority of those experiences gathered around a concept which I called “Purpose,” and that it was by interacting with this greater process in which I was a part that my life seemed to take on meaning. Then, even though I no longer believed in God, I believed very strongly in Purpose, and I could explain my reasons why I believed in it. Purpose was the one thing I held onto in life, and it gave me direction.

One day, however, I sensed strongly that I needed to stop believing even in Purpose. And that scared the shit out of me.

Up until then, I’d stopped believing in a lot of things, but I always felt that I had to believe in Purpose. I mean, if I didn’t, my life was sure to spiral out of control. After all, if I didn’t have that direction, what did I have? The end of this process only seemed like hopelessness to me, and I hated every bit of it. When I sensed that I needed to stop believing in Purpose, tears of fear began to pour out of my eyes. Purpose was the one thing I had left to hold onto, and I was terrified of losing it.

And then a funny thing happened. I did let go. And you know what? It was liberating.

I’ve written in the past that belief is a tool, but oh how far I was from really acting on that idea. Now I can truly say that I don’t believe in anything, and only now can I truly say that I’m free.

Let me make clear what I am not claiming when I say that I don’t believe in anything: I do not mean that I disbelieve everything, nor do I mean that I believe in nothing. When I say that I don’t believe in anything, it simply means that I’m not attached to nor repulsed by any idea. It simply means that I can pick up and let go of any idea, any belief, at will, that I don’t have to believe anything. It means that I’m not even attached to the basic beliefs posed by Hume’s problem of induction: I am equally okay with the world being a creation only of my own mind as I am with it being a reality whose ground is completely external to me. Belief, now more than ever to me, really is a tool.

So in looking back at my past experiences of God and Purpose, I see some things more clearly. My initial, emotional reactions when I’ve let go of God and Purpose have been to drop all practices associated with them. Recently, for about a week, I stopped practicing the devotionals I had discussed with John after his “Spiritual Discipline” post. After all, at the time I started those devotionals, I was doing them to slow down my life and connect with Purpose. Now that I didn’t even believe in Purpose, what good were they?

As soon as I stopped the devotionals, however, I realized something about them: when I practiced them, my life was infinitely better. Without these decidedly mystical practices of meditation, contemplation, and prayer in my life, my life felt extremely hectic, and I was at a loss for making any level of decision with confidence. My base level of well being was so much lower than when these practices were in place, which was noticeable in less than a week after stopping them.

And that’s the thing about all of my experiences of God and Purpose: my beliefs, ideas, and theories about the experiences rarely helped me pursue the experiences to the fullest. In fact, they mostly served to hamper and distort my experiences. It has only been in dropping all beliefs that I have seen how truly valuable my pursuit of God and my relationship with Purpose have been in my life. It is only now that I am truly able to pursue the experiences for their own sake, to truly be honest about what is best for me, not based on any belief or theory, but because only now can I truly come to know myself.

I have been led to the unthinkable, and I have returned to the simple life. What thinking could not solve, life has.

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  • Sounds like your practice has basically become empirical and experimental: just doing the practices, and seeing what happens.

    I like to live by a certain maxim: “Never believe anything unless you absolutely cannot help it!” To me, the only beliefs that ought to be adopted are those that are so compelling they are like Athena grabbing Achilles by the hair (scene from the Iliad). It follows that no beliefs should ever need to be *intentionally* adopted. The beliefs themselves should do all the work for you.

    • C Luke Mula

      I know it sounds similar to empiricism, but it’s not. I did take an extremely empirical approach to my practices when I drifted through the New Atheist movement, but empiricism does assume certain things (and is extremely effective towards its goals when it does so). My current position isn’t to experience things for the sake of experimentation or fact-finding. My current position is simply to experience things for the sake of the experience.

      Yes, I can be empirical about my experiences when I want to, but I’m not bound to empiricism.

  • Luke, I know that feeling of terror and the feeling of freedom that come with letting go of one’s deeply held beliefs. I applaud your willingness to really ask “who the fuck God is”, rather than projecting your own ideas of what God should be. I know from experience it is very difficult and it is an ongoing process for me.

    Your concluding statement, “What thinking could not solve, life has.”, reminds me of a quote by Kierkegaard: Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced. I continually have to remind myself of that.

    I was wondering, as you gradually let go of your beliefs, did the content of your practice change at all? Did you feel any need to or have any difficulty (re-)incorporating symbolism from your previous belief systems?

    • C Luke Mula

      Well, it depends on the context.

      For example, for my personal devotionals, I almost always recite the Our Father, with a full belief in what I’m saying. It tends to center me and help me let go of whatever I need to let go of.

      When I’m hanging out with atheist friends, though, I am fully engaged in empiricism and religion-mocking. This process is usually quite invigorating and even theraputic.

      And then when I attend a Christian worship service, I am fully believing in Jesus Christ as my personal lord and savior, that he was God come to earth as a human to die specifically for my sins, and this belief always shakes me to the core.

      In the process of letting go of my beliefs, though, it was usually to grab onto other beliefs, and these other beliefs impended my use of old beliefs. Now, however, all beliefs are fair game to me (though not simultaneously).

      • Does your practice include any rituals that might seem incompatible with Christianity to more convention Christians? If so, how much do you share? And do you ever feel disingenuous?

      • Hey, sorry it took me so long to respond to this.

        Yes, my practice includes a few rituals that many “conventional” Christians (which in my life are mainly charismatic, fundamentalist Protestants) would at least raise an eyebrow at, and a couple that would seem outright incompatible.

        For starters, my “daily devotional” practice probably looks more like generic Zen meditation than anything else, lots of deep breaths, few words and whatnot. I usually kick it off with the Our Father, but the rest of the time is usually spent very very quietly.

        As for the outright incompatible, that would be my consultation of the I Ching on an infrequent basis. When Christians find out about this, I usually explain it as “God speaks to me through this book,” as this is an accurate portrayal of my experience from a Christian perspective. They usually still don’t feel comfortable with it and would never teach someone else to do so, though.

        And no, I never feel disingenuous. Since I begin at a baseline of complete neutrality to beliefs, when I am practicing with a particular group of people, be it Pentecostal Christians, New Atheists, or Pagans, I am fully there. There is no “core” belief that I can feel I’m betraying by any of these practices, so it is always genuine.

        Great questions. I’ve never really articulated any of these things before.

        • Thanks for sharing Luke. When I left Mormonism and starting creating my own spiritual practice, I felt highly inauthentic — which is why I asked the question. Perhaps that’s not the right word. I mean, I left the LDS Church because I no longer at home in it, but the feeling of being at home in a spiritual practice took years for me to recover. I wondered if it was even possible to dwell authentically in a practice of one’s own making. Of course, now that seems a silly question, but at the time it was real and acute. I suppose that is the legacy of growing up in a religious tradition with rituals handed down to me.

      • C Luke Mula

        Okay, I understand what you mean now.

        Yes, there were times when my practice felt inauthentic. When I was practicing with Christians, I had those atheistic beliefs in the back of my mind, and when I was “practicing” with atheists, I had those Christian practices that I knew I participated in even in private. So I didn’t feel I fully belonged to either group, and it was often difficult to fully give myself over to the practices.

        At the same time, it was my experiences of God which directly led me out of Christianity, out of atheism, and out of Purpose. So even though my religious practices may have changed, my core experiences were the same.

        All this to say that it felt both natural and forced at various times.

  • I think what you’ve highlighted here is the difference between creedal religions–like Christianity and Islam (and really, those are the only fully creedal religions, though there are creedal elements to others, e.g. Buddhism, Jainism, etc.)–and religions which are based in experience and/or practice, which is most religions worldwide. It never matters what one believes about something, and whether one’s beliefs about something are “right” or “wrong,” “correct” or “incorrect,” what’s important is what actually happens and what one experiences, and the constant readiness of being willing to “do something.” This is a very basic distinction between religions, and one that a lot of people who start out in Christianity and end up in paganism never quite get, unfortunately–the questions isn’t “how many gods” or “what institutional authorities” so much as whether or not one’s religious life is determined by belief or by practice and experience.

    • I’ve often wondered how belief became so important in Christianity. I’m sure someone has written a book (or many) about it. It seems like a strange idea when you think about it.

      • Sadly, I don’t think there are that many, at least that I’ve been made aware of, anyway. One is James Carse’s The Religious Case Against Belief, which isn’t bad, but it’s been several years since I’ve read it now…

        But, yes, the whole creedalism question is a very odd one indeed when it comes to religion. I suspect that a good bit of it has to do with the basic theologies of those monotheistic religion’s deities: they’re omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and so forth, as well as omnibenevolent AND transcendent. Thus, ideas about the unknowability, ineffability, and inscrutability of this deity also come about. The basic theodicy questions come along (and are in various ways summarily dismissed), and then the only refuge people have is to “believe” what they’re told about this deity who is all-powerful, but also all-loving, and yet not at all involved directly in the lives of most people nor accessible to them. (And if they are through various forms of mysticism, they’re quite likely to be censured if not entirely condemned by the institutional aspects of those religions, etc.)

        In most other world religions, where practice is the emphasis, then one can practice the religion, and if “nothing happens” or the people involved don’t feel any divine presences, they are assured that it is still useful and necessary to honor divine beings in the ways they have been doing (which is to say, the gods still need us, even though they’re superior to us, which can’t be said about the monotheistic deities). But, if “something” does happen, and an individual has a direct experience of one of the divine beings involved, then it’s not odd or aberrant so much as “lucky” perhaps; it can always be integrated into the overall purview of the religion, however, to have such things happening.