My Love/Hate Relationship with Mysticism
(Saturday, April 11, 2009, 2:52 a.m.)
This is going to be something of a confession, I'm afraid. I'm
not sure how many things I have truly ambivalent feelings towards, but mysticism
is one of those things. By this I include both new-age California type mysticism
and traditional organized religion. Depending on my mood, it is either loathsome
or mysteriously enticing, and people who subscribe are adventuresome, playful
explorers; or admirable, devoted human beings; or fatuous, presumptuous idiots.
I define mysticism here as belief in the supernatural, whether it be a Creator-god
or with some life-force that just happens to do the bidding of the human race
and conveniently 'wants' us to flourish. This entry is a self-exploration, totally
about me, so if you could care less about seeing the anatomy of an emotional
ambivalence laid bare, you might want to skip the rest. I'm likely to offend
somewhat, at any rate, if they have a cherished belief in some higher power.
But if you have some ambivalence yourself, maybe you'll see some of yourself
The first step of dissecting an ambivalence is to isolate the
elements that lead to the good and bad gut reactions separately. I'll start
with the bad because it's a nice thing to end on a postive note, don't you think?
I know I tend to prefer to hear the bad news first. So, what are the things
that turn on my loathometer about religion and mysticism?
- Vanity / arrogance. When a religion claims that the
universe caters to humans or, especially, to those particular humans that
are believers, it strikes me as annoyingly presumptuous. To my mind, the evidence
suggests that people are willfully deluding themselves into believing that
the universe or God will take care of them because they're hot stuff. The
worst case (thankfully rare in my own experience) are people that are so convinced
they're right that they have to ram it down my throat. (Hopefully, I'm not
too guilty of that sort of thing myself regarding my own viewpoint.)
- Gullibility. People are believing what they're told
unquestioningly. Often they refuse to question the logic and evidence behind
their beliefs which makes them seem like suckers who just might deserve the
disappointment they receive when the universe or God lets them down. An atheist
knows better than to expect Fate to be kind. The universe owes them
nothing, so (in theory, at least) they are prepared to not expect life to
be fair and turn out wonderfully.
- Intellectual laziness. People often believe unquestioningly
because hey're not inclined to apply their own minds to the larger matters
of the universe. They're content to let the preacher or the scriptures tell
them what to believe. That bothers me, particularly when in conjunction with
the arrogance issue.
- Mindless conformism. People often make themselves
believe to fit in socially. To hell with that! Why should I pretend to believe
something that seems on its face absurd? To bow one's intellectual apparatus
to irrational social conventions seems a cop-out, to put it mildly.
- Mindless nonconformism. On the other hand, some people
throw themselves into some fad religion just be different than the average
Joe, so they can feel superior. I sometimes have a strong suspicion that some
of the California new-agers fall into that camp. That seems about as bad,
and maybe even worse than conformism. Either way, they are letting social
factors warp their intellectual process.
- Denial. People believe what they want to believe just
to make themselves feel better. Maybe this isn't wholly bad when it leads
them to make more life-affirming choices, but when it leads them to expect
God to bail them out, I have a problem, Houston. The hard truth is, in my
view, that God doesn't bail people out; people bail people out: or
sometimes dumb luck does so. Dumb luck is not dependableeven, I suppose,
if you're Irish which I'm not, though I wonder sometimesand people can
be really hard to depend on (especially if you're an introvert like me who
isn't always the most amiable, outgoing person and doesn't have a vast network
of friends). But recognition of dependence on people, perhaps, can be a life-saving
realistic assessment, whereas belief in a saving God can lead to a false sense
Actually, there are very few people truly in my life who are
believers that evoke strong negative reactions in me on a personal level. Mostly
what I feel towards believers I know is mild exasperation for believing things
that the evidence seems so thin for. Or, if the person is having a hard life
and has need of the comfort religion brings, I feel some sympathy, though I
wish there were a less delusional comfort they had to fall back on. I will be
the first to admit that being a thorough-going atheist has its psychological
disadvantages, and that a little illusion can be a great comfort, and if the
alternative is suicidal depression, I'm inclined to let a person have their
religion without carping too much. I try to minimize my exasperation towards
my believing friends by telling myself that they have been too busy to really
analyze things or don't have the right personality type to do so. (The latter
may be true in some cases; a skeptic like myself is a different kind of breed
than the norm, for better and worse.)
So now, let's turn to the positive or titilating aspects of
- Just universe. The idea that there is a force in the
universe that upholds good and punishes evil is pretty appealing, I must admit.
I happen to think there is such a force, but it has to do more with social
dynamics than with a bearded father sky-god or a karmic law.
- Living, loving universe. A universe of personal forces
is something you can get acquainted with, argue with, persuade, reason with,
coax, bribe, or otherwise influence. It is also capable, potentially of loving
you and wanting you to succeed in life. I do think humans have some special
qualities the universe has given them, but doubt the universe is enough of
a personal being to care.
- God-given purpose. If there is a Divine Law or Creator,
then a person can have a "divinely appointed" purpose. I do think
each person is fated to follow a particular trajectory and that there are
situations in which that person could flourish in theory, but the universe
holds no guarantees and it strikes me as wrongheaded to think that there is
a divine person that decides that Bob should be a plumber and Sid a
senator. What decides these things is some combination of environment and
genetics and it seems unnecesary to kick the matter upstairs to invisible
spirits that conveniently behave in ways we understand.
- Escape to a magic world. As a lover of fantasy, I
do like to escape the mundane from time to time. When I was a boy, I liked
to imagine that I was some heroic or magic-wielding figure. (I would so
have been into Harry Potter had he been around when I was a kid!) As a writer,
maybe I've held onto some of that. Maybe it is even healthy as something of
an inspiration for how I might improve my life in the present world. But I
think it unwise to start to really believe the fantasy. That could
lead to major disappointment and also make me look silly. There's a time to
be in the clouds and a time to have one's feet firmly planted on the earth,
and I think the best person is one who is capable of either on the right occasion.
- Afterlife / immortality. No-one really wants to believe
that life and consciousness end utterly after death, and, as I discuss elsewhere,
it is virtually impossible to imagine such a state of affairs as non-existence.
(Maybe some yogi has, but it must be a rare state.)
- Mysterious knowledge. Okay, I admit, knowing arcane
stuff can be something of an ego-trip for intellectual types like myself,
sometimes even if you don't believe the arcana. Knowledge for knowledge's
sake is something of a vanity, but a milder one, I hope, than the vanity that
leads to crusades and inquisitions.
To summarize, the philosopher in me loathes religion and mysticism.
The poet and the dreamer in me, however, find it seductive. I suppose the poet
and the philosopher ought to sit down and have a discussion on the matter. Should
they come to a compromise, or should they, rather, agree to disagree and negotiate
when is the best time to take the helm of Self?
Return to Blog Index.