Monday, March 29, 2010

I'm An Atheist 3

A lot of atheists fail to understand the force and power of a revelatory religious experience. As a crazy person, I've got a bit more sympathy. I'm entering into murky, subjective waters here, so let me make a few things clear.

I am not making any claims for the objective truth of these experiences. I suspect that some have a basis in objective reality, and some are purely neurological events, and I'll explain that further as we go along, but please keep in mind that as I stated in the first part of this monstrosity, I am a materialist. I do not believe in supernatural influences. And while we're at it, I don't believe that the Earth has been contacted by aliens.

But far from unusual for people to have experiences that, if accepted uncritically, can lead one to the exact opposite conclusion. I'm going to write about some of these. I suspect that some of you who read these will go, "Wow. Dude needs some heavy, heavy medication," while others will say, "Wow. Dude is in total denial of what really happened to him."

But to put this in the proper context, I've had plenty of experiences with hallucinations. I've hallucinated from time to time for my whole life, I've hallucinated with every sense. I hallucinated as a child and teen before having any experience at all with intoxicants; I have used hallucinogenic drugs as a young adult; I hallucinate when tired, or stressed, or bored, or as a precursor to a mood swing. (I've also had the experience of dismissing things as hallucinations only to find they were real -- but that's another set of stories involving things like lasers and giant spiders and the Special Olympics. Maybe when I'm done with this atheist stuff.)

Which means that I have very little faith in the evidence of my senses or anyone else's. But I have every faith in the possible suggestive reality of any given reported experience.

The believer's mistake is to say, "Holy smokes, that was God in a flying saucer."

The skeptic's mistake is to say, "Oh, you did not either see anything, you big fat liar."

I'll give you two examples from my own life, both from the same period of time. They're certainly the most spectacular. They took place when I was trying to attend UC Santa Cruz. I got in even though I had a D + grade point average, because I got 1440 on the SATs -- the only questions I got wrong were in the advanced math section, where I still scored in the eighty-fourth percentile even though I'd flunked algebra twice.

Y'all should be able to guess what that means -- classic underachiever.

This made things stressful for me. I had absolutely no self-discipline or study skills -- I relied entirely on brute brainpower, and that only goes so far. And for the first time in my life, there was no-0ne fucking beating on me. You'd think I'd have been relieved. You would be wrong. I felt like one of those deep-sea fish whose swim bladder swells out of their mouth when you haul them to the surface. I was used to the pressure of the icy depths and the sunlight burned. I was exposed for the first time to people who were seriously -- but uncritically -- studying the occult, UFOs, Kaballa, that kind of thing. And I was also experimenting with drugs.

I think all of these contributed to the experiences that drove me crazy for a few years. Please note that when these experiences occurred I was sober and had been for some time -- when I mention drugs as a contributor, I don't mean that these were drug experiences.

The first was a fairly classic dose of gnosis. Late one afternoon I was laying in my bed, when all of a sudden I became keenly aware of everything around me. This awareness began to take the form of something resembling intuitional X-ray vision -- I could sense the studs and wires and pipes in the walls, the people passing by outside. I felt as though a hand came down and pulled me out of my body -- I saw the apartment building, then the campus, the city, the planet, out into the stars. My sense of time had vanished, and I felt myself seeing existence through God's eyes, felt myself cradled in God's hand.

I was terrified; I sensed the beneficence of God, but I was overwhelmed by the power of something who regarded every facet of reality that I could conceive as the tiniest portion of something far greater. I felt loved, I felt a sense that I was as important as any other aspect of reality -- but I was overwhelmed and fearful.

Then I found myself spiraling back down to Earth. When I was perceiving the world in a conventional fashion, it was after nine. I'd been lying there for four or five hours.

Another time, I had spent an afternoon talking with friends about a character named Wiley Brooks, a con-man who promoted Breatharianism, the belief that people can get all the nutrition they need by breathing.

(As an aside, one of the cults with which the missus was involved had a real trial when their leader began to promote breatharianism. Everyone felt just terrible that when they stopped eating, they starved -- it was a sign that they weren't spiritual enough... And yes, I mocked her throughout.)

He had made an appearance on the TV show That's Incredible, where he seemed to lift a thousand-pound weight, his purported strength the result of Breatharianism. My friends had arranged for him to make an appearance in Santa Cruz, but then they got a letter from his girlfriend, who explained that he'd been busted buying junk food, and was a complete fraud, a weird shell of a man who only came to life in front of an audience.

I bought the idea that he could lift the thousand pounds. I wondered if he was some kind of psychic vampire, if removing one layer of magic from him only revealed another mystery. (These days? My diagnosis is straight-up hoax. "But I saw it on TV!")

I grew agitated, and after sunset I went for a walk. I wound up at one of my favorite spots on campus, the upper quarry. It was a place where limestone had been mined to make cement for the rebuilding of San Francisco after the earthquake -- if you went back into the woods you could still find the kilns where the limestone had been reduced to lime.

After expending some energy shifting rocks and logs, I sat down and looked up at the night sky and noticed a particularly bright star overhead. It began to move, getting closer to the horizon directly in front of me. It got to just below the top of the trees, and then moved horizontally back and forth. This wasn't my first UFO siting, but it was different than the others. They'd taken place when I wasn't alone, and they were both easily explicable. One was a strange weather phenomenon, the other a cruise missile test. This was different. This frightened me.

I heard a rock fall in the darkness, then another, and another, more and more rapidly, circling me.

The darkness directly in front of me seemed to take on a predatory shape. It was as though I was being stalked by a wolf made of shadows.

Then to my right I saw a glowing figure like a human-sized insect with four arms folded across its chest. It seemed somehow maternal to me, a protective figure. It came closer and closer and I knew it was protecting me from the shadows.

Then I felt the sense of fear lift from me. I looked back at the shadows and it was the same friendly darkness that I was used to. And the insect-woman was gone as well. I looked at the light bobbing behind the trees and it began to rise until it was directly overhead; it shrank and vanished, presumably into the distance.

As vivid as this experience was, as tangible as it seemed, part of me drew back and said, this is not physical. This is psychic. Because at that time, I lived in a culture where psychic phenomena were assumed to be real, I interpreted my experience from that perspective.

That's one of the problems with religion, with non-materialistic belief systems -- they provide a context for delusion. In many ways the brain is a pattern-making organ. These kinds of experiences are common throughout history, and what one culture interprets as an alien invasion, another interprets as a manifestation of the Virgin Mary, another interprets as ghosts or elves.

Perhaps for some people, that helps them integrate these experiences into their lives. For me, they were a horrid destabilizing factor. For years after this, I strongly believed that there must have been something to them. I had nightmares that were so bad I preferred the hell of chronic insomnia to sleep.

Hell, for a while the missus and her friends were encouraging me to get regression therapy. You know, the kind where the therapist implants suggestions in your mind and convinces you that they're true? The false memories of satanic molestation and such?

If I were a devout Christian -- a devout member of any religion -- I would have tried to reconcile my experiences with my faith and it would have been easy. Those kinds of spectacular delusions support belief in the supernatural. "Oh, yes, God spoke to me, and the devil threatened me but the Virgin Mary kept me safe." Hell, I might have wound up as a preacher.

Instead, I decided to apply my rational mind to the problem. I systematically researched every claim of the paranormal that I could. In the end, I was not able to find any of them convincing. I wanted to be convinced, but the evidence just was not there.

But in the process I began to study various theories of the mind, and that led me to believe in the neurological origins of my experiences -- and that led first to agnosticism, and then finally to atheism. I was an agnostic first because something had happened to me, then because I thought it most rational to allow for the possibility of God. Now? I see no reason to entertain that possibility without evidence. On that basis you may as well acknowledge the possible existence of the Tooth Fairy in order to be intellectually rigorous. It's completely arbitrary.

So why am I able to have faith in science when I can't maintain faith in spirituality? I'll tell you that tomorrow.

(To be continued.)