Author Topic: Religious experience for atheists  (Read 1499 times)

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Offline penfold

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Religious experience for atheists
« on: January 16, 2013, 09:54:39 AM »
In his brilliant Varieties of Religious Experience William James re-tells the following story of a certain Mr S H Hadley from Boston:
One Tuesday evening I sat in a saloon in Harlem, a homeless, friendless, dying drunkard. I had pawned or sold everything that would bring a drink. I could not sleep unless I was dead drunk. I had not eaten for days, and for four nights preceding I had suffered with delirium tremens, or the horrors, from midnight till morning. I had often said ‘I will never be a tramp. I will never be cornered, for when that time comes, it ever it comes, I will find a home at the bottom of the river.’ But the Lord so ordered it that when that time did come I was not able to walk one quarter of the way to the river. As I sat there thinking, I seemed to feel some great and mighty presence. I did not know then what it was. I did learn afterwards that it was Jesus the sinner’s friend…
…I halted but a moment, and then with breaking heart, I said, ‘Dear Jesus can you help me?’ Never with mortal tongue can I describe that moment. Although up to that moment my soul had been filled with indescribable gloom, I felt the glorious brightness of the noonday sun shine into my heart… From that moment till now I have never wanted a drink…

Of course there is much to be suspicious of in this account; not least that the sensation of a ‘great and mighty presence’ was only later identified as Jesus. Moreover as atheists we would point out that all experiences have neurological cause and there is no need to invoke some metaphysical intervention to explain them.

However reading James’ book one is struck by the number and potency of these accounts. James himself has a very wide definition of what makes an experience ‘religious’; that is experiences in which the individual stands in their finitude against the mysterious and infinite. He primarily looks to the effects of these experiences, their capacity to heal and transform, rather than spending to much time dealing with the causes (in fact he seems generally happy to accept that these experiences are primarily caused by the subconscious). It is even arguable that James would consider humanism a ‘religious’ attitude.

I would just add one example from my own life. A few years ago I was sitting out on a beach on the South coast of England. I had taken a large quantity of MDMA. It was late at night; my friends had all gone to sleep (we were camping up in the dunes) and I was alone looking out over the dark ocean. I was suddenly overcome with a powerful feeling of unity with the world around me; as though there was no difference between me, the sand, the sea and the stars. It was a clear but moonless night and the stars were exceptionally beautiful. I sat there all night (about eight hours in total) watching the night sky rotate above me. I find the emotional experience impossible to describe – even thinking about it today gives me goosebumps. One thing I do remember was the feeling that I was seeing everything for the first time; the experience was infused with a radical novelty. The effect of the experience is still very much alive; since that day I have found myself much more easy-going, more relaxed and able to keep a sense of proportion about things. I take myself far less seriously and have noticed a real flourishing in my relationships with others (it was not long after this event I met the woman who is now my wife). Although I invoke nothing more than a starry night and a healthy dose of a psychotropic drug to explain why the experience happened that does not nor cannot devalue the experience for me. Mundane as the causes may have been the effect has been extraordinary.

So my question is this, have any atheists here had a similar experience which could qualify as ‘religious’? (Theists please feel free to share as well, but I am more interested in atheists who have had such experiences.)
« Last Edit: January 16, 2013, 09:57:14 AM by penfold »
"Goodness is about what you do. Not who you pray to." - Terry Pratchett

Offline Nick

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Re: Religious experience for atheists
« Reply #1 on: January 16, 2013, 10:07:43 AM »
No, but I did find a dime in the street a few days back.
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Offline anthony_retford

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Re: Religious experience for atheists
« Reply #2 on: January 16, 2013, 01:20:00 PM »
Many years ago I was to take a plane to the UK but some feeling was strong in me not to take that plane. I did anyway and nothing happened.
People are 'erroneously confident' in their knowledge and underestimate the odds that their information or beliefs will be proved wrong. They tend to seek additional information in ways that confirm what they already believe.
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Offline ParkingPlaces

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Re: Religious experience for atheists
« Reply #3 on: January 16, 2013, 01:29:16 PM »
Nope, never been drunk. A college professor once suggested that I take MDMA once, but I was already getting an A and saw no need to.

A woman named Jill Bolte Taylor had an experience similar in ways to what you experienced with the MDMA. At least the "one with the world" stuff. She was having a stroke.

Glibness aside, I have never had a such an experience.
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Offline naemhni

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Re: Religious experience for atheists
« Reply #4 on: January 16, 2013, 01:53:32 PM »
Copied and pasted from a post I made some time ago.


I hate telling this story because it makes me sound like one of those weirdo hippy New Age gurus that I despise so much, but once in a while, it becomes necessary to relate it to make a point, so here goes.

I have a recording of unusual sounds that, when you listen to it, produces all kinds of unusual effects, at least in some people (others report no effects at all).  You might feel, for example, like you're floating above the floor, or that your body is rotating in the middle of a void.  One time, when I was listening to this recording, I had a vision.  I was in a very large black "room" of some kind, and in the distance, I saw a number of beings that looked like slim pillars of light.  I could sense that they knew me inside and out, knew everything about me, the good and the bad, and they were radiating this overwhelming feeling of love.  One of them spoke to me directly in my mind in a kindly young woman's voice.  She didn't use words, exactly, it was more like feelings that conveyed a meaning.  As nearly as I can translate it into English, what she said was something like, "Welcome!  Welcome back, my kindred!  We have missed you dearly, it has been so long!"  To say that this "impacted me profoundly" would be putting it mildly.

(As an aside, by the way, I would add that I had not been drinking, nor was I under the influence of any kind of a drug; I wasn't even taking any prescription medications at the time.)

Was I actually visited by a group of "angels who were my family", for lack of better terminology?  I can't rule out the possibility.  However, as much as I would like to believe that what I experienced that night was real -- it was a very beautiful experience -- I know enough about the human mind to know that it's far more likely that I was having some kind of a hallucination.  This notion was supported much more strongly when I first described this experience here at WWGHA, and another one of the regulars (I can't remember who, sorry; maybe they'll speak up here) told me that unusual sounds producing unusual mental effects is a known phenomenon in psychology.  There's a word for it, but I can't remember that offhand, either.  (I'll have to look it up, it's worth remembering at times like this.)
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Offline Quesi

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Re: Religious experience for atheists
« Reply #5 on: January 16, 2013, 02:55:43 PM »
Absolutely!  I think it is common, and perfectly normal for people, at various developmental stages, to go through “profound” experiences.  I assume it has something to do with changes in the brain.  And it is also absolutely normal for people experiencing extreme environments or life-altering events to have unusual experiences.

I think I’ve written about this before on this forum, but I know after my mother’s death, in her home, I “felt” her presence over and over.  I “felt” like she was just in the next room.  Like I could call out to her and she would answer.  Many people have this experience after the death of a loved one.  A quick google gave me this. 

At about 11 or 12, I was absolutely certain that there were “ghosts” or “spirits” (dressed in Victorian garb) who resided in my home.  I “felt” them all the time.  I think that it is not uncommon for pre-pubescent girls to experience some sort of “spiritual” event.  I googled “prepubescent girls and ghosts” and it is clear that ghost aficionados think that poltergeists are attracted to prepubescent girls.  I think that there is probably something going on in the prepubescent brain that creates this illusions. 

And then there is something that seems to happen to a lot of people, usually in their late teens through mid-20’s.  For me, I remember it so clearly.  Long before the ruins of Tulum, Mexico became a mainstream tourist destination, there was a little campground just south of the ruins that backpackers would hang out at.  I remember the night a group of us climbed up to the beautiful, ancient ruins, with a bottle of tequila (might have been Guatemalan aguardiente, actually-which is pretty hallucinogenic stuff) under the light of the full moon, and looked out over the sea.  Sitting there, in the ruins of this ancient city, next to the ancient observatory that the Mayans used to study the stars, I imagined what life was like almost a thousand years ago, for the people who inhabited this beautiful place.  And I felt them there, with us.  And I looked at the stars, as they looked at the stars, and I thought about the size of the galaxy and the nature of the universe, and how little they understood, and how little we understand now.  And I looked out at the ocean, and thought about the coral cities I had seen that day snorkeling, and how alien they were to any life that lives on the land, and contemplated the fact that life formed on other planets would certainly be much much much more foreign than the strange, unfamiliar landscapes that exist on planet earth.  And I thought about life and time and space and communities and interdependencies and the process of seeking knowledge, and I felt as if I UNDERSTOOD.  There, under the moon shadows cast by the ancient ruins, watching the reflections of the night sky on the flat, calm sea, I UNDERSTOOD.  The connections.  Everything.  It was a complex epiphany, the details of which I don’t really remember. 

What did I understand?  I don’t know.  But it was a profound feeling.  And it motivated me.  Motivated me to continue to work towards social justice, to learn, to respect the earth, to work towards building a world that would awe future civilizations, or even visitors from distant planets.  So overall, it was a good experience. 

I don’t think that these events in my life were the result of anything supernatural.  But I can understand how people having similar experiences might use the supernatural as an explanation.  There is so much about the human brain that we do not know.