God, Intellect and Universal Truth

24 01 2007

For someone who doesn’t believe in God, I think about God a lot.

Exploring Texas, where megachurches are more common than oil wells (and probably more profitable), lately it’s made my mind itch a little more than usual. I was raised a Pentecostal Christian, and these places remind me of the intellectual darkness I experienced inside the stifling walls of organized religion.

Sagittarius Star Cloud by J P Stanley

        Sagittarius Star Cloud by J P Stanley

That a hundred million of my fellow Americans believe these buildings are their best gateway to the Ultimate is heartbreaking indeed.

In my early teens, based on instinct and little else, I rejected fundamentalist Christianity and stopped going to church. My mother was (thankfully) open-minded about it and accepted my decision. I wasn’t sure why it felt so wrong to me, but even at that age I realized that my natural mode of inquiry was incongruent with their systemic resistance to questioning and self-examination. Growth and challenging one’s faith was heretical and an invitation to doom. You’re essentially told: accept the faith as it is or meet eternal damnation. I knew I had to move away for the sake of things much more real and valuable to me: my own intellect and personal experience.

This oft-tamped instinct of the young to grow intellectually, to question the underpinnings of their inherited faith, to attempt to integrate it into what they see and know – is well-described by M. Scott Peck, the late Buddhist-turned-Christian:

“In a very real sense, we begin with science. We begin by replacing the religion of our parents with the religion of science. . . . There is no such thing as a good hand-me-down religion. To be vital, to be the best of which we are capable, our religion must be a wholly personal one, forged entirely through the fire of our questioning and doubting in the crucible of our own experience of reality.”

In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins challenges the social acceptability of children inheriting their parents’ religion. At PopTech last fall, he described the religious practice of early indoctrination as a violation of childhood innocence with superstition. I agree with him entirely. I’d also take that thought on a (perhaps less atheistic) tangent to say that if you have the same spiritual convictions as your parents, chances are you’ve exposed the issue to about as much intellectual light as your choice of socks this morning.

Fundamentalists of all faiths blindly accept a version of God that was handed to them, and one that is no less ridiculous than the Invisible Pink Unicorn or Flying Spaghetti Monster of Internet fame. While most of these people have the clarity to see the absurdity of such deities (if perhaps missing out on most of the joke), they remain reliably blind to their own phantasms. This is because the truth can be so scary that the mind will do anything to shield you from it. For many, a life without their cherished version of God – or being forced to peek into the abyss that is the Infinite Mystery – is simply too scary to contemplate.

I’m attracted to Sam Harris’ sense that we need to be more intellectually honest and tackle such delusions head-on. Spirituality is saddled by fantastic beliefs that – were they not at the core of two billion earthlings’ identities – would be more at home in a fairy tale.

Throughout human history, empires have risen and fallen, wars waged, religions birthed and extinguished, treasures created and lost, trillions of interpersonal dances danced – all in the quest for these truths. While perhaps nothing is more important, fear prevents most people from even peeking behind the spiritual curtain.

I started by saying I don’t believe in God. Explaining this is where we get into the definitional trickery of spirituality and the limits of language, but I’m uncomfortable with atheism due to many of its adherents’ aggressive rejection of Greater Truths. Many tend to believe that we are witnessing All There Is, that consciousness is just an illusion, and there’s no point looking any deeper. I reject that view as wholeheartedly as I do the view that there is a guy in the sky presiding over a kingdom of gold.

For me, the problem of pure ashes-to-ashes atheism is that I believe I’ve had direct cognitive experience of the Great Mystery from which we all arise. Not that I could comprehend or explain it – our minds are simply inadequate – but I’d bet my life that I’ve at least feebly touched the hem of its dress. And it’s nothing like what the Christians, Muslims or Jews have in mind.

What have I learned while sipping from the ocean of the mysterium tremendum? Well, to butcher the words of Wei Wu Wei, I can’t be the moon, but I can point. I am a spiritually fulfilled person. I feel blessed to have lived as I have, and every day (ok, almost every day) feels like another drop into a cup already brimming. But my spiritual fulfillment has derived from direct personal experience of a world that feels – in its every detail and unfolding – like an infinite, interconnected, breathtaking miracle.

I’ve learned a lot about life and how to live it. I’ve learned that it’s possible to be both perfect as you are, yet still have a lot of growing to do. I’ve learned how important honesty is. But the most important lesson I’ve learned thus far is that the Universe wants to experience itself, to become itself. The meaning of life is not in figuring it out, but in the figuring. The infinite miracle is the process of discovering, seeing, and evolving. If you know this, you are well on your way to spiritual fulfillment.

Inquiry brings us much closer to Truth than any conclusion ever could – and this is why the brainwashing of theistic western religions is a tragedy and a group crime perpetuated en masse, all day, every day. To prescribe (and proscribe) religious belief while discouraging the process of evolution is antithetical to truth. Rather, it represents the ultimate in institutionalized darkness and repression.

This exploration is more than a little important; it’s literally the hunt of your life. At this stage in my life, I find myself subscribing to a personal brand of mystical atheism; an entheogen-steeped brew of Buddhism, pantheism, and the sciences of cosmology and quantum mechanics.

But that’s me and where I am on my road. You need to be committed to making your own journey. And along the way, there will be countless mistakes, meanderings, squabbles, misunderstandings and imperfections – for without them, the journey will have been pointless.

20 responses to “God, Intellect and Universal Truth”
25 01 2007
Brent Rasmussen (08:26:57) :

Mystical feelings of connectedness are common – and they are natural products of the purely physical processes that go on in our brains.

Ascribing this natural, chemical, material process to a ‘Greater Truth’ or a ‘Great Mystery’ is exactly the same as believing in the saving grace of Jesus. There is no qualitative difference at all. It is merely an argument from personal incredulity. Literally, “I don’t understand it, so it must be a ‘greater truth’ or the ‘great mystery'”.

No, sorry, it’s not.

That is NOT to say that the experience does not exist, or that it is not real. That is not what I am saying. It does exist. I have felt it myself. It is a wonderful part of how our brains work.

But it is not god. It is not the Great Mystery. There are no Greater Truths. There is only this observable, material universe and our interactions with it. “Supernatural” is a semantic null. It means nothing.

That is NOT a bad thing. Our material universe is unfathomably huge and indescribably fascinating all on it’s own – without adding magical fantasy-land fairy tales to it.

25 01 2007
Brent Rasmussen (09:26:57) :

Mystical feelings of connectedness are common – and they are natural products of the purely physical processes that go on in our brains.

Ascribing this natural, chemical, material process to a ‘Greater Truth’ or a ‘Great Mystery’ is exactly the same as believing in the saving grace of Jesus. There is no qualitative difference at all. It is merely an argument from personal incredulity. Literally, “I don’t understand it, so it must be a ‘greater truth’ or the ‘great mystery'”.

No, sorry, it’s not.

That is NOT to say that the experience does not exist, or that it is not real. That is not what I am saying. It does exist. I have felt it myself. It is a wonderful part of how our brains work.

But it is not god. It is not the Great Mystery. There are no Greater Truths. There is only this observable, material universe and our interactions with it. “Supernatural” is a semantic null. It means nothing.

That is NOT a bad thing. Our material universe is unfathomably huge and indescribably fascinating all on it’s own – without adding magical fantasy-land fairy tales to it.

26 01 2007
fred (22:02:52) :

What sin made you turn from God and killed your faith? The lust of the flesh? The lust of the eyes? or was it the pride of life? What is your God? You DO have one. Try to look at what someone from “the other side” says some day instead of seeking out those who tell you what you want to believe. Read “In Six Days,” a book on creation written by 50 scientist.

26 01 2007
fred (23:02:52) :

What sin made you turn from God and killed your faith? The lust of the flesh? The lust of the eyes? or was it the pride of life? What is your God? You DO have one. Try to look at what someone from “the other side” says some day instead of seeking out those who tell you what you want to believe. Read “In Six Days,” a book on creation written by 50 scientist.

27 01 2007
Anthony Citrano (15:26:10) :

Brent –

Thanks for the comment; I think I’m being misunderstood. When I refer to the Infinite Mystery & Greater Truths, I’m not talking about spirits, ghosts and such. What I am talking about are truths undiscovered; truths that are beyond us.

If there “are no greater truths” then what the hell are physicists, biologists, cosmologists and neurologists hunting for? Someone ought to key them in. 😉

Further, my instinct tells me that after we’ve evolved another ten or twenty million years, our base of cosmic understanding will be well beyond where it stands today. Relative to how our minds will work then and what we will know then, to call present homo sapiens blind would be giving us too much credit.

2 02 2007
Josh (15:17:09) :

Although I agree with some of your points, I have to disagree with your comment that “our minds are simply inadequate” [to understand the Great Mystery]. Although I would agree that humans do not have the ability to sense the whole of the universe, e.g. low/high frequency sounds and ultra-violate lights, man has an amazing capacity to adapt and deal with new information. For example, we theorized that frequencies exist that we cannot observer, so we build machines to produce and observe sounds/lights that cannot be sensed by the naked ear or eye.

As an Atheist, I normally don’t engage in conversations about God unless I’m pressed. But once engaged, I often start with the following question:
If aliens came to our planet, and likely they would be more advanced than us to reach earth, how would you tell if they were Gods? Wouldn’t some of their advancements seem supernatural? If an Alien had the ability to change weather on demand, to “transport” people without visible tools or read our minds, would you get on your knees to worship?

The genesis of this question likely comes from watching one too many Star Trek episodes, but it is still valid. Ultimately I haven’t heard a good response, and normally the standard fall back response deals with having or lacking faith.

I believe man’s mind is the most beautiful object in the Universe. Has it been fully developed — of course not — but the potential is huge. I argue it is not inadequate, it simply lacks more information.

Ayn Rand stated it best:
The good, say the mystics of spirit, is God, a being whose only definition is that he is beyond man’s power to conceive- a definition that invalidates man’s consciousness and nullifies his concepts of existence…Man’s mind, say the mystics of spirit, must be subordinated to the will of God… Man’s standard of value, say the mystics of spirit, is the pleasure of God, whose standards are beyond man’s power of comprehension and must be accepted on faith….The purpose of man’s life…is to become an abject zombie who serves a purpose he does not know, for reasons he is not to question. [Ayn Rand, For the New Intellectual]

4 06 2007
William Eble (02:50:44) :

I dont know what kind of pentecostal church you were raised in, but the one I go to is simply amazing. I dont hide behind any veil or covering, and I can prove the God I believe in through signs and miracles that will blow quantum mechanics out of their space time continum.

All your Greater Truths and Great Mysteries are all in that book you put down a long time ago. But Im not going to be mad and yell through a comment, but rather love you. Too many time Christians rant and rave about these kinds of things, and never stop to see through the eyes of Christ. If I’ve followed the comments right, you’re Anthony Citrano. Anthony, I love you, and God’s waiting for you to come home.

4 06 2007
William Eble (02:50:44) :

I dont know what kind of pentecostal church you were raised in, but the one I go to is simply amazing. I dont hide behind any veil or covering, and I can prove the God I believe in through signs and miracles that will blow quantum mechanics out of their space time continum.

All your Greater Truths and Great Mysteries are all in that book you put down a long time ago. But Im not going to be mad and yell through a comment, but rather love you. Too many time Christians rant and rave about these kinds of things, and never stop to see through the eyes of Christ. If I’ve followed the comments right, you’re Anthony Citrano. Anthony, I love you, and God’s waiting for you to come home.

5 06 2007
justinus (01:32:25) :

Hi, it’s very good articles …thanks a lot for sharing your mind.

5 06 2007
Richard (01:56:38) :

I came across this following a link from MySpace which appeared alongside a host of naive-realist, not to say fundamentalist, Christian links… and am really impressed to see this in the public domain, and being cared about and argued so passionately.

I can’t pin down my understanding of God exactly — for most people who accept that the word ‘God’ is not meaningless that shouldn’t be surprising. But I have major problems with Brent Rasmussen’s over-the-top reductionism. We can discuss ethics rationally and dispassionately, but we cannot reduce it purely to physical phenomena observable by machines; we cannot discuss literature at the particle-physical level; there is no fundamental particle of philosophy. But that does not mean that these things are meaningless concepts. They are simply emergent properties of the system that can only meaningfully be discussed at the whole organism or the societal level.

My sense of the sacred, of wonder, of what is holy is likewise an emergent property of the system. My starting point for exploring what ‘God’ means is ‘the sum of everything I consider to be holy’ rather than ‘some supposedly really-existing super-person who is somehow supposed to embody everything that I am supposed to consider holy’. Brent, and Richard Dawkins, may seek to explain away my sense of the numinous as physiological in origin; but that in no sense negates or invalidates the experience. A neurochemical analysis of how a work of great artistry might move me to tears does not explain away that response; it simply describes it more fully and at a lower, less humanly-meaningful level. The experience, and my ability to discuss it with other people, and possibly a desire to act in some way motivated by it, remain untouched by such explanation.

5 06 2007
justinus (01:32:25) :

Hi, it’s very good articles …thanks a lot for sharing your mind.

5 06 2007
Richard (01:56:38) :

I came across this following a link from MySpace which appeared alongside a host of naive-realist, not to say fundamentalist, Christian links… and am really impressed to see this in the public domain, and being cared about and argued so passionately.

I can’t pin down my understanding of God exactly — for most people who accept that the word ‘God’ is not meaningless that shouldn’t be surprising. But I have major problems with Brent Rasmussen’s over-the-top reductionism. We can discuss ethics rationally and dispassionately, but we cannot reduce it purely to physical phenomena observable by machines; we cannot discuss literature at the particle-physical level; there is no fundamental particle of philosophy. But that does not mean that these things are meaningless concepts. They are simply emergent properties of the system that can only meaningfully be discussed at the whole organism or the societal level.

My sense of the sacred, of wonder, of what is holy is likewise an emergent property of the system. My starting point for exploring what ‘God’ means is ‘the sum of everything I consider to be holy’ rather than ‘some supposedly really-existing super-person who is somehow supposed to embody everything that I am supposed to consider holy’. Brent, and Richard Dawkins, may seek to explain away my sense of the numinous as physiological in origin; but that in no sense negates or invalidates the experience. A neurochemical analysis of how a work of great artistry might move me to tears does not explain away that response; it simply describes it more fully and at a lower, less humanly-meaningful level. The experience, and my ability to discuss it with other people, and possibly a desire to act in some way motivated by it, remain untouched by such explanation.

6 06 2007
sitka (21:55:43) :

Hola Anthony.

Today is my first day in Peru. I arrived here to journey for a month, including ten days in the Amazon to do ayahuasca, which is a amazonian entheogenic vision medicine. I have been on a spiritual journey for years to find healing, clearing, myself, god.dess, etc….

The best I can say in response to your essay is that I think you´re on the right track. Stay true to your center, your body, your heart. What comes from direct experience is more important than any amount of indoctrination or dogma. Much love and gratitude to shiva shakti, pachamama, and the source of creation.

blessings on your journey.

sitka

6 06 2007
sitka (21:55:43) :

Hola Anthony.

Today is my first day in Peru. I arrived here to journey for a month, including ten days in the Amazon to do ayahuasca, which is a amazonian entheogenic vision medicine. I have been on a spiritual journey for years to find healing, clearing, myself, god.dess, etc….

The best I can say in response to your essay is that I think you´re on the right track. Stay true to your center, your body, your heart. What comes from direct experience is more important than any amount of indoctrination or dogma. Much love and gratitude to shiva shakti, pachamama, and the source of creation.

blessings on your journey.

sitka

3 09 2008
gregorylent (02:43:09) :

a lovely quote from a letter to the editor, from a seemingly simple man in chennai, published in the hindu, a well-respected english daily, commenting on some furor around richard dawkins book …

atheism is the summom bonum of a spiritual quest based on truth and reality

… which makes sense in the context of mysticsim and even of hinduism, brahman or god is impersonal and qualityless and s inseparable from the self.

3 09 2008
Andy DeSoto (10:16:00) :

There's nothing inherently wrong with having the same spiritual convictions as your parents. What else do we have to go by? What feels right? What we intuit? What our religious experiences may suggest? Subjective feelings are not necessarily more correct than habits, behaviors, even faiths we were born into.

Just because one follows a traditional line of religious thought doesn't mean they haven't exposed it to careful cogitation. After all, I probably know just as many individuals who have found faiths than left them, and I refuse to believe those changes are not a result of thought.

3 09 2008
gregorylent (10:45:45) :

brent, am curious, how can you tell that feelings of connectedness are natural products of physical processes in the brain? and is there a causative agent, or just an accident? and do we know the physical universe you are talking about only through the physical brain?

who is the we that knows?

4 09 2008
shaman sun (15:50:45) :

Thanks for sharing your journey. Your words speak much what I feel in my heart. And Wei Wu Wei! Glad to see I'm not the only one reading him!

4 09 2008
shaman sun (18:50:45) :

Thanks for sharing your journey. Your words speak much what I feel in my heart. And Wei Wu Wei! Glad to see I'm not the only one reading him!

4 09 2008
shaman sun (22:50:45) :

Thanks for sharing your journey. Your words speak much what I feel in my heart. And Wei Wu Wei! Glad to see I'm not the only one reading him!

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