As Atheists and Believers, We Need Deeper Reverence for Mystery

Throughout most contemporary discourse about God and practiced religion, God is conceptualized as a literal being, leading believers to harm, vilify, and limit the potential of other people. While atheists ridicule the religious for believing in such a temperamental God, they have also limited their own potentials.

I’m a digital resident of several Facebook groups centered around the struggles people have with religion (all from monotheistic faiths), and in particular, those related to the Christianity I adhered to when I was younger. These communities support individuals as they wrestle with the historical problems endemic to institutional religion or a literal God, the emotional pains experienced from social ills worsened rather than made better by Him, and the inefficacy of the Church to offer satisfying answers in a secularized world.

Detriments of Faith

I read a mother’s lament about her tortured faith in a God who condemns homosexuality, soon after her gay teenage son has committed suicide. A no-longer believing man in his 40’s shares a screen-captured image of a conversation with his father-in-law who scorns him for “marrying my daughter and then betraying our trust, leading her to hell.” A gender studies student, enrolled at a religiously-affiliated school, rants about the ridiculous idea that God could be a man, a bearded old white guy in the sky. Some find their former beliefs so repugnant that the notion of faith, even in the vaguest religious sense, induces them to indignant vomits and condescending barbs. Others recount their intellectual tussles with an admirable humility, attempting to reconcile the problems of pain and predestination. How can an omnipotent and omnipresent God be so capricious about when he intervenes in history? Why does He fail to halt human cruelties? He’ll answer the prayer of somebody who can’t find their car keys, but He won’t prevent a child from being raped? It’s even worse when He is supposed to have been responsible for some of these things, like floods, genocides, or large-scale thievery.

From what I gather, most of these people transition away from their faith, settling into an aggressive atheism, or at least, allow their religious life to atrophy. It’s caused too much pain, consists of too many lies or illusions. They see few fruits to be gained by engaging with the non-empirical Other. It’s all superstition, immature thinking, retrogressive traditions, and hollow rituals. Despite it all, some stay. It’s not an enviable position to be one of these seasoned souls who choose to stay with a literalist faith tradition. Many remain because a spouse still believes, their financial livelihood is on the line, because rejecting their fundamentalist religion would damage family ties, or because they can’t make sense of their stirring religious encounters without a literal God present as an actor in that interaction. Already in anguish, it becomes even more difficult to bear one’s faith when called upon, by non-believers, to defend the crimes of a temperamental God.

It’s even worse when He is supposed to have been responsible for some of these things, like floods, genocides, or large-scale thievery.

The list of detriments extends ad infinitum, and I can appreciate the words these people give to their painful and meaningful experiences–absolutely meaningful. I’ve been in similar places myself. Still, I think many of these people are wrong, not in an “I’m right, you’re wrong” sort of way, but hopefully with a loving and imploring tone. Or perhaps, their focus is in the wrong place. I’m not saying that any religion is True, or that God exists. I’m merely suggesting that there could be another way through the woods, to the summit of self-actualization. Let’s not avoid traveling through these preternatural forests just because witches or wolves, in the shape of charlatans or foolhardy fanatics, might find us along the way; for in those woods, we often encounter magical elixirs and goddesses, previously unconscious truths about ourselves and untapped potentials. The unknowable nature of this mysterial place inclines many to want to annihilate it, before it ruins us. But let’s abide, for this nameless coppice is also the source of our imagination, birthing cultural artifacts and wisdoms which can imbue our lives with meaning, offering tools to battle the pains of existence. Let’s not burn down the forests, for how will we build or furnish our homes without lumber, or find respite from the Summer Sun without the shade of a tree?

Those who reject the notion of a literal God have good reasons to feed their skepticism, but that doesn’t mean we should abstain from the religious life altogether. We should continue to reach out to the numinous realm. Much as death destroys us, but the idea of death saves us, so it is with the most complex or convoluted concept of all time–God destroys us, but the idea of God has the power to save, to vitalize and open us to the down reaching, most human parts of ourselves. There are chairs at this sacramental table for theists, agnostics, and atheists alike.

Rescuing Religion

In one sense, God is firmly historical, despite being beyond time, manifesting more as a projection of the needs and characteristics of the people who have engaged with Him, rather than as an objective and immutable being. Fundamentalists and literalists, from Christianity to Judaism to Islam, argue for an anti-historicalism which refutes the fact that each generation has refashioned God into an image or idea that works best for them. Atheist oppositions to the concept of God have evolved alongside these changes. Interestingly, it should be noted that atheism has classically been a transitional state. It can better be understood as a revolutionary challenge to any religious orthodoxy, as Christianity was to Judaism. It wasn’t until modernity that atheism became synonymous with a non-belief in God, or a complete rejection of theism. Some of these iconoclasts have turned militant, calling for an eradication of religion and its magical thinking, declaring that it leads to delusions, violence, and all sorts of social evils. I hear you. I’ve studied the violence of religious fundamentalism, past, and present. I’ve read about the abuse throttled upon children by molesting Catholic priests (and clergy of other cloths), and the ways in which religious institutions have used government power to control human behavior, particularly sexuality and intellectual advancements, funneling money into their own coffers. I’ve also experienced the agonies of religion firsthand, my own broken belief systems leading me to the brink of suicide. Religion has the power to save, unless it kills us.

Still, I want to argue that religion deserves a key place in the cultural pantheon, that it’s one of the most useful tools we have for mining meaning from our richly resourced human existence. It can be highly pragmatic, directing us toward the deep and dark, to the mysterious well of living water–Ultimate Reality.

Scholars like Joseph Campbell, Lewis Hyde, and Reza Aslan argue that fewer religions were meant to describe the natural world than is commonly believed now, that they acted more as spiritual frameworks, allusions to inner worlds; this extraordinary claim runs counter to religious understandings held by contemporary literalists, whose adherents number in the hundreds of millions, and their atheist detractors who assert that religion fundamentally operates as a primitive model for explaining the physical world.

Alternatively, these symbolic myths and metaphors were attempts to communicate the wonder so apparent in early humans’ lives, a reality that remains too complex and elusive to explain in any other way. We see this in creation myths like the one from ancient Babylon which served as the primordial pool from which the Abrahamic religions all sprang. Tiamat, the powerful Goddess of disorder and salt water, gives birth to the first deities. As Zeus and the Olympians of Greece waged war against their progenitor, Cronus, so did Marduk and his siblings slay their parents, bringing a new world into existence.  Most ancient Babylonians didn’t literally believe that Tiamat, who takes the form of a giant dragon, was killed by Marduk who then formed the heavens and the earth from her divided body. To them, Marduk represented the human need for an assertive hero who creates order within chaos, to bring about civilization and the psychological advancement of humanity. Inherently, we learn that even chaos, the destroyer of worlds, the source of vitality and life, has an essential role in homo sapiens’ trajectory, and the way we live on a daily basis.

The unknowns of life terrify us, so we utilize myth and supernatural beings to tackle the tasks of existence. The Gods served as symbols of a single transcendent Reality that couldn’t be known in any empirical or rational terms. This type of religious fervor has served humanity well. In her now classic book, A History of God, esteemed scholar Karen Armstrong traces Ultimate Reality from it’s pagan forms among ancient Hebrews to its tenuous crossroads today. Spanning 4,000 years, Armstrong details these diverse movements and how the continual reconception of God has empowered individuals to adapt to their unique existential challenges. King Solomon syncretized numerous religions to minimize conflicts among his diverse kingdom, likely influenced by the paganism of his many wives who worshiped their own gods. At a time when few people wandered far from their homes, gods had geographic jurisdictions. To muster courage during their sojourns away from the hearth, ancient Israelites would pay respect to the God of alien territories, asking for protection. The dangers of the unknown are easier to weather when something greater than oneself is accessible in some form, even if it is only psychological. Troubled by the inequality and suffering he saw in society, the prophet Muhammad made compassion the center of his new religion, thus channeling a spirit of generosity that could be used to uplift the downtrodden (though it’s debatable whether this outweighs the other metaphysical or ethical baggage Islam carries). Tribal paganism had worked well on the Arabian peninsula for centuries, but the religion of al-Lah introduced a necessary ethos of charity that could move society forward with its other advances, which became more important in an increasingly less isolated world.

These are the casualties of a personal God, where mutually exclusive claims about Ultimate Reality require conflict. Instead of understanding all religious beliefs and images as masks attributed to the ineffable, we fight and kill.

Sadly, during the periods of greatest literalism and fundamentalism, like the Middle Ages and the Reformation era, God was used to justify the detriments of religion mentioned earlier. It enabled Christian knights to embark on crusades, enlisting thousands to kill Muslims (and mistakenly other Christians). It entrenched the Catholic Church into the State, giving it a monopoly on force which was used by many power-wielders, including the Grand Inquisition, to imprison and torture heretics. Into the current era, we see this literalism play out in culture wars surrounding abortion, gender, and sexuality, and in the actual wars spanning the globe, most often in the forms of Islamic Extremism, and a vastly misguided interventionist foreign policy employed by the United States (among other Western countries). These are the casualties of a personal God, where mutually exclusive claims about Ultimate Reality require conflict. Instead of understanding all religious beliefs and images as masks attributed to the ineffable, we fight and kill.

As Joseph Campbell points out in the Power of Myth, people have literally been dying for metaphor, killing each other because they take the symbolic literally. We starve for wonder and awe, but we act cowardly, opting for a knowable face, one that can be grasped as well as used to attack.

Most of the detriments of religion are joined by this belief in a literal or historical God, though we need not convict all forms of religion, for religions and mythologies have accumulated vast stores of wisdom that remain useful today. Philosophers like Alain de Botton, author of Religion for Atheists, have advanced a humanistic religion consistent with the information age, expounding upon numerous ways in which religion, stripped of its theistic underpinnings, can still benefit us. (I’ve already written a bit about these benefits in Building A Faith Community Without Belief in God)

I want to emphasize a religious view grounded in humility, with a deep reverence for mystery. In her book, Armstrong builds support for Mystical Agnosticism, which becomes explicit in her final chapter titled, “Does God Have a Future?” She acknowledges that in a secularizing world, God may actually be an idea of the past. It’s liberating to rid ourselves of a tyrannical God or a controlling religious regime. Scientific inquiry seems to offer the God of the Gaps fewer and fewer places in which He can hide. However, she notes:

Science has been felt to be threatening only by those Western Christians who got into the habit of reading the scriptures literally and interpreting doctrines as though they were matters of objective fact. Scientists and philosophers who find no room for god in their systems are usually referring to the idea of God as First Cause, a notion eventually abandoned by Jews, Muslims and Greek Orthodox Christians during the Middle Ages. The more subjective ‘God’ that they were looking for could not be proved as though it were an objective fact that was the same for everybody. It could not be located within a physical system of the universe, any more than the Buddhist nirvana.

What is Mystical Agnosticism?

Mystical Agnosticism presents God as “a Nothingness from which we came and to which we will return…that life is empty…[where we see] the God of the mystics as an imaginative way of entertaining this human experience of Nothingness.” After the atrocities of Auschwitz, a God of History is hardly conceivable. A God whose hands are in the details of the universe is an absurdity; and a God who intervenes with individual freedom and activity is a total tyrant, not worthy of worship or reverence. The Kabbalist Isaac Luria described a myth in which an empty space was created by God. Several vessels existed which could no longer hold the divine light and were smashed. Some of these scattered sparks floated upward, venturing back to the Godhead, while others lingered, trapped in the chaotic waste we now occupy. Peace and joy could then be found by uncovering these sparks in mystical experiences with God.

People have literally been dying for metaphor, killing each other because they take the symbolic literally. We starve for wonder and awe, but we act cowardly, opting for a knowable face, one that can be grasped as well as used to attack.

Limitless gateways to the mystical experience exist, for how does one conceptualize the infinite, shapeless, and transcendent? This intuition of God cannot be captured by language, logic, or art, not even myth, but it can be experienced through these intermediaries, so long as mystery resides at the heart of the matter. People encounter the God of Mystical Agnosticism in many ways: amid the flow an athlete feels when performing at her peak ability, in the warm tears a person sheds when moved by a symphonic score or the movements of an interpretive dance, in the Zen silence of a meditative state, or in the mind-altering experience of a psychedelic trance. It’s found inside a therapist’s office while unraveling the codes of one’s dreams, on a terrifying mountain precipice where one’s mortality is laid bare. It reveals itself within a sexual encounter where lovers melt into each other, completely present in the unknown future they may hold together. It’s contained in a scientist’s laboratory as he pursues a cure to cancer, next to a solitary stream where the complexities of the natural world quietly shout of humanity’s insignificance. It’s on the pages of literature where heroes cross thresholds into extraordinary worlds, bringing back bounties to be shared by all of humanity, and in film, where shadowy characters reflect back at us the darkness we carry within ourselves, to which we too often remain blind.

God is in the empty spaces we are called upon to fill with meaning and activity, in our intimate relationships, our anger and sadness, our aspirations and yearnings–at our most poignant acts of creation. God can even be found in the act of prayer, when we reach for some mysterious Other. And, there are others who say “don’t bother looking for God outward, for God is concealed within!”

Prayer or meditation are effective activities, not because they affect cosmic change or procure salvation in an afterlife, but because they unlock access to otherworldly meaning for individuals. Philosophical or historical claims have rarely been the bulwark of successful religious experience. A theorem which proves the existence of a deistic God does little to console or inspire a person during their painful struggle with cancer or loss of a loved one. It fails to engage the heart, the soul. Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover will hardly enliven a spiritual quest.  We are passionate animals, reason more a tool subservient to the longings of the human spirit. Or, as William James puts it:

Our judgments concerning the worth of things, big or little, depend on the feelings the things arouse in us. Where we judge a thing to be precious in consequence of the idea we frame of it, this is only because the idea is itself associated already with a feeling. If we were radically feelingless, and if ideas were the only things our mind could entertain, we should lose all our likes and dislikes at a stroke, and be unable to point to any one situation or experience in life more valuable or significant than any other.   

As an aside to the narrowly-minded rationalist or hard-nosed scientist, who scoff at the thought that anything lies beyond the material or natural, I’m purely suggesting that there could be more.  Mystical Agnosticism doesn’t reject rationalism or empiricism, for intelligence is required to create artful ways of living, new technologies and social advancements. It’s a powerful addition. It offers participation which goes beyond the limits of logic or cold cognition. One can reasonably contend that a space exists for acknowledging these experiences and their importance, without the need to point to something beyond that for which we have no evidence. Perhaps, but my conclusion is that we must move a few steps beyond evidence to appreciate these experiences on the deepest level. Mystical Agnosticism does not preclude deeper scientific or rational inquiry about the world. Instead, it keeps us humble, reminding us of our limits, warning us against the hubris of making any certain claims. Rationalism and empiricism seem to only offer up intermediary facts, temporary tools which we can use to operate in the world, until new pragmatic truths can be uncovered, which in turn function as fresh approximations of reality. The sole claim Mystical Agnosticism makes is that there could be more, and that the evidence for this dwells in the lived experiences of those who experiment with the Transcendent. These are the ethereal truths which eclipse our common epistemologies, escape our grasping minds, which gesture toward some glowing and invigorating sphere of human actuality. But, even this claim must be a cautious one, if Mystical Agnosticism is going to work.

It’s About Mystery

I don’t look at the broken belief systems of my youth with regret. I don’t look down upon my friends in those Facebook groups who continue their wrestle with a literal God, nor my family members who still anchor their worldviews to a historical Redeemer. I’m still there, in a way.

Above all, it’s encouraging to see them settle into a place of peace, where they discard dangerous historical claims of religion for a faith which requires we take a few steps into the void of Ultimate Reality. I’m moved when I see people regain a piece of their humanity by letting in a bit more transcendent mystery, leaving behind the safety of familiar and forest-less pastures. I’m not demanding everybody take the same path to truth, but rather suggesting to people another way up the mountain. The individual is the ultimate arbiter and must decide which fruits of human activity taste the most delicious to them.

In the simplest terms, I’m emboldening people to embrace mystery. It has an incredible ability to multiply wonder, to give resonance to life in a chaotic world which lacks obvious purpose or definition.

To the literalists and fundamentalists, the atheists and theists, coming from what I hope will be received as a position of humility, be careful not to mistake the finger pointing at the Sun for the Sun.

(Image source: Edwin Andrade/Unsplash)  

  1. I know God . . . I see him every time I look into a mirror . . . so do you . . . so does everybody that owns a beating heart . . . including my dog . . . including the acorn.

    To know the mystery is to know that which lies beyond the structure of time and space, we can’t do that . . . but we can see the mystery manifested in each of those things I just mentioned . . . it’s easy until we begin to lose sight of the forest and fall in love with our favorite tree . . . until we deny our responsibility in all this . . . until we deny the effects of our creativity both personally and corporately . . . until we deny that the mystery gave us a heaven and we are busily recreating it’s heaven into our hell.

    To me the question is not about the mystery that will always be a mystery . . . it’s about the purpose as to why we created this duality to exist in, in the first place. It must have been awful boring in perfect land.

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