The Next Step: Why we have to move beyond belief and non-belief

If someone came up to me and asked me the question: “Are you a man or aren’t you?” my first response would be to remark that it’s a very odd question. Of course I’m not a man. I’m also not entirely a woman, but that important piece of information is framed as irrelevant by the question. I would wonder why the asker cared only about my man vs. non-man status, and didn’t care about the fact that there are a multitude of relevant classifications related to sex and gender that have nothing to do with being a man. Wouldn’t you?

In debates between the proverbial -ists (theists, religionists, spiritualists, etc.) and non-ists, too much hinges on the question of belief or non-belief. People on both sides of these debates often consider belief to be the the central, crucial component to expansive systems of concepts and behaviors related to the divine and the sacred. By their framing, it’s as though engaging in communion, prayer, worship, devotion, and other behaviors is literally impossible without belief. More disturbing, to me, is the implication that beyond belief how a person engages with the sacred or the divine doesn’t matter.

People don’t need to believe, in the traditional sense, to have a sense of the divine or the sacred, or to engage with those things that they sense to be divine or sacred. Yes, technically a person who has a sense of the divine or the sacred necessarily has some manner of belief; i.e. she believes her own perceptions to be warranted— and spoiler alert: they are. But what if she also doesn’t believe that her senses point to anything in the physical world? or what if she doesn’t have enough evidence to conclude that they point to objective sources beyond the biocomputer in her head? Can she suddenly not pray or worship? Does she lose the ability to sense the wills or the presences of any gods with whom she communes? Of course she doesn’t.

If someone came up to me and asked the question, “Are you a believer or aren’t you?” I would know what they were getting at, but the question implies that they do not consider my ideas, conceptualizations, or behaviors toward my divinities to be relevant beyond my belief status. Like the question about my man vs. non-man status, it reduces a very important aspect of my life to a binary switch that exists off in the corner of a much bigger picture. Of course I am a non-believer as I’ve stated so many times in the past. There’s your boolean false value. Now, would you like to know how many times I prayed yesterday? or how over the past two days my devotional practice helped to keep my mind from running off the rails? Would you like to know about how I exist in a state of communion most of the time? or about why doing so is necessary for me? Do you care that I spoke to gods as a child and heard them talk back in nature? How about the fact that as a child I found the idea of building temples to video game characters very enticing?

Would you like to know that I tried to deny my theistic tendencies for years because I didn’t feel that they were justified without belief? Would you like to know that when someone held a promising vision of god in front of me I took it in part because I couldn’t help myself?

Would you like to know about the damage that wrought years later? Would you like to know about all of the psychiatric medications it took to keep me from spiraling down? How about their side effects? I’ll tell you this much: it wasn’t fun.

I’ve long been a skeptic, someone who questions, someone who can’t accept things without proof. I have an upbringing close to scientific communities to thank for teaching me to question everything. At the same time I’ve always been a person who would have benefited from a practice surrounding my own divinities, who have been there from my earliest years. I’m fond of saying that I was born to be a theist, or even simply born a theist, because my drives always moved me in that direction. With some amount of shame I regularly admit that I was tempted throughout my skeptical years to go to a megachurch just to worship. The aforementioned drives were that powerful.

Because I could not accept a world without gods, and because I was such a skeptic, before the worst of my mental illness I undertook a long and perplexing spiritual search in hopes of finding the Truth. In hindsight, I think what I was looking for was simply a god that I could feel justified in having, a god I could justifiably believe in. Spiritual seekers who claimed to have Found hinted at knowledge that would put all of my questions to rest, and that sounded like what I wanted. I wanted to Know, or at least I thought that I did.

Ultimately I was wrong. I didn’t want to Know. I didn’t even want to believe. All that I ever wanted was communion, and when I found communion everything else worked itself out over a few years. Now, every day I have powerful divine experiences, every day I devote myself, every day I pray so, so often, and from all of this I have created a life, an experience that makes me feel at home, that makes me feel like myself, that finally does not leave me wanting or hollow.

I hope that, in light of all of this, it is easily understandable that I put the single issue of belief off in the corner of a much larger behavioral and conceptual picture. Even while my belief switch is “off” I’m capable of having gods, communing with them, worshiping them, and learning from them in so many ways. It was largely because I pursued these behaviors and conceptualizations apart from any belief in objective divinities that I was able to freely explore them, and thereby freely explore myself, so thoroughly.

My highest aspiration in putting my ideas out there is helping others like me: others who may not know that any of this is a possibility; others who feel tied to oppressive religions in part because they need gods; others who seek out oppressive religions in hopes of divine communion; others who feel ashamed for wanting divine communion because they think it goes against logical imperatives. I don’t want people like me to have to suffer through a cult experience and mental illness because they didn’t know that there was another way. In fact I want to erase outlooks that necessitate anything untenable, for anyone, in conjunction with behaviors and conceptualizations that allow people to become themselves, starting with outdated outlooks concerning the divine and the sacred.

The debate has got to move beyond belief and non-belief because there is so much more to the picture, and because — I contend — it is largely within that “so much more” where so many people can find what they need to be themselves. It is within that “so much more” where some of the most fascinating aspects of religious or spiritual practices reside. It is within that “so much more” where people can have transformative or illuminating experiences even without the element of certainty, if they wish to have such experiences. It is within that “so much more” where people can learn to commune with whatever they find to be sacred, or whatever they determine to be divine, if they wish to do so.

Additionally, we have to understand these things if people are going to engage with them. Like all aspects of behavior such practices and experiences should be treated reverently, and their effects should be studied in earnest, because their effects can be profound. People who are interested in offering scientific insight regarding matters of the sacred and the divine also need to look beyond the matter of belief and look into behaviors and perceptions. It’s generally accepted that people are predisposed or “wired” to experience these sorts of perceptions, and to engage in certain behaviors surrounding these perceptions. If that is the case, scientists: shouldn’t we be wondering how we might take advantage of our predispositions rather than outright shunning them?

For people like me a comprehensive understanding of these behavioral matters may actually be life-saving. Perhaps of equal importance, it can mean the difference between a life of interminable confusion and one where meaningful self discovery is possible beyond a very shallow level. I wish, so dearly, that someone had been able to talk to me about my proclivities when I was younger, about what behaviors they may necessitate, and about what they do not necessitate, namely belief. I wish that the debate could have long ago moved beyond the endless arguing over inscrutable absolutes and taken a close look at what we can know, what people can experience.

I don’t often find myself in a position to make such a bold assertion, but here I go: This is the next step. This is where we have to go. For people like me, and for people in general, we have to explore how we can make this work for us. Let’s start to earnestly acknowledge the bigger picture. Let’s begin to have serious conversations about behaviors and experiences. Let’s acknowledge what we know is real about these matters, those parts which reside within us, even as we continue to debate inscrutable absolutes, because it is vitally necessary.

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