Friday, April 25, 2014

Catholic atheist

From a reader:
How can you be a Catholic and an atheist simultaneously?  Help!
Thanks for asking.  
I am an atheist but not a materialist. Atheists reject gods. Materialists reject God. To put it more kindly, they don’t believe there’s any non-physical reality, in that way denying the existence of what’s called “God.”
I relate intimately with the Inner Realm and culturally I am Catholic. But I do not receive nourishment from religion devoted to a god or set of gods—Lord, Father, HeHimHis. I reject that kind of theism—hence, I am a Catholic atheist.

I can't get through a day without relating to my Inner Beloved. At the end of most days I reflect on the activities of the day. Not rarely I realize that what I accomplished that day veered from my morning plans, which needed revision. An inner force directed me to the right work, which I had not known when the day began. I love it when I fall into an unpleasant job I’ve been putting off, putting off. Suddenly there I am, getting it done. Appreciating the deed accomplished wonderfully caps the end of my day. The same revision of my plans happens on a larger scale over the course of my life. 

In the waning years of my father’s life, he mused on a remarkable fact. He had been successful in planning and carrying out daily tasks but the largest developments in his life turned out entirely different from his plans. He had labored hard to acquire a farm for each of his four sons. Only one farmed, and not as Dad thought he should. A mysterious thread of events shaped his life, indifferent to his plans.

As a writer—and I hear the same from other writers—I receive information just when I need it, sometimes when I don’t know I need it. The muse, as the Greeks called it, has been active. She has guided writers, artists—and even scientists—for thousands of years. Ordinary people, too, get nudges from this mysterious guide.

Listen to an artist as she speaks about her work, and you will hear notes of sudden inspiration from . . . from where?  From a consciousness in the Inner Realm, I believe, and I am certain it does not come from her physical brain.   Listen to scientists, even those firmly denying spiritual reality, and you will hear notes of Transcendent Mystery entering their engagement with the material world. I hear it regularly in interviews by Krista Tippett at On Being.
She interviews many religious people, but I listen more closely when scientists and mathematicians are on, especially the professed atheists, who without leaving their firm materialist assumptions, delve into that intriguing threshold linking the internal and external worlds connected by consciousness.

I experience the Inner More in another way. Depression dogged me during much of my life—I have intimate knowledge of the utter blackness that can envelop persons in the throes of depression. My healing came from inner work—sessions of deep reflection when I saw myself clearly—and from spiritual aid. The aid was essential, something I learned at a certain point in my life. I had resisted psychotropic drugs and analyzed myself with brutal honesty, fully aware of my shortcomings. I expected results from this self-analysis but was disappointed. Then, when I joined Al-Anon and asked my Higher Power for help—voila!

Now when I find myself drifting into malaise, I have spiritual tools to stop that train. I confess I have to keep reminding myself to get help from the Inner Realm. It works. Deliberately I direct my mind away from dark thoughts and toward the light of trust in spiritual power. It is an act of will along with an appeal for spiritual aid, and then I observe my thoughts changing. I’m sure that a brain scan at that moment would register the movement. My physical apparatus registers the non-physical change.

Felicitous happenings like this grace all lives that are open to receiving them. The more receptive you are, the more they happen to you, especially if you ask for spiritual aid. When it happens, you can’t dismiss it by logical arguments about chance. You just KNOW some transcendent power is responsible. I know I haven’t convinced the skeptics, but I hope others recognize something like this in their own lives.

Listening to the Inner Guide takes priority over religious devotions, but I’m lucky in being able to experience the best of religion. At its best, religion brings people together in loving care to enhance each other’s goodness. At its worst, it prescribes beliefs, judges and condemns. While religion is not necessary for healthy living, relationships are. Feeling this need intuitively, atheists form communities of nurturing fellowship, an exciting, healthy development. Who knows?  Maybe it will lead to more understanding between believers and non-believers.

In my senior year of college I was introduced to the historical-critical approach to scripture (details in God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky), learning that we don’t have to believe things in the Bible that defy common sense. It changed everything. Catholic education doesn’t resemble evangelical literalism so I knew about myths like Jonah in the whale and Moses with the ark full of animals. Still, Catholic indoctrination the first 20 years of my life could not be reconciled with my maturing thoughts about spiritual matters. 

Freed by historical-critical analysis from the Bible’s absolute authority, I chucked Catholic authority too and did my best to become an atheist. I thought it meant disbelieving in anything spiritual. But I observed something funny about myself. When reading a newspaper or magazine, the words “Catholic” or “Christian” or “religion”  swung my eyes in their direction every time. Obviously my childhood faith still had a hold on me.  

Doubts about materialism, which I was trying out as my new faith, also surfaced. I could not embrace materialism, no matter how logical it was made to appear. It didn’t fit the experiences of my life, and I had read enough of Jung to know that I could reject conventional religion while probing deeper reaches of the Interior Sphere.

Al-Anon with its concept of our Higher Power clinched it—spiritual power is real, but religion often misrepresents it, often subverts it. Now I challenge both dogmatic religion and dogmatic materialism.  I am a Catholic atheist.

For more on this, go to my post “A Catholic atheist?” in 2012.

Thursday, April 17, 2014


When a family member of our Catholic priest Mary was preparing to start chemotherapy for cancer treatment, she said to him, “You are walking the Hero’s Journey,”
The Hero’s Journey is a tale as old as humankind. An individual leaves home and all that is familiar and secure. He goes out into the world, encountering along the way many challenges, some marvelous and some horrifying, even life-threatening.
At times the person’s path joins with other travelers who can be companions in the experience. At times the journey is solitary, even painfully, agonizingly lonely.

The traveler comes to a deeper understanding of the world and of self. At the end of the journey, the traveler arrives back home to the familiar and the loved, but forever changed. In setting out to seek new discoveries, the seeker has discovered the self.
In her homily for Palm Sunday, Mary likened the Hero’s Journey to the story of Christ’s Passion.
You don’t have to believe the story of Christ to see its hero as a model to motivate humanity, a type existing in all cultures.
When Jesus is entering Jerusalem, the crowds are going crazy with excitement and cheering. It is clear to Roman and Jewish authorities that Jesus is having a destabilizing impact on the populace. And now Jesus has passed a point at which there is no turning back. He feels the immense weight of this realization. His companions lie near him asleep. If only they could be awake with him to share the agony, to help bear the burden.

And yet he is not alone. In his solitary humanness he turns to his Divine Parent, “Abba (Dad),” he begs, “please don’t make me go through this. Let this bitter cup pass. But if it must be, I will continue on this path.”
The Crucifixion follows, and Jesus cries out,
My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
I said it more than once during my own journey through bitter realizations about my marriage, my youth, and my personal weaknesses. The greater my suffering, the greater my growth in spiritual awareness. 

Continual conversion—death and resurrection—is a repeated theme across religions, showing the abiding purpose of human existence—to become ever better versions of ourselves. The dying-and-rising theme pervades religions in all times and places, flaring especially when nature’s seasons are changing.

“Easter” is derived from the name of a Germanic Goddess, we are told by the venerable Bede, a Christian scholar. Eostre or Ostara (many more variations) and other Great Mother Goddesses were feted in springtime festivals honoring their fertility.

In Judaism, the Exodus memorialized in Passover forms the conversion story, as the Resurrection of Christ forms the Christian one. The Greek world honored the Mother-Daughter pair of Demeter and Persephone in the Eleusinian Mysteries, a religion that lasted almost as long as Christianity. Similar to its rites, the mysteries of Holy Week evoke a transformative journey—Last Supper, Passion, Death, and Resurrection. 

The Eleusinian Mysteries celebrated the rising of Persephone from having been abducted by Hades to the underworld of the dead. This reflects the ancient belief in a 3-tiered cosmology—earth, heaven where the gods lived, and hell where the dead lived. In tune with it, the Apostles’ Creed states,
He descended into hell. On the third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
Father-Son Christianity was preceded by Mother-Daughter religions in the Greco-Roman world.

It was my journey into the underworld that formed my ability to see more deeply, to awaken to the paradoxes of life. I started writing about my new realizations—everyone should know these things! Amazed by my powerful inner drive to write, I said, “I can’t not write!”

Having been touched by the fearsome and wondrous other world, I like to tell the story less well known that pushes people out of their comfort zones. I am driven to challenge the accepted order, to provoke deeper awareness, to subvert official stories.

And I thank readers who encourage me to continue.

Thursday, April 10, 2014


From Time magazine, April 14, 2014:
Activist, atheist and best-selling author Barbara Ehrenreich:
I was educated as a scientist, and one of the things I learned was that you do not discard anomalous results. If you have a result that doesn’t fit your theory, . . . you don’t get to erase that. You have to figure out what’s going on.
Materialists, however, ignore evidence of an immaterial realm or dismiss it in the same old predictable ways—drugs, schizophrenia, etc. etc.
Ehrenreich in the NY times wrote about her mystical experience and others’:
[My family] were atheists and rationalists, a stance I perpetuated by opting, initially, for a career in science. . . .  But something happened when I was 17 that shook my safely rationalist worldview and left me with a lifelong puzzle. . . .
It was a furious encounter with a living substance . . . I felt ecstatic and somehow completed, but also shattered. . . .

When the early 20th-century Protestant theologian Rudolf Otto [Das Heilige, The Holy] surveyed the works of (mostly Christian) mystics for clues as to the nature of the “Other” . . . , he concluded that it was “beyond all question something quite other than the ‘good.’ . . . [It] must be gravely disturbing to those persons who will recognize nothing in the divine nature but goodness, gentleness, love and a sort of confidential intimacy.”
This explains the admonition to “fear” God.
I suspect saccharine representations of divinity help to push atheists and materialists toward disgust with religion—the sugar and those damn guys in the sky also push thoughtful Christians out of churches. Ehrenreich continues.
Psychiatry has traditionally disposed of the mystically adept: . . . I suspect we would have more reports of uncanny experiences from ordinary, rational people if it were not for the fear of being judged insane or at least unstable. . . .

Fortunately, science itself has been changing. It was simply overwhelmed by the empirical evidence, starting with quantum mechanics . . .
Ehrenreich’s account is compatible with books I’ve discussed here—Quantum Enigma by 2 physicists, Proof of Heaven by a neurosurgeon, The God Theory by an astrophysicist, many other scientific works, and with religion. Yes, with religion—that is, if you know what nonsense in religion to discard and how to read what’s left.
Don’t be satisfied with these few quotations from Ehrenreich’s article; go there.

I’ve had my own uncanny experiences that I promised to relate weeks ago but they don’t seem as compelling as the evidence from science, which keeps crowding out my less stupendous stories. Maybe some other time.

Encounters with the Other Side really are not rare among ordinary people and stories of them like to come my way. I have heard many NDE (near death experience) accounts, beginning with my mother’s story overheard when I was a child. Many years later I realized Mother’s story had the classic features of an NDE, including the turn back to physical life on earth.
Kevin Kling—storyteller, humorist, playwright, poet—said after his NDE to Krista Tippett.
For the rest of my life, I will have a foot in another world.
I often tell people that I tried to be an atheist and failed. That’s not actually true because I’m still an atheist. Although a Catholic, I do not believe in a god or gods, idols that Christian God-talk forms in our imaginations.
I am an atheist but not a materialist because I believe in immaterial or spiritual reality, which is not supernatural; it is part of nature. 

This word “spiritual” is a problem for materialists who cannot separate it from religion.
There is this unconscious process that I recognize from my own journey. You figure out that the Christian story is myth.  Consequently you lose respect for religion and despise Christian talk still saturating our culture. You reflexively deny the possibility of any good in religion and you keep hearing “spiritual” and “religious” used as if it were the same thing. So the word “spiritual” seems like just naïve religious belief.

I wish atheists could move past their understandable distaste for religious naïvete (conspicuous in our media) and soberly consider the scientific evidence for non-physical reality. To my observation, materialists despise religion but not religious people. I think they feel sorry for them. And spiritual people feel sorry for atheist materialists.

I can understand both perspectives.

February 10

People closest to me have heard my grievance against computer powers-that-be dictating that I replace my computer, which was only 6 years old. The past few weeks have been a comedy of errors for me as I’ve transitioned from Windows XP to Windows 8, which was not built for serious writers. It panders to tech whizzes who love playing with apps.
Technology intimidates me. Learning how to manipulate new gadgets—so delightful to young people— befuddles me. I find it easy to swim in abstractions and advocate for change in patterns of thinking, but I resist change in the use of objects.

As I move past this Great Lurch in my life I find myself still dwelling on the subject of scientific materialism, which has occupied my blog since 2014 began. So forgive me for continuing to express my stupefaction over apparently reasonable people believing that reality consists of nothing but atoms and molecules in random combinations. The presence of SOMETHING MORE fills my life.

I have to admit I like materialists, maybe because they reject the same things about religion that I do. When I reacted against Christian falsehoods I almost succeeded in being a materialist. I too denied God because the gods of Christianity were discredited.  Disillusioned, disgusted by naïve Christian belief in those dumb guys in the sky, I too turned to science for direction. But, like all facts, the facts of science require interpretation, and here emotions play a role.

In my conversations with materialists I invariably hear “spiritual” conflated with “religious.” I point out the difference, but the idea of immaterial reality is associated too closely with foolish religious belief for the prejudice to go away.  I keep hearing about silly religious belief, which really is beside the point.

It turns out that scientific materialism resembles religious fundamentalism in avoiding evidence that challenges its dogma. Scientific facts like the just-right physical conditions for life in the universe. Or the undisputed role of consciousness in deciding the outcome of quantum experiments. Or the testimony of ancient mystics encapsulated in the Pali Canon c. 500-250 B.C.:
All that is comes from the mind;
it is based on the mind,
it is fashioned by the mind.
Mystics, psychics, and ordinary people having direct communication from the immaterial realm are not all naïve or fraudulent.

I think emotional distaste for religious fraud and foolishness gets in the way of rational  thought when materialism is born. Having rationally established that heaven and hell, Father and Son, do not literally exist, and knowing that religions often do an awful job of teaching moral sense, materialists reject anything having to do with religion. It's repellent and has no legitimacy besides its cultural and artistic contributions. I ask them to move beyond aversion to religious dogmatism and avoid another kind of dogmatism.

However, I like what my materialist friend Will said. (He has become my online friend through our disagreement about materialism—a benefit brought by computers, I have to admit.)
I believe I understand why most people are religious or spiritual and find comfort in their belief and don't wish to dispute them except where their belief is harmful.
Amen. I hope Will and I have performed a worthwhile service for fellow thinkers by igniting deeper reflection on these questions And I hope this discourages dogmatism of every kind. Reader comments like this assure me:
“Thanks for making me think in new ways. . .”
“Your writings are so thought provoking...”
Here is a thoughtful reflection on materialism, and it comes from an atheist.
From what I’ve read, reality could not exist without consciousness. Call it god, non-locality, a prime mover or whatever.  The idea that the universe can be explained by reducing it to its physical elements and explaining existence by mechanistic formulas died with the discovery of quantum physics. That’s going on a hundred years ago. But the general population has not caught up and does not understand what science has shown us in the last hundred years.

Reality is very strange and it takes consciousness to exist. I’m reading a fascinating book called, The Physics of Consciousness: The Quantum Mind and the Meaning of Life by Evan Harris Wallace, in which he talks about the history of quantum physics and also his personal life. He relates the two, giving his own view of life.

It’s a personal statement by a physics professor discussing experience, belief and knowledge, and it’s very thought provoking. All of our religions developed in tribal times and the messages had to fit the understanding of those people and times.  It doesn’t mean the messages are wrong. It just means that, as our knowledge grows, so may our understanding. We do not have to be trapped by dogma to believe. Nor do we need a church to sanctify our belief, for each of us is conscious and therefore part of the greater conscious universe.
Dave Steeves
Thank you, Dave.  I agree with every statement here, even though I still participate in religious services. 
(SORRY.  I'm unable to fix the color problem.)

Change of topic—this interesting fact from a letter to The Nation:
The language of Jesus, Aramaic, is not a dead language but in danger of extinction.
It is still spoken in parts of Syria, northern Iraq, Kurdistan and Israel (by Kurdistani Jews)—and even in the United States. Most Aramaeophones are Christians. Some of them are referred to as Assyrians or Chaldeans . . .
I just finished The God Theory by astrophysicist Bernard Haisch and hope you’ll soon read about it here.

Irrational scientific belief, March 16, 2014

Again I feel like I haven’t adequately conveyed the absurdity of believing that material reality is all there is. Scientific materialism seems irrational. Given the scientific facts (See previous posts), how can anyone deny that SOMETHING besides random chance seems to work in reality?

OK, so the quantum enigma is hard to wrap our minds around. Consider this:
Imagine—if random chance were the decider, there would only be one chance in 10¹²º (that’s one with 120 zeros after it) that our universe and planet would be livable! Or one in 10¹²³!
Many scientific facts indicate that conditions on earth are calibrated perfectly for human habitation. The earth’s orbit is just perfect for life, its oxygen level, its radiation from the sun, its electromagnetic, gravitational, and nuclear forces.

Just coincidence? This all just happened by chance? Not likely. I believe there’s an immaterial—call it spiritual—reason for our habitat being so perfectly arranged for human life.

So much for science. Now I turn from head stuff to heart stuff.  PBS programs give me spiritual experiences, for instance, the tributes to Pete Seeger and Mister Rogers. I am stirred by Bruce Springsteen’s words, and you have to know this comes after an hour of singing Seeger songs:

At some point, Pete Seeger decided he'd be a walking, singing reminder of all of America's history. He'd be a living archive of America's music and conscience, a testament of the power of song and culture to nudge history along, to push American events towards more humane and justified ends.

He would have the audacity and the courage to sing in the voice of the people, and despite Pete's somewhat benign, grandfatherly appearance, he is a creature of a stubborn, defiant and nasty optimism. Inside him he carries a steely toughness that belies that grandfatherly facade and it won't let him take a step back from the things he believes in.
At 90, he remains a stealth dagger through the heart of our country's illusions about itself.
My appreciation for Seeger’s courage, the satisfaction I receive from singing with Pete Seeger and listening to Fred Rogers, do not come from a chance arrangement of atoms and molecules.

During a tribute to Mister Rogers, he was quoted as saying,
What is most essential is invisible.
Because of the essential invisible in each person, he could say sincerely to everyone,
I like you just the way you are.
When I catch an accidental glimpse of myself in a mirror or window, I am sometimes shocked by how old I look, because inside I’m the same person I was decades ago. The essential I, the inner essence of me—the spiritual part—endures through physical changes. This is the person I AM from eternity, before and after this physical life.
I do not claim to be equal to the spiritual masters, Jesus, the Buddha, Pete Seeger, Fred Rogers, or others. I claim what every person can claim—a self-transcending, multi-dimensional entity, one that transcends the faulty body and personality of my physical life on earth.

This is getting too long so I’ll have to save for next time a tribute my college roommate Tina sent—it couldn’t have come at a better time. The spiritual master in her life, “Auntie Theresa,” beautifully illustrates depth and meaning that defy the efforts of reductionist science to deny spiritual existence. Tina has a way of expressing that’s way different from mine.  You’ll see and like.

Now be inspired by Pete Seeger with Judy Collins in Turn! Turn! Turn!  based on Ecclesiastes 3: 1-9.