In an interview with John Gray about his book Seven Types of Atheism, this exchange took place:
[Questioner:] You finish with the mystical kind of atheism. It sounds almost like people who have a big drug experience and talk about the oneness of everything.
[Gray:] Well, it’s a radical kind of atheism that asserts that the nature of reality is ineffable—it can’t be embodied in words. Schopenhauer thought the ultimate reality of things was spiritual, but we couldn’t really grasp it with our reasoning. He didn’t have any need for a creator God, but actually, he isn’t so far from certain traditions in mysticism and different religions. Some types of mystical religion come close to atheism in their understanding of God as unimaginable.
What did he mean that some “mystical religion is close to atheism”? Aren’t mystics supposed to be people who find union with God, who become one with God? How could that possibly be “atheistic”? Here is my interpretation.
God cannot be thought of in any absolute sense. Any words that we use to describe God can only point to God, but aren’t God.
God is unimaginable because God must be experienced to be known. No amount of words will do it. Mystics and philosophers for centuries have tried to describe God, but all such descriptions fall short, and the wise know it. It is also the reason there are innumerable different descriptions of God. Each is trying to grasp that which is fundamentally beyond intellectual grasping, and they naturally use the symbols and knowledge from their own particular culture to grasp at it.
It is only through direct experience of God in one’s own Being that we can come to “know” anything absolute about God, but that absoluteness cannot be communicated. It cannot even be known in the experiencer, in the traditional sense, in terms of thoughts. It is a direct, real-time, present, transcendent experience. As soon as the experiencer tries to put words or even thoughts to that experience, they are translating and interpreting it, and it becomes something different than what it was, which was pure experience.
God is not an idea, concept, thought, word, image, or symbol. God is relational, experiential, being, presence, awareness, love, reality, and truth. And yet even these words fall short, because they only provoke preconceived ideas in our minds, but not the direct experience of them.
The apophatic approaches would say that anything that one says about God is not God at all. That God doesn’t exist, they say, and so they might be called “atheistic.” Those words are only symbols pointing to the real God. But symbols are not God. Only God is God.
This led the Christian mystic Meister Eckhart, for example, to exclaim, “I pray God to rid me of God.” All our preconceived ideas of God dissolve in the direct apprehension of that Ultimate Reality which we have given the linguistic label of “God.” In a very real sense, we must give up or surrender all our ideas of God to know God, for God surpasses all our mere intellectual ideas.
And yet those ideas find new application in our experience, profound truth and meaning. It’s not that those ideas are wrong so much as they are terribly incomplete and misleading without experience, often causing us to stop short and idolize the symbols of God rather than commune with God in reality.
Many mystics might be described as “atheists” of the Gods described by the religions, because they know God cannot be accurately described, ever, by anyone. They don’t believe in those Gods. No descriptions of God suffice to define what God is so that we may truly know God. We must experience God to “know” God.
From my own Mormon background, in Joseph Smith’s first ecstatic experience of God he recalled God saying:
…the world lieth in sin at this time and none doeth good no not one they have turned asside from the gospel and keep not <my> commandments they draw near to me with their lips while their hearts are far from me…
Smith realized that all religious doctrines that were being taught were wrong, they were incomplete, they were fallible, they were corrupt, they attempted to draw near to God with flowery and ornate words, but their hearts remained far from God. In that moment we could say that Smith became an “atheist” of all existent religious sects; he didn’t believe in them, or the God they described. The God he had experienced was not there.
Another example comes from Yogananda’s guru, Babaji, who had a vision of Jesus. It was a similar message:
My followers have forgotten the art of divine inner communion. Outwardly they do good works, but they have lost sight of the most important of my teachings, to seek the Kingdom of God first.
Babaji discovered that the way the religions approached the Divine had been corrupted, they had lost the experience of communion with God. Babaji became a kind of “atheist” or unbeliever of their descriptions and teachings of God, having lost sight of the most important thing—experience.
Unfortunately, what often happens is that mystics who have such experiences of God then begin to interpret and translate their own experiences of God, whose words then eventually become the de facto way that God is, rather than the experience, and the process repeats itself. Thus we see religions that branch throughout history into new religions, each trying to better describe God, and each failing to do so.
The religions tend to worship their descriptions and images, like the Israelites worshiped the Golden Calf, while the mystics, sages, saints, and prophets commune with God directly. They know God far surpasses all such descriptions, and if one wants to know God, one must come into direct personal communion with God. All else is mythology, fallible, incomplete, symbolic, pointer, metaphor, etc. Those may be helpful guides, but they must be remembered that they are guides, and not the actual thing.
The wisest teachers help guide others to knowing God themselves through direct experience, because they know that nothing else can replace that direct personal first-hand knowing.
One of the greatest obstacles to knowing God is thinking one already knows God because of all of one’s “book” knowledge about God, all of the thoughts and ideas that fill one’s mind about God, all the things that have been said about God that one has learned from others. But until one experiences God directly, one does not know God. One only knows the symbols that have been used to try to point towards God, but one does not know God as God is. Knowing God is different than knowing about God.
The God that one thinks one knows almost certainly does not exist. Direct experience abolishes all such thoughts, all such knowledge, all such images and symbols, in the direct perception of that Absolute Truth which is forever beyond our intellectual grasp.