Can Atheists be Mystics or have Mystical Experience?

Does mysticism mandate theism? Or can one be an atheistic mystic? Is mysticism either theistic or atheistic, or something else?

A friend asked me, “Since mysticism is experiential knowledge of the Divine/Ultimate Reality/ the One/the Singularity/whatever else we call God, does someone necessarily have to believe in God in order to be a mystic? I wonder if Atheists can be mystics/have a mystical experience.” I have written before on this subject, but I can always say more.

Yes, I think mysticism is experiential knowledge of the Divine. It is the direct, unfiltered, unthought, unbelieved, intuitive in-sight of that which transcends us and yet includes us. And yes, anyone can have that insight, not just “believers” in “God.”

Perhaps one of the most notable examples of this in the Christian tradition is of the man who was instrumental in spreading it, the Apostle Paul. He was very much an anti-Christian prior to his conversion experience, when he was known as Saul. He persecuted the Christians (1 Cor. 15:9; Phil. 3:5-6). He was a Jew, a Pharisee, and so he likely believed in Yahweh, but certainly didn’t believe as the Jewish Christians did, in the “God” that the early Christians believed in, or at least the way they articulated the nature of “God.” Regarding the Christian deity, he was a-theistic, a non-believer.

And yet, he had a profound mystical experience. On the road to Damascus he saw a Light and heard a Voice, which he identified with Jesus (or perhaps better, Christ). In other words, he experienced a deity which he had previously not believed in. This is known as his “conversion experience,” or when he became a Christian. At that point it could be said that he began to “believe” in the Christian view of God.

Paul describes his experience in revelatory terms:

I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. …But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being.

-Galatians 1:11-16

It was insight, revelation, not from any human, not through anything he was taught. It was an apokalupsis, an unveiling, a grace, an uncovering of what had been hidden from him, and thus a mystical revealing or manifestation. He quickly associated his experience with the God of the Christians, and converted to Christianity.

More recently we could point to Sam Harris as a modern example of an atheist, who actively criticizes religion in general, and yet has had some profound mystical experiences in his life, some of which he describes in his book Waking Up. He describes one of them thus:

In the midst of this ordinariness, however, I was suddenly struck by the knowledge that I loved my friend. This shouldn’t have surprised me—he was, after all, one of my best friends. However, at that age I was not in the habit of dwelling on how much I loved the men in my life. Now I could feel that I loved him, and this feeling had ethical implications that suddenly seemed as profound as they now sound pedestrian on the page: I wanted him to be happy.

He recognized a change in his mind, which gave way to tremendous desire for the happiness of his friend, which he knew as his own happiness:

That conviction came crashing down with such force that something seemed to give way inside me. In fact, the insight appeared to restructure my mind. My capacity for envy, for instance—the sense of being diminished by the happiness or success of another person—seemed like a symptom of mental illness that had vanished without a trace. I could no more have felt envy at that moment than I could have wanted to poke out my own eyes. What did I care if my friend was better looking or a better athlete than I was? If I could have bestowed those gifts on him, I would have. Truly wanting him to be happy made his happiness my own.

The insight was not merely a feeling, but seemed to be true clarity of mind which set him beside himself, and closed the separation between him and his friend:

A certain euphoria was creeping into these reflections, perhaps, but the general feeling remained one of absolute sobriety—and of moral and emotional clarity unlike any I had ever known. It would not be too strong to say that I felt sane for the first time in my life. And yet the change in my consciousness seemed entirely straightforward. I was simply talking to my friend—about what, I don’t recall—and realized that I had ceased to be concerned about myself. I was no longer anxious, self-critical, guarded by irony, in competition, avoiding embarrassment, ruminating about the past and future, or making any other gesture of thought or attention that separated me from him. I was no longer watching myself through another person’s eyes.

He was struck by a sense of infinite boundless unconditional love that seemed to be a deep fundamental reality:

And then came the insight that irrevocably transformed my sense of how good human life could be. I was feeling boundless love for one of my best friends, and I suddenly realized that if a stranger had walked through the door at that moment, he or she would have been fully included in this love. Love was at bottom impersonal—and deeper than any personal history could justify. Indeed, a transactional form of love—I love you because…—now made no sense at all.

The insight seemed to reveal the nature of the way things really are to Harris, something true about the nature of reality:

The interesting thing about this final shift in perspective was that it was not driven by any change in the way I felt. I was not overwhelmed by a new feeling of love. The insight had more the character of a geometric proof: It was as if, having glimpsed the properties of one set of parallel lines, I suddenly understood what must be common to them all.

This love he experienced was universal, obvious, and unlimited. It was not a new love, but a love that was no longer hidden to him, no longer veiled or obscured, no longer overlooked. It was a mystical revelation of a real state of being, as noted by the mystics throughout history:

The moment I could find a voice with which to speak, I discovered that this epiphany about the universality of love could be readily communicated. My friend got the point at once: All I had to do was ask him how he would feel in the presence of a total stranger at that moment, and the same door opened in his mind. It was simply obvious that love, compassion, and joy in the joy of others extended without limit. The experience was not of love growing but of its being no longer obscured. Love was—as advertised by mystics and crackpots through the ages—a state of being. How had we not seen this before? And how could we overlook it ever again?

Harris didn’t interpret this experience in terms of traditional Christianity, and the “God of Love” (1 John 4:7-21), but he did realize that it was likely the same sort of experience that mystics throughout history have also had, including Jesus.

It would take me many years to put this experience into context. Until that moment, I had viewed organized religion as merely a monument to the ignorance and superstition of our ancestors. But I now knew that Jesus, the Buddha, Lao Tzu, and the other saints and sages of history had not all been epileptics, schizophrenics, or frauds. I still considered the world’s religions to be mere intellectual ruins, maintained at enormous economic and social cost, but I now understood that important psychological truths could be found in the rubble.

So Harris recognizes the deep value in mystical experience and the contemplative practices that lead one there, but thinks that the way traditional religion has enshrined those “psychological truths” in the symbols and myths have become outdated and are mere “ruins” of the mystical insight itself, of the experience itself, and the truth that this experience can unveil. He is an atheist of traditional religion. He was not converted to Christianity, like Paul, but he may have intuited something similar to Paul. He has come to interpret it differently.

I think it is in the interpretations where we make the divide between theists and atheists. Because what one considers “God” is not what another considers “God.” Is the Transcendent, God? Is the Sacred, God? Is Love, God? Theists and atheists will have different answers to these questions, and even among theists and among atheists. I think the key is to realize that what we believe in our mind does not necessarily preclude what we can experience in consciousness. Beliefs may, in fact, be obstacles to such direct mystical experience, as Joseph Campbell has noted:

The image of God is your final obstruction to a religious experience.

-Joseph Campbell

Carl Jung also noted how religious structures can get in the way of direct apprehension of the Divine:

One of the main functions of organized religion is to protect people against a direct experience of God.

-Carl Jung

As long as we have an image in our mind of what God is, our consciousness perhaps cannot be open to what God is in reality, as God really is. And so we have to move beyond all these images, ideas, concepts, beliefs. This may be what Meister Eckhart, a great Christian mystic, meant when he paradoxically prayed:

God, rid me of God!

-Meister Eckhart

Any image in our mind may actually be a veil which obscures consciousness itself, which some have considered to be the Divine itself. Some atheists have considered consciousness in divine terms, even Sam Harris, who has called it a great “mystery” and a “miracle.” But I don’t think he would call consciousness “God.” The term God has far too much baggage from traditional religion for him. So he chooses different words, like “love.”

I don’t think we must necessarily dis-believe in God in order to have mystical experience. But it does seem like at some point we must let go of all our images of mind, surrender what we think God is, so we can experience God as God is. This is an approach in theology known as apophaticism, or negation, which is closely tied to many mystical traditions. It is more interested in experiencing God than it is in articulating ideas about God.

Of course, there are other options besides a strict either-or of atheism and theism, such as agnosticism, that “nothing is known or can be known about God,” claiming neither “faith” nor “disbelief.” God is considered unknown and unknowable, which does recall some mystics’ words of entering into a “cloud of unknowing” to apprehend God. But this isn’t good enough for many mystics, who attest that it is possible to know God directly. It is just a different kind of knowing beyond the typical intellectual rational thinking, perhaps a gnosis.

There is also ignosticism, which is “the idea that the question of the existence of God is meaningless because the word ‘God’ has no coherent and unambiguous definition.” That makes sense. What two people mean by the word “God” may be quite different, so talking about God’s existence is baseless from the start.

I have also come to know ietsism, which is “an unspecified belief in an undetermined transcendent reality.” That seems honest. It is more like an intuition, a felt sense, maybe even an experience, that there is something there, something which transcends our everyday ordinary waking state, but what it is we cannot be certain. They “do not necessarily accept or subscribe to the established belief system, dogma or view of the nature of a deity offered by any particular religion.”

This is all to say that I don’t think someone must be a believer in “God,” whatever that means, in order to have a mystical experience. This experience is a shift of consciousness, a change of perspective in the human mind, and that can happen to anyone, under many different circumstances, some not at all “religious.” Of course, Eastern religious or mystical traditions such as Buddhism might not consider their belief theistic at all. They may not consider they are believing in or worshiping any deity or “God,” perhaps for some of the reasons above. They may consider their tradition more of a practice than a set of creedal propositions that must be believed, more orthopraxy than orthodoxy.

It seems to me that having the experience is, alone, technically what makes one a “mystic.” But because many mystics are considered theists, some might not call themself a mystic or contemplative after having such an experience, and yet they have had the same or similar experience which many mystics do. That experience may convert atheists to theism, or it might not. It may even convert theists to atheism, or it might not. It may land you somewhere in agnosticism, ignosticism, or ietsism, or a combination of them all in different contexts.

I’m not sure if any of that really matters, if what one subsequently does in the world is a genuine embodiment of that often unitive mystical insight. Religious scholar Karen Armstrong has often said that the true test of an authentic spirituality is not necessarily what it believes, but if it compels people to compassionate action in the world. The Dalai Lama XIV has said similarly:

It does not matter whether you are a theist or atheist, what matters is sincerity, forgiveness, and compassion.

-Dalai Lama XIV

Whether one believes or disbelieves in any particular human conceptualization of “God” seems to be beside the point. Spirituality, and especially mysticism, seems to be more about transforming the person into someone who is a more active loving participant in the world, in every way that can be imagined.

What do you think? Can atheists be mystics? Is there anything about mysticism which requires a belief in God?

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One thought on “Can Atheists be Mystics or have Mystical Experience?

  1. In 1959 I was introduced to mysticism by Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, Nobel astrophysicist at the University of Chicago’s Yerkes Observatory. He was raised in a secular Hindu family but considered himself an atheist. Chandra once said “God is Man’s greatest invention.”

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