A few weeks ago I answered the occasionally asked question "How can you be so sure there is no God?" with the true story of my conversion to Atheism. As expected, most people didn't "get it". Oh ye of little faith. Let's try again, shall we? This will probably make a little more sense if you've read the first version.
This is not a parable. It's all true; in the normal, generally accepted sense of the word "true". I've removed the most of the metaphor, and reinterpreted the "mystic" occurrences in materialistic terms.
Since this occurred over the course of several years, nearly forty years ago, a few mistakes are inevitable. Where the details have faded from my mind over the years (and I'm aware that they have faded) I've reconstructed them giving some indication that that's what I've done.
In my last year of junior high, or maybe my first of senior high, I went through a period of poor health. It wasn't life-threatening, or debilitating; just a period when my resistance was down and I was laid low for a week at a time by every single bug that was going around. I was probably also clinically depressed.
Isolated for long periods of time, bored, lonely, and exposed to too much daytime television, I lost my grounding in the reality.
Televangelists don't put their shows on the air during the days by accident. They're targeting bored and lonely housewives, jobless folks at the end of their ropes, and other shut-ins. In short, exactly the sort of person I had become. Watching their nonsense increased my disconnectedness. They almost got me. I even went so far as to get my own copy of the Bible.
Even before my illness, I spent a lot of time with my nose stuck in books. It was common for me to read a hundred page paper-back in an afternoon. My reading was not limited to fiction. I usually read through my schoolbooks during the first month or so of class. I would check science books out of the library as often as science fiction. When I was in the mood for something light, I would open the encyclopedia to a random article, read it, then follow the "see also's" at the end to see where they would lead me. Sort of a primitive version of web surfing.
I expected to read through the Bible in relatively short order. But I wasn't some semi-literate yahoo. Even compared to the pulp sci-fi and fantasy I often read, "The Greatest Story Ever Told" looked like the work of ignorant hacks, not an all powerful Creator.
I knew that the Bible was actually a collection of works by different authors, so I skipped around trying to find the good parts. I never did. Even as messed up as I was there was no way I going to believe the nonsense in that book.
Not too much later I was visited by Mormon missionaries. They're another group who prey on folks who don't have a life. Still in a state of extreme suggestibility, I invited them in and listened to what they had to say. Their brain-washing techniques were highly developed. They were able to further heighten my detachment. Fortunately, their prophets weren't just liars, they were incompetent liars. The villains on Scooby-Doo did a better job of hiding their trickery than Joseph Smith!
Of course, the Mormons train their missionaries well. My new "friends" still had a few tricks up their sleeves. At our next meeting they knew the time was right and asked me to lead the prayer, to ask Jesus to touch my soul and show me the truth. Appealing to a force I didn't think existed wasn't a problem. Those of us who value rationality tend to believe that it is all-powerful. I thought that I would be immune to what ever trick it was they had up their sleeve.
Intellectually, I knew that it was all superstitious nonsense, but emotionally, these missionaries had set themselves up as practically my only friends. Also, I was still dreadfully isolated. Almost all my "experience" was happening through books and TV. It's a difficult mind set to explain, but as unreal as those missionaries were, they were just about the most real thing in my life.
I prayed. I am an intelligent person. Intelligent people don't do stupid things; therefore, prayer must be an intelligent thing to do. But praying to a non-existent entity is not an intelligent thing to do. Therefore, an intelligent person could not be praying to a non-existent entity. I could not deny that I was praying. Nor could I deny that I was an intelligent person (ego, you know). The only way to make sense of it all was to accept that there was something that I was praying to. But only ignorant people believe in the supernatural. But I was not ignorant...and around and around my mind went, too fast for me to even be aware of what was happening.
The sense of disconnectedness I had before was amplified to the point where my mind could no longer take it. My mind gave up trying to make sense of what was going on. It latched on to the most real thing it could find. It was no accident that my missionary "friends" were there for me. They had already primed me with the easy answers. My prayer was answered! I damn near became a Mormon then and there.
But when we turned to our studies, it was still nonsense. I would like to claim that my superior intellect and sterling character got me through. The truth is that it probably would not have taken long for the Mormons to complete their conversion. Fortunately, their tour of duty ended shortly after that, and their replacements never got around to contacting me.
So there I was, converted by Mormons, but not to Mormonism...not to anything. If I had been raised to a faith, I suppose I probably would have returned to it. As it was, I got the warm glow of conversion, without the dogma. I thought I had contacted some higher power. I assumed that the higher power was the basis for the religions I had studied, but that the message had become garbled through the years.
A few months passed. I read about Buddhism and found it interesting enough to read further. Koans are almost pure nonsense, carefully crafted to destabilize your mind. Meditation is effectively a form of sensory depravation. A few koans, a little meditation, and zap! Satori. Or if you prefer, Zap! I got the holy ghost.
Underneath the cultural framework, the two experiences were identical. Since I was getting my religion from books, not cultural immersion, It was far easier for me to see this. Those of you who haven't had the experience don't know how strong it is. I thought I was experiencing something important. It was clear, however, that the cultural frameworks were not all that important.
Over the next few years I studied a number of other paths, including ceremonial magick, a couple of different flavors of Wicca, some more Eastern mysticism, and a couple of different types of Shamanism. I didn't delve very deeply into any of them, I didn't have to; by this time my grasp on reality was pretty weak.
Time and time again I bombarded my mind with the most ridiculous barrages of crap ever devised by man. Time and time again I would experience that familiar sense of presence. It got to the point where I was sure I was on the verge of discovering the great truth that lay at the center of all religion.
Somewhere along the way I found a quote (I can't remember who said it) that was something like "Truth is like a shining mirror that's been shattered. Each philosopher, priest, and mage regards his small piece and thinks he sees the whole." I intended on collecting religions until I had the whole set, and could reassemble the "mirror".
I was pretty far gone. I was consulting oracles, talking to voices in my head, and getting answers. I could still tell the differences between reality and fantasy, I just couldn't tell which was supposed to be more important.
My penultimate mystical experience (Here I'm using penultimate in the original sense of "second to last") came during another Christian phase. This one was one of the flower-child varieties of Christianity that didn't take the Old-Testament very seriously and advocated two-way conversations with God.
I found a quiet place and put myself in the proper frame of mind. I reached out and invited God into my life. I managed to disconnect. I felt what I took to be God's presence.
I asked if I was speaking with God. I got the answer "Yes". I asked how I could know it was really God. I knew, in a way that those of you who haven't had a similar experience just can't understand. I asked if He was my Creator. I got the answer "Yes". I asked if the creation account in the Bible was correct. Have you ever heard God laugh? I did. It was a deep, good-natured laugh that made it clear that the Bible was not correct in this regard. I asked if evolution was correct. The answer was something like "It's closer" or "in part".
Clearly my rational mind was reasserting itself, I moved to shut it down. I asked if he was a figment of my imagination, or part of my sub-conscious. The answer was "No". I asked if He existed. He said "No." Thinking I might know the answer to this paradox I asked if I should believe in him anyway. He said "No", not the answer I expected.
So there I was, facing the great grandfather of all paradoxes. God Himself telling me he didn't exist. How could I possibly resolve this? I was already deep in cognitive dissonance. There was no where for my mind to retreat, no Truth being presented for it to accept to replace the one it just lost.
In the other version of this essay, I say that if Truth is like a shining mirror that's been shattered, then all the pieces I'd ever seen, and then some, were before me. The pieces were joined, the cracks sealed. The mirror was incomplete, and it held for only one brief moment. But when the moment was over, and the mirror again shattered, I knew I had seen clearly the whole of what the mirror of Truth normally reflects only in small parts.
What I understood in that shining moment were that all the mystic experiences I had ever had could easily be unified with a single, simple principle: they're all 99.9% bullshit. What truth they hold is simple, ordinary, reality. They look exotic and mysterious because they go to great lengths to hide reality. The truth at the center of all religion shines through despite the metaphysical trappings, not because of them.
I knew I had been given a gift that few others had been given. I was glad and I was grateful, but I was also sad. I enjoyed my explorations of religions, mysticism and philosophy, but now they were closed to me. I spent some weeks savoring the bitter-sweetness of my experience, but in time it became just another part of my life, as even the most exotic events will.
Time passed. One day I happened to glance into a real, physical mirror that one of my sisters had left on a coffee table. It was leaning against some bit of clutter, and it was angled oddly. Reflected in that mirror was something so extremely odd and terribly exotic that I flat-out could not wrap my mind around it. After a few moments of trying to puzzle it out I did the natural thing, and looked around to see what was being reflected.
I wish I could remember what it was. I suppose I could make something up to illustrate my point, something that would tie up the narrative nicely; but I'd rather be as honest as possible. Whatever it was it was so completely mundane that I've completely forgotten what it was.
The parallels between what I had just seen and what I had experienced during my mystical wanderings was obvious. At that moment I felt the shift of perceptions that I had felt so many times before, and I began my very last mystic experience, which continues to this day.
Neither the mirror nor the mundane object were the esoteric image I saw reflected. Both the mirror and the object were real. Looking at the mundane at the twisted angle offered by the mirror made for a much more interesting experience, though one that was less real.
I realized that my mystic experiences had all been real, taken on their own terms. I had turned them into illusions by thinking that they had some greater significance. As long as I kept myself from taking it too seriously, there was no reason to abandon the hobby I had enjoyed for so long.
While I don't take it completely seriously, I also don't consider it a joke. I view religion, philosophy, and metaphysics as something like art forms. It's occasionally moving, or inspiring or whatever, but is mostly worthwhile for its entertainment value.
And that is why I sometimes look like a mystic when I'm really an Atheist, and a Materialist.