This is my answer to the occasionally asked question "How can you be so sure there is no God." This is not a parable. It's all true; in the normal, generally accepted sense of the word "true". There are a couple of patches of metaphor here and there, but these should be obvious from context. If you have doubts about which is which, feel free to write and ask for clarification.
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's what I've done.
I am well aware of how arrogant some of this will sound, but I see no way, in this case, to be accurate and modest at the same time. I'm also aware some of this won't sit well with my fellow Atheists.
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. As a consequence, I became intimately acquainted with daytime TV.
One of the televangelists (Oral Roberts, I think) was doing some shtick with blessed oil from the Holy Lands. I had no interest in anointing anything, but I was collecting bottles at the time, and the one the oil came in looked pretty cool. He was giving the bottles away free, so I called the 800 number and gave them my address.
As you might expect, the bottle turned out to be amazingly cheap plastic containing a couple of drops of imported olive oil. Among the business reply envelopes, cards containing suggested donation levels, and stories of little old ladies who had donated half their life savings then had it multiplied ten fold by the miracle of seed faith, was a small sheet of inspirational quotes from the Bible.
My exposure to the Bible at that time was extremely limited. We owned a copy, but it was just another book on the shelf, sitting somewhere between Chariots of the Gods, and The Prophesies of Edgar Cayce. When I read those quotes, and thought about the promises they made, I experienced what, for lack of a better word, I might call a presence. It was pretty clear to me that ol' Rectal (as I like to call him) was not speaking for the Lord, so I decided to go directly to the source...the Bible. I even went so far as to ask for, and receive, a copy for my birthday, or graduation, or something.
Even at that age I was an avid reader. 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 it seemed obvious after just a few pages that "The Greatest Story Ever Told", or at least the King James Version, was the work of ignorant hacks, not an all powerful Creator. This will upset some of you, I know, but that's the way I felt. 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. You know how sometimes there's a movie where the previews are great, but when you finally go to see it you find that every single good scene was in the previews, and the rest is junk? That's how I felt. But I also still felt that vague sense of presence from time to time.
Not too much later, I was visited by Mormon missionaries. I was bored, curious, and little lonely, so I invited them in and listened to what the had to say. Again I felt that sense of presence. After our second meeting, they routinely started with a prayer. During these I would feel the sense of presence more acutely. But after a few visits, I started seeing through what they were saying. 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! Once again the show didn't live up to the previews.
I'm not sure if the Mormons sensed my growing skepticism, or if we had just gotten to certain point in their program. At our next meeting they asked me to lead the prayer, to ask Jesus to touch my soul and show me the truth. Many non-believers are reluctant to pray. It is said that Madalyn Murray O'Hair left instructions that her death was to be kept secret, so no one could pray for her. I've never understood this. Appealing to a force I didn't think existed wasn't a problem. At the same time, I felt honor bound to be sincere. It's a difficult mind set to explain, but it's a little like making a bet you don't think you can lose, but doing so fully prepared to pay-up if you do lose. I guess you could say I was 100% sure I was right, but also 10% sure I wasn't. I also allowed a 10% percent chance for diabolic influences (something else I'm 100% sure doesn't exist) and phrased my prayer to exclude them.
Imagine my surprise when my prayer was answered! The presence I had felt before was there. But where before it had been standing to the side, waiting patiently, now it was filling me with a light the blind could see, a voice the deaf could hear, a love so strong I could feel its weight fold around me like a blanket. I damn near became a Mormon then and there. But when we turned to our studies, the books were...empty. I don't know how else to explain it. It was just very obvious that there was nothing there I needed or wanted. Like a box of chocolate with all the candy eaten, it was just cardboard around empty paper, with just a trace of something sweet here and there.
So there I was, converted by Mormons, but not to Mormonism...not to anything. The presence didn't take anything, didn't ask for anything, only gave. There didn't seem to be anything to do, but accept it and go on with my life. The Mormons gave up on me shortly after that, though I bet they baptized me while I wasn't looking.
It's usually at this point in the story where the narrator's health miraculously improves. Nothing of the sort happened to me. My health did improve, but at a natural pace. In general, nothing much changed in my life except, perhaps, that I became more interested in philosophy and religion.
A few months passed. I read about Buddhism and found it interesting enough to read further. I know many people claim that you can't really learn a religion from reading, but I've always been particularly adept at extracting knowledge from paper. A few koans, a little meditation, and zap satori. Feel free to disbelieve, feel free to fall back to the usual objection that enlightenment takes years to achieve. But I'll tell you a secret that everyone knows, enlightenment comes in an instant, it's the unlearning that takes years. I'm a quick unlearner, so it didn't take me long.
So what's satori like? It's said that it can't be described. But neither can red be described to a blind man. But if the presence I described earlier sounds familiar, than you already know what satori is like. They look different from a distance, but that's just the cultural surroundings altering perceptions. It's the same as the way two identical red dots will seem to be of different shades when viewed against different backgrounds.
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. The journey is never as long as those who profit from leading the expeditions would have us believe. Time and time again I found myself in the presence of...something.
It got to the point where it was no longer a question whether a given path would lead to that place I had been so many times before, but just a matter of enjoying the scenery along the way, and the view of the destination from a different angle.
It's been said (I wish I could remember by who) that 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've come to see religions as something that men have built to hold their shards. In some cases these reliquaries make it easier to find the shard. More often their baroque ornamentation serves only to distract from, or even obscure, the small piece of Truth at the center.
You may be wondering how I come to call such blatant mysticism by the names of Atheism and Materialism. Part of the answer lies how I've learned to look past the religion to the truth at its core. Once I started doing that, I didn't have much use for gods, demons, magic circles, chants and incense. Once I reached that point, I realized that anything we try to say about that which is beyond our comprehension is so inadequate as to be insulting. And that leads to a kind of Atheism. I know that might not make much sense to some of you; hopefully you'll see what I mean as you read on.
It might be true to say I have a personal relationship with the God, or that He is my Creator, or that He walked in the holy-land 2000 years ago, or that He wrote the Bible or died on the cross. It might also be true to say the Goddess stood behind me in a circle of chalk on nights of the full moon, or that the jewel is in the lotus, or ego alpha et omega.
All these might be true, but they are also all gross and insulting trivializations. Worse than saying "Pavarotti has been known to sing in key". Worse than summarizing the life of Harry S. Truman, and the effects of the Truman administration by saying "Harry broke wind in the oval office."
But this is only part of the why I now call myself an Atheist and a Materialist. The rest of the reason comes from my penultimate mystical experience. Here I'm using penultimate in the original sense of "second to last". The "shard" I was contemplating at the time was nominally Christian, but one of the flower-child varieties 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 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". 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.
You may think I'm joking, or mocking those who claim to talk with God, or trying to make a point but I'm being completely serious, and as genuine as I can be. I was there, in the presence of what was undeniably God being told by God that there was no God, and that I should not believe in Him.
Have you ever dreamed you were dreaming? Have you ever dreamed you couldn't fall asleep? Pretty odd experiences, even compared to regular dreams, eh? The difference is nothing compared to the difference between being enlightened, and being enlightened while having a mystical experience. The Christian God was my personal Zen master. He delivered the ultimate koan in person.
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.
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 felt like a man blind since birth, who had been given the gift of sight, but blinded again a moment later. I knew that I would not see so much Truth so clearly assembled ever again. 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. At that moment I felt the presence that I had felt so many times before, and I began my very last mystic experience, which continues to this day.
And that, ultimately, is why I'm an Atheist, and a Materialist.