Atheism for Lent: A mystic’s view

Doing Pete Rollins “Atheism for Lent” again, at least cursorily (it is, after all, the fifth time…) we got, again, to Anselm’s “proof” of God, which is in a week otherwise largely populated by mystics. Like most “proofs of God” it sticks in my craw, and particularly so as it’s presented as the argument of a mystic – and as far as I can see, Anselm wasn’t a mystic, he was a philosopher. It is supremely a philosopher’s argument. The course quotes from Anselm’s “Proslogion”:-
Therefore, Lord, who grant understanding to faith, grant me that, in so far as you know it beneficial, I understand that you are as we believe and you are that which we believe. Now we believe that you are something than which nothing greater can be imagined.Then is there no such nature, since the fool has said in his heart: God is not? But certainly this same fool, when he hears this very thing that I am saying – something than which nothing greater can be imagined – understands what he hears; and what he understands is in his understanding, even if he does not understand that it is. For it is one thing for a thing to be in the understanding and another to understand that a thing is.For when a painter imagines beforehand what he is going to make, he has in his understanding what he has not yet made but he does not yet understand that it is. But when he has already painted it, he both has in his understanding what he has already painted and understands that it is.Therefore even the fool is bound to agree that there is at least in the understanding something than which nothing greater can be imagined, because when he hears this he understands it, and whatever is understood is in the understanding.And certainly that than which a greater cannot be imagined cannot be in the understanding alone. For if it is at least in the understanding alone, it can be imagined to be in reality too, which is greater. Therefore if that than which a greater cannot be imagined is in the understanding alone, that very thing than which a greater cannot be imagined is something than which a greater can be imagined. But certainly this cannot be. There exists, therefore, beyond doubt something than which a greater cannot be imagined, both in the understanding and in reality.

Leaving aside the plethora of well known objections to ontological arguments (assuming this to be an ontological argument, which Pete contests, though some of them do seem to me to bite on this argument whatever it actually is), mystics do not, it seems to me, start from general characteristics ascribed to God and then apply logic, they attempt to describe their experience of God (and fail to do so in any rigorous way; poetic expressions are perhaps most successful). OK, some allow many preconceptions to slip into their descriptions, but inasmuch as they tend to the apophatic (and it’s a very strong tendency) that just indicates that whatever they write about the experience, it fails to catch the fullness of that experience.

It’s from that standpoint that I start by asking why Anselm starts by defining God as “something than which nothing greater can be imagined”. I wouldn’t be writing about theology and spirituality were it not for mystical experience, and in particular a peak experience when I was 14. Before that, I was an evangelical atheist.

So, that isn’t an assumption about God which I make. The only warranted assumption, it seems to me, is that this undefined something which many other mystics refer to as “God” is the cause and/or subject of mystical experience. Other statements about God must relate to some aspect of that experience, insofar as that aspect is common to all mystics, surely?

Yes, experience indicates (via a powerful feeling) that God is very great indeed, but my mind is, I find, incapable of grasping anything really large – for instance, I can only hold an image of a very few things in my mind at the same time (frankly, I have problems with more than about ten unless they’re just points), and my ability to hold an idea of distance in my mind is constrained by how far I can see. Anything larger than that has to be the result of applying this “more than” concept. And I can do that ad infinitum, as in Euclid’s proof that there is no largest prime number. Indeed, it is really only by a combination of this principle and the fact that we have coined a word to express a thousand million that I can understand the wealth of a billionaire at all. I can’t hold even a hundred things in my mind at the same time, far less a thousand, million or billion.

This means, from my point of view, that I can think in a way referring to a possible billion without actually conceiving of a billion, and it seems to me that Anselm’s argument fails on that basis – I can conceive the possibility of something greater than I can conceive, but I have not thereby actually conceived something greater than I can conceive, just as I can conceive the possibility of a billion without actually conceiving a billion in any real sense.

The course also quotes Emil Cioran, a Rumanian philosopher and student of at least Western mystics. Part of that quote (from The Temptation to Exist reads “Refractory by vocation, rampant in their prayers, the mystics play with heaven, trembling the while. The Church has degraded them to the rank of supernatural mendicants so that, wretchedly civilized, they might serve as “models.” Yet we know that both in their lives and in their writings they were phenomena of nature and that no worse disaster could happen to them than to fall into the hands of the priests. Our duty is to wrest them away: only at this price could Christianity still admit even a hint of duration. When I call them “phenomena of nature,” I am not claiming that their “health” was foolproof. We know that they were sick. But disease acted upon them like a goad, like a factor of excess. By sickness, they aimed at another genre of vitality than ours. Peter of Alcantara managed to sleep no more than one hour a night: was this not a sign of strength? And they were all strong, for they destroyed their bodies only in order to derive a further power from them. We think of them as gentle; no beings were tougher. What is it they propose? The virtues of disequilibrium. Avid for every kind of wound, hypnotized by the unwonted, they have undertaken the conquest of the only fiction worth the trouble; God owes them everything: his glory, his mystery, his eternity. They lend existence to the inconceivable, violate Nothing in order to animate it : how could gentleness accomplish such an exploit?

I definitely do not see myself reflected there. I don’t think mysticism is remotely a sickness, for instance, though many of the pre-20th century Western Christian mystics were extreme in pursuing ways of repeating the mystical experience. It is a fact that, for instance, sleep deprivation and fasting are somewhat conducive to mystical experience; some find that other physical privation is also useful. They aren’t necessary. These do not characterise the whole experience any more than we would say that the findings of a scientist who neglects sleep and eating in pursuit of a discovery are characterised by sleep deprivation and fasting.

There’s also a quote from Ludwig Feuerbach, (from “The Essence of Christianity) part of which reads “God is the explanation for the unexplainable which explains nothing because it explains everything without distinction — he is the night of theory, nonetheless making everything clear to the mind by removing any measure of darkness and extinguishing the light of discriminating comprehension — the not-knowing which solves all doubts by repudiating them, which knows everything because it knows nothing in particular and because all things which impress reason are nothing to religion, lose their identity and are nil in God’s eye. The night is the mother of religion.”

This is also, to the mystic, wholly missing the mark. For the mystic, God is the explanation for a particular species of human experience, and while such experience might well be (and, it seems to me, usually is) radically transformative, it is not an “explanation for everything”, not does it remotely make everything clear to the mind except in the moment of mystical experience; that clarity does not survive returning to mundane existence and trying to communicate the peak to others. If anything, mystical experience disturbs you, unsettles you, makes you see things differently – though not, I think, to the extent that Cioran writes of.

A friend recently posted a quote from Pope Francis “Mystics have been fundamental to the Church. A religion without mystics is a philosophy”, and it brought into focus feelings I’d had about Anselm, Cioran and then Feuerbach.

I’m a mystic. I didn’t choose to be, I had a peak mystical experience thrust upon me in my teens which wrecked my then atheism, so I start any thinking about God with what I feel to be and thus think of as direct, unmediated experience of God. That is, after all, how mystics tend to report it. I don’t see Anselm as a mystic, I see him as a philosopher. Cioran is also a philosopher, although one studying mystics (I fancy almost exclusively mystics in Western Christendom, as mystics have not been historically marginalised to the same extent elsewhere). He seems to me to see mystics as putting forward a philosophical argument – and that, it seems to me, is what Pete does in “mystics week” as well. For the purposes of “Atheism for Lent”, the mystics are negating the concept of the naive supernatural concept of God which I regard as typical of Sunday School – and much of conservative Christianity.

The thing is, mystics aren’t, as far as I can see, engaged in negating concepts of the agent God, they’re exploring ways in which they can communicate about God when the basic experience is impossible to communicate to someone who hasn’t had cognate experience themselves – and nothing I see in Cioran or Anselm induces me to think they had mystical experience themselves.

Feuerbach is also a philosopher, though he might be functioning more as an anthropologist in the excerpts we have. He effectively dismisses mystics as not representing the bulk of religion, and doesn’t actually engage them at all (which is not unreasonable historically for an anthropologist, but isn’t remotely a negation of mystics’ viewpoints – and a fairly recent survey indicated that as many as 40% of those responding reported some mystical-type experience, which is many times the proportion which applied in my youth). I couldn’t help thinking that Feuerbach’s critique was remarkably similar to Voltaire’s comment “In the beginning God created man, and ever since then, man, being a gentleman, has returned the favour”, and also recalling a rather acerbic comment I made some years ago that “the whole history of (Christian) theology is of non-mystics misinterpreting mystics”.

The thing is, I agree with Feuerbach to a considerable extent – anything we say about God is inevitably a human construction, and I might comment that in Voltaire’s formulation, there’s an implicit feedback loop – and in any feedback loop, working out where it started is rarely useful. Could start with “God”, could start with humans. Whichever is the case, humanity has been moulded by concept-structures involving some conception of God, whether or not a God which is more than just a construction has been doing any moulding as well either at the outset or on a continuing basis (and my out-of-the-blue peak mystical experience definitely *felt* as if I was being moulded by something other than myself).

Epistemic humility compels me to accept that my experience is inevitably not actually quite direct (which, as mentioned above, is what it feels like to mystics) as it has to be processed by some part of my brain, and is therefore subject to possible cognitive distortions – or even (as some atheist friends suggest) might be nothing more than a cognitive distortion. I can entertain that as a possibility, but I can’t really think that it can be the case, because it’s to me such a poor “explanation” of what mystical experience feels like.

The course continues with other writers. Marx seems again to me to be missing the point of what religion actually is with his “opium of the people”. To me, and it seems to Pope Francis, it is an expression (albeit a possibly somewhat misunderstood expression) of what is at base mystical experience. Marx looks merely at what it has done in one field, the sociological and economic (and largely in one geographical area), and again approaches religion as a philosopher. So do Hill and Goldman, from whom there are later quotes; they are attacking things which have been done in the name of religion.

All of these approaches, to me, smack of the principle that “to the man who has only a hammer, everything looks like a nail” (to the man who has only philosophical thinking, everything looks like a philosophy, i.e. in Francis’ and my thinking a denatured version of religion) and also of the idea that I have a very large textbook, “Gravitation” on my shelves; I could use it as a doorstop, I could use it to prop up another book. Other things might fulfil either of those functions better than “Gravitation” does. Indeed, dropping it on your toe might be an illustration of it’s subject matter in a trivial way. None of these, however, capture what the book is about or what it’s really for. Or, at least, what it was for in the 1970s; theoretical Physics has moved on since then, and it’s possible that these days it actually is more useful as a doorstop or book rest…

So, why am I following this course yet again? Well, for one thing, it keeps forcing me to think deeply about God and religion in a way which is unlikely in a church setting and which is largely absent from my editing work, and that is a good thing in and of itself. Yes, I think the vast bulk of the critiques and counter-critiques which we look at in the seven weeks of this exercise completely miss the mark for the mystic, but they do bite, and bite hard, at the majority of religious expressions which are around absent the heights of a current mystical experience. And there’s something about radical theology which I continue to feel might have something to say to me, something which might give me a better expression of where I am situated.

Even if it’s as simple as John Caputo’s “It spooks”. My strong tendency when dealing with all the critiques of ideas of God is to answer in the manner of Galileo “eppur si muove” (nevertheless, it moves, in Galileo’s case referring to the earth). “Eppur si spaventa”, perhaps.


I know there are quite a few people who have gone to the trouble of subscribing to this blog (for which many thanks), and I’ve become increasingly aware as January passed and now February, that I’ve posted nothing. I’m sorry to those who expect something more.

I’m not going to blame pressure of work, although I have quite a few manuscripts to edit backed up at the moment, have a contract for another book which is largely not getting written and have bitten off rather more than I can chew in terms of online courses recently (the various lockdowns have meant that quite a few people who I want to hear from and engage with are doing more online stuff than they normally would). Yes, I have a number of things I’ve half-written, or in one case maybe 99% written, but none of those has quite got to the point of posting.

No, the underlying reason is that I fear I’m sliding gently back into the depression which basically claimed my life between 2003 and 2013. Yes, it’s situational, which the previous one wasn’t entirely or even mostly. Most, if not all days, I find myself having a little weep over some news item, which is more overt than I’m used to with emotion. Of course, the government’s incompetent handling of the Covid pandemic up to the new Year is a major factor – measures were taken too little and too late from June onward, leading to daily reports of over 1000 deaths for a month and a half (happily now somewhat reduced, but still appalling).

I can somewhat understand the mindset of those responsible, having had ten or more years involved in emergency planning locally, which included considering biological threats; there was there a consistent story in exercises of the scientific advisors advising draconian measures and the politicians feeling unable to ask the public for that much sacrifice. I can understand it, but whereas last year it was an unknown threat and there was no roadmap to combatting it, by now our leaders have the example of New Zealand and even Vietnam to work from – and another 60,000 of us have now died as a result. That is also a sacrifice, but a wholly unnecessary one.

That, however, is not the main factor. The main factor is Brexit. Throughout the last four years, I have felt in the position of someone strapped into a bus seat with a mad driver careering towards a cliff edge, with the diminishing and ultimately vain hope that eventually someone must see sense and stop the vehicle. There were a lot of Brexit solutions which were distinctly short of the “no deal” option which came, insidiously, to be the one which Brexiteers favoured; no one who voted leave wanted a “hard Brexit”, and most talked of something like a “Norway” deal. We could, for instance, have stayed in either or both of the customs union or the single market without being a member state, and I hoped and prayed that we would eventually settle into one of those. This graphic shows the possible options:-

May be a cartoon of text that says "The Consequences of The UK's Brexit Strategy UK's status in European economic, trade and travel agreements Schengen area EFTA Gibraltar EEA Switzerland 米 UK Norway Iceland Liechtenstein EU customs union EU Eurozone Slovakia Slovenia Estonia Lithuania Latvia Malta Bulgaria Belgium Germany Netherlands Austria Italy Greece Ireland France Luxembourg Spain Romania Portugal Cyprus Finland Poland Czech Republic Hungary Denmark Sweden Croatia Monaco Northern Ireland San Marino Source: Statista research Andorra Turkey statista"

Obviously, there were several possibilities there… and I hoped fervently that the government would eventually settle on one of them as the extent of damage Brexit was going to cause became clearer. Every few days there was some report that yes, maybe they would bend away from “no deal”, only to be squashed a day or two later. And, as they say “hope deferred maketh the heart sick”.

However, by the end of 2020 “no deal” looked like the likely result. I felt unreasonably relieved when Boris came back with an agreement short of the “hard Brexit” I had feared, though I did write that it was only very slightly less bad than the complete demolition of our trade (and thus our economy) which “no deal” Brexit would have meant.

The trouble is, as the weeks have progressed, it has become apparent that the difference from a hard Brexit is minute – I predicted it would be bad, but had underestimated quite how bad. . Yes, we do not have tariffs between us and Europe (hooray!) but we do have other restrictions – certificates of origin for components, phytosanitary checks which need a vet to certify any consignment of food items (or, of course, live animals) – or, indeed, anything which has touched UK soil, notably plants – and an absolute mass of other customs forms which the government have not put in place the necessary support to complete (nor, of course, do they pay for their completion) – and all of this makes trade with the EU for any but the largest organisations unviable, because it all costs. Even transport is costing 2 to 5 times more (if you can find a haulier prepared to do it) because of the huge delays in clearing customs, which is time the hauliers need to have paid for.

May be an image of furniture and text that says "07:13 Tweet t7 Dr Mike Galsworthy retweeted James Milbourne @JamesMilbourne This is the paperwork required to send one order to the EU now. Previously zero. £100k/ year of Veterinary inspection fees now, previously £0. Very annoying/ costly for an established business like us, crippling for a small company! Emailed @GregHands, no response... CANAGAN : Nick Ferrari and 9 others Tweet your reply"

Some whole industries have been ruined – shellfish, for instance, on which there is an overall ban except for those purified at this end, as our water quality isn’t high enough (and this is something which is not new; our MEPs voted for it some years ago), and we do not have the purification facilities. Fishing is generally pretty much dead, due to the fact that most of what our fishermen catch, we don’t want to eat – but there was a market in Europe. However, fishermen can’t jump through all the regulatory hoops fast enough (fish has a very short “shelf life”) and/or sell at an attractive enough price when they’ve done that (cost of paperwork again) to keep those markets. This is supremely ironic, because all the noise made by our negotiators last year and, indeed, following the “deal” was that we were improving our fishing prospects…

There was no mention of financial services, either in the run-up to the agreement or in the agreement. The result is the loss by the City of London of tens of billions of pouds worth of trading. Now, fishing is (or at least was) around 0.45% of our economic activity. The City is something more like 20%, and responsible for at least 10% of government tax revenues.

And now there are reports that high-ups in the EU might be proposing some middle ways. There’s hope again, and I confidently expect it will be deferred or dashed.

Against this background, the government tries to tell us that everything is wonderful, and if not, that it’s the big bad EU punishing us for leaving (by following the rules which apply to any nation outside the EU and for which we voted when a member). As the linke suggests, we’re being gaslighted. Most of the media completely ignore this catalogue of disasters; the tabloids spout the government line (only more forcibly), the BBC just ignores Brexit.

And, if I can manage to tell myself not to think about Covid or Brexit for a few minutes, there’s also the impending disaster of climate change and the now overwhelmingly likely collapse of everyone’s economies as a result (and in all probability a death toll which will make Covid look like a minor blip in the statistics). Yes, there’s much more being done than previously, and there are many success stories of countries managing greater and greater removal of CO2-producing energy, but all the indications I see is that this should have been done 10 or 20 years ago to have any reasonable chance of averting disaster.

I try very hard to tell myself, firstly, that very little of this affects me or will affect me personally. I don’t expect to live long enough to see the effects of climate change, I’m a pensioner, so not dependent on a job in the rapidly shrinking economy, no-one I know personally has died of Covid (very few have reported catching it), and I’ve been immunised, so have a decent chance now of not catching it myself.

Secondly, there is frankly naff-all I can do about it. I’ve consistently voted and argued for policies radically different from those which are contributing to the various disasters, and am prevented by lockdown from any direct action (for which I’m too old and infirm to be much use in any event). And what needs doing needs doing NOW, not when the (entirely sensible) restrictions to fight Covid have finished. Indeed, it’s mostly too late. So my sensible head says “accept the things you cannot change”…

And it doesn’t work, because I am not really much concerned for myself, but for my neighbours, my children and theirs, those who will inherit this apocalyptic mess. People like this girl. I can’t turn off my compassion, and I’m suffering a permanent overload of that. I can’t turn off my anger, and every day I’m goaded into a bit more of it by seeing government gaslighting, ridiculous tabloid headlines, Covid-deniers and climate change deniers – and there’s no way to sublimate that anger into action.

Depression has been described as “anger turned inwards”. I have a massive excess of it. I just hope this isn’t the start of another lost 10 years of my life, as 2003-13 were, with a crippling level of depression.

So, I’ll try to put up a few more posts, and maybe not worry so much about them being nicely polished accounts…