I was a teenage atheist (a spiritual journey)

“I was a teenage atheist”.

Well, that is true, in and of itself, but it also makes for decent click bait. From where I now sit, most of the “New Atheists” look like teenagers; certainly, had they been around when I was 13, I’d have been a big fan of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens.

But I need to backtrack. I’m actually writing this because I keep finding, in facebook groups, the question “how did you get to where you are today?” and posting a very abvreviated version of my spiritual journey, suitable to the location – and then, not infrequently, being asked for more.

So, I grew up the child of a Methodist Local Preacher and a frequent soloist with the Church Choir. I was therefore guaranteed to be in Sunday School at the earliest opportunity, which, as I recall, was just before I turned 5 – Dad preached about every other week, somewhere in the local circuit of churches but rarely in the Central Methodist Church which we attended, while mum really wanted to be up singing with the choir rather than child-minding down in the pews.

On those occasions when I was in church rather than Sunday School, my overriding impression is of a relatively few sermons which were of the “fire and brimstone” variety; Sunday School tended to stick with Bible Stories and avoid the theologically weighty areas. The Bible Stories didn’t really strike me as more than just that – stories. I should, I suppose, explain that I was a precocious brat, and could read decently (and was getting books out of the local library regularly) by the time I was 5 – and I like a good story.

The fire and brimstone preachers, frankly, scared me, while at the same time being at least slightly unbelievable. The picture they painted of someone described as “Our Father” was just not very similar to my own father, who was most of the time extremely mild mannered, loving and tolerant, although yes, he could be provoked to anger, and when he was angry, he was extremely scary. On the occasions when he preached at the home church, his sermons were notably not “fire and brimstone… I suspect that somewhere in my childish subconscious, however, I got the idea that there might just be a God who was father-like only in the extremity of wrath, but that didn’t gel at all well with my developing reason.

Being a precocious brat meant that I discovered the awesome power of the word “why” very early, and I tormented my parents and teachers with it frequently. My parents and the teachers at my normal school were pretty good at diverting the flow of questions – and, in both those cases, they tended to give me at least somewhat reasonable answers. The Sunday School teachers were different – they tended to get flustered at the questioning, and give answers which were sometimes contradictory, sometimes just woefully unsatisfactory. I decided rather early that they were peddling fiction in the guise of fact, and I was probably an atheist by the time I was 7 or so.

And, like the “New Atheists”, I decided that everyone else should be an atheist too. Sunday School bore this trial with rapidly reducing equanimity, and at 9, I parted company with Sunday School “by mutual agreement” – they were sick of me aggressively questioning everything (and, no doubt, worried about the other childrens’ spiritual formation being impacted), and I saw absolutely no point in the exercise, and preferred to be at home reading – and I was probably a reading addict by then. I read all the books which the three of us got from the library every week (three each – I was upset both that they wouldn’t allow me to take more books out and that my parents didn’t want to make more than one trip to the library per week), and once I got to have textbooks from school, I would typically read the whole of all of them within a couple of weeks of the beginning of term.

I particularly liked science lessons, once I got to secondary school and there were such things. They played into what was already an enthusiasm for experimentation (which, incidentally, had resulted in me much earlier setting traps for Santa, to try to establish whether such an entity actually existed – my parents managed to circumvent those for two years, but the third, failed to notice one which was actually hidden IN the chimney…) I give my father huge credit for the boot prints in the talcum powder on the hearth on one of the previous occasions!

Science, if seemed to me, was the field which could potentially explain everything; certainly it was far less inclined to say “just because” to a line of questioning, and there were techniques to use to try to establish things not currently known. That formation hasn’t left me – I am still, for most practical purposes, a scientific materialist, and only the realisation that emergent phenomena may not actually be reducible to a lower level prevents me being a reductionist scientific materialist.

Continuing the theme of the Jesuit saying “Give me a child for the first seven years, and I will give you the man”, my parents were not scientists. They were, in fact, a rather hard act to follow. They were both enthusiastic amateur artists, and ran the local art club – and, therefore, I got to do significantly more painting and drawing than most of my friends. Art, I found, was not reducible to technique and mechanics.

Despite their Methodist credentials, they were both intereted in spiritualism, and my father in particular in horoscopes; while I was extremely sceptical about both, there was there clearly a region which science didn’t do a good job of explaining – mother was definitely not tricking us when she “channelled” some spirit, and father did seem to extract some valid insights from his workings out (which were vastly more technical than the “horoscopes” printed in newspapers those days – the thought that one twelfth of the population should be having essentially the same experiences for the day was just ridiculous, but Dad’s careful calculations from the place and minute of birth were at least capable, it seemed to me, of having some more validity. Though it would have to be scientifically explainable…

Dad was also keen on history, and was the local amateur archaologist. Thus, a significant number of the library books I was consuming were history, and I got to help on a few archaeological digs he organised, when development was going to destroy the site. Mother, as I mentioned, was a choir soloist and had at one time been a semi-professional singer – and had had a scholarship to read Music at Durham, which she had had to refuse as her father was ill and she needed to work to support her parents. History and Music therefore also loom large (and, of course, my parents also were two of the stalwarts of the local music society, which I got to accompany them to…) Oh, and I got to learn piano, and to enter piano competitions.

So, while I was very keen on science, and thought science was the “go to” technique to tell me why something happened the way it did and how I could get it to happen again, it didn’t really help me appreciate, say, art or music. I didn’t love (for instance) Caravaggio’s St. Jerome better through analysing the brush strokes or the pigments (though both those things might have helped if I had wanted to copy it – as would a lot of practice).

I didn’t rule out entirely the possibility of some “supernatural” things – after all, my mother in particular was convinced she’d experienced something of the sort – but if such things did happen, they would be best investigated scientifically (and I’d already ruled out Santa by that method!). Indeed, I was fascinated by these things on the edge of what was possible or likely. However, I could much more easily find that reports of such things were tricks or misperceptions than something actually supernatural, and became very dubious about them all.

And then, one warm summer afternoon aged 14 or a month or so light of that age, I was lying reading a book (nothing weighty, as I recall) and appreciating getting a little sun, when I got hit between the eyes by a spiritual half-brick, metaphorically speaking. I had an entirely unlooked for, out of the blue mystical experience.

The most prominent aspect of this was an overwhelming sense of unity, both of everything (up to a cosmic scale) and with everything. I was expanded to everything and, at the same time, was diminished to a minute speck against the immensity of the All. Secondary was an overwhelming sense of love and acceptance; tertiary was a conviction that whatever this was, it was in some way personal, as opposed to being some cosmic force like gravity.

It was pretty much a full-spectrum experience (a terminology I’ve arrived at since); although I don’t recall any smell or taste, vision was affected (I could seemingly see forever, and see through things which were otherwise solid, and vision switched between the massively large and the infinitesimally small, or was perhaps both at the same time), sound was affected (I could hear things which I wouldn’t normally be able to), as was touch (I could, it seemed, reach out and feel the texture of infinite space), proprioception (the same at-the-same-time feeling of infinite largeness and infinitesimal smallness) and the kinaesthetic sense (I felt myself rushing from one place to another, while still being conscious of lying inert).

My sense of time was clearly affected, as this all seemed to take a huge amount of time, but afterwards it proved that it couldn’t have had a duration longer than about half an hour. It needed to feel longer, as a part of the vision was a rewinding of time back to the origin of all things.

One facet of the experience was being confronted with a “God’s eye” view of who I was and what I’d done, which was a fairly unpleasant realisation (I had previously been immensely self-centred and pretty much unconcscious of how my actions affected others – such as being aggressively atheist when father was a preacher) ; at the same time, however, there was a consciousness of complete forgiveness and acceptance (perhaps grace?). As an aside, if, as I hope and believe is the case, on death we are confronted with something similar just prior to complete (re)unity with the divine, it is a form of “last judgment”. It has occurred to me that there may be people who are unable to stand this realisation (and I don’t think it’s something which can be avoided); they may, just possibly, be denied that unity (and forgiveness and acceptance) for some period of time, or, perhaps, even elect for their own annihilation without tasting unity.

A really major feature was what I call “disindividuation”; the boundaries between my self and the outside world dissolved. I use “disindividuation” in distinction to the well-recognised term “deindividuation” which refers to the aspect of mob psychology where the group seems to take on a psychology all of its own and individual psychologies are “taken over” by the “group mind”. There was no sense of being “taken over”, but there was a sense of being extinguished – but that was balanced by the feeling of being infinitely expanded. Coincidence of opposites is definitely a feature! This aspect has never really gone away completely, in that ever since I have felt the boundaries of self as being at the very least fuzzy; this links well with the sudden access of empathy, something (as I referred to in the previous paragraph) which had never much troubled me in the past; that too has never gone away. It’s worth noting here that Peter Rollins not infrequently suggests that such disindividuation and return to the sense of “oceanic oneness” is a feature of psychosis. It is possible that it might be, were it not for the fact that the sense of self never actually completely vanishes.

The experience was immensely self-confirming. It told me in no uncertain terms that this was the way things really were, despite any appearance to the contrary. And it was ecstatic – that first experience remains the most wonderful thing I have ever experienced (though subsequent mystical experiences have come close); I’ve said of it since that it was “better than sex, drugs and rock & roll” – since, because at the time I’d experienced none of those (well, with the exception of hearing some records).

On “coming round” from this, my first suspicion was that I’d had some kind of traumatic brain event, and I went to see my doctor and described it as best I could. It seemed that no, I wasn’t suffering from (for instance) a brain tumour or temporal lobe epilepsy, and it certainly wasn’t the result of drugs or any of the techniques I later discovered for promoting such experience. I also around that time happened across F.C. Happold’s book “Mysticism: A Study and Anthology”, having on a whim attended a lecture on “The Mystical Experience” in which the book was mentioned, and found that there were a lot of accounts historically which were at least somewhat similar to what I’d experienced – and they were labelled as experiences of God by most of those who wrote about them.

So, reassured, I went looking for a repeat – it was, I suppose, instantly addictive, as a friend has since jokingly suggested, but I fancy that in this case it wasn’t really a joke. Over my remaining school years and into university, I went looking for any group which suggested that it had a technique for producing experiences like this – which included Wiccans, Ceremonial Magicians, Sufis and various species of Eastern meditators, Buddhist, Taoist and Hindu. Under the influence of Happold, whose book includes quite a few Christian mystics, I didn’t entirely rule out Christianity, but Christianity was the system which I’d rejected in earlier childhood, and the stream of Christianity which is most conducive to mystical experience, the Orthodox (and particularly the Greek Orthodox) wasn’t one which had any representation anywhere near where I was, either at home or at university; it was also the case that there was no way, following this experience, that I could feel that the Christian concept of the “fall of man” had any validity (something which I’ve written about before). If there was no fall, then a sizeable chunk of what was normative to the flavours of Christianity available to me was negated…

I tried all the techniques, as well as the concept-structures, including a set of Shamanistic ones. These ranged from meditation and contemplation through mantra and tantra to the more extreme – sleep deprivation, fasting, sensory deprivation, partial strangulation, and, of course, drugs. In the process, I could cross off a lot of possible candidates for having produced that first experience – none of those had applied, and it’s still a complete mystery to me why it happened. Drugs were, perhaps strangely, rather disappointing (as well as being something to be avoided for reasons of legality) – I think I was maybe “spoiled” for those by having an unaided experience first (I have in mind here, inter alia, The Liturgists, and the fact that both Science Mike and Michael Gungor have used psychedelics to get to what seems to be pretty much the same place, plus a host of others such as the late Alan Watts and even Sam Harris). The more mechanical ones were all at least somewhat effective, though dangerous – I didn’t really want to go there if I could avoid it.

So, over the course of some years, I found that I could slip into at least what I call “an edge” of the full blown experience via a very attenuated contemplative technique – and that was, by and large, enough for me; full blown experiences have the disadvantage of taking significant time, being of uncertain duration (some seemed to last an age but were actually only minutes long, others seemed fleeting but took me out of action for hours) and, of course, meaning that I was functionally useless in the world out there – I joke that there’s a danger of bumping into lamp posts, but that has actually happened to me when I went slightly too deep when contemplating while walking. I can, however, state with some confidence that the best way of stopping an incipient mystical experience in its tracks is to start analysing what is happening.

There have been some repeats of the “full spectrum” experience – perhaps three or four – but from my perspective, such extremes are very unusual (perhaps because I’m a compulsive analyser…). That said, I’ve met a number of people who could reasonably be described as having a mystical approach who have only ever had one peak experience, which has sustained them for many years (in one case, over 50). I think having one such experience is very important, and possibly vital (I surmise that a peak experience creates pathways in the brain which can then be accessed more easily), but having many does not really add too much to the information content.

A lot of people I mix with online these days talk of “deconstruction”. Keith Giles has an useful piece on deconstruction, which some readers may relate to. I, however, have never needed to deconstruct most of these (or, if I did, it was in the years between ages 5 and 9, and I don’t remember the process). When I arrived at my spiritual practice, it was without most of the “pillars” Keith describes. The only one of those which Keith talks of which really exercised my mind was “suffering in the world” – and it still does. But I have been relatively comfortable with the concept that there are things which I don’t yet understand, but which are nevertheless the case since I accepted my initial peak experience for what it was, namely unitive mystical experience. I don’t have to understand something in order for it to work; the universe really does not need Chris’ consent in order to keep on existing!

There I stayed for quite a few years, while I started a career, got married and had children. My wife was Anglican, so inasmuch as I actually went to church, it was to an Anglican one locally – but I found huge difficulties with liturgy, sermons and hymns (there’s a lot of very bad theology in 18th and 19th century hymns, and I don’t think the 20th and 21st centuries have improved on that much, if at all!) Then (and this was the result of a series of events which are a story in and of themselves), I found myself arguing about God with a set of French-speaking atheists on the then Compuserve European forum. From there, I got asked to start posting in the Mensa forum, which was pretty atheist-heavy, and when the lady who invited me there left as a result of a dispute with the forum management, I started posting in the Compuserve Religion forum instead (having, of course, got the taste for such discussions).

I was somewhat surprised to be invited to moderate the Christianity section there after only a couple of weeks posting, and responded that I didn’t really regard myself as Christian – which, apparently, was not a problem, and perhaps even an advantage, given that this was specifically a religious discussion forum, and “proselytising” was forbidden. It was at the time a very active venue – the forum was putting on over a thousand messages a day in all; the next door section was Judaism, and I kept finding that conservative Christians would stray into that section and start trying to make converts, which precipitated tit-for-tat incursions of Jews into the Christianity section, trying to provoke conservative members into breaking the forum rule against spiritual judgment (and so getting barred); the same happened with members of the Free Thought section, which was the home for quite a few refugees from the former Atheism forum.

I spent a lot of time there trying to educate conservative Christian members into putting their points more politely (and improving their arguments, while challenging them gently) and trying to defend Christian members from the incursions of non-Christians, which were quite frequently backed up by a few liberal Christians who posted there. That necessitated a lot of background reading. And, considering the message count (which actually exceeded 4000 for the forum on one occasion), I found myself putting in the proverbial 10,000 hours.

After some months, two of the more liberal Christians there (both, as it happens, Anglican lay readers) messaged me quite independently (at least, I don’t think they were ganging up on me!) telling me that I was a Christian. I demurred, but they managed to persuade me that I was at least as Christian as they were (and significantly more so than John Shelby Spong, who was an Anglican bishop in the States…); one of them added the accusation that I regarded moderating on the forum as being a “pastoral mission”. Obviously I denied that flatly (and probably three times…) before taking stock and realising that yes, I did rather regard it as that.

It’s a sadness to me that, with the AoL takeover of Compuserve and the opening of all the former forums to the world at large rather than Compuserve subscribers, plus the general development of the internet, the Religion Forum essentially died as a location for serious (but relatively polite) religious discussion. It still exists, but is a pale shadow of its former self.

I then suffered some personal trials and tribulations, which left me with PTSD, chronic depression and chronic anxiety; this took me to a positively suicidal state – and, among other things, the slide into full blown depression revealed to me that my contemplative techniques had stopped working for me, and I was no longer able to give myself a contemplative boost to deal with life’s problems (I had, clearly, been using contemplation more as a therapeutic technique and an “intuition pump” than as a purely spiritual practice for some time by then). I also made the huge mistake of self-medicating with alcohol – medicating depression and anxiety with a depressive drug which produces anxiety when you stop taking it is quite obviously totally insane, but there you are… In all, the descent into full blown depression and the climb out again took 17 years.

I’d like to be able to say that meditation and contemplation dug me out of that particular pit, but it was a lot of hard work with the support and structure of a twelve step fellowship, and the ability actually to have some feeling of connection from contemplation had to wait until a change of medication (my best guess as to the “why”) gave me the first moments of happiness for years – in point of fact, I was manic (although it was a well-contolled manic) for twelve days. My twelve-step friends argue that the lifting of the depression was the result of twelve step; my friends in an evangelical Anglican church at which I’d just been invited to help with Alpha courses said it was due to throwing myself into another form of church work. (My involvement there was the result of my attending some talks at the church and demonstrating that I could ask very awkward questions – to their credit, the church thought that having a contrary opinion present and indeed helping at Alpha would be good for the quality of discussion, and I of course had by then a lot of experience of such discussions!).

During that manic fortnight, I realised that the sense of connection which I’d been lacking for years was back – and I resolved that I wouldn’t take mystical experience for granted any more, and that I’d back that up by going to church again – which I could suddenly manage to do again; for years, churches were by far too crowded for me to be able to support staying there for a full service (an effect of anxiety).

In the meantime, when I managed to start returning to something like normality, the former sponsor of the Compuserve Religion Forum Christianity section asked me if I’d like to do a bit of proofreading to keep my brain working. So I did that – and found myself unable to resist pointing out things which might improve the manuscripts. Thus I became an associate editor, then editor and now “editor in chief” for Energion Publications, and, in the process, found myself writing and publishing a book… which stemmed from Henry at Energion encouraging me to blog and hosting the site which this blog is at.

What was the background reading? Well, I liked pretty much everything I read by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, and Ed Sanders and Daniel Boyarin gave me some extremely valuable insights into the development of Christianity from its Jewish roots (which were very helpful when dealing with Jewish incursions on the Religion Forum); Daniel Kirk’s “A Man Attested by God” was also helpful. Homebrewed Christianity was a hugely useful source of introductions (some of them relatively heavyweight) to a number of currents in recent theology along the way. Richard Beck’s Experimental Theology blog introduced me among others to John Caputo, who is somewhere in the radical end of current theology (and Richard’s book “Unclean” is a splendid exploration of the idea of purity in Christianity). Through him I found Douglas Campbell’s astonishing but exceptionally heavyweight “The Deliverance of God”, which cast Paul’s thinking on justification in an entirely new light for me, and Walter Wink’s “Powers” trilogy, which did much the same for talk in the New Testament of “powers and principalities”.

Some years ago I was asked, after writing a blogpost titled “The heresy of all doctrines…” if I was a follower of Peter Rollins. “Peter who?” I replied – and it seemed that my title was a little reminiscent of some of his (for instance, “The Fidelity of Betrayal” and “The Idolatry of God”. And so began a following of Pete’s work which has taken me to see him (and meet him) at Lincoln, and then to two Wake festivals – I’ve paid for next year’s as well. Pete is definitely in the radical theology tradition, which is almost all “death of God” theology.

I’ve been called a “radical theologian” a few times, but I don’t think the label really fits, given that the only way I can really accept “death of God” theology is in the sense that the childhood picture of an intervening God is dead for me, and the term “radical theology” seems reserved for those who go further with “death of God” (such as Rollins and Caputo) than I can do myself. What I think I am is a speculative theologian and a constructive theologian. I appreciate other speculative theologies like those of Rollins and Caputo without necessarily subscribing to them wholeheartedly. In the course of this, I’ve tried to come to a new appreciation of Christian doctrines from my own perspective, which is of course heavily influenced by my mysticism and by my basic scientific rationalism; my book on the Trinity is one part of that, and if you go through my other blog posts, you’ll find most of the main doctrines dealt with – and largely reinterpreted (the Fall, for instance). Some might say “radically reinterpreted”, which is no doubt where the tag comes from.

This is a work in progress, though. My next book will be an examination of the concept of the Logos – a whole book based on what, in English, is the sixth word of the Fourth Gospel (fifth in French, fourth in Latin…). After that, I’m thinking of expanding my “System of Satan” post into a whole book. Watch this space!

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