July 01, 2013
I’ve often wondered how people make the transition from one worldview to another. Atheists talk a lot about how they acquired their deep beliefs – often from a revulsion at the religiosity of their parents, or having once themselves been Christians or New Agers and become disillusioned. But what about people who go in the opposite direction?
Recently Bruce Siegel, who often comments here and in other forums, mentioned that he had once been a militant sceptic. So I took the opportunity to ask him about this, and he sent me the essay below. I found it most illuminating, and I hope you do too.
I’d be interested to hear from anyone else who has a similar story to tell. What changes a person from an angry denier of any spiritual dimension to human existence to one who accepts it as a fact of life? Is it being influenced by a particular book or author, or figure in one’s life? Or is it about having certain kinds of experiences?
Post a comment or get in touch!
I used to be a militant atheist and psi-skeptic. My parents are atheists as are many of my friends. I had very little exposure to religion or spirituality growing up.
I've always been a science geek and recently received my PhD in physics. I'd like to thank my undergraduate research advisor who was very clear in insisting that empirical evidence always trumps theory. I think that's what allowed me to break free.
I think the emotional attraction of atheism and skepticism for me was the excuse to feel smart. Though I have always done very, very well in school and went to prestigious universities, I've always felt I wasn't good enough. Skepticism was a way of proving my intellect to myself and to the world. Now I realize I was only proving my arrogance and ignorance.
Things changed when I stumbled upon some original parapsychology papers. Reading the actual original reports of psi experiments rather than only what the skeptics said about them forced me to abandon my position of psi denialism. Then the consistency of reports from NDEs and mediums forced me to back off from atheism into an agnostic position. I do not know for sure whether God exists or not or what exactly the afterlife may be like but I now realize that a position of dogmatic denial is neither rational nor scientific.
Posted by: Stephen | July 01, 2013 at 07:42 PM
Wonderful idea as a topic! I'd been to a few Society for Psychical Research meetings in the 1990's and then met Montague Keen and Arthur Ellison. They discussed the Scole investigations. Life-changing...
Posted by: Alan | July 01, 2013 at 08:43 PM
Certain kinds of experience, I would agree Robert, are vital to changing our worldview.
I think the change can be to the Up train if the critical experience is life-affirming; or to the Down train if it is not.
A lot is down to interpretation. If we think we see a new pattern in events, we believe in order and hope, and think it applies to us in our small lives. If a pattern that we thought was there is destroyed, apparently randomly, or even apparently viciously, we question our former naive beliefs and start to believe that we are not individually very important to the universe at all.
Posted by: Barbara | July 01, 2013 at 10:00 PM
I am curious about the response of non-spiritual family/friends to an individual's adopting spiritual beliefs.
I guess it would depend on how aggressive and dogmatic they are on their own position. Atheism is simply the lack of belief in Gods, so we can't assume that just because someone is an atheist, they will not believe in anything spiritual or paranormal. One can be an atheist and believe in the afterlife, spirits, psychics, mediums, magick, faeries, aliens, you name it. All that's required to be an atheist is the rejection of belief in any deities.
That said, many atheists these days also reject other spiritual beliefs. (Not all, though - I know atheists who believe in spirits and the afterlife and I know of atheists who are also practicing witches) - but it does seem that a lot of people who call themselves atheists are also philosophical materialists, which would mean they reject any and all spiritual views of reality, as well as paranormal phenomena.
So if an individual starts involving themselves in spirituality and a large portion of their immediate family/friends are dogmatic atheist materialists, I wonder how they react to their relative's/friend's differing beliefs and practices? We hear a lot about how someone's religious family treats a relative who adopts a different belief system, but I'm rather more curious about the former. I suspect that, in some cases, an individual adopting spiritual beliefs may be in for an unpleasant time, particularly if they have family and friends who are actively hostile to spirituality. I sometimes wonder how someone like, say, Richard Dawkins, would respond to his children if they decided to follow a religion or got interested in the paranormal or occultism? Would he be tolerant and accepting? Or would he be rude and judgmental?
Stephen, I hope I am not being too personal in asking this, but I am interested in the attitudes of your parents and friends towards your current approach to spirituality and psi. Are your parents/friends atheists who are open-minded to spirituality or are they dismissive of *everything* paranormal? Do you feel that you can be open with them about your views? Are they polite and respectful?
Posted by: Michelle Gibson | July 02, 2013 at 05:38 PM
After the loss of 2 of my 3 sons, I became kinda of atheist. After 3 or 4 years of zero interest on religious stuff I decided to open a site dedicated to all the parents who'd lost a child. In my initial intensions, I wanted to blame God -or whatever you want to call it-, but, while I was editing the first page I had a sort of "illumination"... Why not express gratitude to it? BTW I changed my mind and it's since the year 1999 that I'm helping people to cope with grief and the loss of their Loved Dead Ones.
Love, Light & Serenity to all of you.
Claudio (From Italy)
Posted by: CLAUDIO PISANI | July 02, 2013 at 09:53 PM
I became an atheist at 13 and was militant (insulting people on Internet forums) for several years. I got a dose of perspective by reading a book about Buddhism, and adopted a sociological view of religion after that, often trying out meditation.
It was the book Randi's Prize that helped me depart from materialism entirely. Up until I read it, I still thought the supernatural aspects of religion were simply a failure to explain material phenomena. Now I see there is a lot going on in the world that doesn't correspond to "skeptical" observations. The Traditionalist School refers to these things as "cracks in the great wall".
Posted by: Avery | July 03, 2013 at 11:58 PM
I am still afraid of telling my father. He gobbles up everything the militant atheists write and has a closed-minded view of science. But I am gathering up the scientific references I need to make my case.
My father believes in the technological Singularity; that people will soon upload their consciousnesses to computers within the next few decades. No matter that neuroscientists get more skeptical and pessimistic about this by the year. In the Singularity, dogmatic atheism has even adopted the idea of a silicon Heaven and a Rapture. It was only after giving up atheism that I've realized it's just another religion. It is very, very hard to challenge another person's deeply held religious beliefs. It is something I struggle with.
I am working on a psi-based invention as a hobby. I think that as practical applications of psi come into play the intellectual taboo on parapsychology will fall.
Posted by: Stephen | July 04, 2013 at 02:53 AM
"No such thing as Silicon Heaven? Then where do all the calculators go?"
(Sorry, couldn't resist the quotation from BBC's "Red Dwarf"!)
Posted by: Rupert McWiseman | July 04, 2013 at 08:22 AM
I would joke that sentient computer programs go to the Great Core Dump in the Sky when they die.
Sorry, I'm being very nerdy :). I saw "Red Dwarf" a few years ago and liked it a lot.
Posted by: Stephen | July 04, 2013 at 08:45 AM
One of my all-time favourite lines from the show was delivered by "Holly" the ship's computer (as portrayed by the lugubrious Norman Lovett). It could almost serve as the atheists' creed:
"Ship's log. As we travel through the vastness of space, it's becoming increasingly clear that we are all alone in a Godless, pointless, purposeless, violent, hostile universe...
Still, yer got to laugh, ain't yer?"
Posted by: Rupert McWiseman | July 04, 2013 at 01:35 PM
A minor, nearly pointless observation: the opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference.
The militant atheists who "hate" religious feeling or God, are often in a much closer relationship with the objects of their scorn than they imagine.
I suspect it is much harder to persuade someone who is indifferent to spiritual matters to become passionate.
Posted by: Tony M | July 04, 2013 at 07:27 PM
Stephen & Rupert, don't forget Zen, the ship's computer in Blakes 7, which had the deep thought: "Wisdom must be gathered, not given" and received this riposte from Avon: "Don't phlosophise at me, you electronic moron!" (bet that made the ZX Spectrum wince.)
Posted by: Barbara | July 04, 2013 at 08:19 PM
I can't say I was ever an "angry denier" or militant skeptic...but I certainly remember having a very different attitude in my teens and later than I do now.
I bought Randi's A-Z book on the paranormal and other "flim flam" and believed every word of it. It was the pleasure one gets from being in on the magician's secret....that combination of knowing how the trick is done making you more clever than the still ignorant gulls around you and the satisfaction of solving a mystery. But there was always something that bugged me even then...those subjects where he merely sneered and mocked at the very idea without actually specifying why. I wanted to know the why so I could quote it and it frustrated me that he omitted to tell me.
Overall I've always been a contrarian, or a Fortean....my attitude always defined in opposition to whatever was being suggested to me. If someone on a tv show about the paranormal was putting forward their tale of strange encounters or uncanny fortune tellers I'd sneer for England, finding fault in their story. Yet whenever the professional sceptic came on to give a counter argument I'd be practically shouting at the television in my annoyance that their explanation did not match the tale as told.
For a long time my position was one of smug neutrality, thinking the world was divided between those who believe anythign and those who believe nothing. And that the former were driven by a fear of oblivion and being alone in the universe, the latter a fear of living forever and being judged by some invisible overseer..
There was no specific turning point.. I've always been fixated with noticing and drawing attention to coincidences (I think I definitely have an overdeveloped sense of pattern spotting as I'm forever noting lookalikes and common connections between people too, however obscure) and they just began to mount and mount over the years, particularly between my thoughts and external events, with other unusual goings on along the way. So that eventually I had no doubt whatosever that mind and brain are not the same thing.. psi at least is real...and if the mind extends beyond the brain then it at least leaves open the door to the possibility of survival.
Still my resistance to individual claims continues.. if it happens to me, its' real. If it happens to you I'm less reluctant to see it as imagination and gullibility. And in terms of big subjects until a year ago I was absolutely of the opinion that whether there's life after death or not, so called mediums are all hams or deluded. My mind changed when Robert reviewed Ian Rubenstein's book about his experiences as a medium....I read the book and corresponded with Ian and had absolutely no doubt he was reporting sincerely and honestly...and as I accepted his reports as accurate then the implications were clear. Some people do get messages from the dead! Subsequently a lot of reading has served to cement that conviction and I'd now say I was 90% confident in survival. 100% in psi/the extended mind.
Now I'm undoubtedly fully on the side of the believers....though retaining enough inherent sneeriness to hopefully keep the silly or outlandish at bay.
Posted by: Lawrence B | July 06, 2013 at 12:06 PM
I used to be an atheist (3rd generation in my family), physicalist and philosophical materialist. I wasn't of the rude aggressive militant kind, rather completely indifferent to spirituality and absolutely persuaded that everybody having other beliefs was either deluded or a charlatan.
Then, a streak of events and bad choices in my life led me to conclude that there was something I didn't quite have understood. One year ago, at the right moment, I learned of meditation and that it is good for health, and begun to practice it, with intent and commitment as everything I do.
And god what a bizarre year! I never had expected all what I experienced. I have suffered indescribably. I have had medically incomprehensible "sicknesses", insights, god madness, realizations, visions, you name it. At a moment I developed a profound fear of getting mental and let me checked, it turns out that I am as sane as can be. Just a sane person with weird experiences.
It's only recently that I admitted that it's what is called "Kundalini rising" or "Ascension". I found the right group of people on the net to hang on with. I learned to understand and accept and the inner postures to let go of the transformative energy.
I have improved on every aspects, and developed mystic feelings. I feel enlightened and metaphysically liberated. Blessed.
My wife is a bit worried by my transformation because it's terra incognita for her, but love very much the new Syl - a lot more than the former since we were on the verge of separation and it's not in question anymore.
When I tried to share that with a good friend of several years, he became right out verbally aggressive.
It is important to note that I had zero prior knowledge or expectations, I built up understandings along. As it is said: "You get tested and while this you won't understand what happens".
As for parapsychology, I have taken on experimenting with macro-PK, not really believing it would work. Well, it does seem one can get anomalous physical effects. I now participate in a research group on the subject.
Posted by: Syl | July 07, 2013 at 10:21 PM
Syl said,"As for parapsychology, I have taken on experimenting with macro-PK",
Could you give details, if you don't mind of course?
Posted by: Llewellyn James | July 27, 2013 at 10:49 PM