tl/dr: This article
- summarizes what is known about ecstatic and mystical experiences,
- argues that in order to end (supernaturalist) religion, it is necessary to have a nonreligious appreciation of these experiences and
- claims these experiences have specific advantageous effects that make them worth having for atheists.
It also contains sex, drugs and Sufi whirling.
Atheism is winning. Maybe not as a positive movement – but the realization there’s nothing worth calling a god, and all religions are therefore deceptions, has finally, after thousands of years, gone mainstream. Worldwide, all religions are currently in crisis and have trouble finding new adherents, especially among the young and highly informed. The number of new religious movements is dropping. The members of strict religious institutions like monasteries and celibate priesthoods are aging and dwindling in number. There are local exceptions (especially around Islam) but the picture is clear. Overall, religions have significantly less influence than they had even a few decades ago, let alone in earlier times.
All of this is both undeniable and unsurprising. The religions were created in times of ignorance, lies and repression and are poorly adapted to this age of increasing education, transparency and human rights. One of their worst problems is that half of the world’s population can go on the Internet and find reasons to disbelieve their fairy-tales. And the remainder of the world’s population, the less informed, the less educated, where religion retains much more of a hold, is shrinking every day. Today, defenders of religions often prefer to completely avoid the question of whether their supernatural entities actually exist in any tangible sense, because that is a discussion that religion loses every time. That does not mean atheism has won, but it does mean atheists should start planning their endgame.
The various religions have accumulated enormous amounts of resources. Their financial, organizational, cultural and reputational wealth makes them resilient institutions. They are declining, but they are far from dead. This leaves time to many reformers who invent adaptations to the new environment because they hope to inherit their religions’ enormous amounts of resources. So all religions now have more vocal reformers than they have had at any time in history except during their worst crises.
“Religion has changed more in the past hundred years than in the previous two thousand.”
― Daniel Dennett
However, religions are not agile institutions. Unlike reforms in other institutions, religious reforms cannot simply justify themselves by effectiveness. They also need to pretend the new way is really how it was always supposed to be. Any religious reform faces opposition from old-timers in various positions of power who will never quit because they never learned a real job. Religious reform can only happen one funeral at a time. Everywhere that religion competes with non-religious institutions (with the entertainment industry on what to do Sunday morning, with the education and health systems on education and health, with the tourism industry on pilgrimages etc.) it is losing ground because it is being out-innovated.
Therefore, in the long term, what religion needs in order to survive is a unique function that cannot be replaced by secular alternatives. Most atheists accept that in order to end religion it needs to be replaced. It is worth pointing out that this replacement has to be complete. Otherwise religions will simply do what they have been doing: retreat into increasingly obscure niches and take with them the enormous resources that they accumulated back when they wielded much more responsibility and power.
So those who want religion to be ended entirely will need to deny it any unique function it could retreat to.
There’s one unique function of religion that gets little attention, and it is this: religion provides a non-pathologizing language for experiences of ecstasy. Atheism does not have anything to replace that, yet. I will now attempt to persuade you that this gap is worth filling. In order to do that I should probably first explain the phenomenon, because it is fairly obscure outside the psychology of religion, the field in which I got an MA degree.
What is ecstasy?
“Occasionally in life there are those moments of unutterable fulfillment which cannot be completely explained by those symbols called words. Their meanings can only be articulated by the inaudible language of the heart.” ― Martin Luther King Jr.
The ancient Greeks, authors of arguably the earliest works of comparative religion that survive today, spoke of mental states of ἔκστασις, ék-stasis, meaning mental states of being “outside oneself”. They seem to have referred to states of mania or trance, of being “beside oneself” due to some type of religious fervor or possession. The pre-Christian Romans, comparatively sensible people by the standards of their age, translated ék-stasis into super-stitio, emphasizing the lack of connection to normal reality that is inherent to such states of consciousness. The early Christian theologians preferred to import the original term as ecstasis and used it approvingly to describe the visionary states of saints. And of course today the word gets used for many other things, like great joy, intense aesthetic appreciation or an illegal drug.
This kind of problem of terminology plagues the study of religion everywhere. All the central words, like “belief”, “supernatural” or even “religion”, lack consensus definitions, they are merely labels that people apply to each other. Principled understanding of how cognition handles concepts would be great, but calling your own religion “transcendental philosophy” and someone else’s “superstitious traditions” is way more fun, so everyone does that and the resulting confusion has been slowing down the scientific study of religion immensely.
“The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.” ― Meister Eckhart
So “ecstasy” doesn’t have a consensus definition that I could simply point to. But there does seem to be something real that it refers to, in that there is a real, somewhat specific cluster of experiences that human brains can produce. Certain sub-clusters of experiences, such as the postictal period after an epileptic seizure, or the possession (and often extreme drunkenness) of some participants in various African and Afro-American religions, may or may not be part of that cluster.
But a central case may serve to illustrate. Arguably because of the lingering influence of those early Christian theologians, one type of ecstasy has been lifted from theology and gradually fleshed out into a relatively well-defined psychological phenomenon: the mystical experience.
“I used unexpectedly to experience a consciousness of the presence of God, or such a kind that I could not possibly doubt that He was within me or that I was wholly engulfed in Him. This was in no sense a vision: I believe it is called mystical theology. The soul is suspended in such a way that it seems to be completely outside itself. The will loves; the memory, I think, is almost lost; while the understanding, I believe, thought it is not lost, does not reason—I mean that it does not work, but is amazed at the extent of all it can understand; for God wills it to realize that it understands nothing of what His Majesty represents to it.”
― Santa Teresa de Ávila
“Mystical experience” means a particular kind of personal experience of the divine, the infinite, the sacred, whatever that means in turn. The word gets used for particularly intense experiences that happen rarely. The usual way they are reported to happen, if they do, is either as a culmination of extended spiritual practices such as meditation, prayer or trance dancing, or when the same spiritual practices are done particularly whole-heartedly during times of intense personal crisis. Lots of people have speculated these experiences are central to the genesis of religions, and of intense religiosity, and have noted they seem to share certain similarities. These experiences are transient, extremely intense and defy description – although those who have them try to describe them anyway, lamenting the inadequacy of their words. The distinction between self and non-self gets lost, often leading to a feeling of being one with Everything or with Nothing or with God or stuff like that. Time and space may disappear or become meaningless. The experience feels extremely important, extremely real and extremely emotional, usually joyful or blissful. (Another possible reaction is anxiety, which Robert Sacco describes as a frequent feature of such experiences that only tends to be disregarded because “few people are tempted to interpret either anxiety or depression as providing insight into an ultimate reality”.) People who have them tend to be more religious after, in whatever religion they had before. But curiously, these similarities are found across religions, making it seem like there is a kind of “common core” to them. Mystics like to think this commonality proves there is an Actual Holy Thing that the different various religions get at in different ways.
“At the third stage of enlightenment, at the third step of Satori, our individual river flowing silently, suddenly reaches to the Ocean and becomes one with the Ocean. At the third Satori, the ego is lost, and there is Atma, pure being. You are, but without any boundaries. The river has become the Ocean, the Whole. It has become a vast emptiness, just like the pure sky. […] This is what tantra callas Mahamudra, the great orgasm, what Buddha calls Nirvana, what Lao Tzu calls Tao and what Jesus calls the kingdom of God. You have found the door to God. You have come home.”
― Swami Dhyan Giten
But obviously the commonality only proves that these experiences aren’t about the religions that claim them, but about the brains that have them.
Ralph W. Hood, working off an influential phenomenology by Walter Terence Stance, built a definition of these experiences that is detailed enough to support a psychological questionnaire which has, over the decades, been applied in various religions and cultures and does seem to support a “common core” to these experiences. (His questionnaire is relatively well validated, by the very low standards of the psychology of religion.) This research says there are eight phenomenological categories to mystical experiences and while not all need to be present, they tend to come as a package. The following is all quoted from Hood:
- Ego quality: Refers to the experience of a loss of sense of self while consciousness is nevertheless maintained. The loss of self is commonly experienced as an absorption into something greater than the mere empirical ego.
- Unifying quality: Refers to the experience of the multiplicity of objects of perception as nevertheless united. Everything is in fact perceived as “One.”
- Inner subjective quality: Refers to the perception of an inner subjectivity to all things, even those usually experienced in purely material forms.
- Temporal/ spatial quality: Refers to the temporal and spatial parameters of the experience. Essentially both time and space are modified with the extreme being one of an experience that is both “timeless” and “spaceless.”
- Noetic quality: Refers to the experience as a source of valid knowledge. Emphasis is on a nonrational, intuitive, insightful experience that is nevertheless recognized as not merely subjective.
- Ineffability: Refers to the impossibility of expressing the experience in conventional language. The experience simply cannot be put into words due to the nature of the experience itself and not to the linguistic capacity of the subject.
- Positive Affect: Refers to the positive affective quality of the experience. Typically the experience is of joy or blissful happiness.
- Religious Quality: Refers to the intrinsic sacredness of the experience. This includes feelings of mystery, awe, and reverence that may nevertheless be expressed independently of traditional religious language.
Or to use another quote for the “insider perspective”:
“When love reveals its real nature we come to know that there is neither lover nor Beloved. There is no one to pray and no one to pray to. We do not even know that we are lost; we return from these states of merging only knowing that we gave ourself and were taken. Our gift of ourself was accepted so completely that we knew nothing. We looked towards Him and He took us in His arms, embraced us in oneness, dissolved us in nearness. For so many years we cried to Him, we called to Him, and when He came the meeting was so intimate that we knew nothing.
But when we return from this merging of oneness, when the mind again surrounds us, we can see the footprints that led us to this shore, to the place where the two worlds meet.”
― Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee
Again, this does not describe all experiences that might be called ecstasy. It is merely one relatively well-defined subtype, one thing that evidently occasionally happens to people, that if you’re trying to replace religion entirely you will have to somehow account for. While different people mean different things when they say “ecstasy”, you’re not too wrong if you say “ecstasy is something roughly like mystical experience”. That’s how the word will be used below.
What is ecstasy to atheists?
Clearly these experiences are not the proof of religious truth that mystics would like them to be. Brains do all manner of weird things, so why would they not do this too?
The visions and realizations of ecstatic experiences can be compared with dreams. Dreams are hard to remember while ecstatic experiences are hard to verbalize, but both happen while normal functioning of the mind is suspended and both remix known ideas into fantastical and surreal new arrangements. The fact that ecstatic visions reinforce existing religious beliefs is no more surprising than the fact that figures encountered in dreams always speak the dreamer’s language.
The better comparison might not be dreams but psychosis. Schizophrenics report having lots of experiences that fit the bill. And if medieval mystics had these experiences, who is to say they were mentally healthy? Don’t monasteries look a lot like the assisted living facilities we have today?
This makes it tempting to disregard all such experiences as mere delusion or insanity. Just regard them as dangerous and avoid them. That is good enough for charismatic Christians who speak in tongues, and practitioners of Candomblé who are ridden by Orixás, when they need to denigrate each other’s ecstatic states. But from an atheist point of view, the delusional nature of these experiences is not what is interesting about them! From an atheist point of view, the idea that someone is One with God is simply false, but it is not even more false than the idea that Jesus was One with God. Someone who thinks angels watch over her because she has personally “felt” them to be there is wrong because there are no angels. But she isn’t any more wrong than she would be if she was merely indoctrinated to believe that angels watch over her. What is odd about these reports is not the falseness of the ideas they seem to confirm. It is their psychological peculiarity, how they’re so impressive to the people who have them and that they have in common the strange element of the self being gone or absorbed. Insofar as they have a special connection to religion, they are part of the problem, and that merits closer examination.
Closer examination has been done, and it disenchants ecstatic experiences further. It turns out they can, under specific circumstances, be produced by hallucinogenic drugs which (while held in deep reverence by a movement of enthusiastic adherents) are basically poisons. Drug-free practices that reportedly create these experiences, such as prolonged stays in absolute darkness, intense repetitive wordless dances, or extended meditation in motionless silence, have in common that they put the human brain into conditions where it was not evolved to function properly. Even ardent proponents of ecstatic experiences admit they make you pretty useless at cognitive tasks. And people with what are called “weak ego boundaries” are more likely to have them.
This makes it easy to frame these experiences not as a temporary gain of something extra and valuable, but as a temporary loss of certain mental faculties. Let’s use that perspective on the first six of those phenomenological categories of mystical experiences, the ones that are not just emotional.
- Ego quality: The brain normally maintains a distinction between self and non-self representations. A loss of sense of self means the mind is failing to make this distinction. Without that distinction, all perceptions and representations must be experienced as not distinct from the self. Hence the reported „absorption into something greater“.
- Unifying quality: In order to handle multiple representations, the brain creates distinctions between objects. (The number of distinctions it can create determines the number of objects it can hold in working memory.) An inability to do this would cause „the multiplicity of objects of perception“ to feel „united“. It follows that subjectively, „everything is One“.
- Inner subjective quality: One of the most important higher cognitive functions is the ability to determine whether a perceived object is an intentional agent. When in a mystical experience, „inner subjectivity“ is supposed to reside not just in people or animals, but in „all things“, this determination is malfunctioning. Errors in this cognitive process have already been argued, by Pascal Boyer, Scott Atran and others, to be central to the formation and maintenance of religious beliefs.
- Temporal/spatial quality: Memories and representations are organized in spatial and temporal relations that constitute a subjective spatial/temporal map. If subjective „time and space are modified“, this means malfunction of this organization of representations. The fully “timeless” and “spaceless” experience is a complete loss of this subjective map.
- Noetic quality: Any reasoning system must assess the probability of the representations it works with. This is required in order to decide between conflicting ideas and to build Bayesian networks wherein the probabilities of many pieces of information are correlated with each other to create a model of reality. A „nonrational“ experience of „ultimate reality“ that seems „valid“ and „not merely subjective“ is the logical result of a brain state where whatever is experienced seems absolutely true. The brain has temporarily lost the ability to doubt.
- Ineffability: The „impossibility of expressing the experience in conventional language“ is already a description of a loss of ability: language. However, the subject will typically ascribe this impossibility to „the nature of the experience itself“ rather than his or her loss of „linguistic capacity“. And mystics have spoken or written extensively about their experiences, while frequently denouncing their own words as inadequate. Therefore, what is absent here cannot be language itself, but maybe some preverbal processing of the experience?
People in mystical experiences do not lose their minds entirely: memory appears to work, they don’t lose perception or motor functioning. But their model of how the world works, of causality, of how things hang together, goes out the window. How can that be? The current best theory for that part of how the brain models the world is called predictive processing. It’s a bit complicated, but if you’re at all interested in how the mind works, you should definitely check it out. Luckily, the best blog in the world has a very accessible intro to it. As far as we know right now, that is roughly how the brain maps causality.
This mapping of causality happens to include all the faculties that seem to fail in mystical experiences. It distinguishes between self-caused and not self-caused actions (so you can’t tickle yourself). It distinguishes between objects that behave differently. It distinguishes between subjects and objects. It maps time and space. And it is all about calculating probabilities. Predictive processing looks like if it failed, that might feel just like how mystics describe their experience. The experience is absolute, because the brain cannot grasp how things relate to each other. The experience is incomparable, because the brain cannot compare. The experience is incomprehensible, because the brain cannot comprehend.
But why would the ability to (confidently) verbalize also fail at the same time as the model of causality? This is not in any description of predictive processing that I have read, but it makes sense with the hypothesis that the ability to model causality is intimately linked to the ability to handle grammar. Both grammar and models of causality have subjects and objects, both grammar and models of causality build relationships between distinct representations, both are recursive, both are skills where we’re way better than any other species. Both summarize large amounts of information into smaller, more highly structured representations. Two functions of the same brain that have such deep similarities should not be entirely independent of each other. So grammar should probably rely on predictive processing somehow, and in that case failures of predictive processing should feel impossible to summarize in words.
Even the two remaining phenomenological categories, the intense joy (or sometimes anxiety) and the feelings of awe and wonder, can work with the predictive processing framework. In that framework, the brain predicts the world in order to minimize surprise or novelty. If that process fails, the brain has to be flooded with surprise – and extreme joy or extreme anxiety is how we react to extreme surprise. Surprise is also very important to how the brain learns, so an experience of extreme surprise would have to feel extremely important. And that’s exactly what mystical experiences in particular, and ecstatic experiences in general, do: they feel extremely important.
What do you do when something extremely important happens to you that you cannot describe? Of course you look for a way to describe it, to make sense of what happened. And that’s where we get back to the point where religions provide a service that atheism doesn’t.
Why ecstasy needs atheism
If you’ve read this far, you’re probably not a religious person. But if you were, and if you had an experience roughly like what is described above, your religion would give you a language, a framework for understanding the experience. If you’re a Christian, the Holy Spirit moved you or you got a vision or a revelation or even the full unio mystica. If you’re a Muslim, Allah has graced you with jadhba or wajd. If you’re a Jew, you have seen one of the heavens between God and everyday reality, or even caught a glimpse of the throne of God. If you do Yoga, or one of the many Indian traditions we like to summarize as Hinduism, you have entered one of the various levels of dhyana or samadhi. If you’re a Buddhist, the levels of dhyana or samadhi are a bit different but there’s still some type of map to locate your experience on.
In all of these cases, there’s a long tradition and a big collection of books that tell you basically the same thing. They all say it isn’t quite describable in normal words, but then they all try anyway, using metaphor and poetry. That seems paradoxical, but it makes perfect sense. Compare descriptions of orgasm. They don’t replace the real thing, in fact they come nowhere close. But they still give you enough of a hint that when you actually have one, you recognize it from the description. And that tells you that whoever gave you the description has also felt what you have now felt. This gives legitimacy to the religious message that comes attached.
To brutally simplify, the message that religions give to people who had these experiences goes something like this: “Yes, you’re okay. You’re not crazy. That kind of thing is rare but it happens. It is a blessing or an accomplishment. And since you’re going to want to talk about it, please don’t go bother normal people but find a spiritual teacher who will guide you, and who will also reinforce the religion that your experience clearly proves is true.” Every bit of that may be wrong! But the fact all religions have evolved to broadly react that way at least proves this kind of message is well received.
Compared to that message what atheism has to offer. Atheists first of all do not seem to know what you’re talking about. (Even Richard Dawkins has said he imagines mystical experience as merely like feeling intense beauty.) So atheism offers only the language of pathology and the framework of mental illness. “Oh no. You might have had a psychotic break, hallucinations, or a mental breakdown… it is hard to tell, let’s just hope it doesn’t happen again. You brain is probably a bit broken but hey, here’s consolation: all brains are a bit broken. You probably have weak ego boundaries and are at risk of developing schizophrenia. If this worries you, talk to a doctor who will monitor you and might give you pills that change your brain and make it more normal.” Every bit of that may be right! But who wants to hear that? Even if a doctor is indeed better than a spiritual teacher, this is unkind, uninviting and scary. As a personal narrative for making sense of something really important that has happened to you, this just sucks.
And therefore, people who have these experiences understandably prefer religious perspectives. (Even the scientific study of these experiences is deeply influenced by religious, especially Buddhist, leanings.) This may be inevitable in most cases, as these experiences often happen in the context of spiritual practices that presuppose some religious worldview.
But there is the special case of people who take psychedelic drugs such as LSD. These arguably aren’t typical of ecstatic experiences overall, because they happen much more readily, but that also means they can happen to people who do not have a religious worldview that has words for it. There are well documented biographies of such people. Early vocal users of such drugs, like Alan Watts, Jack Kerouac, Aldous Huxley, Allen Ginsberg and Ram Dass ended up involved in Hindu and Buddhist traditions. They are only the tip of the iceberg, of course – the hippie who uses lots of borrowed religious symbolism is so clichéd as to be a trope. One especially beautiful and memorable example is Alex Grey, who paints mystical visions like this one:
This acrylic painting is called “Theologue – The Union of Human and Divine Consciousness Weaving the Fabric of Space and Time In Which the Self and Its Surroundings Are Embedded”. Alex Grey says he did not care for spirituality before he took LSD. So why did he put the seven chakras system into that picture? Because chakras are part of the language he has adopted to describe the “union of human and divine consciousness” that he has ecstatically felt.
But again, drugs are not the typical cause. This is not true of everybody, but for many people, intense spiritual practices like Sufi whirling, or mere prayer when done during times of deep crisis (when cognition is already strained) is enough to trigger ecstatic experiences. These are much harder to study, because unlike drugs that you can study under lab conditions, drug-free ecstatic experiences are extremely personal and intimate. When people talk about them at all, they usually do it in confidence, or among fellow believers, or in anonymous surveys as done with Ralph Hood’s aforementioned scale. Still, in private, every religion has some adherents who have had deeply meaningful experiences where they felt fictional “supernatural” forces really talking to them, and who therefore are more deeply spiritual, easily fall into prayer or into a feeling of presence of some forces, really mean it when they say their faith is essential to who they are. You can say they have weak ego boundaries or schizotypal personality disorder or something, but if you want the world to make religion history, all of these people need to find a home in atheism.
For all of these reasons, an atheist framework for ecstatic experiences would be a useful thing to have. People will continue to have these experiences. Many are having them right this second. They should not need to descend into super-stitio to understand their ek-stasis.
And they actually don’t need to! Even without invoking any supernatural concepts at all, and without any use of drugs, the mystical idea that all of us are one is… actually… technically… correct. In at least seven different ways.
- We are one because we are made of nothing but exactly the same stardust, produced by the same stars from the same matter made in the same Big Bang.
- We are one because we are built from the same chemistry, from a vast network of interconnected processes that build upon each other to produce marvels such as us.
- We are one because we are all branches of the same evolving tree of life.
- We are one because we work together to create a global society that allows us to rise above the endless war of other animals.
- We are one because we are the voices in a single, ongoing, global conversation that has been producing the knowledge in which we recognize ourselves.
- We are one because our process for understanding the world, science, is a single thing we all do and use together, just like in our brains many neurons construct an understanding together.
- We are one because who we really are, who is having this conscious experience, cannot be the individual selves who we merely think into being as part of our predictive processing, because we can be conscious without those. What remains to be having the experience is what is actually producing it. And this experience is being produced by everything: by cognition, by culture, by society, by biology, by chemistry, by physics all the way back to the big bang. And those are identical for all of us.
“We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”
― Carl Sagan
Of course this is merely one point of view. From another point of view, we are many, and that’s just as true. There are lots of important differences between each of us that it would be stupid to deny. Putting the individual front and center has been a massive improvement to our philosophies and cultures, and hugely successful in making the world better. All of that stays exactly the same, because the idea that “we all are one” does not actually, in itself, claim or deny anything. It is purely a shift in perspective, a different level of abstraction. Just like “we are made of biological processes” does not deny that we are made of atoms – both are true, at different levels of abstraction.
And if the above ways that we are one also sound rather abstract right now: fine. Abstraction lets you check if it seems to make sense, lets you toy with a different perspective. It will be less visceral than a full-on experience of this type, but human minds have this unique ability to re-cast perceptions into different perspectives and that helps you here. Perhaps you can try to imagine what it would be like… for your individual self to be merely a mask that the physical universe that lives you has put on? To feel you really are all that has been creating that mask, and your individual self is merely playing a role? To feel others are other masks of the same universe, so they’re also faces of you? To feel that every conversation is really you talking to yourself, using many minds and mouths to figure out bigger things? To feel we’re like body parts of the only life form on this planet? Again, these are just words, they’re like describing an orgasm, it comes nowhere near the real thing. But it gives you a hint.
So when people actually do have ecstatic experiences, then awareness of these ways we really are one can help them have an idea what is happening. That could tell them they’re okay, they’re not crazy, they just have briefly interrupted the self-thought that usually goes on in everyone’s brain. They have just felt a glimpse of the infinite, eternal, overwhelming vastness that actually truly is behind everything that is happening: the physical universe.
If this was just a coping mechanism, a tool to deal with the type of brain failure that we call mystical experience, that’d be enough. But it can be more than that.
Why atheists need ecstasy
The various religions that have evolved similar ways to handle ecstatic experiences also broadly agree that although they can be dangerous, if handled correctly they are generally good. So many, but not all, religions proceed to suggest methods for having more of these experiences, or claim that it is possible to attain special states of consciousness where these experiences are more permanent. Examples are moksha and its various subtypes in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, kenosis in the Orthodox church, kenshō in Zen or kevala jñāna in Jainism. These have been broadly summarized as states of “enlightenment”, but although they might have in common some type of euphoric depersonalization they are too poorly understood to be sure they’re all basically the same thing. But they do have in common that they confer special high status within their religions, i.e. religions encourage that kind of thing.
Of course the religious idea that these experiences and states are good might be disingenuous. Religions take damage when confronted by reason, so the religions might simply benefit from the reduction or collapse of reason that ecstatic experiences entail, and recommend them only for that. Or if people are shaken by these experiences, maybe that is merely useful because it provides an opportunity for further indoctrination. But there are several reasons to believe these experiences might actually have positive value even from an atheist point of view.
First of all, they make you feel intensely connected to something much bigger than you and that creates a strong sense of belonging, of counting, of “being on the team”. This is particularly useful in modern western societies, where people are more lonely than ever before and this is part of the reason for rising rates of depression and anxiety. Especially for atheists who don’t even have the community of church.
Secondly, they make you Think Big and judge actions not only by what they do for yourself or your friends, but for the wider, even global community. It makes a lot of small-scale conflicts over resources seem a bit petty and provincial – inevitable, given our evolutionary past, but more like misunderstandings than like existential conflicts. They make it easy and obvious to prioritize the common good more highly. That’s clearly a good thing.
Thirdly, self-knowledge has been a central aim of philosophies and spiritualities since at least, again, the ancient Greeks who commanded Γνῶθι σεαυτόν, gnothi seauton, “know thyself”. Ecstatic experiences do not definitively answer the question of who or what we are. But they do helpfully put into question some of the wrong answers that can hinder the pursuit of self-knowledge.
“One can discover that the sense of self—the sense that there is a thinker behind one’s thoughts, an experiencer amid the flow of experience—is an illusion. The feeling that we call “I” is itself the product of thought.”
— Sam Harris
This next one is more specific to this way of framing ecstatic experiences and is absent from religious ones: if you think on the scale of the universe, it is deeply striking how much of it appears to be going unused, how many resources are pointlessly burning away in the dark. The universe is asleep. But on this one planet, life is beginning to organize, knowledge is beginning to be created, the universe is beginning to wake up. We have found no other life, so we might be the only ones who can begin to awaken the rest of this universe. We have a gift to give.
And exactly because there are no gods, no higher forces that will intervene if we fail, no species ready to do a better job if humans die out, it is up to us. We’re up. We alone are responsible for the fate of this world and all the worlds we can settle. That’s a thing we can know in the abstract, but a personal experience of it can create a more profound awareness of this fact.
On a more prosaic note, a deep feeling of connection to the physical universe makes the universe more fascinating. It motivates exactly the kind of detailed study of how things actually work that is the driver of science and the enemy of religion. Having more of that has to be, from an atheist point of view, clearly a good thing.
For all of these reasons, this is the main purpose of the Seven Secular Sermons. They’re supposed to share an ecstatic description of our awesome universe. They are in the form of a long meditation because that’s the kind of thing that sometimes triggers ecstatic experiences. And they describe the perspective of us all as one because that is a perspective worth taking, and because that kind of thing makes good poetry.
No doubt there are better ways to do this. This is very much a first shot at the problem of framing ecstatic experiences in an atheist fashion. But if you found the arguments above convincing, you will agree it is worth a try. Whether or not you agree, your feedback is welcome at email@example.com.