Two summers ago I was sitting on my stoop and I noticed a cicada shell. When cicadas molt they leave an almost identical replica of their former body. Often when I see them, I’m reminded of a time when I was 8 and my best friend Sarah and I spent all weekend collecting cicada shells at her country house in Mississippi. They were everywhere, so we picked them up. Deciding what to do was easier then. But this time when I stared at the cicada shell I had this enormous feeling of love, connection, and presence well up inside of me like the moments before a downpour.
I had experienced this before, but never for such a flimsy reason as looking at an insect. What was different this time, though, was that I made a link between that experience and the existence of divine connection. In many ways, of course, it was not out of nowhere. I had been on a journey of dream exploration for about 3 years at that point. Through the guidance of my dream teacher Marc Bregman, my dreams helped me map out the territory of my psyche, drawing boundaries between feelings, reactions, projections, and true presence.
Through working dream images, I’d been able to momentarily experience the concepts of divine support and unconditional love. But actually developing a practice of faith was something different, something I had begun to feel I could only do for myself.
I had also attended retreats with some of Marc’s other students. Many of them spoke of a “Him”, presumably a reference to a God they seemed to have a personal relationship with. This terrified me. It sounded too similar to fundamentalist Christians I had come to despise for their harsh and judgmental attitudes. What had I gotten myself into? These people are crazy. Am I going to become crazy? And here I was, sitting on my stoop, looking at a rotting insect exoskeleton, experiencing something I could only think to call God.
I recently read Barbara Eirenreich’s book “Living With A Wild God”. In it, she describes some mystical experiences she had as a teenager and again later in life. Towards the end, she writes, “Do I believe that there exist invisible beings capable of making mental contact with us to produce what humans call mystical experiences? No, I believe nothing. Belief is intellectual surrender; ‘faith’ a state of willed self-delusion.” She ends the book asking scientists to invest more time into studies of psychic phenomena, presumably to confirm her experiences as real. I can’t help but feel implicated by her statement.
By feeling connected to God when I see a cicada shell, can I deny I am in some state of willed self-delusion? What would be the appropriate way to conceptualize my experience? What kind of objective evidence should I be waiting for to allow my experience to be real? Her book struck me as a modern example of the struggle between science and spirituality over the nature of reality. On one hand, her keenly scientific mind cannot bear to deny the reality of her experience—after all, her senses experienced it, which is the foundation of all empiricism. By the same token, the materialist worldview that has come to dominate the societal conception of what is real makes it difficult for Ms. Eirenreich to derive meaning from her experience.
I understand Ms. Eirenreich’s hesitancy to declare she has any faith or beliefs. Some of the most bigoted and vitriolic individuals in our country do their work supposedly in the name of faith. From the fundamentalist Christians picketing abortion clinics to mega-churches spewing hateful homophobic speech, it is incredibly painful to watch individuals insist upon their worldview so vehemently that they would hurt fellow humans rather than accept difference.
Rightfully, many have rebelled against this brand of religiosity, and the rebellion seems to have stuck. In a 2013 report, senior Pew researcher Greg Smith concluded that “Young people today are not only more religiously unaffiliated than their elders; they are also more religiously unaffiliated than previous generations of young people ever have been as far back as we can tell,” putting the figure near 30%. The movement in America against organized religion seems, at least in the younger generations, to be on an upswing.
Framing the conflict as a struggle between science and organized religion is overly simplistic, though. I contend that the true crux of the issue is about the degree to which we are willing to accept differing views of reality. By this measure, I would purport that it is those that hold a scientific-materialist worldview that have emerged with their own brand of fundamentalism, a vehemence about their own perspective that is causing the suffering of many.
This view contends that only things that can be scientifically proven to exist in the material world are real. Further, those that hold this worldview dominate the halls of power in our country, upholding a patronizing, oppressive, and soulless view of humanity that I contend is a core problem of our society.
In America, more often than not, what is considered intelligent is what can be objectively demonstrated through scientific study, data, and statistics. Usually, an even further leap is made, conflating what is considered intelligent with what is good and deserving of power. This over-simplification of human potential is insulting and oppressive. Individuals comfortable with expressing their ideas through scientific reasoning and rational logic feel justified patronizing and demonizing those who don’t.
Often those who assert the ‘data-driven’ perspective as superior simply dismiss those who disagree as they proceed to make decisions that directly effect the dismissed. This is demonstrated in so many aspects of our society: in schools, where students are evaluated and educated based on their test scores; in health care, where medical advice is dispensed predominately from the materialist perspective; in business, where decisions are made without consideration of numerous, often immeasurable externalities; in the justice system, where we are to assume that there is a logical and universal way that we can determine guilt or innocence; and in the media, where we are to take for granted that individuals are capable of providing an objective version of events.
These systems of power are upheld by the monopoly on reality and truth they cling to. As such, they are quick to deny the reality of an individual’s inner, subjective experience whenever it conflicts with their own narrative. Perspectives on reality that are rooted in deep feeling, intuition, imagination, creativity, or faith can be tolerated only to the extent that they admit they aren’t actually real. It is no mere coincidence that these perspectives are traditionally associated with the most oppressed and suppressed portions of our society – people of color, women, the poor, individuals with disabilities, children, and many others.
Take the mentally “ill” for example. In today’s fields of professional psychology and psychiatry, it is generally accepted that mental illness primarily has biological, material causes. As the logic goes, through enough scientific inquiry, we will develop the most effective ways to heal people. When in need of some kind of mental help, most folks seek the guidance of someone who was taught that the mind and consciousness are identical with the brain. They are often presented with some kind of diagnosis, a categorizing of their suffering, and then offered a variety of pharmaceutical means to address what ails them. Of course, many individual psychologists and counselors stray from this model. But the American Psychological Association, which determines who can be considered a professionally accredited practitioner, what the symptoms of mental illness are, and what appropriate treatment is for health insurance companies, maintains a basically materialist view of human psychology.
But what if the mind is not identical to the brain? This idea is actually a metaphysical worldview that is growing out of favor with philosophers. A major issue with the view is the “hard” problem of consciousness: if we know rocks are unconscious, and also understand that humans are made up of the same fundamental materials as rocks—how does something unconscious become conscious? This issue of consciousness does not prove that our brains and our minds are two different things. It simply points out that the theory of mind upheld by the professional institutions of psychology and psychiatry isn’t based on something particularly scientific, but rather on a fairly controversial theory about the nature of the mind and the brain.
Many who engage in advocacy for mental health fight for the right to understand their condition as a brain illness. I understand that this is a struggle that still goes on for many. But I would say in the most relevant arena, the ways the mentally ill are treated, the APA and their views on mental health dominate. This domination leads many who experience themselves and their condition in an alternative ways to feel ignored, hopeless, and alone. Their numerous stories and struggles with mainstream treatment options can be found on such sites as Mad in America and The Icarus Project.
I am not trying to argue for the end of psychology or psychiatry. I know that both fields have made incredible contributions and assisted in the healing of many. I understand how life-saving psychiatric medicine is for countless individuals. I know how important it can be to conceptualize feelings of hopelessness, anxiety, or numbness as an illness, something that needs to be healed rather than something that can just be shaken off. I wouldn’t dare deny the reality of any of these things, especially for those individuals who have personally experienced their healing power, because I know how dehumanizing and oppressive denying someone else’s inner reality can be.
I am simply calling for a more expansive definition of reality, one that can allow for differing views on human consciousness to be given the same legitimacy the materialist view has. By naming the experience I have when I stare at a cicada shell and feel deep, unconditional love the divine, do I live in a state of willed self-delusion? I couldn’t deny it. But why does that make it any less true?
When I feel unconditionally loved, I am given a sense of purpose and meaning that I can’t seem to find any other way. For me, that is a different sort of truth, a subjective, inner truth that is no less real than the objective truths all around us. As humans, we are forever stuck in our own perspective. I don’t believe we can ever have certainty about what the ‘real’ reality is. Isn’t it just a different kind of willed self-delusion that contends anything that cannot be demonstrated by science is unreal?
Haven’t we, as a society, suffered enough under this façade? At any given moment I can find a good reason to believe that this world is dominated by hate and evil and unaccountable violence. This is overwhelming, terrifying, and depressing. I have learned that in order to survive, I must cultivate my faith in the existence of unique, personal, and unconditional love and support available for every individual to personally experience at any time.
To heal, I understand that there is an aspect to my being that is immaterial and eternal, connecting me to a realm capable of transcending the realities of daily life on this planet. I have learned that it is vital for me to hold these beliefs in my heart, despite all material evidence to the contrary. I understand that all these beliefs are my own, and I would never expect others to share them. I simply desire that this form of truth–this inner, subjective, and utterly individual truth–that exists in some form or another within each of us, be given equivalent weight in our calculations of reality that the materialist view asserts.
Just last weekend I lay outside with my hand on my heart as the cicadas roared a cacophony of buzzes and pulses. I closed my eyes and tried to match the beat of my heart to the vibration of the insects outside of me, convinced that this would be the perfect ending to this piece—that the beat of my heart matches the beat around me, that we are all one. Instead I sat in awe, realizing that neither the beat of my own heart nor the insects around me were perfectly regular, let alone in sync with each other.
I laughed at my persistent efforts to identify predictable patterns from the irrationality latent in my experience. There’s a way that I know insects aren’t God any more than anything else is, and then there’s a way that insects being God is the deepest truth I know right now. I am convinced that holding this contradiction, allowing these conflicting realities to exist together, is the trick to fully living in the paradoxical, fundamentally chaotic, unquestionably beautiful mess the Dalai Lama calls a precious human life.
Image by USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab courtesy of Creative Commons license.