Overweening Generalist

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Promiscuous Neurotheologist, Vol. 5 (or so)

I've recently immersed myself in the so-called New Atheism, trying to figure out some of the deeper structures, or at least some interesting tendrils, provocative musings, or pregnant metaphors. It's becoming evermore interesting, but I don't really want to blog about it here, now. I find offshoot hidden threads and want to bring them out in the open. If you're a believer, atheist, agnostic, Mormon, Discordian, Hindu, or a devout adherent of Bobby Henderson's Pastafarian The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or whatever, here I will talk of religious not-knowing, which seems underrated.

In the 1300s, an unknown Christian mystic wrote lines such as this, from The Cloud of Unknowing:

"And so I urge you, go after experience rather than knowledge...On account of pride, knowledge may often deceive you. Knowledge tends to breed conceit, but love builds. Knowledge is full of labor, but love rest."

This seems something like zen, or taoism, or some strain of Buddhism. Go after experience.

We can delve into the neuroscience of religious, mystical, or ecstatic experience, and find some relation to activity in the temporal lobe; we may look at dogmatic religious recitations and find other areas that light up on an fMRI. Of course. But what we all want is something like the experience, right? The dogma, the paint-by-numbers phoning-it-in generic "faith"may act as security blanket or allow the illusion you have Fire Insurance or a Free Get Out of Hell Card in your hip pocket, but deep down, don't we all know that's just bullshit?

"Oh yes! I tried to have a religious experience and nothing came, but I have faith that it will come, if I just keep praying and saying the right words." Yep. I hope it works for you eventually, but I won't hold my breath. Experience of something extraordinary and Other takes work, usually.

                                         A rendering of Rumi, who would qualify as one
                                         of Max Weber's "religious virtuosi."

The Negative Way, by Jalaluddin Rumi the Sufi
In the presence of the drunken Turk, the minstrel began to sing of the
  Covenant made in eternity between God and the soul.
"I know not whether Thou art a moon or an idol, I know not what
  Thou desirest of me,
I know not what service to do Thee, whether I should keep silence or
  express Thee in words.
'Tis marvelous that Thou art nigh unto me, yet where I am and where 
  Thou, I know not."
In this fashion he opened his lips, only to sing "I know not, I know not."
At last the Turk leaped up in a rage and threatened him with an iron 
"You crazy fool!," he cried. "Tell me something you know, and if you
  don't know, don't talk nonsense."
"Why all this palaver?" said the minstrel, "My meaning is occult."
Until you deny all else, the affirmation of God escapes you: I am deny-
  ing in order that you may find a way to affirm.
I play the tune of negation: when you die death will disclose the mystery ---
Not the death that takes you into the dark grave, but the death whereby
  you are transmuted and enter into the Light.
O Amir, wield the mace against yourself: shatter egoism to pieces!
-Rumi, 1207-1273, translation by R.A. Nicholson

                                                   Uncle Al, a Great Modernist

DIY Scientific Approaches to Religious Experience...
...Seem best developed by The Most Evil Man in the World, according the British press at the time of the Evil Man's flourishing. He died in 1947. His name: Aleister Crowley. I can't go into it here - and many of the readers of OG are probably ahead of me here anyway - but Crowley developed a dizzying array of methods of systematic Faith, then systematic Doubt, with much alteration between the two poles until Something New happened to one's organism: ecstatic experience. However, we must not "lust after results," and always note the findings of any experiment, even if unexciting. Keep a magickal diary. Most scientists toil in agonizing dead-ends, but their work is still valuable: they know what did not work after hypothesis X23 was creatively implemented into a testing procedure. Write up your findings. Note the amount of time put in, the conditions in the room, any unforeseen problems or effects. Note it all, and keep working at it. And my word: how much Crowley will have you work!

These are soldiers and hunchbacks: it seems we use them to get into extraordinary experience.

The thing is, and the reason I'm including Crowley here, after The Cloud of Unknowing and Rumi: Faith and Doubt are fine, but they only get you so far. If you want experience, that is. Use both Faith and Doubt as an means to an end: experience. Crowley sees Doubt as more powerful though, being trained in the Sciences:

I slept with Faith and found a corpse in my arms upon awakening; I drank and danced with Doubt all night and found her a virgin in the morning. -The Book of Lies

The following lines seem also to come very close to the spirit of the modern magickal mode:

We place no reliance
On Virgin or Pigeon
Our Method is Science
Our aim is Religion.

Chemical Means
You already know what to do, but please be careful. And you know what? You really ought to pay attention to the Law of all Pharmacology: your mental set and the setting in which you do your experiments really ought to be considered, deeply, before you go into it. With recent findings on the weirdness of the placebo effect, this Law probably holds even with aspirin. There are some Adepts who say one ought not take anything unless it's been used in a general population for a considerable amount of time; the species-wide knowledge of its effects are a hedge against a Very Bad Time. Other Adepts - often the same ones I just mentioned - urge the use of substances that have not passed through a pharmacy, but are biologically produced by Gaia, straight from Her to your nervous system.

Here I urge you to Know so that you will have an experience of Unknowing.

Non-Chemical Means
You do these all the time, but do your work in tuning into them on a much deeper level: music, breathing, doing math, reading Finnegans Wake, drumming, fancy bathing techniques, learning a new language, not speaking for three days. There are many ways up. I just now thought of our friend Douglas Rushkoff's first book, Stoned Free: How To Get High Without Drugs.

Why Neurotheology?
It seems true that all theology and atheology is better termed "neurotheology" and "neuroatheology." Why? Because we don't "know" for sure about God, Goddess, Gods, etc. Especially the Pope: he does not know. The Dalai Lama seems to know a bit more than the Pope, but who knows? We only know what impinges on our sensoria, and passes through and gets sifted by our nervous systems. Some of you assert you have "faith," which has always seemed to me oh-so appropriately a private affair.

I know, I know: you want to see infinity in a grain of sand. We all do. Let's get better at figuring out how. And share your work!


Oz Fritz said...

Really great blog! Lots of good advice. Thank-you.

"This seems something like zen, or taoism, or some strain of Buddhism. Go after experience"

Yes, it's what I call the gnostic approach to agnosticism. Experience = gnosis.

michael said...


The way you put it so simply: "the gnostic approach to agnosticism" seems to me THE biggest missing point in all the articles on young people identifying as "no religious affiliation" more than ever, acc. to a PEW research poll. And all the ink spilled over the New Atheism is understandable, but the frames still seem:

2.)Agnostic (often written of as "afraid" to commit to either Faith or Atheism, unfortunately)
3.) True Believer
4.) Nominally a believer, but attends religious gatherings for social reasons, 'cuz it's "good fer ya," etc.

You have to delve into the cool magazines and books to see anything like what you call the "gnostic approach to agnosticism."

And yes, I tend to agree with the semantics of Experience = gnosis. The Cloud of Unknowing says that knowledge is taxing; we're not talking about that type of "knowledge" here. (Although I seem happily addicted/in thrall to what's usually understood as "knowledge." And that may be why I seek the OTHER knowledge/gnosis.

When you respond here on this topic, I feel like the student responding to the Sensei.