A Non-Spiritual Explanation for Spiritual Experiences

One of my favorite contemporary thinkers is a guy named Jordan Peterson. He’s mostly a psychologist and deals with a lot of work around “Archetypes”. Throughout our human evolution we have noticed characteristic patterns, and group those together into abstract mental images. So like when I say, The Trickster, you intuitively think of a set of characteristics that make up this archetype. Be it lying, stealing, joking around, etc. The evolutionary aspect is very important here. Not only have we evolved to understand archetypes of people but archetypes of events (birth, death, etc), and archetypes of myths, narratives and symbols (resurrection, The Hero’s Journey, lions as a symbol for strength, etc). Deep in out psychology there are “spiritual” symbols and experiences waiting to be tapped into when the moment is right. I don’t mean these things are ideas shared from a god or whatever. They can have purely physical explanations. One example Peterson brings up, is the commonality of symbols in ancient religions all around the world. Both European and South Americans cultures shared the symbol of a tree connecting heaven and earth, with a snake circling around it. Sometimes this included a hell aspect below the tree. The easiest explanation is to consider that most of our evolutionary history was literally that. Our ancestors lived in trees. The heaven of sorts was near the top of the tree. That’s where all the socialization and eating happened. With the ground of the tree being the dangerous place filled with snakes and lions. You can see how generations of animals evolving in these situations would start to develop these archetypal associations. The early animals that survived would have to have had instincts deep down inside them, that made them see the tree as good and the snakes below as risks. Any animal that didn’t would have been bread out of the gene pool pretty quick. These instincts would have obviously stuck around in our evolution. They become more of an abstract association. You don’t need to be presented with a reason for thinking of the world as a tree connected to heaven and hell. You just have to have the subconscious instincts. This offers up a pretty thorough explanation for a lot of spiritual phenomenon. When people enter into hallucinations, they often see the same symbols and archetypes as other people. Not because there are literal demons and ghosts to see. More because these ideas are deep in our psyche and can come out at times when they are triggered.
How exactly we trigger these spiritual things to come out is important to address. The human mind is very complex and still misunderstood. However I have some personal experiences and ideas that might help us flesh this out. I’ve had sessions of prayer that were so moving and powerful that it could be explained as spiritual. Moments that brought me to tears. I don’t think it was because I was actually interacting with God. A more simple explanation would be to write it off as just normal brain chemistry interactions. These moments only ever happened when there was psychological priming. It could be a lack of sleep from staying up late at night, causing my brain to amplify my emotions and induce minor hallucinations. If I already believe (and i did at the time) that God exists and that I’m interacting with him, then it makes sense that in a vulnerable mental state, I start to fill in the gaps of my experience with my assumptions on God. I’ve noticed too, that often spiritual experiences happen in spiritual places while doing spiritual things. Maybe you’re listening to a great worship song that is touching you deeply. You zone out into this song. You dance wildly, spinning in circles and doing repetitive, almost animalistic actions. Or maybe in a more traditional church you find yourself standing up and sitting down in rapid succession. What if these are the exact things that prime us to have intense feelings of being possessed by the holy spirit? Cults are well aware that they can trick people by psychological priming them to have spiritual experiences. In the 80’s there was a cult that almost took over a huge voting block in Oregon. The Rajneeshpuram. There’s a Netflix doc on this. It’s great and worth watching. The videos of their initiation process show people dancing wildly, screaming, singing and spinning in circles. This lowered a lot of their psychological barricades. Weakening the mind’s ability to tell fact from fiction. If followed by a sermon like lecture from a charming and wise old man, it makes sense were a defenseless mind might start to believe nearly anything said.
The mind is so sensitive. Even the chemical interaction of what food you eat that day, can have notable impacts on your psyche. Drugs like DMT can induce amazingly visual hallucinations tapping into the dreaming parts of your brain. Ingesting chemicals can be a simple explanation for a lot of spiritual phenomenon. If you dig around demonology reports, drugs are extremely common. People attempting to summon a demon almost always have ingested some sort of drug first.
If we can explain away an experience with basic psychology, why bother to complicate our metaphysics with things like gods and ghosts? With all these insights, it’s hard to see where there’s room left for legitimately spiritual experiences. When you have a spiritual experience, remain skeptical. Do no attribute to a God what could be easily explained with simple psychology.

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What Nietzsche Meant by “God is Dead”

“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? “

Few quotes in Philosophy have been as controversial as Nietzsche’s declaration that “God is dead”. Few quotes have been just as misunderstood.

In popular culture the phrase is often mistaken as an anti-Christian statement. Some sort of declaration of Atheism. This is most obviously manifested in Christian content like the film God’s Not Dead. In the movie, a disgruntled atheist professor demands his students declare the death of God and embrace atheism.

At first glance it could be understood why this is a popular Interpretation. “God is dead”, is a pretty bold statement that seems to be offering an anti-Christian message. This is pretty far from the truth though.

The line is part of The Parable of the Madman a section from Nietzsche’s The Gay Science. It depicts a maddened individual running around a village asking where he can find God only to declare that God must be dead. In his ever creative style Nietzsche is using this madman as an outlet to explore an idea. Particularly he’s interested in the shifting values of European culture during his lifetime.

Nietzsche saw Europe was slowly transitioning into a sort of cultural Nihilism. As advancements in science and technology lead to more and more questioning of the status quo, Philosophical values were beginning to shift. What Nietzsche is getting at here isn’t a declaration of the truth value of Christianity. In fact truth is a topic Nietzsche is extremely critical of. Instead he’s pointing out the weakening of Christian influences on society.

It might come to a surprise to some but Nietzsche didn’t really see this has a positive thing. In fact the anxiety of the madman reflects well on Nietzsche’s feeling towards evolving culture. He was actually fearful of losing Christianity as the dominant Philosophy. Even though he was extremely critical of it, he recognized how Christianity was very good at maintaining peace among the masses. It gave people purpose, kept them focused and mostly non violent. He was concerned that absent of Christian values there would be mass nihilism. Mass nihilism that could totally destroy Western Civilization and potentially lead it into chaos.

This fear of popular nihilism is actually a pretty common theme for Nietzsche’s work. A big focus of his philosophy was trying to find solutions for getting past nihilism. Finding ways for individuals and society to not get trapped by a lack of truth and meaning but to use it as a springboard into a more empowering lifestyle.

Nietzsche is extremely critical of Christianity but to take “God is Dead” as a sort of atheist statement is just wrong. Nietzsche is one of those thinkers that is easy to misunderstand and take out of context but hopefully this clears things up. “God is Dead” simply means “The Christian god is becoming increasingly irrelevant to philosophy and culture”. 

Religion: Killing yourself with prayer

Religion: Killing yourself with prayer

I want to stress I got a lot of great things out my fling with religion, especially some great friends and a lot of under the table style hedonism.

There were a few years of my youth that religion, particularly episcopalian Christianity, played a role in my moral compass and decision making.  My understanding of how one should act, especially as a young man was dictated by readings of Christianity. One of the most horrible skills I ever learned while religious was how to repress my desires and emotions.

There was a bible verse that really stood out to my young puberty-ridden mind, Matthew 5:28:  “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart”, naturally at the time I was just learning to explore my sexuality, though, this brought me great grief. Many a night did I lay in bed, only to catch myself thinking impure thoughts which I would pray away. “Dear lord please help me stop having these thoughts, dear lord please help me stop having these thoughts” again and again and again, until I would cry myself to sleep from existential guilt.

Religion teaches this horrible skill of repression, take your natural desires, your natural passions and interest, and kill them with God. Pray them away until those thoughts are gone and you are no longer your authentic self but you are a mindless childlike servant to your church, your family, and your god.

This idea of repression of the self is central to Christianity and most religions. Angry and want revenge? No, you must learn to repress your desire and give into mercy. Not comfortable with monogamy and want to have an alternative relationship? No, you must fight these sexual perversions and never have sex out of heterosexual wedlock. Dissatisfied with your job? Don’t you dare think of getting rich, pray your dissatisfaction away and embrace meekness. The things that make the individual authentic and unique are to repressed in the name of purity. In order to love God fully, you must philosophically kill yourself.

It’s okay to be yourself regardless of what the God-Man says. The good aspects of religion are not worth the psychological damage you can cause yourself. If you have desires, don’t repress them, don’t kill your self with prayer, embrace them, be authentic.