To (e)m, adding to the debate

Dear (e)m,

You are more than welcome. I have no intention of offending people on purpose and if my statements are taken in such a light it is my responsibility to sincerely apologize. You are quite correct in that I do encourage alternative viewpoints. Whether I agree with you or not is immaterial as long as we continue to add to the discussion in a civil manner. To belittle your beliefs or your life experience would be hateful in the extreme and I assure you I have the utmost respect for your opinion.

You have asked several very personal questions in your last response and I will gladly answer them here but I ask that you bear with me while I add a few notes to our discussion. To keep the length of this post somewhat manageable I will attempt to avoid rehashing material that we agree on. Yes, oh ye people of the blogosphere, it IS possible for an atheist and a theist to agree. GASP!

I would like to take a moment to address the use of pronouns when discussing God as you raised a very important point. I try not to use pronouns at all in reference to God but I find this difficult as the sentences do not always seem to flow properly. I suspect this is because we as humans relate to each other in large part based on our gender identity and writing about a being that does not possess gender identity of any kind is not the easiest proposition, at least for me. When I do use a pronoun I tend to gravitate toward S/he as my gender neutral pronoun of preference simply because I like the way it looks on the page and most people understand the concept with a minimum of explanation.

On the validity of ancient morals and philosophy we apparently disagree although I may not fully understand your reasoning. I will simply clarify my own opinion here and trust that you will educate me on your perspective in a future response. First, by studying the material written by philosophers who preceded us we can build on their knowledge, discounting what each of us finds to be irrelevant and using what does make sense as a basis for further growth. Philosophy is such a personal endeavor; it can be very difficult to fully appreciate another writer, particularly when you don’t agree with ninety-nine percent of what they have to say. It’s the other one percent that interests me.

You said that the older views on morality are useless, in particular the bible based views, but it is those same writings that gave us the essence of the ethic of reciprocity to which I wholly agree although I state it differently than the bible does for philosophical reasons of my own. Also, any directive which asks the reader to avoid killing is not useless, in my opinion. Yes, my friend, I am fully aware that people justify violence in the name of God every day and that the bible itself advocates both genocide and outright murder in the name of divine justice. It was one of the reasons I did not choose identify with the Christian or Jewish faiths when I was exploring religious practices and beliefs as a child, preferring instead to focus on the natural world and adopting a pagan worldview in the process.

People who identify with a specific religion but choose to speak and act in a manner completely opposite to the teachings of that religion disappoint me deeply. I despise hypocrisy in all forms. If you believe something to be true in principal then live by it. Many so called Christians provide a perfect example of this, to my way of thinking. Joshua of Nazareth taught that peace is preferable to all other states. If someone insults you, ignore the insult and instead choose to see them in the light of friendship. Do not judge others for their beliefs for only God can judge man. Hatred and murder is never justified from a true Christian perspective.  

Despite the fundamental teachings of Joshua’s ministry, many people claiming to be Christian tend to be the most vocal supporters for the death penalty, for violent retributive strikes against both real and perceived enemies of the state, and the most negatively judgmental people I have ever met. Is this consistent with what Joshua directed? No, it isn’t and I submit that such people are not truly Christian at all for they do not follow the teaching of their messiah. Not one bit. Better to call yourself agnostic in this instance and continue on whatever course you feel morally comfortable with while avoiding the involvement of religion at all. There is no excuse for hypocrisy.

At this point I would like to explain why I value our continued conversation. You see, in my experience it is unusual for an atheist to become involved in a religious conversation at this depth. Generally speaking, the only people interested in reading my material would be those who either already hold some form of spiritual belief or are curious about establishing a belief system. That you are obviously interested in learning about the theist perspective proves your willingness to expand your personal understanding of that viewpoint in the interest of intellectual communication despite the fact that it is highly unlikely you will ever agree with a position you find so very illogical. Additionally I find that your positive interaction shows you to be a person of character and I would like to thank you for your candor.

It seems that one area in which we apparently disagree most strenuously is where I hold people responsible for personal and substantial thinking.  You contend that survival is difficult for the poor and the disadvantaged, that proper education, medicine, social programs and healthy sexual education are necessary for the requirement of substantial thought. While I agree that these things are extremely important and in fact completely necessary on every level, I disagree that they are required for an individual to really think about the nature of reality and to take responsibility for their own opinions instead of believing everything they are told, particularly from both religious leaders and professional politicians who spin everything to show themselves in the most positive light if not outright lying to mislead the general public. I say question everything and decide for yourself what is factual.

I was raised extremely poor. Yes, I attended college but only because I qualified for extensive student loans. I have owned a quarter million dollar house in the suburbs of Chicago and made a fantastic salary and years later I survived on the streets of Los Angeles alone and homeless, relying on the charity of local soup kitchens to live because I had no resources and no chance of employment. Although I have been an upstanding member of my community for a good portion of my life, in my youth I made many mistakes and paid for those mistakes with a loss of personal freedom for a time. Recklessness and accidents have caused me to experience a grand total of eight separate near death experiences. I have been through several divorces because I am very hard to live with but I am now happily married with two wonderful kids, primarily because my wife puts up with my eccentricities or perhaps loves me because of those quirks.

We are, as individuals, entirely formed by our personal experiences and I freely admit that my life has been an emotional roller coaster. I value the suffering I have experienced because without it I would not be the man I am today and I rather like who I am. Does that make me sound pompous? Perhaps, but I feel it is necessary to love yourself before you can even begin to really love other people. Although I do not know which gender you identify with I can say honestly that I perceive you to be my brother or sister for whatever else you may label yourself, you are human and as such we are equal members of the same species.

Now, should I fall into the depths of despair and give up every time I find myself in an undesirable situation? If I did that I would have killed myself years ago. Yes, survival is hard, sometimes even nearly impossible, but I have found that when life is truly awful it allows us to take a good hard look at how we got to that point and necessitates an attempt at personal change if we are to continue to survive. It is those moments of total solitude under a tree in the park in a torrential downpour that allow for reflection, for introspection and yes, for philosophical growth if one can avoid the trap of feeling sorry for oneself to the exclusion of all other thoughts.

As the last few paragraphs indicate, I will be now be attempting to address those personal questions you sought answers to and by relaying my spiritual experience I will most likely be presenting myself in a delusional or mentally unstable light from your perspective and possibly from some theist positions as well. Although I don’t really like the idea of being relegated to the status of religious nutcase, I accept that this is perhaps unavoidable due to the supernatural nature of my own experiences and while I anticipate derision I steadfastly remain secure in my self-identity as a spiritual person despite what others may perceive me to be.

You are absolutely correct that I have in no way proven the existence of God through my writing. Such is not actually my intent as whether a person believes, at a basic level, in the existence of God does not influence my opinion of that person at all. I do not seek to convert others to my beliefs, as you know. If people choose to ask me questions about what I have experienced I am happy to answer them to the best of my ability but whether they believe me is not relevant. I am compelled to relay what I have been shown, what I perceive to be true and how people disseminate that is entirely up to them.

I became a pagan at an early age… I first identified with pagan beliefs somewhere in the age range of ten to twelve although memory fails as to the exact moment I made a conscious choice. If you were to apply a modern label to my beliefs, I guess you could call me a shamanic practitioner of sorts although I do incorporate many Wiccan beliefs in my worldview as my mother is Wiccan and she is primarily responsible for my introduction into metaphysical thinking.

The problem with spiritual experience is that it is by nature entirely anecdotal and does not satisfy the requirements of the scientific method but as you seem to express an interest in understanding why I feel as I do I will try to explain what I know to be true. My first personal experience with the existence of God was after I broke up with my first girlfriend. I think I was fourteen or fifteen at the time. I was devastated, inconsolable, lying on my bed sobbing for what seemed like forever. I cried out to God, asking why? Why did I have to feel this pain? If a God exists why can’t I see a sign? I begged for a sign to show me I wasn’t alone in my pain. Nothing happened.

I was despondent at that point and picked up a deck of cards, riffle shuffling them for a good while in an attempt to distract myself and decided to try to flip the cards one at a time into my wastepaper basket as an additional distraction. The first card was the ace of spades. No big deal right? The next was the two of spades. I was shocked when the next was the three of spades but figured it was coincidence. I then turned each card, one at a time, into a pile on my bed and every single card followed the numerical sequence through all four suits. I am not a mathematician but even I know the probability of this happening naturally is unimaginably remote. You are of course free to think I am a liar, that this never actually happened, but I know what I experienced and I took that to be a sign that God does in fact exist. Can I prove to you that I had this experience? Well no, of course not and if you don’t trust me, and you have no reason to, you also have no reason to believe me. But that doesn’t mean it did not occur. Humanity has grown so accustomed to dealing with lies to promote individual self-interest that truth is often ridiculed in favor of more comfortable thinking. Even I did not believe entirely at the time and my parents agreed to schedule a psychiatric evaluation at my request. The only thing I learned from the doctor was that I have what he deemed an “unhealthy interest” in Star Trek, bordering on the obsessive. Not much value there, obviously.

I won’t relay my near death experiences as you no doubt agree with the scientific theory that such experiences are the product of the distressed brain and are not spiritual in nature. I don’t think less of you for that but I see no reason to argue the point. I will say that over the years I have sought counseling at various points as my experiences have led me to question my own sanity and according to the doctors I do not suffer from any physical abnormality or mental disorder, nor do I have a brain tumor or other abnormality that would cause me to hallucinate or otherwise imagine the things I have experienced.

You have asked me how I know God exists when I can provide no evidence as proof.  You have also asked me to clarify what I mean when I talk about enlightenment as it pertains to the acknowledgment of ones relationship with the rest of the universe and by default to the being of God.  The answer is actually very simple although again I cannot prove it and therefore the natural assumption is to believe I am either delusional or a liar. I have seen God (hence the title of my blog). Not seen as in “he found that old time religion” if you’ll pardon the idiom, but rather as in Moses and the burning bush. I have been in the presence of God and I have communicated directly, face to face, with that being in a personal encounter what I perceive to be divine. No NDE, no intoxication, no sleep deprivation and I was not dreaming when this occurred.  

When I say that God ‘speaks’ in concepts, I mean what I say. God does not speak in words as I would define them but rather conveys a concept and leaves the interpretation up to you. Allow me to give an example. When God appeared to me I was terrified. I mean complete terror, as in prostrate to the floor please don’t kill me terror. And the best I can explain it is to say that in response, the feeling of complete peace flowed from the light. Shoot, it was the light. And I felt at one with that peace so completely that even the memory of my previous fear did not register consciously. I was, for that moment, in complete harmony with the universe and I choose to call this feeling enlightenment.

Based on the situation and the terror I was experiencing beforehand, could I then reasonably assume that God was telling me to ‘be at peace’? Could I take that thought further and say that God “said” ‘You do not need to fear me for I love you. Let me take away your fear and show you the meaning of peace’? I think that any of those assumptions could be held as accurate but the reality is that God did not convey language but simply immersed me completely in the concept of total peace in relation to the whole of existence. I can’t explain it any other way, which is why I maintain that language is inadequate as a means of conveying the truth of the experience.

So yes, when I reference the methodology of conceptualization I agree that this can be confusing to say the least but it does, to my mind, explain why there is such a disagreement as to the nature of God between the world’s main religions. You asked me which scripture I reference – well, all of them. Are they individually correct or inherently flawed? I would ask, why not both? My working theory is that every major spiritual movement is, at it’s very beginning, founded by an individual having a similar experience with God, achieving enlightenment, however you want to say it, and that the subsequent development of religious practices are an attempt to explain the original individual’s perception of God as a being.

I trust in my ability to discern fantasy from reality. I know what is right and wrong, or at least what I believe is right and wrong based on my own perspective. Do morality and ethics come from God? No, these things come from the minds of the men and women who find different situations to be morally acceptable based on what their society dictates to be proper. Religious practices and beliefs do impact the way society perceives moral obligation and ethical behavior but God personally has nothing to do with the establishment of such things. Morality is the province of humanity for we all have free will and God doesn’t get in the way.

Finally, you asked me if we assume that God exists and is the creator of the universe, how do I know that humanity is not the byproduct of something else God was trying to create and that we are not just utterly unimportant in the grand scheme. Well, I don’t. What you are describing is a firm deist position such as Thomas Jefferson held, and in fact many of America’s founding fathers were deist in belief. I can only relate how I feel based on my personal experience and I would say that if I was utterly unimportant to God, why then would God bother to show up in my living room in the first place.

I hope this letter has answered most of your questions (e)m. I look forward to your next response and expanding our conversation as I find your opinions and insights to be intellectually grounding. A good foundation in reason and logic is perhaps the best way to approach one’s daily life and I assure you if I could logically explain what I know to be true, or prove it using the scientific method I would do so but the fact is that I cannot and so the debate must continue. I wish you peace and much joy, my friend.

Sincerely,

William

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About William Knox

Rev. William Knox is the founder and current Chancellor of the Contemporary Pagan Alliance. Ordained in 1995 as an interfaith minister, he serves as senior priest at the Sanctuary of Light in Ravenswood,WV. and is an invested brother in the Shanddite Order of Pagan Secular Monks.
This entry was posted in Atheism, Equality, God, Inspiration, Peace, Philosophy, Religion, Spirituality and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to To (e)m, adding to the debate

  1. Allallt says:

    This post made for good reading, thank you for posting it. However, I do have one question and one point of contention.
    My first question relates to you choosing to adopt a Pagan worldview based on the violence of the Abrahamic texts: is that possible? You can prefer the Pagan worldview, of course. But can you actually think it true just because it is morally preferable?
    Secondly, I contend that a child does need to be conditioned to think critically. Psychologically speaking the things we are told by our parents at a young age are some of the hardest things to question; a friend of mine thinks the end of a banana is poisonous because of what her aunt told her, another friend believes his dad’s dietary advise despite evident to the contrary. Children absolutely need to be conditioned to question everything.

    • William says:

      Actually, I did not choose to identify as a pagan based on my disagreement with biblical philosophy. That disagreement came somewhat later in life as I explored the various historical translations of the texts in relation to actions taken by politicians using those texts to justify their actions. I am pagan primarily because I believe in a panentheistic viewpoint, by which I mean that I see Deity extant in every part of creation as well as independent from that creation on a conscious level. Every leaf, rock, stream, mountain and breeze contains the spirit of the divine, from my perspective. God is.

      When I mention my preference for the pagan version of the ethic of reciprocity I am referring to the phrase “harm none (including yourself) and do what you will”. This is our version of the biblical golden rule, which is usually stated thus: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. I disagree with the biblical version on principal for it tells the reader that they can act toward others in the same way they themselves prefer but it does not take into account the other person’s wishes.

      Consider this: If I am angry and looking for a fight, I walk into a bar and single out a person to get into an argument with, even though they most likely want to be left alone. If there is nothing I would like better than for that person to take a swing at me, according to the golden rule as biblically stated, I would be philosophically justified in attacking that person first as that is the behavior I desire. It totally ignores the second party’s desires entirely. So, by simply saying ‘harm none’ and letting the rest take care of itself, we solve this problem. As to being morally preferable, that would be debatable in and of itself as in my view, what is held to be morally correct is decided by society as a group, not by a specific religious system, although certainly the predominant religion of any given culture does influence their ethical and moral norms to some degree.

      I wouldn’t consider your second point to be in contention with my statements. I agree with you one hundred percent that children should be conditioned to think critically and to research facts for themselves. Time and again I see people taking what they see on television or read in fictional books as verifiable fact, even when the statements made are clearly incorrect (I think American politicians count on this phenomenon to get elected).

      Certainly there is no shame in admitting to our children that we do not know the answer to a question they may have. If my son asks me something and I can’t answer because of my own ignorance I simply tell him I don’t know, but we can look into it together. Life is a learning process, by definition. When we stop learning we stagnate and falter in our purpose. Thank you for your reply. I hope I have answered your questions sufficiently 🙂

  2. (e)m says:

    “First, by studying the material written by philosophers who preceded us we can build on their knowledge, discounting what each of us finds to be irrelevant and using what does make sense as a basis for further growth. Philosophy is such a personal endeavor; it can be very difficult to fully appreciate another writer, particularly when you don’t agree with ninety-nine percent of what they have to say. It’s the other one percent that interests me.”

    Fair enough, but by saying that if you disagree with 99% of a writing and can get 1% out of it, can’t we also apply this to books that are universally recognized as evil and immoral. Even a stopped watch is right twice a day. What privileges religious texts over something else, especially when you are discarding 99% of it? And if you are discarding most of it, aren’t you just creating your own beliefs in some form of literary Rorschach and crediting the book that you have basically discarded?

    “Joshua of Nazareth taught that peace is preferable to all other states. If someone insults you, ignore the insult and instead choose to see them in the light of friendship. Do not judge others for their beliefs for only God can judge man. Hatred and murder is never justified from a true Christian perspective. ”

    Ahem, Jesus in Mathew 10:34-36 “10:34 Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. 10:35 For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. 10:36 And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household. ”

    I have more counter examples if you want them, that one just happens to be my favorite. Also, Jesus is the first person in the bible to introduce the concept of hell. Talk about immoral. No one, not even the worst sociopaths, deserve unending torture.

    “No, it isn’t and I submit that such people are not truly Christian at all for they do not follow the teaching of their messiah.”

    Actually, they just choose different passages to keep and discard then the ones that you do. The bible contains so many contradictions that in order to have a consistent world view, one must discard some passages and keep others. They are just as much Christians as the ones that you do like. The Christians that you do like ignore other passages, so if one side are hypocrites, then so are the other. But they are all True Christians.

    “Additionally I find that your positive interaction shows you to be a person of character and I would like to thank you for your candor.”

    No problem. This is your house, and I don’t want to be a rude guest.

    “I say question everything and decide for yourself what is factual.”

    Oh, I fully agree. That is what made me into an atheist. And a Liberal.

    “We are, as individuals, entirely formed by our personal experiences and I freely admit that my life has been an emotional roller coaster. I value the suffering I have experienced because without it I would not be the man I am today and I rather like who I am. Does that make me sound pompous?”

    Not at all. In fact, I understand where you are coming from. I hope to get to that point someday.

    “Although I do not know which gender you identify with I can say honestly that I perceive you to be my brother or sister for whatever else you may label yourself, you are human and as such we are equal members of the same species.”

    I’m a woman. You can call me Emily, Em, or (e)m. Since you read my blog, you might know that I was assigned male at birth, still present as male for the present, but that makes me no less of a woman. I just happen to be a trans woman. My pronouns are she/her. And thank you.

    “Such is not actually my intent as whether a person believes, at a basic level, in the existence of God does not influence my opinion of that person at all.”

    I agree. I don’t understand why someone would believe in a god that they cannot provide evidence for, but that is much less important than how they treat people.

    “I am not a mathematician but even I know the probability of this happening naturally is unimaginably remote.”

    Here’s the thing about probability, highly improbable things happen all the time. It is extremely improbable that they wouldn’t. Think about it this way. Something has a 9/10 chance of happening. Now replicate that experiment 10 times. What is the probability of that thing happening every time. 81/100. Try 20 times. The probability is approximately 12 percent, which is about the same as the improbable thing happening. Try 100 times. Try 1 million times. If something that was improbable didn’t happen, it would be improbable.

    “You are of course free to think I am a liar, that this never actually happened, but I know what I experienced and I took that to be a sign that God does in fact exist.”

    I don’t think you’re lying. I just don’t think that it is a sign.

    “I hope this letter has answered most of your questions (e)m.”

    Yep, even if I experienced what you experienced, I would be skeptical of my own experiences because I know how easy is for the senses to be fooled. I have had hallucinations that I thought were real, but the people I was with at the time can verify that they were not. I do find it intriguing how you have come to your position. And I don’t think that you are crazy. We have different standards of evidence. I still can’t quite comprehend how you can believe in something based on personal experience alone.

    “I wish you peace and much joy, my friend.”

    Thank you, William.

    ❤ Emily

  3. Despina says:

    Normally I do not read article on blogs, but I would like to say that this write-up very pressured me to try and do it! Your writing style has been surprised me. Thanks, quite great post.

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