Dr. Charles T. Tart on April 4th, 2013

 For many years now, most of the small number of professional scientists doing research work in parapsychology have kept in contact through an online discussion group.  Much of the discussion is technical, about the best way to do experiments, methodological criticisms or elaborations of them, possible interpretations of results in terms of psychology or physics, etc., but occasionally we branch into thinking about the meaning of parapsychological phenomena.  One of our more prominent members recently wrote that he notices a rift running through the discussion group when issues of spirituality versus materialism, or materialists and atheists, arise, and that this tends to inhibit open and honest discussion.  I think he is right, and that implicit issues here create confusion, not just among scientific parapsychologists but among people in general, so I want to share a few thoughts about atheism, spirituality, and parapsychology.  I write primarily from the perspective of a person who thinks scientific method has done an excellent job advancing knowledge in many areas, but please don’t assume I think that strict scientific method is the only way we can learn anything.

I thought my colleague did an admirable job in bringing up this issue in as rational a form as possible, but I think we should remember that rationality is only part of the picture when discussing things like spirituality, atheism and parapsychology, and our human emotions often push and twist behind the scenes.  To call someone an “atheist” is, for a lot of people, not simply a description of their theological beliefs, but a very negative characterization of atheists (irregardless of its truth value) and, insofar as people being called atheists pick up on this negative emotion, is taken as an attack and an insult.  I can recall when I was a child that the general assumption was that people who were atheists were quite rare, and probably evil people, Communists, or the like.  I don’t know that this assumption had much to do with reality, but that’s the way people thought then, and I think a lot of people still think that way.

So intellectually we can regard the use of “atheist” in discussions as simply descriptive, meaning the person so designated doesn’t think there’s enough evidence supporting the existence of God or gods to make the concept of God or gods a useful working hypothesis for scientists, and/or that there is plenty of evidence arguing against the existence of God or gods.  But I suggest we use the atheist/atheism term very carefully and think about possible emotional forces we’re letting loose.

Let’s take the Old Testament God, Jehovah, e.g.  I can give you rational sounding reasons why I’m an “atheist” with regard to Jehovah, but, having studied my own psychology for a long time, I know that, for me, they are mainly rationalizations of deeper emotions and thoughts.  What it comes down to is that if I’m going to accept any being as god-like, he or she should be a considerably better person (by my standards) than I am, and Jehovah, judging from what I learned in Sunday School and the behavior of a lot of Right Wing “Christians” since then, too often doesn’t make the cut.  He insists on constant praise from everyone – chronic insecurities? – punishes those who don’t please him, often excessively – is overly harsh in judging, etc.  Heck, I don’t mind being complimented on something I’ve done occasionally, but constant praise?  It would drive me nuts and bore me to death!  As to harshness, I remember being taught in Sunday School 60+ years ago that Jehovah not only punished those he considered sinners, but their children and their children’s children down to the seventh (or maybe it was the fourth) generation.  I was shocked!  Talk about a bully and a meanie!  Wow!  I could almost never hold a grudge overnight before I softened, but punishing the children’s children’s children?  Real anger management issues here….

So when I say I’m an “atheist” with respect to Jehovah, what my emotions are actually doing is saying “You (if you even exist) are such a jerk and so unworthy of being a god that I won’t believe in you!  So there!”  Not the highest manifestation of my maturity, I’m sure, but I can go on thinking more clearly about issues of God or gods versus atheism, spiritualism versus materialism, etc. once I own up to my irrational sides.  And while it could be that I’m the only one on a list of scientists and scholars who are otherwise completely rationale, I doubt it….      ;-)

Note that I’m not saying that the reasons I’m denying the existence of Jehovah are exactly the reasons that anybody else in particular has for denying the existence of Jehovah.  Given the variety in human beings I’m sure there are many routes to this conclusion, or reaching different conclusions.

Thinking about my rejection of Jehovah for a while, I’ve also realized there’s nothing particularly original in the way I did this.  In my childhood family, when you were angry at someone, you cut them off, stopped speaking to them, acted as if they didn’t exist.  So at some level I’m pretty childish about the whole thing.  Well, better to know when I’m being childish than to rationalize such behavior as mature adult behavior.      :-)

One other distinction.  I think some people mistakenly believe because of my  Western Creed exercise, published in my The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together  book (now available in all major ebook formats, see www.fearlessbooks.com/TartE-Books.htm) and available to work with in video at (http://www.alternativedesignsolutions.com/itp/Tart_ITP.html that I think all atheists, of whatever, stripe, are terrible, selfish, immoral people.  But if they had read the book or listened to the video more carefully, they would see that the argument that goes with that psychological exercise is that if you think there’s no inherent meaning in the universe and everything is just accidental, it’s easier to exploit other people irregardless of their feelings  Not that you are forced to, it’s just easier.  If I’m trying to build something and it keeps coming out wrong I may get pissed off enough to whack it with a hammer!  But I’m not likely to whack you with a hammer when you frustrate me, I think there’s something special about you as a conscious being and a spiritual being.  And of course there are people who declare themselves atheists who are wonderful human beings, and people who declare themselves very spiritual who are awful human beings.  There’s no single cause for hardly anything.

So when someone on my scientific discussion list provides evidence or a theoretical argument that psi, parapsychological effects, is like so-and-so, I don’t care if they are a theist, an atheist, a polytheist, a Satanist, a Wiccan, a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Druid, a Sufi (to just list the religions near my  home in California) or whatever if they are being scientific and scholarly in their presentation.  If it feels like a background set of beliefs might be slanting or distorting their argument, I will probably – gently,  no point needlessly insulting people – ask about it to try to get them clearer about their point.  I also try to be polite – “Could there be an implication of such-and-such in what you say because of a certain background belief?  Can you clarify that?” – rather than “You are wrong!”

And oh yes, I’m an “atheist” about Jehovah (take that, you bully!), but as to other possible gods?  [Insofar as there is a real God who is way better than me behind that primitive Jehovah image, I’m sure He/She/It won’t mind my childishness]  Well it’s psychological data that people sometimes have experiences that, at first approximation, are easily described as meeting “gods.”  That’s data, it shows certain kinds of human experiences are possible.  Knowing what kinds of experiences are possible or not possible for human beings is important in advancing our knowledge of ourselves.

Does it mean those “gods” really exist independently of the nature of human consciousness?  Interesting question…..If someone can make that specific enough to turn into testable hypotheses, that will be scientifically interesting indeed….

And meanwhile back in the ordinary world what are they up to?       ;-)

 

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11 Responses to “Atheism, Spirituality and Parapsychology”

  1. anonymous says:

    My cultural indoctrination is totally different from yours. In my world, being an atheist is normal and believing in God is ridiculed.

    I have no idea what professional parapsychologists think but, it seems to me that within parapsychology the important issue is not so much belief in God as it is belief in survival after death. Materialists have a very different conception of psi that non materialists. Materialists look for psi as a function of the brain, by some quantum entanglement or something like that. Non-materialists generally consider psi to be the senses of the spirit leaking through a hole in the brain-filter.

    So my experience as a nonprofessional having discussions with other nonprofessionals is that philosophical beliefs do affect one’s assumptions, but the issue is materialism vs survival not atheism vs theism.

    • >So my experience as a nonprofessional having discussions with other nonprofessionals is that philosophical beliefs do affect one’s assumptions, but the issue is materialism vs survival not atheism vs theism.<

      Take my word for it, scientific parapsychologists almost never mention things like God or survival, but stick close to well-controlled laboratory experiments. I have an advantage of thinking of myself primarily as a Transpersonal Psychologist, not only an experimental parapsychologist, so thinking about what things mean to people is allowed….For better or worse.

  2. My notion of god is the same as for truth.

    He/she/it is not one discernible thing, but the combination of all possibility, and occurrence AND what hasn’t occurred or been imagined possible.

    Thus imperceptible to us (both god and truth) as it is larger than the context we function in as human, or even as consciousness.

    We are a subset of god. Any thing is a subset of truth and every thing has some relative truth if observed from the right point.

    This of course leads to the notion that we are not isolated individuals, but more like discrete nodes of some larger consciousness, deciding to be, or not. Fractal Fragments of god, trying to fit themselves back into the puzzle of themselves.

    :)

    • >more like discrete nodes of some larger consciousness, deciding to be, or not. Fractal Fragments of god, trying to fit themselves back into the puzzle of themselves.<

      Nice way to think about it!

  3. Good evening, Mr. Tart:
    “The End of Materialism” should have been written years ago by someone, and I’m glad you finally took on the job. It’s a very good book with an important message.

    I cite the book on my website as among the Top 10 books for a “spirituality” searcher to read, as well as putting a link to your website on it.

    I’ve also taken the liberty of quoting from “The End of Materialism” in my forthcoming book “The Back Stairway to Heaven: Notes of a Spiritual Anarchist.” I sent an early version of the manuscript to Robert Forman, and he seemed to like at least some parts of it to one degree or another. He gave me some good suggestions that I’ve since incorporated. (I mention this to you only because you include The Forge in your resources section of your website.)

    The book is the result of my searches into what, why, and how I had a mystical experience when I was 13, nearly 50 years ago, now. I was a fundamentalist Christian at the time and, rather than pull me closer to Christianity, the experience pulled me away from it. It wasn’t the Christian “God” that touched me.

    (My account of this experience is on my website.)

    If you’d like to see the chapters in which I include excerpts from “The End of Materialism,” I’d be happy to send them to you by either e-mail or snail mail. If you’d like to read the entire book when it’s done (in a week or so), I’ll do that too.

    Again, thank you for your work and publications. You’ve made a big difference in this great big field of “What is it?”

    Charles Wesley Orton

    • One of my students, now a PhD, Craig Schlarb, did his dissertation on kids who have powerful mystical experiences – and who usually are badly punished for it! ;-(

      This results in a great loss of personal power, which may have lifelong effects unless the person works to take their own experience back.

      The dissertation, titled something like the Repression of the Bright Shadow, may be available via interlibrary loan from ITP (now Sofia University).

      I understand this kind of thing as much as I disapprove of it. Life is tough, you find some set of beliefs that make it easier (My Religion!) and then you are threatened by anyone who questions the absolute truth of it……

  4. Lenny says:

    I am curious about something. Do you condsider yourself to be a scientist?

  5. Beau says:

    Excellent article. I agree that there is quite a bit of disagreement when it comes to reconciling beliefs and ideas about God/gods with scientific facts or personal experience. Even when employing rationality and the scientific method, we’re always going to be influenced by our own beliefs (or lack thereof) and the certainty with which we adhere to them. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the distinction between the spiritual realm of experience and the quantifiable physical one. How do we distinguish between the two? The laws of physics worked before people understood them, maybe things that people see as “spiritual” or separate from the scientific world are in a similar status: simply not yet understood, or can only be understood in a different way. The distinction between spiritual and physical is, I think, just as arbitrary as any other distinction that we implement. I guess an open, inquiring mind is the most important thing we can hope for in researching the universe.

    • >The distinction between spiritual and physical is, I think, just as arbitrary as any other distinction that we implement.<

      I think a big problem here too is that to many people, “scientific” means lawful, potentially predictable, perhaps controllable, while “spiritual” means a god or gods you can’t possibly understand who just change things in non-understandable ways every once in a while. Who wants the latter kind of universe? I like to believe that the “spiritual” has laws of its own that we can at least partially discover and understand….but that also may be unpredictable, just like I know some friends very well, but sometimes can’t understand why they do what they do. The more we make this conscious, the better. The more we can distinguish between what we want and what is, the better….

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