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? 😉