Why I am neither theist nor atheist

NOTE: I created a video as an alternative to reading which explains this in a slightly different way, you can watch it on youtube here.

I’m asking this question because there are a lot of ideas in the world including my own, and I want to say a little something about the latter.

Ideas are interesting things, and I want to begin by exploring them.

When I say that you or I have an idea, what is it that we have?

I can try and construct language to explain it to you, I can try and use words, and you might accept them. But what does this mean? What does it really mean to accept an explanation for something and consider it true?

What we have is a logical system that is agreeing with itself. To accept an idea as true is self-referential. It is a labeling acknowledgement of a concept that has arisen due to process from within the same system that generated the idea itself.

Why don’t you ponder upon another idea, and ask yourself another question, and that is. Is there something that goes below, or beyond the notion of an idea? Is there something within the mind, below ideas, but that is not made from ideas, but that still has substance?

What am I talking about, and what am I looking at inside myself when I ask this?

I will do my best to point you in the right direction but laughably, and unavoidably so, this is all I can ever do. With that said, let me begin.

Thoughts come into us all the time, they come from outside us, and they come from within us. Sounds, smells, tastes, senses, all come from outside us, impinge upon us, and generate within us thoughts, ideas, flows of information, changes in entropy, or whatever label you want to apply to them using language, i.e using other thoughts. If this seems self-referential, this is because it is so. I can only express ideas about thoughts with other thoughts, when my goal is to change thoughts into words and put them here for you to read.

But lets start with these thoughts, that come into the head, these things that bash against us from outside like waves against a shore. They splash around inside us and we might recognise them in the “conscious” and consider them real. Now these things that come outside, they knock themselves about inside us, and trigger all kinds of further thoughts and ideas. Now ask yourself this, do you think there is any material difference between the thought caused by the sound of a squawking bird, and the thought you attribute to having originated from “yourself”, such as “I’m hungry”, or more detached “I want a new car”?

At the very centre of us, there are thoughts generated by the body, about its needs. I’m thirsty, I’m hungry, I need to sleep, I want to have sex, and so on. Some of these thoughts are incredibly important in that if we don’t listen to them, we will die. If we don’t eat and drink, then clearly we will die. If we don’t breathe we will die. Thankfully the burden of breathing, of pumping your heart, and of regulating everything else, is largely autonomous from the perspective of the “conscious” and we don’t have to bother ourselves about it.

Some thoughts require attention because you need to do something about them. You need to find water to drink it, you need to bring it to your lips in order to swallow it. So how does this come about? How does the body’s need and it’s message to you that it is thirsty, propagate itself upwards into “conscious” and ultimately into action? And furthermore do you really think it needs your attention to achieve the goal, or is it all largely automatic and you are just given a kind of oversight?

So the body tells you it is thirsty, and a huge cascade of thoughts make there way up to you, and you make some kind of decision on how to act, based on what you know works, or if the situation is tricky, you might take all kinds of cues from the environment, and create thoughts which are a kind of simulation about what might happen if other thoughts are carried into action, and then the simulation might show you that you reached water, and “you” decide to carry this action out.

You might wonder who exactly I am speaking to when I say “you”? I’m speaking to all of you, but I’m willing to posit that there is some part of you that thinks it is more important than the rest of you, and that thinks I am speaking just to it. Now, we’ve got ourselves down inside this thing, this mind, but I want to get outside of it and talk about what happens when we take on ideas.

We are going somewhere with this line of thought so keep yourself along with it, and don’t take my word for any of it.

So instead of fundamentally important ideas such as “I’m thirsty”, we are talking here about much more spacious and indefinite ideas (and comparatively useless) such as “god” or “no-god”, or “theism” and “atheism”, and what these ideas mean, and what they can do to you.

For that’s what they are, they are ideas. Much as the “conscious” thought “I’m hungry”, has it’s genesis deep in the mind somewhere as a result of messages from the body, these ideas “there is a god” are more or less identical in their material affect on the mind. (We can allow ourselves to concede that perhaps something like “I’m thirsty” is a bit more hard wired into causing certain types of action than “There is a god”).

So this is what we are talking about here, how ideas can cause actions, and why that might be important.

So ask yourself what kind of actions might the thoughts “there is a being that has superpowers and can destroy me if he wants if I don’t follow his rules” or “there is no god, there is nothing of merit in religion, and there is nothing of merit in the ideas that religion engenders”.

I hope you can see with me, that these are both ideas that can be adopted into chains of thought that ultimately generate action. I happen to think that they are both quite childish ideas, but that’s immaterial.

How might we choose which ideas to include in our goal-oriented simulations in order to live our lives? Well this is belief. Belief is the decision to permit oneself to include an idea into the mind, and give it influence over the processions of thought that lead to action. Disbelief is the suppression of the idea, and the removal of it, based on prior experience or prejudice or whatever, because it is judged as being nonconstructive apriori for being able to help with achieving your goals. And by the way, the noisy part of you, the loud mouthed ego, might not know what these goals are, and they might not pop up as understandable ideas into your “conscious”.

So why am I not a theist or an atheist?

It is because I do not believe that these ideas (and many like it) are relevant to me, that is, they are not necessary for me to function. But more importantly, these ideas can be very powerful, and they like to feed back on themselves in the mind, and they like to keep themselves around. Them being around inside myself is contrary to my agenda, and I hope that eventually you’ll be able to see why they might be getting in your way too.

Ask the religious person, let us say, a particular type of Buddhist who believes that we are constantly reincarnated and constantly re-experience consciousness. Ask them where they got this idea from? Is this an idea that they saw inside themselves in a meditation (let’s assume they have)? If so, where did it come from and what is it’s purpose?

Besides the point that there is something foolish in taking what’s seen in the depths of a mind and assuming it can be expressed symbolically and still retain any meaning, how does it help to keep this idea around in the mind? How does it help a person be completely free, completely unfettered if they keep such ideas around?

I mean, let’s be honest here, this thing is an idea, it is just a construct. How could it be useful to a human, and how can it help that human to achieve its goals?

Now I’m talking of course about a specific goal, which is my spiritual goal, and that is freedom.

What I’m talking about here is complete freedom of the mind and freedom from being held hostage by any ideas at all, and this is a very important thing. You might notice then the absurdity in me having any goal whatsoever, given the massive consequences that holding one has to the very object of being free. But I’m permitting myself to speak of it here, and I’ll pretend that it exists, whereas really I’m not going to hold onto it at all.

The reason this is important is that because when you look at the ideas, look at the mind, through meditation, you will see that there is something beyond thought, something literally unbelievable, because it cannot be expressed by ideas or used directly to influence action. It causes ideas but cannot come about from ideas. It is thus, unbelievable in itself and it doesn’t make any sense whatsoever to talk about it, other than to hint that it might be there.

Now the atheist (or the theist indeed) might argue that I’ve derailed myself here, that I’m pointing or talking about something. Making claims about something that I can’t backup. He or she might argue that I am making definitive claims about the mind saying that there is something “beyond ideas”. They might task me to prove that this is somehow materially true, with various physical measuring instruments or something equally absurd.

But do they admit that the sound of a horn, the representation of the sound in the mind, and the description of the sound are all the same thing?

They might, but I think that they know the difference between a description of something and the something itself. And they should know the difference between the measurement of temperature with a mercury thermometer vs the experience of feeling the warmth of sunshine. So why would they ask me to measure this thing?

What is it like to feel the warmth of sunshine and can it be enjoyed without explaining it?

At the root of some religious beliefs are things which are not beliefs, things which are not ideas. Sometimes a person will have an amazing experience, something they cannot explain but that feels amazing. They try to put this into words and get themselves all caught up in trying to understand it. We find convenient descriptions all over the place that seem to click with what we feel, that seem to make sense, and that the mind thinks might be be useful in staving something unpleasant thing off or in achieving something desirable thing, so we hang onto the idea and forget the experience. Sometimes we get taught, sometimes under duress or threat, that the thing we feel is attributed only to some specific idea, and that we’d better not think otherwise.

More superficially, some believers don’t even have this spiritual dimension at the root of themselves, they instead get caught immediately by an idea that resonates with their goals, and they come to believe the idea without it having any root in experience. It just “makes sense” and seems amenable to the particular goal-oriented behavior they have in mind (again not-necessarily conscious).

Now I’m going to tell you that the only thing that really matters in all of this is the experience that causes the ideas, and not the ideas themselves. But I’m knotting myself by doing this because I am of course using and expressing ideas myself right now, and I’m giving them an importance that they do not deserve.

I’m telling you to devalue ideas, but I want you to convince you to do this using ideas and by telling you that my ideas have value. Pretty absurd, I hope you’ll agree. This is why you mustn’t believe me, but instead find out for yourself.

Some atheists are so caught up in the power of language and logic, that they cannot understand something that is right under their noses. Namely that at the root of everything they do and say is a stream of experience that is beyond language and logic.

The logician is angered by this statement, because he wants me to believe that I must answer to him using logic. He believes so vehemently in the truth of language and logic, and ironically not the feelings that his expressions engender, that he ends up running fullspeed away from the truth. This is also absurd.

What he fails to grasp, is that I don’t want to engage him in logic, because I’ve already ascertained that it is useless in achieving understanding about the thing I am looking at. Thought doesn’t allow me to see the thing, thought gets in the way of me looking at it without judgement and seeing it for what it is.

But can I explain this to the logician without him getting redder and redder in the face as he gets more exasperated with my inability to engage him? In my stupidity for rejecting logic.

What I’m trying to tell the logician is that there is a different way to play the game, and instead of trying out this different way, he keeps playing his game, as if my answer is going to come from there. Or as if my experience of this other way is going to evaporate by the heat of his red face.

So instead of arguing with him I’d like him to just suspend his prejudice for a second and imagine that maybe, just maybe, I’ve not being completely stupid, and that there might be something in (or rather outside of) what I’m saying. And I would suggest that he try a very simple exercise.

I am suggesting only that he sit down, breathe, and observe.

Then he can ask himself “what is thought” without trying to answer it. And I’m suggesting, that he will get an answer to this question that satisfies him, and yet neither has a logical explanation, nor demands one. Then, let him consider the power of his logic again.

Believe it or not, the theist is also a logician, and is also caught up in his ideas. But the theist is probably in a much more difficult position since he binds his ideas strongly to the morality within himself, making them all mixed up. Thus his reluctance to look at new ideas derives from a reluctance to challenge his morality. But he shouldn’t be afraid of me because I’m not asking him to change his ideas, only to look within himself honestly and openly. If he can do this, perhaps he will ultimately see the damage that divisory ideas can wreck, and discard them.

Why do I care about this?

It is very difficult to write anything without coming across as judgmental, and it is even more difficult to personally not hold judgments against others. In that sense you should know that I am in no-way excluded from the problems with ideas outlined in this post, nor am I free from conflict myself. In fact I’m the most important person in the post as I can only control myself and nobody else.

But if we are to assume that the goal is peace and prosperity for all, and that our theist and our atheist both aspire to this, then I hope, and this applies especially to anyone with strong divisory or exclusionary beliefs, that they might sit and ponder for a while about all the conflict in the world and where it comes from. Perhaps then they will see that there is only one place it can possibly come from: within each of us.

A seasonal stream