Mystical Atheism

Religion goes wrong when it is appropriated by the left hemisphere. Then it becomes strident, inflexible, dogmatic and intolerant. This can lead to the horrors of religious violence and persecution. The mystery of God is replaced by an anthropomorphic “God of the Left Hemisphere” and the metaphors of scripture are subjected to literal interpretation.

If this is religion, then atheists are right to challenge it. This is the kind of religion that Richard Dawkins and the other new atheists love to hate. It seems irrational, arbitrary and cruel. It stifles the human spirit and terrorises dissidents and free thinkers. It is the enemy of enlightened humanism.

But there are two kinds of religion, just as there are two kinds of atheism. One is the religion of the left hemisphere and the other is the religion of the right hemisphere. The former is fundamentalist and the latter is mystical. Religious fundamentalists are “ideologically possessed”. They are convinced of their belief system to the point of obsession. They are willing to kill or die in the name of their God.

Mystical religion, on the other hand, is based not on certainty but on uncertainty, less on knowing than on unknowing. When a fundamentalist declares “I believe in God”, they mean something very different to when a mystic says it. For the fundamentalist, the word “believe” is propositional. It is like saying “I believe the Earth is round”. For the mystic, it is an action, not a state. It is more like saying “I pray” or “I meditate”.

You can see the same difference in meaning with the words “think” or “imagine”. If I say “I imagine God exists”, it can mean that this is my settled opinion in the face of insufficient information (I didn’t say “I know God exists”), but if I say “I imagine God existing” it is clear that I am actively making a mental effort to bring the idea of God into awareness.

But what is “God”? The fundamentalist believes she knows. The mystic knows that she has no idea. For the mystic it refers to an unfathomable mystery. Yet it is a mystery that mysteriously reveals itself in the act of believing. Every time a mystic “believes” in God, it reveals something different. Every time a fundamentalist “believes” in God, it further consolidates the same, fixed belief.

Left hemisphere dominant atheists are also ideologically possessed. They disbelieve in God with the same rigid certainty that religious fundamentalists believe in Him. They also think they know what it is they disbelieve in. They think they know what or who “God” is. Just like their antagonists, they marshal reasons, evidence and proof texts to defend their position in the service of being “right”. They are basically “atheist fundamentalists”.

Right hemisphere dominant atheists are more like religious mystics than atheist fundamentalists. They don’t have the same tell-tale militant certainty about their unbelief, but are more comfortable with uncertainty and unknowing. They are more likely to call themselves “agnostic” than “atheist”. They don’t dismiss religion or blame it for all the ills of humanity, as atheist fundamentalists often do, nor do they dismiss science as religious fundamentalists often do. They are suspicious of both extremes.

John Gray is a good example of a right hemisphere “mystical atheist”. This is how he concludes his neat little book Seven Types of Atheism:

“Contemporary atheism is a continuation of monotheism by other means. Hence the unending succession of God-surrogates, such as humanity and science, technology and the all-too-human visions of transhumanism. But there is no need for panic or despair. Belief and unbelief are poses the mind adopts in the face of an unimaginable reality. A godless world is as mysterious as one suffused with divinity, and the difference between the two may be less than you think.”