This I Believe: An uber-agnostic on religion, psychology, consciousness, the paranormal, and the meaning of life

Image: I Want to BelieveIt has come to my attention that although I write all the time about religion, philosophy, spirituality, psychology, consciousness, culture, the paranormal, and other idea-based subjects, my own position on any or all of them generally comes off as obscure.

ITEM: My friend Kim Paffenroth, the religion scholar and zombie horror author, has characterized me as “deeply but ambiguously spiritual.”

ITEM: When I was interviewed in March 2010 by Lovecraft News Network about the half-fictional and half-academic combination of horror and religious speculation contained in my then-forthcoming (and now published) book Dark Awakenings, Christian Horror Blog linked to the interview, quoted my claim that “what has long interested me is the speculation that maybe there’s something fundamentally horrific about God or the Ground of Being from the human perspective,” and then commented, “It is unclear where exactly Cardin stands on these issues, other than to say he is thinking deeply about them.”

ITEM: Last Christmas when I was visiting my mother and her husband in Arkansas for the holidays, one of my cousins-in-law, who happens to be a charismatic-evangelical Christian preacher, and also a fun and smart guy to talk to, engaged me in a conversation about my personal religious beliefs that still has my wife cringing in recollection. As she later put it (and has sometimes said of me in different contexts), “You talked in circles!”

Of course I know that I tend to abet such perceptions, especially when I say things like the following, which appeared in the aforementioned LNN interview: “Note that whenever I talk about these things, I do so hypothetically, in a kind of philosophical hyperspace. I’m not saying I actually believe in this type of cosmic-horrific situation. But I’m not saying I don’t, either.” Yes, I can see how it might seem that I’m deliberately being coy when I talk that way.

But in point of fact, I’m not being coy at all, but am just stating things the way they appear to me. Apparently as a genetic fact, whether physiological or psychological, I’m an incurable agnostic about most things. The reason that I tend to state everything in hypothetical terms is that I think and deeply feel in those terms. I find it natural, in fact reflexively so, to put mental brackets or quotes around any answers offered to any and all questions about religion etc.

How come?

On Robert Anton Wilson and not believing anything

As a long aside, I could speculate — again with brackets or quotes around it — that perhaps I’ve been slyly reprogrammed to think-feel-see things this way by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea via their Illuminatus! trilogy. After all, they claim as much in one of the appendices to that Moby Dickian masterpiece of mind-blowing counterphilosophy: “This book, being part of the only serious conspiracy it describes — that is, part of Operation Mindfuck — has programmed the reader in ways that he or she will not understand for a period of months (or perhaps years).” I first read Illuminatus! in 1988. Then I went on to read the rest of Wilson’s considerable body of work over the next decade. Did this maybe help to engender my thoroughgoing worldview-agnosticism? After all, it was Wilson who devoted the first few paragraphs of the new preface to the 1986 edition of what may be his chief work, Cosmic Trigger, to a rigorous clarification of where he stood on the issue of belief as such, since many of his readers continued to assume, 10 years’ after the book’s first publication, that he really did believe in the various paranormal matters, conspiracy theories, and other wacky things that he wrote about:

I want to make it clearer than ever before that I DO NOT BELIEVE ANYTHING. . . . It seems to be a hangover of the medieval Catholic era that causes most people, even the educated, to think that everybody must “believe” something or other, that if one is not a theist, one must be a dogmatic atheist, and if one does not think Capitalism is perfect, one must believe fervently in Socialism, and if one does not have blind faith in X, one must alternatively have blind faith in not-X or the reverse of X.

My own attitude is that belief is the death of intelligence. As soon as one believes a doctrine of any sort, or assumes certitude, one stops thinking about that aspect of existence.

….Belief in the tradition sense, or certitude, or dogma, amounts to the grandiose delusion, “My current model” — or grid, or map, or reality-tunnel — “contains the whole universe and will never need to be revised.” In terms of the history of science and knowledge in general, this appears absurd and arrogant to me, and I am perpetually astonished that so many people still manage to live with such a medieval attitude.

Yep, that describes my own axiomatic agnosticism pretty well.

On Lovecraft, cosmic horror, and the cracking open of one’s personal cosmic egg

And/but, I was recently spurred to really try and articulate what I think about matters of religion etc. when the proprietor of the blog TheoPhantasmagoria sent me an email to let me know that he had created a post (“Lovecraft, Meet Yahweh: The Biblical Book of Isaiah as a Horror Story“) revolving around my reading of Isaiah as a cosmic horror story. He closed his email by asking, “Just out of interest, what are your beliefs?”

Normally I would have deflected such a question with some sort of vague comment. But this time, for some reason, it just seemed natural to answer. So I typed, and typed, and then typed some more — and found that my answer had rapidly grown into a concise but detailed — and, I’m afraid, dry and technical-sounding — explanation of precisely how I see things.

So for those who may be wondering, here’s the breathlessly awaited statement to dispel the specter of my deep but ambiguous spirituality once and for all:

Regarding my beliefs, I don’t really have any beliefs as such when it comes to supernaturalism, spirituality, religion, etc. When I say that, be advised that I’m using the word “belief” to mean an intellectual/emotional assent to, or clinging to, a certain set of propositions about reality. The very word implies a kind of arbitrary choice: “Some people believe this. Other people believe that. I believe the other thing.” At root I’m not interested in beliefs but in what’s self-evidently true, so that’s it’s not a matter of belief or disbelief but of simple, incontrovertible verification. In the objective realm of physical nature, that’s determined by empirical science. In the subjective realm of inner space or interiority, that’s determined by coming to an understanding of the givens of both the human perceptual apparatus and, more intimately, the deep structure of the human psyche that not only shapes the interpretation of external space-time perceptions but, more intimately and significantly, provides its own content to consciousness in the form of the Jungian collective archetypes and such.

So what does this mean for paranormal stuff? It means that, based on the fact of the age-old accounts of such things, which indicates that something’s really going on, people really can and do see ghosts, angels, demons, elves, cryptids, UFOs, aliens, etc. — but that these phenomena are as much internal as external. They probably inhabit a kind of liminal zone between subjective and objective, the realm that Patrick Harpur has memorably dubbed “daimonic reality.”

So are they real? This understanding of them puts that word in scare quotes and foregrounds the usually muted issue of ontology. Somebody who has really and pointedly become aware of what Jung called the objectivity of the psyche recognizes that this aspect of life categorically eludes the conventional polarity of real and unreal that’s a fact of objective daily life, precisely because the daimonic stuff hails from a part of psychic space that 1) precedes, dwarfs, encompasses, and transcends the conscious ego that observes the external world and analyzes and discriminates among things there, including questions of reality and unreality, and 2) emerges right from the substratum of Being itself, so it somehow bridges the gap between conventionally real and unreal by appearing as a real projection in the psyche that’s not just the product of individual fancy or imagination.

I could also add that as far as a general religious/spiritual/philosophical attitude toward life and living goes, I’m pretty much a Zen Christian agnostic. The ultimate and universal point of life is clear perception, pure seeing from the center of Being outward: awakening to awakeness, Buddha nature, Christ consciousness. The ultimate and specific point of life for each of us as unique individuals is to live this limited, differentiated bodymind existence as an experience of that clear absolute awareness knowing itself through a finite point of entry into the objective world. In other words, to learn to be fully immersed in this experience while remaining fully cognizant of one’s identity as that basic, pure, absolute seeingness. This is encapsulated in various guises in the teachings and practices of Christianity, Buddhism, certain schools of depth psychotherapy (see Carl Jung and James Hillman), the current neo-advaita philosophical-spiritual movement — not to mention traditional Advaita Vedanta — and other traditions.

And that’s it. To quote Edward R. Murrow: THIS I believe.

Any questions?

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Image credits: “Bigfoot Crossing” used under Creative Commons from Chiceaux

About Matt Cardin

Teeming Brain founder and editor Matt Cardin is the author of DARK AWAKENINGS, DIVINATIONS OF THE DEEP, A COURSE IN DEMONIC CREATIVITY: A WRITER’S GUIDE TO THE INNER GENIUS, and the forthcoming TO ROUSE LEVIATHAN. He is also the editor of BORN TO FEAR: INTERVIEWS WITH THOMAS LIGOTTI and the academic encyclopedias MUMMIES AROUND THE WORLD, GHOSTS, SPIRITS, AND PSYCHICS: THE PARANORMAL FROM ALCHEMY TO ZOMBIES, and HORROR LITERATURE THROUGH HISTORY.

Posted on August 16, 2010, in Paranormal, Psychology & Consciousness, Religion & Philosophy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. Man after my own heart.

  2. Great post. I also credit RAW with helping me refine my agnosticism and constant questioning of my own reality tunnels. Also delighted that you brought up Patrick Harpur, a true mapmaker and philosopher king of the daimonic realms.

    Interestingly, I’m drifting back towards a predominantly nuts-and-bolts conception of UFOs, especially after reading Leslie Kean’s excellent new book on the subject. I still think much of what we consider “paranormal” exists in a liminal realm (per Harpur) but UFOs seem to have a very real physicality as well as the ability to interact telepathically. I reviewed Kean’s book on my blog and I’m gearing up to write about my own UFO sighting for the first time under my real name—an experience that still stretches my conceptions of reality, time, space, and all those big concepts. I’ll try to remember to post here when it goes up.

    • Thanks for the good words, Michael. I just went and read your review of Kean’s book, and realized, alas, that I now have to buy and read that thing.

      And yes, please do post a comment or send a trackback here when you publish that post about your UFO experience.

  3. i think i remember you once describing yourself as a Christian buddhist with a streak of agnosticism.

    but i need to check out TheoPhantasmagoria. i’ve often wrestled with the idea of God as a source of terror http://mauricebroaddus.com/?p=372

    • I think I recall giving precisely that self-description in your presence, Maurice. I also recall really digging that post of yours about the real fear of God (and not just because you quoted from my Divinations in it). When you say, “So it struck me the other day that maybe we’re too quick to sing I Stand in Awe of You in our worship times. We may sing it, but we don’t believe it. For one, we’ve lost our ability to be awed. Secondly, we’ve forgotten that God is a dangerous terror” — I’m almost compelled to emit an uncharacteristic “Amen!”

  4. Matt, thanks for sharing a personal aspect of your life with your readers. You and I have much in common with our academic explorations on horror and religion, the paranormal, and other such things. Now I find out that although we have different religious perspectives, which I knew from our previous email exchanges, but we hold our positions based upon tension between the desire to believe and a healthy skepticism. I think my Christian orientation is best described by the subtitle of the noted sociologist of religion Peter Berger’s book “Questions of Faith: A Skeptical Affirmation of Christianity”.

    By the way, I love your inclusion of the “I Want to Believe” image with this post, a poster that used to hang in Fox Mulder’s office at the FBI in The X-Files. This too resonates with me as I see myself as a hybrid of both Mulder and Scully. Perhaps we are not atypical in our postmodern world, especially given our academic studies and continued reflexivity.

    • I’m all for the idea that you and I really are fundamentally akin in our basic philosophical orientation or outlook or sensibility, John — and not just because it sounds good but because it seems patently true. Obviously David, Maurice, and Mich, who commented above, are much the same. I can’t shake the suspicion that we’re overtly talkin’ ’bout our generation when we all express a general agreement about the general tenor of these matters.

      I haven’t really given this a whole lot of in-depth conscious thought, but I’m getting this sense that those of us in this specific demographic — American Gen X-ers — are, by virtue of our specific historical-cultural experiences, inclined toward exactly this type of skepticism and reflexivity/self-awareness, so that even though we can and do hold some understandings and beliefs (ah, there’s that damned word again) that differ from each other, we’re all in harmony in holding them somewhat ironically, or if not that, then at least lightly and with an attitude of skeptical self-criticism. Call it post-modernism or whatever, but for those of us who grew up in the pre-Internet era and then gained this amazing new world of communication and information right as we were entering adulthood and beginning to assume our place as the generational center of the cultural conversation and the culture-making institutions, dogmatism and fanaticism of any stripe don’t even figure into our psychic operating system, and attempts at mutual understanding, and also self-correction and self-clarification via these communications, are virtually instinctive behaviors.

      Am I suddenly and against all expectation waxing subtly but lyrically utopian? Ye gods.

  5. “Belief in the tradition sense, or certitude, or dogma, amounts to the grandiose delusion…”

    My problem with Robert Anton Wilson’s assertion is the conflation between belief, certitude and dogma… To say “I don’t believe anything” is to still to make a truth claim… We all make epistemological assumptions even provisional ones… Most folks tend to privilege their own presuppositions about reality, and that’s okay—it behooves the challengers of our cherished assumptions to provide good reasons to change our minds. The agnostic may believe some things about the nature of reality, it’s just that she or he is not certain of said beliefs. (Still, to embrace agnosticism is to make a tacit assumption about reality. Whatever those belief are, for the agnostic, they’re weakly held, subject to revision. NB: Vattimo’s ‘weak ontology’ might be of some interest to those who are agnostically inclined). I think that the agnostic outlook is in many ways philosophically honest, it accepts the post-Kantian dictum, that the human mind will never grasp totality. In end, for me there is a difference between truth, belief and certainty…. If there weren’t how could we even take the next step to identify any world view as delusional?

    As a side note, some of the meanest students I’ve encountered in my classes were the most certain… It’s as if they wrap up their values around their sense of self. If you question said values and they feel like they have a knife at their throat.

    Peace,

    rob

  6. Benjamin David Steele

    Hey Matt.

    I was reading your most recent book and I noticed we have a similar worldview and a similar reading history. I’m not used to coming across people who have read the same range and variety of books I’ve read. I read Robert Anton Wilson in the years after high school. Among others, he had immense influence on my thinking.

    I’m an agnostic in the way you describe yourself. I prefer the term agnosticism to atheism because the former is about knowledge and the latter is about belief. I try to keep my ‘beliefs’ as close to my knowledge as possible. Since there is much uncertainty in my experience, there is much uncertainty in my knowledge and hence much uncertainty in my ‘beliefs’. My ‘beliefs’ are simply general principles based on observed patterns and suspicions of causative correlations (sounds kinda boring). I wouldn’t claim I have no beliefs because I think humans live in our beliefs like fish in water(ya know, reality tunnels). I’m sure many of the assumptions I hold (consciously or unconsciously) in going about my daily life are incorrect, but they work well enough for standard operations.

    I’m in the middle of reading Dark Awakenings, but I keep getting distracted by other books. I’m simultaneously reading Ligotti’s Conspiracy, Crisp’s “Remember You’re a One-Ball!”, and a recent book about Philip K. Dick by Laurence A. Rickels. I read the first story in your collection, Teeth. As I read it, I kept wondering what integral theorists would think of it. Ken Wilber should be careful when he gives lectures. lol

    As you’ve read RAW, have you read similar authors such as John C. Lilly or Terrence McKenna? Also, have you read any of Philip K. Dick’s non-fiction?

    • Yes, I’ve read a bit of all of the authors you mention, Benjamin. And they definitely fall right in line with the constellation of authors and ideas who have influenced me, and also, I know, who have influenced you.

  7. I have just waded through a number of sites in which enthusiastic paranormalists dogmatically give quasi religious explainations of apparently anomalous phenomena or fundamentalist “skeptics” wave the flag of science with no real understanding of science other than repeating some “facts” they have seen on TV. The war out there is messy so it is refreshing to see an intelligent site like this. I haven’t read any of your writings but I would love to. I’m a big fan of RAW too.

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