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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