06/06/2013 01:34 pm ET Updated Aug 06, 2013

Why I Am Not a Believer

"Perceive first, believe later." -- Victor H. Anderson

When I say I am not a believer, it doesn't mean I believe nothing. It is that belief is not central to my religious and spiritual life. As a matter of fact, belief holds little importance to me at all. Belief doesn't structure my experience; my experience structures what few beliefs I might have.

My spiritual life consists of praxis first, theoria second. Any theories I hold are simply there to explain -- or give context to -- experience. Sometimes gnosis enters on a flash of synaptic lighting, but the pathway is usually opened by practice first. The times when this process is reversed, it is still practice that shows me whether or not the flash of insight was an aberration. Like the scientific jolt that happens in the bathtub or while stepping on a city bus: after the big event, we return to the processes that test and compare.

To paraphrase Joseph Campbell: I don't need belief because I have experience. I can have profoundly moving experiences of deities, or swimming in a sea of light and connection, or have a deep intuitive insight into someone else. I might come up with theories based on these experiences over time, and test these against other people's. I can hold all of this, and still recognize that tomorrow, some new information may come along to change my mind. I can hold all of this, and know that I am holding one drop in a great ocean. I can set my skeptic aside and feel the power of my experiences of the numinous without feeling the need to build a creed around them.

We humans are storytellers. Stories apply meaning to our experiences. This is a good thing. There is truth in our stories, as well as exploration, and a connection to the line of past and future. When story becomes concretized into an unshakable belief or faith, however, humans run into trouble. We forget that the cosmos is in process. We forget that we don't hold the whole truth, but only one facet of it. Forgetting that story is a teacher and connector -- an explanation of experience and not a thing -- means that we run the risk of thinking our story is the story. From this certainty rises intolerance, xenophobia, hatred, even war.

Our stories interlock, all trying to explain the mysterious, trying to understand what is just beyond our grasp. They are always incomplete, but pointing to some reality. Until germs became proven, we needed several stories to explain the phenomenon of germs. Not being a believer offers flexibility to my experience of Mystery. Not being a believer keeps the door of possibility open.

The most succinct way I have found to explain the lack of rationality in the midst of spiritual experiences is to remind myself: "Love is not only dopamine." I don't need to believe in love because I experience love. Love is partially a set of chemical responses that affect my emotions, but it is also something more. Love is ineffable. So is how I feel while staring at the night sky, or my experience in the midst of ritual when I call out, and something Other shows up and I am not the only one who experiences it.

My rational brain makes sense of all this by remembering that there are many things we cannot yet explain. The glory of the cosmos is a marvelous thing that causes me to feel a sense of awe. Music transports me when the musicians are in the groove with each other, the music and the audience, and something special just appears. This "something special" is what I name The Sacred. It is holy. None of this requires belief. The numinous arrives, and something in me changes. This can happen during ritual, during prayer or at any other moment.

Are we open to these experiences because of a certain predilection, or because prayer, ritual or meditation have activated certain pathways in our brains? Yes. Are we open to that experience because we are singing in a room together, or gathered around a bonfire on a beach at night, and this has altered us emotionally? Of course! Chemistry meets physiology meets emotionality which, in my experience, touches Mystery.

And sometimes, in the midst of making love, I speak in tongues. There is nothing to believe about that. It simply is.

View image