Luke on Spiritual Experiences and Atheism

Here’s a blog post I’ve wanted to write for a long time, the first in the series of three. This post will be about spiritual experiences, the second will be about modern Christians and their use and knowledge of the bible, and the third post will be about the Bible as history.


Last year I went to TAMLondon, a conference on science and skepticism, with a distinct bend towards their portrayal and communication in the media. The scientists who spoke were awesome, so were the doctors, and the skeptics, and the journalists too. Along with all that was a whole load of great entertainment by some really good performers.

All of the above are experts in their field. Brian Cox is a CERN physicist and a fellow of the Royal Society, plus a TV and radio presenter for the BBC. As the opening speaker, it doesn’t get much better for a science geek like me. Adam Savage of Myth Busters? Great! The Bad Astronomer? Cool! Tim Minchin doing a short set? Again, no complaints. Ben Goldacre, Simon Singh, Jon Ronson… it’s a great lineup. All top experts in their fields.

However, the thing I found quite strange was how many of the speakers talked about atheism and religious matters. And all of them, without exception, presented their views on the matter in a sneering way. Some, like Tim Minchin, did it for comedy effect, but in others that sneering and condescending tone was quite harsh.

At one point during a TAMLondon presentation the speaker said something like “And people who believe this are like stupid sheep… like they have a mental illness.” The audience laughed and applauded.

I just sat there, feeling quite uncomfortable.

And what’s worse is that all of them, without exception, seemed to have a very, very shallow view on Christianity, belief, faith, and spirituality. Shallow view? Maybe not the right way to put it.

What I mean is that the way they spoke about such matters betrays a complete lack of understanding on what it means to be Christian, and why people believe what they believe, and why they adhere to the notion of a real God.

To these New Atheists (I guess I can use that as a kind of collective noun), the only question that matters is “Is this claim true?”

If yes, then good. But if not, and such is the case with most religious claims, then that claim is WORTHLESS and anyone who believes said claim is STUPID, or at least NOT AS CLEVER AS US, and need to be told THEY ARE WRONG.

I’m using caps here to demonstrate the vibe I get from these people. It isn’t pleasant.

And worse than that, many had ideas on how to deconvert people from religion which relied almost exclusively on saying “You are wrong to believe in God, and here’s why.”

The spiritual experience.

The individual claims of Christians and other theists, and if they are true or not, simply don’t matter. They are very important to those who hold them, but which particular belief they might hold isn’t important. It isn’t particularly important to the Christian, and it shouldn’t be important to the atheist who wants people to become more rational.

Don’t get me wrong; I am an atheist. But before I became an atheist I was a Christian. One of the reasons I was a Christian is the most obvious; I was brought up in a Christian home.

The second reason, the reason I stayed a Christian, is because to me, just like to many other Christians I know, I had spiritual experiences. These were real experiences, and even to this day they are some of the most profound experiences in my 30 year existence.

So let me share some, and later I’ll get back to why particular beliefs, and if they are true or not, isn’t what’s important to many religious people.

Example number 1:

I remember, aged about 8, deciding to really become a Christian myself, rather than just assuming I was one. I said the sinner’s prayer. Even at such a young age, this was a big deal to me. Afterward I felt different, as though I’d taken a step closer to God, and that God was closer to me.

The reality: It was the first time I’d ever made a big decision about anything. Really. That young, nothing you do or think really matters. Not really. This decision was about my eternal soul. That’s a BIG thing. It wasn’t that God had actually accepted me, and Jesus hadn’t come into my heart. I’d just grown up a bit, and saw the world in a slightly different way.

If I lived in a developing country, and realized I had to go out to work aged 8 to make sure my little sister didn’t starve, I’d go through a similar transformation. Thankfully I lived in England, and I never really had to grow up in that way.

Example number 2:

Aged 12, I had a near death experience. I got stuck underwater, and couldn’t reach the surface. To cut a short story even shorter, I gave up trying to save myself. At that point I had a huge realization: I was going to die, but I had no problem with that, because I knew I was going to heaven.

There were no shining lights or voices from the sky. Just a complete peace, a strange sense of happiness, and complete faith in myself and what I believed.

Needless to say, it was that sense of calm that made me stop panicking, take stock of how I was actually stuck underwater, and work my way to the surface. I’d probably only been underwater a few seconds, but my life was different after that it was before.

The reality: I was, of course, completely wrong. If I died, I’d have just spoiled everything for all the Boy Scouts on their trip to Wales.

However, and this is the key, I was convinced that what I believed was right. I didn’t even think of it as something that I believed, it was more powerful than that. It just was. I was a Christian, I was going to die: I’m going to heaven. Case closed.

Twelve years later a friend of mine said “These Christians all know it is bullshit. If you put a gun to their head and said ‘I’ll kill you if you say you really believe it’ all of them would deny God.”

I told him the above story, to explain how wrong he was. To many Christians, belief doesn’t come into it. I was only 12 years old, there was nothing rational about my position on Jesus and heaven. It just was. To the point I was happy to die, knowing how right I was.

Example number 3:

The first time I strongly experienced the Holy Spirit. I can’t remember how old I was, maybe 13 or so. I went forward during Jesus-Camp-like meeting, and preachers and other people prayed for me. It was really great! Fantastic! Loads of people, standing in a circle, all laying hands your head and shoulders, praying for God to bless you. Who wouldn’t feel something?

I fell over, and was lowered to the floor gently, and people stayed to pray for me until I got up maybe half an hour later.

I had many similar experiences over many years. It’s called being slain in the spirit, among other things.

Once I fell backwards, and nobody caught me. I slammed into the ground, as you would expect. I just bounced a bit, but didn’t hurt myself. I hardly even noticed I had fallen over.

If it wasn’t for the Holy Spirit looking out for me, how could I have fallen over like that and not hurt myself?

The reality: I had never been to a big rock concert. I had never been part of a tribal ritual. I had never been to a hypnotist. There is all kind of psychology going on at a revival meeting, with loads of suggestion of what to do in the situation, what is expected, what is safe, what isn’t, how long it should take before you fall over, how long to stay on the floor afterwards.

The connectedness you feel at a big concert, of being part of something bigger than yourself, is familiar to many people, but just wasn’t something I knew. Not back then.

Back then, the church had a monopoly on all group-based emotional experience. It did in my life, anyway.

Any time I felt something profound, it was in the realms of a Christian church service of some type. So, of course, I presumed such feelings came from God.

Now I have had all kinds of “Peak Experiences”.

Getting a standing ovation at the end of a show. Performing a difficult juggling routine dropless. Breaking a world record. Telling a joke and having 3,000 people laugh. Various sexual encounters. Getting into a fight. Catching a big wave while surfing. Finishing the last page of a novel.

My list can go on and on. I’m a “Peak Experience” kinda guy.

And since 2001, I’ve found that I don’t associate any with God. Before then, especially before about 1996 or 1997, every big emotional experience was dominated by my Christian surroundings.

Example number 4:

I used to help lead worship in church. I played keyboard and guitar and sang in the band, and helped other people have spiritual experiences. I felt God and the Holy Spirit guiding me and the music I played. And when I followed what God was wanting me to do, it got results. People would start speaking in tongues and falling over.

Especially when I played the keyboard.

The reality: I slowly became a good musician. At least passable. I mean, my university degree is in music production…

What I thought was God using me and my musicianship was really just the power of music itself. But again, the church and my Christian upbringing dominated my musical knowledge and experiences. I thought that people only felt a certain way when certain music is played because of God moving through the music, when, in fact, human response to music is near universal. Music is just what us humans respond to best.

Do you see a pattern emerging with these examples?

In every case I experienced something profound, but didn’t know these experiences were something that EVERYONE can feel, regardless of faith in God.

And, importantly, these experiences fulfilled a need. Many needs. Going back to Maslow; the whole top half of the pyramid, even the ones way down from the peak.

The Rational Approach

Next question: how many discussions or conversations or arguments did I have with atheists that helped me shed my childhood faith?

If you think the answer is higher than zero… buzz! Wrong.

The answer is zero. None at all.

I had a very complex view on christian theology, and remember (with fondness) taking part in and leading bible studies about salvation (Romans 6 and 7 was a favorite topic of discussion).

However, the basis of my faith wasn’t the minutia of theology, nor of the nature of God, nor of the actual truth of the claims of God. What I had were the real experiences.

One early step to my deconversion from Christianity was the erosion of the lower levels on that Hierarchy of Need. There was a not entirely peaceful breakup of my Christian fellowship, which sort of spasmed through quasi-cult like stages before falling apart. A fellowship that is no longer a fellowship doesn’t really fulfill that fellowship need. I’m not going to get into this point more here, but for completeness I had to state it.

The more important step is having those peak experiences elsewhere, other than in church. I mentioned some examples above, but here are some specifics particular to my deconversion.

Example number 1:

1998 to 1999, I played in a band. Jamming and performing with a group of like-minded musicians is a great experience. And it was a non-christian band! And the feeling I had were comparable to those I had when leading worship.

As in, when I played a song I wrote on my keyboard, and the singer sang the love-ballad-like lyrics, it made girls cry.

Examples numbers 2, 3 and 4:

During one trip to Cornwall in 1999 I got really, really, really stoned. I thought I was going to die. This is sort of an anti-peak experience, but it was stronger than anything I’d felt in church. It was also the total opposite of getting badly drunk.

Same trip, I watched the complete solar eclipse. Awesome.

Same trip, I caught a perfect wave while surfing. At least it felt perfect, and went on forever.

Example number 5 and 6:

In 2001 I had a near-death experience. The brakes on my camper van failed while driving down the steepest road in England. It freaked me out.

crunched van

A few minutes later, while pumped up on adrenaline, I juggled 11 balls for 11 catches for the first time ever. At the time only about four people in the world had done this.

Over these years, from about 1997 to 2001, I had many great experiences, many quite profound, some utterly profound. Each time I reflected that the spiritual peak experiences I craved had been fulfilled outside of a church environment. Some of them had been completely under my own physical control (eg: not at the suggestion of a Christian minister or worship leader), and these drove home the point in an even stronger way: what I once thought spiritual was, in fact, merely human.

It didn’t lessen the memory of my Christian spiritual experiences, nor negate their impact, it just showed them to be one variety of many human experiences possible.

The final turning point, when I realized I was no longer a “real” Christian, was the brake failure of my van in 2001.

Unlike the near-drowning in 1992, I didn’t even think of God or Heaven. Instead of happiness that I was about to meet Jesus, I had a simple regret that if I died, I wouldn’t be able to go traveling in my new van (I’d only bought it three weeks before), and I wouldn’t be able to spend my summer busking and surfing and juggling before returning to university that autumn.

My “final” thoughts when my van flipped onto its roof had nothing to do with my past life as Christian, but regret that my future life of new, non-spiritual experiences might not come to pass.

And that was it. Christian spirituality no longer meant anything to me. I didn’t need it to live a full life. I was no longer getting any kind of fellowship from Christianity, that function was coming more and more from the juggling sub-culture. With university came exposure to much more music, and Christian rock no longer cut it. I also realized that I no longer cared for the morality as taught in church, seeing as I was just as moral, if not more so, than many Christians I knew. I also didn’t believe gays were going to hell.

A few months later, when I went to work for GOD TV, I saw the Christianity=Morality connection dissolve even further, but that’s another story.

For a few years I didn’t really think of Christianity much, or what my world view might be. I just got on with living my life, establishing a new identity as an adult, trying to have as many new experiences as possible.

I got to the point where I was nothing more than a wishy-washy agnostic on the matter of god, or maybe some kind of pantheist. Then I had a conversation with a friend (same conversation as I mentioned above) and he pretty much said “It’s all bullshit. Christianity, astrology, lay lines, crystals. One day someone made something up, told someone, and they believed it. Then the next person believed it too. But at the core, it started with someone making something up.”

While I don’t think the truth is that simple, my reaction to this was the thought “Yeah, I’m pretty much an atheist.”

But the key step was in 2001; the step from Christian to no-need-for-Christianity.

The lesson from all this?

Forget trying to argue with people. It’s not going to work. Nobody rationally decides to be a Christian, so trying to use rational arguments to turn them away from Christianity, or any religion, just isn’t going to work.

And it doesn’t need to work. When it comes to personal beliefs, the rationality or intelligence of the vast majority Christians isn’t the deciding factor in their personal faith or belief.

I agree that less religious adherence is probably a good thing. Being tied to millennia-old moral teachings isn’t a good idea, as it used to justify all kinds of bigoted words and actions. Also I think concentrating on helpful actions on behalf of others is better than praying for their non-existent souls.

However, if these New Atheists actually want to deconvert the masses, they MUST provide two things:

1. fellowship comparable to a church group,
2. an equal number of opportunities for spiritual-alternative peak experiences.

The first is already underway, to a limited degree, with the Skeptics in the Pub movement. The second? I’m just not seeing it.

Seriously, if anyone has any suggestions, send me an email. But really, what does “no spirituality” have to compete with “real spiritual experiences”?

Life requires much more than just “not-religious” or “not-spiritual”. It requires something to replace the human urge to experience euphoria and a sublime connection to the world. I experience these through a variety of measures, none of which have any connection to my “identity” as an atheist, skeptic, science geek or rationalist.

I am all those things, but they are not what make me human.

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11 Responses to Luke on Spiritual Experiences and Atheism

  1. Scott Johnson says:

    Hey Luke, Nice article, many of the things you talk about above are the reasons I still hang at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship and attended Humanist groups. Unitarians do all the “Peak” experience sort of events that as Atheists we sort of never get to experience. (without many of the experiences you have experienced :-p)

  2. Dimitriou says:

    Hey Luke,

    Awesome post there, I like the way you break it down while still keeping it symantic.

    Interesting views.

  3. TorontoKev says:

    Some fine, thoughtful, mature, respectful interpretations there my friend. Interesting thoughts to chew on.

    We’re all a work in progress with thoughts and interpretations that evolve and mature, even completely change and change back. To stick a flag in the ground and say This Is Where All People Should Be is pretty amusing – not even those sticking in the flag will be at that spot in a few years, mostly.

    -TorontoKev (christian!)

  4. dad says:

    Quick comment from mum after first read…although I do not agree with all your views, I love your blog!!

  5. dad says:

    well thought out, well felt, well telt.

  6. Bethany says:

    Hi Luke
    Really enjoyed reading this. Interesting thoughts, extremely well written and many things to ponder on.

  7. S says:

    Good post luke. I was just talking to someone, no correction I often talk to people about the lack of understanding about faith and devotion, of those who have never *experienced* Christianity.

    My current thoughts for my uni research revolve around this *New Atheist* or skeptic in the pub movement and if they can be described in terms of a new religious movement (without the God part). At the moment I think not, because as you say whilst they have *fellowship* they don’t provide a spiritual experience replacement. I am also interested in their vehemence against those with deep religious convictions, and like you, dislike it, although I must admit to finding Tim Minchin a great release for me!

  8. Rupert says:

    A couple of things. Being spiritual is (in my opinion) nothing to do with organised religion. Religion and spirituality are two different things. You can have heighted peak experiences that teach you about yourself and the world you live in and as such, are spiritual. Hawkins has really polarised the diffrences between spiritual and the scientific mind, esp in the arguements about creationism and inteligent designin the last few years. And this is a great shame. As with all polarised arguements the truth lays probably somewhere in the middle ground. There may not be (at least I don’t think there is) a personal god in charge of everything (and I really I hope theres not) but that does not mean that there is not a consciouness that evades all that there is. This at least is the Buddhist view and one I am probably nearest too. People with a spiritual/religious belief are proven to be happier than those without one. Luke, you seem to be by your posts, your views and general demeanor a pretty satisfied, alert and fulfilled sort of guy (and indeed I hope you are), so maybe Christianities world view is too enclosed for you. But for many its the only thing they may have in a world that can be confusing, troublesome and unfair…
    Ps. Love your Scifi blog and the above is excellently thought out. Thanks.

  9. Fabio Milan says:

    My own views on the issue or… How I took the exact opposite path you did to get to the same place.

    Well, I was supposed to be a Catholic. My mom tried really hard, but, at the same time, she ALWAYS respected my individuality, so if I didn’t want to follow her believes, that was ok. She went on to be part of the “Focolari” movement, she is a key figure on her congregation, always travelling with church friends and now that she is retired, she is having her share of “peak” experiences.

    Me, today, I’m an somewhat agnostic, somewhat atheist… I think. Up to 10 or 15 years ago I considered myself a true atheist, and I was very, very, very arrogant about that…

    Well, something I must mention about my background here to better explain things: I’m Brazilian, grew up in Rio de Janeiro. Brazil today is going through a process of “decatholification”, i.e., it’s losing its Catholic identity and replacing it with a mix of protestant churches and spiritis, among those the Pentecostal churches were the ones I really disgusted. There were lots of people converting to those churches, normally the poor, the illiterate, and hopeless. And they were paying and there were those who were profiting, and buying mass media outlets and well… At the time, being just over 18 or 20 years old, that seemed to me totally stupid. I saw all that mockery of miracles and other obviously fake proofs of Chris presence, and I thought “How come they buy all that bullshit?”

    There were also other events like that that further convinced me how all religions were just a waste of time, but this is beside the point. I think you got my point already.

    Of course, at the time I was a big science fiction reader, I was just starting my university and I was pretty much your typical geek and, well… I was arrogant enough to say to anyone who wanted to listen how religion was just a good excuse for people to kill each other (which I still believe to this day, when I hear these reports of suicidal attacks on Afghanistan and other places). But I grew older and started to make friend and had all those “peak experiences” you mentioned before, and started to see the value that religion can bring to people. Of course, there still is a lot of bullshit mixed in it, but as someone told me once: 90% of everything is worthless.

    Today I don’t consider myself a logical atheist; I’m more an agnostic, or, better saying, maybe a humanist. Just don’t have any clear idea of what picture I’ll get from that.

  10. Fabio Milan says:

    Oh, one more thing… Forgive my poor english. I’ve read what I posted and could find some issue.

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