Mysticism and Religion or Religion: Who Needs It?

The New York Times’ Ross Douthat has an interesting column on the deficit of mysticism within contemporary American religion. And, even as someone who counts himself an unbeliever, I agree with much of his sentiment. Although I find organized religion perplexing and often times downright stupid, I do feel there’s a role for “the quest for the numinous, the pursuit of the unnamable, the tremor of the bliss and the dark night of the soul” (as Douthat puts it) in our society. In other words, I feel that even the most stringent atheists still have a need to connect with the transcendent—whether that comes through poetry, film, literature, experiencing nature, athletics, whatever.

However, at the same time I do see the positive aspects of a demystified religion: groups are more apt to act (both positively and negatively) within the state and society. Because of this form of religion, we’ve seen proactive religious figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Desmund Tutu, the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa for example, as well as movements like Liberation Theology. In recent news, this form of religion has been utilized positively in Afghanistan where mullahs have started promoting safe sex and contraceptives and in London where a prominent Muslim scholar has issued a fatwa condemning terrorism, suicide bombing, and the basic tenets of Al Qaeda’s views on Islam.

These are all positive things. But they are positive things that could be accomplished without religion. And in some ways religion may have been the aggravating factor for these issues in the first place. Just ask yourself, how strong are the arguments against birth control and in favor of suicide bombing without the beliefs, language and authority of religion. Pretty weak, no? Now, as shown earlier, it may be true that the best way to combat these pernicious views is through using similar religious beliefs, language and authority, but wouldn’t it be a lot easier if the human race just scrapped these primitive fairy tales altogether? And yes, I realize that this John-Lennon-imagined world is a bit unrealistic. Therefore the most pragmatic bet is to still play by the religious game. But a guy can dream. (This is not to say a world without religion would be perfect, peaceful and conflict free….just better).

So while I still view organized religion as a nonsensical fantasy, I also understand the desire that drives human beings to these various faiths. Yet it is possible to address this human need for the “mystical” while at the same time remaining agnostic or atheistic towards religion and even god—author Sam Harris is a perfect example of that.


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