The Nontheistic Experience of God

For as long as I’ve been a nontheist and someone who does not believe in the supernatural, I’ve been hesitant to retire the word “God” from my vocabulary.

This might be surprising to some readers. I am, after all, a Satanist who values skepticism and rationality, and I reject the unfalsifiable claims of theistic and supernaturalist religions. And yet, the word “God” sticks around for me, if only privately. This is because the word “God” seems to be the only one that adequately articulates certain experiences I’ve had.

When I meditate every morning, I occasionally stumble across a sense of inexpressible vastness within myself. This vastness seems to mirror the universe around me. At the core of this experience is a profound mystery that, at the moment, I feel I could gaze into for the rest of my life and never tire of. What is experience? What is consciousness? What is color? How does everything – thought, sight, sensation, and the theater within which they all appear – just hang suspended without reference to itself or something else to give it coherence? Like a Zen koan, experience itself resists understanding, and gazing at that mystery culminates into what I can only call the experience of God: ecstatic awe at a fundamental mystery greater than myself.

I’ve had more mundane experiences of the ecstatic: listening to music, attending concerts, and running along empty mountain ridges have all given me a feeling of transcendent awe. I don’t know what to call these experiences except for the experience of God — an encounter with something so huge, unknowable, and mysterious that I stand transfixed before it.

Fellow atheists and skeptics will probably see me as committing a grave semantic sin. God, they might say, explicitly means a literal deity with identifiable features like a will, personality, and goals. Atheists often get angry (weirdly) when someone deigns to use religious language in strictly non-supernatural ways. Other readers might come from different cultural backgrounds, and the word “God” doesn’t resonate with them.

That’s fine. No one needs to use the same words I use. I’m even willing to concede that using the word “God” here could lead to confusion, and bring less clarity to conversations about theistic belief. This is a matter of personal usage and experience. But I don’t think it’s just personal.

I was recently reading Hands of Doom: The Apocalyptic Imagination of Black Sabbath by metalhead and theologian Jack Holloway, and the following passage stood out to me:

…people like myself see two essential relating factors at play in theology: an intimate connection to humanity and the earth, and a mysterious sense of otherness — immanence and transcendence, to use theological words. God has a special relationship to humans because only humans share the idea of God. God is not an object we encounter in the world with our senses, like animals and plants, but God is nonetheless an object of thought and experience to humans. God has occurred to humans, so we cannot talk about God without talking about the humans talking about God. And yet, permeating the idea of God is what the rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called “the sense of the ineffable.” To say “God” is to invoke deep mystery and boundlessness. God occurs to the human mind as a question mark over the human order, and opens up the mind to the reality of otherness and alternative possibilities. Theology is driven by these questions of the humanity of God and what it means that God is divine.

I think Holloway is hitting on something profound that is often missed. Theology is undoubtedly the study of religious texts and ancient articulations of an unfalsifiable God. It’s the exploration of trinities, afterlives, and unprovable miracles. It is full of delusion, human silliness, and irreconcilable convictions that have resulted in untold human suffering and bloodshed.

But theology is also the study of an experience. Even when everything else is stripped away — all the miracles, unprovable myths, and contradictory divine revelations — the feeling of God remains.

I still have that feeling. It is as vivid and present for me as when I was a Christian. We can, even as nontheists and skeptics, cultivate that beatific vision and transcendent experience. I see no reason why we shouldn’t. It’s a beautiful thing. Why not experience God, even if you don’t believe in God?

But that’s just me. What do you think? Let me know in the comments below or on my discord server. If your comment is excellent, I might feature it in a blog post. And, if you enjoy my work, please consider becoming a patron and signing up for my newsletter.

Photo by Adrian Swancar on Unsplash

7 thoughts on “The Nontheistic Experience of God

  1. I really enjoyed this read. I personally believe that language falls short of fully capturing the full range of the human experience. I find that as a non-theist, removing all spirituality from my vernacular created a hole in my ability to describe certain experiences in my life. I find it’s much easier to say “I felt God in that moment” than it is to try and describe the experiences in wholly naturalistic ways.

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  2. I think we all have different ways to express the human experience even when we are literally experiencing the same thing or something else.

    We can believe with justification or not, and be both right and wrong at the same time. We can base our beliefs on sensual experience or what others have told us to trust.

    I think the really fascinating part is when we share all these experiences or knowledge with eachother and learn wisdom together.

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  3. Religions have claimed so many words, but the concept of “God” is different in each. Anyone making the assumption that the term means any specific thing when used by someone not of their own religion is just an expression of ignorance for the diversity of our shared world.

    What we call the greater being that we all make together should of course be our choice to define and name. Thank you for keeping it real.

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