There are philosophers and psychologists who claim that we can never be truly happy without some sort of spiritual (meaning religious) life. Writers eagerly turn out books about the human mind having an innate religious impulse, or explain how we all carry the “God gene.” In their view, irrationality is entirely justified. They summarily dismiss reason and enlightenment. My own experience does not support these assertions. I spent years wrestling with a spiritual crisis and found that, far from being a comfort, the pursuit of the religious generates paranoia, the feeling of being perpetually watched and harassed. A crippling excess of conscience settles in and makes one’s life a misery. It becomes necessary to eliminate the awful feelings, and to do that, one needs the opposite of religion. One must extirpate all religious feeling.

Hound of Heaven Illustration

Some religious converts claim they felt hunted or fished for by God. Others liken the God sense to being pursued by a dangerous hound. (Image: public domain)

There is no shortage of stories about religious sentiment haunting the lives of outstanding individuals. To illustrate the damaging effect of “the religious impulse,” I will offer three that I know well.

The first of these is the ascetic English poet Francis Thompson, who felt himself pursued by “the hound of heaven.” Out of his experience came the famous poem of the same name that opens with these lines:

I FLED Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, …

It is powerful stuff, and meant to be inspiring rather than a warning. Yet the religious struggle seriously damaged Thompson’s life. He abandoned his beloved “poetry of beauty” in favour of verse with a religious message crippling a promising career in the process and making himself wretchedly poor and unhappy. He became a laudanum addict and suffered recurring bouts of severe depression. Sent to monasteries to recover, the monks only filled him with more religion.

My second example is the French philosopher, Christian mystic and social activist Simone Weil. Disturbingly, she imagined God as a great spider waiting at the centre of a maze. Worse, she hoped to stand at the entrance to the spider’s maze and push people in! Like Thompson, she saw her frightful image as a good thing. Weil was seriously disturbed throughout her life. When evacuated from wartime France to the relative safety of England, a guilty conscience overwhelmed her. She eventually starved herself to death in the mistaken belief that her French compatriots were suffering a similar fate at the hands of the Nazis.

Last, I offer C. S. Lewis, now famous for his Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis has described his religious conversion as a case of being hunted and fished for by his God. He quite literally frightened himself into Anglicanism. He was using Virgil’s Aeneid as an oracle, asking questions and then opening his copy to interpret what was on the page as a prediction. When Virgil “predicted” the collapse of the British Empire, Lewis became alarmed. He rushed into the “comforting” arms of religion. The demise of the empire was hardly an astonishing revelation in the mid-nineteen-twenties, I must add, and of course, the idea was Lewis’ own. Lewis titled the account of his conversion, Surprised by Joy. Upon reading the book, joy is conspicuous only by its absence.

It is probable that the current explosion of depression and mental illness in the Western world is in part attributable to the exponential growth of the search for spiritual beliefs and values. Since traditional religions now have only a limited appeal, most seekers are turning towards one sort of dubious mysticism or another, with catastrophic results.

What drives a person to flirt with or take up mysticism or religion? The answer lies in the seeker’s relationship with their unconscious. When a lot of personality or other material has been repressed, it comes back to haunt its rightful owner – the conscious mind – in the form of a vague external (a sort of projection) or internal dimly sensed presence. This can seem supernatural. Often, these stirrings of the unconscious are labelled numinous and mistaken for God. Thompson, Weil, and Lewis fell victim to the erroneous belief that what they eerily sensed within them or detected around them was in fact God. Once the idea takes hold it builds a self-made “reality.” The believer frames all interpretations of events from the perspective that God is both real and present. The religious conversion is complete.

The only way to escape from the trap of genuine religious belief is to raise those unconscious contents into conscious awareness. Once there, they lose their sense of the numinous, the feeling that God is present evaporates, and the person is liberated. The process can be long and painful.

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10 thoughts on “Outrunning the Hound of Heaven

  1. Interesting. As a non-believer myself, I’ve always thought that religious people have it easier, in the sense of finding meaning and purpose in existence, and the reassurance of an afterlife. But to think of god as someone perpetually watching and harassing you… actually, that doesn’t sound so easy after all.

  2. In my opinion, a lot of what drives religious belief is fear or having no control over something that is dear to you.

    Example–I need a job, my family has no money and is going to be kicked out of our house, I can’t find a job and no one has been able to find me one either. Therefore, I need help from something powerful that can find me one. Time to pray.

  3. I think some people do find comfort in religion, Max, but for these people the goal is often little more than a childish desire to acquire a substitute parent. God replaces one’s father and/or mother as moral guide and (hopefully) provider. It’s no accident that church attendance is lowest in countries with the best social safety nets. Surveys show that church attendance in the US is dropping as that nation catches up with the rest of the West when it comes to providing government-run social programs.

    The reassuring idea of an afterlife has always been the big selling point for the Judeo-Christian traditions. Yet the flight away from the churches and synagogues suggests that science has eroded the credibility of the concept. Nowadays, most people seem content to settle for material security in the here and now.

    However, the comfort offered by religion has always come at a cost. It’s worth noting that tolerance in general has increased substantially as the belief in God has declined. We see far fewer cases of individuals psychologically destroyed by an excess of conscience. There is less violence. One has only to contrast the West with the Islamic countries to see my point.

  4. You’re absolutely right, Dan. Material insecurity (along with fear of death) has always been the major driver of religious belief. In my reply to Max, above, I pointed out the reality of declining church attendance in countries with luxurious social safety nets. Religion flourishes in the Third World precisely because life there is so precarious. However, religion of this kind is often what you might call desperation religion. It is based on hope rather than an inner sense of being haunted by God. Desperation religion quickly wanes when economic conditions improve or social safety nets are introduced. People caught in the psychological error of mistaking their unconscious mind for God are not in a position simply to stop attending church and line up at the welfare office. They have to grapple with the reality of a deeply held belief that they cannot dislodge without a lot of inner struggle and strife. They have to exorcise their Holy Ghosts.

  5. The Jesus of the Bible is concerned about how a person views him or herself in relation to God and others to the end that he or she learns to love self, others, and God. He modeled this humble, serving, love and even defined “God” as love. When someone follows Jesus in this way, he or she will not find themselves distraught by religion or by God. Rather, this will be the source of great joy, peace, restored relationships, discarding of self-destructive behaviors, selfless community involvement, heightened sense of compassion for the disenfranchised, and an over-all “life more abundantly” as Jesus promised. All of this comes with the included benefits of the removal of the fear of death and the sense of value and purpose that comes from being a recipient of the love of God.

    I know this from experience. Should I be deluded in what I have found in all of this? Then praise be to the powers of random coincidence that have radically transformed my own life and made me a great deal more like the person I would have wished to be, yet was not.

    “Faith has reason that reason knows not of.”

  6. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Randy. Spirituality is a complex and important subject. The people I describe in my post are haunted by their own unconscious minds. They experience the frightening emergence of formerly-repressed unconscious material as a sign of God’s presence within. Since the emerging material is frightening, they see God as frightening. What is important here is that their experience is psychological or internal. These people are artists and philosophers and as such are unusually aware of what goes on inside themselves.

    Your own experience of religion seems much more external. I am assuming that your God is mostly in Heaven and not entirely inside of you. Your concept of Jesus comes from the Bible. Your idea of what constitutes a good person looks like a blend of Biblical teaching and the modern progressive thinking taught in most Western schools.
    Progressive thinking, even that practiced by atheistic socialists, has its origins in the religious left.

    Here is where we differ. (And I think we will have to agree to disagree!) You have *consciously* decided to be like Jesus. You have *consciously* adopted progressive values in order to become a good person. Notice what you had to do to accomplish this. You rejected yourself. You have become more like what you “wished to be, yet was not.” So what happened to the “old” you? You cannot make your real self go away by deciding that you don’t like it, and then arbitrarily replacing it with something else. The notion of transformation is a lovely but unrealistic myth. The real you is now repressed. You have banished it to the unconscious and replaced it with a splendid false persona. Down the road a piece, your authentic self is going to come back and haunt you, just like it did the people in my post.

    I believe that true spirituality has nothing to do with God. It is all about finding out who you really are and then making the best of what you have got. “Playing the cards you were dealt,” as some would say. This does not mean surrendering to shortcomings and flaws. It means accepting them and learning how to deal with them in a mature and responsible way. The love the *real you* needs is not God’s love, but your own.

  7. A world without God is meaningless. God was pleased through the foolishness of the gospel to save those who believe.

    Jesus said that the Truth was hidden from those who claimed to be wise. Pride blinds mankind.

  8. Thanks for taking an interest in the discussion, Mark.

    I am a huge believer in humankind taking responsibility for its own actions and creating its own future. The same applies to individuals. The concept is called responsible maturity. Neither as a species nor as individuals can we afford to sit around like children hoping for some big daddy deity to step in and do everything for us. This kind of wisdom is not pride. It is realism.

    If you consider pride a problem, then consider this: Surely, there is immense pride in the old belief that humanity is so important and special that some universe-creating omnipotent being is taking the time and trouble to look after us. Personally, I step on bugs all the time! 😉

    Meaning is all around us. I am a complete atheist, yet I never lack for a sense of meaning. A sincere interest in – and engagement with – the world provides all the meaning anyone needs. As a Christian focussed on the afterlife (presumably what you mean by being “saved”), perhaps your problem with meaning stems from a lack of commitment to the here and now.

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