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.” 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.
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.