The Trouble with Atheists

Atheists may be justified in rejecting the ideological, patriarchal, violent, and exclusionary “Church God” found in elite spiritual traditions, but as argued in this short research note, there is more to human spirituality than just that.

Let’s face it, these hidden laws [of mysticism] are hidden, but they are only hidden by [your] own ignorance. And the word mystical is just arrived at through people’s ignorance. There’s nothing mystical about it, only that you’re ignorant of what that entails.” ― George Harrison

The trouble with atheists is that they are fighting a battle with a delusion, which is not that surprising. Atheists pride themselves on their rational, secular intelligence. Atheists can see the patent absurdity of God as a violent, abusive, and controlling patriarch (Church God), and the untenability of belief based on blind faith, and so they reject the whole thing. They feel it is foolish to believe in something “just because,” and so they do not. They reject the patent absurdity and settle into a lifetime commitment to the Church of Secular Humanism.

This is not an unreasonable position to take. However, as a former atheist myself, I would like to say that rejecting the violent and patriarchal church god is not the same, or shouldn’t be the same, as rejecting human spirituality in toto. There is something more to human spirituality than what you find presented at the pews in the churches of the big-name ecclesiastical brands. Frankly, I’m not the only scholar to say this. Consider that Einstein (Hermanns 1983), several famous physicists (Wilber 2001), not a few psychologists (Arthur Hastings 2010; Maslow 1969; Stace 1960a), and a small handful of sociologists (for example, see Hermanns 1983; Rowbotham 1980) have suspected, participated in, and even researched this “something more” for quite some time. Despite what polemicists like Richard Dawkins (2006) would have you believe, there has been a significant amount of reasonable scholarly interest in the “something more” of human spirituality for a very, very long time.

If this is true, then the immediate question must be, what is the something more. In two word phrases, the answer is “mystical experience,” “religious experience,” “transcendent experience,” or what I simply call Connection Experience (Sosteric 2018a). Connection experience is an important aspect of human spirituality, and a few scholars have recognized and noted it as such. Founding psychologist William James took mystical experience seriously when he called mystics the “pattern-setters” whose experiences established religious traditions (James 1982). Psychologists (Heriot-Maitland 2008) have noted that “mystical experience… constitute[d] the very essence of religion, such that the origin of a given tradition can often be traced to an initial transcendent encounter, moment of revelation, salvation, or enlightenment.” Abraham Maslow, founding father of humanistic psychology, spent the bulk of his career looking at “peak experiences,” which is a secular name for a secular type of mystical experiences. Like others who have studied these, he felt that mystical experience was the “intrinsic core” and essence, the universal nucleus of every known … religion #(Maslow, 2012: 339)#. Stace, an early pioneer in the study of mystical experience, said that mystical experience was “a psychological fact of which there is abundant evidence.” He further went on to say that, “To deny or doubt that it exists as a psychological fact is not a reputable opinion.” It is ignorance and “very stupid” (Stace 1960b:14). Indeed, spiritual experience has been a central feature of all human existence. From the earliest emergence of humanity (Hamer 2005) to our current modern experiences, mystical experience is a psychological and neurological fact. With modern brain scanning technologies we can observe the neurological reality of mystical experience (Newberg, d’Aquile, and Rause 2001; Newberg and Waldman 2009).

Is this true? Is connection experience really the authentic root core and essence of human spirituality. It is possible. Certainly, it should be considered. Connection experience is a common human experience that has been recorded and discussed for thousands of years. Not only that, but just about everybody has them (Sosteric 2018a). What’s more, connection experiences are significant human experiences that lead to a wide range of positive and transformative psychological, intellectual, and emotional outcomes (Bien 2004; Hanes 2012). A single connection experience can heal (Hawks 2002; Mahoney and Pargament 2004; Vaillant 2002) and dramatically transform (White 2004) an individual, and not just emotionally or psychologically. Mystical practices and mystical experience have political implications. They can lead to social class realignment, a so-called “turn to the left” (Sosteric 2018b), meaningful social change (Erika Summers-Effler and Hyunjin Deborah Kwak 2015), and even revolutionary social action (Harvey 1998).

The ubiquity, significance, and obvious reality of connection experience might go along way to explaining why secularization has not significantly progressed as some sociologists had predicted and hoped for (Berger 1968, 1999). Human beings are unlikely to simply dismiss something as significant and ubiquitous as human experience, despite what some academics might say. Despite the fact that church attendance continues to decline, atheism has not expanded significantly. Only about three percent of American’s identify themselves as committed atheists, and the numbers aren’t that impressive anywhere else. We have nine percent in Canada, twelve percent in Norway and Germany, and a “staggering” nineteen percent in France (Hunsberger and Altemeyer 2006). Clearly the world is not beating a pathway to the “higher rationality” of the atheist perspective. Certainly, suggesting that the empirical reality of connection experience is what keeps the majority of humans tuned in to human spirituality is a more satisfying explanation that an explanation than one that disparages believers as irrational, illogical, and even stupid.

In any case, the point being made here is simple. It is reasonable for thoughtful people to reject the notion of Church God; however, it is not reasonable to reject humans spirituality in toto just because we find one aspect of it is questionable. Clearly, there is more to human spirituality than what you find represented in church pews. As briefly intimated in this research note, this more is connection experience. Connection experience is a class of human experiences that are powerful, transformative, healing, and empirically verifiable. Connection experience is a significant and fascinating aspect of human experience and one that we, and by “we” I mean scholars, cannot simply dismiss.


Arthur Hastings. 2010. “William James, Conversion and Rapid, Radical Transformation.” Journal of Consciousness Studies 17(11–12):116–20.

Berger, Peter. 1968. A Bleak Outlook Is Seen for Religion. Vol. April 25. The New York Times.

Berger, Peter. 1999. The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics. Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans.

Bien, Thomas H. 2004. “Quantum Change and Psychotherapy.” Journal of Clinical Psychology (5):493.

Dawkins, Richard. 2006. The God Delusion. New York: Mariner Books.

Erika Summers-Effler, and Hyunjin Deborah Kwak. 2015. “Weber’s Missing Mystics: Inner-Worldly Mystical Practices and the Micro Potential for Social Change.” Theory and Society 44(3):251–82.

Hamer, Dean H. 2005. The God Gene: How Faith Is Hardwired into Our Genes. New York: Anchor.

Hanes, Karl. 2012. “Unusual Phenomena Associated With a Transcendent Human Experience: A Case Study.” The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology 44(1):26–47.

Harvey, Andrew. 1998. Teachings of the Christian Mystics. Kindle. Boston: Shambhala Publications.

Hawks, David. 2002. “Quantum Change: Bridging the Schism Between Science and Spirituality, Ordinary People Tell Their Stories of Extraordinary Change: When Epiphanies and Sudden Insight Transform Ordinary Lives (Book).” Addiction 97(6):763.

Heriot-Maitland, Charles P. 2008. “Mysticism and Madness: Different Aspects of the Same Human Experience?” Mental Health, Religion & Culture 11(3):301–25.

Hermanns, William. 1983. Einstein and the Poet. Boston: Branden Books.

Hunsberger, Bruce, and Bob Altemeyer. 2006. Atheists: A Groundbreaking Study of America’s Nonbelievers. New York: Prometheus Books.

James, William. 1982. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study of Human Nature. New York: Penguin.

Mahoney, Annette, and Kenneth I. Pargament. 2004. “Sacred Changes: Spiritual Conversion and Transformation.” Journal of Clinical Psychology (5):481.

Maslow, A. H. 1969. “The Farther Reaches of Human Nature.” Journal of Transpersonal Psychology 1(1):1–9.

Newberg, Andew, Eugene d’Aquile, and Vince Rause. 2001. Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief. New York: Ballantine Books.

Newberg, Andrew, and Mark Robert Waldman. 2009. How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist. New York: Ballantine Books.

Rowbotham, Sheila. 1980. “In Search of Edward Carpenter.” Radical America 14(4).

Sosteric, Mike. 2018a. “Everybody Has a Connection Experience: Prevalence, Confusions, Interference, and Redefinition.” Spirituality Studies 4(2).

Sosteric, Mike. 2018b. “Mystical Experience and Global Revolution.” Athens Journal of Social Sciences 5(3):235–55.

Stace, Walter Terence. 1960a. Mysticism and Philosophy. London: Macmillan.

Stace, Walter Terence. 1960b. The Teachings of the Mystics. New York: Mentor.

Vaillant, George E. 2002. “Quantum Change: When Epiphanies and Sudden Insights Transform Ordinary Lives.” American Journal of Psychiatry: Official Journal of the American Psychiatric Association (9):1620.

White, William L. 2004. “Transformational Change: A Historical Review.” Journal of Clinical Psychology 60(5):461–70.

Wilber, Ken. 2001. Quantum Questions: Mystical Writings of the World’s Great Physicists. New York: Shambhala.

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