Quaker Universalist Conversations

Religious Experience – An Open Letter

Religion, Briefly Considered No. 6

Editor’s Note: In the course of our correspondence about the “Religion, Briefly Considered” series, I posed the following to Winston Davis:

“I encourage you to consider following your series with a post or two sharing your personal ‘faith and practice‘— how your studies and reflection inform the core of what guides you in your personal actions.”

Here is his response, as the final entry in the series:
Part 1: Darwin’s Dog, or the Evolution of Religion
Part 2: When You Wish upon a Star: The Projection Theory of Religion
Part 3: Carving the Buddha: Was Feuerbach Right?.
Part 4: Dojo: Rethinking Projection Theory
Part 5: Religious Magic.

Dear Mike,

Thanks for your recent email about my QUF blogs in which you gently suggest that I not get hung up on “belief systems,” but cut to the chase and talk about my personal values, leadings and experiences.

Friends have always insisted that personal experience is more important than scripture, dogma and ecclesiastical authority. As a secular humanist, I think that’s a step in the right direction. As a former academic, however, I think that what can be objectively known trumps my own personal experience. That, at least, has been what has been guiding my choice of topics up until now.

I believe that religion discredits itself when it is the product of childish, wishful or unrealistic thinking, cruel or self-destructive impulses, or an undisciplined imagination. Like many others, I have turned away from religion of this sort.

I don’t reject religion, as Feuerbach did, because it is a product of the human imagination. That’s one aspect of Feuerbach’s critique that I can’t accept. The imagination gives rise to both religious and secular illusions. On the other hand, by leaping beyond the known and familiar, the imagination also produces some of the world’s greatest literature, art, music—and, yes, even science. It would therefore be absurd to say that we should downplay imagination, belittle its offspring, or that religion must go because it originates in the imagination.

The imagination needs to be reformed, not repressed. It needs to be disciplined by what is, or can be known, including what is known to be moral. If and when this happens, I believe the imagination will eventually cease to be “religious” in the traditional meaning of that word. The Dalai Lama himself says “I am increasingly convinced that the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics beyond religion altogether.”1


Teaching college courses on Buddhism for some three decades had a corrosive impact on my own religious views. Although Buddhism is often called an atheistic religion, it actually doesn’t deny the existence of the gods.

Avalokiteshvara creating the Hindu gods Most traditional Buddhist teachers assume that there are gods and that they can lend us a helping hand now and then. They can improve our health, our wealth, find us a spouse, and, in general, make us lucky. So it’s a good idea to keep on their good side.

But the gods are not absolute or unchanging. Like us, they are born and they die. They are caught in the same wheel of “co-dependent co-arising” that spins our own lives. They may spin at a higher level, but they need enlightenment as much as we do.

This way of looking at the gods gradually pried me loose from conventional theism, and, in particular, from Christianity.

Vine So, where am I today?

There are those who say “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual.” To my ears, claiming to be spiritual sounds like saying “I’m too smart to be religious. But I’m a very ‘deep’ person—so think well of me.” That’s a bit spineless and self-serving, I would say. Furthermore, “spirituality” opens the door to all sorts of woolly ideas and practices, from old-fashioned Theosophy and Spiritualism to what people call “New Age” today.

Both religion and spirituality are in my no-fly zone.

Unlike many Quakers, I don’t believe that religious experience is sacred in and of itself. Why? First of all, all experience is prone to deception. As Salmon Rushdie reminds us in his novel Satanic Verses, some of the verses in the Qur’an are said to have been inspired not by Allah, but by Satan. Mohammed was (at least momentarily) duped. If the Devil can fool a prophet, how do you know that it is God who is speaking when you have a leading, a revelation or some other religious experience?

Or take the story of the near sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. The rabbis themselves warn against taking this story as a moral paradigm. (Can you imagine the psychological scars left on young Isaac after being treated by his father like that?) Nevertheless, thousands of people—not just in the Middle East—think that God is telling them to kill someone every day.

Jerusalem Temple You may say these revelations are not real religious experiences. But that can be said only if you take your stand within religion. That’s something I no longer do. I don’t know what the real, normative “core” of any religion is. From an empirical, outsider’s point of view, all that I see is diversity, contradictions, and a proliferation of hostile sects and theologies in each and every world religion.

Catholics and Quakers won’t agree with this, but it’s not obvious to me that personal religious experience can be safely corrected by the authority or consensus of a religious community. There are plenty of historical examples of whole religions that have become morally corrupt. We know from the recent history of cults like People’s Temple, Heaven’s Gate and Aum-Shinrikyo, and from daily reports about Islamist terrorism that criminal religious movements can pervert the religious sensibility of the individual. That’s why the study of cults—perverse religions that harm others or their own members—has become a thriving academic field.

We should always be careful about calling our own experiences—or anything, for that matter—“sacred.” Labeling something “sacred” absolutizes it. Like preaching from a pulpit, calling something or some experience “sacred” raises it ten feet above contradiction. That’s why the philosopher Richard Rorty called religion a “conversation stopper.”

Strange as it may sound, even though I no longer believe in gods, I still believe in something I call “the sacred.” Unselfish love, courage in the face of adversity, dedication to a worthwhile cause, playing great music and other things and activities that are good in themselves—these things are sacred to me. Something sacred happens when truth, beauty and goodness are embraced and celebrated by a community of good-will.

This said, I would not call my own experience of the sacred “sacred.” Why? Because I don’t know whether it transcends my own experience and because I don’t want to falsely objectivize what may only be a subjective point of view. I would rather have a conversation about the sacred than use it to stop one.

What do you think?

Your friend, Winston

Confluence is sacred, not the experience.


1 The Dalai Lama’s Facebook (September 10, 2012), cited in Michael Shermer’s The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom (2015), p. 148. 

Image Sources

“Avalokiteshvara creating the Hindu gods,” in “Himalayan Buddhist Art 101: Who Created the Hindu Gods?,” by Jeff Watt , on Ticyle Blog – Our daily diary of the global Buddhist movement (2/14/2013).

According to one Mahayana Buddhist text, the Karandavyuha Sutra, at least nine of the well-known Hindu gods are created from the compassionate activity of Avalokiteshvara…..

The iconography depicting Avalokiteshvara creating the Hindu gods appears in both Nepalese and Tibetan art. Known depictions all follow the same basic iconography and composition, where the central figure is a standing red Avalokiteshvara with one face and two hands…. Surrounding the large central figure of Avalokiteshvara are the Hindu gods, emanations originating from specific locations on the body of Avalokiteshvara.

“Jerusalem Temple,” from “Evolutionary Origins of Religious Violence,” on The Philosopher’s Eye.


I was intrigued by this post because I have a Buddhist background, but the result of those decades of Buddhist study and practice generated a different direction on my spiritual journey. It is true that traditional Buddhism regards gods as real, but also impermanent and subject to the round of cause and effect (samsara) that all beings are subject to. The secular west has tended to see this as a rejection on the part of Buddhism of the transcendental, because this fits with the secular views held by most western converts to Buddhism. But I believe this is an incomplete picture of traditional Buddhism. Nirvana, the goal of Buddhist practice, is not a mere absence. Although this gets into technical discussions about Buddhist philosophy, here I would point out that the great Theravada Sage, Buddhaghosha, in his highly influential work, Visuddhimagga, states that Nirvana is not a mere absence. In Mahayana Buddhism this is affirmed in Ashvaghosha’s Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana, perhaps the most highly influential commentary for East Asian Buddhism. And in Tibetan Buddhism, Dolpopa argued for an ultimate emptiness with characteristics; again not a mere absence. My point here is that westerners have carefully selected a version of Buddhism which conforms to their secular predispositions and have not allowed Buddhism to challenge that cultural norm. That isn’t good or bad in itself, but I think it is helpful to be aware that the idea of a transcendental reality beyond the sphere of the senses is very widespread in traditional Buddhism; I would say it is dominant. In my personal journey I ultimately found Buddhist discourse and practice to lack a secure ground for the flourishing of compassion and love. My move to Christianity happened slowly, over many years. Ultimately, though, I found the Christian elucidation of the transcendental to be clearer and more accessible, and at the same time more humbling. This did not result in a dismissal of Buddhism for me; I think Buddhism has many insights and practices to offer, many efficacious methods. I have no regrets about my years in Buddhist practice. But, left on its own, I have observed that it has the kind of ‘corrosive’ effect that Davis writes about; particularly in the western reconfiguration of Buddhism that is currently taking place. Just a few personal observations for what they are worth.
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