November’s discussion group: Conversion

By Diogenes

How does one find God? Or rather, in the case of many BNFree members, lose God? These were the two questions for our November discussion group.

The main text was an interesting one, an account of Teresa MacBain. She was formerly a pastor and became a public atheist. There are many such cases. What’s interesting here, though, is that it went full circle: she recently announced that she has found God again. To quote the same words that the Friendly Atheist does:

“For several years she lived in the public eye as a prominent atheist, until she rediscovered God’s grace through music and the compassion of loved ones. This unique journey led to her life’s mission: helping people struggling with their own faith.”

Now how does that work?

Well, we can start with her own explanation, as our discussion group did. It was music, she said, that brought her back. And this is not coincidence. In her telling, music was central to her religious life the first time around. And music, the group noted, is a constant in religious history: from Bacchanalian orgies in ancient Greece to Gregorian chants to modern gospel rock (in Teresa’s case, the band Tenth Avenue North). Even when music was banned, it was in part as a recognition of the unique power of music. The three medieval ‘chords of evil’ are the chords that defined Black Sabbath.

Interestingly enough, one of our own members (‘Nandy’ on this blog) had a virtually identical experience with the exact same Tenth Avenue North song. Except that Nandy is an atheist, and will be for the next conceivable forever. So what to make of that? In Nandy’s own words, the song gave her a feeling of ‘connectedness,’ of ‘being understood,’ and of ‘something higher’ than mere emotion—something, to use the term in a non-religious sense, ‘spiritual.’ She didn’t connect that to any notion of God, faith, or anything else. But something more than a feeling (“more than a feeeeeliiiiiin”) was a common thread.

And is that unusual? I’ve heard many people, including atheists, describe Bach’s music as ‘transcendent.’ I, for my part, brought up my sad French music that I listen to when it rains. Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass gave a similar feeling to one of our members. These experiences, via not just music but also poetry, literature, and philosophy, seem to speak to us in special ways.

But that’s just the precipitating cause. What is it about these things that has this effect? We discussed William James, who talks about conversion (primarily to religion) as being a shift in one’s center, something that connects to our ‘hot zone.’ These experiences seem to reach into something that’s best described as deep within us, even if that’s just a metaphor. Conversion, then, doesn’t seem to be just about beliefs; it’s a shift in a more fundamental, gripping, visceral way. More than facts, it’s a way we experience the universe.

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