How Does an Atheist Come to Believe in God?: An Interview with Jacob Needleman

Sitting in Jacob Needleman’s living room in the Oakland hills, I fished in my bag for the tiny microphone I planned to use with my iPhone, to record our conversation. “Is that what you’re using?” he asked, with great interest. He held up his own phone. “I just got one of these. Will this really work?”

He sat next to me on the couch as I pointed him through the app store on his phone. “There it is,” I said, pointing to iTalk. “That’s what I’m using.”

He tapped the screen, but the app that came up for download was… iTalk to God.

“That can’t be it,” he laughed. It wasn’t—but what a setup.

What is God? is an unlikely title for a book by a philosopher, unless the question is meant rhetorically, or as a starting-off point for a discourse on language, or on the foibles of the mind, perhaps. But Jacob Needleman asks the question in earnest, and then proceeds—in the course of this most personal of the dozen or so books he’s written—to answer it.

What is God?, out last month from Tarcher/Penguin, is an intellectual autobiography—the story of Needleman’s education and formation as a scholar and teacher—but it’s also a narrative of what might be called a conversion. A young Ivy-educated professor, “allergic” to religion, enthralled by science, finds himself obliged to teach a religious studies survey class; to his surprise, he discovers a world of rigor and inquiry in theological writing. The story he tells, of the intertwining of his intellectual and spiritual searches, has a real suspense to it: how does an atheist come to believe in God? 

In a conversation earlier this month we discussed this question, the challenges of talking about religion in the contemporary cultural arena, fundamentalism and atheism, and the practice of real communication. 

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RD: In your book you refer to William James’ discussion of religious emotion, how he says on the one hand that anything can generate a feeling of the sacred, but on the other, that there are some feelings that are purely religious. What does he mean by that?

JN: Yes it’s an important question. And apart from what James says, it’s a general question. Religious emotion is sometimes understood as an ordinary emotion about a religious entity, or a religious theme, or a religious object, or religious teaching. In other words, I can be excited at a football game by the San Francisco 49ers, and I can, with the same quality of energy, the same part of myself, be similarly excited by the Bible, or the teachings of Jesus, or Buddhism, or something of that kind. The object is different, but the actual emotion can be the same. You can even say, “I love hamburgers!” and then, “I love my child.” Is it the same emotional entity, only the object happens to be different? One wouldn’t want to say that exactly.

And so that’s one aspect of religious emotion, when we’re lost in a mystical thing, or lost in the Avatar movie, or something like that. How I understand it, is that there are different qualities of what we would loosely call emotion. I make a distinction between feeling and emotion in order to talk about them.

There is such thing as deep, essential feeling which is part of our human nature. And we have it under many conditions. In relationships, or with a child, and especially in a spiritual context. And that comes from a different part of ourselves—a literally organically different part of ourselves. We are born with that capacity, and it is an instrument of knowledge as well as feeling—and it doesn’t always have to be positive, it can be even be anger. Like Christ in the temple, chasing the money changers out. There is divine anger as well. The distinguishing characteristic of this kind of feeling is that it is non-egoistic.

However, almost all the emotions that we know, especially in our “fallen” state, are somewhat egoistic; not necessarily always bad, it’s just they’re concerned about me, with my gain, and my social standing, or how I feel about myself, or what I want to get materially, psychologically, socially.

The question about religious emotion cannot be answered without making that distinction. And real spiritual feeling is an entirely different thing. it’s non-egoistic. It’s very personal, but it’s not me me me.

Can an atheist feel religious emotion?

The egoistic emotions can be very violent, agitating, destructive— the result, to some extent, of what the Buddhists call attachment. There are other words for that: you might say one is “swallowed” by a personal reaction, an egoistic reaction, and it becomes someone’s whole identity and there’s a violence attached to it.

So one can believe in God in such a violent, attached way that it becomes its very opposite in terms of its quality, its action, its effect on human life, its effect on oneself. It can become as bad as murder. And one can be an atheist so passionately that one is willing to steamroll down and destroy anyone who disagrees. Most fundamentalists and atheists are not that extreme. But some are. And so we have to acknowledge, just because I say I love Man it doesn’t mean I actually do.

When this gets into the political sphere it always becomes violent. It becomes destructive. Not necessarily physically, but legally, emotionally, socially. All kinds of ways. You must love your neighbor or I’ll kill you! This is not an exaggeration. You see this kind of thing. That’s one of the things that happens with religion. The statements, the expression can be very nice, but the forces through it are deadly. It can be atheism or Christianity or Judaism, or it can be a soccer game. That’s the thing.

Now, an atheist can not believe in the conventional religious gods of the culture and still feel a great sense of the sacred, even if you don’t call it sacred. And there are many people, great scientists, who feel this way.

When I was younger I was totally allergic to what I saw as religion: Judaism and even worse, Christianity—it was my enemy. But I loved nature, and for me nature was sacred. I didn’t use that word, but it made me quiet; it made me feel a sense of something greater than myself; it made me wish to serve something. So I was an atheist, but I recall it as spiritual—a spiritual atheism.

How did your ideas about religion change?

Well, as I say, in my life it was more or less thrust upon me. I needed a job. It was 1962—ancient times—I was hired at San Francisco State and I was obliged to teach a course called the History of Western Religious Thought. For me I had no desire to teach anything like that. I was totally allergic to religion. But I had training as a philosophy student, a grad student, a PhD. I did very well, was at the best colleges, best universities— Harvard, Yale—and I was willing to undertake preparing myself to teach such a course. Philosophers generally don’t want to come anywhere near that kind of stuff—nor did I. But I honorably tried to prepare myself.

It meant I had to read theologians, Christian writers like St. Augustine—whom I had hated. You see in my book where I talk about burning the pages of the book, that’s exactly what happened. I’m not exaggerating. I was so happy to see it go up in flames; I had suffered so much from that book. And later I read it and I loved it—a great, great man.

So it forced me to read and prepare myself, and I couldn’t believe how superficial my understanding of religion had been, even with a liberal education from the best universities. I discovered things about religion; I couldn’t believe how good, how interesting, how profound—and how distorted it had become, how shallow it had become. So more and more I got deeply interested in religion because I had to teach it. And then I got personally interested in my own personal, spiritual search which I started to undertake.

Which came to you by happenstance, as you describe it.

Yes, by happenstance. There’s a long story there too. I encountered the particular teaching of Gurdjieff when I was quite young, in college, and abandoned it. And by chance in San Francisco someone who was part of that was in my class and at first I thought, No, I’ve already tried that and I’m not interested. But he urged me to read a book. I read it. I realized there is something here after all.

So that was a parallel. My personal inner work was parallel with my academic work in a way. Although I never made the connection between God and what I had studied with the Gurdjieff teaching. It was not a religion, it was something else. It wasn’t called a religion, wasn’t meant to be equated with religion. And there were reasons for that. I think Gurdjieff felt that the language of religion had become too associated with things that were not really sacred. It’s a complicated story.

In any case the personal search paralleled my study of religion, mystical traditions especially, and then Eastern traditions—Hinduism, Buddhism—that got deeper and deeper. And my inner life, personally. And there was a point when those two lines touched each other. And all the emotional force, the emotional power, of the word God that had come to me in my childhood, all that emotional power that had been suppressed and hidden in some dark place—when those things came together it was like the sun rose. It was: Ah, that’s what God is. I’ve already experienced it. Not at the deepest—there are many levels—but that was one level.

You talk in the book about having remained an atheist, even during years of great interest—even expertise—in religion and theology.

Yes, deep down, no matter how much I appreciated and understood religion—because it was damned interesting, and it was philosophically honorable. I defended Judaism, I defended Christianity. I gave lectures on it. I wrote books and I could explain it. But down deep I still didn’t believe that this idea of God corresponded to something out there, really. Or in here—either way.

My mind believed it. But somewhere down deep I didn’t really. It was only when I actually touched a certain level of inner experience, and I said, Ah, that’s it. Now I am absolutely certain that there is such a thing. I always believed, as I was studying these things, that there was something higher in the universe. I never thought it was a dead, mechanical universe, like scientism. It was only when I experienced it as part of me that I saw that it was true.

You refer to the idea of the human being as microcosm, or miniature universe, and how self-knowledge can open onto a more universal understanding. But how about the social? What happens when human beings come together?

The best and the worst of humanity comes in groups. Think of the difference between a mob and a community. A mob is low level—with no insult intended to animals—but it’s a bestial mass, a herd obeying the coarsest violent emotions, self-suggestions or fantasies. Anger and the mob have caused untold horrors throughout humanity’s history: the mass mind, the herd instinct. When people come together they sometimes exaggerate. the worst qualities of human beings.

But without a community, without help, without interrelationship, I don’t think most human beings can ever come to true spiritual development. You need a community of some kind or other. Very rarely, if ever, without the help of environment or community or culture, does someone appear who becomes a highly evolved person, in my opinion. What kind of community would be the question, and how difficult that is.

People can relate to each other in such a way that it calls down something, and I’ve experienced that. When two or three people seriously listen to each other, speak and exchange with each other, something appears: “Where two or three come together in my name,” is, I think, a fact. It’s in the possible existence of such community that I think the hope of the world lies. I don’t think the world can make it without developed human beings, and a community supporting inner development.

Meanwhile we’ve got a public culture that seems particularly contentious—debate as blood sport…

People are attached to their opinions. Put simply, that means their fears and anxieties, their agitation, have been fueled or absorbed by an idea or concept or thought. It’s hard to get to the root, because the root of this is the fundamental sleep of mankind—or corruption, or sin, or ignorance, whatever word you want to use.

And people cannot listen to each other. When we’re talking, you and I, mostly when I’m talking and trying to listen to someone I maybe hear—if I’m lucky—one-third of what they say. Mostly I hear my own thoughts, and when I try to write down what they’ve said I mix it with my own thoughts. But there is a discipline which one can obtain. It’s not that hard. It’s to step back from one’s own opinions, make a space in myself and let you in. I don’t have to agree with you but I have to let you in, so that you are heard. I hear you. And you let me in. And that way something very beautiful can appear; I can still disagree completely with you, but I don’t deny your humanity.

The art of listening is the first step of every ethics. That’s been misunderstood: as if to become good is to become ethical. But it’s not a question of acting and doing the right thing—that’s hard. But we can listen to the other, give our attention, which is our precious human substance, to the other person. When I give my attention to you it’s a little bit of love, whatever you might call it: and that’s the source of ethics. That’s been lost entirely. And it’s really practical, it can happen. But people can’t do it. They don’t do it. They don’t know they have this capacity. They think listening is simply waiting for you to pause so I can come in.

Speaking of listening, you use stories from your teaching experience to such great effect. It sounds as if teaching for you has been a laboratory…

Absolutely. That is exactly the word I would use.

And you teach courses in religion, spirituality, so you encounter every kind of opinion. I was so interested in that encounter you describe with the dogmatic student, the fundamentalist…

What an interesting thing that was for me. Because I was always nervous when fundamentalist people came to my class. Mostly I let them speak but I don’t pay much attention, because I know they’re going to come back with the same old thing and not going to listen to anybody. They’re often nice people but they’re just impervious, waiting for the chance to come in and say Christ is this or that.

This guy, for some reason, there was something appealing about him. He’d greet me: “How are you this fine day?” He would sit in the middle of the room and he would plunk the Bible down. I was teaching a course on really spiritual esoteric thought: René Guénon, and P.D. Ouspensky. These are two heavy hitters in esoteric thought, and I thought, this guy is not going to swallow any of this. Well all right, as long as he takes notes and does the exam it’s fine.

But I liked him. He would always sit there with his bible and he would criticize. It was strong, but it was not hateful; it was not violent. So I took the chance of trying to listen to him. I would make an effort to practice what I preach and listen to a person I totally disagree with about a subject I know a lot about.

So we started having a conversation, and one of the subjects had to do with interpretation of scripture. At one point we were back and forth and I realized: this man, I disagree with him a lot but he has a heart. This is not a maniac—he has a heart, he’s feeling something. And I started respecting his being, really, in a sense, without any sense of agreeing with his thoughts.

Anyway, he started saying things like: you can’t have criticism, you can’t have interpretations, you can’t have commentaries—what is right is what’s in the Bible. It sounded like the old literalistic fundamentalist kind of thing. But it wasn’t, because he was saying something really interesting: let the Bible interpret itself.

And it’s true, if you could really receive the Bible, if you could really open to the words—this leads into the whole big question about how you read scripture. In its deeper sense, scripture was never meant to be an academic study, where you take questions in your mind. In its deepest sense you can only understand real scripture when you need something, when you need truth of a certain kind and you need help. Then scripture speaks. Whether it’s Christian, Jewish, or sacred books of the Gnostics, or whether it’s Buddhist—really scriptural texts.

Scripture is not just recording what Jesus said; scripture is men and women coming together, working inwardly to be true to something and together trying to produce something that has at least a bit of truth of the heart. Real scripture, though it might on the surface seem contradictory or violent, these things are often symbolic and can only be understood with the heart and the head together. Not just with the head.

So I started criticizing as a professor, but I didn’t want to stay in my head like that with this man for some reason. I could give him all kinds of good jabs, ask him questions that would refute him, but as I went on playing my role as a professor I started coming down into my own heart. This guy started being less rigid. He was a heart coming up and relating to a head, and I was a head coming down and relating to a heart. A beautiful meeting.

This so-called fundamentalist was a human being. Someone might look like an unpleasant fanatic in certain conditions, you begin to speak to them, and—well, you might be quite surprised.

lisa@religiondispatches.org'

Lisa Webster is co-editor of Religion Dispatches. See her full bio here.