Atheism Versus Self-realization — What Should Our Position Be?

About a month ago, we received a call from the director of the Atheist Society of Silicon Valley. They were putting on a public forum to discuss the Supreme Court’s recent decision to remove “Under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance.

The person who called had a dynamic and personable nature, so the devil made me do it, I guess. But I almost immediately regretted it, and a week or ten days later I tried to call and get out of it, but I wasn’t able to do so graciously.

The religious urge rises in the human bosom when God calls us to find the only reality within. Church of the Spilled Blood, St. Petersburg, Russia. Click to enlarge.

The religious urge rises in the human bosom when God calls us to find our true home within. Church of the Spilled Blood, St. Petersburg, Russia. Click to enlarge.

I felt terrifically embarrassed to be associated in any way with the Atheist Society. Perhaps I’m being narrow, but atheism sounds like a swear word to me.

Of course, there was such a public outcry over the removal of “under God” that the judges stayed their ruling. The case will go into an “unbound review,” where eleven judges will reconsider the decision. It’s almost certain to be overturned, because it’s politically impossible.

Nonetheless, on the fated day I found myself at a theatre in San Jose with about three hundred people who were devotees of the non-existence of God.

Sitting next to me on the panel was the founder of the Valley Bible Church, whose theological persuasion is evident from the name – he was a committed and rather exclusive Christian.

Next to him was a Presbyterian minister whose theology was difficult to discern. Then there was the state chairman of the Atheist Society, and at the far end sat Dr. Nidra, the man who filed the lawsuit.

Dr. Nidra got a standing ovation when he started his talk. He’s a doctor and lawyer, very bright, talks fast, in a monotone voice, and he’s very clever and determined. He told how his first wish was to get “In God We Trust” taken off the U.S. currency, but he realized that it would be impossible, so he filed the Pledge of Allegiance case instead.

Everybody was cheering him and thinking it was so marvelous. And it was such a strange experience for me – it’s difficult to describe, but I’ll try, because I want to talk about how we, as disciples of Yogananda, should respond to these people.

I looked out at all these human faces that were very much like yours and mine – some were attractive, some old, young, well-to-do or not, educated and uneducated – just the normal stew of human consciousness.

Swami Kriyananda once called humanity “the walking wounded.” That’s us – the “injured ambulatory,” who’ve wandered away from our divine consciousness. They were normal-looking people, some with not very bright faces, some highly intelligent, some with sweet faces. But what they were cheering so eagerly was painful for me to contemplate, particularly because Dr. Nidra was infusing it with so much ego-centered energy.

The oddest thing was that, sitting next to the Presbyterian minister, our souls felt united, even though our views would have been far apart if we had talked face to face. There were maybe three or four people in the audience who could sense the general vibration of the event, including David, my husband. And I want to use the word “evil” to describe it.

Of course, none of those present would have called themselves evil. I’m sure that many of them were good and kind people. Some may have been better Christians than many self-professed followers of Christ, because what we believe is often quite different from how we behave.

But the determination to rip down something so important to our civilization – and in complete ignorance, and even gaily, like children, to tear it to pieces – was shocking to me.

I could feel that the Presbyterian minister and I were reaching out to each other psychically in our common faith. He was an intelligent and interesting man, and I enjoyed his presentation completely. After the event, I looked up his website and learned that he’d been a chemical engineer before he became a preacher, and that he’d founded a church that’s based on three principles: it’s a great program for your children, we won’t beg you for money, and the sermons aren’t boring.

I knew they wouldn’t be boring, because he was smart and interesting, and he had a lot of courage. In fact, he did what I didn’t do. I didn’t try to argue with the atheists. I don’t even remember what I said, but it wasn’t very effectual.

Later, Swamiji said to me, “You should have denounced them – it’s what I would have done.” But I just tried to have a good vibe, because I can’t speak to hostile audiences – it’s just not my nature.

Why would I try to persuade them of something they weren’t remotely interested in hearing? But the Presbyterian minister witnessed with a lot of courage, and I admired him for it. And what he said was fascinating.

He said, over and over: “The Declaration of Independence says, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’”

Now, the Constitution, as the atheists pointed out, doesn’t mention God except in a rather oblique way. But the minister kept saying, “The reason we are a free country is because we believe in God. And believing in God, and realizing that there is a power greater than man, we respect life, and we respect the freedom of others to progress in their own way.”

The majority of church-going people are unaware of the truths that are the foundation of their religion – the universal truths of Sanaatan Dharma – the “Eternal Religion” – that are valid in all cultures and all times.

One of those truths is that we are all moving toward God to the best of our ability, at our own pace, but in the same direction.

And that’s really why I couldn’t argue with the atheists, because they are just doing what they have to do, at their present level of spiritual development. This is as far as their experiences have brought them, and it’s what they have to work out at this point, even though they’re fighting on the wrong side.

The minister kept trying to tell them, “You should be grateful to the religious people, because they’re the ones who created the environment that gives you the freedom to reject it. And you should respect them.”

The only people qualified to speak about the truth of God’s existence are the saints, said Swami Kriyananda — those who have actually experienced Him. St. John of the Cross, painting by

The only people qualified to speak about the truth of God’s existence are the saints, said Swami Kriyananda, are those who have actually experienced Him. St. John of the Cross, painting by Francisco de  Zurbarán, 1656.

It was a good argument, except that nobody bought it in the slightest, except me. I loved it. I thought it was marvelous. And it’s absolutely true, because in countries where there is no divine respect for life, such as under Communism, people are considered insignificant parts of the greater whole, and therefore expendable. In China today, people are valued to the extent that they contribute to the collective. “And if you get in the way, we’ll snuff you out. And what difference will it make?”

But we don’t do that in this country, because we understand that all life comes from God and is sacred, and we don’t have the right to kill it.

The Presbyterian minister talked about how in some states historical documents are posted on the walls of many public buildings, for example the Declaration of independence, and many of those documents have the word God in them. And certain judges have ruled that they have to take them down.

We live in strange times. And, given our beliefs on this path, the question naturally arises, should we be active? Should I go out and wave a sign that says, “In God We Trust – keep it on our money!”?

There’s a natural feeling that we need to combat this. And at the same time, what’s the point?

Swami Kriyananda talked about how the divine mission that Paramhansa Yogananda started will progress over time. And he said it’s a subtle point to understand.

Yogananda told Dr. Lewis, his first disciple in America, “This work of Self-realization will follow its divinely ordained course, and nothing that you or I do will affect it or change it.”

He was saying that not even he, as a master, had the power to control the future development of the work. All of us, even the gurus, are instruments of a great divine intelligence that is moving through the world at this time, and our job is to serve that mission as best we can.

I felt supremely ineffectual, standing before those people and muttering little bits of information about the things I knew.

And yet I thought, “This is my part.”

We aren’t called to stand in the street and wave signs, or to file counter-lawsuits, or to fight the battle on that level. Because those are ephemeral battles that rise and fall like the wind. We must understand that this is a narrow window of time, whereas Yogananda’s mission is destined to change the world over a much longer expanse of centuries.

Yogananda said that Dwapara Yuga, the new age of energy-awareness that the world recently entered, and for which we hold such high hopes, is in fact the most dangerous and insecure age of all.

In Kali Yuga, the age of material awareness that the world emerged from around 1900, wars were started by countries that owned the weapons, but in Dwapara Yuga everyone will have weapons of great destructive power.

It’s a very upsetting age, where if there’s a conflict, it touches everyone, including innocent people.

Before you get nervous, bear in mind that you aren’t doomed to come back to this planet. If coming back here will give you the experiences you need to grow spiritually, it’s where you’ll be born, but otherwise we can go to many planets.

When someone asked Yogananda, “Do we always come back to this planet? He replied, “Oh, no. If you came back to this one over and over, you would figure it out too soon.”

My initial thought is that it’s really unfair! You’d think that God would want us to figure it out quickly. But we can’t become free by simply figuring out the rules of the game with our rational mind.

What’s at stake is our complete freedom from delusion, and that isn’t something we can achieve by comprehending truth mentally. We must be anchored in divine consciousness, and we must be able to perceive the divine truth as an actual experience.

To become one with the Light beyond creation, we must do our part. We must serve that Light very actively. Above all, we must detach ourselves from every inner emotional reaction, positive or negative, that separates us from the Light.

The atheists have the grand idea that they’ll remake the world in a wonderful way, based strictly on rational thought, free of the delusion that we don’t have control over our own lives. But behind that reasoning, what’s actually going on is that they are waging a war against the divine consciousness. And it became very obvious to me as I sat in that room.

When it was over, the Presbyterian minister and I instinctively huddled together for a moment. He’s a very nice man, and he looked at me and said, “I agree with a great deal of what you said.”

I’m sure that if he came to our Sangha and saw Jesus on the altar with all the other masters, we wouldn’t be good friends anymore. But in the presence of that great evil, he was able to say, “I agree with you.”

“A noted chemist once crossed swords with Sri Yukteswar. The visitor would not admit the existence of God, inasmuch as science has devised no means of detecting Him. “So you have inexplicably failed to isolate the Supreme Power in your test tubes!’ Master’s gaze was stern. “ I recommend an unheard-of experiment. Examine your thoughts unremittingly for twenty-four hours. Then wonder no longer at God’s absence.’” — Autobiography of a Yogi, Chapter 12, “Years in My Master’s Hermitage” Detail of mosaic painting of a Russian Orthodox saint. Click to enlarge.

A noted chemist once crossed swords with Sri Yukteswar. The visitor would not admit the existence of God, inasmuch as science has devised no means of detecting Him. “So you have inexplicably failed to isolate the Supreme Power in your test tubes!” Master’s gaze was stern. “I recommend an unheard-of experiment. Examine your thoughts unremittingly for twenty-four hours. Then wonder no longer at God’s absence.” — Autobiography of a Yogi, Chapter 12, “Years in My Master’s Hermitage” (Detail of mosaic of Russian Orthodox saints. Click to enlarge.)

A noted chemist once crossed swords with Sri Yukteswar. The visitor would not admit the existence of God, inasmuch as science has devised no means of detecting Him.
“So you have inexplicably failed to isolate the Supreme Power in your test tubes!” Master’s gaze was stern. “I recommend an unheard-of experiment. Examine your thoughts unremittingly for twenty-four hours. Then wonder no longer at God’s absence.” — Autobiography of a Yogi, Chapter 12, “Years in My Master’s Hermitage” (Detail of mosaic of Russian Orthodox saints. Click to enlarge.)

I said to him, very seriously, “You and I are the only people in this room who can feel how evil the vibration was today.” And with great seriousness, he nodded. Because it was palpable. It was tangibly clear that we were in a war of Light against darkness.

Not all of the people in the room were equally active in their opposition to the Light. Many people get swept up and go along because they don’t understand the deeper significance of what they’re doing.

But there were people in the room who were leading the charge, and you could feel that they were inspired by a very real and very destructive force. No matter how cleverly they defined it, or how attractively they tried to paint it over, they were leading a movement to pull down everything that lifts humanity and gives us hope.

Still, it was inspiring to be there, in a perverse way, because it made me realize that what we’re doing is extremely important. And for this reason – because people all over the planet are yearning for the Light.

Our job, at this time, is simple: to radiate Light – to hold the principles of Truth aloft, to be unafraid in our commitment to the divine truth, and to live it as best we can.

Paramhansa Yogananda said that God will never ask of us more than we can do. And the one thing He is asking of us now is our sincere desire for Him, and that we help His great work.

Seeing how deeply confused those people were, the worst of it is that they’re working very hard to impose their confusion on our culture, and most destructively, on our children.

My nephew is thirteen. He was telling me about a popular song, the refrain of which is, “I’m so messed up and it’s all your fault!”

I said, “That’s a horrible thing!”

His mother took the recording away from him, for which I applauded her. I said, “How can you listen to something like that?”

I’m so messed up and it’s all your fault. It avoids any sense of personal responsibility. Really, it’s evading the goal of human life, which is that the divine force wants us to become strong and rise above our ego limitations, so that it can express itself through us as kindness, compassion, and love.

When I spoke to the atheists, I said that part of the problem is the word “God,” which doesn’t have a specific meaning in the English language. Therefore, you can give it any meaning you like, based on the particular set of dogmas you happen to follow. So intelligent people reject “God.” But what they’re rejecting is actually somebody’s narrow definition.

Someone asked a question, “Well, then, why don’t you substitute the word ‘nature’ for ‘God’?”

I said, “Because nature didn’t create this. Nature was created.”

Years ago, I had a brief career going into corporations and giving programs on spiritual topics under the guise of self-improvement. It didn’t suit me, so I did it only for a short while.

I was talking to a human resources director who was scheduling programs for me. It was around the time of the Loma Prieta earthquake, in 1989, and she told me that several people in the company had been killed when a freeway collapsed during the quake. She said that the employees were shaken, and she sensed that I could help them.

Of course, you can’t use the word “God” in a corporate setting, because somebody might be offended, you’re being paid by corporate money, and blah blah blah. But I could use words like “energy,” and she wanted me to give a program that would help people feel less nervous and afraid.

I thought about it briefly, and then I said, “I really don’t know how I can do that, because there’s no security in this world unless you believe in a larger consciousness.”

She said, “Can’t you just tell people to believe in something? If they believe in something, they’ll feel more secure, and even if they just believe in themselves, they’ll feel better.”

After the atheist meeting, I remembered that conversation. It expressed a desire to tame God and reduce Him to what we can see with our human eyes and understand with our rational mind.

I thought, “If you believe in nature, nature doesn’t give a damn about you. Nature is the single most unforgiving thing there is.”

For those of us who were in the Bay Area during the quake, do you think the earth cared if we were scared to death when it started shaking under our feet? It didn’t care at all. Nature is an impersonal force that is perfectly designed to affect us according to our karma. As the Festival of Light says:

The forming of stars and moons and planets,
of galaxies revolving on the tides of space,
of drifting continents, upheaving mountains,
snowy wastes and dark, silent ocean deeps
had but this for its design: The birth of life,
and with life’s birth, the dawn of self-awareness:
Passage through dim corridors of waking consciousness
to emerge at last into infinite light –
into perfect joy!

I said to this woman, “You can’t just decide to believe in something. You have to believe in something that has the power to give something back to you.”

If you just believe in yourself, you’ll find that you reach the limits of your power very quickly, and then where are you? You’re scared to death. That’s what we felt during the Loma Prieta earthquake.

The atheists and materialists declare, “I believe in the world as we humans have made it.” And God just laughs. And then He turns you upside down. And why? To wake you up.

There’s a divine power in this world that is deeply personal. It cares about you deeply. It is your own self. And there is no reality except that divine power.

The Festival of Light celebrates the dawn of a new approach to religion, in which worshipers use can use tested scientific methods to know God as an actual experience.

The Festival of Light celebrates the dawn of a new approach to religion, in which worshipers use can use tested scientific methods to know God as an actual experience in their own hearts.

We don’t have to “believe” in it – we can experience it. It is who we are, and this understanding is so important, so vital, and so desperately needed at this time, that those of us who frankly do have a clue about it are able to stand strong in silence with only that understanding to support us. Because we’ve been blessed to understand that this is not a random universe that exists merely to support us while we tear ourselves to pieces if we feel like it.

There are divine truths, and they are not the stuff of superstition and dogmas. It’s not that God will punish us if we don’t behave properly, and if we don’t follow a set of rules, or if we don’t believe in Him or belong to the right church. The divine truths are the truths of our own nature.

If we live in harmony with that divine reality, which is all about freedom and joy and courage, then yes, our lives may be difficult. And, yes, the divine reality may turn us on our heads many times. But God does it only so that when it’s over we’re able to say, “I know what You are doing. You are making me strong. You’re taking away from me every weak aspect of my nature, so that I can know the divine truth which is me.”

This world is not easy to live in. As the Bhagavad Gita says, out of a thousand, one seeks Me, and out of a thousand who seek Me, only one knows Me as I truly am. But Yogananda gave us a wonderful promise, when he said, “Our percentage is much higher.”

This movement that Paramhansa Yogananda started is a special dispensation from God, sent especially to guide humanity through this difficult transition between two great ages.

Yogananda said, “All those who persevere to the end, who remain loyal to the end of life, I or one of the other masters will be there to greet them and bring them into the astral world.”

I love that promise, because he isn’t saying “All of those who are really good at it.” He’s saying, “Don’t quit, and you’ll be helped at the end.” No matter what happens, no matter how many times you fall, no matter how discouraged you get.

I was touched by something that a young member of Ananda said to me years ago: “I may be the absolute last in the line of Ananda devotees, but I am still in the line!” And that’s exactly the consciousness that God wants from us.

Master had a disciple with cerebral palsy. He couldn’t talk, and he could only lurch around. Master looked at him one day lovingly and said, “He’s very close to freedom. Divine Mother is pleased with his devotion.”

In the circumstances, devotion was all he had. Swamiji recalls in The Path how someone remarked, “It must be a very simple kind of devotion.” And Master said very sweetly, “Ah, that is what pleases God.”

Don’t become confused by this foolish world with its clever wiles. Devotion, devotion, devotion of the simplest type – hold on to that, come what may, and God will never let you go.

(From Asha’s talk at Sunday service on October 25, 2002.)


One Response to Atheism Versus Self-realization — What Should Our Position Be?

  1. Brindey January 16, 2015 at 12:15 am #

    My Dearest Asha,

    Thank you so very much for this article! It is so strengthening! I felt as if I were there when you were giving this talk. Truly you have become an Ambassador of the Work!

    Ever in Their Light,
    brindey

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