Howard Bloom: My Atheism Gave Me A Mission

This is an excerpt from How I Accidentally Started The Sixties by Howard Bloom (Rare Bird Books, 2017). Reprinted by permission from the author.

While I waited for my genius to flower (it never did), I made one tiny concession to normalcy. I believed in God until I was about twelve, and prayed fervently to Him for higher bowling scores. My classmates were landing 200 games, but my numbers were down in the 80s. Gutter balls were my specialty. Every variety of gutter ball you can imagine—from the raucous, sloshy one that rocks back and forth in the runnel and threatens to escape and jump to another lane, to the highly-disciplined, straight-as-an arrow kind that zooshes at high speed into the dark at the far end without threatening a single pin. Then I began to have doubts about the Lord of the Universe (my bowling scores never went up). But I stifled my disbelief because my Bar Mitzvah was coming and I didn’t want to miss out on the avalanche of presents.

Once the critical ceremony was over and my father had bankrupted himself on a party that rivaled the ones thrown by the Shah of Iran, a bowling party where all the kids I’d been rejected by in grammar school showed their commitment to consistency by ganging up in foursomes and rolling murderously heavy balls toward ten poor, innocent pins, but not inviting me into the games, and once I had put all the checks from relatives too lazy to buy me useless objects in the bank, I felt free to rethink things and came to the conclusion that I was, guess what? An atheist. Which led to a revelation.

I dared confess my utter disbelief in god to myself on roughly August 5, 1956. A month later, the Jewish High Holidays rolled around. My parents insisted that I go to temple with them. In fact, dodging this obligation to my tribe was to my mom and dad utterly unthinkable. They managed to bully me into putting on a form of Western clothing that I loathed—a suit. That wasn’t easy. A dress suit is supposedly clothing. But in reality, it acts as your very own portable, personal prison. Try lifting your arms above your head to catch a falling squirrel in a suit jacket and you’ll see what I mean. Or try gulping. Your necktie will throttle your Adam’s apple, strap it in to the upper reaches of your throat, and will threaten to crush it if it dares to move. I don’t know how my parents convinced me to tie a variation on a hangman’s noose around my neck and shove my arms into the sleeves of a restraint device disguised as formal attire. But that wasn’t the end of my nurturers’ accomplishments.

They also managed to shoehorn me into their blue, four-door Frazier, a long-forgotten car named after industrialist Henry J. Kaiser (more about him later). And they succeeded in driving me the two miles to Richmond Avenue without my opening the door at a red light and bolting for home. But when it came time for me to exit the car and walk the block to Temple Beth El, a building so old that all of the classrooms in the basement smelled like urine, they ran into a difficulty. I refused to leave the car. I wanted nothing to do with a long and boring ceremony whose efficacy in persuading a non-existent entity to treat you gently for the next twelve months I didn’t believe in. So my parents opened the car door and literally tried to haul me out by my ankles. While they shredded my socks, I held on to the solid door frame that Henry J. Kaiser’s laborers, using legendary American craftsmanship, had made of sturdy steel.

From this wrestling match came an epiphany. Yes, we atheists can epiphanize. Flares of static electricity can illuminate the dark corridors that crease and wrinkle our brains. The starring epiphany of the moment? There were no gods in the skies above the eight-story high elm trees of Richmond Avenue. And there were no gods below Richmond Avenue’s cement pavement. Yet there were gods in this scene. Yes, gods. Real gods.

Where were these deities? Or, to be more specific, where was my mishpacha’s thunder-maker-of-choice, Jehovah, the gray-haired mountain of muscle and fury in a beard and a bathrobe who allegedly lived above the clouds and kept a double-entry bookkeeping account of your life and mine? The Ruler of the Universe was deep inside of my dad and mom. So deep that my parents were using my ankles as handles in their efforts to drag me to the house of the supernatural.

There is a tradition in science. It comes from the men I’d latched onto as mentors when I was ten—Galileo and Anton van Leeuwenhoek. Their legacy? Break the rules. Look for the unexpected. Turn the tables. Step outside the traditional perceptual frame. Galileo was a consultant to the arsenal of Venice on next-generation armaments. The techno-geek heard of a miracle military device that a Dutchman named Hans Lippershey had invented in Holland. It was a tube that allowed the Dutch to see the armies of their arch enemy, King Phillip III of Spain, at a distance so great that in the past it had invisibilized incoming marches of men intent on mass murder. In other words, with the spy glass you could see your enemy before he could see you. The spy glass was based on a clever use of another high-tech gadget—the lens. Galileo gathered information on this newly-invented gizmo, a tube with a lens at each end. Then he made one of his own. And he increased the magnification of the spy glass by a factor of ten. He turned it into the telescope.

Because the spy glass had been invented to see armed men marching in your direction with ill intent, the instrument was used horizontally. Galileo’s breakthrough came from breaking convention. He decided to turn an optical instrument made for flat and level viewing in another direction. Instead of training his telescope on the horizon, Galileo turned it to the skies. The night skies, to be specific.

Now this was downright crazy. Everybody knew what was in the ebony heavens. Aristotle had described it. And Ptolemy had confirmed it. The heavens were filled with God’s perfection. I mean, they were the heavens. As in “God’s in His heaven and all’s right with the world.” The skies were the living room carpet of the Almighty. And God was perfect. So were his heavenly furnishings. Aristotle decreed that the circle was the most perfect of geometric forms. So in heaven, it was circles all the way. Perfect spheres rotating in perfect circles. A direct reflection of the aesthetic preferences of a geometry-obsessed Creator. In other words, by pointing his telescope up, Galileo was committing an act of heresy. He was peeping-tomming into the private apartment of the most perfect of all beings. Sort of like installing a spy cam in the bathroom of the woman you idolize. Or going through the underwear drawer of your dad. What did Galileo spot up there in the skies? A moon that looked broken and craggy. And planets that behaved less like Aristotle’s perfect circles and more like stones. From that observation and its consequences came a Pope so upset that he gave Galileo ten years of house arrest for heresy.

But what had been Galileo’s biggest screw you to the Almighty? And his biggest contribution to science? Changing the direction in which he pointed the lens. Forgetting about eye level and aiming his telescope up.

Then there’s Anton van Leeuwenhoek, who fiddled with the same next-tech gizmo sixty years down the line—the lens. Van Leeuwenhoek was a draper. He was in the fabric business. The lens came in handy for examining the quality of the cloth he was about to sell. It helped him see how tight and regular the weave was. Van Leeuwenhoek’s big innovation was like Galileo’s. It came from noticing the norm…and stepping outside of it. It came from breaking the rules. Galileo had pointed his lenses up. Van Leeuwenhoek pointed his lenses down. Down at pond water. Down at blood. Down at his own spurt of semen. And, like Galileo, van Leeuwenhoek discovered an unexpected world. Galileo discovered that the sky was filled with stones. Van Leeuwenhoek revealed that the micro-territory down here on earth was riddled with “animalcules.” As you know, he uncovered the hidden world of what we today call “microorganisms.”

My parents’ passionate belief gave me a job, a mandate, a mission. So did Galileo and van Leeuwenhoek. If the gods were not in the scud of clouds across the sky and not in the muck beneath our feet after a big rain, then where are they? Deep, deep inside. Inside of all of us. Including inside of atheists like me. And, no matter what your beliefs are, inside of you, too. My job? Turn the lens not up, not down, but inside. Train it on the inner world and its passions. Illuminate the realm where the spirits reside. Find the gods inside. And in finding the source of deity, I was certain I’d find the forces of history. But why is a subject we’ll save for later.

Meanwhile, let’s give credit where credit’s due. Turning the lens to the world inside wasn’t original. The guy who had set the standard for this sort of thing was Sigmund Freud.

And finding the gods inside also had a precedent, a forefather.

When I was fourteen, I heard about a book called The Varieties of the Religious Experience, a 1902 work by the father of American psychology William James. This sounded like the ringing of the bell of a kindred soul. The brass walls of my identity resonated to the very sound of the title. There was no Amazon.com in those pitiful, primitive days. So it took me four months to hunt down a copy of the tome. But when I got it, it was another one of those volumes that reaches a hand out from the flat paper of the pages and grabs you by the collar of your shirt. James laid out the extreme experiences of folks like Saint Teresa of Avila and George Fox, the man who founded the Quaker movement in 1652. James saw a deep validity in whacko visitations that, under ordinary circumstances, would be deemed what he called “psychopathic.”

For example, Saint Teresa, was a nun, a bride of Christ, in Spain in the 1530s. Lying in her monastic cell, she would feel Christ coming through the walls, penetrating her body, and filling her with rapture. Or she would be caught up to heaven in an out of body experience, an ecstatic experience. Here’s her description of one of her mystic raptures:

I saw an angel near me, on the left side, in bodily form…He was not tall, but short, marvelously beautiful, with a face which shone as though he were one of the highest of the angels, who seem to be all of fire: they must be those whom we call Seraphim…I saw in his hands a long golden spear, and at the point of the iron there seemed to be a little fire. This I thought that he thrust several times into my heart, and that it penetrated to my entrails. When he drew out the spear he seemed to be drawing them with it, leaving me all on fire with a wondrous love for God. The pain was so great that it caused me to utter several moans; and yet so exceeding sweet is this greatest of pains that it is impossible to desire to be rid of it, or for the soul to be content with less than God.

“What empire is comparable to that of a soul who,” she writes, “from this sublime summit to which God has raised her, sees all the things of earth beneath her feet.” But these moments of mystic madness, explains James, can be harvested. They can turn those they visit into some “of the most powerfully practical human engines that ever lived.”

Somehow men and women like Saint Teresa turn madness into truth. Or at least that’s how William James saw it. So where are the gods? In the margins just outside of sanity, in the dark outskirts of the psyche where lunacy lies. Your psyche and mine.

James had no scientific explanations for experiences like Saint Teresa’s. He simply laid them out on a lab bench, explained that they were specimens that went to the heart of something powerful and profound, then left his samples of “the religious experience” in the pages of a book for fifty-five years waiting for, guess who? You. Or, to be more specific, me. Waiting for you and me to approach the puzzle of truths that you can milk from delusions. Waiting for us to analyze mystic raptures with scientific tools that did not exist in James’ day. Which is where drugs would someday come into the picture. But not for another six years.

Excerpted from How I Accidentally Started The Sixties by Howard Bloom. Copyright © Howard Bloom, 2017. All rights reserved.

Howard Bloom has been called “next in a lineage of seminal thinkers that includes Newton, Darwin, Einstein, [and] Freud” by Britain’s Channel4 TV, “the next Stephen Hawking” by Gear Magazine, and “The Buckminster Fuller and Arthur C. Clarke of the new millennium” by Buckminster Fuller’s archivist. Bloom is the author of The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition Into the Forces of History (“mesmerizing” – The Washington Post), Global Brain: The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century (“reassuring and sobering” – The New Yorker), The Genius of the Beast: A Radical Re-Vision of Capitalism (“Impressive, stimulating, and tremendously enjoyable.” James Fallows, National Correspondent, The Atlantic), The God Problem: How A Godless Cosmos Creates (“Bloom’s argument will rock your world.” Barbara Ehrenreich), How I Accidentally Started the Sixties (“a monumental, epic, glorious literary achievement.” Timothy Leary), and The Muhammad Code: How a Desert Prophet Gave You ISIS, al Qaeda, and Boko Haram – or How Muhammad Invented Jihad (“a terrifying book… the best book I’ve read on Islam,” David Swindle, PJ Media).

Bloom explains that his field is “mass behaviour, from the mass behaviour of quarks to the mass behaviour of human beings.” That specialisation gives him a wide scope. His scientific work has been published in: arxiv.org, the leading pre-print site in advanced theoretical physics and mathematics; PhysicaPlus, another physics journal; Across Species Comparisons and Psychopathology; New Ideas in Psychology; The Journal of Space Philosophy; and in the book series: Research in Biopolitics. In 2005, Bloom lectured an international conference of quantum physicists in Moscow – Quantum Informatics 2006 – on why everything they know about Schrodinger’s Equation is wrong, and the concepts Bloom introduced were later used in a book proposing a new approach to quantum physics, Constructive Physics, by Moscow University’s Yuri Ozhigov.

Bloom’s second book Global Brain was the subject of an Office of the Secretary of Defense symposium in 2010, with participants from the State Department, the Energy Department, DARPA, IBM, and MIT. Bloom is founder and head of the Space Development Steering Committee, a group that includes astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Edgar Mitchell (the sixth man on the moon), and members from the National Science Foundation and NASA. He has debated one-on-one with senior officials from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Gaza’s Hamas on Iran’s global Arab-language Alalam TV News Network. He has also dissected headline issues on Saudi Arabia’s KSA2-TV and on Iran’s global English language Press-TV. And he has probed the untold story of the Syrian Civil War with Nancy Kissinger.

In addition, Bloom’s work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Wired, Knight-Ridder Financial News Service, the Village Voice, and Cosmopolitan Magazine. He has appeared 199 times for up to five hours on 500 radio stations on the highest-rated overnight talk radio station in North America, Clear Channel’s Coast to Coast AM, discussing everything from the biome in the gut and the evolution of the stars to the mechanism of the Great Recession of 2008 and North Korea’s rocket programme.

Bloom has his own YouTube series, Howard the Humongous, which gets up to 790,000 views per installment. His website, howardbloom.net, has had between four and five million hits. Follow him on Twitter at @HowardxBloom.

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