"The most common experience of people feeling transcendent is erotic." -Christopher Hitchens

Marilyn Sewell: Christopher, I have a question. It appears to me that you approach religion from a completely intellectual perspective. And I was interested in Marcus saying that he had a lot of doubts, a lot of questions, which all of us at this table do, but then he had some mystical experiences. Have you ever had a mystical experience or do you think you could conceive a mystical experience or do you think that that whole dimension of reality is sub point or what do you think about mystical experiences?

Hitchens: I try to set some of my faith against the common idea. Atheists can be bleak and materialistic, as it were lacking in visible poetry. Not to dodge your question, I don’t think I could scrub it in my experiences as mystical. And, by the way, I don’t know how I would know that it was mystical.

Borg: You would know.

[Laughter].

Hitchens: I’m going to leave that bit of buckshot in your flesh.

[Laughter].

Hitchens: Let’s say the transcendent, the numinous, the emotional, the sense of something larger than or what Freud calls the oceanic feeling beyond oneself. I wouldn’t trust anyone who didn’t have it. I think it’s a big cultural task to distinguish that from the superstitious and the supernatural.

Borg: I agree.

Hitchens: Of course William James says quite brilliantly in his Varieties of Religious Experience, which I brought up all the time you were speaking. If these things are true, people who say that they’re true for them, we have to credit it. It wasn’t me, but I’m not going to call them a liar. Unless they say they’ve just seen a statue of the Virgin Mary weeping, if I don’t agree I’m in trouble. They’ve crossed the line there. If it’s profound enough you ought to be able to keep it to yourself. Make poetry out of it or a painting but not prosthelatize .

Sewell: That’s true, you don’t have to prosthelatize to make it true, what I’m saying to you is that there’s a long tradition in many, many various religious traditions of mysticism and usually the mystics agree with one another more than they agree with the early religious, you know, the people in their own tradition. And I think that because you haven’t experienced this, is not a reason to discount it.

Hitchens: No, I agree.

Sewell: Right, ok and so I’d just like to hear Marcus maybe say, Marcus what do you say is mystical I mean how is it different from say what Christopher talks about when he says transcendent? How’s a mystical religious experience differentiated from something like that?

Borg: Some of my mystical experiences have been in connection with the arts, especially music and I typically go to the (Concert Caveau) in Amsterdam once a year or every other year because I’ve had a number of experiences there with the boundaries between that kind of dome of the ego that we walk around in in our ordinary consciousness, you know, the world is out there and I’m in here and that will fall away sometimes and there’s nothing but the glory of the music. Most of my mystical experiences, though, have been much more ordinary than that, that is not specifically triggered by the arts.

Hitchens: Don’t you think there’s a problem in most people’s discussion of this in that, we may as well do this now, the most common experience of people feeling transcendent is erotic.

Sewell: Oh.

Hitchens: I mean the very thing that religion makes it the hardest to do. There are natural moments to be had. I’ve met so many Catholics who were afraid to tell the confessor not because they were afraid to tell them about themselves but because they were afraid of shocking him. The fact of the matter is a lot of the transcendent is through that and in some bizarre way religion has set itself against it or decided that it can only be available in very regulated circumstances.

Borg: I’ve had great sex in my life, but it’s never been what I would call a mystical experience.

[Laughter]

Leslie Zukor: Well, there’s still time.

[Laughter]

Hitchens: Even if it’s best, it’s bound to remind you of the material substrate and the nature of the thing.

GhaneaBassiri : Khomeini wrote mystical poetry.

Hitchens: Erotic too.

GhaneaBassiri : Erotic poetry. And he was afraid of publishing it in his own lifetime.

Hitchens: By the way, who among us has read Khomeini’s sex books?

[Laughter]

Hitchens: They’re quite a well-kept secret. He was a really emotional… I’m sorry that they would leave Marcus’s moments of bliss…

[Laughter]

Borg: Until I’ve read them I won’t agree with you.

GhaneaBassiri: Well actually, this is one of those interesting things that there’s nothing bad about sex. So there’s no hang-ups about sex, if anything people hide the fact that they have lots of sex so Rumi never talks about this of children and wives and so on. But there is this very erotic language that’s used to talk about mystical experiences, it probably doesn’t have to do with sublimation in the same way it does with the Catholic Church because these people are married and some of them actually develop practices that required what’s called (impression si bajaj) witnessing God in the beauty of others, beautiful boys and so these things existed and they practiced it openly and there was no…

Hitchens: And temporary marriage.

GhaneaBassiri: And temporary marriage. It wasn’t a sublimation of sexuality. If anything, sexuality was used to bring people to religion rather than as a way of…

Hitchens: Not the sexual definition of paradise, which is one thing the Christians can’t come up with. So Christianity sort of falls down.

[Laughter]