Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Spirituality: an Inquiry (Part 1)

It’s questionable how useful a statement of convictions can be, if it’s only that, and not a stimulant to further reflection. I am here undertaking a clearer definition of my views on theism, atheism, and spirituality, not because I benefit through such an act of definition, but in the hopes that I can aid readers in finding their own way through these issues and perhaps gain some wisdom along the way.

Atheists don’t seem to spend a lot of time defining what theism means. Most of the literature I’ve seen attacks traditional religious texts and beliefs in a piecemeal fashion. It’s no wonder, really. I’ve often remarked that people generally assume that they know what we mean by the word “God” when such questions are asked as “Do you believe in God?” or “Are you religious?” When we get down to actually asking folks to define God, the diversity of the answers is often astonishing.

The general conception, however, if I had to summarize it, is of a being or entity that is all-powerful and created the universe. Since it is a being or entity, it is separate from us in some way. Even if we allow for the idea that the being is “everywhere” and is beyond space and time, there is still the assumption that this being is greater than, and not the same as, people and things.

If we define theism, then, as the belief in this general concept, then I am an atheist. For me, such a being or entity is logically impossible. I also consider it morally impossible, on historical grounds. I have no intention of presenting the full range of this argument here. I would point curious readers to David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion for starters.

There are two prominent aspects to the current debate. The first is that theists put forward “God,” and the attendant religious texts and doctrines, as explanations for natural events, and as ultimate explanations for nature itself. In other words, they claim scientific truth for theistic beliefs. Atheists, along with scientists in general, challenge this, as they must if they are to retain the integrity of reason and method in science. For complex reasons, evolution has become the focal point for this struggle, but it really encompasses all of science, and particularly its fundamental reliance on evidence, demonstration, and logic. There can be no compromise with an approach that relies on an a priori acceptance of authority outside of reason.

The second aspect is actually more comprehensive, although it gets less attention than the struggle over science and evolution. Theists put forward “God,” and the attendant religious texts and doctrines, as the absolute authority on human conduct and sociopolitical organization. Here we run into the issue of separation of "church and state," and all the problems involved with religious groups attempting to implement their religious convictions as public policy. Atheists challenge this, of course, favoring a secular society in which freedom of belief and opinion is absolute and government is not affiliated with religion in any way.

In both aspects, I stand with the atheists. Religion is not science; it never has been, and it’s a dangerous folly to try to pretend that it is. And the social and political authority of religious groups has proven vulnerable time and again to the common human maladies of greed, cruelty, domination, and self-destruction. The age-old appeal to blind obedience is a terrible dead end. Even propagated by well-intentioned and virtuous people, it stifles human freedom and understanding—and increasingly, the most prominent voices of religious authority are neither well-intentioned nor virtuous.

My experience, however, has led me to part ways in crucial respects with the mainstream of atheist thought. I don’t believe that religion is just superstition, or that it is inherently wrong and destructive. I am convinced that the religious impulse, for lack of a better term, occurs in human beings because of a vital and central truth.

Many atheists seem only to comprehend religion as a failed attempt to explain natural phenomena. In this paradigm, reason is awakened through science, and therefore no longer needs religion, since science explains everything adequately. But in fact, religion has never been primarily an attempted explanation of natural phenomena, but only marginally so. A mythological creation story, for instance, doesn’t function as an answer to a curious mind looking for the how and wherefore of the universe. It is, rather, a metaphorical formulation of a shared cultural perspective within a community. As such, it reflects whatever values and necessities are primary in the tribe or group, both conscious and unconscious. Many themes are intertwined in the mythopoetic tale, and usually they are connected to ceremonies and celebrations involving central aspects of life for the group, such as the finding or growing of food, sexuality and procreation, life cycle stages, family dynamics, authority within the tribe or group, and the entire world of nature surrounding and sustaining the community, especially animals and plants. Social cohesion is achieved through metaphor, along with levels of self-awareness and personal development that increase through time. The ultimate source of wonder and awe in human society is subjectivity itself, the very fact of experience, which is inherently ineffable because it is the precondition of human life. Culturally we find at this source the shaman, and later the holy man, mystic, saint, or guru. The poet is the direct descendant of all these, although this heritage has often seemed obscure to modern eyes.

My contention is that this religious aspect of life, which I prefer to call spirituality because the word is less contaminated by literalist or authoritarian influence, will never go away. Human beings would die without it, because it is essentially the intuition of meaning, and there is no society without meaning. I get the impression that many atheists believe reason and science is a substitute for spirituality, and that we should work towards eliminating religious belief altogether for the good of humanity. On a practical level alone, this is naïve. It’s the same mistake that proselytizing religions make when they work towards everyone believing the same way, i.e. their way. There’s just as much chance of humanity becoming all atheist as there is of humanity becoming all Christian. None. But I go further and say that such an outcome would not even be desirable. We need metaphor—poetry and myth—and metaphor ultimately always points to an intuition of eternity, the absolute and unconditioned reality as symbolized by subjectivity itself, or what we call spirit, soul, or self, albeit these words have implications that become problematic for us.

If you, the reader, are at all familiar with my writings, you know that I reject all literal interpretations of religious symbolism and consider such interpretations as nothing but methods of domination by authoritarian groups. But you also know that I find religious metaphor to be meaningful in the context of subjectivity, as symbols of self in all its journeys, suffering, discoveries, and fulfillments.

The secular viewpoint on social and political organization necessarily involves freedom for religious people to practice whatever religion they may choose. So it’s not a question of trying to force a more enlightened point of view onto people who choose to be literalists, fundamentalists, or religious believers of one sort or another. The problem involved here, as any atheist will tell you, is that religious authoritarians are not satisfied in practicing their faith undisturbed—they want non-believers to be converted to their beliefs, and they want society and government to conform to their views. This aspect, then, presents a purely social and political problem that needs to be dealt with on that level.

My concern here is of a different sort. What does spirituality look like when one has renounced theism? What meaning, if any, does the word “God” have from a non-dualistic perspective? What would a healthy relationship between spirituality and science look like, and what is the role of reason in spirituality? Can one find wisdom and spiritual nourishment from the various religious traditions without succumbing to group-think, obscurantism, or other kinds of irrationality? What is the purpose of spirituality anyway? Is there a social purpose as well as a personal one? Rather than dismiss spirituality out of hand as some sort of aberration, I seek to understand it better, and to follow the strivings of my understanding as far as I can, without fear.


Mike Goldman said...

I personally find atheism to be a vacant philosophy, but I understand you are defining the word in a different way than most. The rejection of a *separate* God is entirely consistent with my view, inasmuch as God is not separate at all, but is that consciousness which is at the core of each of us. Indeed, you are God, and I am God, and everyone and everything is God.

This is non-dualism, to which you also apparently subscribe. To me, this is inconsistent with the purely materialistic view of scientism.

Religion is indeed metaphor, but it is not *only* metaphor, that is to say, there is an actual description of reality being given, just in terms that are possible to grasp. To perceive directly, to understand that which is real in your own consciousness, is beyond words or description.

When one comprehends this and recognizes that the omnipotence and omniscience which we ascribe to God is indeed our own, that we can manifest anything, it can be frightening. Yet it is so, if we only seek the means to tap this power within ourselves.

This goes far beyond scientific understanding, but that is not to discount science. The material world follows material rules, even if it is governed by higher spiritual rules.

Understanding the unity of consciousness is important also to the recognition that we are one, and hatred and fear of one another may then fall away to be replaced by love and an end of conflict. May it be so, that we come to this point together before we destroy our creation.

Chris Dashiell said...

Hi Mike. Your views are, as you say, similar to mine. I am, however, sceptical, to say the least, concerning omniscience and omnipotence. In any case, my method is what you might call a negative one, since I try to strip away whatever is limited in the conviction that what remains is not. Metaphor is always a description of reality, but in the case of religious metaphor we encounter the attempt to metaphorically describe the absolute and unconditioned, which when people attach beliefs to it as if it were just another conditioned fact, we end up with the error of misplaced absoluteness.
Your point regarding the unity of consciousness is an important one, and central to my thought as well. I wish to explore this in more detail and discover exactly how, if at all, we can declare such unity to be true.

Mike Goldman said...

Your skepticism, Chris, is because you do not yet fully apprehend the truth of the matter, that the universe is consciousness, and you are that.

I would gladly help you to see this more clearly, and there are tools that may facilitate this. Perhaps something to be discussed elsewhere.

fairlane said...

You can't/won't find Zen in a bong.

What's up, Dash?

Hope you're well.

Mike Goldman said...

You'd be surprised what you can find in a bong, Fairlane. You sure you haven't been hitting the bottle?

Chris Dashiell said...

Nice to hear from you, Fairlane. I miss Jonestown. I'm busy as always, seriously addicted to Twitter. Doing fine.

fairlane said...

Unless you are willing to eliminate, by any means necessary, all those who disagree, Utopia is impossible.

And even then, it won't work.

It is our suffering, which makes us human.

It is from suffering that our greatest innovations have stemmed.

Our greatest works of art, people, moments were all birthed during struggle.

Our triumphs are sweet because we know the taste of failure.

It is our pending annihilation that makes life beautiful.

Any attempt to create the perfect human condition is Fascist.

And even believing it's possible is Narcissistic.

Ego is desperate to live forever.

You see, Goldman, you honestly believe you are more intelligent, and that is your trap.

Your assumption betrays you, and your philosophy. You speak of "an end of conflict," yet, you intentionally engage in conflicts with those who disagree.

You become angry, defensive, condescending, etc, etc, etc.

No different than the rest of us.

You are just a man.

Onto more important matters.

Chris, I'm reopening Jonestown, and would very much like it if you signed on again.

Let me know.


Mike Goldman said...

What a spectacular display of projection, Fairlane. Indeed, I am just a man, same as you, and that is a great deal more than you seem to realize. You see conflict here, I see amusement.

Dakini Terton said...

Very interesting and engaging.
I consider myself an “atheist.” It doesn’t define my views well, it’s simply a label I use for lack of a better one.

To understand what I mean, imagine if humans were forced by convention to choose between one of two labels for themselves: either “Flatworlder” or “Anti-flatworlder”. Those of us who understand the Earth to be a spheroid planet would be stuck with “Anti-flatworlder”. You can imagine, then, why we so-called “Anti-flatworlders” would not spend a lot of time defining what “Flatworlderism” means. Would we – should we – be expected to spend time defining “opposing” views such as the view that Earth is a bounded two dimensional plane which you will fall off of when you reach the edge? Or that the Earth is a plate carried on the back of an elephant? Or a turtle? I don’t think we would consider the exercise time well spent.

So despite adopting the label “atheist”, I don’t define myself as being opposed to “theism”. It’s just that “theism” (defined as you will, and Lord knows there are innumerable definitions) is not necessary to my hypothesis.

The issue of labels aside, I agree with one of your points, quibble with another and finally request clarification.

First, I do agree that religion (as commonly understood) is not inherently “destructive”, just as “atheism” is not inherently “constructive”. This, however, doesn’t get to the heart of the matter, which is whether religion has anything to contribute when describing the universe outside of the human condition. I don’t think it does.

And this leads me to my quibble. I believe religion has, in fact, been advanced and understood primarily as an attempted explanation of natural phenomena, including the human condition. And I think it is still largely taught and believed as such. Priests continue to preach, and flocks continue to believe, a “religious” understanding of such things as how the world was created (e.g., by “God”), the nature of the Earth (e.g., created to be exploited by man), the role of humans and non-human animals (e.g., humans to master non-human animals), the meaning of natural phenomena (e.g., payback for sin), etc. The vast majority of those who are religious would emphatically disagree with the assertion that their religion constitutes nothing more than metaphorical, mythopoetic tales. No, that’s the way an “atheist” (such as me and, apparently, you) would describe the “function” of religion. To the faithful, God is not a metaphor.

So I’m left with a request for clarification. When I look up the definition of “spirituality,” I see various definitions along the lines of “the quality of being concerned with deep, often religious, feelings and beliefs, rather than with the physical parts of life.” When you use the word, I don’t think you mean “religious” feelings. And I’ve never seen a so-called atheist (Dawkins and Hitchens included) assert that deep feels and beliefs (awe, wonder, passion, love, loyalty, etc.) are unimportant or unworthy. So I’m left wondering what, exactly, you mean by spirituality, and why atheism or theism are at all relevant to the inquiry. I encourage you in your strivings, and am hoping Part 2 will shed some light on my question.

Chris Dashiell said...

Hey, Mike & Fairlane. You are two of my few regular readers. If you fight, one of you might go away. So, selfishly I ask, please don't. :-)

And thank you Dakini. I do hope to clarify things as I continue. I take, as you may have noticed, a somewhat radical position against the claims of organized religion. Part of the problem is that metaphor is seen as "only" metaphor, i.e. some inferior kind of truth, whereas my position is that there is no other meaningful truth. Knowing the facts concerning phenomena, the "how" which constitutes science, is vitally important in other ways, but it doesn't reveal meaning per se. Outside of its significance to subjectivity (consciousness, or what we commonly think of as "I) no phenomenon, however well explained, has meaning.

fairlane said...

No worries, Dash. We're not going anywhere.

All I want to know is, HOW?

That's it.

Enough with the majesty of What Could Be, and explain HOW you get there.

Spare me the glibness, and the passive aggressive remarks.

If you can't explain HOW, admit it.

If you can, get on with the show, as I'm all ears, eyes.

And if I'm multiplying this out further than you wish to go, tell me.

I'm a native skeptic and somewhat of a contrarian. I tend to run with ideas as far as I can, and when it comes to Utopian Philos, I always come to a dead end.

If you'd prefer for the parameters to be narrower (Say enlightenment on an individual basis), I'm cool with that, but if that's the case, lose the "End of Conflict" claim.

Such a claim implies the inclusion of all humanity, which I believe beyond the scope of any one philosophy.

And, Dash, I await your answer on returning.

I'd like it to be just you, and I again. The others were too distracting with their real world stalkers, and what not.

Chris Dashiell said...

Hey, Fairlane. I never said anything about the end of conflict. I am talking about something existential. If I follow you correctly, you're asking "how" we achieve utopia. My answer is, we don't. We can only work for more peace, justice, and equality. No over-arching economic or political system, no ideology, can be an answer--instead, it would be a symptom of our problem.
If your "how" refers to something else, let me know.
P.S. Let me know how Jonestown is coming along when you have the time.

fairlane said...

I apologize, Dash. I was addressing Goldman.

"Understanding the unity of consciousness is important also to the recognition that we are one, and hatred and fear of one another may then fall away to be replaced by love and an end of conflict. May it be so, that we come to this point together before we destroy our creation."

I should have made myself clearer.

As for Jonestown, well, I'm me.

In fact, I'm more me than just about anyone I know.

What else can I say?

Mike Goldman said...

Chris, I have no conflict with Fairlane, as I said. I'm amused by his remarks, but that is all. I have no intention of going away, and it sounds like neither does he.

Fairlane, if your HOW is directed to me, then I'd say the same thing that I said to Chris before, it may be something to discuss elsewhere. There are tools, and I was not referring to a bong, contrary to your evident inference. I have more to say on my Facebook page than I do in the comment section here. I don't think you would appreciate or find these tools useful at your present state of development, but it isn't even necessary to bring about the transformation of everyone's consciousness at once, only a critical mass is needed, and the rest will follow. If you are indeed sincerely interested, ask Chris to introduce you to me on Facebook and we can discuss it.

fairlane said...

You know, Goldman, you truly are a pompous prick (I've always enjoyed alliteration).

And you're one of those Internet pompous pricks, which makes you twice as annoying.

If I didn't know better, I'd say you belonged to a cult.

Possibly Eastern?

Not the Maharaji, but in the same ballpark.

Yes, it's fuzzy, but I think I'm close.

Christ, how cliche.

Mike Goldman said...

How about this one?

Mike Goldman said...

And for the record, just to correct any ambiguity, a bong certainly *can* be a useful tool of enlightenment, even though that was not my intended implication.

fairlane said...

"The paradox may be stated as follows: it becomes necessary for us to go out of our minds in order to use our heads." Timothy Leary in the Introduction to "LSD- The Consciousness Expanding Drug," Putnam's Sons, 1966.

I wrote a paper on Leary in my Behavioral Psychology class, almost 20 years ago.

My professor said something to the effect of-

I have no idea what point you're trying to make, all I know is, this is not a Psychology paper.


Think before you leap ;)

Mike Goldman said...

Maybe I'll ask the Maharaji what he thinks. ;)

DED said...

Ok, I'm late to this conversation. In the Fairlane-Goldman debate, I lean heavily towards Fairlane. Just my POV on things. There are too many troglodytes posing as humans to achieve anything close to what Goldman proposes.

With regards to Dash's post (another thoughtful one I must say), I can't say that I fall in either one of your categories. I walk a fine line between the two. I don't/won't reject the existence of God yet I'm open to what form It takes (Organized religion holds no quarter with me. It's all about control). I read every day about the scientific investigation into our world and the universe and marvel at it. Yet I feel in my bones that there's something more than just complex equations on a chalkboard. Perhaps it lies beyond the grasp of our senses and our current state of sensor technology. After all, we still don't know what dark matter and energy are and it is said that they comprise 96% of the universe.

I don't know what word it is that describes my POV, but it can be defined as: "the quality of being concerned with deep, often religious, feelings and beliefs, as well as the physical parts of life." For me, the two are intertwined. I can't reject either.