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 na├»ve. 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.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Born Again

Hey, Mister Jesus. Get back on your throne. There are plenty of threatening, thundering things to do. Sinful cities are waiting for earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes and typhoons. There remain more poxes and plagues to be visited on those who disbelieve. We need to get on with our business.

Hey, Mister Jesus. We’ve got a gold crown for you here, and—whatayacallit—a scepter. The earth is your footstool, and I don’t mean naugahyde neither. It’s a genuine jewel-encrusted golden kind of stool I’m talking about. You just sit there, and anything you say to have done, it will be done, that’s a fact. So let’s get on with our business.

Hey, Mister Jesus. We’ve read about all that walking around you did, living on loaves and fishes and cheap wine, healing sick kids and talking all cryptic and such. You did your part. Now you take your well-earned rest up there in the cloud country, and let us manage the details. We know the plan. You can count on us. Relax and be at your ease on that throne. Enjoy the view, while we get on with our business.

Hey, Mister Jesus. It’s been awhile. We’re still waiting for the trumpet call and the marching band and the light show and the handing out of the party favors and the banishment of the bad people. I know it’s all on your time and everything, but it sure looks like the finale and the curtain call coming up. Do you need help? Just a little note, or even a nod of the head will do. No need to say more. We’re with you all the way. We’re ready to take care of business.

Dear Mister Jesus. Thanks for the check. It came right when we needed it. I don’t know how we could have ever doubted you. Stay in touch. We’ll talk business.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

The Elitists

Rhetoric is notoriously fluid, never more so than in this media-saturated age. A case in point is the term “elitist.” The word gets flung about now and then, but you can take it at least two ways.

Obama was accused of being elitist when he talked about people clinging to their guns and religion during the campaign. Politicians are supposed to make obeisance to such symbols of blue-collar life, without of course doing anything to actually help blue-collar people.

A CNN “reporter” recently called people who criticized the wall-to-wall Michael Jackson coverage “elitists.” It reminded me of Ted Koppel defending the O.J. coverage on the basis of “that’s what the people want.” (Both examples concern African American celebrities, but significantly their stories were freakish and atypical.) The media can justify avoiding the actual practice of journalism, and its ever-increasing reliance on entertainment as “news” fodder, by calling critics elitists.

This use of the term is actually more general than the examples might indicate. Elitism in mainstream discourse simply means educated, book-learned, someone who thinks critically. It’s another code word for the fine old American tradition of anti-intellectualism. The Republicans have been milking this one for decades: “Hey, we’re just regular dumb folks like you with simple values. Our opponents are pointy-headed academics who go to the ballet and read the New York Times.” Spiro Agnew called them “effete snobs.”

Everyone hates snobs, right? You just want to be a regular guy, one of the gang, one of the boys, not some uppity college professor who reads books. This is really what “elitist” talk amounts to. And by this definition, I would have to say that I’m proud to be an elitist. I wear the title like a badge of honor. I am educated. I read, and I understand concepts. I can think critically, and discuss issues intelligently. I consider all these to be virtues, in fact necessities, and I refuse to apologize for them.

There is another meaning of elitist, however, which is more than just a verbal weapon to intimidate smart people and win gullible ignoramuses to your side. I am referring to actual elitists, people who are members of the elite groups that make most of the decisions in this country. These elitists are not distinguished by their education or intelligence, but by their money.

The one or two percent of the population that makes a million and a half a year or more, that runs the major corporations, owns the major media outlets, and makes the laws in this country – they are the elite. They give themselves and their kids the top jobs, the positions of influence that determine their continued dominance. They reap the profits of oil, of weapons, of war. They determine what plays on the TV and radio. One percent of the U.S. population owns sixty percent of the stock and forty percent of the total wealth. Government benefits flow overwhelmingly to them, not to you. They are able to avoid paying taxes and avoid getting killed in wars. It is their game. They own it, and run it. They own the Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court. They pay for those people to do what they do.

Those are the elitists. And fittingly enough, it is those people, and the ones who directly serve their interests, who most often point their fingers at others accusing them of being “elitists.” They have no idea what it’s like for you and I to hold a job, to struggle to make the payments, to worry if a health crisis will bankrupt us. And they thrive on the deaths of millions of people, millions of children in other countries, who starve and die of disease and are killed because these elitists must continue to live in their selfish bubble of gratification. Yet they won’t hesitate to throw around the “elitist” label at someone in order to gain advantage.

When a powerful person in this country talks about morality, or religion, or faith, or freedom, they are lying, either consciously or not. The only real value in their world is self-interest. The only chance for justice is for their elite status to be eliminated, and the centralized power of super-capital to be brought down.