Atheism as a Spiritual Path
talk to the Melbourne group of Sea of Faith in Australia, 21 April, 2011,
by Ian Robinson, President Emeritus, Rationalist Society of Australia
It is a pleasure to be talking tonight to members of the Sea of Faith, which for the benefit of any non-Sea of Faith people here tonight, is a group inspired by the ideas of the Anglican theologian Don Cupitt in England.
The title of my talk, for the sake of brevity, is “Atheism as a Spiritual Path”, but I don’t mean to imply that atheism is in and of itself a path to the spiritual. What I wish to argue is that, contrary to accepted wisdom, far from disqualifying one from being spiritual, a belief in atheism is entirely compatible with a spiritual approach to life. In fact I would want to go further and argue that atheism is an essential part of any rigorous spiritual journey. But more of that later.
As an atheist, I don’t believe God exists in the real world but is a human creation.
As followers of Don Cupitt, members the Sea of Faith don’t believe God exists in the real world but is a human creation.
You might think that since we’re all agreed that the deity is a figment of our collective imagination, this means we are all atheists on spiritual paths together, so we can pack up now, go home and have an early night.
But despite the apparent similarity of our positions, there are three very important differences between us that I want to explore tonight:
(1) I don’t believe God exists and is a human creation for very different reasons to those of Don Cupitt and the Sea of Faith.
(2) Since God doesn’t exist and is merely a human creation I want to dispense with God and religion altogether, whereas Don Cupitt and the Sea of Faith still want to believe in God and religion despite their merely human origins.
(3) Don Cupitt and the Sea of Faith want to equate spirituality
with the religious lifestyle, while I argue that the first does not entail the
second and you can be spiritual without being religious.
(1) I don’t believe God exists and is a human creation for very different reasons to those of Don Cupitt and the Sea of Faith.
Basically Don Cupitt and the Sea of Faith believe that God and religion are human creations because they believe all our beliefs, including those of science, are human creations. On his website, Cupitt quotes with approval the claim of the American neo-pragmatist, Richard Rorty, that our beliefs are not copies but tools. In an interview for The Philosophers’ Magazine[i], Cupitt argues that scientific theories are not discoveries but inventions: “We made all the theories. Physics didn’t fall out of the sky, Darwin didn’t discover evolution, he invented it, and it works.” He and the Sea of Faith believe, following Rorty, that “our beliefs are not pictures of the world but tools for living”. “We cannot claim to have purely objective knowledge of the world but we can claim to have many useful ideas about our world”. Cupitt calls his position “non-realism” and believes “we are the only makers of truth and truth is only the current consensus between us”. Cupitt does not embrace the all-beliefs-are-equally-true attitude of some post-modernists - he accepts that quantum physics has more going for it than the tarot and astrology is not equivalent to astronomy. The criteria for making this value judgment is that astrology and quantum physics are more useful, make testable predictions and simply make a lot more sense.
Given that all our beliefs are created by humans in this way, and given that belief in the existence of God is just one of those beliefs, it follows that belief in the existence of God is a human creation too; God is not part of the real world not because there is a real world out there that God is not part of, but because there is no such thing as a real world out there for God to be part of; what we think of as the real world is really just an illusion, a figment of our collective imaginations, and our notion of God is just one of those illusions or figments.
Although this may seem at first blush to be a bit of a humiliating slump for God after his many years at the top – an embarrassing demotion in status to something not quite real – it is actually a devious way of rescuing God from the clutches of naturalistic science, which tends to show, mainly through psychology and anthropology, that God is indeed a human creation. The rescue is accomplished not by so-to-speak resurrecting God back into the pantheon of naturalistic science, rather by reducing science down to the level of religion as just another human creation. Cupitt and his post-modern fellow travelers have in effect made religion the equal of science again, after its centuries of second-class status, not by elevating religion but by reducing science.
In opposition to Don Cupitt and the Sea of Faith and their “non-realist” stance, I am a realist. I believe when I see for example a chair in front of me there is in most cases a chair in front of me and its existence and characteristics are to a large part independent of any beliefs I have about it.
Basically I accept the famous dictum of Science Fiction writer Philip K. Dick, of Blade Runner fame: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away.[ii]
The fundamental world view of naturalism has been conveniently summarised by the American philosopher, John Searle[iii]:
There is a real world that exists independently of us, independently of our experiences, our thoughts, our language.
We have direct perceptual access to that world through our senses, especially touch and vision.
Words in our language, words like rabbit or tree, typically have reasonably clear meanings. Because of their meanings, they can be used to refer to and talk about real objects in the world.
Our statements are typically true or false depending on whether they correspond to how things are, that is, to the facts in the world.
Causation is a real relation among objects and events in the world, a relation whereby one phenomenon, the cause, causes another, the effect.
One way of looking at the two theories – realism and non-realism – is to think of our set of beliefs as a map. Imagine we have two possible maps which we can use in a certain situation. When we use one map we keep getting lost; when we use the other map we keep arriving at where we want to go. Obviously we will retain the second map and throw away the first. Now according to Cupitt and Rorty and their non-realist colleagues, the only difference between the two maps is that one is a more useful tool than the other.
But surely there is more to it than this. One map is more useful than the other map for a reason. It’s not just a fortuitous coincidence that one map always brings us to our destination and one map doesn’t. Surely the only rational explanation is that one map more closely represents the territory that the map purports to describe and that territory exists independently of the maps that purport to represent it. Moreover, if we change the map without reference to the territory it will cease to be useful, wholly and only because it has ceased to be an accurate representation of that territory
In the same way, we have access to a whole raft of beliefs about the way the world is, and we gradually, through trial and error and the gathering of evidence, suss out which of those beliefs work and which ones don’t, which ones are useful for operating in the world and which ones aren’t. These beliefs collectively give us our world view and enable us to survive and thrive in it to varying degrees. They do indeed prove to be useful tools for navigating through life, but again this is not a mere co-incidence, not just a lucky guess – the reason beliefs that work do in fact work is that there is a correlation between those ideas about the world and the way the world actually is. In some sense our tried and true beliefs about the world are a picture or a map and to the extent that they are tried and true, they are a picture of something, a map of something. And that something is what we call reality. And we’ve more or less got a handle on it.
I say “more or less” because there always has to be room for revision and reconfiguration in the light of new information. Don Cupitt’s official website proclaims “we cannot know the world, absolutely” and I agree with this – there are no absolutes in our apprehension of the real world. But why does our knowledge have to be absolute knowledge? Why does truth have to be absolute truth? This obsession about absolutes is I think a throwback to earlier religious habits of thinking, which were full of absolutes: God was often defined as “the absolute”, and described in terms of absolutes: omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, etc. We have to abandon this doomed quest for non-existent absolutes and be content with the way the world actually is. This doesn’t mean however that we have to sink into the mire of relativism. What I want to claim for my beliefs and the beliefs of naturalistic science is the they are true enough, true enough for all practical purposes, and that they are less wrong than all the alternative sets of beliefs. If we can’t aim to be absolutely right, we can at least aim to be less wrong. And further, the reason they are true to the extent they are is not because I’ve hit some amazing cosmological jackpot but because I’ve taken the trouble to test them against an objective reality and to ensure that they more or less correlate with the way the world is.
Given that realism is the most plausible metaphysical theory about material reality, I think we can be pretty sure that God is not part of that reality. Nor is there any convincing evidence of a second transcendental or “spiritual” world over and above the material one. There is little or no support for the existence of such a realm from common sense or from science. Every effort to find convincing scientific evidence for any supernatural forces or entities has failed; every initially promising experience of the spiritual realm has been found on closer, more rigorous examination to be illusory. I do not have space to argue for this in detail here, but see for example Andrew Neher’s Paranormal and Transcendental Experience: A Psychological Examination[iv] for a full exploration of the topic
Most of us atheists would go along with the great British biologist J. B. S. Haldane when he wrote: “My practice as a scientist is atheistic. That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel or devil is going to interfere with its course; …. I should therefore be intellectually dishonest if I were not also atheistic in the affairs of the world.”[v]
We lesser mortals, whatever our professed beliefs may be, in actual fact live most aspects of our lives in the same way – as if there were no spiritual realm and no God. When an engineer is designing a bridge they take account of gravitational forces, but they don’t allow for the impact of spiritual forces. When an architect is designing a church or a mosque they rely entirely on physical structures to carry the weight of the roof, they don’t factor in a proportion of the load to be born by God. When an accountant is doing a financial balance sheet they don’t have a column for transcendental income, pennies from heaven.
To sum up: God’s human origins are clear. Although we can conceive of, for example, a tree in the middle of an uninhabited jungle that no-one has ever seen, we cannot conceive of a god that no-one has ever believed in. In Cupitt’s words “there are no free-floating gods”. But Cupitt and the Sea of Faith believe this because all our beliefs and knowledge are human constructs, while I and most atheists believe this because the idea of God does not stand up to the test of objective reality.
(2) Since God doesn’t exist and is merely a human creation I want to dispense with God and religion altogether, while Don Cupitt and the Sea of Faith still want to believe in God and religion despite their merely human origins.
Having arrived at the conclusion that God did not exist in the real world and was just a human creation, most people would simply forget about him and get on with their lives. But Cupitt and the Sea of Faith want to continue to believe in God despite the fact that there is no-one to believe in.
There are three different senses in which we can “believe in “ something:
First, if we say, for example, I believe in ghosts, we are saying we believe that ghosts exist – i. e. we are committing ourselves to a proposition about reality, to wit that if someone looks in such and such a place, most likely a haunted house, they will discover that the thing we believe in exists – there is at least one ghost there.
Second, you can believe in someone, or something they are doing, in the sense that you have confidence in them and/or think they will be successful. Believing in someone in this sense is similar to trusting them. But this sense of “believe in” carries an existential assumption, it implies “believe in” in the first (existential or ontological) sense as well. It doesn’t make sense to say you believe in or trust in so-and-so to do such-and-such but you don’t believe they exist. This would be courting disappointment.
Third, you can believe in an idea or a policy because you are in favour of it, because you think it is right or good. You might believe in democracy or free trade or romantic love. You don’t have to believe any of these things actually exist, just that you’d like them to, that you think it would be a good idea if they did.
It is clear that when Cupitt and the Sea of Faith say they believe in God they mean it in this third sense. The analogy that Cupitt uses in The Philosophers’ Magazine interview is socialism. You can believe in socialism as a political program without believing that a socialist government actually exists anywhere in the world. The various candidates, from the former but now non-existent Yugoslavia to modern-day Cuba, all turn out to be flawed in some way and not examples of the socialist ideal. Cupitt argues that “to believe in something is to be committed to a particular policy or program, for life. … Belief-in implies moral commitment. But it doesn’t have to imply ontological commitment.”
However, it seems to me there is a huge difference between having a moral commitment in the sense of belief in a policy or a program that you hope to have implemented in the future, on the one hand, and belief in a God that doesn’t exist, on the other. In the first case you are putting up an ideal that it is at least possible may exist to some extent at some time in the future; in the second case you are believing in a concept that has been around for a long time, which carries a huge amount of metaphysical and theological baggage, and which you believe has never existed and never can exist. Not only that, but Cupitt’s web-site argues that, despite appearances, such a “non-realist religion [ie with a non-existent God] can work very well as religion, and can deliver ‘eternal’ happiness now.
I find this very curious. To go back to our earlier map analogy, it is as though Cupitt has possessed a map on which there is a region inscribed “Here be Dragons” but after he and a number of other people have visited the area and thoroughly explored it they come to the conclusion that no dragons exist. Most map-makers would erase the notation “Here be Dragons” from their maps, but Cupitt perversely wants to keep it there on the grounds that the [admittedly false] myth that there are dragons can have a positive effect on people’s lives. Or perhaps a better analogy is a map of South America that shows the legendary Fountain of Youth in the centre of the continent. Even though the Fountain has been shown to be a myth, Cupitt might want to keep it on the map as a program to make a moral commitment to.
Cupitt’s determination to hang on to the discredited concept of God seems to go against the flow of history. The history of the human species is a history of relinquishing such spiritual or supernatural delusions. Early humans believed they could see a plethora of supernatural beings everywhere. Every feature of the landscape, every animal, even every bush and stone had a spirit in it. With the rise of the early civilizations, we became more sophisticated, and pared our deities down to a manageable group in the sky, such as the Greek Pantheon. This in turn was eventually whittled down to the idea of the One God of monotheism. Finally, in the wake of the Enlightenment, the rigorous seekers began to see there was no sign of God or the spiritual anywhere and they became atheists.
And in this case, ontogeny does seem to recapitulate phylogeny. The trajectory of most people’s spiritual development has been this same journey from the many to the one, and finally to none. In childhood we have many “gods” – in the Christian West, not just God the Father and Jesus and possibly the Virgin Mary but also Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and our own private invisible friend. As we mature we gradually divest ourselves of most of them until we are left with the Trinity or with Allah. Finally, some of us, if we follow this typical trend, will become atheists.
This idea of letting go as a feature of the spiritual path was put forward over two thousand years ago by the ancient Chinese philosopher, Lao Tsu, in the Dao De Ching, “The Book of the Way and it’s Virtue”[vi]:
the pursuit of learning, every day something is added on.
In the pursuit of the Way, every day something is left behind.
I believe that for those on the spiritual path, seeking a spiritual Way, one of the things that must finally be left behind is the idea of God.
Voltaire once wrote to Frederick the Great of Prussia that “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him”. According to Don Cupitt, he doesn’t, it was and we did. Where I differ from both Voltaire and Cupitt is that I don’t believe this human invention of God was at all useful, let alone necessary.
(3) Don Cupitt and the Sea of Faith want to equate spirituality with the religious lifestyle, while I argue that the first does not entail the second and you can be spiritual without being religious.
Cupitt’s official website states: “spirituality is a religious lifestyle”. This appears to me as an atheist to be an unjustified and arrogant incorporation of a more general word into the religious fold. It is true that in the past two millennia religion has claimed a monopoly over spirituality and this has been possible partly because religion has also claimed hegemony over the whole of culture. And it is also true that in the last two centuries, as humanity has begun struggling out from under the shadow of religion, and as science has increasingly usurped the explanatory role that religion used to play, religion has grasped more and more desperately to its perceived monopoly over spirituality as one of its last claims to relevance in a secular age. However, despite this contingent connection, spirituality and religion are not the same thing.
Spirituality comes from the Latin word for breath and this life-giving phenomenon became a metaphor for the soul or essence of something – we talk about the zeitgeist – the spirit of the age – and about team spirit. Spirits are beverages distilled down to their true essence. So it seems to me that spirituality is a commitment to exploring the essence of what Douglas Adams calls “life, the universe and everything” and this exploration does not require an a priori commitment to God or even to a transcendental realm. Indeed it seems to me that such an exploration into the essence of life the universe and everything conducted with rigour and without preconceptions must come to the conclusion reached by both Don Cupitt and me that the transcendental realm and God do not exist. In other words, despite some overlap, religion and spirituality are two distinct things and we don’t need to throw the spiritual baby out with the religious bathwater.
Firstly, the starting point for a spiritual exploration of life the universe and everything is quite simply awareness. The great French writer and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Albert Camus, realised this when wrote at the age of 24, long before he had published his great novels: “What I wish for now is no longer to be happy but to be aware.”[vii] The Buddhists call it mindfulness. There is a nice story I heard told by the Australian Buddhist monk Pannyavaro, the founder of the BuddhaNet, about a student asking his Zen master what the essence of Buddhism is. His teacher answered “Attention”. The student thought his teacher must have misheard him and asked again “What is the essence of Buddhism?” and the teacher again replied “Attention”. “I don’t think you understand,” insisted the student, “I’m not asking about attention, I’m asking about the essence of Buddhism.” His teacher turned to him and said very firmly: “Attention. Attention. Attention.”
Attention, awareness, mindfulness are at the centre of a spiritual approach to life. They first of all entail that our spirituality moves beyond the warm fuzzy feelings of Sunday church attendance and takes a long hard look at the world. Without the illusory consolation of God’s constant personal care and attention, even if you happen to be a lowly sparrow, and the reward of a better life after death, the universe is a cold inhospitable place and this is not easy to come to terms with.
The English novelist, Julian Barnes, expresses it with characteristic vividness: "It is difficult for us to contemplate, fixedly, the possibility, let alone the certainty, that life is a matter of cosmic hazard, its fundamental purpose mere self-perpetuation, that it unfolds in emptiness, that our planet will one day drift in frozen silence, and that the human species will completely disappear and not be missed, because there is nobody and nothing out there to miss us. That is what growing up means. And it is frightening prospect for a race that has for so long relied on its own invented gods for consolation."
But there is also a positive side to this picture, as we experience the wonder and marvel of our own existence and evolution, we can celebrate the fact that in this huge conglomeration we call the universe we may be the only ones who can recognise it and acknowledge its magnificence. As Charles Darwin wrote at the end of his magnum opus: “It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. … There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.”[viii]
Be that as it may, a thoroughly attentive awareness will not long want to wander among the stars but will want to come down to earth, be in the moment, see things from a human perspective. For me one person who expresses this most eloquently is Frank Plumpton Ramsey, one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century. Ramsay was a student and latter a fellow at King’s College Cambridge and a friend and colleague of people like John Maynard Keynes, Bertrand Russell, George Moore and later Ludwig Wittgenstein. His main field and contribution was in Mathematics and there is still a branch of Mathematics – Ramsey Theory – named after him. But with the encouragement of Keyes he also wrote three important and original papers in economics which are still influential. And in Philosophy he not only wrote some key papers but was prominent in luring Ludwig Wittgenstein back to Cambridge after the First World War, suggested some changes that were incorporated in the second edition of Wittgenstein’s first great book, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and is mentioned by Wittgenstein in the Preface as being a major influence on his second ground-breaking work, Philosophical Investigations. Then he died. He was only 26 years old. One wonders what sort of contribution he might have made to what academic fields had he lived to a ripe old age.
Ramsay was a militant atheist. It is ironic that the only member of his family who was not an atheist, his brother Michael, did live to a ripe old age (87) and became the Archbishop of Canterbury. Can we see the hand of God at work here? In 1925 Frank Ramsey gave a paper to a Cambridge discussion group. Bertrand Russell had just published a tract entitled “What I believe” in which he discussed, inter alia, what was then called man’s place in the vast universe that surrounds him. Ramsay had a very different slant:
“Where I seem to differ from some of my friends is in attaching little importance to physical size. I don't feel the least humble before the vastness of the heavens. The stars may be large, but they cannot think or love ; and these are qualities which impress me far more than size does. I take no credit for weighing nearly seventeen stone.
“My picture of the world is drawn in perspective, and not like a model to scale. The foreground is occupied by human beings and the stars are all as small as threepenny bits. I don't really believe in astronomy, except as a complicated description of part of the course of human and possibly animal sensation. I apply my perspective not merely to space but also to time. In time the world will cool and everything will die ; but that is a long time off still, and its present value at compound discount is almost nothing. Nor is the present less valuable because the future will be blank. Humanity, which fills the foreground of my picture, I find interesting and on the whole admirable. I find, just now at least, the world a pleasant and exciting place. You may find it depressing; I am sorry for you, and you despise me. But I have reason and you have none ; you would only have a reason for despising me if your feeling corresponded to the fact in a way mine didn't. But neither can correspond to the fact. The fact is not in itself good or bad ; it is just that it thrills me but depresses you. On the other hand, I pity you with reason, because it is pleasanter to be thrilled than to be depressed, and not merely pleasanter but better for all one's activities.”[ix]
Secondly, as Ramsay implies at the end of his paper, being spiritually engaged in life involves making an emotional commitment, but one informed by reason. Passion in tandem with thoughtfulness and mindfulness is at the heart of spirituality. It is not something that happens to us but something we do and do with feeling. And the emotions we cultivate when facing the universe from a spiritual perspective are such passions as love, trust and reverence. We all know that mystical experiences are more or less ineffable but when I was asked to describe my first such mystical experience the best way I could find was to say “it was like falling in love with the universe”.
Love is not something that happens to you, it is a choice you make. Sometimes, especially when we want to hide from ourselves that fact that, for the sake of immediate gratification, we are making a bad choice, we disguise this unpalatable fact from ourselves and tell ourselves that love has overwhelmed us or taken control of us or whatever, but this is a case of what Sartre called mauvaise foi – bad faith. In matters of love, we are always free to choose, or not to choose.
Loving the universe, like all forms of love, involves among other things a commitment to the love object, in this case everything, a commitment to spend time getting to know it better, a commitment to nurture it and care for it, a commitment to listen to what it is saying (“attention”!), a commitment to value you it and a commitment to accept it as a totality, both it’s “good” and “bad sides, its joys and its terrors.
William Blake once famously wrote:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Auguries of Innocence
But to see heaven in a wildflower seems to me too easy. We also have to be able to see heaven in a toxic chemical dump?
Love of the universe, love of life, as spiritual commitments do not need the involvement of God. In fact letting God into the picture diminishes the human beings involve. A love of the universe ordained by god is as demeaning as an arranged marriage.
This approach to spirituality as love is echoed in the words of the late Robert C. Solomon who has written the most comprehensive analysis of a secular spirituality so far available. In Spirituality for the Skeptic he writes:
“Without for a moment denying that spirituality requires thought and thoughtfulness, it nevertheless has everything to do with passion and the passions of life. The fear of death, grief, and despair are not themselves spiritual emotions, but they often serve as preconditions or anticipations of spirituality and can become spiritual as we think about them, as do joy, love, and certain kinds of trust and gratitude. But just as thoughts without feeling do not constitute spirituality, dumb feelings no matter how exhilarating without adequate thought do not either. Spirituality means to me the grand and thoughtful passions of life and a life lived in accordance with those grand thoughts and passions. Spirituality embraces love, trust, reverence, and wisdom, as well as the most terrifying aspects of life, tragedy, and death. Thinking of spirituality just in terms of our terrifying realization of loss of control and impending death is morbid, but thinking of spirituality only in terms of joy or bliss is simple-minded, a way of (not) thinking that is rightly summarized as "la-di-da." If it is passion that constitutes human spirituality, it must be the whole spectrum of human passions – and thoughtful passions – that we must consider. Thus when I have to summarize naturalized spirituality in a single phrase, it is this: the thoughtful love of life.[x]
Interestingly enough, some very similar ideas are expressed in the 27 point manifesto published on Cupitt’s official website entitled “The Religion of Ordinary Life”. There is much there that a spiritually inclined atheist can sympathise with and even agree with.
Eg “Life is everything.” “Life is bittersweet and bittersweetness is greatly to be preferred to pure sweetness.” “Life is a gift with no giver.” “In human relationships, justice if first in order, but love if first in value.” And so on
However Cupitt blows the whole thing in just two sentences:
Proposition 4. Life is God
and its logical corollary
Proposition 5. To love life is to love God.
Up till then he was going fine.
If God is indeed simply a mythical entity and a symbol for some thing of value why not just say Life is of value and leave out the middle man. It is hard to see any value-adding by using the discredited concept of God as a proxy for what you set great store by. Maybe someone here can make sense of it for me.
I am arguing:
- Realism is the least wrong account of the way things are
- God is a human invention
- Spirituality is about exploring the essence of life the universe and everything
- Spirituality requires neither God nor religion
- Spirituality involves
(1) awareness or mindfulness
(2) a passionate and thoughtful commitment to life and the universe
[i] Reprinted in Julian Baggini & Jeremy Stangroom (eds). What Philosophers Think. Continuum, 2003.
[ii] Philip K. Dick, "How to Build a Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later" in Lawrence Sutin (ed) The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick: Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings (Vintage Books, 1996)
[iii] John Searle. Mind, Language and Society: Philosophy in the Real World. Phoenix, 1999, p 10.
[iv] Dover, 1990.
[v] Haldane, J. B. S. Fact and Faith. London: London, Watts & Co., 1934
[vi] Chapter 48 [author’s translation]
[vii] Albert Camus. L'envers et l'endroit, 1937
[viii] Charles Darwin. The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. [final paragraph]
[ix] Talk given at Cambridge University, 28th February, 1925. Reprinted in F P Ramsey. The Foundations of Mathematics and Other Logical Essays. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1931. [pp 291-2]
[x] Robert C. Solomon. Spirituality for the Skeptic: The Thoughtful Love of Life. OUP, 2002. [p. 6]
SECULAR RELIGION and NON-SUPERNATURAL SPIRITUALITY.
- David Miller (Existentialist Society).
As an Atheist, I have dozens of ‘gods’: Truth, Justice, Freedom, Love, Humanity, Nature, etc. Each of my ‘gods’ has one or more ‘religions’. For example, my ‘god’ Truth has science and philosophy as its ‘religions’. The inverted commas indicate that I am using these words in a non-theistic and naturalistic (non-supernaturalist) sense.
I have been making an attempt to think through the ways in which humanity has used the concepts of religion, spirituality, God and the gods. There has often been discussion on whether we non-believers are secular people rather than religious people. The problem, it seems to me, is that we tend to conflate *religion* with the *supernatural*. Such confusion is normal within our everyday language. The two words have almost become synonymous. Nevertheless, I suggest that we begin to try to be more precise. Even if our efforts lead us in different directions, it will at least be illuminating.
Admittedly, historically, the gods have been portrayed as possessing supernatural powers. Yet God and the gods are merely symbols for the higher aspects of our human nature. These symbols are represented in the form of metaphorical personifications with supernatural powers added on. However, if we remove those powers, there need then be nothing supernatural in this usage. Does that surprise you? Let us take an example. Both theists and atheists occasionally refer to *Mother Nature* as a symbol for nature. Mother Nature is a metaphorical personification of nature. There is no supernaturalism implied in this. She is not treated as a god. Personification is not necessarily deification.
How would we go about turning Mother Nature into a god? We would have to give her supernatural powers. For example, we could say that she created nature. That would be sufficient to deify her. However, that would immediately be seen as somewhat erroneous. Mother Nature is merely a symbol for nature. Nature is the reality, Mother Nature the symbol. How can the symbol create the very reality that the symbol represents? It is a category mistake. Yet when we use the generalized symbol God, our cultural conditioning blinds us to such errors of category confusion as are contained in the commonly heard claim that, “God created everything”.
Religions have been contaminated by this association with the supernatural for thousands of years. Hence the *common usage* we usually find in our dictionaries. That is, unless you find one, like the Macquarie, which includes within its list of the definitions of religion – “the quest for the values of the ideal life”.
* RELIGION and HUMAN NATURE *
Let me start by reminding you that, in supernaturalist terms, we do not worship a religion. We worship the gods. Religion is our means of worshipping our gods. Religion is our tool, our method of worship. However, I wish to contend that religions need not necessarily be supernatural, and that supernaturalism does not have to be the basis of religion.
I am claiming that religion is, at base, the worship of the higher aspects of our human nature. In an attempt to remove the supernaturalist baggage we could, instead, say that religion is the *revering* or *veneration* of these higher aspects. Or, to use words with even less supernaturalist baggage, religion is the means we utilize to *honour* or *uphold* these aspects. Put the other way round: if we wish to uphold the higher aspects of our human nature, we find (or invent) an appropriate religion with which to do so. Science, for example, is utilized by many people as their means of upholding truth.
What ought to constitute a naturalistic religion? Let us begin to look at some of the requirements:
First, as already mentioned, is the reverence, veneration, honouring, upholding and celebrating of the higher aspects of our human nature.
Second is the comprehension and realization of these aspects; in simpler words, getting to know and understand them.
Third is the manifestation, actualization and questing for these aspects; in simpler words, bringing them into being in our world, both in ourselves as well as in others.
So, if the higher aspects of our human nature involve no supernatural elements, then our means of upholding them, our religions, need no supernatural methods either. “But what are these aspects?” I imagine you asking. I will respond by attempting to list the wide-ranging variety of answers humankind has given to that question:
1. Our highest values – Goodness (the moral and ethical realms), Truth (the objective and scientific realms), Beauty (the subjective and aesthetic realms).
2. Our loftiest ideals – e.g. Love, compassion, mercy, perfection, justice, freedom, creativity, certainty, prestige, etc.
3. Our peak experiences – e.g. Wonder, awe, mystery, gratitude, uniqueness, interconnectedness, security, adventure, excitement, etc.
4. Our areas of ultimate concern – e.g. Self, family, community, nation, humanity, nature, planet, universe, etc.
As you can see, all of the four categories are completely natural. There is nothing supernatural about any of them.
Some people prefer to symbolize their particular set of higher aspects in the form of a metaphorical personification. Or, in other words: a fictional representation. Unfortunately, most people throughout history have given supernatural powers to these symbols. Nevertheless, it is possible to uphold your higher aspects without personifying them, as well as holding personifications without deifying them.
So I hope that I have begun to show that there is a sense in which I can refute the claim that we non-believers are secular rather than religious. In my terms, we are both secular and religious. We all find the means with which to revere, venerate, honour and uphold the higher aspects of our human nature.
* ABRAHAMIC RELIGIONS *
The Gods of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) are merely symbols for the higher aspects of our human nature. Each religion’s God symbolizes a slightly different constellation of values, ideals, experiences and concerns. The same applies to the denominations within each of the religions.
If, however, we were to deal with the issue from a polytheistic perspective rather than a monotheistic one, then each particular aspect could be symbolized by its own god. It might then be necessary to construct models (pantheons) within which to explain the relationships between these gods.
In non-supernaturalist terms, *spirituality* is merely another name for human nature. And the *human spirit* is yet another name for human nature. The positive side of this spirituality is, for many people, represented by fictional characters known as gods.
However, we must take into account all our values, all our ideals, all our experiences and all our concerns. Even low values, mundane ideals, devastating experiences and base concerns, as well as vile impulses and crass desires, etc. Within the Abrahamic religions, most of the latter are labelled as Demonic. These religions use the Demonic as a metaphorical personification of humanity’s lower aspects. Eastern religions, on the other hand, often stress the interconnectedness, rather than the opposition, between humanity’s positive and negative sides.
* NATURALISTIC RELIGION *
Let me introduce you to an extreme version of this explanatory model, one in which I have labelled the higher aspects of human nature themselves as the 'gods'. In this model the 'gods' do not need to be symbolized. Nor do they have supernatural powers. They are natural. They are simply there.
So let me explain, within this latter model, how I define a 'god'. For example, how can a value be a 'god'? How can an abstract entity be a 'god'?
My answer: A value is a ‘god’ when you place the value above and beyond yourself. It is “out there”. You give it allegiance. You serve it. You are subservient to it. It is your lord and master. You are its slave. If necessary, you are prepared to die for it. You will even kill for it.
In return it gives you meaning and purpose. It gives you something with which to identify. It takes you “out of yourself”, “beyond yourself”, to a “greater purpose”. And, in this naturalistic non-supernaturalist sense, it is your ‘god’.
(I like this extreme version. It allows me to say such things as, "You are in the grip of the ‘gods’. They've got you in their grasp. You've got 'gods', whether you like it or not”. And this applies to non-believers just as much as it does to believers.)
* SECULAR RELIGION *
So, to conclude the talk, let me add in a short extract of a few sentences, from almost three decades ago, of I comment of mine in the journal of the Rationalist Association of NSW:
The most notorious examples of secular religion are Nationalism, Fascism and Communism. These three give an imagined assurance of superiority to the in-group, be it based on nationality, race or class. And they often express intense hatred towards the out-groups.
I have come to the conclusion that if humans are not adherents of a supernatural religion, then they are quite likely to be adherents of a secular religion.
I find that many of my fellow Atheists do not like this concept of *secular religion*. They claim that secular religion is a contradiction in terms. They want to reserve the use of the word *religion* for supernatural belief-systems only.
Posted by David Miller