Thursday, August 2, 2012

Seeking more than humanist religion or spiritual atheism

English: Happy human Humanist logo
English: Happy human Humanist logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
This post is composed of an attempt to reply to this comment from a thoughtful reader responding to my recent critique of the UUA. After putting my own comment(s) up in response, it seemed clear it would work better as a new stand-alone essay. I have previously written about secularism and humanism (including a follow-up) and why I am not anti-religious,  but this seemed like a good opportunity to update and expand on such themes given that he generously offered a link to one of his sermons about atheist spirituality and morality.

Over a decade ago I am certain I sounded very much like him as I was transitioning from an anti-religious atheist to a slightly more open-minded non-theist. Things have changed a bit since then, but I can appreciate where he is coming from. (All subsequent links are to things written on this blog but in no particular order, and my original comments upon which this post is based have been edited slightly for clarity.)

Here is my response:

Hello Michael and thank you for your reply and the link about your thoughts on morality and spiritual atheism. It is true that if one has certain beliefs about God or religion, then shedding the outer shell of those beliefs can seem like a major release and give a sense of liberation.

Breaking out of one paradigm and worldview involves adopting another, but often at a deeper level things are still framed in the (ontological) categories of the old assumptions. Atheism is predicated on the assumptions of particular forms of religious theism, and thus sets itself in opposition to that which is seen as crucial to religion, sometimes in an aggressively dismissive or derisive way. When embracing atheism some people come to see mocking the view of others on ultimate questions as acceptable and humorous by claiming whole belief systems are unworthy of respect because of the claims or actions of some of its adherents.

From the perspective of psychology and the sociology of deviance, this can be seen at least partly as a defense mechanism against perceived rejection or hostility. Shouting matches posing as debates erupt over conceptions of perspectives such as materialism and supernaturalism. Exploring topics of spirituality and religion can become an exercise in provoking a reactive volatility to particular ideas or an outbreak of a semantic allergy toward certain words that hinder any real dialogue or insight. Little progress is made in such circumstances.

This environment hinders thoughtful and extended reflection on important questions: Is there meaning to existence? Can there be such meaning without God? Is God an inferior or superior hypothesis to be accepted or rejected as such? Does it make sense to believe in God? Why is there something rather than nothing? Is God a person or just a vague cosmic force? Should we rely on God or the self? Is some outside force going to save us

 After all, what is the point of believing in God? How can we know if God is telling us something? Isn't there a lack of compelling evidence for belief in God? And what does God have to do with it all anyway? Even if some people might have otherwise been open to the possibility of God beyond the limiting notions they have acquired about the divine, what motive would they have to seriously examine such obstacles in the cynical and acerbic environment produced by contemporary religious debates?

Exploring spiritual questions

And if such an environment seeps into organizations such as the UUA, a place which is supposed to offer a supportive environment for spiritual seekers, how can one feel comfortable asking or wondering about the mystery of faith, or whether we live in a moral universe/if there is a value to suffering, or which is better -- hands that help or lips that pray, or why do bad things happen to good people, or whether flaws are keys to virtue, or what constitutes acceptable prayer?

Attempting to explore these and other questions require that we have as few preconceptions as possible when encountering sacred traditions so that we can appreciate them on their own terms, recognizing the value of the suspension of disbelief in spirituality, the relationship between religious ceremony and our own inner landscape, and even the value of what may appear to be absurd or beyond rational credulity. Not because these are good insights trapped in out-dated packaging but because these insights come from non-discursive modes of perception and consciousness and are best conveyed and preserved in mytho-historic and poetic terms.

A proper exploration of religion and spirituality involves more than asking, "Which spiritual path is best?" or calculating what religion does or doesn't offer. It involves cultivating a proper perspective toward religious mystery, balancing the tension between received tradition and ongoing revelation, and being open to the insights of your sacred tradition and avoiding self-limitation.

It can be fascinating to explore connections and common insights between religions, such as different expressions of grace, or how one can try to bridge linguistic and cultural barriers between faiths such as Christians and Buddhism, or to re-explore our past experiences with religion with news eyes (which isn't always easy but which nevertheless can be rewarding). But this requires a commitment to learning to see with sacred perception. Which in turn involves re-learning the virtually forgotten art of properly engaging with sacred literature and images, a topic I plan to expand more upon at some point on this blog. I have personally found that attempting to secularize such material essentially robs it of its true power and insight. For example, when people say that Buddhism is nothing more than an ancient form of a science of the mind.

Human as inherently spiritual

Nor can religion be ignored, even if one rejects it, as we are essentially spiritually inclined creatures who are natural born story tellers and who will find some religious expression for these impulses. It is of course possible to try to replace one mythos with another, one set of story elements and boundaries with another, such as the aforementioned effort to explain and define spirituality in terms of materialism. But this too has limitations. We may have evolved to enable and expand a capacity for empathy as the basis for conventional moral sentiment, and this may have been related expanded to a form of generalized altruism that has benefits at the gene-centric and group selection levels, but evolution itself is more than just bottom-up input from genes. Genes are more like place-holders and track-switchers for the ongoing processes of life, not little seeds of (deterministic) destiny.

Certainly life has evolved in response to light, for example, as seen in the way plants have the capacity to grow toward sunlight and the amazingly complex structures of various forms of eyes and eye-spots. Is it possible that other structures have evolved in response to other forms of fundamental qualities such as consciousness? I make no claim here one way or another. It takes an ideological leap of metaphysical presumption, rather than any kind of proper scientific study, to firmly answer the question one way or another, but it is the kind of outside the box idea that is always pushing the boundaries of safe and acceptable forms of knowledge. This is not a "religion of the gaps argument", as it doesn't argue that we can assume something is true because we have no other explanation. It's more of a "let's admit that there is more heaven and earth that is dreamt of in our philosophies" admonition against presuming that the only substance of and source of influence on our being comes from the phenomena permitted in a conventional view of strict ontological naturalism (i.e. materialistic reductionism).

And it is this willingness to be open to such possibilities, the source of the same sense of freedom that those bound by fundamentalist and controlling forms of religion when they break free of them, that compels mature religious people into a different kind of faith. It allows them to seek beyond the superficial levels of spirituality or materialism which are determined and dependent on forms of knowledge relying on left-brained human understanding and interpretation of experience, the kind which can readily be put into formal and rigid prose, a truly "literal" and generally fixed form of discrete knowledge (even if it is replaced by something else, this new knowledge is now "fixed" as the truth until it is displaced, which is the intent of that term). This is why I mentioned a kind of fluidity in approaching something bigger or deeper than ourselves and our own power and capacity to fully or directly understand or to put in unyielding concrete terms. This may sound odd to those with who see religion in a limited and unflattering way, but not all ways of experiencing and practicing spirituality and religion are the same. 

Is there a coherence to spiritual atheism?

It is also why I have reservations about spiritual atheism. Is it just a rejection of certain names and images of this "something greater" in favor of a more open approach to it, or is it dressing up secular humanism in spiritual terms? Can it see the value of deep contemplation and spiritual practice even when more direct or hands-on avenues of engagement with an issue are unavailable? Does it have the resources to persevere even when no one else will ever know about ones efforts (i.e. they won't have the chance to serve as example or inspiration)? What can it offer when all human efforts are completely exhausted and further words or acts of sympathy (again human efforts) are of no avail? These are important questions to ask of anything claiming the title of spirituality.

 In a view of the universe that reduces utterly to what twentieth century science (wherein modern atheism arose) can explain of it, and which by irreligious spin is generally random, cold, and ultimately meaningless (all of which, by the way, are as much metaphysical speculation being imposed on the universe as any form of religion or spirituality), what value does such spirituality possess? In a worldview in which traits such as morality and compassion are seen strictly as (potentially) transient adaptive features of more self-aware social organisms arising from selection operating on random mutations (which again, doesn't offer a complete and coherent explain how such features actually work in mechanical terms or why such traits should be possible outcomes of this universe), doesn't that make the belief in something greater a convenient fiction? 

After all, if such traits are only grounded in what is beneficial and expedient, what happens when circumstances change? Must we obey such impulses, and if so, why? Based on appeal to what? More relative circumstances? But what if there is a greater gain in dismissing such impulses. Sociopaths are said to be very successful in mating and acquiring power. One can make an argument that any advanced system of highly intelligent social beings ought if possible to allow the evolution of a limited number of such "unfettered" individuals. Moreover, the larger and more complex the social order becomes, wherein the small tribe/village model of "we all know and take care of each other" is replaced by relative anonymity and impersonal systems of justice and welfare, a model of evolution based primarily on selection and inclusive fitness could in fact place less value on genuine empathy and concern for others outside of one's own offspring and immediate family. Those with the capacity to shed or not develop such "excess" compassion, if such were an option in the breeding population, would be at more of an advantage. In such an extreme and stark hypothetical scenario, morality as we used to know it might be on its way out as biocultural evolution continues. While there is an element of hyperbole to it for the sake of distinction that doesn't sound like much of a basis for faith in something greater of which humanity is a part.

Or, is it possible that there is something about the the fundamental qualities of the universe that allow or encourage such traits to emerge, or perhaps something in the underlying rhythm of existence other than the more obvious elements of material evolution which might resonate with and influence creatures who have developed a sufficient degree or form of sentience? Don't go to some silly, easily dismissed strawman of this something. Keep in mind, we need not call this something "God" or give it the baggage that comes with "God" in Western religions. Moreover, we are learning that cultural and social environments may influence biological development to greater degrees than previously suspected as well as having a significant impact on the wiring and re-wiring of the brain. Might this also (it's unclear at present) affect the neural basis of empathy. One the one hand, if true, this would argue that spiritual atheism could possibly have a positive effect (if somehow one got over the inherent contradiction of not really believing in a greater source of awareness and love), but it could also allow the influence of the aforementioned fundamental quality or obscure aspect of existence to affect sentient beings.

If not, if these or similar options aren't acceptable, and this something more is just an (adaptive or maladaptive) byproduct of our evolved brain, a (fortuitous or ruinous) illusion, what kind of faith does consciously "following" it yield? What faith in something more is possible when what one must logically believe about that "something more" is that is a(n) (in)convenient fiction? How could it positively influence ones psycho-social development? Why should it inspire or uplift others as opposed to simply serving as one's own personal subjective justification for meaning or optimism?

I am not asking you or others interested in spiritual atheism to come up with a comprehensive answer, but rather I am again posing questions about the foundations of humanist religion and especially spiritual atheism that ought to be considered by anyone seriously pondering such things. This is why it matters if the atheism in "spiritual atheism" refers to the kind of atheism born of a rejection of the images of particular deities, or whether it is a a rejection of any kind of greater depth and interconnection in existence beyond strict materialism as it has been defined over the last century or two. Eventually, if you go deeply enough into the notion of spiritual atheism, such intellectual and emotional Rubicons appear.

To be clear, I am suggesting that something cannot be true just because one doesn't like it. Nor am I suggesting evolution must have some "spiritual influence" in the sense that that term is commonly understood in modern Western culture. The question is whether some form of consciousness beyond the finite, localized manifestations of such a phenomenon that we typically refer to might exist. And furthermore, whether in some way the evolved structures of the brain are (even as an unintentional evolutionary byproduct) made awareness of such a phenomenon possible (thereby serving as the basis for contemplative forms of spirituality). None of this is intended as some compelling or persuasive argument against irreligious attitudes, non-spiritual atheism, or the like. But if even this minimal nod to something beyond the dressed down version of material reality common to contemporary atheism is too much to consider, then spiritual atheism seems to be heading toward a dead end.

Not always a question of "either/or"

Moreover, it isn't a matter of either a spiritual atheism or adopting a specific religion wholesale without question. There are those of many religions who for thousands of years have spoken of a profound state of awareness which is the Source of all things (see this previous link if you want a potential naturalistic explanation). They have then, as suggested above, used the prevailing images and stories of their day to paint a picture of the struggles in seeking this source and what it is like when they have found it, at least in as much as the latter is ever possible. If that means borrowing from neighboring cultures so be it. If that means reinterpreting things to new audiences after they have become corrupted, misunderstood, or abused while still respecting the older language and imagery, so be it (see Buddha, Jesus, etc). As already suggested, this requires a different kind of approach and perspective than is commonly accepted or even available in modern societies with regard toward symbolic activities and their expressions in art and religion.

If we accept the possibility of such a source underlying and providing the substance of all things, that in which "we live, and move, and have our being", then there is something much firmer upon which to set one's faith and a new basis for respecting and upholding religious diversity. And even if such a source is just the experience a fully integrated human brain, then seeking it is to seek complete actualization as a human being. The trick is, we can never answer that question of which it is. Any more than we can prove we aren't all plugged into The Matrix. All we can do is choose if we will be open to this Source and follow the wisdom of those who have gone before us in realizing it, seeking to distinguish those who have such depth from those who do not.

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