Saturday, May 9, 2009

The spiritual atheist

Does spirituality have anything to do with the supernatural?

Julian Baggini recently wrote that he overheard a traveller claiming "I don't believe in God, but I'm a spiritual person". I'd guess that this person was saying that she does not believe in supernatural entities (let alone in beseeching them for benefits), but nevertheless experiences spiritual emotions (which is to say, love) and believes in the human spirit- the mental and social existence by which we develop personal meaning and express love for the world we find ourselves in and the people who populate it.

The word spirit is widely used in secular ways- team spirit, human spirit, high spirits. This is a sign that the language already makes room for what we all sense- that what we see before us is the core meaning, and that the common assumption that this "spirit" has a supernatural component or origin is an added hypothesis, not the core meaning. If we, given the evidence of contemporary biology, neurobiology and psychology, conclude that there is no such thing as an afterlife, a Cartesian soul, angels, or holy ghosts, then animal and human spirits remain as a practical matter, even if supernatural spirits are a dead letter.

This accords with the various spiritual movements that have found a home here in California, from EST to the summer of love, to burning man, most of which have little to do with supernaturalism, or if they do, of a very tempered sort.

Jesus was right that man does not live by bread alone, but wrong in his physics- that an invisible being shrouded in inscrutible writings tells us how to live or needs our prayer, that Jesus was the son of god, that believers live everlastingly after death and nonbelievers are damned forever to hell, etc. These were all metaphorical issues at best, if not self-serving propaganda, and to take them literally was and remains an error. The ancient Egyptians located the soul and its capacity for communal responsibility and gratefulness to creation in the heart, carefully embalming hearts of the deceased for eternity while scooping out and discarding their brains. That scientific error had no effect, of course, on their capacity to exercise their spiritual emotions. As Barak Obama says, his mother was intensely spiritual, without believing in god, spirits, or anything of the sort.

Thus, whether believing in supernatural spirits or not, spirituality labels our capacity to express enjoyment in connecting with others, in experiencing love for our surroundings, and even in listening to new-age music and meditating. The deeper forms of this enjoyment tend to fall on the instinctive axes of purity and sacredness, which form our responses to dirt vs cleanliness, bodily functions vs abstraction, courseness vs nobility, mundane versus unusual events (rainbows, waterfalls, thunderstorms .. beauty of all kinds). In this way we keep our ideals in sight and subjectively transcend the mundane day-to-day of the human condition. Whether there is some other reality to escape to is a separate, scientific question whose answer appears strongly negative. At any rate, it is the inspiration of these feelings and this quest that is critical, with usually positive results.

Indeed spirituality could be described as a form of love, focused on entirely intangible objects in the case of religion, complete with attendant blindness, infatuation, and jealousy, such as we see expressed by the lovers of Allah in the Middle East. The terminology of religion is drenched with such romantic displacement, referencing the heavenly father, the love he has for us, the marriage of nuns with Jesus, his everlasting mercy, our desperation and desolation were he to desert us, hatred for those who fail to appreciate the same love we do, etc. and so on. However, infatuations with invisible beings are liable to misuse by those entrusted to interpret the desires of the love-object, as well as being over-amplified by particularly imaginative devotees. Thus keeping this kind of love directed to real objects, such as visible people and surroundings, is psychologically healthier than the alternative, forming a grounded spirituality rather than a religion whether dogmatic or mystical.

Another way to approach the cognitive origins of spirituality is through the work of psychologist Carl Jung. Jung's focus was on the unconscious, which runs our lives, is deeply mysterious, is (as far as we are concerned) omniscient and omnipotent, is the source of our energies, and generates fantasies and dreamscapes that recapitulate time and again the basic forces of human nature. The unconscious is central to understanding ourselves and our meaning in life, and is the subject of endless symbolic representations in religion and myth ... of the center, yin and yang, the inner core, the foundation stone, the cross, the mandala, etc.

Myths of the hero's quest usually symbolize this inner core of the self as an object of great power, often hidden in a cave, a body of water, or an underworld, such as the pearl of great price, the grail, the ring, or the magic sword, which when found may make the hero whole, healed, or help her save the world. It is really the image of god within, though its valence may occasionally be dark and demonic instead. It is what religions commonly term the soul, whose supposed supernatural properties symbolize the unfathomable ground of personal existence which, because it encompasses our existence, also generates the existence of the entire world on our behalf, in a manner of speaking.

It appears to be natural to flip what is internal, deep, and personal into the most cosmic conceivable entity ... the supernatural god that is everything, inheres in everything, knows everything. While polytheistic gods represent only parts of our psychological selves, whether anger, love, dedication, selfishness, creativity, etc., monotheism amplifies the entire subconscious foundation (the inner cosmos, one might say) into a correspondingly lofty and over-inflated projection. Thus it is that believers are so "deeply" attached to belief- not because it makes rational sense or models the external world, but because it represents the most important and personal element of existence, with which they are in continual communion, from which they receive counsel, and with which they seek a closer relationship.

How else to explain such things as the phantasmagoria of the book of Revelation? These are in no way visions of reality whether past or future, but expressions of extreme inner turmoil and pain- of the powerlessness and humiliation of an oppressed sect, salved by a fantasy of world domination by the righteous in a hopefully imminent future. Similar dynamics lie behind the hidden twelfth Imam of Shia Islam and other millennial and salvational ideas, clear up to Communism and its mythical classless, stateless society.

One instance of this tension between inner and outer (projected) depths has been the contest between Gnosticism and Christian Orthodoxy, where Gnosticism (subject of a future post) tends to be mystical, concerned with personal, even occult, spiritual experience and whole-ness, tied to a conception of the divine as lying within, rather than without. The early chuch patriarchs fought long and hard against such "heresies", despite their abundant concordance with much of Jesus's teachings. And they had to fight them over again in the modern age, as first the Protestants sought personal intermediation with Jesus and the Bible, and now post-Nietsche, when the whole idea of an exterior god appears increasingly ludicrous, and new age and psychotherapeutic movements find spiritual expression once again in a quest for, or study of, the internal cosmos.

Jung described these tensions 90 years ago:
The barrage of materialistic criticism that has been directed against the physical impossibility of dogma ever since the age of enlightenment is completely beside the point. Dogma must be a physical impossibility, for it has nothing whatever to say about the physical world but is a symbol of "transcendental" or unconscious processes which, so far as psychology can understand them at all, seem to be bound up with the unavoidable development of consciousness. Belief in dogma is an equally unavoidable stop-gap which must sooner of later be replaced by adequate understanding and knowledge if our civilization is to continue. (Symbols of Transformation, 1916)

Ritual practices of mental journey such as prayer, fasting and meditation accomplish the purification and separation from mundane life that help many people pay attention to deeper sensibilities which are the wellspring of spiritual feeling. The circumambulation of the Kaaba during the hajj is an example that symbolizes a return to the center- of the universe, of the religion, of the original tribal tradition, and of the soul/self. Specially noteworthy are the hallucinogenic drugs used to attain what participants routinely cite as highly meaningful spiritual states, such as ayahuasca, peyote, and perhaps marijuana. These clearly enhance spiritual sensibilities as they alter consciousness, providing an awareness that consciousness is a dynamic construction built on a highly mysterious, even foreign, unconscious and neurochemical foundation, as they also amplify feelings of connection with what is coming through the opened doors of perception.

But there is a fine line between recognizing, even participating in, the significance of spiritual practices and symbologies, and lending them personal belief. Each person appears to have individual thresholds of suggestibility and sensibility in this all-important field of personal meaning. But the dangers of "drinking the Koolaid" should not keep atheists from appreciating the psychological powers such belief systems, or from engaging with them as metaphorical vehicles for personal expression and communal understanding.

Cognitive science is just beginning to evaluate how the most basic decisions and concepts are made, and is relatively far from analyzing how the brain creates feelings like consciousness and spiritual emotion (what Freudians tend to call "infantile regression"). Depth psychology is currently neglected because it deals with complex psychological themes that have yet to be seen in an MRI, even as they inform every movie, cartoon, and novel. This resembles, ironically, the occultation of all mental contents during the scientific behaviorism heyday of the 1950's, when technical limitations created an analogous conceptual blindness. We know that the fount of meaning and motivation, not to mention religious theology, lies inside the brain. Can atheists be comfortable experiencing and expressing spiritual emotions, even as we simultaneously analyze their origin and their misappropriation into the rationalizations of religion?

Incidental links:
  • NYT columnist Charles Blow gets it.
  • It is rather ironic that the pope, of all people, would deprecate witchcraft in Africa, when Jesus himself cast out devils in Mark 1, and the Vatican still employs an exorcist and trains them. Is there is a bit of professional jealousy here?
  • Bart Ehrman's quest for truth and reason.
  • Why do we tell stories? Our brains are social modeling machines.
  • Theology, as presented on YouTube.
  • ... or as presented on the Philosophy bites podcast.
  • A very nice professor of religion discusses meaning.
  • Psychologists are studying goodness.
  • Somewhat lighthearted philosophical discussion of reason vs religion, aiming for reconciliation, but admitting that he can't get there.
  • Daniel Dennett gives an excellent talk about cognition and religion- far better than his book, actually.
  • The cartoonist gives me a hard time!
Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. -Keats


  1. Interesting post. It seems to me important to stress that there are possibilities for atheistic forms of spirituality, if only to help undercut the false dichotomies that are polarizing the contemporary "God debates."

    A couple of centuries ago, Schleiermacher defined religion in terms of a distinctive kind of experience, and called the effort to INTERPRET this experience "theology." What this post does is sketch out an atheistic "theology" (in Schleiermacher's sense). It makes sense of the view that an atheist can have this kind of experience, live their lives in terms of it, and yet continue to insist upon their atheistic worldview.

    In a way that actually resonates with many of your points, Schleiermacher conceived of the "religious feeling" (or spiritual feeling, if you prefer) as having its roots in an inner experience of the unfathomable ground of our own being, in relation to which we are "absolutely dependent." And, like you, he thought that the proper culmination of this feeling was a love of the world around us.

    But this fact highlights what seems to me an important oversight of your post. For progressive theologians of Schleiermacher's sort, love of God consists, not in fawning infatuation towards a transcendent being upon which we cannot act, but in an opening up of the self to a transcendent mystery that is experienced first and foremost as THAT WHICH LOVES. The opening of the self to it thereby amounts to making of oneself a channel through which the divine love operates in the world (an idea expressed beautifully in the quote from Simone Weil that serves as the slogan for my blog).

    Put another way, the kind of relatedness to the divine that you attribute to those who embrace theistic religion is only one sort, and not the sort that seems to be favored by those theists whose religious lives are most fully characterized by powerful mystical religious experience.

    When you say, "infatuations with invisible beings are liable to misuse by those entrusted to interpret the desires of the love-object," I think you are presupposing a couple of things: (a) that the essence of the spiritual experience is "infatuation," that is, the possession of loving feelings of a quasi-romantic sort, as opposed to the experience of BEING LOVED in a non-romantic way ("unconditionally"); (b) that this experience cannot be interpreted theistically apart from the social apparatuses of religious institutions that set up an interpretive authority who is then entrusted with the right to make pronouncements about "God's will."

    It seems to me, on the contrary, that there is a mode of spiritual experience that lends itself readily to theistic interpretation, but whose substance--"We are experiencing here an unconditional love that is the very source of our own being, and we respond appropriately to it only when we channel it outward into the world, and strive to love as it loves, unconditionally"--offers an antidote to the more pernicious pronouncements of so-called religious authorities (whose authority will always be subordinated to the mystic's immediate encounter with transcendent love).

  2. One more thought. Both Schleiermacher and I would take issue with your tendency to explain away theistic belief as mere psychological projection, as opposed to seeing it as a plausible (if contestable) interpretation of the significance of the spiritual experience.

    Your post READS as if you begin your analysis of spiritual experience with the judgment already firmlly in place that a transcendent being that is sufficiently "personal" to be capable of love is at best a needless supposition and at worst a silly one in the light of what science has taught us about the physical world. And it seems to be on the basis of this judgment that you justify "explaining away" the theistic turn as the most fitting move.

    Now I'm sure you have reasons for this judgment. My own contrary judgment (defended in my recent book) is that neither the supposition of a transcendent good nor its denial is silly, and that a decision to live in the hope (NOT the false certainty) that such a transcendent good accounts for our spiritual experience has pragmatic value. But trying to adequately hash out our disagreements over THIS point is going to be virtually impossible through comments on a blog post, I would think.

    That said, I'd invite you to wrestle with some recent philosophical works (such as the book NATURALISM by Stuart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro) that challenge the current academic assumption that naturalism is somehow obvious in the light of the available evidence.

    Anyway, those are some thoughts that you may find of some interest as you develop and refine your own ideas.

  3. Hi, Eric-

    Thank you for your close attention to my post, and congratulations on your book on this topic. I had not heard of Schleiermacher before, and I think for his time, he stands as a remarkable, progressive, and very sympathetic figure. My mother attended Göttingen, incidentally(!) Yet since his time, much has been learned, especially about our own provenance and mechanics, as some of my other posts touch on (like this weekend's). It is simply no longer credible to chalk up a set of feelings and intuitions to intercourse with the creator of the universe, however exalted they are.

    Comparative religion alone should prohibit one from adhering to the Christ story as an explanation of our religious feelings- they may point equally to Ganesh, or Buddha, or any number of other deities or other concepts. If one takes a feeling-based theory of religion seriously, as we both seem to, then one can in no way use it to come up with a theology. It can only justify a psychology, as per Carl Jung, William James, etc. See my post on theology.

    Even to say something as anodyne as "that which loves" already goes too far. We certainly feel an awe of the world and love for it. But its feeling for us is purely a matter of speculation, not to say projection. An objective observer might conclude that the world hates us, is out to kill us, and will do so in the end. At any rate, it seems philosophical malpractice to make claims on this matter with only feelings for evidence- claims that go beyond our own feelings in any way.

    Thus I can not agree with your six-of-one, half-dozen-of-the-other approach to spiritual interpretation. It is patently not equivalent, based on a feeling-based spiritual experience, to posit either that we have natural feelings in this direction, or that on the other hand, there is actually a god that all of humanity has labored to describe with a profusion of conflicting specifics. The one satisfies Occam's razor, while the other is a flight of fancy, though an extremely popular one.

    It is like saying that the medical placebo effect might either be due to an interaction of mental stress and the immune system, or else it might be due to the creator of the universe taking personal interest in our well-being. The one hypothesis is humble and draws on evidence, the other is extravagant in the extreme, drawing on feelings rather than evidence. To draw false equivalences like this reflects personal commitments, not logic or good philosophy.

    I have indeed read and even reviewed the book Naturalism, which was recommended to me by a correspondent who is a partisan of Radical Orthodoxy, of all things(!). It was lucid enough when introducing ideas that the authors disagreed with (since those ideas are themselves coherent), but not when they delved into their own ideas. But I would be interested in hearing why you think it was a rigorous and scholarly work. My correspondent was, needless to say, not happy with this review at all.

    With appreciation, -Burk

  4. I checked out your review of Goetz and Taliaferro's_Naturalism_, as well as your interlocutor's response--and was happy with neither.

    I was unhappy with your review because you called key elements of their discussion "gibberish" where you would have been more honest had you said "I don't get it."

    I was unhappy with your interlocutor's response because, although it noted this tendency to go from "I don't understand" to "it must be gibberish," your interlocutor offers no help to advance the understanding.

    Such help is hard to give. As a professional philosopher reading the passages you call gibberish, I find them quite lucid (if contestable). But as a philosophy teacher I know from experience that those unfamiliar with reading academic philosophy will often throw up their hands and declare the writings gibberish AT PRECISELY THOSE POINTS WHERE A PHILOSOPHER SEES THE WRITING TO BE AT ITS MOST LUCID.

    The reasons for this irony are many, and not all apply in every case. Two reasons stand out. First, for the sake of precision philosophers will often include qualifications and distinctions that so clutter up the overall flow of an argument that students lose track of that flow. What the philosophers are saying is more precise BECAUSE of those qualifications and distinctions, but since the main phases in the arguments are distanced from each, it becomes easy to miss the whole. Furthermore, understanding what is being said in phase three may require recalling a distinction from phase one which is long forgotten.

    For these problems, it helps to draw a kind of map. In fact, professional philosophers often do this. They identify key distinctions, premises, qualifications; they number them; they jot them down on separate sheets of paper which can be laid out side by side; they draw arrows to identify what needs to be kept in mind for understanding what.

    The other big problem has to do with assumptions. We all operate with a set of assumptions we take for granted, and which serve as the lenses through which we both interpret and evaluate what others' say. But philosophers are in the business of critically assessing those assumptions, and routinely invite readers to try on a different set of assumptions to see how well they work.

    Most people have difficulty doing this. And when you read something in the light of assumptions that are not being made by the author, what the author says can seem absurd or incoherent. Even when my best students try to cast off their assumptions and adopt the alternative set of assumptions being offered by the author, they fail to do so fully.

    This is true even of professional philosophers whose job requires this kind of thing. It's just really hard work to do it consistently. We may take off our assumptions (like a pair of interpretive glasses) and put on the alternative ones--but only for a minute, before (out of habit) unconsciously reclaiming the more confortable and familiar viewing lenses. Or we put the offered pair of alternative glasses on--but we do it without removing our old pair, and so everything looks like nothing but mad distortion.

    If these problem apply to you (as I suspect they do), then my explaining what G&T wrote in the same level of detail that they offer would do no good. You'd just do the same thing to me that you did to them.

    What I can do, perhaps, is offer a kind of overview that may offer a map for rereading and a reminder not to impose your own assumptions on what they write. This may help understanding when you reread their work. You may still disagree profoundly...but to disagree, you first need to understand. And there is something to be understood. What they are saying may be wrong, but it isn't meaningless gibberish.

    Since this post is so long, I will offer my overview on a subsequent post.

  5. In the passages you call "gibberish," G & T are attempting to respond to a pair of objections to the hypothesis that consciousness might be explained in terms of some element (a "soul") that transcends the empirical world studied by science but causally effects it (by influencing our actions).

    The main line of objection has to do with the possibility of mind-body interaction. For example, it is argued (by Sosa and others) that in order for A to causally influence B, A must first stand in a NONcausal relation with B that explains how and why A affects B as it does rather than something else (or nothing at all). But in our experience the noncausal relation that does this work is spatio-temporal contiguity. But an immaterial soul can't be spatio-temporally contiguous with a body in such a way as to explain why "my" soul affects "my" body rather than someone's else's (or no body at all).

    To respond to this and related objections, G&T seek to do several things. (1) They seek to show that the objections rely on metaphysical assumptions that are not derived FROM scientific observation but are imposed upon it (although the assumptions are so deeply embedded in contemporary scientific thought that typically they aren't even noticed, or they are experienced as so much a part of what is observed that to deny them is seen as denying what is evident to the senses); (2) They seek to articulate an alternative set of metaphysical assumptions (including a "causal ontology" that depends on a metaphysics of "substances" with powers that derive from their "natures"--thematically attuned to an older scholastic metaphysics) and then show that these assumptions do at least as well in making sense of the empirical world as we encounter it (including as we encounter it in scientific study; (3) They seek to show that, given these alternative assumptions, the objections to the interaction of a immaterial soul and a physical body disappear.

    The passages you call gibberish all have the following in common: they presuppose their alternative metaphysical assumptions, in terms of causal powers rooted in a thing's nature. These alternative assumptions are in an important sense at odds with the assumptions that shape contemporary naturalism, assumptions which seek to understand things not in terms of a "nature" conceived in Aristotelian terms (invoking the idea that a thing is a combination of FORM and MATTER, and that the nature of a thing is given by its FORM), but in terms of the interaction and organization of constituent physical parts--that is, reductionistically and spatio-temporally.


  6. If you bring this latter metaphysic TO G&T's arguments, you are not merely begging the question but wearing a set of interpretive lenses which make it impossible to understand WHAT they are saying (and hence impossible to even begin the process of adequately assessing it).

    Now, lest you accuse G&T of begging the question themselves (not that there may not be some of this in their book), we need to keep in mind their aim here. If you can show that the case against an immaterial soul works if you presuppose reductionistic materialism but doesn't work if you presuppose a neo-Aristotelian metaphysics of natures, then you have shown that the case against immaterial souls works only if you assume a metaphysics in which immaterial souls already have no place.

    The deeper question is whether scientific discovery speaks to a particular metaphysics--whether what we now know about the empirical world tells us that a naturalistic/materialistic metaphysics is the most plausible one. Here, the historical fact that naturalism has emerged alongside science is insufficient. The methodolical naturalism of science--the focus on looking for naturalistic explanations for empirical phenomena--might slide readily into a metaphysical naturalism, but the explanation would be psychological rather than logical. The inescapable premise, it seems to me, is that science cannot discern whether there is more to reality than science can discern.

    So, if we want to figure out what overarching metaphysics we should adopt, we need other considerations besides the scientific facts. And the main achievement of G&T is to stress that, in the course of deciding on such a metaphysics, we should consider how well it makes sense of our ordinary experience of ourselves as conscious beings who make decisions on the basis of reasons. Their underlying principle, it seems to me, is this: all else being equal, that metaphysical worldview should be preferred which explains more while explaining away LESS.

    Now this is not to say that G&T have settled the matter. In my view, their achievement lies in something else: reminding us that there is a research program here, and that a comprehensive worldview should be assessed not merely in terms of its "fit" with science but with the totality of human experience, including the experience of ourselves as agents who act for reasons. My own view is that this particular research program--into what fundamental worldview best fits with the totality of our experience--is the hardest one of all, that we will never in anyone's lifetime adequately resolve it, that we should still strive to do so while provisionally living our lives AS IF one or another is true (since pragmatically we must), and that a false certainty is the greatest enemy of progress.

    On this last point, popular culture in the US is characterized by a false certainty with regard to supernaturalism. But the academy, within which we SHOULD hope for the greatest progress on this "ultimate" research project, the false certainty falls squarely on the side of naturalism. And this is where I see G&T's book as being valuable: challenging the false certainty that stifles academic inquiry, so as to jar academics back to work.

  7. I know it is, perhaps, a "girly" book, but I would strongly suggest you read Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. It goes into fascinating detail taking apart the human psyche and how incessant human psychological needs can be found manifested in religion, fairytale, etc. It's aimed primarly toward women, but it's a great and thoughtful read nonetheless.

  8. I'd also, come to think of it, encourage a read of Aldous Huxley's "The Perennial Philosophy." In it, he describes what he sees (from extensive studies) as the nature of the divine Ground. It's worthwhile to note that he refutes both those who think all is God (cosmic consciousness) and those who think they are God (God is "psychological"). Both, he states, are forms of idolatry.

  9. Hi, Nuclear-

    Thanks for the book tips. The wolves one sounds fantastic- my wife and I are sure to enjoy it. Many thanks!

    For Huxley, I am far from thinking that I am god, though that is not an unknown interpretation by certain prophets. Wish I were, though!