Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Spiritual atheism

Or why human awe has been systemized


Spiritual atheism - oh my, what a contradiction! Well yes, depending on how you define spirituality. Now let's try and make some sense out of this.

For a long time, skeptics and atheists have been looked upon as being dull and boring with regards to feeling awe and wonder when contemplating the great majesty of the world. I actually don't think most skeptics and atheists have been this way, but there is a long standing tradition of labelling nonbelievers as simply non with regards to everything that is not immediately explainable or possible to quantisize. Who's guilty of this? First offender is the actually dull-and-boring atheist who claim that every other sane person should only be elevated to the same dull-and-boring state of mind she is wandering in. Second offender is the religious person who's simply to ignorant to realise that not all atheists and nonbelievers are like the dull-and-boring atheist. They both say that a scientific mind can not experience the intense feelings of a spiritual or religious person, because these feelings "are not rational" (I would just say "harder to control", which I don't exactly find "irrational"). The dull-and-boring atheist adds: and like everything else related to religion, these feelings and experiences are dangerous and should be exterminated from the face of the earth.

Eeck! Can we please change this idea? I think we can. And in order to do it, we should have a brief look at the anatomy of a religious feeling and then what religions have to do with this. The central issue is whether religions should have monopoly on religiousity (or more modest: spirituality).

Subjective religiousity
The diversity within any religion is exactly as large as it's followers, since every single individual has her own understanding of God, the universe and the meaning/purpose behind her own existence. Most religious people know the correct creeds and dogmas of their respective religions. But these creeds are usually professed automatically and unconsciously - a kind of "paying lip service" to the institution of you religion. When asked personally, most people are willing to come up with a lot of their own religous ideas: They bend and strech, they reformulate old dogma, they excuse and create Gods anew (just have a look at christianity, islam and judaism - undoubtly variations on the same monotheistic God).

In relation to this, I think we can point at an all-embracing human common demoninator: the immense and awestriking wonder, when faced with the incomprehensible reality of the world we exist in. We experience this at different occasions in our life, but usually when having a philosophic talk with an inspiring person, exploring new areas of the earth's nature or contemplating things which suddenly makes perfect sense. Freud called this "oceanic feelings" and I will do this as well. I like the word because it just covers the experience so well: Sometimes you really feel "oceanic" when you're looking at the very vast, the very small and seemingly infinite. When we have this sensation, we both feel the incomprehensibility of the world and yet experience a certain sort of transcendence: to somehow get grips with the ungrippable. Or as Albert Einstein said: "The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible." (Physics and Reality, 1936)

Though, it seems as if some things will never be explained - or indeed, can never be asked. Either way, we must accept that "there is more between heaven and earth", at least in our present time. This fact should make us all believers in some sense (because of the confabulations we tend to make about that which we don't know of). Einstein was often misunderstood as religious (in the conservative sense), becuase he often used the term on himself or said he believed in God (one may ask: which one?). It seems evident to me that what Einstein believed in was so far away from the conventional gods, that it really doesn't make sense to call him religious in this sense. The anthropomorfic gods of the semitic religions was obvisouly not what he was talking about:

Common to all these types is the anthropomorphic character of their conception of God. In general, only individuals of exceptional endowments, and exceptionally high-minded communities, rise to any considerable extent above this level. But there is a third stage of religious experience which belongs to all of them, even though it is rarely found in a pure form: I shall call it cosmic religious feeling. It is very difficult to elucidate this feeling to anyone who is entirely without it, especially as there is no anthropomorphic conception of God corresponding to it. (New York Times Magazine, November 9, 1930) [my bold-doing]

It seems to me that what Einstein called God, was not "the great father in the sky", but instead nature it self. To modify that a bit, I think God can be used as a word for the fascinating fact that there is something at all. Then "God is in the rain" after all - because God is everything. Hallelujah!

Organized religiousity
Organized religion offers a fellowship, where the individual can share her oceanic feelings and wonders of the incomprehensible. It is less important that the concept of God in scripture and tradition is contradictory and inconsistent. As I argued before, most people have their own personal concept of God anyways. What matters is how we can gather around the internal oceanic feelings we all experience: awe, love and wonder.

The reason anyone subscribes to specific religious dogma and concepts of God, appear to depend largely on geographical factors. The reason why people subscribe to any religious dogma at all, can be found in partly in what I describes before, but some of the geographical factors could be explained and elaborated on as well: socioeconomical situation, psychological profile, indoctrination. I didn't write much about them, because they are quite obvious for most people.

In conclusion, I think a large part of these people have misunderstood their own feelings, and let the religious organisations take advantage of this. Religious stewards (ie. priests) have proclaimed that these feelings are directed to the metaphysical or the supernatural (things that are beyond the natural world). How then can one decide which religion is the right one, when their dogmas are descriptions of things we can not know? I think the systemized dogma of organized religion is to go too far, and say too much about that which we can not know anything about. Or to put it like Wittgenstein: "Of that which we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent" (Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus). You don't have to speak about the unspeakable to feel wonder. You can do like the rest of us, spiritual atheists, who stand before the incomprehensibility of the world with humility and silence.


todd said...

A really rational and thoughtful post. I will be sure to check back here.

Malte Roed Lundén said...

Thank you, Todd. You are welcome to check out the rest and please comment or say anything that pops in to your mind.


Torben Sangild said...

I agree. This is a really important point. Atheists (and agnostics) in general are just as emotional, just as awestruck and just as aesthetically spell-bound as religious people. And just as moral.

But they simply don't interpret all these states as being in contact with a supreme being or with a divine spirituality.

Patrique Vosges said...

you made some really good points. i liked your post.

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