Monday, August 2, 2010

the spiritual dimension

Below is the first part of a new essay for 'the faith hope'.

There have been various strategies and concerns for those engaged in fighting back against the increasingly vocal atheism of recent times. One of them is a concern to rescue spirituality, from what is seen, no doubt sincerely, as the shallow understanding, or outright dismissal of that term by the opposition. A commentator to the religion section of the Huffington Post website, one ‘Larstein’, articulates well enough many of the themes and concerns:
“Spiritual consciousness is simply a different way of seeing reality, not as something supernatural, but as just the way it is, bursting with spirit, with the divine spark in every atomic particle that exists - the God Soup. It is what Quantum science has been pointing to for years now. We are all connected, everything is interdependent and on a sub-atomic level everything is made of light. Now if that isn't spiritual perception I don't know what is. Concepts of God are by now uninteresting and irrelevant. We need more spiritual experience, not conceptual argument.”
 It’s hard not to feel some sympathy with this line of thinking. After all, it’s positive, glowing with light, and, like the best soup, hearty and invigorating. One might be tempted to describe it as ‘new agey’, but that would of course box it and label it reductively and dismissively. In fact the ‘all is light’ claim links the passage to pre-Socratic philosophy and reminds us of the human tendency, still very much with us, to look for over-arching principles, an explanation for or basis for everything – a monotheistic god being one example.
Ideas of connectedness are rather too abstract to come under the purview of science, and yet in another sense they’re not abstract at all but deeply felt. A sense of connectedness to all things but to some things more than others, such as totemic plants and animals, seems to be a feature of the oldest religions. One can see how this might fairly be described as a spiritual feeling, without resort to the term ‘supernatural’, so beloved by non believers or sceptics, so much a source of irritation to theists.
I have mixed feelings about all this. A sense of interconnectedness, of being at one with the universe, is something we can all too easily imagine ourselves into, for our own security, and if we persist in emphasising this sense, in making it more rational, we can easily fall into the trap of seeing it validated everywhere, in scientific endeavour, in religious experience, in everything. People have cited living in a bustling city as bringing with it a thrill of interconnectedness. Others have felt the same way in the stillness of isolated landscapes, or in contemplation of the ocean. A sense of the interconnectedness of all things can come from looking a sperm whale in the eye, or even a pet dog or cat.
Of course, it might not be a trap at all. 'Larstein', above, mentions quantum mechanics as pointing to this 'God soup' of inter-connectedness. I doubt that a lot of physicists would agree with him, but quantum entanglement, the spooky action at a distance that Einstein was so keen to discredit, has understandably generated much metaphysical speculation. Yet one has to question what 'spiritual experience', this feeling of universal interconnectedness as 'larstein' describes it, really does for us, and why we need it, as he claims. Why should feeling spiritual be superior to analysing metaphysical concepts? The idea that everything is connected to everything else is far from new. It surely comes from the same ancient category of thought as 'all is...', and it suffers from the same weakness, in that, as knowledge, it gets us no further forward. For example, to say that all is God, an essentially pantheistic claim, doesn't move us a step forward in understanding the world around us. It doesn't even allow us to feel spiritually uplifted since we are no more, or less, god-like than our pet cat, or a bacterium, or an electron. Everything is lifted up with us, so we're all back on the same level. Similarly, our posited interconnectedness with all other things, though it might lead us to feel a greater sense of moral responsibility towards everything around us, doesn't help us one iota in making moral decisions. It might seem glib to say that to be connected with everything is to be connected with nothing, but for practical purposes it may as well be true.
I once wrote a definition of spirituality which went like this: Spirituality is the belief that there is more to this world than the things in this world, together with the sense that, in believing this, you are superior to those who have no sense of this.
Perhaps the 'more than this world' feeling just is this sense of inter-connectedness. Perhaps not. There's no doubt in my mind though about the second part of my definition. Spirituality is seen as a positive and a sign of superiority [by those who possess it], regardless of the observation that possessing it seems to make no difference to one's being-in-the world. You can be 'deeply spiritual' and withdraw to contemplate the interconnectedness of all things, or you can reach out to others as richly or as often as possible. It is no clear guide to action.
Not surprisingly, there's a reaction to this 'superior talk' from those who regard spirituality as incoherent or, at best – taking spirituality to mean 'a sense of interconnectedness' – true but trivial. After all, someone who rejects spirituality is often described as a materialist, with all the negative connotations that can be heaped on that term; selfishness, avarice, lack of imagination, closed-mindedness and so forth. Yet the 'this-worlders', if I might call them that, have their own weapons to use against more spiritual natures, and the most effective one is the phenomenal success of that most this-worldly project for comprehending our world – modern science and the methodologies associated with it. I've written elsewhere about the benefits of scientific development, not only in terms of productivity, amenity and comfort, but in terms of a deeper understanding of human nature and human flourishing, with its links to morality. Here I want to contrast the scientific push with what might be termed the spiritual push.
 I quoted 'Larstein' above on the need for spiritual experience rather than conceptual argument, but I've already pointed out that having the spiritual experience doesn't get us anywhere, though it might allow us to feel superior to those who don't have it. Conceptual arguments about gods and spirituality generally come under the heading of theology, though this might be broadened to include any discussion of spiritual experience – e.g. whether it really is about a sense of universal interconnectedness, or more, or other, than this. Now, theology has been something of a focus for many theists and agnostics who have carped at 'new atheists' for their ignorance of and disregard for the subject. The response of many atheists has been to cite the courtier's reply. This is a reference to the fable, 'The Emperor's new clothes'. The Emperor's courtier replies to a sceptic, who wonders whether there's anything useful to say about the clothes [since he doesn't appear to be wearing any], that the sceptic, not having studied haute couture, is not qualified to comment on such matters. In other words, atheists claim that ignorance of theology is not a barrier to criticising claims about gods or other-worldly entities, since theology, by and large, assumes the existence of at least some kind of other-worldly entity as a starting point for its subject. It is this assumption, which appears to have no empirical basis, that atheists reject.

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