Friday, January 27, 2012

Atheism 2.0 and liberal religion

So, I finally managed to watch the whole of Alain de Botton's TED talk on Atheism 2.0, because I finally got broadband installed. Yay!

Pharyngula raised the objection that learning by rote is a bad thing. Well, I am sure that's true at advanced levels of science, but the reason the Japanese are so good at maths is because they still learn their times tables by rote. And it's very difficult to speak German properly if you don't learn the declension of the definite article, indefinite article, and adjectival endings, which also involves rote learning.. You can then go on to see how they operate in different contexts, but unfortunately there are some things that do need to be learnt by rote. However, that's not what Alain de Botton actually said - he said that repetition was good. Also there's a difference between learning something by heart and learning it by rote. And de Botton is not talking about the repetition of a creed or dogma, but the repetition of learning how to forgive, how to be compassionate, how to meditate - yes, these require practice and repetition. You have to meditate every day to get any good at it - and it has effects that can be measured by science. These effects are not caused by any supernatural thing - they are caused by the calming down of the brain and moving into a more relaxed state. Obviously.

Anyway, I reckon Atheism 2.0 sounds a lot like Unitarianism. Unitarians have been welcoming atheists (without trying to change their minds about being atheist) since the 1920s. Unitarians have been non-creedal (that is, each person is free to seek their own understanding of the truth) since the earliest days of the movement in Poland. Unitarians also draw inspiration from literature (yes! praise Shakespeare!), science (Darwin came from a Unitarian family), and reason.

Atheists 2.0 would also be welcome in Buddhism (a non-theist religion), Quakerism (includes many non-theists and atheists) and much of Paganism.

What did surprise me was that de Botton did not mention spiritual practices like meditation. These, to my mind, are the most effective bits of religion - not because they inculcate you with morality, but because they make you a calmer and less aggressive person.

When the compère asked him why he didn't mention spiritual experience and de Botton replied that you can have spiritual experiences without religion, that rather missed the point. Of course you can have spiritual experiences without religion, but religion provides you with techniques that allow you to access that level of consciousness on a regular basis. In my view, religion is spirituality practiced in community.

Also, he was talking as if Atheism 2.0 was a new idea, but as I said, Unitarians have been welcoming atheists since the 1920s; Buddhists have always been non-theist; and Lao Tsu just refers to the ultimate mystery as the Tao (the Way) and leaves it at that. He also says "The tao that can be named is not the true Tao." So as soon as you try to give it a name, it disappears. In a way, the same truth is pointed to when Moses asks the burning bush who it is, and the reply is "I am that I am". The Mystery has no name. There's a lovely hymn by Brian Wren, a member off the Iona community, which begins "Name Unnamed, hidden and shown, knowing and known" which is about the ineffability of the great Mystery.

Apophatic theology is really important here, too. Apophatic theology is the idea that anything you say about the divine can be negated - it is not light, it is not darkness, it is not wisdom it, it is not love. It is like all these things,  but it is not them. I think the reason atheism became so popular in the first place is because people lost all sense of the mystery of "God" and tried to define it as a person, or as three persons, and got bogged down in all the literalness; whereas if you just regard God as a metaphor for the mind of the universe, that's a lot easier.

De Botton also says "it's obvious that God doesn't exist - let's move on" -- but wait, there have been some really interesting theological ideas around that non-existence. Spinoza with his idea of God as Nature; Tillich with his theology of the Ground of All Being; Eriugena with his view that God cannot exist in a material universe; Pagans and pantheists with talk of energies and immanent deities.

Another thing he suggests is that if all religious belief systems are equally untrue, then pick and mix is OK. Well, yes, up to a point, but the problem is, how do you know whether you're rejecting a particular symbol or practice because it is objectively bad, or because it pushes up against an issue that you have? For example, in Wicca, we call the quarters with the four elements, which are seen as symbols of aspects of the psyche. (Earth = sensation; Air = intellect; Water = emotion; Fire = passion and intuition). So if someone was just picking the bits they liked, they might pick the element which most closely corresponded to their psychological makeup. But if they work with all four elements and their symbolism, it might create a balance in their psyche.

I think Atheism 2.0 is an idea whose time has come - apart from the fact that's it's already been invented several times before.

1 comment:

Ron Krumpos said...

Few people understand apophatic theology. Scriptures, theologians and many religious leaders tell us what the divine is by listing grandiose attributes. Most mystics worship personal aspects of the divine, but they also speak of what it is not. Many of them said that the divine essence is nothing, i.e. no thing, that it is immanent in all things, yet it is transcendent to everything. Mystics consider this seeming paradox to be a positive negation.

Avidya, non-knowledge in Sanskrit, is used in Buddhism for our “spiritual ignorance” of the true nature of Reality. Bila kaif, without knowing how in Arabic, is Islam’s term for “without comparison” to describe Allah. Ein Sof, without end in Hebrew, is the “infinite beyond description” in the Kabbalah. Neti, neti, not this, not this in Sanskrit, refers to “unreality of appearances” to define Brahman. In via negativa, the way of negation in Latin, God is “not open to observation or description.”

Mysticism emphasizes spiritual knowing, which is not rational and is independent of reason, logic or images. Da`at is Hebrew for “the secret sphere of knowledge on the cosmic tree.” Gnosis is Greek for the “intuitive apprehension of spiritual truths.” Jnana is Sanskrit for “knowledge of the way” to approach Brahman. Ma`rifa in Arabic is “knowledge of the inner truth.” Panna in Pali is “direct awareness”; perfect wisdom. These modes of suprarational knowing, perhaps described as complete intuitive insight, are not divine oneness; they are actualizing our inherent abilities to come closer to the goal.

(quoted from "the greatest achievement in life," my free ebook on comparative mysticism)