The late George Carlin’s classic humorous take on religion. Not to be taken literally, but makes some good points. A legend, sorely missed!
I’ve been commenting on a couple of Guardian discussions on spirituality and atheism, the first by Cif Belief editor Andrew Brown, the second by the editor of the Philosopher’s Magazine, Julian Baggini.
The problem with these kinds of debates is that they can often degenerate into polarised name-calling. The fact that I am now posting under my own name is a very exposed place to be, as I am part of the Guardian staff and I have to be careful of what I say, which is good, because it teaches me to be as respectful as possible and to try and understand and empathise with those I debate with.
My position on atheism, science, spirituality and religion is that, at present, it is a circular debate. The spiritual experiences that I have had, through meditation, yoga, chanting and kirtan, use of entheogenic plants and substances, and simply the pure, unmediated experience of being in places of natural beauty, cannot be defined by the scientific method, as far as I understand it. I see the attempt to define everything in terms of the scientific method, the attempt to “prove” God’s existence, as a pursuit that confuses matters and is counterproductive; it is the definition of scientism.
There are certainly issues with religion and religious churches, with patriarchal imposition, the persecution of pagan beliefs, the subjugation of women and of women’s sexuality, the diminishing of the feminine aspect of the human experience. Cath Elliott writes about this on Comment is free, but she is speaking primarily about the Abrahamic religions. Spiritual beliefs such as Paganism, ancient and modern forms of Tantra and certain parts of Hinduism, all elevate the feminine aspect and thus women to the role of equal and in many rituals the feminine supersedes the masculine aspect.
But, I maintain there is a difference between the personal mystical experience and the dogma that grows around the mystical experience and becomes a religion, but most particularly those that have grown into the three patriarchal religions of the Abrahamic faith, which seem most guilty of subjugating women and homosexuality. It is this that most atheists are really fighting when they wish to use reason and intellect to disprove any higher power’s supposed ability to lay down moral codes in the form of religious law.
As soon as an individual needs a mediator, a clergyman, there is a problem. Thomas Paine, the Enlightenment philosopher and one of the architects of the Declaration of Independence, wrote in the Age of Reason of the difference between revelation, the personal mystical experience, and hearsay, when that person attempts to convince others of the truth of that revelation.
The original humanists of the Enlightenment wanted to separate the mystical experience, the experience of a deep connection with nature and the cosmos, from the religious laws laid down by men, full of contradictions and often cruel unjust in their effect on humanity.
Many were Deists and it is interesting that atheists have become the dominant champions of the Enlightenment ideals, at the same time conveniently ignoring the spiritual elements of these philosophers. Science and reason has elevated our understanding of the natural world, but we cannot do without idealistic, psychological qualities like love, compassion and empathy.