The Atheist In The Cathedral
I find myself feeling awkward, which is a good thing, because it means something new is happening. About two weeks ago I discovered the teachings of an intelligent and sincere Benedictine monk, David Steindl-Rast. The level at which he interprets religious traditions, confirmed a line of thought that I’ve left untended for a while.
As best as one can determine anything through the use of one’s senses, I have observed effects that suggest to me that I have a spiritual component. I would not describe the evidence as absolutely confirming the fact, but more like the evidence suggesting that exercise is good for me. When I think of myself in a spiritual way, when I make decisions taking how it affects my spirit into account, or I engage in a spiritual exercise, whether it is meditation, visiting a place of contemplation, regardless of the religious tradition, or simply walking in a forest, I feel better, much better. When I do not take that sensitivity into account, I feel worse. That’s the phenomenon.
I am quite willing to accept the idea that my reaction is simply a learned response. I am willing to accept that it is merely the internal manifestation of a behavior implicitly prescribed by my culture, i.e. that the image of the Buddha, or a quiet church in the middle of the day, or the silence of a forest, is so commonly thought to induce a sense of peace, that it does – a placebo effect if you will. Assuming that that is true, it is barely relevant. I am going to die soon. This prioritizes the good, once it doesn’t cost too much, over the perfect.
My perspective is that the well-known religions of the world are interwoven with the fallible and corrupting influences of their having, over centuries, become tools with which the powerful control the less organized. And you can see this in every religion. At some point, the spiritual practice leaves the womb and becomes tainted with the political desires of a temporal power. But within each of the world’s religions, there is an awareness of man’s spiritual capacity and how that needs to be managed, and most exciting, how it can be grown. Thus, beneath all the mumbo-jumbo, there is a very useful skill. It is as if all the medical doctors in the world were also religious priests, who, in addition to knowing the workings of the human body, also babbled on about absolute nonsense. Before we rightly throw away all the mumbo-jumbo, I would like to identify and preserve that medical knowledge for future use. Similarly, before throwing out the superficial trappings of commonly practiced religions, I’d like to go into their most refined learnings and ask – what in there is useful? What did they know about how the human animal works? For example, all mystic traditions suggest that a human being can enjoy a higher and more sustainable level of happiness when he ceases to weigh every event in life against his own egotistical desires. When I’ve practiced this idea, I experience an enjoyable peace. So I am going to do it again. Interesting and useful insights like this, that do not require one to believe in six impossibilities before breakfast, can be found in the more universalist writings of mystics within every religious tradition in the world. They represent centuries of work-product by some very intelligent individuals. It is simply ignorant inefficiency to cast-out these notes because of a refusal to apply one’s own intelligence in such a way as to separate the wheat from the chaff.
I started this note by saying that this line of thinking felt awkward, and here is why. I support the New Atheist agenda to spread the light of rationalism into the dark corners of religiously motivated ignorance, whether it be the lunatic-fringe in the American Evangelical Christian tradition or the religiously sanctioned misogyny of fundamentalist Islam. But, as described above, I also believe man has a spiritual component. This is sometimes difficult for my fellow atheists to accept. But even more so, the idea that the great demon of organized religion might have anything of value for a rationalist buried within its hulking mass. As I try to make this point in conversations, perhaps less fluently than I have hopefully managed to do here, I find myself coming away frustrated that secularists are usually as guilty of interpreting religion at the same imbecile level as those they perceive as backward.
There is a great danger in denying the spiritual aspect of man. By doing so we deny him the tools to manage a potentially dangerous desire that those of insincere intent are only too willing to exploit. The primary nefarious actor I have in mind is consumerism, which today offers to feed man’s undiagnosed spiritual needs while starving him at every step. As has been observed by the famous thinkers of the Left, having satisfied our basic needs for food, shelter and a modicum of security and health, corporations in the developed world can now only grow by creating new needs in an already fattened population. They do this largely by targeting man’s unsatisfied spiritual longings with disingenuous offerings of Elysian peace and transcendence beyond the limitations of our individual capabilities. The luxury-goods industry offers the least subtle examples. It promises to transform us, in effect, into gods, if only we buy the most expensive cars, jewelry, cologne, clothes, etc. I see this as the great evil in the society in which I live. It enslaves us, divides us, makes us profoundly unhappy because of what we sacrifice to pay for these baubles, and moves us further away from a more sustainable happiness. And it is not even the fault of corporations, they are merely the drug dealers of a vice we refuse to refuse. But if we do not recognize our spirituality, if we do not entertain it as a variable which must be weighed, we rob ourselves of even the language with which to diagnose our own addiction.
Alas, it has been my experience that the discovery of spiritual treasures cannot be a social exercise. Humans in groups seem incapable of avoiding the wrestle of egos, the insistence on one-upmanship. I am as guilty of this as anyone else. I differ with the words of Jesus – wherever two or three are gathered, the spirit is invariably not among them. Maybe this will change for me someday, I hope it will, but for now it seems impossible to grow uncorrupt flowers of spiritual refinement in a social environment. It seems to me that it can only be done in the private cloister of one’s own mind, in a place beyond words. I think the range of tools found in the mystic traditions of the world’s religions may afford some that are of use. But the process of discovery is a solitary one. All that is common is the need.