Sunday, April 21, 2019

New Atheism and Godless Spirituality

New Atheism isn’t so new anymore. As others have pointed out, what began as a rationalist backlash against the religious war between Islamist terrorism and George W. Bush’s neoconservative crusade has split and faded. When Obama succeeded Bush, the New Atheists found themselves divided along political lines, between progressives and the dawning alt right. Thus, New Atheism as a mainstream movement has been eclipsed by the “woke” liberals, fighting for social justice on the left, and by the “classic liberals” and enemies of political correctness, on the right.

Progressives such as an atheist blogger on Patheos diagnose the problem with New Atheism this way: “When people walk away from religion, they should also have discarded racism, sexism and all the irrational prejudices that were propped up and legitimized by faith. In too many cases, that’s not what happened. The decent people who were non-religious but also cared about social justice quite rightly wanted nothing to do with this movement, and that’s caused a decline in its prominence and visibility.” Meanwhile, classic liberal atheists such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Bill Maher along with their fellow traveller, Jordan Peterson, accuse the young progressives, known pejoratively as “snowflakes” or “social justice warriors,” of being akin to religious fundamentalists for shutting down debate about unpopular opinions. Instead of playing the religious faith card to avoid following reason, progressive secularists would prohibit all anti-progressive ideas and policies on the grounds that they’re oppressive and unjust.

Scientism and the Nonrationality of Politics

The fracturing of New Atheism due to politicization shouldn’t be surprising, since all that was new with this atheist movement was the application of doubt about God to politics in popular Western culture after 9/11. Atheism itself is, of course, global and ancient. For a great elaboration, see Jennifer Michael Hecht’s book, Doubt: A History. The notion that godlessness might be politically useful, however, is dubious, regardless of whether the applications are proposed by liberals or by conservatives. Thus, the problem with the above quotation from the progressive atheist is that religion isn’t what’s propping up racism, sexism, or other irrational prejudices. What props them up is biology, and reason is the messenger that alerts us to that fact. The cross-race effect, for example, means that we more easily recognize faces with racial characteristics similar to ours, since those are the ones with which we’re most familiar. Our inherent biases can be altered by environmental factors, which is to say we’re not fated by biology to be troglodytes. But the ancestral (Paleolithic) environment to which our brain adapted does irrationally prejudice us in spite of our civilized conceits. Just as a domesticated tiger or pit bull or killer whale can fall back on its wild instincts and wreak havoc, we’re prone to defying civilized norms, especially if we think we can evade the authorities that would hold us to a higher standard. This is, of course, how most criminal misconduct unfolds.

But reason goes further in the Humean and Nietzschean direction, directing our attention to the fact that the condemnation of “irrational prejudices” is itself foolish. Scientism on both the progressive and classic liberal or alt right sides is far from a rational position. You can have all the facts you want and all the logical powers of deducing which facts would follow causally from others under various conditions, and the sum of that knowledge wouldn’t prove that one type of behaviour is superior to another. You’d know which is most effective or useful, yes, but not which is morally best. For that prescription you need an irrational leap. You need a value judgment, a desire and more likely a vision of an ideal world that feels right to you according to intuitions arising especially from your formative experiences. Needless to say, atheism doesn’t entail scientism or the idol of hyperrationality. Atheism is the denial that the universe likely has a personal creator who intervenes in nature. Science and naturalistic philosophy have spread atheism and enriched our interpretations of what a godless world is like, but it’s far from obvious that atheists should strive to be rational in all their affairs. True, the main problem with theism is that the core theistic beliefs are preposterous, as has long been rationally established, but that doesn’t mean all irrational behaviours should be avoided.

Indeed, in so far as atheism is just the denial of God’s existence, atheism doesn’t entail even that the irrationality of theistic religion should be terminated. Reason shows that God doesn’t exist. As to whether all or some religions should be abandoned for that reason (the reason being the empirical emptiness of religious beliefs), that’s a prescriptive judgment that goes further than strict reason or science allows. If we ought to ban all cultural practices that are based on demonstrably false beliefs, we’d better start burning all works of fiction and castigating readers of novels and cinema-goers. We tell each other stories and suspend our disbelief because we enjoy fiction. Reason (science or critical thinking, more broadly) isn’t decisive in justifying that practice. Conceivably, we might know that God probably doesn’t exist, but we might still enjoy the experience of having religious faith, not to mention the social benefits of belonging to a religious community. If this involves lying to yourself, that character defect might be a reason to discredit the practice of religion, but again, reason isn’t enough to establish which character traits are best. On the contrary, if certain religions are regressive, that judgment is likely ethical or aesthetic, not strictly rational, just as the condemnation of certain religions for being antisocial and life-threatening will be moral or political and based on nonrational ideals.   

This shows what’s wrong with the rightwing interpretation of atheism’s social consequences, too, since reason and the truth of atheism aren’t enough to condemn progressivism as a substitute religion. If political correctness serves as a postmodern creed, a rational person should have expected as much, knowing the biological basis of our central predilections, but mere rationality can’t warrant the condemnation of this new fundamentalism or civic religion. Again, if you find the average Millennial character to be off-putting on account of his or her frailty or moral cowardice, that’s a judgment that hardly follows solely from a scientifically-established list of facts or from any series of logical deductions from just those facts. What you need, additionally, is a value or an assessment of quality that’s always at least partly inspired, visionary, or otherwise nonrational. You need to admire someone’s character to find some opposing personality deficient. You need to imagine the superiority of some culture, even if that ideal is merely fictional, to regard some cultural pursuit as beneath our dignity.

The pretense that Reason decides that we shouldn’t be religious in any respect, that we shouldn’t gravitate to certain nonrational beliefs or codes of conduct, by way of strengthening our social ties (especially in the Neolithic period when we’re forced to live amidst tens of thousands of strangers) is silly. Certainly, should the hyperrationalist fail also to renounce dreams, art, love, sex, a family life, and trust in social progress or in naturally corrupt government representatives, this atheist will be a hypocrite. Some religions, cults, or faiths may be egregious, including progressivism, but reason alone won’t dictate as much. The idolizing of reason in that fashion, even after the discrediting of positivism a half century ago is itself an ironic, embarrassing display of how we prefer to be irrational. If the atheist can make an irrational idol of Reason that flies in the face of the is-ought gap and the naturalistic fallacy, why can’t the progressive act like a zealous fundamentalist in denouncing right-wingers, as required by her PC or neo-Marxist creed?

Cosmicist Spirituality and the Aesthetic Mindset

As to whether atheism implies progressivism or conservatism, that’s the wrong question, since atheism supplies insufficient information to answer it. I’ve attempted to show elsewhere that the most rational account of what happens in politics amounts to what would popularly be regarded as a cynical reconstruction. So-called liberals or progressives and conservatives work together in a sideshow as part of a larger drama. Contrary to their rationalist boasts, progressives from the ancient philosophers and social reformers onwards are irrational in placing their faith in human nature. Humanism is the most pervasive religious commitment, and like most religions, this faith depends on a vision of a supernatural (or at least an anti-natural) order. Social progress is an approximation to an imaginary utopia or to a “more perfect union,” the difference being only that we godlike citizens are the intelligent designers, the miracles being all that we choose to do and to make. By contrast, for all their theistic rhetoric, conservatives are nature-worshippers, since their theocratic or otherwise oligarchic policies inevitably return us to naked dominance hierarchies in which the inequality between social classes is displayed and exacerbated so that only a minority get to live as gods, the majority acting as their slaves, as has been foreshadowed throughout the world’s theistic myths. So the primary sociological dispute is between humanists and antihumanists, and the great drama  is the existential one of whether we can transcend our animal origins.

Atheism has only an awkward relation to that central issue of social organization, since as Nietzsche observed, we’re quick to posit new gods after we’ve killed the old ones. Plainly, we and other intelligent life created within the universe become the only godlike beings, given atheism. So the atheist is forced to concede that while nature isn’t produced by any supernatural person, we clever apes do create and rule over anti-natural worlds; that is, the informed atheist can’t rationally indulge in a wholesale rejection of godhood. Communists in Russia attempted to do so, holding all soviets as equally miserable in their planned economy, but they swiftly idolized the State as their golden calf. Communists can sacrifice their individual drive or happiness because they trust in the greater good of their collective. Likewise, materialistic plutocrats tend to be corrupted by their hegemony and so they worship themselves, President Trump being the most advanced case of the mental disorder. Meanwhile, the masses in capitalistic societies worship celebrities to distract them from the fact that whereas economic theology dictates that capitalism is meritocratic, in reality the selfish struggle for profit is overall as hideous and unjust as jungle law.

Still, we’re faced with the question of how atheist collectives ought to function. What are the best godless goals in life? Scott Jones, a Lovecraft aficionado, takes the bull by the horns in When the Stars are Right. He posits cosmicist spirituality, a religion focused on cosmic horror, taking its inspiration from H.P. Lovecraft’s mythos but venturing much further than mere pop-cultural celebration of the sci-fi idea of elder alien gods. Jones’s Lovecraftian or “R’lyehian” spirituality, which he also calls the pursuit of “Black Gnosis” has much in common with Buddhism and Daoism. Black Gnosis is anti-humanistic in the mystical manner of holding out the option of dissolving the ego and merging with a greater reality. The difference is that nature for the R’lyehian is horrific.
The Black Gnosis is a gnosis of the dark between the stars, of the void-spaces, of the gap and the crevice, the tube and the abyss. It is porous, shot through with vacuity, a true mirror of the universe itself, all yawning gulfs and vast howling nothing…The R’lyehian is, perforce, an omnivorous auto-didactic polymath engaged in constant “correlating of the contents”, open to all information, all data, all ideas, and she will swim any sea. She desires only to bathe in the deadly light…
The R’lyehian enters and embraces the light of Apocalypse, because this is the light that reveals the mind-shattering truth. “And if in that embracing,” writes Jones, “he is seen as mad by those who would prefer sane and peaceful darkness, then so be it. Better to lose a mind than waste it in the pursuit of falseness. Or rather, better to loose it into the freedom and revelry of unmitigated and un-blinkered perception, into knowledge.” Jones would have the godless revel in madness:
The Black Gnosis is madness, yes, and that madness is infinite and all-engulfing and will consume a mind in order to free it, but the R’lyehian recognizes that there is nothing there to be consumed in the first place. The R’lyehian recognizes that Thought and Mind are merely epiphenomenal vapours arising from the surface of the Black Gnosis itself. The Black Gnosis in the ground of all, and when all is madness, there is no madness: there is only the true nature of reality, what some might term the horror of the situation.

Just as Nietzsche’s Overman has gone beyond the traditional distinction between good and evil, the R’lyehian “has moved beyond animal horror and can appraise himself calmly in the reversed-light of the Black Gnosis.” Amused by “the scrap of Isness that he appears to be,” the R’lyehian is at peace for having killed off the illusion of his ego. “All rationality burns away. And what dreams follow, who can tell? Only other R’lyehians, those who have entered the Black Gnosis and returned.”

Notice that this kind of godless mysticism doesn’t address the social question. The dreams dreamed by R’lyehians are left as mysterious as God’s reason for including evil in the world. I agree with much of what Jones says about nature, the Chill and the Grin (the wisdom in horror and gallows humour). I’ve speculated on what transhuman perception and character would be like. However, I’ve also criticized Eastern mysticism. While I assume the ego can be more or less dissolved in training to be selfless, the claim that this represents only the dissolution of an “illusion” is specious. I agree that the unnamable totality of nature is the truest reality, but the natural types we help to construct in the act of understanding them are real enough in comparison, say, to the illusion of a hallucination or a mirage. I doubt any human brain has ever perceived or conceived of only the whole of natural reality (including the inner and outer worlds) so that he or she has awakened from the thought of dogs, tables, people, or planets the way a starving person, hallucinating in the desert, awakens to the unreality of a false perception of McDonald’s on a sand dune, upon being saved and fed real food.

Conceivably, there’s a posthuman conception of nature that would reduce all our pragmatic, rational categories to follies, but there’s no compelling evidence that any mystic has ever attained such transcendent insight. True, many mystics and spiritualists learn how to cope with life’s travails without immature reactions, but there’s no need to posit some magical experience of the underlying oneness of reality to explain that personal transformation. At best, the mystic has the negative, mysterian or Kantian insight, which Jones picks up on, that there is likely some higher way of thinking of changes within nature, some name that applies to what the universe really is in the wholeness of its dimensions and dark energies and its end point trillions upon trillions upon trillions of years hence when all matter is swallowed up, the last black hole has disintegrated, entropy brings the final photos to a temperature of absolute zero, and time becomes meaningless. We can know that there’s such a name, because there is that larger reality, without our being able to know what that name is. Still, that negative insight could be enough to instill humility with respect to our more limited perceptions and conceptions.

In any case, if the brain and the personal mind are “illusions” and are unreal, they can’t be invoked in explaining the possibility of mystical or R’lyehian knowledge. Black Gnosis would have to be the universe miraculously granting a technically nonexistent part of itself an experience of the universe’s inhuman wholeness. As to how that happens, all the R’lyehian could say is that “the universe works in mysterious ways.” If the mystic knew more about how direct experience of universal wholeness is possible, an experience that bypasses practical or scientific understanding, this could be proven with a posthuman theory that follows from that all-embracing mystical concept. But any such proof would be part of maya, the realm of ignorance and illusion; the mystic dispenses with rationality in toto, holding out the possibility only of personal transformation through ascetic practice, which generates the feeling or the intuition that the mystic sees more deeply than does the physicist. If the feeling of selfless wonder is all that matters, I don’t see why we need to posit the miracle of an exclusive source of that feeling, namely the grace of the absolute totality of nature. We can learn to be humble simply by failing and suffering a lot—and what else is the ascetic regimen but the intention to fail and to suffer until you’ve punished yourself into extinction, leaving only a selfless, seemingly wise attitude where before was an arrogant, narrow-minded, childlike personality?  

I depart, then, from some of Jones’s vision of godless spirituality. Instead of a gleeful, direct experience of ultimate reality, I posit the aesthetic spin on objectivity, according to which everything that happens is living-dead art or its “satanic” subversion. What would a society of mystical aesthetes be like? We can contrast that sort of society with the actual Western one, by asking more concretely how the two cultures would deal with the approaching ecological apocalypse, with what David Wallace-Wells calls the “uninhabitable earth.” In his book, Wallace-Wells shows that one of the reasons we’re not doing enough to forestall disaster due to overpopulation and pollution is that the nature of the problem is hard to think about because it’s horrific. We might boast that we understand the problem because we’ve consumed scores of apocalyptic movies and novels, but the real prospect of the end of human life is nigh unthinkable. The planet will endure but we’ll have killed off our civilizations due to our greed, arrogance, and short-sightedness. Our unenlightened societies deal with this problem by having caused it in the first place and by being incapable of solving it, which means we’re doomed within the next century or so, short of some technological miracle.

A society of cosmicist aesthetes or of philosophers living “for shame” rather than for their well-being, as I put it elsewhere, would be disgusted by the horror of this predicament. The causality involved in human arrogance, materialism, and ecological self-destruction is mindless and indifferent. Contrary to Jones and to the Eastern mystic, this means not that we’re illusory byproducts of nature’s flow, but that we’re anomalous undoers of nature, dams standing in the way of the flood. Our satanic or promethean ambitions are fallible and so the existential rebellion may be short-lived, but transience isn’t the same as illusoriness. In any case, a society that values creativity and art above all else might value people as the irreplaceable white hole sources of novelty, of artificiality that displaces nature. The challenge, then, would be to devise a sustainable capacity to produce art, one that doesn’t antagonize the planet to such an extent that the planet reacts by extinguishing all animal life. The chief difference has to do with character and motive. Artists are moved to produce great art or to see the artistic greatness in everything, not to dominate others in a race that guarantees a multitude of losers for every victor. Posthuman aesthetes who assess life and nature strictly in artistic terms would have to compare, though, the artistic merits of nature with those of our artifacts. If mindless, truly godless art surpasses that produced by godlike means, by our sentience and foresight and personalities, the cosmicist task might be to cheer on nature’s backlash and the ecological catastrophes. At any rate, the enlightened mindset would be like that of the enthusiast who could talk about Star Wars or Game of Thrones for hours and hours at a stretch, without any thought of profiting from this obsession.  

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