Paragardener and I had a brisk discussion about atheism, materialism, and spirituality on Facebook the other day, one that may have helped launched his recent blog post, "Animist on Atheism." In it, he posits that without the spiritual, we humans turn the world into Mordor. In what follows, I apologize if I've misunderstood anything and welcome correction.
He begins by offering the theory that atheism took off when science-y types rejected the Christian concept of god. Actually, scientists and religion got along very well for a very long time; I would really argue with his implying that science easily and quickly left religion behind. But I don't want to spend time on that, as it's kind of a side branch of his overarching argument.
Let's get to the heart of the matter:
The atheist denial of natural spirits is based on an error, the belief that the spirit world is basically a lie communicated to the people by priests. For most people over most of human time, the spirit world was much more directly accessible.
Just a couple of sentences, but a lot to unpack.
First, most atheists have come to their lack of belief in god, gods, or spirits because there is no evidence for such. Many of us have arrived at our atheism by means of critical thinking, rejection of the usual arguments for god (or spirits)--the same tired arguments are offered over and over--and noticing the lack of evidence for god(s)/spirits. Our unbelief isn't primarily derived from priests (a term I assume includes all those who represent official, organized systems of religious belief) being the ones who communicate the lies. Instead we reject the very existence of said gods or spirits. You can ingest a lot of lies all by yourself just by reading the bible and believing what you read. Or you can see an eclipse and attribute it to a fearsome sky spirit. The intervening priestly class isn't necessary for the propagation of lies, although it certainly has helped that along.
For atheists, the lies are pretty self-evident. We really don't believe in a spirit world, directly accessible or not.
Interestingly, much of Paragardener's post actually invokes natural processes and not spirits at all. For example:
On an everyday level, people were trained to rely on their instinct or “see with the heart.” Cesar Milan, the Dog Whisperer, describes it thus: “I spent much of my childhood in a third-world, rural environment where we had to be in tune with Mother Nature for our very survival… To be instinctual means to be clearheaded, open, and aware of the signals we are getting from other people, animals, and our environment all the time. It means understanding our natural selves and the natural world, and acknowledging our interdependence with that world.” (from “Be the Pack Leader.”)
There's nothing supernatural in all this. I'm a little confused by the use of "instinct" and "instinctual" here. Instinct is what gives us fight or flight, the search for food, the desire for sex, the avoidance of danger, etc. This paragraph seems to be more about what's often called "intuition." And intuition is being aware of hundreds of little signals that we are probably not consciously aware of. But the amazing human brain takes in all this sensory input and comes to very rapid conclusions if it has been taking in and storing data derived through experience. Paying close attention to our surroundings as a matter of course does yield response and instant analysis that can seem instinctual, in the way I think Paragardener is using the term.
Later in the post, there's this:
These philosophies are insufficient — they do not feed the instinctual side of human nature. We find ourselves a bunch of neurotics living in ugly places.
I don't know if I'm reading this right, but it seems to say that experiencing a spiritual world is instinctual. It's true that humans have searched for reasons for what was inexplicable before science came along and that they attributed events to gods or spirits. Is that instinctual? Maybe, but I don't see it as a virtue. I see it as ignorance, and as something that can stifle the urge to discover the real answers to "why?" (As for "a bunch of neurotics living in ugly places," I blame organized religion and government policy, for starters ...) And what about the artistic side of human nature? We've had cave art for tens of thousands of years; the need to make art is in us. There is something that calls us to beauty that has nothing to do with the spiritual, unless you define "spiritual" so broadly that it loses its meaning.
I also have to argue with Paragardener's apparent belief that studying botany and cell biology ruins one's appreciation of trees. The extrapolation would be that learning science banishes the mystical and mysterious. If the mystical is non-existent, then banishing it isn't a bad thing, at least if you value truth over superstition. And I don't find that it ruins the sense of mystery I feel when I walk in a forest. I, too, see trees as sinister or welcoming, but that's because of my imagination. A little poetry or music or just listening to the wind in the trees and I don't need the fiction of a spirit world to feel wonder and oneness with nature.
Nor do I think that psychedelic drugs, yoga, meditation, or certain kinds of music complete with light shows connects us to another world. They work on the mind, that astounding organ we are learning more about every day. I'm not saying that they don't open us up to different experiences or ways of experiencing--I'm just arguing that said experiences don't necessarily betoken accessing a spirit world.
I don't know to what extent I'm a materialist or a positivist--I'm not even sure what those words mean, although I can guess. I do know that disbelief in spirits does not consign a person to a bleak world of surface meaning only or to purely utilitarian ways of responding to the world or to valuing the material over such things as love, response to art, feelings of connectedness, and a sense of awe. It's not as if I've never explored the spiritual possibilities; I have. But I feel now that this world is quite enough, if we have the eyes to see it. I don't need magic. But I need to be open to beauty, love, compassion, and the knowledge that all life on this planet is indeed, as Paragardener says, interdependent.
The universe is vast, even the part of it we can see with the naked eye in the night sky. That I'm temporarily a part of it is quite magic enough.