New Atheism as Mysticism

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Does it strike anyone else a little odd that the violence and bloodshed perpetuated in the name of God in this post-911 age makes the New Atheism of Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins look like a moral imperative for the 21st century?[1]


For centuries we have been told that without God we are nothing more than egotistical animals fighting it out for our own survival, and now – with the civilized world under increasing threat from religious fundamentalist of all flavors – the traditional equation of religion and the good life has been turned upside-down… In the present day it seems that our human dignity and self-respect needs to be asserted in no uncertain terms against those religious adherents who claim to be hard-wired to the will of God!


But the New Atheist’s rational critique of religion is nothing new - philosophers from Hume to Kant to Nietzsche have been saying this for about 500 years now… But what is new is that the New Atheists are not merely atheists in the traditional sense of the word (i.e. deny belief in the existence of God) – they are "anti-theists "– or as Christopher Hitchens argues in God is Not Great, his latest NY Times best-seller - the notion of God as a Cosmic Designer or a Celestial Dictator that is aware of our every thought and deed is a wicked, poisonous and evil idea - and  we cought to celebrate the fact that it is not true...

From an Integralist's perspective the conventional wisdom is that Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris (and others) are just throwing out the baby with the bathwater – they want to demolish the archaic, magic and mythic versions of God but they will not allow the rational, post-modern and integral versions of God any legitimacy… But if we take a closer look this is not so!


Christopher Hitchens on Transcendence


A contrarian philosopher with a razor-sharp wit and a blatant disregard for all things sacred, Christopher Hitchens has made a career out of exploding liberal illusions (see his formidable critiques of pop culture icons Bill Clinton, Princess Diana and Mother Theresa). However, while he argues that the bad things innate to our species are strengthened and sanctified by religion, Hitchens does have an unexpected open-ness to what he calls “the order of the transcendent” or the mystical dimensions of human experience.


With a kind of `luminous” faith in humankind, Hitchens at least starts out by affirming to the Socratic oath of ultimate Not-Knowing that launched the Western  philosophical tradition, where his definition of an educated person is that you have some idea how ignorant you are.


But moreover, he also declares his appreciation for mystical dimension of human experience (i.e. higher states of consciousness) – what he calls “the numinous” or “the transcendent” – and gives examples of where this sublime dimension can be encountered in everyday life: the beauties of science, the extraordinary marvels of nature, the wonder and consolations of philosophy, the infinite splendors of literature and poetry – all of which have mystical and devotional aspects that Hitchens is quite prepared to honor and include in his otherwise dark and ironic view of the world... 


In all of these pursuits, Hitchens claims that there may be found a sense of awe and reverence that does not depend at all on any of our man made religions – and he verges on an Integral (or second-tier) perspective here in so far as his openness to the transcendent dimension of life is also one that is often bored and sickened by what passes for spirituality in the New Age - ghost stories, UFO tales, tarot charts and the barely veiled narcissism of The Secret, etc...


Richard Dawkin’s Mysticism


Probably the world’s most steadfast and notorious atheist, Richard Dawkins was up until recently the professor for the public understanding of science at Oxford University.


From this colorful writings on Darwinian evolution as a deeper, richer more astonishing account of human origins than what is offered by the Genesis myth, to his most recent interview-debate with Francis Collins[2] (See Time Magazine “God vs. Science” - Sunday, Nov. 05, 2006), Dawkins is also keenly aware of the perpetually surprising and astonishing nature of the world revealed by evolutionary biology and modern science.


As Dawkins states to Collins on the belief in God “But it does seem to me to be a worthy idea”, refutable – but nevertheless grand and big enough to be worthy of respect… I don't see the Olympian gods or Jesus coming down and dying on the Cross as worthy of that grandeur. They strike me as parochial. If there is a God, it's going to be a whole lot bigger and a whole lot more incomprehensible than anything that any theologian of any religion has ever proposed.”


Right there we have a statement that any Integralist can whole heartedly affirm, - God is bigger than our minds can contain - and furthermore, according to Dawkins: “There is mystery in the universe, beguiling mystery… There is mystery but not magic, strangeness beyond the wildest imagining, but no spells or witchery, no arbitrary miracles.” 


So Dawkins is no denier of the Mystery – he does accept that there may be things far grander and more incomprehensible than we can possibly imagine. “To me, the right approach is to say we are profoundly ignorant of these matters. We need to work on them. But to suddenly say the answer is God--it's that that seems to me to close off the discussion.”


In his Un-weaving the Rainbow, the positive message throughout is Dawkins’ impulses to awe, reverence – the same impulse to and wonder that leads other scientists, philosopher and poets to mysticism… He claims that the scientist has the same wonder, the same sense of the profound, as the mystic, but with an additional impulse: let's find out what we can about it… And in close parallel with the core driver of an Integral approach he concludes the final two paragraphs of this book by saying that human beings are the only animal with a sense of purpose in life, and that our true purpose should be to construct a comprehensive model of how the universe works, i.e. a Kosmology


And with that ultimate view of things, Dawkins would do well to read Ken Wilber’s latest work on post-metaphysical spirituality -- a Kosmic Giga-glossary that spans the entire spectrum of humanities experience of the Divine – from volcano gods of primitive tribes to the post-conventional claims of the world’s most realized mystics such as Meister Eckhart or Sri Aurobindo…



 Sam Harris on Buddhist philosophy



Another one of the most outspoken atheists in the world today, Sam Harris is also a practitioner of Buddhist meditation, as a tried and tested path to see clearly into the true nature of consciousness.


For Harris Buddhism is more a science than a religion, for a person can embrace the Buddha’s teaching, and even become a genuine Buddhist contemplative without believing anything on insufficient evidence. The same cannot be said of the teachings for faith-based religion, for which there is very little empirically tested evidence. In many respects, then, Buddhism is very much like science. One starts with the hypothesis that using attention in the prescribed way (meditation), and engaging in or avoiding certain behaviors (ethics), will bear the promised result (wisdom and psychological well-being). This spirit of empiricism animates Buddhism to a unique degree. For this reason, the methodology of Buddhism, if shorn of its religious trappings, could be one of our greatest resources as we struggle to further develop humanities spiritual self-understanding. As Sam Harris writes in The End of Faith,


“Attentive readers will have noticed that I have been very hard on religions of faith–Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and even Hinduism–and have not said much that is derogatory of Buddhism. This is not an accident. While Buddhism has also been a source of ignorance and occasional violence, it is not a religion of faith, or a religion at all, in the Western sense… the esoteric teachings of Buddhism offer the most complete methodology we have for discovering the intrinsic freedom of consciousness, unencumbered by any dogma… it would be intellectually dishonest not to acknowledge its preeminence as a system of spiritual instructions.”


So where the conventional critique of the New Atheist movement is that it’s critique of religious myth and superstition throws out the baby with the bath water by denying higher, deeper forms of spirituality (based on direct experience not beliefs), it is actually the case that all three of the major authors driving this cultural phenomenon we call the New Atheism are mystics or one sort or another, and probably just lack a language that they can use to express their sheer astonishment that anything exists at all...


[1] Indeed, religion is as much a living spring of violence today as it has been at any time in the past. The recent conflicts in Palestine (Jews vs. Muslims), the Balkans (Orthodox Serbians vs. Catholic Croatians; Orthodox Serbians vs. Bosnian and Albanian Muslims), Northern Ireland (Protestants vs. Catholics), Kashmir (Muslims vs. Hindus), Sudan (Muslims vs. Christians and animists), Nigeria (Muslims vs. Christians), Ethiopia and Eritrea (Muslims vs. Christians), Sri Lanka (Sinhalese Buddhists vs. Tamil Hindus), Indonesia (Muslims vs. Timorese Christians), Iran and Iraq (Shiite vs. Sunni Muslims), and the Caucasus (Orthodox Russians vs. Chechen Muslims; Muslim Azerbaijanis vs. Catholic and Orthodox Armenians) are merely a few cases in point. These are places where religion has been the explicit cause of literally millions of deaths in recent decades.


[2] Director of the National Human Genome Research Institute since 1993, Collins headed a multinational 2,400-scientist team that co-mapped the 3 billion biochemical letters of our genetic blueprint. In The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (Free Press), he laid out the arguments for belief in God. Collins believes that studying the natural world is an opportunity to observe the majesty, the elegance, the intricacy of God's creation. If your mind is open about whether God might exist, Collins argues that you can point to aspects of the universe that are consistent with that conclusion.