Wednesday, October 09, 2013

The Renewal of Religion

The new religious sensibility I’ve sketched out here in several posts already, and will be discussing in more detail as we proceed, has implications that go well beyond the sphere assigned to religion in most contemporary industrial societies. One of the most significant of those implications is precisely the idea that religion, in any sense, will have an important impact on the future in the first place.
 
One of the standard tropes of the contemporary faith in progress, after all, insists that religion is an outworn relic sure to be tipped into history’s compost heap sometime very soon. By “religion,” of course, those who make this claim inevitably mean “theist religion,” or more precisely “any religion other than mine”—the civil religion of progress is of course supposed to be exempt from that fate, since its believers insist that it’s not a religion at all.

This sort of insistence is actually quite common in religious life. C.S. Lewis notes in one of his books that really devout people rarely talk about religion as such; instead, they talk about God.  To ordinary, sincere, unreflective believers, “religion” means the odd things that other people believe; in their eyes, their own beliefs are simply the truth, obvious to anyone with plain common sense. It’s for this reason that many languages have no word for religion as such, even though they’re fully stocked with terms for deities, prayers, rituals, temples, and the other paraphernalia of what we in the West call religion; it’s by and large only those societies that have had to confront religious pluralism repeatedly in its most challenging forms that have, or need, a label for the overall category to which these things belong.

The imminent disappearance of all (other) religion that has featured so heavily in rationalist rhetoric for the last century and a half or so thus fills roughly the same role in their faith as the Second Coming in Christianity: the point at which the Church Militant morphs into the Church Triumphant.  So far, at least to the best of my knowledge, nobody in the atheist scene has yet proclaimed the date by which Reason will triumph over Superstition—the initial capitals, again, tell you when an abstraction has turned into a mythic figure—but it’s probably just a matter of time before some rationalist equivalent of Harold Camping gladdens the heart of the faithful by giving them a date on which to pin their hopes.

If the evidence of history is anything to go by, though, those hopes are misplaced. As discussed in an earlier post, the rationalist revolt against religion that’s been so large a factor in Western culture over the last few centuries is far less unique than its publicists like to think. Some such movement rises in every literate civilization in which the art of writing escapes from the control of the priesthood, and a significant secular literate class emerges.  In ancient Egypt, that started around 1500 BCE, in China, around 750 BCE; in India and Greece alike, around 600 BCE; in what Spengler called the Magian culture, the cauldron of competing Middle Eastern monotheisms that finally came under the rule of Islam, about 900 CE.  The equivalent point in the history of the West was reached around 1650.

If you know your way around the history of Western rationalism from 1650 to the present, furthermore, you can track the same patterns straight through these other eras. Each movement began with attempts at constructive criticism of religious traditions no one dreamed of rejecting entirely, and moved step by step toward an absolute rejection of the traditional faith in one way or another:  by replacing it with a rationalized creed stripped of traditional symbolism and theology, as Akhenaten and the Buddha did; by dismissing religion as a habit appropriate to the uneducated, as Confucius and Aristotle did; by denouncing it as evil, as Lucretius did and today’s “angry atheists” do—there aren’t that many changes available, and the rationalist movements of the past have rung them all at one time or another.

Each rationalist movement found an audience early on by offering conclusive answers to questions that had perplexed earlier thinkers, and blossomed in its middle years by combining practical successes in whatever fields mattered most to their society, with a coherent and reasonable worldview that many people found more appealing than the traditional faith. It’s the aftermath, though, that’s relevant here. Down through the centuries, only a minority of people have ever found rationalism satisfactory as a working philosophy of life; the majority can sometimes be bullied or shamed into accepting it for a time, but such tactics don’t have a long shelf life, and commonly backfire on those who use them.

Thus the rationalist war against traditional religion in ancient Greek and Roman society succeeded in crippling the old faith in the gods of Olympus, only to leave the field wide open to religions that were less vulnerable to the favorite arguments of classical rationalism:  first the mystery cults, then a flurry of imported religions from the East, among which Christianity and Islam eventually triumphed. That’s one of the two most common ways for an era of rationalism to terminate itself with extreme prejudice. The other is the straightforward transformation of a rationalist movement into a religion—consider the way that Buddhism, which started off as a rational protest against the riotous complexity of traditional Hindu religion, ended up replacing Hinduism’s crores of gods with an equally numerous collection of bodhisattvas, to whom offerings, mantras, prayers, and so on were thereafter directed.

The Age of Reason currently moving into its twilight years, in other words, is not quite as unique as its contemporary publicists like to think. Rather, it’s one example of a recurring feature in the history of human civilization.  Ages of Reason  usually begin as literate civilizations finish the drawn-out process of emerging from their feudal stage, last varying lengths of time, and then wind down.  Again, the examples cited earlier are worth recalling: the rationalist movement of the Egyptian New Kingdom ended in 1340 BCE with the restoration of the traditional faith under Horemheb; that of China ended with the coming of the Qin dynasty in 221 BCE; that of India faded out amid a renewal of religious philosophy well before 500 CE; that of Greece and Rome ceased to be a living force around the beginning of the Christian era; that of the Muslim world ended around 1200 CE.

In each case, what followed was what Oswald Spengler called the Second Religiosity—a renewal of religion fostered by an alliance between intellectuals convinced that rationalism had failed, and the masses that had never really accepted rationalism in the first place. The coming of the Second Religiosity doesn’t always mean the end of rationalism itself, though this can happen if the backlash is savage enough. What it means is that rationalism is no longer the dominant cultural force it normally is during an Age of Reason, and settles down to become one intellectual option among many others.

What forms a Second Religiosity might take in the contemporary Western world is a fascinating issue, and one that deserves (and will get) a post of its own. The point I’d like to explore this week is that the idea of a rebirth of religion focusing on an ecological sensibility is not original to me. It actually came in for quite a bit of discussion in the late 1970s, in the circle of green intellectuals that formed around Gregory Bateson, Stewart Brand, and The Whole Earth Catalog.  The idea was that the only thing that would really galvanize people into making changes for the sake of an ecologically sane and survivable future was the emergence of an eco-religion that would call forth from its believers the commitment, and indeed the fanaticism, that the transformation would require.

Nor was this just empty talk. I know of several attempts to launch such a religion, and at least one effort to provide it with a set of sacred scriptures. All of them fizzled, and for a very good reason.

To make sense of that reason, a bit of a tangent will be useful here, and so I’d like to glance at a somewhat different attempt to borrow the rhetoric and imagery of religion for secular ends, the Charter for Compassion launched by pop-religion author Karen Armstrong a few years back, which is being marketed by the TED Foundation just now under the slogan “The best idea humanity has ever had.”  Those of my readers who know their way around today’s yuppie culture will doubtless not be surprised by the self-satisfied tone of the slogan, but it’s the dubious thinking that follows that I want to point up here.

Armstrong starts by claiming that “The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions,” which is quite simply not true. All religions? There are many in which compassion falls in the middling or minor rank of virtues, and quite a few that don’t value compassion at all. All ethical traditions? Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, widely considered the most influential work on ethics in the Western tradition, doesn’t even mention the concept, and many other ancient, medieval, and modern ethical systems give it less than central billing. All spiritual traditions? That vague and mightily misused word “spirituality” stands for a great many things, many of which have nothing to do with compassion or any other moral virtue.

An earlier post in this sequence talked about the monumental confusions that pop up when values get confused with facts, and this is a good example. Armstrong pretty clearly wants to insist that everyone should put compassion at the center of their religious, ethical, and spiritual lives, but in a society that disparages values, it’s easier to push such an argument using claims of fact—even when, as here, those claims don’t happen to be true. Mind you, Armstrong’s charter also finesses the inevitable conflict between the virtue she favors and other virtues that have at least as good a claim to central status, but that’s a subject for another day.

The deeper falsification I want to address here is contained in the passage already cited, though it pops up elsewhere in the Charter as well: “We therefore call upon all men and women to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion” is another example. What’s being said here, in so many words, is that a moral virtue either is, or ought to be, at the core of religion: that religion, in other words, is basically a system of ethics dressed up in some set of more or less ornate mythological drag.  That’s a very popular view these days, especially among the liberal intelligentsia from which Armstrong and the TED Foundation draw most of their audiences, and some form of it nearly always becomes a commonplace in ages of rationalism, but it’s still a falsification.

It so happens that a large minority of human beings—up to a third, depending on the survey—report having at least one experience, at some point in their lives, that appears to involve contact with a disembodied intelligent being.  Many of these experiences are spontaneous; others seem to be fostered by religious practices such as prayer, meditation, and ritual.  Any number of causes have been proposed for these experiences, but I’d like to ask my readers to set aside the issue of causation for the moment and pay attention to the raw data of experience. There’s a crucial difference between the question “Does x happen?” and the question “Why does x happen?”—a difference of basic logical categories—and it’s a fruitful source of confusion and error to confuse them.

Whether they are caused by autohypnosis, undiagnosed schizophrenia, archetypes of the collective unconscious, the real existence of gods and spirits, or something else, these experiences happen to a great many people, they have done so as far back as records go, and religion is the traditional human response to them.  If nobody had ever had the experience of encountering a god, an angel, a saint, an ancestor, a totem spirit, or what have you, it’s probably safe to say that we would not have religions. Human beings under ordinary conditions encounter two kinds or, if you will, worlds of experience: one that’s composed of things that can be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and touched, which we might as well call the biosphere, and one composed of things that can be thought, felt, willed, and imagined, which we can call the noosphere (from Greek nous, “mind”). The core theory held by religions everywhere is that there is a third world, which we can call the theosphere, and that this is what breaks through into human consciousness in religious experience.

It’s important not to make this very broad concept more precise than the data permit, or to assume more agreement among religious traditions than actually exists. The idea of a theosphere—a kind, mode, or world of human experience that appears to be inhabited by disembodied intelligences—is very nearly the only common ground you’ll find, and attempts to hammer the wildly diverse religious experiences of different individuals and cultures into a common tradition inevitably tell you more about the person or people doing the hammering than they do about the raw material being hammered. In particular, the role played by moral virtue in human relationships with the theosphere and its apparent denizens varies drastically from one tradition to another. There are plenty of religious traditions in which ethics play no role at all, and moral thought is assigned to some other sphere of life, while even among those religions that do include moral teaching, there’s no consensus on which virtues are central.  In any case, it’s the relationship to the theosphere that matters, and the moral dimension is there to support the relationship.

This is pretty much the explanation you can expect to get, by the way, if you ask ordinary, sincere, unreflective believers in a theist religion what their religious life is about. They’ll normally use the standard terminology of their tradition—your ordinary churchgoing American Protestant, for example, will likely tell you that it’s about getting right with Jesus, your ordinary Shinto parishioner in Japan will explain that it’s about a proper relationship with the kami, and so on through the diversity of the world’s faiths—but the principle is the same. If morals come into the discussion, the role assigned to them is a subordinate one: the Protestant, for example, will likely explain that following the moral teachings of the Bible is one part of getting right with Jesus, not the other way around.

That’s the thing that rationalist attempts to construct or manipulate religion for some secular purpose always miss, and it explains why such attempts reliably fail. The atheists who point out that it’s not necessary to worship a deity to lead an ethical life, even a life of heroic virtue, are quite correct; the religious person whose object of reverence expects moral behavior may have an additional incentive to ethical living, but no doubt the atheists can come up with an additional incentive or two of their own. It’s religious experience, the personal sense of contact with a realm of being that transcends the ordinary affairs of material and mental life, that’s the missing element; without it, you’re left with yet another set of moral preachments that appeal only to those who already agree with them.

This is what guarantees that Armstrong’s Charter for Compassion will presently slide into oblivion, following a trajectory marked out well in advance by dozens of equally well-meant and equally ineffectual efforts. How many people even remember these days, for example, that nearly all of the world’s major powers actually sat down in 1928 and signed a treaty to end war forever?  The Kellogg-Briand Pact failed because the nations that needed to be restrained by it weren’t willing to accept its strictures, while the nations that were enthusiastic about it weren’t planning to invade anybody in the first place. In the same way, the people who sign the Charter for Compassion, if they really intend to guide their behavior by its precepts, are exactly the ones who don’t need it in the first place, while people who see no value in compassion either won’t sign or won’t let a signature on a document restrain them from doing exactly what they want, however uncompassionate that happens to be.

That’s also what happened to the efforts of green thinkers in the 1970s either to manufacture a green religion, or to manipulate existing religions into following a green agenda. The only people who were interested were those who didn’t need it—those who were already trying to follow ecologically sound lifestyles for other reasons. The theosphere wasn’t brought into the project, or even consulted about it, and so the only source of passionate commitment that could have made the project more than a daydream of Sausalito intellectuals went by the boards. So, in due time, did the project.

What makes the involvement of what I’ve called the theosphere essential to any such program is that the emotional and intellectual energies set in motion by religious experience very often trump all other human motivations. When people step outside the ordinary limits of human behavior in any direction, for good or ill, if love or hate toward another person isn’t the motivating factor, very often what drives them is religious in nature—not ethical, mind you, but the nonrational commitment of the whole self toward an ideal that comes out of religious experience. Every rationalist movement throughout history has embraced the theory that all this can be dispensed with, and should be dispensed with, in order to make a society that makes rational sense; every rationalist movement finally collapsed in frustration and disarray when it turned out that the theory doesn’t work, and a society that makes rational sense won’t function in the real world because, ultimately, human beings don’t make rational sense.

The collapse of the rationalist agenda is thus one of the forces that launches the Second Religiosity. Another is the simple fact that most people never do accept the rationalist agenda, and as polemics against traditional religion from rationalist sources become more extreme, the backlash mentioned earlier becomes a potent and ultimately unstoppable force. Still, there may be more to it than that.

Without getting into the various arguments, religious and antireligious, about just exactly what reality might lie behind what I’ve called the theosphere, it’s probably fair to say that this reality isn’t a passive screen onto which individuals or societies can project whatever fantasies they happen to prefer.  What comes out of the theosphere, in the modest religious experiences of ordinary believers as well as the  world-shaking visions of great prophets, changes from one era to another according to a logic (or illogic) all its own, and such changes correspond closely to what I’ve described in earlier posts as shifts in religious sensibility. In the weeks to come, we’ll talk about what that might imply.

186 comments:

Joel Caris said...

Hi JMG,

This is one of those posts of yours that totally twists my brain. I always like those ones the best, so thank you!

You say that encounters with disembodied intelligent beings are the driving force behind religion. Is such an encounter something of a pre-condition for an honest belief in a religion? In other words, while a religion may spring from such experiences, does it then take on a power or appeal that can draw in people who have had no such experiences? And if so, do you think their belief is of a different quality than the belief of someone who has had such experiences?

Sometimes my belief in living a life according to the LESS principle feels a bit like a religion. It has become driven by a deep sense of importance wrapped up in my feeling of connection with the broader world around me and the creatures that inhabit it. I often feel a certain amount of social isolation due to these beliefs, but they're strong enough for me to stick with them even through that isolation. It's become a critical part of who I am. Yet I don't know if it really fits into the structure of religion or not--if what I'm doing is essentially religious behavior or something rooted more in the noosphere, to use this post's terminology.

Kyoto Motors said...

Nice to see the ADR up to read before bedtime on a Wednesday.
I confess that I have not made my way to the end - got to hit the hay - but I just needed to ask:
If the theosphere is the "raison d’être" of religions (and it seems like a valid premise) how does that apply to civil religions? Can it be said that believers in Progress are trying to connect to this out of body being? Seems to me that, no they are not. I'm not even sure that the implications of this is relevant, but it came to mind...
Thank you again for more thought-provoking material.
Good night

John Michael Greer said...

Joel, I don't think that it's necessary to have a religious experience in order to have strong religious beliefs; most of us believe in the existence of wombats, for example, even though -- unlike Cherokee -- we don't have them galumphing through our gardens. Some of us know people who have seen them, others find the claim that they exist more plausible than the claim that they were all made up by some conspiracy of mildly drunk Australians.

Religious experiences also cover a very broad range -- broader than the narrow sense I used in this post (which I did to avoid some of the more common misunderstandings, but which inevitably ran the risk of misunderstandings of its own). A sense of connection with the whole system of Nature can fill a similar role, even though it doesn't feature a disembodied intelligent being. The critical point is that there's an experience involved, not simply a set of abstract assumptions.

Kyoto, civil religions are derivative, even parasitic, on theist religions. When you find a civil religion, you can be sure that earlier in the same society, there was a theist religion from which the civil religion has copied most of its basic ideas. What drives civil religions is the attempt to meet the same personal and emotional needs as theist religions, but without the challenge and burden of interaction with the theosphere. It's much more comfortable when you don't have to deal with anything in the universe that's potentially bigger or smarter than you are!

Judith said...

As you know Communism represented peak faith for the intellectuals of the West and I guess for folks like Baidou and Zizek it still does. The Environmental movement is trying mighty hard to replace the failed Marxist ideal but not quite able to find the formula for conversion in Gaia. However, if Spengler is right, we can surely look forward to a queer hybrid of Marx and Environmentalism, complete I would expect with Green Mullahs, a Green Credo, and a Green State. We might call this result Green Maoism.

Joel Caris said...

Thanks, JMG, that clarifies things.

In terms of the theosphere, I have had a few odd experiences in my life that seemed to stem from there. I particularly remember, about 16 or 17 years ago, my mother driving us back to Pinetop, Arizona at night after having picked me up at the Phoenix airport. As we started to descend into the little town of Globe, my body froze with fear. I mean, it literally froze with fear--I couldn't move and felt this intense foreboding. I told my mom to stop, that we absolutely should not drive the rest of the way home. She barely questioned me; we tracked down the only motel we could find--a dirty hole in the wall we shared with some cockroaches--and stayed the night. Interestingly, the owner told us her son hit a cow that had wandered out onto the road the previous night, a little way out of town on the same highway we were on, and suffered some pretty good injuries.

Premonition? I have no idea. Maybe we would have been fine if we kept going. Maybe it was just some internal quirk of my own mind. But the sensation that came over me that night was unlike anything I ever experienced before or since and it seemed to come from somewhere entirely outside me.

James M. Jensen II (badocelot/shiningwhiffle) said...

As Rhisiart Gwilym will almost certainly say: blerwmdda!

This one has set me reflecting on my own personal journey. I know that in my own case I had a similar journey out of rationalism that most people experience when leaving Christianity, with similar bitter feelings that linger to this day.

It was like this: I first noticed that I wasn't happy. I tried to explain it away, but it kept coming down to this: religion offered experiences that I valued. Why should I deny myself merely because it involves irrational beliefs? Values are subjective (I believed), and I value this more than being rational.

Then I noticed some logical problems with rationalism. Then came the research into the taboo areas, in this case most importantly parapsychology and classical metaphysics. Then finally back to an interest in theistic religion in earnest.

As in macrocosm, so in the microcosm: my rationalism lead to self-canceling skepticism and from there to a still-nascent second religiosity.

Roger Matthew said...

JMG

This is all very interesting to me, a new reader, and I look forward seeing where you are taking us in this line of thinking. Everything so far seems both correct and refreshingly original (at least as far as I'm aware). I'm often astonished that such intelligent people as one finds among the subscribers to the current elite (maybe "liberal") consensus seem to lack basic self awareness when it comes to their intellectual assumptions and thought processes.

I must ask though, since I discovered you in pursuit of an answer to this question, why polytheism over monotheism? Can you refer me to a blog post or essay of yours that refutes monotheist theology and/or lays out the case for a polytheistic alternative? My current persuasion is Thomist and Catholic, so if you've written anything directed at these in particular, I'd be very interested to read it.

I realize that the above question is not relevant to this blog post, so my apologies for breaking the rules on my first go, but I don't know of any other medium in which to ask it. I promise not to make it a habit.

Bike Trog said...

The most important experiences happen in childhood. Lasting belief starts with positive reinforcement. Since all of my childhood religious experiences were sheer boredom, that wraps it up for me.

Joel Caris said...

One last comment, since I'm apparently feeling chatty tonight. I read a number of your non-ADR books earlier this year and I'm loving how much concepts from them have been popping up in this series of posts. A World Full of Gods, Atlantis, The UFO Phenomenon . . . It's really nice having some background from those works to provide a deeper context and understanding of what you're talking about here.

(Also, gold star to you for the Chris/wombat reference in your answer. Had me laughing!)

onething said...

" the Protestant, for example, will likely explain that following the moral teachings of the Bible is one part of getting right with Jesus, not the other way around."

And more is the pity, for Jesus advised to forget the rulebooks and get for yourself the divine spirit, to be uplifted so that moral rules need not be remembered. As in, "When the great Tao is forgotten, moral rules and filial piety appear."

Most people in religions are striving for and hoping for those experiences, thus their efforts. And, it seems to me, the mystics more or less do speak the same language, even if not about the same things, at least the pieces fit together understandably.

It seems that you are saying you can't produce religious rituals or dogmas artificially, and I wonder if you are leading up to your own hopes or vision of an eco-religious flowering. In the past, the earth could take care of herself, and although the poets and mystics often showed great love for nature, people neglected to care for it as a small child generally does not think to care for its parent.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

Quote: "very often what drives them is religious in nature—not ethical, mind you, but the nonrational commitment of the whole self toward an ideal that comes out of religious experience."

Yes. I'd never thought much about nature as a religous experience until I engaged with it and found what a complex and fragile thing it is. I run my own race here and accept limitations not because I can big note myself about it, but because it is a worthy end in and of itself and is also immensely rewarding. Without engaging nature and experiencing it first hand, I'd have no idea and would seriously lack reverence towards it.

Compassion is no basis to make decisions on as it is subject to conflicts of interest.

So, last night I'm out with my new-fangled rat stick late at night. After half an hour I skewered two rats and injured a third. I tell you, they run and jump when they see me now. Unfortunately, I broke the knife on the end of my rat stick and put a splinter deep in my hand. I've learned that gloves next time wouldn't be a bad idea and I'll change the knife for a long sharp pointy bit of steel.

Anyway, what has this got to do with compassion? Well, how do I even apply the concept of compassion to this place?

Do I have compassion to the rats and let them eat the chook feed? The rats also tend to dirty up the chooks water which may spread disease. Or do I have compassion on the chooks who may be attacked by the rats in their sleep? The presence of rats will inevitably lead to snakes too.

There is little middle ground and you have to make a judgement that is inevitably in your self-interest. Compassion is a convenient concept for a well fed society. It is a worthy goal, but there are also other goals too and compassion can't be used to sort out competiting interests.

Doing nothing is always an option, but the most invasive species will fill the niche until a new balance is achieved. eg. The owls and snakes will then sort out the over population of those rats.

On the other hand a wombat cruising the herbage late at night with ripping and munching sounds (they tend to leave the root systems of plants intact) is a wonderful thing to behold. Even better they have started pushing the steel cages in to get at the longest grass beneath the caged fruit trees (protected from the wallabies the little vandals) saving me some hassle of weeding. Well done, that puts them on the payroll. The kangaroos seem mostly inoffensive and don't seem to cause any hassles apart from the odd buck fight.

Regards

Chris

Thijs Goverde said...

Interesting. This is precisely the reason why I so vehemently reject the idea that atheism is a religion. If one places all religious experiences firmly in the Noosphere one cannot be called religious without thoroughly hollowing out the concept of religiosity.
At least, that's what I think.
It also seems to be a consequence of the idea that The core theory held by religions everywhere is that there is a third world, which we can call the theosphere, and that this is what breaks through into human consciousness in religious experience.

This is the reason that, for me, the 'morphology' you mentioned in an earlier post doesn't make sense. Comparing atheism to, ahem, 'other' religions isn't like comparing bats to porpoises. It's like comparing bats to birds. The differences are greater than the similarities. Or rather, there is one crucial difference that trumps the many similarities.

Stephen Heyer said...

Hi John,

You know, I wasn’t going to bother reading this until I had done more mowing. I was kind of expecting something like that “Charter for Compassion” thing only greener and much better developed.

When am I going to learn?

I cannot work out whether you really are that good, or if it’s just that I have much the same ideas as you over fairly wide areas and thus enjoy reading how your much more researched scholarship backs up what I think anyway. See, I’m even cynical about myself.

Except of course where we don’t agree, but that stops it from being boring.

Anyway, another excellent piece, especially the sting in the tail where you discuss the way what you call the “theosphere” has changed over history. Actually, I’ve seen it change just over the last century of Psychic research by long term researchers such as the Society for Psychical Research in London.

The surprising thing (as you note) is that those changes do not seem to be driven by the desires and beliefs of the researchers. In fact, the researchers often seem a bit discomforted by them.

Anyway, I will not attempt to jump the gun (or the shark) but will wait patiently till next week.

Stephen Heyer

James M. Jensen II (badocelot/shiningwhiffle) said...

Joel and JMG,

There's also the issue — which was alluded to in the post and covered in more detail in World Full of Gods — that a claim that X exists and has effects isn't the same as a claim that X is a Y. A claim that gods exist and effect people's behaviors (both for better and worse) is really indifferent to the claim that gods are independently-existing intelligences.

That confusion is pretty common in our culture. Consider the common claim that the centrifugal force doesn't exist, or the fact that it, the Coriolis force, and the Euler force are called "fictitious forces" because they only show up in certain frames of references and can be explained entirely in terms of other forces — never mind that they do their jobs faithfully. "Derivative force" would be much more accurate, to my mind.

I'm also reminded of my favorite passage from Richard Rorty, the opening paragraph of "Solidarity or objectivity?". The contrast he draws between viewing your life primarily in terms of a relationship to a community (even an imaginary one) and viewing it primarily in terms of, well, Something Else(tm), has had an important impact on my thinking about religion and the gods.

James M. Jensen II (badocelot/shiningwhiffle) said...

One more comment and I'll hush for the night: it just occurred to me that one of the reasons that rationalism inevitably fails is the harder you try to get at Reality, the more you have to ignore the limitations of reality, both the limitations on human knowledge and the trade-offs between that quest and other important goals.

I saw a blog post once that referred to the assumption that rationality, truth, and utility all lined up as the "beautiful equivalence" — and pointed out that it's just obviously false.

Chris G said...

Given what seems likely to be the case in the future, namely climate extremes, mass death, and so on, what shape might the disembodied intelligences take? A vengeful mother Earth? the raging Kali.

Perhaps the difficulty of forming an ecologically-based religion for the future is that humanity has not gotten its lesson yet.

the connections to mind-altering conditions is probably important to keep in mind too: starvation, disease, the terrors of conflict, and mind-altering substances or practices probably have a lot to do with people's experiences of spirits in the past - all things that are likely to rise in the future as the security, insurance of industrial economies starts to disintegrate.

what is quite interesting is the role of an elite class, a priesthood, who manipulate/manage the visions people have under those hard conditions. If they are well-preserved and protected, those elites may do so quite ... rationally. I recall reading Algazel (if I remember correctly, it was him) in college, who discussed how religion (practices, rituals, images, concepts) would bring the more abstract philosophical concepts into people's common experiences.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

(slightly tangential to topic)

@Joel Caris--Belief, whether derived from personal experience or upon received authority, is of greater importance in Protestantism and Roman Catholicism than in many other religions. In some religions, observance and participation are what make a person a member of the religious community, and belief is a private matter.

A lot of people participate in a particular religious community primarily because they think participation will benefit them and their families in this-world, verifiable ways, or because they see the community as a vehicle for doing good in the wider world. It's not hypocritical to be both a sceptic and an active member of a religious community if the religion is one for which faith or doctrine are not of central importance.

IMO, this is perfectly all right. However, if sceptics predominate among the leaders and teachers of the community, it's not good for the long term health of the religion, because their outlook and priorities will, over time, distance the community from paying attention to people who are experiencing actual contact with deities. The numerical decline in American mainline Protestant and liberal Jewish denominations is partly on account of this, I think.

My impression is that Reform Judaism, though continuing to dwindle in numbers, has been coming to grips with this problem over the past few decades. It took some time to digest the immense challenges of the Shoah, the establishment of the State of Israel, and the rise in status of American Jews from struggling immigrant minority to member of the Establishment. The current version of Reform Judaism is taking spiritual experience more seriously than the mid-twentieth century version did, in a way that probably fits into the Second Religiosity paradigm.

jbucks said...

I wonder if the role of religion at its heart is a way for people to deal with death, and the desire for people to know that something of themselves will continue - whether your religion states that the eternal comes from endless technological progress and humankind perpetuating across the universe, or that the eternal is possible in heaven. I suppose that this role means that, even if one wanted to, it's impossible to ever dispense with religion.

Tom Bannister said...

Too true your earlier point about Religion being ' those silly things other people believe in'. I suggest to people science/ atheism are sort of becoming like religions with unquestionable dogmas, and yup like you said they insist what they have is not a religion, but what is logical and rational. Christians I have known also insist the same thing. Christianity is not a 'religion' its just the way things are etc etc.

I might have mentioned Eckart Tolle here a while back and I think you said you hadn't heard of him, but you are probably familiar with withdrawal from the ego being a powerful key in an acceptance of religious diversity, entering the present moment, accepting what is etc. His book the power of now, details this perfectly. As we speak its help laying the groundwork for the second religiosity (or it certainty initiated this process in myself years ago).

John Michael Greer said...

Judith, nah, that'd be one more civil religion. The Second Religiosity involves theist, or at least supernaturally focused, religion, due to the rejection of rationalism.

Joel, that's one of the three or four most common "spooky experiences" people have -- like hearing the voice or seeing the presence of a relative who's just died. (My father, who is quite possibly the least superstitious person in existence, had that latter happen to him when his mother died, immediately before the hospital called to let him know; I had one thoroughly freaked out dad to talk down over the phone the night that happened.)

James, fascinating. I suspect your story will become fairly common in the years ahead.

Roger, you'll find the first draft in a book of mine titled A World Full of Gods. You may be amused to know that one of the friends who read the manuscript before publication, who had attended Old World-style Catholic schools, suggested titling it Summa Pro Gentiles.

Trog, well, whatever floats your boat. I never saw the point of being limited to whatever experienced I happened to have before I was old enough to think clearly about them.

Joel, thank you!

Onething, the earth can still take care of herself. What we need to worry about is just how many of us will get taken care of, the hard way, in the process!

Cherokee, excellent! Compassion is indeed the favorite virtue of the comfortable. You'll notice that the Charter presupposes that people who are being oppressed, say, should sit around patiently and wait for someone else to have compassion on them, rather than taking action on their own account.

Thijs, thanks for pointing up a missing word. That should be "theist religion," of course -- civil religions such as atheism attempt to replace the theosphere with something else. That's what differentiates the two categories from each other -- and the forearms of bats and birds, by the way, have definite morphological similarities alongside their differences.

Stephen, oh, I'm that good. ;-)

John Michael Greer said...

James, thank you for the Rorty quote! I haven't studied him, and ought to remedy that, soon. As for the pursuit of Reality, remember that once an initial capital gets slapped on something, that transforms it from an abstraction to a mythological being -- in this case, I think, a close relative of Lewis Carroll's Snark.

Chris, Algazel's comment came out of the reconciliation of classical rationalism and pagan religion -- a desperate attempt on the part of both to stave off the political triumph of Christianity. You might read Iamblichus as a good starting point. As for the causes of seeing spirits, the interesting thing is that according to several surveys, your chances of having that experience go up, not down, with increasing education and income.

Jbucks, some religions put a lot of emphasis on life after death, others don't. The reason that religion is unlikely to go away, I'd suggest, is that people keep on having religious experiences!

Tom, I'd heard of him, just hadn't read any of his work -- there are only so many hours in a day, and my reading pile just keeps growing! The proper management of the ego is certainly a common theme among mystics, though.

Compound F said...

“…exactly what reality might lie behind what I’ve called the theosphere, it’s probably fair to say that this reality [religious experience] isn’t a passive screen onto which individuals or societies can project whatever fantasies they happen to prefer.”

The “theatre of the mind” is hardly a passive screen, with all the almost-real-time editing that goes into perception/action, so passivity is almost certainly out of the question. Looking, feeling, listening, etc., are all truly active processes, as JJ and Eleanor Gibson noted. Consider the phenomenon of otoacoustic emissions that the brain produces to tune the sensitivity of the basilar membrane in the ear, and which sometimes results in “ringing in the ears.” Or consider the responses of the retina to light (or sexual interest, for that matter), that give perception relative accuracy over orders of magnitude of absolute input. Of course, I’m not simply talking about “low-level” perceptual tricks. The interpretation of entire episodic narratives are labile in media res, and even old memories are labile when activated. Consider the vast number of people incarcerated on false positive eyewitness accounts.

Not being capable of projecting “Whatever [arbitrary] fantasies they happen to prefer” on to that screen is also likely true, since species are not comprised of arbitrary impulses, but rather pre-organized, pre-programmed, or pre-pared impulses that serve as the building blocks of motor outflows, consciousness, learning, etc.

It’s a much bolder claim to suggest that religious experience is not purely a function of endogenous systems (the noosphere) interacting with the biosphere, i.e., that an actual theosphere exists, although at least some “non-religious” researchers of consciousness have suggested that it may be a fundamental, irreducible property of the universe, like gravity. (I believe they were Sausalito intellectuals.)

I’m halfway through The Wealth of Nature, and it makes me incredibly happy to see so many things of central importance to our Boethian nightmare in one place. I’ve been passing your books on to my brother and sister-in-law. She wonders why you’re not on NPR, or part of the public conversation more generally. That is a tribute to your superb skills at exposition which I shall cease praising now. But it really is damned fine writing.

Ares Olympus said...

This is my struggle, as a terminal agnostic, what to make of things, and I have a couple experiences of I can't explain, so I hold them as examples. Joseph Campbell was a master of studying mythology, religion and beliefs, and his focus was on myth as interpreting experience, like these good quotes from Powers of Myth, recognizing metaphor as something that is something else.
http://www.whidbey.com/parrott/moyers.htm
"The reference of the metaphor in religious traditions is to something transcendent that is not literally any thing. If you think that the metaphor is itself the reference, it would be like going to a restaurant, asking for the menu, seeing beefsteak written there, and starting to eat the menu."

Maybe its helpful to see we have "two minds" and they see the world differently, and one or other dominates at different times, and religion at its best represents the bridge for those two "worlds" to be aware of each other, and to find common ground. And "ground" seems to be an important word I see over and over, and still trying to find what its a metaphor for, but the religion of progress doesn't seem grounded at least, requires heroic effort that you always know will fail someday, and that's an anxious place we find ourselves.

Compound F said...

Also, would you consider something such as Jeff Buckley's rendition of Leonard Cohen's famous "Hallelujah" a religious experience?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HKnxmkOAj88

My larger point is that I'm not clear on what a "religious experience" entails, 'tho' I presume strong emotions, better stated as "feelings," which are not necessarily visible to others. The strongest feelings, perhaps, that occur in an episodic fashion, followed by a post hoc narrative from the creative, non-passive mind.

Phil Knight said...

JMG,

With regard to the new religious sensibility, I'm wondering if you've read "The White Goddess" by Robert Graves, and, if so, what you thought of it.

Thanks in advance...

Keith said...

John Michael,

I’m glad you added a nuance to this post in the comments, by adding “A sense of connection with the whole system of Nature can fill a similar role, even though it doesn't feature a disembodied intelligent being.”

I was taken aback by the statement that about a third of the population has had an experience with a disembodied intelligent being. That’s a big number.
When you clarified that this experience also includes a sense of connection to nature, it made more sense to me. Perhaps it’s because my head is still in an age of reason frame (although you are denting it), or because I haven’t had such an experience or know anyone who has.

My wife, who is both wiser than me, and studied classics, tells me that the ancient Greeks had a deep appreciation of the irrational, and didn’t try to deny or suppress it as we moderns tend to do.
As always, I am enjoying the comments, and am eager to see the next installment.

All the best

Phil Harris said...

JMG
(I guess you are prepared for a big postbag!)

The biggest problem I think I have hanging out at the Archdruid Report is that I share too much of your analysis having come by similar paths, albeit earlier, through 70’s Limits to Growth and Schumacher to a realisation that Progress was, shall we say, not an undifferentiated good, and the world was not going to become American, even if the world wanted to. I guess we also share some taste in poetry and a liking for conversation about cosmic realities. (Some of my best memories of childhood are of our small gang’s conversations; explorations of rationality and sensibility round our little fire on the edge of our known world as the stars came out. I guess you would have been more than welcome.)

I have dabbled at religion. The other day I was trying to list memories of interesting actual experience reaching perhaps, almost, to the Theosphere. I ‘saw’ angels, once, albeit two junior ones who said they were still on a learning curve (I paraphrase), but were good at ankles. And they fixed my very painful ricked ankle, which by morning got me out of an awkward fix. Otherwise, experience has not been so much of entities or ‘religious’ content, but shared visual projection and insights into abstract thought (of the kind shared by Roger Penrose), and of time-shifts mostly to the past, again with ‘insight’, (possibly one into the future, or so it seemed). There was a period of real interaction with small birds (real ones) ‘telling me’ stuff. Those latter interactions had serious ethical implications, not least regarding my affect on the small birds themselves. And I once memorably saw, I think, a Platonic Ideal actualised in a person (aura is not the right word).

On the other hand I have a hard time believing in God / Gods or even a Theosphere (?) and found myself in a minority of one, albeit a sincere one, at gatherings of hundreds of people round a religious impulse. Early occasions were in Christian gatherings, but I attended at least two conferences / workshops (sic) of Shamans and students of shamanism (including hands-on anthropologists with experience and interesting tales to tell) where it was almost embarrassing.

I hang in with the notion expressed perhaps thus: “I can’t explain it to you, but I can play it”. This was taken from a story about a man trying to express a difficult point, and then using a piece of Beethoven. I find ritual acts of will an odd practice. I have been an untidy person but when we had a family I tried to step up to the plate seeing the practical value of logical tidiness and having a place for things, and getting the same stuff correct each day (shades of my dad!). I am not that successful. Our dog has a good memory and a strong sense of ritual and of getting it right, and needs to remind me when things are not quite in order. He will follow dutifully but likes to know, and anticipate correctly, what we are doing!

Human kind seems relatively new to civilisation. I guess since the end of the last Ice Age. I guess we always had logic and cultural memory and art, as well as language (there are no primitive languages, and I am not sure there is any primitive art) before civilisation. I am not sure however about ‘religions’. Perhaps they are a latter-day epiphenomenon? We always had stories of course and dance and music. It was interesting to find that at least some shamanism (sub-Siberian classic form) has archaeology, showing evolutionary change with a strong suggestion of secondary derivation from adjacent civilisations. I count tribal and peasant cultures as civilisation; for example Germanic tribes possessed all kinds of spirit presences accounting for unseen causes of demonstrable phenomena. I leave matters open to speculation.

I guess one thing follows another and that ‘mechanisms’ as an explanatory analogy never was adequate, although making things work, like conversation itself, has and will have its delights.
best
Phil H

Albatross said...

Hi there Mr. Greer,

The 'theosphere'? Well, as my background is in the field of yoga I tend to identify that concept with the idea of 'ritambharā', a field, or level, of truth, or, as I look upon it, the last vestige of duality before one plunges into 'the deep' (that transcendent subjectivity of no ideational thinking which is beyond any concept of the beyond). In the philosophy of yoga ritambharā is seen as a state where the inner, though yet active, is free from any disturbance from without or, even, from within (as if there were an inner event horizon of supraflow). In this state a free flow of thought and emotion exists without the interference that change creates. All this would be on the level of the individual; the mind settles into silence (the definition of yoga: "yoga is the settling of the mind into silence") and the physical body flows along into a balanced state of stillness. But, of course, the whole point of yogic practice is to go beyond any state of activity (and then come back). What happens in many cases though is that that level of ritambharā, which in its free unobstructed (supra)flow will fill one up with visions of godhead and whatnot, contentment, bliss, peace et al., will finally bounce one back into the outer, into activity of some kind (as that level of ritambharā, though independent, gets all its references from what we have in the world). The vector of yoga is to go beyond that and stay, awhile, in the deep field, in a state of 'sameness' that will then infuse every pore of one’s existence, and then later one returns invigorated and glad to be alive and joyful. Without the means to transcend even that ‘celestial’ inner field the inner subjective experience is projected outwards in terms of archetypes and myths (and now with an added personal connection as there is an experience to go by, and no wonder theism always crops up). Thus, by not going deep enough, the inner feeds the outer and the wheel of living turns and turns and endlessly turns, samsara.
In striving for balance and harmony the ‘theosphere’ will always be encountered, surely a lot of joy and harmony is created (and the bliss-memes proliferate) yet in The Deep there is surcease.

For the interested I wrote a little pamphlet to explain the mechanism of yoga: http://issuu.com/albatross/docs/12-yoga-posters-juri-aidas-albatross

Ice Torch said...

Since we're talking religion, here is a short web page that mentions "The Wicker Man", but in relation to ancient Celtic coins:

http://balkancelts.wordpress.com/2013/10/05/the-wicker-man/

I quote:

"While the schematic nature of these images makes certainty impossible, this coinage corresponds geographically and chronologically with accounts of human sacrifice by burning among the Balkan Celts, and it appears likely that these images may be the only direct archaeological evidence of the gruesome phenomenon which has become known as the ‘Wicker Man’."

Since that post mentions Druids, I would welcome the Archdruid's comments. I collect coins, but certainly not from that era. The only "Wicker Man" I know of is the British film, which is a favourite of mine, but I have never considered whether the concept of the Wicker Man has any basis in historical reality.

DaShui said...

hey ADJMG!

Can I flip things over a bit?
Instead of saying mystical experiances are an (occasional) part of life, how about saying life is just one big mystical experience, which we only occasionally recognize?

divelly said...

I am a militant rational atheist.
I had a friend in NYC who died of a congenital heart condition at 25.Fast forward 15 years.I sit at the bar of my chef owned dinner house on Queen Anne Hill,Seattle,doing the post mortem from last night and planning tonight's specials.
There is a rack of 8"x5" glossy postcards in our lobby.
They advertise things like Cadillac, Absolut,the latest big budget film.The route man came in to restock,and I noticed that one of the new ones was a replica of a MYC taxi driver's license-passport photo,name in bold caps,etc.I picked one out and the picture was of my deceased friend.No doubt-same thick glasses,same bad haircut, same goofy smirk.But the name was not his.It was Pete something.I turned the card over and the blurb said,"Hi1 I'm Pete Something.I was driving a cab in NYC trying to figure out what to do with my life and I decided that what I loved most was beer.So I founded "Pete's Wicked Ales."I scooped up 6 cards an mailed them to mutual acquaintances.A few days later I got a call:
Caller:"Was he leading a double life?Was he separated from a twin at birth?"
Me:"Weird,isn't it."
Caller:"What's really weird is the expiration date on the license."
Me:"Yeah,so?"
Caller:"That's the day he died."

Kyoto Motors said...

“When people step outside the ordinary limits of human behavior in any direction, for good or ill, if love or hate toward another person isn’t the motivating factor, very often what drives them is religious in nature—not ethical, mind you, but the nonrational commitment of the whole self toward an ideal that comes out of religious experience.”
(Emphasis mine)
I suspect love and hate might take up quite a good percentage of such behaviour. To a secular “believer” I’d say Love and Hate are forces that occupy the space left by the theosphere abandoned. The emotional dimension being what it is, is often mistaken for more than just a set of illusory habits of thought.
Religious experience, which has come to me sporadically in mystifying ways over the years, I see as a motivation on a very personal level. Rarely is it a subject of common ground with my largely secular cohort. Our energies are spent largely on the rationalist plane dealing with the practicalities of the “real” world. It might be interesting if that would change…

Andy Brown said...

I find it very easy to mock TED talks, atheist churches, and other earnest attempts to harness spiritual practice to rationality. On the other hand, I’ve also seen much more convincing efforts to manipulate our relationship to the theosphere in order to change how we relate to both the biosphere and noosphere. Several years ago I wrote an anthropology article called, Witchcrafting Selves about pagans in Eugene Oregon and a kind of utopian scene. I was interested in how spiritual practices were being used by people to break themselves out of their dysfunctional society (both in terms of cultural and economic practices and in terms of their own psychological and spiritual makeup) and re-constitute themselves into something else.

But what I find interesting for the topic you’re developing today is the way that neo-paganism (at least the radically politicized subset I was talking about) seems to come as much out of the rationalist tradition as it does out of any religious tradition. It’s easy to dismiss the wanton mixing of anthropology, psychology, spirituality, feminism, ecology with nature-based pantheism as a careless rejection of rationality – but only if you think rationalism was actually ever as pure as it claimed. (And given your portrayal of rationalism and Progress, I don’t think you do.) I’m curious where these essays go from here, because I wonder whether you see these kinds of experiments having the potential to pick up (or repurpose) the reins that have been dropped by both Science and Religion. Or perhaps you feel they are as misguided as the earlier efforts to concoct a green religion.

George Keller Hart said...

Mr. Greer, thank you for this remarkable essay. You are working within the best American traditions of inquiry and learning, and your work is extremely helpful--perhaps especially to an American baby boomer of a certain age. Just one question--what do you think of the work of David Bakan, mainly his Duality of Human Existence.
Thanks again.
George Hart
Concord MA

Marc L Bernstein said...

Do creatures other than human beings have religions? An attempt to answer this question might serve to clarify what it means to be human and what we mean by a religion. It seems evident that without culture there is no religion. Culture arises out of society, so religion does not exist outside of a social milieu. Self-awareness also seems to be a prerequisite to religious experience. So are there other creatures that might have religious experiences (that are social, self-aware and have culture)? Well, I don't know but I wonder about elephants and dolphins (including killer whales).

Is language necessary for religious experience? Maybe so.

I haven't read any William James but I'm sure his writings on religious experience are interesting.

Do religions always arise as a result of some subjective experience in which an individual has contact with the theosphere? I have no idea, but religions could also arise out of an attempt to answer certain basic questions (which might pertain to philosophy as well), such as (1) Why are we (people) here? (2) Is there a purpose to human life? (3) What is human suffering and can it be eliminated? (4) What attributes of human beings are admirable, and what human attributes are deplorable? (5) Is there really such a thing as the self or is such a sense an illusion?

So religions can potentially arise out of an attempt to answer questions that are inherently out of the reach of science.

You might be familiar with the debates between Chris Hedges and Sam Harris. In those debates, the question arose as to whether the notion of human virtue could be dealt with scientifically. Hedges mentioned that religion deals with non-rational forces (love, beauty, mystery, awe, etc.) that are inherently beyond scientific evaluation or investigation. Harris wanted to investigate concepts such as virtue, joy, happiness, love, beauty, etc. using scientific methods (if possible). I was not strongly in agreement with either Hedges or Harris. My sense is that science can provide insight into some apparently non-rational forces but that it also has limitations in dealing with these non-rational elements of human experience.

Unknown said...

About religious sensibilities:
This would have been right on time a few weeks ago, but it only came back to me now. From Eduardo Galeano's Book of Embraces:
"The preacher Miguel Brun told me that a few years ago he had visited the Indians of the Paraguayan Chaco. He was part of an evangelizing mission. The missionaries visited a chief who was considered very wise. The chief, a quiet, fat man, listened without blinking to the religious propaganda that they read to him in his own language. When they finished, the missionaries awaited a reaction.
The chief took his time, then said:
'That scratches. It scratches hard and it scratches very well.'
And then he added:
'But it scratches where there isn't any itch.'"
I comment rarely here, so I'll add a thank you to Mr. Greer for all that you give. This current sequence has been really timely, for me at least. Thank you!
Jonathan.

ando said...

JMG,

Thanks for continuing to provide entertaining and informative reading.

It seems that we ARE ultimate reality and cannot deviate from same, even when we try, so I will go insert more organic material into my garden's clay soil.

peace,

mac

das monde said...

It is tiresome to see the same “progressive religion” horse beating for months. Why would that wave of unsophisticated progress believers bother this blog so much? And now what, the progress is the only religion without a theosphere?! Sorry, but the cultural parasitism labeling (in the reply to Kyoto) sets a unique standard for something JMG apparently dislikes viscerally. My own progress belief is limited by the 2nd law of thermodynamics. I do expect things to turn darker, not only because of absolute energy limitations on Earth, but also for the emerging political distribution of catabolic resources.

I want to draw attention here to so-called Graves’ value systems (or levels of psychological existence). Although their popularization looks progressive-lite, the theory has solid references to Maslow’s pyramid of needs and advanced psychological coaching practices. My prediction is that the civilization decline will make more basic value systems more prevalent. In that theory, religion and progressive attitudes are characteristic features of two different levels. (The numbers are 4 and 6 -- but the numbers tell more about resource base required than about merit.) Thus, when you equate progress to religion, you disturb many people on a deeper level than just beliefs.

It must be a fun exercise to estimate the value distribution in the Roman Empire and other past societies. If the 6s had ever been that strong, their beating under a decline is not exactly a surprise. But when I look at the particular beating of 6s now, the politics is just amazing. How did individualistic 5s and 7s become so cooperative?! Basically, the 6s are not allowed to develop their own sensitivities, collectively adopt to progress limits.

I appreciate Anderson’s view on the ethical dimension of religion. Religions do instruct people how to hold themselves, live their lives. (What is an example of religion without ethics?!) But needless to say, religion has a political dimension as well. It helped to stabilize and rule societies for ages. The obvious problem of Marxists and greens is that they are not “useful” to any ruling class, especially under a decline.

Robo said...

It's safe to say that a discussion like this won't appear every day on the internet.

Having experienced a few mystical moments myself, I know that they happen. The workings of the minds within our own skulls are ultimately just as unexplainable as the distant cosmos.

Our humanity is a thin skin laid over an ancient foundation of lizard needs and desires. Most of our activities must ultimately satisfy the inner beast, so the outer intelligence spends most of its time rationalizing animal actions over which it has little practical control. Belief systems like religion and politics are some of the many manifestations of that rationalization.

Hence the extreme difficulty of any efforts that aim to improve the lot of our civilizations through the imposition of thoughtful reason and scientific method upon our naturally unruly instincts.

Not that it isn't worth the effort, but the primal creatures within us are strong. The odds are in their favor.

Unknown said...

Two quibbles, one major and one minor.

The minor one: not all religious traditions agree that the gods are bodiless. Obviously, the idea that the gods are wandering around somewhere in the world is a bit hard to swallow, but some ancient religions and the modern Mormon church say God(s) has/have bodies.

The major one: a second religiosity is a fundamentally conservative movement. It is more likely to grow from the Christian right (and, in other places, conservative strains of Islam and Hinduism) than from marginal New Age style religions. To the vast majority of the population of the US, "religion" means "Jesus" and "Druid" means, if anything, a D&D character.

Jay

Swathorne said...

Hi JMG,
Out of curiousity....did Jacques Ellul have a considerable impact on your thinking?

Blackbird said...

Thanks for the post, JMG.

I understand your reasoning behind why the green religion movement of the 1970s failed, but what about the success of Scientology? Why do you think it was able to gain traction as a modern religion?

Cheers!

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

(Deborah Bender)

Reading this week's entry, my first impulse was to defend Karen Armstrong. I found her book The Battle for God, which is about fundamentalism in the Abrahamic religions, to be of value, and I'm halfway through her bestseller A History of God.

I just reread JMG's essay and this time I followed the link to the Charter on Compassion.

It's a bit condescending to tell people you don't know what should be important to them, isn't it?

The aim of most interfaith work is to find areas of agreement or commonality in order to foster cooperation when possible, or at least enough mutual respect to allow peaceful coexistence.

Because people who are drawn to interfaith work are strongly motivated toward reducing conflict, sometimes they have difficulty recognizing and appreciating differences. There is a bias toward finding areas of agreement and sometimes the agreement is manufactured by assumption. A religion or cultural group that dominates the organization may take its own values and categories of thought as normative, quite unconsciously, hunt for something similar in the non-dominant groups, and declare that really we are all the same. Buddhists, for example, get told by Christians, "We all believe in the same God," and Buddhism labled a "faith", despite the fact that Theravada Buddhism is not theistic and is not based on faith at all.

I found it interesting to compare the Charter for Compassion with the beginning and ending sections of the American Declaration of Independence (the list of grievances in the middle isn't relevant to this discussion). Both documents contain lofty statements of universal ideals. The Declaration starts with (paraphrased), "These are the principles in which we believe. A decent respect to the opinions of Mankind impels us to state them, in order that the world may judge our actions." The Declaration also says who "we" are: the undersigned rebellious colonists. Many groups, including the Communist Party of North Vietnam, have been inspired by the Declaration of Independence to the point of emulating it in some way.

The "we" of the Charter for Compassion is more diffuse. Its statement is not the relatively modest, "We believe compassion is very important and we are acting on our belief," but rather, "Compassion is the most important value and everyone in the world ought to base their actions on compassion." To which the world responds, "Who the hell are you to tell us?"



ganv said...

'a society that makes rational sense won’t function in the real world because, ultimately, human beings don’t make rational sense.'

This is very close to making rational sense out of the problems with rationalism. :) Invariably when my rationalist side bumps into this fact, I come up with some way that people might be forced by 'the world as it is' to conform to a more rational society. For example, environmental destruction might force people to start planning for the future. But then reality becomes apparent (or another installment of the Archdruid Report comes along) and I realize that no, people will not stop being the complex irrational creatures that we are. However, the kinds of irrationalism we display does change over time. I guess like you talk about changes in religious sensibilities.

However, I have a nagging feeling that religions will have a hard time using the compelling theophere ideas in the coming centuries. Many have seen for quite some time that rationalism can't be the only foundation of a functioning society. But careful observation consistently finds that the interactions proposed between the theosphere and the physical world that are claimed by various religions are projections of the human mind and not actions of something external interacting with the physical world. Clearly experience of and belief in the theosphere has been a major strand of human society as it has historically been lived. But the beliefs seem to not correspond to reality outside of the human mind. Will a new religious sensibility contain a new compelling way the theosphere interacts with the physical world? I suspect we know too much about how the universe works for this to be convincing. The new avenues opening for religious sensibilities are paths that take the human mind and its complexities seriously. But I am not sure it will work. The human mind was built by evolution to make sense of the physical world. Compelling religions talk about divine interaction with the physical world. A religion with a theosphere that only interacts with minds but not with the physical world is not much better than a religion that only deals in values without a theosphere at all. This is particularly true as more people accept that minds are also parts of the physical world. So I am looking forward to hearing what compelling religious sensibility you see emerging. Modern science is different than the rationalisms that have come before, and I don't see what kind of compelling religion can emerge after modern science. But I also don't see how religion will die. It feels like humans have discovered that the world does not have the interactions with the theosphere that the human mind assumes at a deep subconscious level.

Mr. Homegrown said...

If ever there was confirmation of your ideas it would be this jaw-dropping lecture, sponsored by Stewart Brand's Long Now Foundation, in which futurist Peter Schwartz, proposes creating a new religion for the purpose of multi-century space journeys. Given that Brand raised no objections during the Q&A, I can only guess that he's given up on the eco-religion concept for "getting off this rock." Looks like the Saucilito intellectuals are abandoning their houseboats for spaceships. And they are doing so without any critical thinking, introspection or sense of irony.

Moshe Braner said...

JMG: "I don't think that it's necessary to have a religious experience in order to have strong religious beliefs; most of us believe in the existence of wombats, for example ..."

- the way I see it, there's a big gulf between believing that some (other) people have had religious experiences, and accepting their resulting faiths. IOW, one may (or may not) assume that those experiences were internal to the minds of those who experienced them.

Kuanyin said...

Hi JMG,

Thanks for an excellent, thought-provoking post! I'm working on wrapping my mind around it. I'm with you that religious experiences are the basis of religion. However, I am still struggling with the apparent contradiction between the terms you use to describe these numinous experiences--"disembodied" beings, experiences that "transcend" ordinary reality--and the new religious sensibility that you have outlined so well which seems to be very much about "embodied" spirit and immanence rather than transcendence. Your reply to Joel that "A sense of connection with the whole system of Nature can fill a similar role, even though it doesn't feature a disembodied intelligent being" helps a lot, but I still find myself feeling vaguely confused. I will try to clarify why.

First of all, if many people do actually experience disembodied beings and transcendence, will these experiences simply not fit within the new religious sensibility? Secondly, surely the folks who were trying to jumpstart an ecological religion in the 1970s experienced "a sense of connection to the whole system of Nature," yet apparently something was still missing, in terms of the fire necessary to start an authentic new religion.

I believe this contradiction my rationality is trying to construct is probably not as stark as it seems, and the answer is something like Blake's fusion of immanence and transcendence: "To see a World in a Grain of Sand/And Heaven in a Wild Flower/Hold Infinity in the palm of your Hand/And Eternity in an hour" (a type of religious experience I would describe myself as having had although I've never felt like I encountered a disembodied being)--but in any case, I would love it if you could talk more about this!

Moshe Braner said...

Re: nature-related religion and Marxism. I would think not quite Marxism, but accepting the necessity of a steady-state economy. Although if the basis of such a "nature" religion were to be a "supranatural" religious experience (is that an oxymoron?), the relevant practical implications, such as a steady-state economy, may need to be added via a process of rational thought (as a tool, not a religion)? The late Albert Bartlett has famously said that the inability of internalized the characteristics of exponential growth is the greatest shortcoming of the human race. Apparently decades of rational discussion of the math of such growth has brought us no closer, on a societal level, to making compatible decisions. Is a religious approach more likely to achieve that?

Hal said...

Putting my rationalist hat on for a minute, I wonder if “The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions,” is any worse as a creation myth than any of a number of other I could think of. Certainly a rationalist could point at Genesis and say, "Well, that's just not true." Still, it hasn't kept Abrahamic monotheism from being one of the most successful religious memes of all time.

Not saying I disagree with you regarding the track record on recently contrived spiritualities. But then, look at Mormonism. You just never know what people will fall for.

Regarding latter-day nature spirituality, I was peripherally involved with the "Deep Ecology" movement in the 80s, and there was a strong spiritual component there. There was always a tension between what were probably rationalist and what were definitely "woo woo" contingents. Earth First! Journal was published on a schedule that corresponded with the Pagan holidays, and called after them. There were always rituals, etc., performed at the gatherings. For a while, it seemed like you couldn't have the smallest get-together without one or more of the alpha females making everyone form a circle and call in the four directions. I'll guess you ran into that a few times in your part of Cascadia.

In fact, I wonder if that four-direction ceremony and a few others almost reached the point of standardization that they could have become the nucleus of the ritual-body of a new religion. The movement itself was more or less stamped out by police repression and no doubt the depression and burnout that comes with fighting an unending, and mostly unsuccessful battle against ecocide.

Or did it morph in different directions? The woo-wooers toward Newage or Shamanism (tm), and the more activist wing toward mainstream environmentalism or alcoholism?

Dang, I'm going to talk myself into a depression if I don't stop here.

g downs said...

Late to the ballgame, but...
An exchange between JMG and Lathechuck, in last week's comments on computer usage sparked a thought I hadn't considered before. I don't have internet access at home (thus my scant presence here). I'm way too cheap/poor for the internet. What I do is take my laptop to the library a couple times a week, grab stuff I want to read and store it on my desktop to read at my leisure ... at home, where it's quiet (public libraries are anything but, nowadays).

Obviously, the fact that I'm reading offline will speed things up for others who are. I'm not tech savvy at all, excuse my ignorance. But I wonder, am I saving energy by spending the bulk of my computer time offline? Anybody got an answer for me? Maybe we should all be doing this. But then, maybe we all are. What do I know?

g downs said...

There was some talk last week about salvaging obsolete electronics. I dabble in tube electronics. I've played guitar forever, and I like to build various tube based projects and modify my amps (strictly old tube amps, very few guitar players use a non-tube amp - tubes just plain sound better, a lot better.).

A lot of old tube public address systems get repurposed as guitar amps. No great tragedy there, solid-state is better for PA, but it is kind of tragic how many old electronic organs get either parted out or trashed. Fewer and fewer people take up the keyboard these days, and they end up just a big, heavy piece of furniture you need to move out of the house when the owner dies.

I have a very strange Hammond S6 organ http://www.nycfarmboy.com/hammonds6/s1.html made in 1956 (29 tubes!) that I suspect was designed to accommodate transitioning accordion players (the left hand plays chord buttons instead of keys). But it's actually more of a primitive synthesizer than a traditional organ. It's something completely unique with some rather astonishing tones. They'll never make anything like this again. And when it's gone, it's gone forever. Here's a peppy little tune: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nE6ay6u96n4.

For anyone who would like to take up a musical instrument, these old organs (many of them quite amazing instruments that could not be duplicated today for less than tens of thousands of dollars) can be had for very little or even free! Just go to craigslist and do a search on 'organ'. Thrift stores often have them as well.

Thomas Daulton said...

Please pardon a quick fugitive comment from last week -- I was away from home and missed last week's column completely. We're all recovering sci-fi geeks here, aren't we, so I'm not embarrassed to bring this up.
The "Flight to Ephemerality" concept you brought up reminded me of that classic old Anne Francis / Leslie Nielsen movie, "Forbidden Planet". (**** Major spoilers if you haven't seen this 1959 movie by now ******) Human explorers discover a dead planet where the dominant race, after millions of years of technological progress, had developed a technology to materialize whatever anyone wished out of thin air. "Technicality without Instrumentality", they called it. Two salient points.
#1, as JMG points out, although people on the planet's surface could apparently conjure things out of thin air, the aliens had basically hollowed out their entire planet to create the power and factory infrastructure to achieve this. So the infrastructure doesn't disappear, it just gets moved out of sight.
#2, the alien race was destroyed overnight as soon as they flipped the switch to turn on the technology, because the telepathic receivers had access to the aliens' Id and base urges. So these violent monsters appeared from thin air with the unstoppable power of the technology behind them, and the aliens, (after literally millions of years of refinement and civilization) didn't even know where the monsters were coming from, because they thought they had bred out and vanquished their own primitive, violent, basic biological urges.
(JMG might say that Plato's Charioteer thought he had gotten out and walked on his own power, but the horses ambushed him and kicked him in the @$$)
So although JMG predicts the "cloud" and ephemeral technology is probably doomed to fail in the long term... in the short term, humans using this tech can accomplish some unexpected, miraculous, wonderful, terrifying and horrifying things before it all collapses. Worth keeping in mind.

Quin said...

It's been personally very interesting for me to watch your writings grapple more and more explicitly with religion and spirituality. This is because when I started reading the Archdruid Report about a year ago, I was not at all a spiritual person (long time atheist, in fact), nor did the Archdruid Report generally deal with those issues, at least not on the surface at the time. Yet in the intervening year, all of that has changed, both on the blog and in my life. And I do consider your writing to have been one major catalyst in my spiritual awakening.

Having had a quite unexpectedly direct visitation from "the theosphere" early this year, it gives me some comfort to hear that perhaps as many as 30% of people experience something similar (I would very much like to know the source or basis for that figure). One problem with an experience like I had, I've found, is that it's very difficult to talk to most people about it. It's been much more interesting to compare notes with people who have a comparable point of reference. Lovely, even. But with the majority of old friends who I have told, I end up answering the same sorts of challenging questions again and again, as they implicitly dismiss it all as a trick of psychology, self-induced by a desire to believe (to which all I can say is, I can't deny the possibility, but oh what a magical trick!). Luckily this reaction was not universal. I was quite pleasantly surprised by how copacetic my father was with it all, for instance.

Anyway, it's quite a trip to go from believing that no religions are true, to believing that there's a chance all of them are. So, thanks for your part in it, JMG.

Unknown said...

Jay here. I feel that I should qualify an earlier comment.

When I said that second religiosities are conservative in nature, I meant that they're a fallback position. They arise from a desire to abandon a failing system and get back to something known, traditional, and proven. This sort of conservatism should be clearly distinguished from the mainstream American political conservatism as seen in the Republican Party and the Tea Party.

That's why I'd expect the religiosity to center around traditional churches (or mosques or shrines or whatever is locally traditional) rather than something unfamiliar.

Derv said...

I've had religious experiences that, if untrue, mean I'm either an undiagnosed schizophrenic or being conned by demons. :) I dismiss the former for what I think are rational reasons, and the latter on the kindness of God. I explored and participated in a great many religions of the world in an attempt to discover the truth before it happened. In fact, I was drawn by those experiences/visions to become a staunchly rationalist Thomist Catholic, which probably betrays some form of cosmic irony.

I really like your points here about the "lifeblood" of religion and the inevitable failure of these various rationalist social experiments that try to replace it with some artificial construct. As though humanity could exist without war. As though humanity could exist without religion. I very much look forward to seeing how you expect your religious forecast to avoid these pitfalls.

I may be jumping the gun here, but in my mind, there really are only three contenders for the Second Religiosity - old-school fire and brimstone Catholicism, Wahhabist-bent Islam, and some new expression of Communism that avoids some of the old failings (though still holding to its inherent failings, else it wouldn't be Communism). I admit the spontaneous and organic development of a new religion could change the equation by capturing the popular Western imagination, but I wouldn't bet on it. Old-school Catholicism would be a return to our roots and is a comprehensive worldview that doesn't contain the seeds of its own demise, like I would argue is the case for Protestantism in most of its forms. Islam may well be a simple matter of demographics, though it has many of the same strengths. And Communism reborn, like the new Buddhism, has a deep hold on the cultural sensibilities of half the Western world. They'd love it to come back if they thought it could be done right, without Stalin and Mao. And they are all philosophies more comfortable with war, suffering, conflict, death - those darker elements of human nature we hide under the rug.

Anyways, my two cents. I've thought a lot about this recently but don't want to post whole essays in your comment section, so I'll stop here. :) Looking forward to your future posts.

Sufiya H. said...

According to Idries Shah, there are those who have had certain inner experiences and realizations, those who have not, and THAT is the difference between "enlightened" and "unenlightened", because "the Kingdom of God is within". Unless you have had the particular experience, the spiritual teachings will remain obscure. It's like LSD. If you haven't experienced it, there's no explaining it, except to someone else who has already experienced it. The secrets really DO protect themselves!

Oh, and having studied Hermetic Qabalah for years, I can definitively say that after a certain point, one finds out for oneself why the Tree of Life is called "the Talking Tree".There will be no doubt left in the mind as to the existence of a much greater Intelligence/Intelligences regulating what we think of as "mundane reality". If more scientists were conversant with the Tree of Life and the "Hermetic" Qabalah ("hermetic" being an obsolete world for "scientific", remember!) there would be no more BS with "atheism" among scientists, because they would get to "meet and greet" the very Powers that stand behind the qualities of material existence.

Oh and one last thing: the initial conversation between Narendranath Dutta (later "Swami Vivekananda") and the great Avatar Shri Ramakrishna Paramahansa, the "God-Intoxicated Saint" of Dakshineswar in Calcutta:

Narendranath had been sitting and listening to the saint (after having been recommended to him by his professor Dr. William Hastie) and then moved close to him and asked straight out: "Can God be seen?"

The great saint never hesitated: "Yes. God can be seen. In fact, at this moment I see God more clearly than I see you.But,who wants to see God?

People shed gallons of tears over material possessions and their families, but who sheds tears because he has not been able to see God?

When you long for God so much that the tears pour from your eyes for longing, then know that the sight of God is not far behind!"

Moshe Braner said...

If most people were not bombarded with religious concepts from age zero, would 1/3 of them still eventually have what they would perceive of as a religious experience? Chicken and egg?

Artorias said...

Fantastic post. As with many things it only becomes clear when written down in coherent form (experience of the Theosphere being the main driver etc.). Very much looking forward to upcoming posts on systems theory.

Lucretia Heart said...

THANK YOU for speaking out about the most obvious truth regarding spiritual experiences and religion that ever got collectively ignored by the intelligentsia! I have long been frustrated by the divide between those that espouse rationalism and the rest of the population they patronize and proclaim to by turns.

I'm one of those people who has had not just one, but MANY "otherworldly" experiences that don't fit the ordinary day-to-day reality we live in most of the time. I've encountered ghosts, I had a near-death experience at the age of 13, and several other things even far stranger than that, all without help of substances of any kind-- and I am not delusional nor prone to hallucinations. I have a high I.Q., I'm college educated, I use logic routinely to come to conclusions... I am fully functional by any measure. And yet there is THAT aspect of my life that defies what we call "reason."

I have to discount it publicly, and pretend to be "normal"-- presumably materialist-- and I admit a part of me resents this and long ago turned away from rationalism. It just doesn't explain everything I've personally encountered...

In addition, you are spot on that those experiences are the most powerful of my life! Utterly transforming in a way that cannot be adequately explained to people who have yet to touch such a reality. Since I've had multiple experiences, I feel like my life's journey is indeed a quest full of meaning. But our society as it stands now discourages sharing this sort of thing, and so the most important part of my life is mostly kept secret, because the rationalist prejudice out there is so staunch. Despite this, I have managed to run into many, many others like myself who quietly but adamantly disagree with the prevalent paradigm.

Interestingly, though staunchly "paganesque," I get along quite well with sincere (that is, walking the talk) conservative followers of several Abrahamic religions who should be quite hostile towards me for my own views, yet the aspect we have in common is just exactly these sorts of non-material experiences. That we get along so well to one another as opposed to rationalists/materialists says a great deal about the layers of hostility buried beneath this grand divide!

You're touching on topics here that makes me think that something big is under pressure and will one day emerge to express itself. Whether it emerges with a small pop or a great explosion remains to be seen.

Steve Morgan said...

"What comes out of the theosphere, in the modest religious experiences of ordinary believers as well as the world-shaking visions of great prophets, changes from one era to another according to a logic (or illogic) all its own, and such changes correspond closely to what I’ve described in earlier posts as shifts in religious sensibility."

While the output of the theosphere changes with religious sensibility, I get the impression that human societies don't change too much. The dominant religion of the Faustian west's Second Religiosity is more likely to be determined by thaumaturgy, opportunity, power, and charisma than by conscious design (whether the designers are Sausolito intellectuals or interfaith yuppies). Still, I think this post offers good advice for would-be founders of religions in advising close attention to the importance of religious experience. It worked for Joseph Smith pretty well.

Thanks for this week's post, JMG. You have a knack for pointing out just how fascinating of a time we're living in.

--

Like Joel, I'm glad to have had the opportunity to read a few of your other works before this series, especially A World Full of Gods (which was still in print in the Spring for those interested, when my local bookstore got me a copy for much less than $4000 from the online auctions).

--

Also, Matthew Casey Smallwood asked last week about grain raising. Lodgson's book is a great one, and I'd also suggest checking out Carol Deppe's The Resilient Gardener.

For the poultry and rabbit raisers worried about importing grain, there's a great little handbook from WWII titled "Keeping Poultry and Rabbits on Scraps" by Claude Goodchild and Alan Thompson, reprinted in 2008.

onething said...

Says Robo,

"Our humanity is a thin skin laid over an ancient foundation of lizard needs and desires. Most of our activities must ultimately satisfy the inner beast, so the outer intelligence spends most of its time rationalizing animal actions over which it has little practical control. Belief systems like religion and politics are some of the many manifestations of that rationalization.

Hence the extreme difficulty of any efforts that aim to improve the lot of our civilizations through the imposition of thoughtful reason and scientific method upon our naturally unruly instincts.
Not that it isn't worth the effort, but the primal creatures within us are strong. The odds are in their favor."


There is a note of pessimism here and an acceptance of the ambivalent stance of our culture toward that beast within. The satisfactions of the beast are not mostly bad.

I believe there is a gulf between those who believe the accounts of others and those who have experienced the luminous for themselves because we are so constituted that we must experience important things for ourselves, and because as whole beings we are changed by such experiences, being gently uplifted so that our angelic aspect perfuses us, turning our blood into wine, so to speak without ever needing to disown or overcome the beast. A terrestrial angel is an embodied angel.

Religion and politics often serve to rationalize our desired actions, but that doesn't mean such rationalizations are what religion is about, rather they are its failure to take hold.

In my opinion, faith has taken on such monumental dogmatic importance to western religion because it is much easier than transmitting such experiences.

John Michael Greer said...

Compound F, it's precisely the claim that there's a third sphere distinct from the contents of the individual mind that sets theist religions apart from other ways of making sense of the world. Of course you can disagree with that thesis, but that's the issue in question.

Ares, that's one way to think about it, certainly.

Compound F, my own experiences of this kind aren't reducible to emotional states, and the literature of religious experience suggests that such a reductionist analysis doesn't fit the data.

Phil K., of course I read it -- I don't know of anybody in the Druid scene who didn't at least glance that way. It's a remarkable jumble, well worth reading but needs to be taken with not merely a grain, but a couple of five pound sacks, of salt.

Keith, nah, the one in three figure was for the narrowest definition -- the experience of apparent contact with a disembodied intelligent being. A lot of people who have such experiences don't talk about them, even to friends -- the assumption that only crazy people see such things is very widespread, you know. David Hufford's intriguing book The Terror That Comes In The Night is worth consulting in this regard.

Phil H., given that Neanderthals buried their dead with all the evidence of ceremonial and set up apparent shrines to cave bears, I suspect that religion goes back at least as far as Homo sapiens, if not further.

Albatross, the concept I'm trying to address here is defined in different ways by different religious traditions, yours among them. The point I want to make is that the concept of a realm, mode, or kind of human experience that becomes apparent in religious experiences is the common ground among theist religions.

Ice Torch, a lot of theist religions have killed people at various points in their history; so have a lot of atheist civil religions (Marxism and nationalism come to mind, in particular). Whether or not the ancient Druids did so is an open question, since the vast majority what we've got in terms of evidence is Roman propaganda of the "Oh, those barbarous Celts!" variety. In any case, the modern Druid movement has no lineal connection to the ancient Druids at all, so it's pretty much irrelevant.

DaShui, the problem with that formulation is that people end up thinking that sitting on the sofa watching the tube is a mystical experience, and lose track of the possibility that the word might represent something more interesting.

Divelly, that's a classic. Have you read Synchronicity, the book Carl Jung wrote with his quantum physicist friend Wolfgang Pauli? That's the sort of thing that it's about.

Kyoto, one of the reasons for religious organizations is that it provides a space in which religious experience isn't a source of isolation, and within which it can become a source of collective meaning and motivation.

Mark Luterra said...

From the comments there are a lot of rationalists reading this blog...

I do not believe it is possible for modern science to disprove the existence of what JMG calls the "theosphere." Certainly it can offer all manner of hypotheses to explain religious experiences in materialist terms (false memories, hallucinations, brain chemistry, etc.), but it can never perform double-blind experiments on the sort of unpredictable, profound happenings that are most believable. Would JMG's father have experienced a visit from his mother if she hadn't died that night? Science can't answer that question. Which is to say that after a fair amount of thought I am prepared to accept both modern science and the likely existence of a theosphere.

As for the Second Religiosity, I think it could very well turn out to be something new, though it could take the form of old religions adopting new sensibilities. The major civil and theist religions of today have, in my view, one major fault which will prevent them from regaining popularity. That fault is that what is sacred is entirely long ago (Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Moses) or in the uncertain future (e.g. heaven, utopia, interstellar travel). It may be that such ideas will attract more followers if life in the present becomes less pleasant in coming years, but I expect to see (and to be part of) an emerging religiosity that focuses on a re-enchantment of life in the present.

Eckhart Tolle may well be its foremost prophet at the moment, though the movement does not yet have a name. Though I have not yet read "The Power of Now" or his other works, I know many who have been profoundly influenced. I would be interested to hear JMG's perspective on Tolle. I rather hope it does not include the phrase "meretricious twaddle"...

John Michael Greer said...

Andy, I don't think Neopaganism as it presently exists has the potential to do much, as it's currently showing all the normal symptoms of an American alternative pop spirituality that's circling the drain -- roughly the same things you would have seen in the Theosophical scene in the 1930s. (I'll be talking in a later post about the 30-40 year rhythm in American popular spirituality, of which this is one recent example.) You're right, of course, that alternative spiritualities in America draw as heavily from the rationalist end of culture as they do from the theist end; it's possible that some rising presence along the same lines will provide a framework for the new sensibility I've discussed, though it's at least as possible that the framework will come from other sources. I'll discuss this as we proceed.

George, I'm not familiar with him at all. Thanks for the tip -- I'll see if the local libraries can get me a copy of his book.

Marc, until we can figure out whether animals have culture, it's a bit premature to talk about whether they have religions! As for the Hedges-Harris debate, that's a classic example of the ongoing conflict between what I call "soft rationalist" and "hard rationalist" viewpoints -- the former redefining religion in some way that doesn't conflict with the prevailing rationalist worldview, the other dismissing it altogether. Thus my reference to the utterly unacceptable -- the awkward fact that many people do actually experience what appears to be contact with gods, spirits, etc.; that's the thing that neither side can deal with, though I'd argue that it's what religion is actually about.

Unknown Jonathan, that's a great story. Many thanks!

Ando, that is to say, you're going to go make a sacrificial offering to the Earth Mother. Sounds like a good plan!

Das Monde, if you find this blog tiresome, nobody's forcing you to read it. As for parasitism, if you can only hear that as an insult, you're probably not going to get any of the other points I'm making here, either.

Robo, that's one interpretation of what's going on, and an interesting one. Do you consider it to be the unvarnished truth?

Unknown Jay, your minor quibble is of course quite correct, but iirc even those religions that assign bodies to gods claim that those bodies aren't made of matter of the ordinary kind. As for the minor quibble, it's actually fairly common for the Second Religiosity to involve religious movements and institutions that weren't part of the original religious structure of a society -- think of the role that Eastern religions played in the revival of religion in the Roman Empire, or for that matter the transformation of Taoism into a religious movement in Han times, supplanting nearly every trace of the older religious traditions of China.

Swathorne, not really. I should probably read more of his work one of these days.

Blackbird, small religious movements are fairly easy to start and maintain, for a while. It's the attempt to reshape the beliefs of a whole culture via religious means that's the challenge; that's what the people I mentioned were trying to do, and I don't think it ever occurred to them to start small and work up from there.

fromorctohuman said...

Your categorizations are so… helpful. Or, at least the way you lay them out is: simple, yet so revealing (up until today, my favorite was primary/secondary/tertiary economy).

Here’s another categorization: good and evil.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and define these (not comprehensively but in one respect).

Good: the respect/integration/”loving” relationship of one will to another.

Evil: the opposite: the demeaning/disassociation/”using” relationship of one will to another.

Here’s my question. Do good and evil (as I’ve defined them) exist in the theosphere? Among these disembodies intelligences.

(If you reject my definition of good and evil, then you can disregard the question but please do let me know why - in summary of course, as I know this whole topic is much much bigger than a breadbox.)

Peace,

Keith said...

Wow - now I'm really surprised. I understand about the fear of being thought crazy. Also it may also be a very personal experience.

But it is now a big number - maybe I need to get out more.

Best

Andy Brown said...

I hear what you're saying about neopaganism. Personally, I find it certain non-consumerist strains of it attractive. But on the other hand I've never felt at all in step with the religious currents around me, so the idea that regular Americans would suddenly choose something so out of character, just because it seems sensible to me, is farfetched.

As we run our unsustainable society onto the rocks I could hope we'd be inspired to a religious sensibility that made us wiser, but I suspect we'll gravitate toward something that rationalizes and excuses our failures.

Chris G said...

What counts as part of the theosphere? Today, while I was waiting to start a new job as a home health aide for a 97 year old ex-nuclear physicist, I was having lunch, right by my old high school, near where he lives, in my old neighborhood. I watched the youngsters can and go, without a care in the world: privileged, thinking, yes, Subway is part of my life: the normal high school anxieties, but nothing more - nothing like, I may never have this nice car - much less a high school to go to! I suppose, rationally speaking, considering my skills, wiping an old guy's butt is a little below my skill set, but maybe not. After I left my law firm job, because it's all just a scam, and lost my condo in the mortgage explosion, moved in with my disabled parents (yep, living in their basement, helping out, but mostly just trying to get by)... maybe I'm where I'm supposed to be.

Anyway, at the Subway sandwich place, onto the radio comes Bohemian Rhapsody. It's from a time after I was in high school, college, or my recent bohemian years, but it is rather epic, poignant. related, except for the shooting part.

I thought of Jung's ideas about synchronicity, and I suppose this is about as close as I generally come to hearing voices or seeing spirits. But I have those experiences a lot, with nothing like drugs or austerities. Something like the personally meaningful coincidence can be found just about any time, for one who wishes to see it. I could analyze it, but it isn't rational - I don't really know how meaningfully connected Bohemian Rhapsody is to being near the old neighborhood, high school, in a time when I'm lowered. Kinda felt that way tho, even if it's all in my head.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

Thank you. Their viewpoint is inconsistent with people’s actions and history itself. You only sit on your hands when the odds are overwhelmingly against you, but there is always later (hopefully so anyway).

I read the latest piece from George Monbiot:

Climate Breakdown

I quite enjoy his writing as I use it as a weathervane of opinion and it is usually quite telling.

The essay raises some of the objections to the release of the recent IPCC report.

What seems obvious to me is how revolting and not based in reality those objections are. A lot of the objections sound like they are straight from the mouths of economists (our seers! hehe!).

What is even stranger to me, is that the objections show a warped view of the world and they are remarkably easy to shoot down (in their own language too). Unfortunately, the dirty little secret that this lack of effective response to those objections shows is that we want our cake and we want to eat it too. It is just a really big ask to do so.

haha! Thanks for the image of the wombat to Joel. Nice one.

I even liked the bit about the slightly inebriated Australians too. The original explorers weren't believed when they made it back to Europe either, despite the over whelming evidence (which they took back) and their credentials.

On the mention of home brew, I've noticed that people (not at this blog though) seem to think that if you are in to home brew then you must drink a lot of alcohol. What is absurd about this is that it would be quite difficult to achieve this as people generally don't understand how complicated and long the supply lines are for any products at all these days. They just assume a surplus, which is a dangerous assumption!

Ahh, the shadow of the temperance league is long and has muddied our culture.

Mind you, I'm now turning my surplus lemons into lemon cider (1 week now and it is good stuff).

Regards

Chris

John Michael Greer said...

Unknown Deborah, if the Charter had said "We believe this to be the core of religion, spirituality and ethics, etc., etc., and we invite you to join with us,' I'd have had no criticisms to offer at all -- though I still wouldn't have signed it. It's the attempt to silence the diverse voices of religion and ethics that sticks in my craw.

Ganv, it's actually quite common for the religions of mature societies to see the theosphere as primarily interacting with the human mind, heart, and soul. (For that matter, consider Jesus' comment "The Kingdom of God is within you.") Thus I don't see a problem here; very few people join a religion because they want to have something happen in the material world, and those who do are not exactly regarded with respect by most faiths.

Mr. Homegrown, jawdropping is right. I think we've just found a good working ostensive definition of hubris...

Wildwood, I'll have to tell the Green Men about that! I've been initiated into the BOG. More generally, thank you for sharing your experiences.

Moshe, a lot depends on your assessment of the other person, of course -- and on your assessment of the nature of religious experience.

Kuanyin, I don't see any conflict between the experience of disembodied beings and the kind of religious sensibility I've been discussing; the ancient Greeks, whose sense of the divine as immanent in nature was very strong, had no difficulty experiencing spiritual beings as present in nature -- gods, goddesses, nymphs, dryads, etc.

As for the broader question, though, it's one thing to have an intellectual conviction that you have a connection with nature, and quite another to experience yourself and feel yourself as not separate from nature, a temporary eddy in the flows of matter, energy and information that make up the whole system of Gaia. I'm sure the crew who tried to invent a green religion in the 70s had the first; I'm far from sure they achieved the second, and certain that if they did, they never caught onto the role of religious practice in communicating it to others.

Moshe, the reason people don't "get" exponential functions, as I see it, has less to do with an inability to grasp the math and much more to do with the religious conviction -- a central theme of the religion of progress -- that growth is always benign. If a religious movement can communicate to people the value and power and sacredness of limits, and that movement spreads, I suspect you'll see the implications of exponential functions becoming a lot more easy for a lot of people to understand!

Hal, casting a circle and calling the quarters is a standard bit borrowed from pop neopaganism, which was really hitting its stride in the 1980s. For reasons I mentioned to Andy, I don't see that as something that has legs, but we'll see; the history of religions has many surprises!

G Downs, fascinating! There was an electric organ in the basement of the house here in Cumberland when we moved in, and I've spent some scraps of spare time learning to play it -- it helps that the music store up the road had a huge assortment of music and method books from the 1970s for next to nothing. I admit I'd prefer something that didn't use electricity -- a melodeon or harmonium would be cool -- but you salvage what you find!

John Michael Greer said...

Thomas, that's a fascinating comparison. I'd compare the "Id monster" from Forbidden Planet to the phenomenon of the internet troll -- once people can be utterly vile to others and get away with it behind a cloak of anonymity, a certain number of them find it an addictive high.

Wildwood, thanks for the link!

Quin, you're welcome.

Unknown Jay, thanks for the clarification. Still, history doesn't necessarily support your thesis here.

Derv, American Islam's probably going to get its thirty to forty years one of these days. Communism, ditto -- I've said already that I expect to see a substantial revival of Marxism in the next few years, kickstarted by the GOP's bizarre insistence that any use of political institutions to help anybody but the rich is Communism. Catholicism? Only if the Catholic church can solve the pervasive problems in its clergy and hierarchy.

I hear from a lot of people who've left their birth religion for one reason or another, and it's fascinated me for years now that while people from other religious backgrounds have a diverse assortment of reasons for leaving, every Catholic I know who's left the church has done so because of some abuse of power or authority on the part of a priest, monsignor, monk or nun. The stories I've heard range from the funny to the horrifying, and not that many of them have to do with sexual abuse. If your church can fix those problems, it might survive, and even take a substantial role in the future religious landscape. Otherwise, it's facing a death spiral.

Sufiya, I think it's a little more complex than Idries Shah did. The relatively simple religious experiences of ordinary believers are not as valueless as some mystics seem to think -- quite the contrary, in fact -- and there's a real risk, discussed in many mystical traditions (the Hermetic Cabala among them), of the mystical no-ego ego trip, in which having a given experience becomes a claim of superior status to others -- which is far from helpful.

Moshe, it happens to people who were raised as atheists, interestingly enough, and is more common among people with college educations than it is among the illiterate. You tell me.

Artorias, thank you.

Lucretia, you're welcome. I also find it very easy to talk with relatively conservative, traditional Christians and Jews - - easier, in point of fact, than with dogmatic atheists. As for the potential for an explosion, yes, that's something I also sense, and will be discussing as we proceed.

Steve, A World Full of Gods is still in print, last I heard -- if you can't get a copy, let me know and I'll harrass the publisher. As for societies, it's exactly in the transformation from the Age of Reason to the Second Religiosity that they tend to change most significantly, as the last of the old sensibility trickles out and a new one comes in. More on this as we proceed.

Robo said...

JMG,

As a recovering technologist who is mostly unschooled in philosophy and religion, I am humbled by the breadth and depth of the discourse here. Any theories I've developed to explain the world around and within me are strictly provisional.

@ onething: Beasts are not necessarily "beastly". We have much to learn about living from non-humans.

Moshe Braner said...

"[religious experience] happens to people who were raised as atheists, interestingly enough, and is more common among people with college educations than it is among the illiterate..."

- I didn't say anything about education. And it's not just how one is raised by one's parents - the whole culture is saturated with religious concepts, thus all people absorb it to some extent. My question is really: lacking any prior religious images and concepts, what kind of religious experience would a "babe in the woods" have?

Carl said...

So you propose a new trinity. In the name of the Bio, No and T. Maybe I will face the setting Sun and chant this evening Bio-No-T a hundred times. A bit of drumming. Drape a few lynx pelts from my shoulders. Paint some marks on my face with crimson paint. While writing this I get this sort of expected feeling that this is something I want to do, my possible motivation at sarcasm fading from a more primal motivation within.

I too have had simple experiences I could attribute to T. Nothing major just sort of vivid experiences with flashing of enlightenment. One I tell to my family from time to time and everyone remembers relates to an intentional feeling of minor harm to another (car) and it happened instantly (blown tire). Then a moment later, lets say Karma reality that the Universe will have to have a payback in kind (my car had a flat tire within 2 hours.) Why do these things always happen to a 17 year old?

I would think the No. sphere within humans is not unlike mushrooms to the collective rhizome of T. Write on dear fellow T=? The eternal quest. No matter how long this discussion continues I do believe we are utterly interconnected their is no escaping it. O how wonderful is our Western brain at endlessly parsing words and meanings. Well better go find those Lynx Pelts.

Carl

onething said...

Wildwood Chapel,

Your post is a real life example of what I just tried to say.

Tyler August said...

The one thing that surprises me most in these comments isn't that it seems more than 1/3 of us has had a religious experience-- it's the folks who aren't sure. Maybe my pretty pony princess goddesses are just unsubtle, but the first time I was really able to tune into that frequency was something between grabbing a live wire and getting a shot of morphine-- not something I could be uncertain about! I didn't even think it could be otherwise. Diversity is a wonderful thing.

The one way I've been able to get my rationalist/atheist friends to stop ragging on me for my religion, if not accept my experience, is to tell them it's a hack. I cannot hack my brain on the command line, but I can alter the settings with this nice pagan "graphical inter-phase". Then I just have to deal with the patronizing response along the lines of "Well, at least it's not a real god like the Christians'"
The response I want to give is "at least as real as you, buddy"-- but I lack the courage of my convictions, and see nothing to gain by it.

Justin Wade said...

My understanding of how reality works is that the following three conditions govern events.
1. Phenomena recurs
2. What has come before matters for what is happening now.
3. Nothing is ever certain.

Reality repeats itself in rhymes with random variations, that make the next cycle a little different in specific but generally predictable.

Reality is cyclical, noisy, and repetitive. It follows from this belief and observation that a rational system of thought that modeled reality should be circular, tautological and a little nonsensical.

The civil religions do have deities, the institutions of civil religion are entrusted to divine the will and consciousness of humanity at large. We call these entities nations, markets, etc. And it is in these terms that civil religions tell their stories, markets are bullish or bearish, nations are angry, etc.

onething said...

It's not only about disembodied beings or childhood brainwashing, there is mind to mind communication, which indicates that the mind is not confined to the skull. It indicates that thoughts have substance, however ethereal, and a medium of travel.
On my daughter's due date, in a quiet moment, I suddenly heard a voice so sharply that I looked up (I was quite alone) and it said, I'm a girl!"

When she was a teenager and felt distressed, she thought and thought of an old friend in California and wished him to call her. A couple of days later he did. He said, "I was in the shower a couple days ago, and I kept hearing a voice saying 'call me'...and it sounded like your voice."

That same year, I was in a store with her and her sister, and her sister asked me for the keys to fetch something from the car and she left. The other daughter was off somewhere. Then, other daughter and I went to check out the groceries which you had to bag yourself. No one spoke. Suddenly, my daughter who took the keys burst into the store and said angrily to the first one, "I am not trying to get out of helping Mom, I just had to go to the car!!"
And the daughter who had been packing groceries next to me said, "W-e-ell, I was just thinking, that once again, you leave me to do the work." And then both of their jaws dropped open as they realized what had just happened.

Her brother had dreadlocks for years, and only came home to visit occasionally, and he had cut his hair. One of them had come in late and they had not seen each other. My daughter slept on the couch in the living room, and her brother put on a hat and came downstairs. She opened her eyes as he stepped up to her couch and she said, "Oh, I just dreamed you cut your hair." And he removed the hat and turned around.

One time she was registering at a junior college, and sitting in the lobby she suddenly thought of a girl she had known in junior high, not especially well, and guess who just then came walking down the stairs?

There's more but perhaps it's enough.

Nick Vail said...

Hi JMG,
Fascinating post.
I appreciate your points, and want to bring up a few specifically regarding your comment about "the straightforward transformation of a rationalist movement into a religion," and your example of the replacement of "Hinduism’s crores of gods with an equally numerous collection of bodhisattvas, to whom offerings, mantras, prayers, and so on were thereafter directed."
First and foremost, a distinction must be made between the popular, superficial practices of a large group of people versus the actual explicit and/or implicit intention of the teachings themselves.
Despite the fact that a large number of uninformed people may have appeared to have been practicing in a dualistic manner on an outer level does not alter the fact that "Buddhism" is inherently a non-theistic tradition.
Although widespread practices may be taking place that appear to be similar to another religion, that does not condemn (or change) the original meaning and intention of the teachings themselves. It may be an expression of individuals' misunderstandings, either on the part of the practitioner or just as likely on that of the observer.
Secondly, for any tradition that lasts millennia, then of course there are going to be numerous exemplars of people who have had mystical experiences and so forth, who serve as inspiration for others; perhaps even crores of them.
Thirdly, I'm sure you have considered that it may possibly be a skillful means in terms of adaptation and subversion that various outer forms may be adopted from one tradition by another over time, while having differing hidden or esoteric meanings on an inner level in the new context.
What I mean is, that while on the superficial level it may seem reminiscent of external deity worship, that regarding the bodhisattvas with reverence and respect may be an expression of inspiration and devotion to one's own inherent potential for waking up that the actions of these people represent. It could also be a sign of interdependence and emptiness itself, the opposite of worshipping external deities in the hopes of salvation from outside.
Basically, what I am proposing is that one can never know another's intentions, let alone thousands or millions of others (let alone based on hearsay, from a different country in a different language, etc.). It really comes down to a personal level.
A Tibetan Buddhist master recently wrote in the current issue of Shambhala Sun Magazine, "I can argue that Buddhism is a science of mind - a way of exploring how we think, feel, and act that leads us to profound truths about who we are. I can also say that Buddhism is a philosophy of life - a way to live that maximizes our chances for happiness...The Buddha wasn't a god; he wasn't even Buddhist....Religion often provides us with answers to life's big questions from the start. We learn what to think and believe, and our job is to live up to that, not to question it. If we relate to the Buddha's teachings as final answers that don't need to be examined, then we're practicing Buddhism as a religion...The one who became the Buddha, the Awakened One, didn't find enlightenment through religion - he found it when he began to leave religion behind."
I appreciate your analyses, and the opportunity to discuss them together here. All best wishes.

Roger Matthew said...

I have the same problem as Steve. The book, though I'm sure worth every penny, is out of my price range ($4000+ on Amazon). Is there any alternative way to get a hold of a copy?

John Michael Greer said...

Mark, to my mind the best response of science to religious questions is the same as the best response of religion to scientific questions: "That's not my department, sorry." Neither one offers a meaningful set of tools for making sense of the other -- and there are other such separate spheres of existence: the political, for example, and the artistic/esthetic. I really do need to do a post about the concept of separate spheres and its relationship to freedom. As for Tolle, everything I know about him (which admittedly isn't much) suggests that he's teaching a fairly standard form of mystical spirituality, and that's neither meretricious nor twaddle.

Orc, good. Yes, the apparent entities who inhabit what I've called the theosphere do seem to differ along that axis as well; that's what the surveys show, and it's also what every body of traditional lore I know of states.

Keith, the David Hufford book I mentioned earlier might be worth reading along those lines.

Andy, no doubt the majority will pursue some vision of things that justifies their failures, at least for a time. It's in times of decline and disintegration, though, that you most often get people willing to chuck the excuses and do something more relevant, and the Second Religiosity can provide a framework for such projects.

Chris, that certainly counts as synchronicity, which is another very large can of worms!

Cherokee, there's a word that's used in the old Icelandic sagas for someone who was rushing on his fate -- it works out to "doom-eager." A lot of the people who are trying to shout down the IPCC would qualify, I think.

Robo, understood. So am I!

Moshe, nobody will ever know, because no such blank-slate upbringing seems to be an option -- children who grow up in a nonsocial setting rarely survive and never seem to become fully human.

Carl, definitely break out those lynx skins -- or whatever other aids to personal spiritual practice you prefer. It's about the most useful thing you could do just now.

Tyler, there's a spectrum of such experiences, ranging from the very subtle to the flat-on-your-back level of intensity. It interests me that you've had intense experiences with your pony goddesses -- seers and wizards used to track shifts in the theosphere and the collective noosphere by watching which images and names and symbols got the most dramatic responses at any given time.

Justin, excellent! You get tonight's gold star for your description of a model of reality that actually imitates reality. One reason I put such faith in the human capacity for thought is that so much human thought is circular, tautological, and a bit absurd.

Onething, some people are gifted that way -- it tends to run in families, so it's not surprising that your daughters have had similar experiences.

Nick, it's always interesting to discuss whether a religion is best defined by (a) the original intention of its founder, (b) the current interpretation accepted by its experts and professionals, or (c) what the vast majority of worshippers actually believe and do. My comments, of course, referred to (c).

Roger, I've got an email in to the publisher to find out what's up. That book should be in print, and if it isn't, they have a fixed time to get it back in print or have me take it to a new publisher. I'll keep everyone posted as details come in.

Compound F said...

I believe I hit a “character count” issue in your comments section, so I’ll try this in two parts:

First:

“…it's precisely the claim that there's a third sphere distinct from the contents of the individual mind that sets theist religions apart from other ways of making sense of the world. Of course you can disagree with that thesis, but that's the issue in question. “

Good. That clarifies that ambiguity for me…somewhat. One could still theorize that a common ancestral heritage, e.g., producing archetypes of the collective human mind, outweighs the individual, from a positivist perspective, but you are arguing beyond positivism, on the basis of sheer belief systems.

Unfortunately, I can’t even disagree with that thesis at a couple of levels. First, at a positivist level, which I am willing to suspend; and second, and more importantly, I simply do not have much of an inkling, much less decent grasp of the “theosphere.” I imagine that if anyone could explain it to me, even in elliptical terms, it would be you.

Compound F said...

My main problem with what may be essentially arbitrary belief systems (including those whoppers of the industrial age you so rightly point to!), is that they seem to offer no “satisfactory” way to conclude disagreements. They seem to have no common benchmarks of agreement. In this light, positivism seems utterly appealing, when at least everyone can agree on what is a cubic yard, at least via operational definitions. Operational definitions seem a far cry above the idiosyncrasies of individual experience.

Let me give you two examples.

First:

Circa WWII, Dallenbach and colleagues (Supa, Cotzin, & Dallenbach, 1944) set out to discover how the blind maneuver around unknown objects, using both blind and normally sighted people who were blindfolded in a hallway having chalkboards set as obstacles. Under these conditions, the blind performed well, and the normally sighted people quickly adapted to an ability to ascertain their distance from the chalkboard. Both the blind and sighted frequently reported receiving “facial images” of the chalkboard, such as “shadows on their cheeks and forehead.” When they were subsequently hooded, they also did well, provided their ears were exposed. When their faces were bare, with ears stopped, they failed. Further experiments using carpets, or relaying acoustical sounds into headphones surely demonstrated that all of them were not receiving “facial images,” but were in fact echo-locating.

Second:

Some time ago, a savvy popular columnist (Marilyn Vos Savant) suggested that the Monty Hall Game (I.e., the popular 70’s gameshow, Let’s Make a Deal) had a systematically superior strategy. Monty gives you three curtains to choose from, behind all of which are two donkeys and a Cadillac (“A Brand New Car!!!!”, sez the announcer, should someone win.) You (the contestant) choose Curtain 1. Monty shows you the donkey behind Curtain 2. Then Monty asks if you’d like to switch from your original choice of Curtain 1 to Curtain 3. The questions is, Does it make sense to switch?

I’ve played this game with countless people. They all say, it makes no sense to switch. Savant (paraphrased) said, “you always switch! Because by switching your odds go from one-in-three to one-half.” At the time, leagues of statisticians jumped on Savant and berated her cruelly for her obvious female incompetence in basic mathematics. I got it wrong, and everyone I played the game with has gotten it wrong. Everyone thinks their odds go up after they see the donkey Monty showed them, but the trick, of course, is that Monty never shows them the Caddy. He always shows one of two donkeys. Thus he adds info to the equation, and your original guess, which stood (and still stands) at one-in-three, must be changed, if you are to arise to a one-in-two chance.

You can easily play this game on paper. 10 trials will suffice to produce the approximate odds you’d expect. One person randomly selects the winner. The other makes the first curtain selection. In one column, they stick with their original selection. In the other, they always switch after you show them the donkey. Easy Peasy, lemon squeezy.

Not only do regular folk routinely fail, the vaunted statisticians failed spectacularly, nearly uniformly, and quite viciously, one might add.

In conclusion, humans have regular psychic blindspots, so much so that “everybody is wrong,” revealed by experimentation. So, these are my current reactions abandoning positivism, in favor of arbitrary belief systems.

Phil Harris said...

JMG
You wrote
"Phil H., given that Neanderthals buried their dead with all the evidence of ceremonial and set up apparent shrines to cave bears, I suspect that religion goes back at least as far as Homo sapiens, if not further."

I had not heard of the shrine(s?) to bears, but felt when I read of it our fellow hominid custom of burying the dead with flowers both touching and significant.

The week before last I went to two (religious) funerals. Tears and gifts seemed perfectly normal. The dead seemed very close.

best
Phil H

KL Cooke said...

From Beau Geste by P.C. Wren

"Georges, mon viewx." he broke, the the silence,"do you believe in spirits,ghosts, devils?"

"I firmly believe in whiskey,the ghost of a salary, and a devil of a thin time. Seen 'em myself," was the reply.

KL Cooke said...

Compound F

My larger point is that I'm not clear on what a "religious experience" entails, 'tho' I presume strong emotions, better stated as "feelings," which are not necessarily visible to others. The strongest feelings, perhaps, that occur in an episodic fashion, followed by a post hoc narrative from the creative, non-passive mind.

It's probably hard to say exactly what a religious entails, but according to William James, the test of authenticity is that the one experience such is permanently changed.

wall0159 said...

Hi Wildwood,

Thanks very much for sharing your story -- your post shows me that there's a lot I don't understand about people.

Hi John Michael and others,
What is still not clear to me, even given religious experience (which I think I have had, or at least mystical experience) -- why do we need something more? Surely the simple worship of nature for its evident and confirmed majesty is enough? Why do we need to hypothesise something undetectable (ie. god)?
John Michael, I've just read your "secret mysteries" book (thanks to the person who mentioned it a week or two ago) -- it's fantastic, touching, and I hope to do more research here. What is still not clear to me, though, is why religious experience implies a god.

On a separate topic, while I thought your comment about wombats humerous, I don't agree with it. I know lots of kids who have an invisible friend (in fact, I had one as a child), but I don't believe they all _actually_ have one.

Robert said...

The New Atheists have produced a DVD The Four Horseman starring Sam Harris Christopher Hitchens Richard Dawkins and Dan Dennett in which they recognise that mystical experiences do happen but refuse to believe there's anything supernatural behind them. Hitchens makes a distinction between the numinous and the supernatural. He also expresses the view that rationalist atheists are winning intellectually but losing politically. I think they're aware that religion isn't going to go away.

RPC said...

"Only if the Catholic church can solve the pervasive problems in its clergy and hierarchy." This brings to mind a quote from Michael Nowak of all people: "..the medieval pilgrim whose faith was unperturbed by the pervasive corruption of Rome. Any religion that could survive such guardians as these, he reasoned, must come straight from God."

Nano said...

Tyler,
You know Crowley had Aiwass, Dee and Co. had their legion of spirits and Angels. Hell even Phillip K. Dick had Valis.

As the late Dr.John Lilly put it
"In the province of the mind, what one believes to be true is true or becomes true, within certain limits to be found experientially and experimentally. These limits are further beliefs to be transcended. In the mind, there are no limits... In the province of connected minds, what the network believes to be true, either is true or becomes true within certain limits to be found experientially and experimentally. These limits are further beliefs to be transcended. In the network's mind there are no limits."

He had a whole range of experiences that were "out there."

A bit food for thought, all these experiences are captured, filtered and mediated by your CNS and your brain. So yeah, it's all in "your head" we just don't realize how big our head is, to paraphrase Rabbi Lamed Ben Clifford.

Kaos Keraunos Kybernetos!


Avery said...

JMG,

This is one of those posts where the reactions are just as interesting as the post itself. People seem to have really enjoyed the acknowledgment that supernatural experiences do happen. Yet most of the print media in circulation around 1850, and all of human history before that, took this for granted.

Like you, I find it much easier to talk to conservative Christians, Hindus, and Jews than to the average eco-warrior (I stayed up late last night doing so). What I think they recognize, which many people don't today, is that there is a lot of cultural traditions and tools for living that were around in 1850 which we have forgotten today, or even been told to relinquish in the name of unstoppable progress. What occupies me now is wondering how these tools might be dug up and resurrected without being accused of anachronism.

redoak said...

Here’s a subtle and mostly irrelevant point, but with any luck one which will amuse our Druid. Political rationalism is probably the intellectual foundation of most civil religions, though it would take a better historian than me to make the case. But political rationalism is itself always epigonic to the unavoidable and always too inspiring rationalism inherent in the appearance of philosophy. The point is mostly irrelevant because it matters to such a vanishingly small group of thinkers, though likely disproportionately present on this blog! Political rationalism fails because it believes in a ridiculous (if not monstrous) abstraction: that man is, too quote the most famous leader of this tribe, zoon logikon. There is a tyranny and sophistry in this abstraction which cannot be supported by the originating texts or concepts. That said, tyranny and sophistry are very popular political motivators, and especially handy if you can’t happen to appeal to religion.

As for religious experience, watching the chickadees navigate through the pines is enough miracle for me, I’m not sure I could handle much more!

Nick Vail said...

Thanks for your response.
Regarding your "(c) what the vast majority of worshippers actually believe and do." :
This seems in some contrast with part of what I was saying, "Basically, what I am proposing is that one can never know another's intentions, let alone thousands or millions of others (let alone based on hearsay, from a different country in a different language, etc.). It really comes down to a personal level."
We can and definitely do interpret others' behavior, mostly through the filters of our own belief systems and cultural conditioning.
However, I'd like to point out that dependence on vast generalizations and stereotypes seems to be a central theme of institutionalized religions in general, and their fundamentalist extremes in particular, in an effort to try and black-and-white-ize the world and try to force it into one's own framework of thought (much like your valid refutation of the CAN's blatant manipulation of "morality" and "compassion.")
While of course we humans naturally tend to do this, and it is helpful to a certain extent, I do wonder if it is counterproductive to have such a dependence in the emerging mode of thinking you are discussing in terms of a renewal of religion/Second Religiosity.
In my opinion, even if a majority of practitioners seem to be engaging in activities that are contrary to the original intentions and teachings of a tradition, regardless of what they call it, what they are practicing ceases to be that tradition and is something else altogether.
Simply labeling as such does not make it so, as you have pointed out.
Again, I would propose that it comes down to a very personal, individual level. We can never know another's beliefs directly, and they will most likely change over time as well.
I think it's more productive to be focused on our own journey, and those with whom we directly interact (while keeping a positive aspiration for everyone else).


trippticket said...

JMG:
(from your first response) "A sense of connection with the whole system of Nature can fill a similar role, even though it doesn't feature a disembodied intelligent being. The critical point is that there's an experience involved, not simply a set of abstract assumptions."

My experience fits this mode. It was an instant revelation of humanity's little cog in the machinery of nature, not driver nor architect, nor interloper, but lowly cog in the larger machinery, that generated a serious A-ha moment in my approach to life. Prior to that I was what I would call an anti-religionist. I've still never had contact with a disembodied intelligent being, but I now believe that that's possible, and THAT is an enormous mental shift from where I was prior to this experience. I don't dismiss people out-of-hand anymore as religious loons when they claim to have had such experiences, whether or not I can relate personally.

Steve Morgan said...

@Roger Matthew:

"I have the same problem as Steve. The book, though I'm sure worth every penny, is out of my price range ($4000+ on Amazon). Is there any alternative way to get a hold of a copy?"

Please re-read my comment. My local bookstore ordered a copy from the publisher for me. It cost something like $20. This happened in March or April of this year, and the same option is likely available to you still, even though the book was published 8 years ago. It's well worth reading, so call or visit your local (hopefully independent) bookstore and ask. Happy reading!

thecrowandsheep said...

@Greer

I remember an anecdote John Gray once gave and I remember not quite understanding it: Apparently, in some parts of the world, if you say you don't believe in God, they then ask, "which one?"

Perhaps it is this: Your opinion/understanding of the Theosphere, including whether you believe it exists or not, governs how you conduct business in this sphere at this point in time? E.g., if I put a lot of stock in the theosphere as opposed to the market, I am probably not going to be spending every waking hour trying earn ever more cold hard cash?

Karel said...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P-HmpMHyB4Q

No other comment.

John Michael Greer said...

Compound F, like most positivist arguments, yours assumes what it tries to prove -- that the concept of a realm or mode of experience distinct to religious experiences can be dismissed as "sheer belief systems," rather than being a hypothesis worth considering in its own right. There are plenty of elusive phenomena in the cosmos, which can only be observed under special conditions not always easily replicated, and some of which can only be explained effectively in terms of distinctive frames of reference; a positivist argument of the sort you've framed could be used with equal effectiveness to dismiss, say, time dilation or radioactive decay.

It's been pointed out more than once that the reasoning used by today's "skeptics" would have labeled Marie Curie a quack; after all, every physicist in 1870 knew that there's no source of energy in matter that justified her findings, therefore she must have been faking it, right? It's reasonable to try to find operational definitions for as many human experiences as possible; it's even reasonable to say "if subject X can't be reduced to operational definitions, then it can't be investigated by science" -- but to insist that what can't be reduced to operational definitions must therefore not exist is an arbitrary assumption, akin to the claim that if your highway map ends at the Canadian border, Canada must not exist.

BTW, of course it's to your advantage to switch; you're playing against an intelligent opponent who plays after you, and so is responding to your move. I was interested to learn that you can work that out via probability, but it also seems to me that it can be worked out as a strategic problem, with the same result. (I wonder whether a game theory analysis might make things clearer for statisticians.)

Phil H., I'll see if I can find a reference to the cave bear shrine.

KL, thank you! That gets you a gold star for sheer retrospection.

Wall0159, people experience gods. I'm not sure that still leaves gods in the "undetectable" category. Mind you, if the sense of connection to nature is what guides you, by all means!

Robert, fascinating. Rationalists always "win intellectually" -- that is, they always prove the nonexistence or irrelevance of gods to their own satisfaction. That their arguments never quite manage to convince anybody else is another matter entirely.

Wildwood, well, there you go! I met Shane at one of the faerie festivals -- I was speaking on Tolkien's use of faery lore -- and got groved in short order.

RPC, funny. The problem, of course, is that these days it doesn't seem to be working anything like so well.

Avery, oh, bother the critics! Be anachronistic, and proud of it.

John Michael Greer said...

Redoak, nicely put. The chickadees are certainly worthy of meditation, too.

Nick, well, to begin with I do have some personal experience with Buddhism in practice, as my Japanese-American stepfamily are Shingon Buddhists. Beyond that, though, it's a question of goals and purposes. If it's useful to understand the way that historical cycles influence civil and theist religions, no, it's not useful just to focus on one's own journey; there are things to be learned by paying attention to a wider sphere.

Trippticket, I've met a fairly large number of people who've had that sort of experience -- enough that I've come to suspect that it may be one of the characteristic forms of the new religious sensibility I've been discussing. It's a point of some interest to ponder how that experience might mesh with more formally theist experiences.

Crow, good! Outside of a monotheist framework, "which one?" is always a valid question. Your further comment, though, is the crucial one. If a theosphere or something like one exists in some sense, and has a significant impact on human life, that redefines a great many other dimensions of human life in at least some ways.

Karel, indeed.

MawKernewek said...

@g downs - You probably do save energy that way - not least mental energy, versus being continually on social networks etc. and you have more control over what you spend time with the Internet.

Thomas Daulton said...

Off the topic of religion, but I figure this is the place to post examples of the budding Salvage Culture: "The Landfill Harmonic Orchestra" (Paraguay) -- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UJrSUHK9Luw#t=56 Maybe worth a chapter in Star's Reach?? ;)

team10tim said...

Hey hey JMG,

A question about invented religions and the theosphere. If memory serves you said in an earlier post that modern druidry was made up by some enlightenment radicals not that long ago. They even made up some gods and were later surprised to have theosphere experiences with said gods. But Gregory Bateson's eco-religion floundered.

Was the founding of druidry just an early taste of the new religious sensibility or was it a different flavour altogether?

It seems to me that if one knows that one is making a religion from whole cloth then the difference lies in why one is making it. To whit, if you build it to line up with your nascent religious sensibilities then the gods will come, but if you build it to attract ecologically sounds followers then no one comes.

Or at least that is my take, but I'm light on the details on both accounts so I'd like to hear anything you have to say on the matter.

Thanks,
Tim

Joel Caris said...

Hi JMG,

This is a bit of insider baseball on A World Full of Gods and whether or not it's in print, so feel free not to put through this comment if you think it's too off topic.

Anyway, I was glancing back at my copy and I noticed that on the very back page (not the back cover, but the final inside page) it says:

Made in the USA
San Bernardino, CA
28 January 2013

and next to that is a barcode unique from the ISBN barcode. What I found interesting is that January 28th is the day I ordered the book. I ordered it on Amazon. It was priced at the full $20 cover price.

I'm guessing this means that at the time, Amazon was printing the book on demand. I don't know the ins and outs of all that, but there you go. Perhaps that tidbit of information will be helpful in your attempt to find out the book's status, maybe not. Strange, though, if they were printing it on demand, that they aren't doing it now.

John Michael Greer said...

Thomas, Star's Reach is almost finished -- the next to last episode has just been posted -- and the characters in 25th-century Meriga know no more about what's going on in Paraguay than they do about the far side of the Moon; still, many thanks for the link!

Tim, I think it depends on whether people found a religion in order to provide form to their own lives and experiences, or because they want to get other people to do something. More on this as we proceed.

Compound F said...

“…to insist that what can't be reduced to operational definitions must therefore not exist is an arbitrary assumption, akin to the claim that if your highway map ends at the Canadian border, Canada must not exist. “

I don’t think that’s at all what I said. If it falls outside of the purview of operationalizing, or as my spell-checker keeps insisting, “operational zing,” you might as well say, “god did it.” I’m totally fine with that. I’m also totally fine with investigating and re-investigating and re-re-investigating the borders between and beyond operations. Placing value on method, especially for purposes of public agreement and scientific investigation, implies no disrespect or lack of appreciation for spheres of knowledge outside that method.

Compound F said...

“I think it depends on whether people found a religion in order to provide form to their own lives and experiences, or because they want to get other people to do something.”

I don’t know who said something to the effect, “Writing poetry without meter or rhyme is like playing tennis without a net,” but the analogy is appealing. There may be something is that doesn’t like a wall (there may even be something is that doesn’t hump a sump, in Kenneth Koch‘s take-off on Frost); but humans, and animals more generally, like being contained as part of their identity. D.O. Hebb’s experiments on sensory deprivation failed miserably (actually, succeeded wildly) because the participants basically began losing their minds without the containment of regular sensory input. Hence, today’s bruise-free torture techniques. Tennis is a container. Poetry is a container. Religion may also be such a container. I hope the apparent positivist inclinations of my comments did not offend. That wasn’t my intention, at all.

wiseman said...

JMG,
One of the immediate positive effects of this religiosity will be a reduction in the consumption of anti-depressants and pain medications.

I was talking to my friends who have lived in US for a long time and they were flabbergasted by the liberal use of medications like xanax. Doctors even prescribe medications to children for silly things like hyperactivity, well children are supposed to be hyperactive.

Here if you are depressed or have emotional pain you talk to your family, that's how we are brought up. I hope the institutions of family and community survive wherever they have been irreparably damaged before we move into the meatier part of the transition.

Gwyneth Olwyn said...

Having been swayed by Pascal Boyer's work (Religion Explained), I don't think that transcendent/religious experiences (meeting angels, etc. etc.) play a causative role in the existence of religion in human populations.

Even in the absence of all these kinds of exceptional religious experiences (define them as broadly as you might like), human beings develop religious frameworks to explain their daily, mundane, non-transcendent experiences to themselves and each other -- in particular death.

It's the best that our brains can do to make sense of some of the profound non sequiturs that we face running around with brains that recall a past and imagine a future, yet actually physically reside in neither of those spaces.

We are likely born with a moral module just as we are born with a language module. The term module is one that Noam Chomsky has used to explain our brain's tremendous (and measured) receptivity to language in the absence of being able to speak at birth.

Our brains are these amazing social organs that come into the world ready to accept social input as the only way in which we can develop and grow. And by not coming into the world speaking and moralizing, we are optimized to survive -- we will develop the language, the morals, and the religiosity most suited to the social primate group into which we must be accepted.

As for the Charter of Compassion, it will fade because the moral code of our society finds compassion in contravention with values held in higher regard: justice, independence, self-suficiency, self-reliance and of course the inevitability of progress.

Whether those morals have been adopted within religious traditions or civic religions or both, they are the morals our moral module learned to adopt early on to ensure our survival within the troop.

Stephen Heyer said...

It generally takes me a while to fully assimilate a complex, fairly dense, piece of writing, as John Michael Greer’s often are, but in the end I usually get there. This time he has produced a theory that should produce a thumping-self-on-head while exclaiming “how obvious, why didn’t I think of that?” moment among those who study history and human societies, or at least the few open to new ideas.

As far as I can recall only something like Natural Selection tops it, though I don’t know if John Greer quite realizes that yet.

As I understand it, his theory is that what gives rise to and maintains religion is the very large percentage of any population who have at least one religious/spiritual/psychic experience in their lives and that this experience often profoundly changes how they see life and behave thereafter.

You see, I have no trouble with this as I’ve seen this process up close and personal in the most unlikely people, the most unwilling “converts”. I know you are not supposed to use the anecdotal as scientific evidence because of the small sample size, but what about where the sample size is huge and anyway, if a theory is correct, the anecdotal has to support it.

For example, my father was depression era scientific, materialist socialist atheist by nature and my inclinations were pretty much the same (though less left) in Early Baby Boomer version.

The problem is that both of us kept having various spiritual/psychic experiences such as an NDE (dad), frequent Out Of Body Experiences (me) on top of everyday experiences of strong and repeatable ESP. To make it worse at first (in the 50s) there was wasn’t any readily available literature on this stuff out here at the edge of the world (North Queensland Australia).

Worse yet, nothing we experienced looked anything like what the local versions of the Christian Religion taught.

Eventually, our efforts to find materialist/rationalist explanations collapsed, a few reasonable books about this kind of thing reached us and we had to admit that “something” was going on.

These days quite a few of my friends have had some experiences of this kind, this despite them tending to be of a scientific/technical bent and career.

If John Greer’s figures are right and something like a third of of the people in all populations throughout history have this kind of experience then it must be a major shaper of human cultures.

Oh! And animals! Read some of Rupert Sheldrake’s excellent work on ESP in animals. Yes, they do it too.

Stephen Heyer

The surprising thing is that something exists rather
than nothing - everything else is incidental.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

Yes, there are a lot of people who are "doom-eager". It would be nice to give them the chance to be proven wrong before things got too much worse. I suspect that this will happen regardless of the impact...

You may have noticed that rats have been on my mind of recent times! hehe!

Well, I was kind of freaked out on Thursday night because the Boobook Owl at about 11.30pm was swooping my miniature fox terrier whilst we were out hunting rats and it eventually settled on a post to watch and observe the silly goings on of humans and their canine companions.

This was the first time that I'd actually seen an owl here. You hear them all of the time at night as they are quite distinctive in their calls, but they are such silent hunters that they could be literally anywhere in the forest.

I'm a small cog in the forest here, just another animal in the ecosystem really. It is quite humbling to be surrounded by all of these goings on. I do have an impact here, but I can't lose sight of the bigger picture.

It seems to me that humans try to ignore religious experience because they desperately try to put themselves front and centre of existence. It is sort of sad, as a richer world is out there for the experience.

To do otherwise means that a human is merely a part of a greater whole - which may, or may not - ever be fully understood. Does it even matter whether it is fully understood? I doubt it.

I have no problems with submitting myself to nature (including the Goddess, God or plural), nurturing and respecting that here and then accepting whatever fate deals which may be pretty harsh indeed.

The lessons that are learned by humans are those that are required to be learned (I seriously don't know where these thoughts come from, probably your writings!).

Regards

Chris

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Compund F,

A beautiful bit of music, shame he died so tragically in the Mississippi River.

As an interesting side note, Leonard Cohen played on the other side of the mountain range here recently at Hanging Rock (yes, some cheeky wag actually hangs a rock on all of the road signs by a string! True Story).

Regards

Chris

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Marc,

Do yourself a favour and go and spend some time with animals. They are both self-aware and have society / a culture.

Whether they have a religion? I dunno.

Spend some time on a dairy farm, whilst a calf is removed from its mother and you'll soon have no doubt that cows have feelings.

Watch a wedge tail eagle and its partner training their progeny and you'll know that they think about the future.

Watch dogs hunting rats in a pack and you'll soon have no doubt that they have a hierarchy and a culture.

Even "Rumpole" (the readers from the UK may get this reference) the boss chook exerts a heavy claw over the chook hierarchy and is into most of the business in the chook collective. If I say "bok, bok, bok" to her, she will reply "bok, bok, bok". Wish I knew what it meant!

Regards

Chris

JP said...

"Maybe my pretty pony princess goddesses are just unsubtle, but the first time I was really able to tune into that frequency was something between grabbing a live wire and getting a shot of morphine-- not something I could be uncertain about! I didn't even think it could be otherwise."

It depends on the nature of the experience.

Sychronicity or "world as book" is extremely subtle. (and one of the aspects of the world is world as book). Some of my navigation through life is using this tool.

Visions, in the sense of "vision quests" are often crystal clear.

Putting your hand into the light socket is of another class entirely. I try to avoid that myself. However, I've spoken with people who have that.

And if anyone has the faintest idea what happened circa the what we are apparently calling the "theosphere" at the time of the Autumnal Equinox in 2009, I'd love to know. It didn't feel particularly positive.

JP said...

@JMG:

"Trippticket, I've met a fairly large number of people who've had that sort of experience -- enough that I've come to suspect that it may be one of the characteristic forms of the new religious sensibility I've been discussing. It's a point of some interest to ponder how that experience might mesh with more formally theist experiences."

It doesn't really mesh with "more formally theist" experiences.

It's at the level of life, not the "higher" level of mind/personality. My opinion, of course.

I think it's a standard-issue experience.

Generally the result of being in nature and the translucence of the ego (this is the closest that I can come to describing it in words).

It's a baseline that *always* has to be kept in mind.

More along the lines of "Don't smash the biospshere, you morons."

The two, of course, coesxit, meaning the "nature" experience and the "theist" experience.

And both are useful depending on the person. The "nature" experience is basically common sense to me, so the benefit from it to me would be nill. I would prefer to fix the biosphere (and by "fix" I mean try to undo some of the absolute mess that we've caused).

Before we get to play again, we have to reset the gameboard. Problem is that we burnt part of the gameboard and smashed a lot of pieces.

So, if more people are having this experience, it's because the mess is getting worse, not better. That would be my thought as to the reason.

I'm still going with the "theosphere" having multiple "levels" that are both continuous and discontinuous. Meaning both/and, not either/or.

God---->Spirit--->Mind--->Life-->Matter

I look at it from a panetheism perspective, which is the only one that makes much sense to me.

I also find it helpful to view involtuion as the counterpart to evolution.

And in the end, I suppose I'm more interested in shutting the doors to hell than anything else. I don't know how to open the windows to heaven, but I'm pretty sure that I can shut the doors to hell.

JP said...

"Sufiya, I think it's a little more complex than Idries Shah did. The relatively simple religious experiences of ordinary believers are not as valueless as some mystics seem to think -- quite the contrary, in fact -- and there's a real risk, discussed in many mystical traditions (the Hermetic Cabala among them), of the mystical no-ego ego trip, in which having a given experience becomes a claim of superior status to others -- which is far from helpful. "

The standard-issue psychological inflation of occultists is one of of the most annoying aspects of occultists.

The solution, of course, to avoid such inflation is to make sure that your life consists of work and prayer. That should give you a nice solid sense of your own inherent limitations.

Kris Ballard said...

The Stoics had the right idea, when they believed that a spiritual intelligence permeates the entire universe.

Richard Larson said...

Hmmm. Even those people who belong to a religious organization, going through the movements, speaking the prayers, swearing to the belief, don't act like they believe in their religion. Yet some of these organizations are still standing tall. So there has to be some difference from these to the green movements that fizzle away.

What I have found out recently is how trees interact with one another, and interact with other species of living organisms, to enhance the space to more life in which trees live. There just might be some deity that designed the process, so wonderful it is to think upon.

Richard Larson said...

Having read through your answers to the comments, Archdruid, I have a clearer understanding of your weblog. I don't dismiss other's experiences in the theosphere, I just haven't ever had such a thing to happen.

And yes, I would agree a religious movement starting small, and building from a sound foundation of well vetted ideas (you certainly qualify there!), would have a better chance of success, than a movement based on a few ideas or some rhymes of reason.

Interesting post, thanks.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

Sooner or later a research paper would turn up:

Wait and see a deadly temptation for the fireprone

Quote: "Professor McLennan found those nominating a ''wait-and-see'' approach did so out of fear of making the wrong decision in making the choice between two unpleasant alternatives - what social scientists call ''avoidance-avoidance'' conflict."

It applies here to this discussion as well as to bushfires.

The funny thing is that this research keeps being undertaken year after year - with the same findings. There is definitely something in that...

Regards

Chris

Ozark Chinquapin said...

What convinced me that materialism couldn't completely explain the
world we live in was my own experience, but not of what you call the
theosphere, although much more recently I have had a brief experience
of that sort. For me it had to do with having strong experiences of
the life force, chi, whatever of the numerous words people use to
describe it. Unfortunately the word "energy" is often used and I think
has led to much confusion because of its completely different meaning
from energy in the physical sense.

Some of my most noticeable experiences involve different feelings that
I feel at different locations. I've always had these to some degree
but explained them away for a long time as simply sensitivities to
physical stimuli in the environment that I just hadn't figured out
yet. When I paid more close attention I realized that some of these
sensations didn't correspond to anything physical that made sense. The
same sensation repeatedly occurs at the same location, regardless of
season, wind direction etc. Plus, the sensation feels like it starts
at a more subtle level, which reconfigures my system and then also
causes physical changes such as heat or cold sensations, sweating on
particular places of the body, and many others. Later I realized
that's exactly the way a homeopathic remedy acts.

Rationalists counter at this point that it's all in my head, that it's
just because of my expectations. However, I can't count the number of
times I've had the same experience at a place many times before I ever
consciously realized it. That happens less now because I'm more alert
and aware of that level of experience but it still happens, and when
I'm in a place I haven't been before it rarely feels like I expected
it would, even if I know what to expect on a physical level through
seeing pictures, etc.

My personal experiences don't correspond to the perceptions of the
paranormal that I was brought up with. I had lots of exposure to
stories of things like ghosts, religious figures, the sasquatch, mind
readers etc. like just about everyone else in this era and place, but
I've never experienced any of those, instead experiencing things that I'd never thought of before. In fact, even now that I've paid more
attention, read more widely, and discussed my experiences with a few
people, I've never found anyone who experiences things quite the way that I do, there are definitely similarities but not the same.

Ozark Chinquapin said...

I mentioned in my other post having one experience that nay have been of the theosphere sort. It was short and nowhere near as dramatic as some, but different from anything else I've remembered experiencing in several ways. However, it involved no disembodied intelligences as far as I could tell.

It was a few months ago. I was sleeping in a tent, but awake at the time that night, just lying down. All the sudden, this unusual feeling overtook me. I don't ever remember experiencing anything like it before, but at the same time it felt very familiar. I found that my perception of time was changing. It is very hard to try to describe in words what i felt, but the best I can say is that it felt like I was looking upon my life as a whole, and it was like a single speck of something, others' lives, human and other were like other specks. I was curious as to what all the specks made up, but then I shifted back to my normal state.

This didn't feel like a dream at all, I am lucid in dreams fairly regularly but this felt very different. When you stated that the theosphere "breaks into human consciousness" that's exactly what it felt like.

Compound F said...

Cherokee O,

Buckley seemed to be going somewhere somewhat new and old at the same time, just like the rest of us. You gotta love the wags.

Babylon Falls: Salvage and Curios said...

When I was about 20 yo, I did a spot of house sitting while the owners were away. Lying in bed I listened to the zipper of my overnight bag running its tracks. Head under blanket.

Years later I asked on a web forum devoted to hosting dialogue between the religious and scientific factions if there was a scientific explanation. Only one person offered his theory.

Maybe someone under the house playing pranks with a super magnet.

I love science, but it simply doesn't cover everything.

Robert Mathiesen said...

@ JP re Fall Equinox 2009

The theosphere, as JMG calls it, seems to me to be a realm with more than one Beings (Intelligences, or whatever you want to call them, even Gods and Goddesses) dwelling in it, and they don't always play well together. Nor do all of them pay much attention to people, or care much about them. As far as we humans are concerned, it's not an unvaryingly kind and welcoming place.

Some people who have perceived just one of these Beings suppose that It is the only such Being there is, a true God or World-Soul or whatever you want to call it. But the theosphere seems not to be so simple, or so unified.

Nor does the theosphere seem to consist of just a single realm.

It seems to contain a variety of what one might call "The Other Places." They are all weird by standards of this universe (sometimes extremely weird and/or inimical to human life, or to life in general), but it is always possible to describe what one encounters there by means of human languages, by analogy with this our world.

And then there is Something Else, too, in the theosphere, which I like to call "High Reality." When one perceives High Reality, it is *only* by means of bodily senses that are not normally at all active in any person. What one perceives by these senses can not be compared, even very weakly, with anything perceived by ordinary bodily senses.

Consequently, what one perceives in High Reality cannot be described, even by very weak analogies, by means of any human language, or even by artifacts such as mathematics or logic. This realm is wholly ineffable (i.e., wholly impervious to speech and description). Even such oppositions as "one" vs. "many," or "true" vs."false," or "exists" vs. "doesn't exist" are inapplicable to this realm.

The theosphere may perhaps contain other sorts of realms as well, but these are the only parts of it that I can talk about on the basis of my own experiences or experiences of others whom I trust to speak about them as accurately as they are able to do.

KL Cooke said...

"...some people are gifted that way -- it tends to run in families..."

My mother had it and my son has it. Except for a few minor, and questionable incidents, it seems to have skipped me. For that I'm thankful, because based on what they described, I would hesitate to call it a gift.

For example, the recently dead stopping by in the room in the middle of the night, on their way to wherever the dead go.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

I can't actually say that I've ever had a mystical experience similar to what some of the commenters here have had.

Strangers walking past me have occasionally given me the creeps (goose-bumps and raised hairs) for no apparent reason and I've steered clear of them, but other than that...

What tuned me in to nature was the simple act of trying to produce a food surplus. Once I took away the Oil subsidy, I could no longer pretend that our society was on firm ground.

It soon became clear that the Oil subsidy was so good that it was like a drug with which we all supped on in the developed world, just to pretend for another day that we were somehow masters of nature.

The only substitute that I've come across to this drug of Oil is that of nature itself and she is worthy of respect.

Regards

Chris

Farka said...

Karen Armstrong's proposal is particularly ironic in that putting compassion ahead of most other values looks like one of the more important emotional motivations for the decline of religion in the West. People like Voltaire weighed the Creator in the balance of compassion, took one look at the tragedies and atrocities of the world, and found Him wanting. The cruelty of the Pentateuch (or Revelations, or the Qur'an, or the Laws of Manu) is still an important part of atheist apologetics. Substitute "nature", and the same reasoning holds – nature is obviously incapable of the compassion than we humans feel, so we must be superior to it. Of course, the book of Job had already answered that, in a far from reassuring but rather realistic way: if you're entirely dependent on X, you do not get to hold X accountable.

The fact that religions are partly the product of mystical experiences should be obvious, but under current circumstances isn't, so thanks for the reminder! I would comment, though, that from a traditional Jewish/Christian/Muslim perspective, what you're calling the theosphere would conflate at least two levels of being: such cosmologies recognise in principle the existence of innumerable spirits / demons / angels / jinn / C. S. Lewis's eldila (varying, as you put it, along the good/evil axis), but consider God to transcend them all just as He transcends people. Some polytheist religions seem to take a similar approach.

ed boyle said...

I read a self published internet book that said that the various levels of the "body" or reality, physical, emotional, mental through to buddhic (I think traditonally seven layers always expanding farther away from the body) are subject to quantum mechanical laws as in physics. I.E. physics applies in all systems. Gluons, etc. are the same in thought or emotional spheres or spiritual spheres which all exist on separate levels. He used this to explain stuff like telepathy(thought particles simultaneously exist in two places as Einstein said about subatomic particles influencing one another wherever in universe) or empathy (emoional particles)or memes (huge independent of humans ideas existing over millenia, like releigiion or science). This seemed to me to solve the whole rationalist/religous/spiritual problematic entirely very neatly as I was always fascinated by Einstein and such and attracted to Eastern sprituality. High levesl of energy are needed to smash particles in physical world and in thought or spitiual world as well. This would explain the rareness and / or lack of control over such phenomenon. Only highly advanced spiurtual people can control these enrgies and phenomenon as to be actively telepathic, see future ,etc. due to high energy levels.

DaShui said...

I think I have to put my 2c in.

Last year I was in the gym and I grabbed Nat. Geo. off the magazine rack and I was shocked that they were rerunning an article about one of their reporters enthusiastic telling of traveling to the Amazon to eat tree bark with a native shaman, you know it doesn't get more mainstream than Nat.Geo.
It seems that this article was the most popular ever in Nat.Geo long history. Furthermore, according to the article, there must be 10s of thousands of westerners gong to these "clinics", in South and Central America. It's not cheap so most going should be at least middle class, educated in rationalism, looking for an experiance.
Now personally I don't think its necessary to travel so far, but it is telling that such a large number of rational people are at least open to the idea of the theosphere.

And thanks AD for never denigrating religion, the rich, American empire, the South, as many readers want you too.

Jessica said...

@JP:

"It doesn't really mesh with "more formally theist" experiences.

It's at the level of life, not the "higher" level of mind/personality. My opinion, of course.

I think it's a standard-issue experience."

My experience is just as standard issue to you as yours is to me...

John Michael Greer said...

Joel, yes, it was issued by a POD publisher. I've got an inquiry in to the publisher to find out what on earth is going on.

Compound F, the point you're missing is that religious experience has its own content -- the suggestion "a god did it" can, after all, be something that someone was told by the god in question, in a visionary or other religious experience. Thus "a god did it" isn't simply an equivalent of "we don't know what did it" -- it's a hypothesis with content of its own. It's precisely by insisting that what's outside the range of positivist knowledge claims can't be the subject of any meaningful knowledge claims at all that positivism mires itself in circular logic. I'm not in any way offended, btw; the argument you're making is of course a very common one, and to my mind it deserves a solid response.

Wiseman, the fantastic overuse of psych medications in the US is symptomatic of two things -- first, the spectacular corruption of our medical system, which has become very little more than a mass marketing scheme for the pharmaceutical industry, and second, the sheer unremitting craziness of life in this particular failing empire. When the Soviet Union was on its way down, a noticeable fraction of the population basically drank itself to death; we're doing the same thing now with poorly tested and side effect-laden psych medications, which US physicians hand out like candy to anyone who shows the least sign of unhappiness with their lives.

Gwyneth, notice how you've jumped straight from religion to morality, which I'd suggest are not the same thing. I haven't read Boyer's book -- I'll put it on the list -- but it seems to me that any attempted explanation of religion that fails to make room for religious experience is like an attempted explanation of fishing that fails to make room for the existence of fish.

Stephen, thank you! The idea that religious experience is central to religion is, as far as I know, not original to me; it's simply that it's utterly unacceptable to the cultural mainstream of today's industrial societies, because it suggests that there may be some validity to religion beyond the moral sphere. I've watched a great many otherwise open-minded people slam shut the doors of perception the moment it was suggested that when you and I look out at the world, there may be other minds looking back at us!

Cherokee, exactly! If gods, spirits, etc. have some reality other than as figments of the human imagination, then Man isn't predestined to become the lord and master of creation -- and in that case, most of the hopes and dreams and expectations of contemporary industrial society come crashing down.

JP, I've had both kinds of experiences, and from my perspective they mesh extremely well. More broadly, though, I'd agree that the theosphere is very likely complex -- at least as complex as the biosphere, which contains everything from atoms to galaxies to duckbilled platypuses and the ecosystems in which they participate. As for the no-ego ego trip, I wish it were confined to occultists -- we're a fairly small minority out there, after all. I've met far too many people in mainstream religions who seem to have a hard time keeping straight on the difference between their egos and the god they worship -- "God will punish you for all eternity for disagreeing with me," and the rest of it.

Kris, what do you mean by "the right idea"? Do you mean that that's the best summary of your own experience, or are you trying to impose it as a model on everyone else?

Richard, I think that unless there are at least some people who believe devoutly and passionately in a religious tradition, that tradition is headed for an early grave. A handful of convinced believers, though, can make up for a lot of folks who are just along for the ride.

Cherokee, many thanks -- I'll be using this research in an upcoming post!

Joseph Nemeth said...

@JMG -- could you cite your reference on the 1/3 of the population figure? I've long thought/felt that the primary motivator behind religions was probably "religious," meaning a direct theophany of some sort -- it's what they claim, after all -- but I don't think I'd ever seen that 1/3 figure before. It sounds about right.

I'm personally both accepting of and a bit blasé about the theosphere. I was having a conversation with a friend last night about things that go bump in the night, and while he is fascinated by his weird experiences because they cause him a great deal of cognitive dissonance, I look at a ghost issue from a very practical point of view: ghosts belong to the category of experiences I generally don't want to have, like finding a fresh cat hairball in my shoe, or two feet of water in my basement. I lived once in a house with some kind of haunting, and once I got over the cognitive dissonance and the fear that caused, it was more than anything else simply annoying -- a bit like having a homeless, non-communicative, and unhappy squatter living in your basement, except you can't just call the police and have him evicted.

On the other hand, I found myself in the position of some communication with both my mother and my father shortly after their respective deaths, and whether I want to cast it as a psychological thing in my own head, or real moments of closure with spirits moving into the next stage of whatever, I felt that treating the experience seriously and respectfully on its own terms was the best and most sensible approach. The Ebenezer Scrooge approach of insisting that a spirit is merely a blot of mustard or a bit of undigested beef always struck me as self-serving denial -- which is how I think Dickens intended it to be taken. The Richard Dawkins approach of calling it baseless superstition strikes me as a different kind of self-serving denial.

I think that our Western rationalist mindset has come to an unhealthy kind of ascetic extremism that doesn't acknowledge that humans are either spiritual or irrational (take your pick), and need to deal with their experiences as real experiences, whatever metaphysics or physics or chemistry might enable them to occur. It is certainly more helpful than hurtful to have some kind of traditional lore regarding What To Do When God Speaks To You, even if you are in the two-thirds of the population who will never have this experience. Or at the very least, Emily Post's Proper Etiquette for Entertaining Spirits of the Dearly Departed, expanded edition: the one with the appendix on Gracefully Showing the Unwanted Dead the Door.

Phil Harris said...

JMG
A modest proposal.

I assume that most well-meaning religions – one could argue a point or two here - try to keep a grip on abuse of power – checks and balances – and rely on a participatory relationship with the membership, whatever their track record or past priorities as a self-perpetuating hierarchy. Accommodation with or even an understanding of the Theosphere presumably, if debatably, helps keep the show on the road.

Of course the original charismatic’s message gets a secular structure. The melding and extension of theology in the formation of the Christian church seems all too human, right up to Nicea and the adoption of a creed within the Imperial Structure. (See Geza Vermes for authoritative and even-handed account). I have recently been reading about the post Dark Ages mediaeval western Christian Scholastics in relation to monetary theory. Money – whether East & West, Christian or other creeds – was always needed, but came under different controls. Zarlenga in The Lost Science of Money says: “The Basileus, the sacred arm of the Byzantine Roman Empire, the institutional successor to the Pontifex Maxmus, lost control of the money power with the fall of Constantinople in 1204. Its successor in the West, the Catholic Church, was unable to reconstitute the power as Princes began minting gold coins.” Zarlenga goes on to give a great deal of credit (pun not intended) to the Scholastics’ moral and perceptive thinking and their use of Aristotle’s previous and usefully acute perceptions. He gives a further account of the subsequent battle for the money power to the present day.

Islam and historically many creeds have been against usury. (A discussion of usury and more broadly ‘interest rates’ is in Zarlenga, and control of money is reviewed with reference to Zarlenga and others, by Kumhof et al IMF Research).

I do not have to believe everything I read, Zarlenga or whoever, but I am told of initiatives within Churches including the Church of England to again wade into the battle over debt and the poor (Pay Day loans is one example). The Quakers have flagged up an ecumenical initiative to dis-invest from the fossil fuel industries, which seems surprisingly effective in its early days.

Trade is always needed not just for modern industry but also for any agrarian base. My proposal is that future religion or religious sensibility might have the courage to take charge of the money supply and monetary theory and back it with religious insight and moral authority (communication?) to accommodate the nature of the biosphere, ‘of which we are only a subordinate part’. The recent Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams actually borrowed this handy latter phrase. That and the inherent generosity of the poor – see customs and sentiment in most places round the world – could provide some backing for charismatic passion and insight.

best
Phil H

Kutamun said...

Myriad swellings congealing effortlessly into infinite philosophies; it is more than enough to carry me through this desert of painful feeling, where the water alternately flows and dries away to nothing.
The inspiration that causes me to write , or simply excites me to be , sitting motionless, with her and the limitless fuel at the centre of my being , humming freely .

Thanks Monsieur Greer , i found your piece very rational, but packed with feeling , and you are right, it is us we should worry about, not the planet.....cheers

Emmanuel Goldstein said...

While visiting a Methodist seminary in the 1980's someone remarked that their 'Methodist leadership is always praying for God to send revival, but to send it this time without the fire.' Maybe this really isn't possible. ;-)

When I think about it, periods of 'revival' in US Christian history are usually (always?) accompanied by evidence of the Noosphere popping in for a visit, such as miracles of various types, healings, speaking in tongues, etc. These things typically make clergy-persons nervous, as they are largely spontaneous and can disrupt established hierarchies and political power structures in large church organizations.

Then, just as someone gets the idea to build the next church organization on top of the noosphere experiences, they go away again like a departing hurricane, and believers are left picking up the pieces and trying to decide, 'What was THAT all about?'

Once again, thanks for a great article; for naming and pointing out the huge importance of the Noosphere.

Dagnarus said...

While I can't claim to believe in any specific Gods at the moment I have noticed a resurgence in my interest in the divine. In particular I have revisited my previous brothers in Christ, and while I find that I can believe in Jesus (yes I know that is somewhat contradictory with my previous statement), I can't accept their monopoly claim on truth, nor can I ignore the way they blatantly disregard what they claim to be core doctrines. So I'm not certain where my spiritual quest might go.

Also to comment upon the rationalist war upon religion both from the Hedges and Harris fronts. When I was amongst the apostate I would often notice that the rationalist camp would never entertain the fact that maybe the religious believer's world view is underpinned by different assumptions, and thus reasoning from them leads to different outcomes. In general the unspoken assumption always was that the assumptions underpinning rationalism were the unique correct ones. Farka pointed out an example of this in his comment, in that if your coming from the assumptions of rationalism the creator/nature is cruel, from different assumptions it is well within its rights. To some extent Karen Armstrong seems to fit into this as someone who can't understand that for many people their religious beliefs are theocentric as opposed to anthropocentric (That is focused upon the divine as of prime importance rather than relationships between humans).

As an aside I thought I would comment on one of the threads in the comments, namely the inability of humanity to deal with the problems of exponential growth on a finite planet. Why do you say that we haven't been acting rationally? As an example of what I'm talking about consider the native americans. The way most of these tribes lived in all likelihood could have continued with gradual updates long after our civilization will have collapsed in upon itself, "if" and if is the keyword here, there had not been an industrial civilization which was willing eat up as much natural resources as possible in as unsustainable a manner as it pleased. As it stands such a civilization did exist it turned those natural resources into the population and industrial product neccessary to virtually obliterate the native americans, while at the same time it's hunger for resources made it necessary to obliterate them. The point being that sure our current unsustainable use of resources is a bad idea long term, but in the short term anyone who is unwilling or unable to use them is liable to have the collective might of industrialism pointed at their heads if they don't. Thus any attempt to reason about what the rational response to the mess we are in is has to deal with how everyone else could possibly respond, which makes things exponentially more complicated. It would problem be interesting to study all the different ways which the prisoner's dilemma or some variant paralyzes the industrial world as it heads face first towards the limits to growth. Or in otherwords the rational actions of individuals are quite capable of causing collective insanity.

John Michael Greer said...

Ozark, interesting. There are a lot of human experiences that don't fit within the current rationalist worldview, and there's at least as much diversity among them as there is between them and the sort of experiences that people are supposed to have. The sort of thing you've discussed is something that a lot of systems of magical training, and also a good many martial arts, put effort into developing.

Babylon, exactly! Weird things happen; some of them can be explained by current scientific theory. It's only among those who expect our currently accepted mental models to be the absolute truth that this is any negative reflection on science.

KL, some gifts are like white elephants...

Cherokee, good! Yes, it's also possible to get to the same place without any need for mystical experiences. The interaction between the mystics and the people who just want to figure out how to keep themselves fed may turn out to be the place where the future takes shape.

Farka, the concept of the theosphere conflates quite a few levels of being, as do the biosphere and the noosphere. It's meant as a very, very rough division, having more to do with how and what human beings experience than it does with the objects of those experiences.

Ed, fascinating. Quantum Theosophy, basically?

DaShui, thank you. I'm perfectly willing to laugh at things that deserve it, but the not very fine art of the internet put-down has had far too much use as it is.

Joseph, the surveys in question are cited in David Hay's Exploring Inner Space (London: Mowbray, 1987) -- that was my source for them in A World Full of Gods. That Emily Post book would be worth having!

Phil, interesting. I'll have to read Zarlenga one of these days. I suspect that whatever religions come out of the collapse of industrial society will include a harsh prohibition against lending at interest -- it'll probably be the sort of thing that gets you buried alive, right up there with burning fossil fuels.

Kutamun, thank you.

Emmanuel, if they can't stand the heat, they need to stay out of the kitchen. It's precisely the terror of living religious experience, I've come to think, that has crippled so many of the mainstream faiths of the Western world.

Dagnarus, I don't recall saying that we haven't been acting rationally. The world is full of sane and reasonable people sanely and reasonably pursuing poverty that can only end in catastrophe.

Compound F said...

also, I'm not saying religious experience is not meaningful in an of itself. I'm totally not saying that.

I've been ignorant of many things throughout my life, and expect that trend to continue to the end. Humanities, politics, science, art, what have you. Chances are, I'll resist, but throw a dog a bone. I'll try not to be another troll bingo.

btw, your own book-writing takes massive use verifiable methods, and I find it compelling, but as I remember the proof to calculus, it is elliptical; that is, it doesn't take you there directly; it's simply that there is no other option. It must be.

good wishes.

Compound F said...

Cherokee O,

You said:

"Do yourself a favour and go and spend some time with animals. They are both self-aware and have society / a culture.

Whether they have a religion? I dunno."

This comment is so fraught with truth it delights me.

Agent Provocateur said...

If I understand the argument correctly, religions exist (in part at least) because the facts of some one third of people's experiences compels them to put those experience in some sort of context. Such experiences, by definition, change a person's worldview to include some other plane of existence that intersects with our mental or physical worlds. Fair enough, raw facts are reason enough to believe something. Now the issue of interpretation of the experience is a separate matter; all we need is the fact of such experiences to make the point.

As JMG has pointed out in earlier posts on a different subject, there are reasons other than facts that often determine a belief. That a belief meets emotional needs is one common reason people hold a belief. A specific example is the well known phenomenon that religion can provide consolation.

I'd like to suggest another reason for holding a belief: its utility. Actual belief is not necessary in this case. What is necessary is that you act as if you hold a certain belief. An example is the use of the Celestial Sphere in celestial navigation. No one believes the Celestial Sphere actually exists, but if you act as if you do in certain contexts you get useful results.

I believe (based on facts, emotion, and utility) that this is were placing a premium on compassion comes in. It has utility. If compassion is a dominant element in your decisions, your chances of happiness are far greater. I wasn't around back in that days of gladiatorial contests, but I suspect those who indulged in them coarsened their emotional sensibilities to the point where genuine happiness was not part of their experience. Here's something closer to my own: I know enough people who are suffering serious psychological problems after active military service to at least be entitled to the opinion that this suffering is a direct result of killing people who posed no real threat to them or their loved ones. Basically, how you treat others affects the quality of your experience.

It may be that one problem with Karen Armstrong's initiative is that it is factually incorrect (all religions do not place a premium on compassion) and perhaps another problem is that it is preaching to the choir. Still, the idea that compassion should be ranked highly in the hierarchy of values is correct in my view. The reason for doing so is utility. Compassionate people are generally happier themselves and create happiness around them.

Who to be compassionate to and in what measure is a bigger question: the bacteria invading your body, or your body; the animal in your sights or the stomachs of your family. As a Buddhist monk once told me when I asked about hunting, “What are you going to tell the Eskimos, 'Grow Cabbages'”. He went on to suggest looking at my actual need. Having determined the need, you now look at the most compassionate means. So even when taking life, compassion can play a significant part. On the other hand, if you kill without need or consideration of minimizing suffering, you can expect predicable consequences for yourself and those you affect.

When considering communities of life, perhaps the question can be looked at from a perspective suggested by Derick Jensen. Once you take the life of a living being for your sustenance, you now have an obligation to care for the community it came from. This isn't just a silver rule (one down from the golden rule) to ease your conscience, it has utility. If you want your human community to survive in the long run you have to do this.

As for Aristotle, he accepted slavery as natural and his most famous student was a mass murderer. So perhaps there would have been better outcomes for many peopled if his ethical system had included an honoured place for compassion.

Robert Beckett said...

Regarding the Renewal of Religion:

"What forms a Second Religiosity might take in the contemporary Western world is a fascinating issue, and one that deserves (and will get) a post of its own."

On this (Canadian) Thanksgiving weekend, I had the pleasure and honour to attend the dedication of a new Roman Catholic church in a small village in eastern Ontario. As the architect, my own small part in the day's proceedings was to discreetly greet the Archbishop and hand him a set of construction drawings, and later on, accept the individual congratulations of parishioners and clergy who were so inclined.
Rarely performed sacraments were the order of the day, as not so many new mainstream churches are consecrated these days. (In fact, this village had lost two of its four churches, closed and sold due to low attendance, and this congregation had lost its imposing brick church, built in 1890, to fire two years previously.)

Interesting, but not surprising from a Druid perspective: walls, pews and congregants were sanctified with (holy) water; then with incense (fire and air?), then the oak altar was dedicated with chrism (olive oil & myrrh, representing earth?), worked into the surface slowly and lovingly by the aged archbishop with his left hand while he moved clockwise around it. Other sacred objects were likewise anointed by assisting religious, a good baker's dozen participating. A very solemn sacrament. Followed by the first Mass which brought on a joyful mood, as of a homecoming. A vital piece of the community reinstated.

Grand Archdruid, you may be pleased to know that a good deal of both red and white oak, some new, some as salvaged items, was used in the trim, doors, pews, furnishings, and sanctuary floor of the church.

Altogether, a happy day for me and my partner, though she and I both agree with you that the magic of the Mass was decimated by Vatican II. Nonetheless, I was moved to join the community in Eucharistic celebration and receive the blessing, as a non-catholic, baptized Christian. /|\.

onething said...

JP--

"And if anyone has the faintest idea what happened circa the what we are apparently calling the "theosphere" at the time of the Autumnal Equinox in 2009, I'd love to know. It didn't feel particularly positive."

All I can tell you is that there was a rare light in this world, who was murdered in July of '09.

I, too,find that panentheism makes the most sense.
Closing hell is a major concern of mine, but opening heaven really is the other side of that coin.

Opening heaven can be done.

onething said...

Farka,

"The cruelty of the Pentateuch (or Revelations, or the Qur'an, or the Laws of Manu) is still an important part of atheist apologetics."

But why do they so often stop there at stone age human writings which may be made up?

" Substitute "nature", and the same reasoning holds – nature is obviously incapable of the compassion than we humans feel, so we must be superior to it."

A most interesting point. Yes, we are superior in some ways to nature separated from its context as a theater inside of a larger reality. But it is wrong to compare compassion in a system for which it is inapplicable.

"Of course, the book of Job had already answered that, in a far from reassuring but rather realistic way: if you're entirely dependent on X, you do not get to hold X accountable."
Well, I dunno! Looks Voltaire did just that, and I do too.
I was, for the most part, disappointed in Jehovah or whoever showed up's answer to Job. I found it anticlimactic and lame.

Regarding the complexities of the theosphere, my personal theory is that Jehovah was a minor god who [according to the Bible he inherited the Hebrews] through the vicissitudes of history ended up being tenaciously held onto long after others of his sort were forgotten, and got confused with the real Creator. He was not one of the more benevolent ones.

Moshe Braner said...

Hmmm, this just out from Robert Jensen - touches on both religion (the lost image of the historical Jesus) and human reason (and its limits). http://democracyweb.com/?p=13200 And he concludes with a bit about the concept of "hope":

"Our season may truly be over, and that may well define what it means to be truly human in the 21st century: the determination to act, knowing we cannot be saved."

Myriad said...

As I've mentioned before, I've been campaigning, at my skeptics' forum, for a deeper and broader appreciation of religion in terms of narratives, practices, and experiences (all interrelated), rather than focusing only on narratives or more misleading still, only on assertions of belief that are a small subset of the narratives. This has immediate benefits, such as explaining the fact (which mystifies some rationalists) that disputing or even disproving the asserted history in a religion's scriptures, whether it's Noah's Flood or Xenu's spaceships, doesn't suddenly cause adherents to change their minds.

Getting rationalists to grasp that "belief in gods and stuff" is an absurdly and uselessly simplistic model of religion has been a bit of an uphill battle, so as you might imagine, I really appreciated this latest ADR.

But I feel that this is, ultimately, foundational material, a strong stone block whose place is deep in the edifice JMG is building. And I'm looking forward to seeing what will be erected upon it.

I'm thinking about what it would mean to dispense entirely with the belief-non-belief binary. This seems to cause trouble in almost any discussion of religion (even, just a tiny bit, in this comment thread), but is epitomized by the ongoing dialog elsewhere between activist atheists and fundamentalist theists. People with more nuanced understanding of religious belief, including liberal Christians, practitioners of knowingly invented religions, and most mystics, generally don't even participate in that argument because it's as difficult to comprehend as to get one's own viewpoint comprehended. For example, I'm a Christian whose position on the narratives of Christianity is much better described as "acceptance" rather than "belief." ("Faith" is different still, and too complex to get into here.) But to many vocal atheists, nuanced belief amounts to either belief plus inconsistency, or non-belief plus hypocrisy. The same perception is, of course, also mirrored on the fundamentalist side.

And yet, nuanced belief isn't actually unusual. On the aforementioned skeptics' forum, I can talk all day about what the Man on the Street thinks, what new tricks Madison Avenue is up to, or how Murphy ruined my travel plans, and no one thinks to ask whether I really believe in those mythical entities or not. But mention the devil (e.g. when urging a Christian making a political argument to consider which side the devil is really on) and there's the devil to pay, so to speak.

Is it possible that the coming new religious sensibility will be, literally, beyond belief?

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

I strongly suspect that you are correct. Was that a traditional role of religion?

Hi Compound F,

Thanks!

Hi Agent,

Quote: "He went on to suggest looking at my actual need. Having determined the need, you now look at the most compassionate means.

and...

Once you take the life of a living being for your sustenance, you now have an obligation to care for the community it came from."

Firstly, I reckon you've taken one concept "need" and stretched it to address your own belief in "compassion".

Secondly, I don't reckon your second quote matches reality. For example if you look at a factory farm. Who is it that decides the applicable standard of care that you reckon people are obliged to provide? Everyone has a different take on this concept of "care" so it can be twisted and turned to suit whatever standard you can be stuffed putting in place.

On a practical note, how do you even apply that concept? Are you seriously trying to suggest that I have an obligation to the community of rats here? My obligation to my chooks and fruit trees outweighs any obligations to the rat community. As the rats are fed to the chooks, indirectly I am consuming these animals, so you can't even argue sustenance.

Compassion can be employed in the act itself of hunting, but it is no basis with which to decide on competing conflicts of interest.

Regards

Chris

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

This is odd, but it has been a warm winter:

Sheep sunburn comes early

Regards,

Chris

John Michael Greer said...

Compound F., of course I use verifiable data and logic for those subjects to which they apply. I really do have to do a post one of these days about the concept of separate spheres of experience.

Agent, so? I never questioned Armstrong's good intentions, just the facts on which her charter claims to base its argument. As for Aristotle, it's always easy to take cheap pot shots at people who have a different culture and different values; understanding them is a good deal more difficult.

Robert, the traditional ceremonies of the old Christian denominations are very often brilliantly constructed works of ritual -- which is, at least to my mind, one of the fine arts. The church sounds lovely -- perhaps you can post a link to a photo or two.

Moshe, interesting. I confess to a certain weariness over the endless attacks on free will -- what they amount to, one and all, is "we can't find a way to fit free will into our mechanistic model of the universe, and since that model is by definition true and complete, the fact that there's no room in it for free will proves that free will doesn't exist.' Er...

Myriad, I hope so! I recently picked up a fascinating book by Alain de Botton, Religion for Atheists, which starts out with the sentence, "The most boring and unproductive question one can ask of any religion is whether it is true." Haven't read it yet, but it promises to be worth a close read.

Tom Bannister said...

JMG and Myriad

Definitely read Religion for Atheists. Just saying ;-)

Agent Provocateur said...

JMG,

I'm sorry I didn't make it clear in my previous comment. I wasn't responding so much to your essay as to some of the comments attached to it that obliquely implied it may not be appropriate to place compassion high on the list of values.

To answer your question “So?”: My point was simply that there are real world consequences to not placing compassion high on the list. These include the ones I mentioned: general unhappiness, severe psychological problems, slavery, and mass murder.

I wasn't judging Armstrong or Aristotle or their respective cultures and values or trying to take a cheap shot at anyone including you. I was attempting to point out the real world consequences of not placing compassion prominently in an ethical scheme. I admit that this issue is not directly relevant to your post but I thought it an important enough point to bother making. Perhaps my point should be obvious, but history, both recent and ancient, suggests it isn't.

Please take no offense. As always I enjoyed your essay.

Cranky NM said...

"a society that makes rational sense won’t function in the real world because, ultimately, human beings don’t make rational sense."
This is the sentence that makes me realize I'm apparently a rationalist to the core, because however many opportunities arise to notice its truth, it keeps right on making me nuts. In spite of the fact that rationally, then, one would stop expecting people to be rational. Or, as one of those funny personality predictor quizzes once put it, I'm in the "Make sense, dammit!" camp. Something to keep working on, I guess.

Cranky NM said...

Occurs to me that might not have been terribly clear; I have no objection to people's religious beliefs or experiences, as it seems perfectly obvious that there's an awful lot we just don't know about the universe. And maybe can't know, because the particular set of sensory equipment we possess doesn't cover everything. Just object to the general lack of reason that seems to permeate so many of our actions. As, for example; let's set up an economic system that requires perpetual growth, when that's actually not possible. Etc.
At any rate, the comment about the relationship with -- other -- being central to religion was enlightening, as was the statistic. Had thought of it more as an issue of people wanting comfort, which is perhaps insultingly oversimplistic. But it occurs to me that my own notions about all life being a web in which we are just one small part -- hmm, shades of 7th grade ecology class -- seems, how did you put it, self-evident to anyone with common sense? Something like that -- so maybe it is a version of religion. Dear me, how shocking to my self-image.

Dagnarus said...

@JMG
I didn't mean to suggest that you were espousing this idea, just that it came up in the comments. No offence intended, and I assume none taken.

Also I'd like to ask a question about the theosphere. One of the things which occurred to me when in my scientific rationalist stage was that while if we assumed materialism we can state that the universe is governed by mechanistic physical laws and thus conciousness/agency cannot be applied to it, ergo no gods. Assuming that what I stated isn't a strawman, we encounter the obvious problem that in the materialist worldview your average man on the street is both governed by mechanistic physical laws, and in the understanding of most sane people is possessing of both conciousness/agency, if we take into account that in my opinion at least conciousness/agency is somewhat ill-defined. Thus in my opinion if you assume materialism that should still leave the door open to inferring some kind of conciousness agency to complex systems such as the biosphere/universe/whatever. Which brings me to my question, in your opinion could it be that the theosphere is made up either wholly or partially of entities which have their roots in complex physical systems? If so could modern industrialism have some kind of place in the theosphere? To your knowledge has anyone ever had a religious experience with regards to industrialism, a life-changing experience where they saw that creating factories and spreading the green revolution would bring salvation to the world? Can the current fecklessness of most liberal environmentalists be ascribed to the fact that "if you're entirely dependent on industrialism, you do not get to hold industrialism accountable"? to apply farka's comment to industrialism as God.

Gwyneth Olwyn said...

Ack, obviously I was unclear. I jumped from religion to morals to language only as an awkward attempt to speak of the concept of the social brain and its modules. Religion and morals are in no way inter-dependent modules. Religion could perhaps be best described as an agency-seeking predisposition in the human brain, whereas morals/values/fairness/ethics is a distinct module that appears to be shared with all social primates (and perhaps many other animals as well).

In any case, yes please overlook my inability to do Pascal Boyer's work any justice and check it out.

John Michael Greer said...

Tom, duly noted. It's on the pile below Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance and a couple of books about the Shakers, which are raw material for next week's post.

Agent, given that the religions that have made the most noise about compassion have also been used quite often to justify slavery and mass murder, I'm far from sure your argument works in the real world. Still, thanks for clarifying.

Cranky, I suppose a committed belief in rationality, held in the teeth of the facts, could also count as a form of religious faith!

Dagnarus, none taken at all. As for the theosphere, heck of a good question, to which I don't have a solid answer. Ervin Laszlo, back in the Seventies, wrote a most fascinating book titled Introduction to Systems Philosophy which argued, among other things, that consciousness is what systems complexity looks like "from the inside," and that all complex systems are therefore conscious in precise correlation to their degree of complexity. If he's right, there may be any number of superhuman intelligences all around us -- an acre of soil is a far more complex system than a human brain, for example, and then there's the atmosphere; if you want to call those "Demeter" and "Zeus" respectively, I can think of some ancient Greeks who wouldn't object at all.

Gwyneth, thanks for the clarification. I'd like to suggest an alternative take on that "agency-seeking module," though. By the same logic, human beings have a "module" that orients them toward sexual relationships; the existence of that module doesn't rule out the possibility that other people, with whom one might have sexual relationships, actually exist. In the same way, a module in the brain oriented toward relationships with deities might exist because there's an evolutionary advantage to coming into relationship with objectively existent deities -- and in any case, it's invalid to argue that the existence of such a module proves that there isn't some outside reality with which that module is meant to deal.

Phil Harris said...

JMG
Complexity and consciousness? Too easy a parallel?

Life, for example, seems different, though it depends at the minimum on ‘physical’ means, molecules and photons and etc to interact within its complex self and achieve forms. (And 'forms' are? And 'identity' is? And they are ‘inherited’ from?) I should try to phrase it better – I see the sparrow fly - and life seeks after ... eventually whatever it might be. It might even be compassion or perhaps some other complexity?

And I defer to the great oscillations of matter as they turn.

No answers – not even here in Northumberland, and we are not far from Bede, when light becomes precious again: even when I can look out of my window and see the trees beside the Paulinus brook.
best
Phil

Stephen Heyer said...

John Michael Greer : “The idea that religious experience is central to religion is, as far as I know, not original to me; it's simply that it's utterly unacceptable to the cultural mainstream of today's industrial societies, because it suggests that there may be some validity to religion beyond the moral sphere.”

Hi John,

When I wrote “As far as I can recall only something like Natural Selection tops it, though I don’t know if John Greer quite realizes that yet” I meant it. I think the implications of the theory go a whole lot further than perhaps even you realize. It is not that uncommon for the people who create a new theory in any field to only later appreciate its full implications.

Your theory does NOT say that a few people occasionally have some sort of a religious experience and, as uncomfortable as the various church hierarchies find this, it is very important to the creation and continuation of the churches. You are right in that this version was quite well known: The Catholic nuns who taught me in Bowen, Australia back in the 60s were quite familiar with it and suspected it was not the full story.

No, what it actually says as I see it is that:

1. A significant percentage of the population have at least occasional religious/spiritual/psychic experiences that effect, sometimes profoundly, how they see and experience life and how they behave thereafter.

2. This very large number of people with experiences that they see as very important, but that often bear little resemblance to anything they were taught religiously and socially and that no one talks about, has a pervasive effect on society, religion and people’s private beliefs and life. To begin with, it leads to there being a large number of people who quietly take what their political, social and religious leaders tell them with a large grain of salt.

3. If the statistics are true and the theory holds water these experiences are possibly the largest single outside influence there is on society (religion included) yet until now acknowledging this has been carefully avoided by all the “experts” in the fields in question.

Note that a person does not have to believe in religion, an afterlife or ESP for the theory and its profound implications to be true. It does not matter if the experiences are just some strange mental state, the effect and its social and religious consequences will still be the same.

Stephen Heyer

sgage said...

@JMG and Gwyneth,

The 'module' nomenclature seems to me not to add anything useful to the discussion. Human beings are sexual, so they "have" a "sexuality module"? Much of science, particularly psychology, seems to be like this. Putting a new label on something, however, doesn't really explain anything.

It reminds me of the old Medieval medical exam, where the candidate is asked "why does opium cause sleep"?

The correct answer, of course, is "because it contains a dormitive principle".

Which is to say, opium causes sleep.

Agent Provocateur said...

Cherokee,

I also live on an organic farm (of sorts). I have similar problems.

Apparently you have a superabundance of rats. My suggestion: Kill em all! They are vectors for disease and they are killing the animals you rely on for your survival. You are an omnivore and you need to eat. You have every right to kill the rats to keep the chickens to eat. Your moral obligations are first to yourself and your family for the simple reason that if you don't look after yourself and your family, who will?

You know this all already, I'm just making clear I agree with you.

Having just paraphrased Rabbi Hillel's first question (“If I am not for myself, who is for me?), I can't resist pointing out his indirect plea for compassion for others in his second question, “But if I am only for myself, what am I?”

So where does compassion come in for the rats? Well killing them is not the same as torturing them. In so far as you can effectively and efficiently kill them, you no doubt will do it as compassionately as possible. So do you have an obligation to your rats? Well, yes: as just stated. My point is that compassion has not been excluded, even for the rats. You don't actually want to hurt them, you just want to get rid of them. If you could just play a flute and lead them into the wilderness you would do this instead of killing them. Unfortunately this doesn't work. Your need is real. They can find somewhere else to live. Rats are not an endangered species. So in this circumstance I see no bad juju coming your way at all. ;)

Now factory farms. Whats wrong with them? Hmm. Too many places to start and you know them all already I'm sure. The lack of compassion for the animals is probably a good place. Applying compassion in this case is quiet simple: Meet the real needs of the animals in your care. If you meet their real needs (not the ones humans project on them) they will be happy, the meat will be better, and you and they will be healthier. And yes, when you kill them you will do it in a way that minimizes pain to the animal. That also is good for you if only because the meat is better. I'm guessing you do all this already. See, you are more compassionate than you thought. ;)

Standards? The real needs of most domesticated animals are very well known. They aren't complicated beasts. Pigs need to root, chickens need to scratch, etc. Replicating their natural environment to some degree is a good general guide. There are objective standards for compassionate care. We can measure the levels of stress hormones in (factory) animals. You need not look to external standards set by someone else or go so high tech as to measure hormones though. As (I assume) a small scale farmer you know when your animals are happy because you interact with them personally every day. Are there grey areas? Sure. Are there people who set ridiculously low standards (and then fall to meet them)? Sure. None of this changes the need for compassion and the horrific consequences of excluding it from consideration.

Nevertheless, your point is well made: compassion is not always (or even usually) an easy concept to apply. Neither are most other moral principles. Life just isn't tidy that way. As JMG indicated in his last response to me, even if accepted, like most other moral principles, compassion is often more honoured in its breach than its observance. Then again sometimes hypocrisy (the tribute vice pays to virtue) is actually an encouraging sign since it indicates a moral standard at least exists.

Cheers, and all the best mate!

Somewhatstunned said...

JMG replying to Moshe "I confess to a certain weariness over the endless attacks on free will"

Sorry to barge in, but you've pressed one of my buttons there, JMG. I certainly don't make some grand philosophical denial of free will, but I do think it is a much rarer commodity than is assumed.

To give a cartoon sketch of the matter as I see it, there is abundant evidence (from experimental psychology to social anthropology) that we have far less free will than is usually assumed: we are just plain carried along by so many things and make very few real choices. Paradoxically (sort of), if you really care about your free will, and want to be free to have more true choice, then the way to do this is to work to become aware of how much your life is currently directed by external circumstances rather than actively willed. Are my opinions really my own - or are they just what everyone around me "knows"? Did I really choose to live this way - or is it just what my historically-specific surrounding culture defines as normal? That sort of thing. Actually rather hard to do.

One of the major determinants of any choice we make is (of course) the accumulation of our own previous choices - we dig grooves for ourselves. This would argue that although "free will" might be very rare it is also very precious and even quite small choices invariably get added to the compost heap of our souls ...

Purely pragmatic, not philosophical, you understand.

Myriad said...

JMG and Tom Bannister,

I'm now second on the wait list for the de Botton book at my library; thank you! That opening sentence JMG quoted matches nearly word for word one I wrote in an un-submitted earlier (longer) draft of my previous comment. That's a hint even I can pick up on.

Agent Provocateur,

Speaking of that un-submitted earlier draft, guess what analogy I also used for a useful fictitious entity that would be pointless to argue about? "You astronomers claim you don't really believe in the Celestial Sphere, but your books are full of diagrams naming all its parts. What hypocrites!"

What the Celestial Sphere doesn't have, detracting a bit from the analogy, is people bent on taking the wrong parts of the model literally. No present-day astronomer is advocating landing a rover on the surface of the Celestial Sphere as an easy way to explore the stars. Whereas it's not hard to find people who advocate talismans to repel the personified devil, such as crosses or copies of the Ten Commandments, as an easy and effective way to counter the actual forces the devil represents. (I think that would be a good starting point for a discussion of superstition.)

Ray Wharton said...

This post doesn't just open a can of worms for me, it proceeds to go into my back yard and pour the little buddies all around my compost pile.

Theosphere is such an interesting concept to me, for example, I wonder what other shapes it could be than a sphere? I jest, but in seriousness, because I think that the spacial metaphors that make it into theology can be very insightful. In this case, for me, it reinforces the connection of the theological to the surface of the Earth, and then the idea of it changing over time can't help but bring to mind a connection between theology and evolution, but that connection needs a good deal more turning in my head before its ready for the garden.

In thinking about whole systems, I have begun to see them as much like Gods. Intelligent in ways that humans aren't, but in ways which we struggle to define, and not being localizable in any tidy way. As for the personal aspect, once you have intelligence communication becomes conceivable, and with voice comes persona. How it could happen would be buried as deep in vaults of metaphor and mystery, perhaps next to the volume about how our intuition about an animal's intentions comes to be. I would add that comparisons like 'more intelligent/powerful/wise' between the spheres (bio, noos, theo) are going to be loose metaphors, once systems are different enough imagining a test that could fairly pit mind against mind, power against power, will against will becomes the work for epic poets, not scientists. The Odyssey is a pretty good look at where a relatively clever human sits relative to the capricious Gods of the Mediterranean. Trying a direct comparison would be like trying to agree upon rules for entering robotic submarines in the Olympic synchronized swimming team.

My daily was of life is in some ways as hyper rationalist as can be. In high school I was diagnosed with Auspergers, though now it is considered high function autism methinks. Many aspects of what I call intuition, which seems to function to keep groups of humans synchronized with each other, are either lacking in myself or more often skewed in various ways. Growing up this made communication with others difficult for most matters of interest to me. Early in adulthood I came up with the idea of simulating intuition by copying people and developing habits, like learning to use eye contact. I don't want to get too far down this tangent, but I found that if I understood healthy places for rationalism in the human ecosystem, and deliberately limited myself to staying near those niches, I could use thoughtfulness to adapt to the complexities of human society, not to avoid being eccentric or different, but to make myself better at friendship and loyalty. My role model at the time was Lt. Cmd. Data from Star Trek, the robot who wanted to be human, couldn't be, but was appreciated because of good character.

Rationalism is often a matter of doing thinking the hard way compared to intuition for example. It seems easier to pick up on some idea that's in the environment and run with it, than to try to come up with something based on what your rationalist tool kit is currently supplied with to produce. Of course having a good rationalist tool kit in one's mental work shop is wonderful, if one has the wisdom to know when not to use it. I am as big a critic of rationalism as anyone in my circle of people, because I think I use its tools more habitually than my friends to compensate for other more restrictive limits I have. Using it so frequently for so many different applications, teaches the limits of the tool kit pretty darn quickly. Sometimes the best thing rationalism can do is tell me when mode of irrationality to try next. Rationalism is like a little daimonia, helping out a perplexed monkey.

John Michael Greer said...

Phil H., Laszlo's theory is more nuanced than my very brief summary indicates; as a system, a living thing is considerably more complex than an equivalent body of nonliving matter, since there are more interconnections between parts -- though by the same logic, an acre of good soil could probably be described as a living thing!

Stephen, John McClenon and David Hufford have made much the same suggestion in more restricted contexts, and older works by Rudolf Otto and Wiliam James among others also focus on the experiential basis of religion, so I don't think I'm as original as all that. You're right, though, that it's at once an unpopular theory and a very powerful one. I based my arguments in A World Full of Gods on that theory; the total silence with which the publication of that book was met (outside of a few rather small communities in the alternative religion scene, which were very enthusiastic about it) suggests that the unpopularity may be more influential than the power!

Sgage, did you get that from Bateson, or directly from Moliere?

Stunned, I don't object at all to arguments that free will has to be achieved, and that the automatisms of the body and mind have to be overcome in order to achieve it; that's something you'll learn in any school of occultism that takes its own traditions seriously. It's the insistence that free will can't exist at all, because mechanistic models of the cosmos have no place for it, that I find trite and self-refuting.

Ray, your experience matches mine in a lot of ways, down to learning consciously to look people in the eye! As for the shape of the theosphere, I'm tempted to suggest that it's a Klein bottle, and that the ultimate truth is found inside it... ;-)

onething said...

Dagnarus,

I found your question to JMG fascinating, although part way through I decided you were actually kidding...

So what your question really asks is how consciousness relates to reality as a whole. Indeed, there are materialists who do not deny consciousness, but what sort of consciousness is it, then? They consider it temporary, an arising out of complex, living brains and utterly dependent upon them.

Our whole culture believes that so implicitly that even the religious more or less buy into it, in the sense of thinking that matter comes first, and consciousness later.

When the idea that consciousness is the primary reality was presented to me, probably in some book or other, I found it hard to digest, hard to fathom. But it's a question I've kept simmering on the back burner for a few years now, using it to compare while thinking or reading all my other thoughts, and it is becoming more and more obvious to me that it must be so.

I do not think consciousness arises out of complexity, quite the opposite. Consciousness is probably the simplest thing there is. Consciousness can be in the form of a very basic awareness, like an amoeba.
The problem is, if consciousness arises out of material complexity, then matter is the primary reality. If consciousness arises out of matter, then it dissolves back out again, to be no more, which means that it isn't real. It's an artifact, and no matter how beguiling, it is not actual.
By real, I mean something which is not a composite of other things, whose existence does not depend on other conditions.
Of course, for a materialist who accepts only a limited type of consciousness, that may be fine, but if there truly is a spiritual reality, that reality must be primary, with matter dependent upon it rather than the reverse.

Kris Ballard said...

When I said that the stoics had the right idea on their conception of the spiritual nature of the universe, I certainly wasn't trying to impose my beliefs on anyone. I was merely sharing something that I discovered in my study of ancient philosophy, several years ago. I personally believe that we are not only living in a universe, but a multiverse, as well.

sgage said...

@ JMG:

"did you get that from Bateson, or directly from Moliere? "

I knew you'd get my reference - got it from Bateson :-)

Joseph Nemeth said...

@JMG -- Frankly, I find your Klein bottle theory somewhat one-sided.

::ducking::

Unknown said...

I guess I look on this discussion of 'rationality' with some degree of confusion, as I typically do when people talk about reason being in conflict with religion or, more frequently, emotions or intuition. To me, it sounds as absurd as if people were contrasting rationality with, say, vision or smell. Yes, vision is itself non-rational, and so are emotions. But vision isn't anti-rational, or somehow incompatible with rationality. Nor are emotions or intuitions. In fact, if I see someone attempting to brutally suppress their emotions in favor of 'rationality', I typically assume that they have some sort of irrational, over-emotional attachment to the idea of 'reason'!

Maybe it's just a matter of definitions. See, I've always understood 'rationality' to mean (admittedly somewhat tautologically) that collection of human mental techniques - whatsoever they might be - that allow one to reliably achieve correct answers to questions. It's neither a closed body of techniques, for new techniques may be added and old ones discarded as excessively fallible at any time, and still less is it a series of specific doctrines or attitudes. It doesn't claim to be able to solve all problems, but it does claim that any problems it can't solve simply aren't solvable. For instance, there is not only no rational way to square the circle using only the Euclidean propositions, but there is no irrational way either.

Thus, intuition and emotions are, like the senses, taken as valuable sources of information and evidence to be put into the mill of rationality. And, of course, I don't see any particular reason (a-ha-ha) why rationality should necessarily lead to the rejection of traditional religions, of myth, mysticism, ritual, and even magic. Surely religious experiences belong in the same category as normal experiences, and if the latter isn't "anti-rational", then neither should the former be.

As an aside, I do happen to be an atheist materialist as well as an ardent rationalist. But the rationalism is much more important to me than the atheist materialism, and I'm quite open to being demonstrated as being wrong about the atheist materialism. I aim to be blown about by the winds of reason hither and thither, wheresoever evidence and argument suggests is best. And I don't see how even atheist materialism necessarily excludes myth, mysticism, ritual, and even magic.

But it seems like other people here, including our esteemed host, are using the word "rationality" to mean something quite different from this. They're not alone in this - certainly the "New Atheists" seem to do the same, although from quite a different direction. Could someone then explain what "rationality" is being used to mean here, or if people do mean it in the same sense I do, and why they draw such wildly different conclusions than I from this meaning?

--Mark

P.S. @Ray Wharton, you may be amused to know that, among the ardent Trekkers of my acquaintance, it is a matter of common agreement that Lt. Com. Data is by far the most complex, 3-dimensional, and fully human character the series has ever produced.

John Michael Greer said...

Kris, fair enough. I'm very partial to the Stoics as well, of course.

Sgage, but of course!

Joseph, good. I borrowed that, of course, from the Acme Klein Bottle website slogan: "Glass Klein Bottles for sale -- inquire within."

Stephen Heyer said...

Hi John,
Thanks for the correction. I will have to extend my reading list.

Were any of the others aware of just how many people are affected by these experiences?

I suspect the true figure many be much higher than 30% once the Unconscious which seems to have far better access to all things psychic and dreams, ditto, are factored in.

By the way, now we have wonderful machines that can follow a thought through the brain that “Unconscious” thing is turning into a real problem. To begin with, as far as I follow, there is no evidence that what we call the Unconscious is unconscious, merely that “We” are unconscious of it.

Worse yet, it appears that the so called Unconscious does most of our processing and makes most/all of our decisions. All “We” do is afterwards rationalize why “We” made that decision, which of course we didn’t.

In the light of all this I’ve wondered for some decades what “We” are and what is our function. The best I can come up with, and I’m not satisfied with it, is that “We” are some sort of executive error checking mechanism whose main function is to occasionally shout frantically “Hold on! Don’t do that! Remember what happened last time!”.

As a closing thought, it seems to me that the We/Unconscious duality shows some resemblance to the Spirit/Soul duality model that seems to be out of fashion at the moment. Mind you, I keep picking up hints of it in the writings of people who have experienced or study the afterlife.

Stephen Heyer

Gunnar Rundgren said...

"every rationalist movement finally collapsed in frustration and disarray when it turned out that the theory doesn’t work, and a society that makes rational sense won’t function in the real world because, ultimately, human beings don’t make rational sense."

I guess there is some definition of "rationalist"? It seems to me that you are putting the theosphere and the rationalist as the two possible approaches. I am certainly not part of the theosphere but I also don't feel very much at home in some descriptions of what would be "rationalism". So when I read this I find you put "us" in front of a choice that isn't the real one.

To fight (or transcend) one religion (the religion of progress) with a new religion is perhaps following a historical trajectory. And I do believe in that we learn a lot from history, but we also learn that it doesn't always repeat itself...I have more faith(!) in reason, a reason that also understands its own limitations and not claim supremacy and is humble towards what we don't know (yet) or can't know.

Are you not using rational thoughts here to show that humans makes no rational sense? Isn't that slightly contradictory?

Twilight said...

Well, I have never experienced an encounter with a disembodied intelligence (the opposite, however, seems to manifest quite often). This despite placing myself in all manner of situations where such might seem likely, and having been within a final hearbeat or two of dead - I never saw the light.

Reading through the comments here, I sense that there is a large variation in the threshold of what people will accept as "evidence", and perhaps it is a matter of what we will allow ourselves to see. Maybe there are differences in sensitivity as well. I guess I never expect to understand or explain everything, and so I am willing to let small mysteries go without assigning them to a sphere at all. Sometimes it seems like I spent the first part of my life trying to emerge from the noosphere into the bioshpere (to use your terms), and the letter part trying to sense something of the theosphere - but such an obvious experience is so far denied me.

However, like Trippticket above, I don't dismiss other's experiences. And I think there are quieter, subtler ways of perceiving these interactions. There is no doubt of what I feel in certain places in nature, often in the woods. I am very interested in this idea of complex living systems perhaps having some form of consciousness that may perhaps interact with ours at times. Our minds would manifest these experiences in ways we could relate to.

Dagnarus said...

@onething

No I wasn't actually joking. While I don't think it's likely people have had such experiences vis-a-vis industrialism, it wouldn't necessarily shock me if people had. To give additional context a recently had a vision (not really a religious experience mind you) in which I visualized the industrial nations of the world summoned up the God of industrialism from where ever it is such Gods come from and agreed to worship it in exchange for wealth and power. Unfortunately this God requires sacrifice in terms of both the environment and ultimately human. Now this God and his hunger has grown so large that it is becoming difficult to satiate him. Meanwhile many of his worshippers have awakened to the idea that feeding its hunger will lead to their own destruction, but ultimately their wealth and power are given by the beast, and the beast must be fed. Hopefully this will help me on my journey out of Gomorrah.

With regards matter -> consciousness/consciousness -> matter. As this stage I couldn't rule out either possibility, nor indeed could I rule out an Ouroboros relationship where matter -> consciousness -> matter -> consciousness ... .I think I'm leaning towards the Ouroboros relationship however. In any case I doubt that I will ever discover the objective truth with respect to this. I doubt we can hope to develop anything better than workable models of how these things work.

"Of course, for a materialist who accepts only a limited type of consciousness, that may be fine, but if there truly is a spiritual reality, that reality must be primary, with matter dependent upon it rather than the reverse."

If in order for spiritual reality to be real it must be primary, with matter contingent upon it, doesn't that imply that in order for material reality to be real it must be primary, with consciousness contingent upon it?

For what it is worth I would consider that I am a being which is contingent upon my environment, and also real. As an aside one experience which I when a was younger was the sensation that as I moved through time that which was me, was in a continuous process of disappearing to be replaced with the new me who is updated moment by moment, at the time I found it very unnerving, not so much now though.

Phil Harris said...

JMG
We are onto another week, almost, by now, but ... you wrote
though by the same logic, an acre of good soil could probably be described as a living thing!

Yes indeed. Soil breathes! It is easy enough to measure the daily oscillation of CO2 release and oxygen absorption. (And some methane where the oxygen does not reach the life forms in the wet ground.) Soil and the green stuff live together, and forms arise, come and go. I make the same point for the curious community of diverse and communicative billions inhabiting my intestine. I cannot live without their health.

best
Phil

onething said...

Dagnarus,

"If in order for spiritual reality to be real it must be primary, with matter contingent upon it, doesn't that imply that in order for material reality to be real it must be primary, with consciousness contingent upon it?"

To say that something is not real in this philosophical sense does not mean it does not exist. The reason the Hindus call this world maya (delusion) is because it is ephemeral. The things come together and disperse. You see a tree and it is real but all its components can and will dissolve into their respective elements. If our consciousness is another emergent property of the combining of elements into a brain, then our consciousness is no more real than any physical thing, and is not of a different order if being. So if that is the case, there isn't really a true consciousness. That is the materialist position.

The question here is do thoughts cause things or do things cause thoughts?
At the same time, there are those who believe and matter and consciousness exist simultaneously and inseparably, like your ouroborus perhaps, and this may be so in a certain sense. I doubt that a physical manifestation such as our universe is fundamentally necessary, but the potential, the void out of which it comes, is probably fundamentally there.
Physical matter is a strange thing. The more I read and think, the more it seems to me that things work from a bottom up approach, rather than the reverse, by which I mean the very, very subtle underlies the very subtle, and the very subtle underlies the subtle, and so forth. But all of reality is of a piece, and there is no such division as physical versus spiritual. There is only that which exists. In my opinion, there is no such thing as nonphysical, but I use it to communicate. Consciousness is physical, thoughts are physical, souls and spirits are physical, but very, very subtle. It seems hard to imagine up here at the top end of this spectrum, that thoughts have the power to cause heavier manifestations, but that is the conclusion I have come to. And even up here we can see that our thoughts are what drive our own physical actions to our bodies and emotions and the things we build. In addition, the emotional stance a person presents cause doors to either open or close for them and largely decides how their lives go.

Your body is certainly a contingent being, but your consciousness is not.

DeAnander said...

For some reason I am reminded of the character in Terry Pratchett's Discworld epic who said something like "You don't want to go believing in gods -- it only encourages 'em!"

jeffinwa said...

JMG said: "As for the shape of the theosphere, I'm tempted to suggest that it's a Klein bottle, and that the ultimate truth is found inside it... ;-)"
OUCH! Oh my goodness that felt good :-)

Crow Hill said...

I discovered the Archdruid Report in May 2013 and have since become an assiduous reader. Thank you to its community, John Michael for the posts and those who read it and submit their comments:

On the position of compassion in religion, in the Islamic tradition:

In Al Ghazali’s 12th century book, The Ninety-Nine Beautiful Names of God (translation David B. Burrell and Nazih Daher), the first name is ‘He is God and there is no other god but He’, the second is ‘The Infinitely Good’ (or the Merciful), and the third ‘The Merciful’ (or the Compassionate). The name ‘The Slayer’ which could be considered as the opposite of The Merciful comes in sixty-second position.

Concerning the ‘Slayer’ aspect, Richard Dawkins (The Greatest Show on Earth) summarizes its creative side: ‘Without Darwin’s “war of nature”, ..there would be no nervous systems capable of seeing anything at all….’ Brian Swimme in The Universe Story describes how every creative stage of the Universe is preceded by a destructive one, for instance, four to two billion years ago oxygen-emitting blue green bacteria tilted the Earth’s geological systems by creating a fire-prone oxygen-rich atmosphere, thus ending the Archean Eon. Then an oxygen-dependent cell appeared...

Swimme also writes about modern humanity’s refusal of danger and death—or in the terms of the present post, placing compassion as the top virtue. The irony is that it creates new perils and destroys to achieve this hoped-for totally safe world.

Cherokee Organics: You say: ‘Do yourself a favour and go and spend some time with animals. They are both self-aware and have society / a culture.’

This applies to rats too. I am reading Virginia Morrell’s book, Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures. In the chapter entitled The Laughter of Rats, she relates research showing that rats are psychologically very similar to us in many ways and that laughter contributes, for them as it does for us, to socialization.


Finally about a new nature-based religiosity, there is Bron Taylor’s book, The Dark Green Religion, which reviews the spiritual aspect of various nature and environment related movements throughout the world.

Robert said...

I used to be a full on Dawkinite atheist and materialist and regarded religion as organised nonsense, often dangerous nonsense.

Now my views have changed. It was a gradual process. One thing that altered my thinking was the realisation that some of the New Atheists could be every bit as unpleasant and Manichean as some fundamentalist theists. It was an eye opener when Hitchens fanatically propagandised for the Iraq war and refused to accept the evidence of what was happening in that country because it didn't suit his belief system. It was also disturbing when Sam Harris came perilously close to apologising for torture. Of course there is no reason why atheists should have any particular value system but it is clear that secular and atheist ideologies can be just as dangerous as theist ones.

I've also now read enough metaphysical philosophy to realise that it is entirely possible that materialism is false. The fact that it is the default common sense belief does not make it any more scientific than other explanations.

Also there was a disturbing incident after my mother died. Nothing that couldn't be explained in rational terms, just a coincidence, but a disturbing and chilling coincidence which I won't describe.

I would rather believe that materialism is true and that neither God, gods or an afterlife exists because if there is a theosphere it is entirely possible that elements of it are hostile to humans or at least as callous and indifferent to human suffering as most humans are to the immense suffering of animals in factory farms.

Given the amount of cruelty and suffering in the world, if there is a spiritual or divine reality behind it there could be a dark dimension to that reality. God may imply the Devil.

The New Age idea that the ultimate spiritual reality is loving towards us strikes me as wishful thinking - why should it be? Even if humans are God(s) children, well so are crocodiles and crocuses. We are not the only or necessarily most significant thing in the biosphere.

No I'd rather believe that materialism and atheism are true, but atheism is as much a matter of faith as religion is.

Robert said...

Rupert Sheldrake has some interesting things to say about the relationship between science and materialism in his book Science Set Free

"The materialist philosophy achieved its dominance within institutional science in the second half of the nineteenth century, and was closely linked to the rise of atheism in Europe. Twenty first century atheists, like their predecessors, take the doctrines of materialism to be established scientific facts, not just assumptions...

But few atheists believe in materialism alone. Most are also humanists for whom a faith in God has been replaced by a faith in humanity. Humans approach a godlike omniscience through science. God does not affect the course of human history. Instead humans have taken charge themselves, bringing about progress through reason, science, technology, education and social reform.

Mechanistic science in itself gives us no reason to suppose that there is any point in life, or purpose in humanity, or that progress is inevitable. Instead it asserts that the universe is ultimately purposeless and so is human life. A consistent atheism stripped of the humanist faith paints a bleak picture with little ground for hope... But secular humanism arose within a Judeo Christian culture and inherited from Christianity a belief in the unique importance of human life, together with a faith in future salvation. Secular humanism is in many ways a Christian heresy in which man has replaced God.

Secular humanism makes atheism palatable because it surrounds it with a reassuring faith in progress rather than provable facts. Instead of redemption by God, humans themselves will bring about human salvation through science, reason and social reform.

Whether or not they share this faith in human progress all materialists assume that science will eventually prove their beliefs are true. But this too is a matter of faith."

onething said...

Robert,

Why do you think you are human?

Let it go!

You are undefined.

I am.

Robert Mathiesen said...

The other Robert wrote:

"if there is a theosphere it is entirely possible that elements of it are hostile to humans or at least as callous and indifferent to human suffering as most humans are to the immense suffering of animals in factory farms."

So here is a story a very elderly friend of my mother's told me once. Back in the '50s, when "Dan" was still a young man, he worked in construction, building subdivisions of houses in the desert between California and Nevada. It was a parched land there, but he was young and had far more energy than he knew what to do with. So some days, after the day's work, instead of riding in the truck back to camp with the other men, he ran along the road to the camp after the truck had driven off. He came to know that empty road quite well.

One day, however, as he ran, he saw two trees by the side of the road far ahead of him -- trees that had never been there before. As he came abreast of them, he could see between them. What he saw was not the desert, but a greenish, plant-filled land, like one might see elsewhere, where there was ample water in the land. But the green color was a little off, and the plants were not quite like anything he had seen anywhere before, and the rustlings in the underbrush didn't sound quite like anything he had heard elsewhere, and the light felt alien. Yet that land beyond the trees "called" to him somehow, and he felt strongly pulled to go between the trees and see what was there.

Somehow he resisted the pull, though it was hard to do, and continued back to camp. The trees were not there the next day, nor did he see them any other day after that.

When the job was finished, months later, he went home to his mother's house for a visit. His mother was Native American, some sort of "spiritual person" within her tribe -- he wouldn't tell me more about her than that, and actually he didn't seem to know more than what he said. He told her the story of the two trees. She looked at him hard and long, and finally said, "I am so glad you didn't go between those trees. If you had, I would never have seen you again."

And despite his alarmed questions, she would tell him no more about those trees than just that much. But he thought she already knew something about those trees.

It may not be quite the same thing, but in the Northern part of California (as another person once mentioned in my hearing, quite recently) there is Native American lore about "eating places," that is, about places that lure a person in, and afterwards he is never seen again. Apparently these are fixed places in the landscape, not places aren't always there, like Dan's land beyond the two trees.

Dan (who is now long gone) told the same story to other people also. What -- if anything -- was actually there, at the side of the road that one day, I do not presume to know. But I do think that Dan himself regarded his story as a true one. And I, personally, am inclined to account for it along the lines suggested by the other Robert.

jsn said...

Your view of debt and money misses the mark, but, as always, I really enjoyed the essay!

http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2013/10/stephanie-kelton-how-to-talk-about-debt-and-deficits-dont-think-of-an-elephant.html

Nature Creek Farm said...

From an evolutionary standpoint, religion is simply the marketing arm of the Town Meeting. It is the gathering of people together that helps them survive. Unfortunately, the marketing has taken over, as it always does, and people are going to church for God instead of for community (in general). The current state of religious worship is equivalent to watching the Super Bowl just to see the advertisements.

Emmanuel Goldstein said...

Joseph- Some African traditions have protocols for speaking to spirits, and showing them the door; I recommend this You-Tube in which a Westerner undergoes the Ritual of "N'dup" to exorcise depression. One part of the ceremony has the client say to the spirits, "I'm sorry to make you leave me, but I have to get on with my life now. Please know that I will never forget you. (paraphrase)"

Link: Andrew Solomon - Notes on an Exorcism http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-UBgBpFGODI&list=PLDEBBCFDB7DC83378

Joseph Nemeth said; "... It is certainly more helpful than hurtful to have some kind of traditional lore regarding What To Do When God Speaks To You, even if you are in the two-thirds of the population who will never have this experience. Or at the very least, Emily Post's Proper Etiquette for Entertaining Spirits of the Dearly Departed, expanded edition: the one with the appendix on Gracefully Showing the Unwanted Dead the Door.

Daniel June said...

What the world needs, I think, is a unifying "head religion" that subordinates all world religions into one grand body. Such Allism, such a religion, would take a vision such as given here, for the All-divine, that includes all other religions, and excludes none.

http://www.perfectidius.com/mama.htm

We need a religion that with Whitman includes both believer and disbeliever. We need something that includes all.