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Could there be a ‘skeptical ecstasy’?

We all love a bit of ecstasy, don’t we? Not the drug (though that’s a form of ecstatic experience) but, more broadly, those moments of expansion, elation and awe we sometimes feel, when our heart-strings seem to vibrate in harmony with the universe,  when the vast, black and empty cosmos seems suddenly to radiate with love. We’re all into that, yeah?

The ecstasy of Father Jean Birelle, from the Louvre

If, like me, you’re a bit of a mystic hippy, you might attribute such ecstatic moments to God, and interpret them as a connection to the divine. Making a ‘divine attribution’ adds to the experience. You may feel ‘God loves me!’, you may feel profoundly accepted and forgiven, you may take your feelings as proof of His special favour.

This is where it get tricky. The certainty that usually accompanies ecstasy can lead to various nasty side-effects for you and for your society.

People in the grip of ecstasy are often convinced that the world had radically changed, normal rules no longer apply, that they are in a new Age of Love. They may abandon their jobs and families, dance naked in the streets like the Ranters of the English Civil War or the Ravers of the Summer of Love. And it’s what Californians call ‘a major buzz-killer’ when they calm down and realize the Age of Love hasn’t arrived, and, in the words of Steely Dan, ‘all those day glo freaks who used to paint their face, they’ve joined the human race’.

Again and again, collective outpourings of ecstasy have ended in orgies of scapegoating, as Cohn’s book explores

It gets more dangerous when the ecstatic hordes decide that a particular individual or group stands in the way of the Age of Love, and therefore they must be banished or executed. Again and again, throughout history, moments of collective ecstasy have degenerated into bloody orgies of scapegoating. Ecstasy often leads to a supercharged version of the ‘Us versus Them’ mentality. A group feels mystically fused together, and then refuses to tolerate bystanders or outsiders. It’s like a homicidal version of the Hokey Cokey: either join the dance, or die.

The Enlightenment was built, after centuries of religious violence, on the basis that religious ecstasy is dangerous and we need to contain it, marginalize it, even pathologise it as ‘enthusiasm’. As philosophers like John Locke and Adam Smith recognised, ecstasy is a threat to reason, tolerance, industry and public order. We need to lock it up.

And yet, like King Pentheus trying to lock up Dionysus, somehow ecstasy always escapes. Over the last three hundred years, there have been various ecstatic resistance movements, from Methodism to Pentecostalism, from rock and rave to football hooliganism and fascism (as Bernard Knox pointed out, one of the Homeric words for fighting, charmê, comes from the same root as the word chairô—‘rejoice’.). Considering the global rise of neo-Pentecostalism today, ecstasy does not seem to be going anywhere. The Enlightenment’s War on Ecstasy has failed.

So here’s my question: could there be a skeptical ecstasy? Could we rehabilitate ecstatic experiences, and somehow de-toxify them of their tendency to fanaticism and scapegoating?

Richard Holloway’s liberal evangelism

This brings me to Richard Holloway’s Leaving Alexandria, which came out last year, and which is that rare thing – a book about Christianity that actually sold well in the UK. Its success is not surprising, as Holloway, the former Bishop of Edinburgh, has quite a tale to tell – from failed monk to horny missionary in Africa, from socialist priest in the slums of the Gorbals, to his time ministering among the dying during the AIDS epidemic. Finally, fatally, Holloway is made a bishop, and he has a serious run in with the evangelical wing of the Anglican communion.

The crisis comes at the Lambeth conference of 1998, where a ‘pincer movement’ of evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics vote that homosexuality is ‘incompatible with Scripture’. Holloway is disgusted by the homophobic hatred and bile expressed by the evangelicals, and offended by their utter certainty that they know God’s opinion on matters of sexuality and gender.

His stance in solidarity with the marginalized is admirable, but rather than trying to defend it with reference to Scripture (the gospels, say), as would befit a bishop, he brings out a book called Godless Morality the year after the conference, suggesting that we leave God out of public discussions of morality. The idea of God, he comes to believe, simply muddies the waters of civil debate. Who knows what God thinks anyway? Archbishop Carey denounces the book, and Holloway’s own congregation vote him out. This offends Holloway but really, what did he expect – if God should be left out of public discourse, then what’s the point of bishops?

He ends the book in a mood of weepy elegy, declaring that Christianity is ‘on its last legs’, that the Anglican communion is ‘unraveling’, that God probably doesn’t exist, and religions deserve no more respect or obedience than other artistic creations like, say, the works of Proust or Nietzsche (who he quotes repeatedly). He admits that evangelical churches may be growing, but that’s only because they peddle easy answers – not like Richard, the heroic skeptic. He briefly wonders if there could ever be a ‘liberal evangelism’, one not so sure of itself, one less keen to pronounce and condemn, open to the possibility it’s wrong.

I think there could be a liberal evangelism – a form of spirituality that is open to ecstatic experience but also socially inclusive, non-homophobic, and humble as to its own truth-claims. But it would need to have a little more faith than the thin gruel offered us by Holloway. Never mind God, he doesn’t even believe in free will. The central assertion of his memoir is that we can’t choose our path in life, nor improve our characters through practice – instead, time reveals to us who we essentially and immutably are. Time reveals that Holloway is an uncertain and vain man, and it couldn’t have been any other way. I find this sort of genetic fatalism depressing and, in Holloway’s case, self-serving. If there is one thing I like about Christianity, it’s the belief in second chances and the possibility of liberation from sin and suffering. Give me that over Holloway’s genetic fatalism any day.

Towards a skeptical ecstasy

So what would a ‘skeptical ecstasy’ look like? Let me attempt an answer:

1) People want and need channels for ecstatic experience. They give our lives meaning and colour, they free us from boredom, and they make us feel less separate from other people and from God and / or Nature.

2)  We need to be careful in our search for ecstasy, and aware that it’s not an unmitigated good, that it can harm ourselves and others.

3)  There are better and worse channels for ecstasy – anti-social channels which direct us towards self-destruction or violence against outsiders, and pro-social channels which direct us towards compassion and love. There is ecstasy which seeks to police borders (we’re in and you’re out) and ecstasy which knocks down borders (we’re different but at a deeper level we’re the same).

4) Having ecstatic experiences doesn’t make you special or unique. Everyone feels ecstatic sometimes. What counts is what it leads to. Many artists have felt divinely inspired, for example, but few of them have actually turned that inspiration into good art. Likewise, many spiritual seekers have had ecstatic experiences, but not all of them have built genuinely good lives. Ecstatic inspiration is not enough, it needs to be supported by beliefs, learning and daily practices.

5) Don’t think you’re better or holier than other people because you have moments of ecstasy. You may simply have a more emotional temperament. Likewise, don’t think you’re less spiritual because you don’t have such experiences. There are many ways to lead a good life – sobbing, babbling, passing out and waving your hands in the air are fun but not essential.

6) Don’t be too sure you know what God wants. Test your intuitions. Be open to the possibility you’re wrong. Have a flexible, experimental and open-minded attitude to your ecstatic experiences. It’s OK not to have all the answers.

7) Ecstatic experiences don’t give your arguments special status in the public square. You need to give reasons for your arguments, and expect to defend them rationally. Bodily sensations are not an argument.

8) Above all, we need to watch out for the tendency to scapegoat in ourselves. We need to watch for the tendency to project our shadows onto others, to blame outsiders for our own divided and unhappy natures. That demon is within us all, and ecstasy often lets him out. Jesus warned again and again, don’t judge others, don’t point the finger, love your enemies, love those different to you, love those who society looks down on, cross the road to help them. If your ecstasy isn’t serving that end, then it’s just a self-congratulatory feeling.

St Paul, writing to a young church that was fixated on speaking in tongues and other ecstatic phenomena, put it well:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.


In other news:

I’ve been on holiday so don’t have much extra reading for you, but here’s a handful:

A friend introduced me to the work of Daniel Mendelsohn, a classicist and critic for the NYRB. Here’s his wonderfully scathing critique of the film ‘Troy’.

It’s the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech. The BBC brought together some people to reflect on its impact.

The Papacy is considering making GK Chesterton a saint. The Spectator lays out the arguments against canonisation.

Here’s a WSJ piece on Philip Zimbardo’s ‘time perspective therapy’.

Here’s an FT piece about the Sunday Assembly, or ‘church of no religion’ – which is what people used to call Esalen, the California New Age commune, by the way.

Finally, I’m sorry to hear of the passing of Seamus Heaney, the last poet whose work meant something to millions of Irish and British people. Here he is on Desert Island Discs.

See you next week,


PS I used a photo by a photographer, Simon Barber, without his permission. He got in touch, and very kindly let me off paying once I’d removed the image. Thanks for the reprieve Simon – check out his work here.

Materialism, spirituality, and the three C’s

Steven Pinker, the Harvard cognitive linguist, would not make a very good ambassador. In his latest diatribe, he attempts to reassure humanities scholars that science is not their enemy. Science is good, and humanities scholars should stop complaining about ‘Scientism’. Unfortunately, he says this in such a tactless and, er, Scientistic way that it’s guaranteed to annoy not just humanities scholars, but no doubt many scientists too.

Right from the get-go, he patronizes the humanities, giving his essay the sub-title, ‘an impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians’, which makes everyone in the humanities sound like losers. Just to make sure of offence, he then claims that Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Leibniz, Kant and Smith were ‘all scientists’, and all materialists to boot. Even I know that’s wrong – Descartes, Rousseau, Liebniz, Kant and Smith all used spiritual ideas like the soul, providence, God or the General Will in their philosophies.

I don’t care about inter-departmental bun-fights. I am all for cross-disciplinary work between the humanities and the sciences, like the Stoicism and Therapy project I’m working on at Exeter University. The Scientism I object to, which Pinker expresses, is the shrill insistence that science has ‘proved’ materialist utilitarianism and any other world-view is ridiculous. I think that type of Scientism, besides being tactless, leaves out important aspects of human experience.

Materialism’s rejection of subjective experience

According to Pinker’s Scientism, ‘most of the traditional sources of belief – faith, revelation, dogma, authority, charisma, conventional wisdom, the invigorating glow of subjective certainty – are generators of error and should be dismissed as sources of knowledge’.

Dismissed entirely? That would mean ignoring subjective experience, our mental states and emotions. Surely our inner experience is a useful source of knowledge about ourselves – otherwise how would we have any basis for psychology? Certainly subjective experience can mislead – whole shelves of philosophy and theology have been written on the art of discernment – but it seems extreme to dismiss all inner experience as a source of knowledge.

Religious traditions claim that our consciousness, and subjective experiences like emotions, are useful sources of knowledge about how to live

Pinker goes on, ‘the moral worldview of any scientifically literate person requires a radical breach from religious conceptions of meaning and value’. How does it require that? William James understood that the foundation of religions is ‘religious experience’, our attempt to make sense of our consciousness, emotions and relationships, and to discover the wisest way to live. Many ‘scientifically literate’ people still find religious traditions useful guides.

Pinker insists that scientific progress has exposed and debunked the truth-claims of the world’s religions. This is true – some of the truth-claims of Genesis, for example, have been debunked, and it’s unfortunate that many fundamentalist Christians refuse to accept the discoveries of evolution or geology. But Pinker over-eggs his materialist pudding. He says: ‘We know that the laws governing the physical world have no goals that pertain to human well-being’.

No, we don’t. We know that the laws of the physical world led to consciousness, and that consciousness apparently gives humans the ability to think, discuss and philosophize, and to choose better and wiser ways of living which enhance our well-being. A strict materialist might claim that talk of consciousness and free will is ‘woo woo’, but I think the scientific evidence supports the above claims.

We don’t yet know how consciousness works, and whether it’s confined to our individual brains or is connected with other sentient beings and the cosmos. Until then, scientists don’t know if things like prayer, prophecy and revelation have something to them or are delusions (although we can test out the truth-claims of particular prophecies or revelations, and see for ourselves if we think prayer works).

Does science ‘prove’ secular humanism?

Pinker’s right that scientific progress has undermined many religious truth-claims, and in the process undermined people’s values and sense of meaning. But has science led to positive values or meaning? Pinker says that though ‘the scientific facts do not themselves dictate values…[they] militate towards…principles that maximize the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings’. This ‘humanism’, he says, ‘is becoming the de facto morality of modern democracies’.

Is it? The fact that modern democracies are doing nothing to prevent climate change suggests that we don’t care about the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings. Rather, the ruling value system of modern democracies would seem to be consumerism, and the flourishing of all sentient beings is way down our list of priorities.

Like Christianity, Humanism is an expression of hope and faith in the face of contrary evidence.

I’m not blaming this failure on scientific materialism – the Christian majority of America seem just as consumerist as the atheist minority. I’m merely saying that Pinker’s faith in secular humanism is just that: a faith, something that flies in the face of the abundant evidence that humans don’t care about the flourishing of others, that rationalism alone is apparently not enough to help us. He speaks of the ‘unfulfilled promises’ of secular humanism, much like a Christian longing for a more just world.  Humanism, like Christianity, involves faith (which according to Pinker makes it ‘unscientific’ and therefore unworthy of respect).

Pinker’s materialist utilitarianism ignores the three Cs

Like Pinker, I believe that our ethics should be connected to what psychology tells us about human nature. But I would argue that religious traditions have a better understanding of human psychology and how to develop it into ethical conduct than Pinker’s materialist utilitarianism. I want to emphasize three aspects of human nature where materialist utilitarianism falls short – creativity, community, and consciousness.

First, creativity. Pinker discusses at the end of his essay how ‘new science’ has discovered humans are not ‘rational actors’. Instead, as social scientists like George Lakoff and Jonathan Haidt have researched, we’re moved by metaphor, image, and narrative-frames of purity, heroism, justice and other ‘moral emotions’.

Shelley, kicked out of Oxford for preaching atheism in the streets, still claimed poets were the ‘hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration’.

That’s what religious thinkers from Carlyle to Chesterton have been warning utilitarians since the Enlightenment. But materialism has undermined our myths or ‘sacred narratives’, which is why poetry has gone from being at the very centre of human society to being at the margins. Poets (even atheist poets like Shelley) drew energy from the Platonic idea that they are prophets, mediators to the spirit world – this is true all the way up to Ted Hughes, our last great poet. Once we stopped believing in things we couldn’t see, our poetic imagination dried up. Poetry became a sideshow: amusing but of no substantial import.

As TS Eliot warned, the loss of collective myths led to a loss of meaning and a flattening of emotion, because materialism failed to come up with new sacred narratives that light up our moral emotions, other than the rather toxic narrative of nationalism. Photographs from the Hubble telescope are awesome, but they’re not a guiding myth like, say, Lord of the Rings or Paradise Lost.

Secondly, community. Religious traditions are not perfect at community-building – most of them still struggle with misogyny and homophobia, and secular humanist communities are much better in that respect. But religious communities typically have stronger and more emotional ties, because they have at their heart collective experiences of the sacred, which social scientists from Emile Durkheim to Robert Putnam emphasised as the key to community cohesion.

The most nurturing religious communities have the idea of a loving God at their centre. This allows people to be vulnerable, to care for each other and for their communities, and gives them a common identity at a deep level – deeper than the secular humanist idea that what connects us in rationality. The problem about communities connected only by rationality is they easily become snobbish cliques of the cognitive elite, rather like the Edge Foundation to which Pinker belongs. Secular humanist communities need to learn the art of being vulnerable – that’s why Brene Brown’s work is so valuable.

Thirdly, consciousness. Rather than dismissing subjective experience, religious traditions are storehouses of wisdom about it, and in particular about the emotions, and how to transform them. Secular therapy owes a great deal to these traditions, from mindfulness meditation to prayer in the 12 Steps Programme. This wisdom seems to me at least as valuable as the materialist approach to our inner worlds, which is basically to look for chemical solutions to chemical problems. Religious traditions are also open to ‘out-of-the-ordinary experiences’ like visions, trances and ecstasies, which scientific materialism can often dismiss as ‘psychotic-like symptoms’.

Of course, the materialist hypothesis may turn out to be right. Our minds may be confined to our brains, there may be no God or higher beings communicating with us, the universe may not care anything about us. But it remains a hypothesis, to be challenged and criticized rather than turned into dogma. As Pinker says, ‘the beloved convictions of every time and culture may be decisively falsified, doubtless including some we hold today’.