The New Atheists are actually transcendentalists.
How do you fit experiences of ecstasy, awe, wonder, the Sublime, or the Numinous into a materialist paradigm, without reducing or devaluing such experiences? With difficulty.
I've spent an enjoyable few days reading various works by the Four Horsemen of New Atheism - Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett. For Harris, Hitchens and Dawkins, the question of ecstatic or sublime experience is a key issue that New Atheism / materialism has to grapple with - and I’m going to briefly take you through their responses. My conclusion (to skip to the end) is that these writers actually have a deep sense of humans’ capacity for self-transcendence through art and contemplation, which is not entirely reconciled with their professed materialism.
Of the four, Sam Harris has perhaps thought most about this question - indeed, he has a book out in September called Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, in which he attempts an answer. He distinguishes himself from his fellow horsemen by his willingness to use words like ‘spiritual’ and ‘mystical’ in a positive sense, to signify experiences of heightened awareness when the chatter of ordinary consciousness dies down, and a deeper, more nourishing consciousness emerges.
He says: "Although we generally live within the limits imposed by our ordinary uses of attention—we wake, we work, we eat, we watch television, we converse with others, we sleep, we dream—most of us know, however dimly, that extraordinary experiences are possible."
Harris has had personal experience of such ‘self-transcending experiences’, as he cals them, which he’s reached through meditation (for a decade he was devotee of Buddhism, and at one point a body-guard for the Dalai Lama!), through chanting, and through psychedelic experimentation with LSD and MDMA.
He writes in The End of Faith:
The history of human spirituality is the history of our attempts to explore and modify the deliverances of consciousness through methods like fasting, chanting, sensory deprivation, prayer, meditation, and the use of psychotropic plants. [Such practices] are some of our only means of determining to what extent the human condition can be deliberately transformed.
Harris believes ‘a kernel of truth lurks at the heart of religion, because spiritual experience, ethical behavior and strong communities are essential for human happiness’. The atheist movement’s neglect of the value of spiritual experience (he says here) ‘puts us at a rhetorical disadvantage, because millions of people have had these experiences, and many millions more have had glimmers of them, and we, as atheists, ignore such phenomena, almost in principle, because of their religious associations’.
Yet, Harris insists, ‘these experiences often constitute the most important and transformative moments in a person’s life. Not recognizing that such experiences are possible or important can make us appear less wise even than our craziest religious opponents.’
What Harris wants to do, in his forthcoming book, is show how we can cultivate states of altered consciousness without reaching after unproven metaphysical concepts like God, karma, the afterlife, the soul and so on. Indeed, his project for the last decade and a half has - in keeping with his Quaker ancestry - been to strip religion of all irrational myth and superstition and leave just the bare ‘kernel of truth’, which would be something like ‘utilitarian ethics + spiritual experiences + skeptic-humanist-rationalist community’.
Which is fine. And I look forward to reading the book. But I’d raise three questions, that I hope his book answers:
Firstly, why do all the contemplative masters, whose findings he respects so much, insist that these mystical practices tell us something not just about the mind, but about metaphysical reality? If Harris is going to grant them such respect and authority, shouldn’t he be more open to the conclusions they reach on their inner journeys?
Secondly, what, as a materialist-determinist, does Harris mean by ‘self-transcending experience’? Does he think we can deliberately transcend our ordinary self? How can we do that, if we don’t have some sort of conscious choice? If self-transcendence happens involuntarily, it’s not really self-transcendence, is it? You wouldn’t say that a flower unfolding or a caterpillar turning into a butterfly was ‘self-transcending’...would you? Those are automatic and involuntary processes. Does he think spiritual experiences are similarly automatic and involuntary?
Harris has suggested that deep meditative states support the view that we don't have free will - something I know Susan Blackmore also thinks. I have never properly practiced meditation, but I confess to not understanding how contemplative states reached by intense and deliberate practice over many years can be used as evidence for our lack of free will. Perhaps, as Blackmore suggests, such experiences and the training that lead to them are the natural unfolding of the cosmos, like buds opening in the spring...Though my sense of spiritual experiences is they're not entirely involuntary, they usually involve some sort of voluntary submission of the will to a Higher Power.
Thirdly (this is more of a criticism than a question), Harris’ impatience with myths, rituals and any other superstitious paraphernalia suggests an impoverished understanding of the human mind, and of the power of symbols, images, rituals and stories to convey us into altered states of consciousness.
Harris once, revealingly, said that if you removed all the irrational myth and symbolism from religion, you could present the insights of mystics and contemplatives in a book as bare and factual ‘as a manual for operating a lawn mower’. This isn’t true at all. Look at the great mystical literature - at the poetry of Rumi, at the parables of Jesus, at the Upanishads. They never state their claims about the nature of reality in bald and scientifically-testable facts, like a lawn-mower’s manual. Rather, they gesture towards truths about the spiritual world with parables, paradoxes, images or metaphors. And the reason their teachings work, the reason they give us an intimation of the spiritual realm, is partly because of their poetry and beauty (unlike a lawn-mower’s manual). I’ll come back to the power of metaphor and aesthetic pleasure later.
Christopher Hitchens and the Numinous
Hitchens also had a powerful sense of the value of ecstatic experiences, or what he called ‘the Numinous’. He was once asked, in a debate on religion with Tony Blair, what he thought was best about religion, what bit of it he would most miss if religions did indeed disappear. He replied:
I’m a materialist…yet there is something beyond the material, or not entirely consistent with it, what you could call the Numinous, the Transcendent, or at its best the Ecstatic. I wouldn’t trust anyone in this hall who didn’t know what I was talking about. It’s in certain music, landscape, certain creative work, without this we really would merely be primates. It’s important to appreciate the finesse of that, and religion has done a very good job of enshrining it in music and architecture.
In a conversation with the other horsemen, shortly before his death, Hitchens says if he’d make one change to the whole New Atheist movement, it would be to distinguish the Numinous from the supernatural more clearly. That, he says, 'would be an enormous distinction to make.'
On another occasion he elaborated:
I, think everybody has had the experience at some point when they feel that there’s more to life than just matter. But I think it’s very important to keep that under control and not to hand it over to be exploited by priests and shamans and rabbis and other riffraff..I’m absolutely not for handing over that very important department of our psyche to those who say, “Well, ah. Why didn’t you say so before? God has a plan for you in mind.” I have no time to waste on this planet being told what to do by those who think that God has given them instructions.
Hitchens was by far the most aesthetically-cultivated of the Four Horsemen - much of his writing is book reviews, and he spent his last days writing about the poetry of GK Chesterton, one of his favourite poets apparently. Indeed, before 9/11 turned him into the bristling bulldog of atheism, he was considering giving up political journalism to write a book on Proust (a rebuttal of Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life - alas that we never got to read Hitchens on de Botton!)
If he were still alive, I would try to ask him what he meant by the Numinous (it’s a term from Rudolph Otto’s book, The Idea of the Holy, in which it refers to the irrational and awe-inspiring aspects of religion) and what he means by saying our experiences of the Numinous are ‘not entirely consistent’ with materialism. How then does he account for such experiences - are they, like religious experiences, mere delusions or malfunctions of the brain? Does he really think that our hunger for the Numinous, and our incredible experiences of it, are just a by-product of blind evolution?
As he would have known, many smart minds - Plato and Kant among them - thought our hunger for the Sublime or the Numinous was an intimation of a transcendent realm beyond materialism, and evidence of our spiritual connection to this transcendent realm. This was why Kant made an accommodation between Christianity and his own Enlightenment free thinking. Hitchens, by contrast, is so keen to strip priests, rabbis and mullahs of their power, that he makes the Enlightenment mistake of throwing the baby of the Numinous out with the bathwater of the priesthood.
Hitchens was once asked, in 2007, if he was a strict materialist. He dodged the question, replying that the rabbi he was debating (Julia Neuberger) was definitely wrong to claim she knew the mind of God and could tell us His views on sexuality. But that didn’t answer the question about his own views. At another time, he told a Unitarian minister he was not a ‘vulgar materialist’, that we have a ‘need for the transcendent’. He was not, then, a strict materialist. He was a transcendentalist, just one with a particularly virulent hatred of organized religion.
Richard Dawkins and the wonder of poetry
Despite the stereotype of Dawkins as an arid rationalist, he does in fact have a profound sense of beauty, wonder and even ecstasy - indeed, he calls the first volume of his autobiography An Appetite for Wonder. He describes, in that book, his love of poetry, particularly the poetry of Keats, Blake, Shakespeare and that uber-mystic W.B Yeats (Hitch was also a big Yeats fan). He ends his book, Unweaving the Rainbow, with a particularly ecstatic quote from Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale:
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
We read also in his autobiography of his deep love of music - his favourite experience at Oxford was being a member of a dining club which sang music hall songs together, and he says he became convinced of God’s existence as a teenager after discovering Elvis Presley was a believer (I think Elvis is a perfectly valid reason for believing in God - argumentum ad Elvisam). He says in passing that he has considered taking LSD, but was talked out of it by his uncle - a psychiatrist who has specialized in studying LSD. Perhaps we should start a petition to give Dawkins the best trip of all time, with a cast of thousands including perhaps a full orchestra and ballet company, to see whether we can nudge his world-view.
Dawkins seems genuinely aggrieved, in Unweaving the Rainbow, at the common view that science is somehow the enemy of poetry. He insists that ‘the impulses to awe, reverence and wonder which led Blake to mysticism are precisely those that lead others of us to science’, and adds ‘our interpretation is different but what excites us is the same’. Why, he wonders, did Blake and other Romantics denigrate Newton and other Enlightenment scientists? Why do they attack materialism? If only they had sung the wonders of evolution or atomism , as Lucretius had. In the last line of his book he imagines a marriage of science and poetry - ‘A Keats and a Newton, listening to each other, might hear the galaxies sing’.
He reminds me, in fact, of CS Lewis ( a writer he quotes throughout the book), but Lewis before his conversion, when he felt like his mind was split into two hemispheres - Reason and Imagination - and he despaired of marrying them. It is not easy, for any of us, to marry the intimations of our aesthetic sense with the logic of our rationality.
But Dawkins’ attempt to marry the two does not quite work. He seems to think it’s simply a question of presenting poets with the facts of scientific materialism, and asking them to sing from that hymn sheet. If only, he wonders, Michelangelo or Bach had received their commissions from someone other than the Church, we might have had great symphonies to atomic materialism. I’m not so sure. The only aesthetic hymn we’ve had to atomic materialism, after two millennia, is Lucretius’ De Rerum Naturae, and even that veers off into a hymn to Venus. I think it's no accident that, in age where atomistic materialism has become the ruling paradigm, great poetry has dried up.
Romantic poets’ antipathy was not, I’d suggest, to science, but rather to scientific materialism. And the reason for that is partly their sense that the creative process is not chemical or neurological but spiritual. Most of the great poets believed their inspiration was from the spirit world, in one form or another (the Muses, the White Goddess, the spirits of Nature, God). Their inspiration felt like it was something beyond rationality, beyond ordinary consciousness, beyond their control - in that sense, it felt like a gift from beyond.
Hitchens once spoke of this: ‘I can write and I can talk and sometimes when I’m doing either of these things I realize that I’ve written a sentence or uttered a thought that I didn’t absolutely know I had in me… until I saw it on the page or heard myself say it. It was a sense that it wasn’t all done by my hand.’ This is why poets often feel a reverence and debt to the spirit-world (in one form or another).
In the Romantic poets beloved of Dawkins, this sense of the spiritual gift of creative inspiration is tied to a transcendental philosophy, found in Kant, Coleridge, Schiller, Emerson and others, which believes that the imagination enables humans to transcend beyond phenomenal appearances, beyond the limits of material determinism, and give us intimations of a transcendent or spiritual realm, which the Romantics in their more orthodox moments call God.
The strange thing is, Dawkins - like Hitchens, and perhaps like Harris - sometimes suggests something not so very far from this Romantic transcendental philosophy. He wonders why it was that human consciousness should have gone so exponentially beyond the consciousness of other species on Earth, why it gives us the unique ability to resist the tyranny of our genes, reflect on our experience and make relatively free choices about how to live. And he speculates that the answer may lie in our capacity for metaphor and symbolism:
I wonder whether the ability to see analogies, the ability to express meaning in terms of symbolic resemblances to other things, may have been the crucial software advance that propelled human brain evolution over the threshold....However it began...we humans, uniquely among animalkind, have the poet’s gift of metaphor, of noticing when things are like other things and using the relation as a fulcrum for our thoughts and feelings...Perhaps [the imagination] was the step from constrained virtual reality, where the brain simulates a model of what the sense organs are telling it, to unconstrained virtual reality, in which the brain simulates things that are not actually there at the time...We can take the virtual reality software in our heads and emancipate it from the tyranny of simulating only utilitarian reality. We can imagine worlds that might be, as well as those that are.
This, it seems to me, is a transcendent and even redemptive vision of the imagination. It is much more inspiring to me than the metaphor Dawkins is most famous for - the metaphor of the Selfish Gene, in which humans are merely robotic vessels for our replicator genes. Dawkins and Dennett (whose thoughts on ecstasy I’ll have to leave for another day) have both tried to extend the self-replicating logic of genes into the world of culture, with their theory of memes. The theory is that memes - ideas, concepts, fashions - also use humans as hosts and seek to replicate themselves and spread, like viruses. This is not a very good theory, for various reasons - the most obvious being that ideas aren’t discrete entities like genes, and my idea of God, say, may be very different to your idea of God. The meme theory does not do justice to our individual capacity for creation, adaptation, improvisation and play.
But in his more exalted moods, Dawkins talks about culture in far less mechanistic and deterministic terms. Culture is the supra-material realm in which humans can transcend our genetic determinism, can escape the tyranny of the mundane and utilitarian, and delight in free play, spontaneous improvisation and moments of expanded consciousness. Art is a window beyond materialism, a ladder to transcendence.
That is a vision of human nature that I can share, even if I’d disagree with Dawkins about the origin of our capacity for transcendence and what it says about the nature of the universe. And, of course, one's experience of ecstasy will be very different if you think it is either an evolutionary by-product in an indifferent universe, or the re-connection of your soul with the divine cosmos. Neither is necessarily better or worse, they're just clearly different.