Another step in this for me ever-more interesting exchange of ideas and enriching exploration of the spiritual substance of the human nature, with Prof. John Bardi, who teaches Philosophy and religious Studies at the Penn State University at Mont Alto (PA, USA). The theme: how to deal with atheism and agnosticism, and the sense of a spiritual research in a world that sometimes appears to be deaf to such instances – and not only among the declared “atheists” and “agnostics”.
John: The issue of atheism has been coming up recently for me. What I mean by that is that I have been having a lot of trouble with atheists suddenly. More and more, they are narrow, dogmatic, and deeply paranoid—sort of like the fundamentalists, only in reverse. Some of my colleagues have turned against me because I defend religion. (The fundamentalists have long since turned against me because I challenge the notion of Biblical literalism and point out that literal readings of scripture limit their meaning and cut out much of the wisdom.)
It is one thing not to believe in particular claims of religion or even in the existence in a transcendental realm. That is the classic atheism. There is a new, toxic brand of atheism that I am running into. It isn’t just that these people deny the existence of a transcendental realm. It is so much more than that. They want to eliminate religion. In exactly the same way that certain fundamentalists want to take over government and create a theocracy, these people want to outlaw religion.
Of course, I am horrified. In my understanding, religion (based on the urge to understand the big picture and “what it all means”) is like art or politics—that is, it is an essential aspect of the human experience. In exactly the same way that we cannot “eliminate” art, we cannot “eliminate” religion. There may be bad art being produced, as in the way art is used to market products and junk politicians, but art itself is of the essence of the human experience. It can be degraded (and censorship is a greater degradation than pornography) but not eliminated.
Giovanni: John, your words do picture the point at which my researches have got up to now, and the very quintessence of my human(istic) and spiritual interests. In particular, the theme of atheism is somehow challenging me, too. I have recently had many conversations with atheists/agnostics, who, on the one hand, showed to be much more willing to talk on spirituality issues than various “believers”, indoctrinated and imbued with religious dogmas and habits, but completely rigid and unaware of the bottomless well of wisdom that is enshrined in sacred texts. I do believe, like you, that
“what we need is not a world without religion but a religion of wisdom and transcendental insight that inspires us to grow into greater wisdom and transcendental insight”,
as you wonderfully pointed out in your message. And I am fully persuaded that the concept of beauty is absolutely central to any approach to the human nature, as much as that of energy, that, as I previously wrote you, I look at as the trait d’union, or maybe the common substance, between the “impalpable” and the “material”. Actually, energy-spirit is what warrants for the presence of the spirit in the material world. So, from a certain point of view, I think many atheists/agnostics are paradoxically closer to the truth than many religious people, blindfolded by the strict precepts received and a-critically (that is, rationally, but not intuitively) absorbed, so probably not assimilated at all. On the other hand, you’re right in saying that atheism and relativism are trying to wipe religions away, no matter how deep the treasure of wisdom hidden in it may be. And this is like hypothetically getting rid of all literature just because there are a few very bad books around. It’s just stupid. Mostly, if we consider that God, in its true essence (as the Latin word deus, the Greek one theòs and the Sanskrit one deva mean), is Light, that is precisely energy, or the source of whatever exists. So, it is the source of our very physical and spiritual being, which (as Albert Einstein well demonstrated) is matter AND energy. So, getting rid of spirituality (together with religion in its negative side) would equal to getting rid of reality, and more specifically of ourselves! And, curiously, this is the effect that quite a relevant part of both the religious and the atheist world produce: colonizing people’s minds and depriving them of their inner source of enthusiasm (that, literally, is “inspiration”, the word that you used) and desire. But, as Edward Bach underlined, without desire, that is, without a life vocation, we are not only unhappy, but bound to get ill, because the emotional disbalance deriving from the frustration and the boredom of an empty life sooner or later turns into physical problems. So, being authentically spiritual is nothing but being realistic. And being so realistic means to regain possession of the bridge uniting and linking the material and the immaterial, that in truth inhabit each other. This is also what I’ve been trying to explain in my essay Tolkien and Bach. From Middle-earth to the Energy of Flowers (Tolkien e Bach. Dalla Terra di Mezzo all’energia dei fiori), published in Italy this year by Galaad Edizioni.
John: I am especially struck by your analysis that denying religion, properly understood, constitutes on a deeper level a denial of both reality and humanity. Of course, to those who think of religion (which both the new atheists AND the fundamentalists assert) as a system of empirical claims about the natural world, this does not make much sense. Instead, the new atheists tend to think of religion as a neurotic denial of reality, and the fundamentalists often think of science as a malevolent denial not just of religion but also of reality.
In my recent discussions with atheists I have been told again and again that religion is either true or it is false. My response (which goes nowhere with them) is to focus on the notion of “truth” that they are using. It is, I say, a very naïve and inadequate version of what is sometimes called in philosophy the “correspondence” theory of truth. That is, there is a world. The world is all there is. The world consists of facts. Any statement either corresponds with the facts, which makes it true, or does not, which makes it false. Religion does not correspond with the facts of the world and thus it is false. Anyone who tolerates religion, therefore, is conspiring with the denial of truth and reality.
Ironically, this eviscerated notion of truth not only fails to “correspond” to actual scientific work (science being much more of a work of imagination than this definition allows AND also increasingly corrupted by external commercial and political interests), but this notion also is woefully inadequate to explain the motivation of true scientists. The true scientist seeks truth, not fame or riches, and is dedicated and pure in the search for it. Why? Why not just lie for profit or spin for special interests? Of course, increasing numbers of scientists do just this. But the true scientist (and science itself) is pure in its dedication—and this is essentially a religious phenomenon!
I ask, “Why not just fudge data and make up results, especially if someone is willing to pay you generously to do so?” To a person, those I am talking with are horrified. I pursue the question. “Give me an answer,” I insist. “Articulate it.” Always the answer appeals to some sort of transcendental justification—not God, to be sure, but something beyond the empirical, beyond the world of facts.
Giovanni: You’ve pointed out some key-points in the contraposition between science and religion, which must definitely be addressed, in order to resolve some basic misunderstandings in nowadays’ debate. And the core one is: science can be VS. religion (and vice versa), but all controversies surely tend to fade away when the point comes to spirituality, which seems very much in accordance with physics – let’s think for instance of The Tao of Physics, by Fritjof Capra.
Indeed, the ultimate essence of the universe and of the individual is God, inasmuch as God is the Light and Energy that permeate everything. So, how can those people that you mentioned say that religion claims something that doesn’t correspond to reality? It does, maybe, when it tries to “scaffold” reality in rigid rules, but its spiritual core is beyond any doubt free-flowing and all-embracing, so that it does not only “make” reality, but imbues it and is deeply interconnected (and substantially coincident) with its material nature. Gregg Braden describes this “network” – which he approaches from Quantum Mechanics premises – as a “Divine Matrix”. And I do believe it has much to do with our psychological structure, too, because the basic source of life that is God is at the same time the fundamental principle of all that exists, the Yin and the Yang, the positive and the negative, the Feminine and the Masculine. You’ll remember that, in our previous exchange of ideas that was published on my blog (see here), I mentioned God as Father and Mother. I meant nothing but this, in fact. And I’ve personally experienced how becoming aware of one’s archetypes, and gradually individuating one’s Self, equals to (re)discovering a more balanced relation between our Masculine (rational) and Feminine (intuitive) side, our “+” and “-“, our Yin and Yang. This way down to the Self is the same that leads to the Roots of the very Cosmos, and allows for a new appraisal of reality not as a contradiction, but as a manifestation of the essence of things, which is not elsewhere, but here and now, in an eternal present that is the dimension of the full pleasure of awareness.