Recently, I got involved in an online discussion about whether spirituality was compatible with atheism (see previous post Atheism and Spirituality) and foolishly did not clarify what the term “god” referred to. But it was clear from the general context that those arguing atheism was incompatible with spirituality were assuming spirituality required belief in God and were using a concept of God (singular) largely consistent with the standard Christian God who is conceived of as an eternal being who created the universe and life, and who is both transcendent (wholly independent of the material universe) and involved in the world.
In particular, most Christians seem to believe that God has laid down a set of moral rules to be followed, although they often disagree on what these are. God is usually conceived of as omnipotent and omniscient. Christians with modern religious values tend to see God as loving and benevolent, whereas those with pre-modern values tend to see God as someone who is jealous, to be feared and who punishes those who don’t follow his rules or worship him. Above all, the monotheistic God(s) are mostly seen by their followers as personal Gods. In contrast, many theologians and philosophers have conceptualized God as impersonal, not involved with material creation, or as congruent with the universe (pantheism) or with the Ground of Being.
In the online discussion I said:
“The complete lack of evidence for any god-like interference in the activities of the small corner of the universe I live in, or in the broader dynamics of the universe that can be detected from earth, is sufficient evidence for the lack of existence of the specific entities mentioned in major world religions. Silly attempts to redefine these entities as entirely different entities that are undetectable by humans or don’t have any interaction with humans can safely be ignored, as such entities have no relevance to either the claims of these religions or to my life.”
I received an angry reply from someone who accused me of insulting her by assuming she had a primitive conception of God, and I needed to educate myself about the true nature of God, as the ground and source of being. My reply:
“If you want to redefine your god as either “the ground of being” or “instant coffee granules” I am happy to believe your particular god exists, but I will immediately discount any and all claims that instant coffee granules care about sexual behaviour, orientation or reproductive choices, or a whole host of other issues.”
In the last few days, I came across a discussion of “God as the ground of being” which much better expressed my gut reaction that such definitions of God mean that the question of whether God exists becomes a nonsensical question. If God is equated with reality, the only question becomes “What is the nature of reality?” And in fact that is not what the vast majority of God believers actually mean by God and their belief in God.
Alex SL commented on the Crooked Timbers blog that the redefinition of God as the ground of being was a motte and bailey fallacy. This is a fallacy where an arguer conflates two positions which share some similarity. The motte position is easy to defend, but the bailey position is much more controversial. The arguer can claim that the bailey has not been refuted, because the critic refused to attack the motte. Alex SL illustrates how the redefinition of God is an example of this fallacy as follows:
Community worships a bearded guy on a cloud who helps them win football games and cures diseases if they pray enough. Sophisticated theologian ™ looks on, doesn’t correct them. Atheist walks past and has a giggle. Sophisticated theologian steps in and says, “you foolish, boorish atheist, you misunderstand completely how our religion works; we believe in an impersonal ground of being, nothing more.” Atheist walks off. Community goes back to praying to bearded man on cloud for personal health and fortune, uses holy book to justify bigotry against minorities, etc. Sophisticated theologian looks on, doesn’t correct them.
The redefinition of God (the motte) becomes defensible and difficult to refute to exactly the degree it then becomes meaningless and not what the vast majority of people understand the term god to mean, in other words it is not what any real-life discussion or concerns such as “will I persist after biological death” or “will god punish us if we don’t kill the heretics in our midst” are about (the bailey).
Late last year I volunteered to participate in a research study on psilocybin-occasioned mystical experiences. I completed an online survey and later was interviewed by the principal researcher in a more than hour long semi-structured zoom interview. In the survey, I had answered a question on religious affiliation with “Atheist”. During the interview, the interviewer expressed surprise that I practiced Zen meditation as she equated atheism with a materialist philosophy. I in turn was surprised at her assuming that a spiritual practice implied a belief in God or gods, particularly as my practice was to a large extent within a Zen Buddhist context, which does not treat the historical Buddha as a god or invoke concepts of gods.
I refined my thoughts on this topic in several online discussions, where I found both religious believers and some other atheists were very hostile to the idea that an atheist could have a spiritual practice. And I noticed that some of the atheists who did say they were spiritual, defined “spiritual” in terms of experiences like the enjoyment of a sunset or a moving piece of music, or the feeling of being part of nature.
In the last few days, I have read Sam Harris’s 2014 book,Waking Up: Searching for spirituality without religion and found he articulated far better than me almost the same views that I had arrived at. Like me, he noted that when he refers to meditation as a “spiritual practice,” he gets substantial criticism from fellow skeptics and atheists who think that he has committed a grievous error. To many of these people, the word spiritualism has become synonymous with premodern superstitions and beliefs, particularly in supernatural beings.
Harris explains that he does not share their semantic concerns:
“there is no other term — apart from the even more problematic mystical or the more restrictive contemplative — with which to discuss the efforts people make, through meditation, psychedelics, or other means, to fully bring their minds into the present or to induce non-ordinary states of consciousness. And no other word links this spectrum of experience to our ethical lives.”
Those who do try to embrace both science and spirituality tend to make one of two mistakes. Scientists and some atheists assume that spiritual experience equates to “a grandiose way of describing ordinary states of mind- parental love, artistic inspiration, or at the beauty of the night sky”. For example, Einstein’s awe at the order in nature captured in its physical laws is often described as though it were some sort of mystical insight.
In contrast, new age thinkers like Fritjof Capra and Deepak Chopra tend to draw connections between altered states of consciousness and the strange reality uncovered at the frontier of modern physics by theories such as quantum physics, relativity, string theory. These scientific theories and their interpretations are claimed to validate and justify various metaphysical claims. As Harris summarizes, “in the end, we are left to choose between pseudo-spirituality and pseudo-science.”
Few scientists and philosophers have developed strong skills of introspection – of disciplined close examination of their own consciousness through meditative and related practices. But various Eastern religious and philosophic traditions have developed sophisticated techniques for exploring the first-person experience of consciousness. As Ken Wilber has pointed out in a number of books, particularly The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion, at the heart of these traditions is a set of instructions to examine consciousness for yourself and empirically test the truth of claims made. Of course, these traditions have often developed an accretion of mythic and cultural interpretations. And although these meditative techniques tell us nothing about the structure of the universe, or its origins, or the existence of meta-beings, they do confirm various truths about the human mind and consciousness, particularly that our conventional sense of self is an illusion, and that our thoughts play an important role in how we experience reality. See also my earlier post on secular Buddhism.
The experience of “no-self” is accessible in principle to anyone prepared to honestly do the work with an open mind. It is often interpreted in religious terms and in terms of established mythical religious systems, but in principle there is nothing irrational about it. People of every tradition have the same sorts of spiritual experiences and again Wilber has been a indefatigable cataloger of these commonalities across “mystic” traditions within every religion. He and Alan Coomes have also elucidated how no-self and non-dual states of consciousness are interpreted and reported in terms of the overall stage of consciousness of the experiencer and the cultural and religious context in which they live. Christians, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, Buddhists and psychedelic voyagers can all experience “enlightenment”, no-self, universal love, ecstasy etc, and often interpret them in terms of and as support for their traditional beliefs. But these beliefs are incompatible, so the actual experiences must be pointing to some deeper and singular reality.
Sam Harris describes the subject of his book as an examination of the experience of “no-self” as a clearer understanding of the way things are:
“Deepening that understanding, and repeatedly cutting through the illusion of the self, is what is meant by “spirituality” in the context of this book…….. a true spiritual practitioner is someone who has discovered that it is possible to be at ease in the world for no reason, if only for a few moments at a time, and that such ease is synonymous with transcending the apparent boundaries of the self. Those who have never tasted such peace of mind might view these assertions as highly suspect. Nevertheless, it is a fact that a condition of selfless well-being is there to be glimpsed in each moment.”
Harris argues, as I do, that all religions and spiritual practices are addressing the same reality and that any view of consciousness and the cosmos that is available to the human mind can, in principle, be appreciated by anyone. Wilber has used this same insight to argue that because all religions are products of human minds grappling with the same reality, the nature of that reality can only be described by those components of religious thought or experience that are common to all religions. So mythic accretions cannot be literal truths about reality, though they may well address in metaphorical terms fundamental aspects of human psychology and existence. Additionally, not all religious traditions understand our spiritual potential equally well, or encourage spiritual growth or provide effective tools for exploring it. In fact, mystics in the monotheistic religions have tended to be labeled heretics and persecuted or killed. And this is not confined to earlier less enlightened times, it continues today.
Harris has a more intensive background in meditative disciplines than I do. His are mainly in the Theravada and Tibetan Buddhist traditions. He was fortunate to meet and practice with a Vipassana master in the Theravada tradition and a Dzogchen Tibertan master who were both exceptionally skilled in guiding students effectively with minimal demand to take on the mythic religiosity of either tradition. I also found two Zen teachers, one Australian and the other Japanese, who were similarly focused on effective practice and realization with minimal need to take on Buddhist religiosity. In my encounters with both Theravada and Tibetan Buddhist teachers I found more emphasis on Buddhist beliefs and dogmas than I was comfortable with. So these disciplines with typical South Asian elaborate metaphysical systems have never appealed to me the way Zen does with its emphasis on direct experience here-now.
Like Harris, I see my meditation practice as spiritual practice and am not shy about seeing that as completely consistent with atheism. To those that say atheism implies materialism, I would respond that thoughts and consciousness are not material, but they exist and in fact I have more direct and irrefutable experience of them than of material objects (perhaps I am only a brain in a vat). Whether or not thoughts and awareness itself are emergent properties of complex material systems such as the human brain is not relevant, they themselves are not material. Unlike those who equate spiritual with supernatural, I do not consider anything that is real to be supernatural. I realize that is not how others may understand the term, but to me the word supernatural is equivalent to non-existent.
In the Zen tradition, there are a number of words used to refer to various states of consciousness. These include samadhi, kensho and satori and these may be used in various ways. I use samadhi to refer to the meditative state of resting as the witness, as conscious awareness in which perceptions and thoughts come and go and are simply witnessed without getting caught up in them. In lengthy periods of samadhi, awareness of the body and of time passing can drop away. One is largely resting in the present moment here-now. It can often feel very blissful.
Kensho refers to the state in which the witness also drops away. The witness disappears- there is no body, no mind, no self, no other, no subject, no object. Not even the object of your attention exists. This is a state of non-dual consciousness, also referred to in Zen as “body and mind dropped away”. Kensho can be a small glimpse or opening, or a somewhat larger taste of non-dual consciousness. A profound kensho is referred to as satori, the classical enlightenment experience of the type described in many tales of historical Zen masters. The 13th century Zen master Dogen Zenji described Buddhist practice in the following famous quotation:
To study the Buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self, and to forget the self is to be enlightened by the 10,000 things. To be confirmed by the 10,000 things is the dropping away of body and mind, and the body and mind of others. No trace of realization remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly
Returning to the question of spirituality, I would define it as follows. Human beings consist of body, mind and spirit. Body is fairly self-explanatory, and mind refers to perceptions, thoughts, feelings and normal conscious awareness. Spirit refers to what remains when body and mind are dropped away. From direct experience I know that what is left (non-dual consciousness) is something, not nothing, and that something can be a life-changing experience. I will let Harris have the last word:
“Investigating the nature of consciousness itself- and transforming its contents through deliberate training- is the basis of spiritual life…. having done so, we will say that spirituality is not just important for living a good life; It is actually essential for understanding the human mind.”
A recent paper by demographers Sam Preston and Yana Vierboom showed that there are an additional 400,000 deaths in the USA in 2017 that would not have occurred it the USA experienced European death rates. That is about 12% of all American deaths and higher than the COVID-19 death toll of around 380,000 in 2020. In a Guardian article earlier this month they identified major factors contributing to this US “mortality penalty” including overweight and obesity, drug overdose, lack of health insurance, suicide, lack of gun control and racism. These deaths tend to occur at younger ages than Covid deaths on average, so that total potential years of life lost are three times greater for the excess deaths than for Covid in 2020 (13 million versus 4.4 million).
Preston and Vierboom used data from the Human Mortality Database (HMD) for their analysis. They calculated death rates based on the five largest European countries, whose combined population size is very similar to that of the United States: Germany, England and Wales, France, Italy, and Spain. They also argued that using these larger European countries to provide a mortality standard would avoid unrealistic expectations that might result from comparisons including small countries with possibly exceptional combinations of factors affecting mortality (e.g., climate, diet, social history, and healthcare delivery).
A few days ago, I downloaded updated data from the HMD and replicated and extended their analysis to include years up to and including 2020, drawing on recent data from Eurostat and national health statistics agencies (see here for details of data, sources and methods).
The figure above shows the ratio of US death rates to the average death rates for the five European countries (the “European standard”) by age, in 2000, 2010, 2019 and 2020. US mortality rates are consistently higher than the European standard for all ages below 80 years and the ratio has gotten progressively worse throughout the 21st century. The peak ratio for 25-29 year olds corresponds to death rates for US 25-29 year olds that are three times higher than those of the European standard.
The next figure shows the annual trend in total excess deaths in the USA above the number than would have occurred if the US population had been subject to the age-sex specific death rates of the European standard. This excess rose from 219,000 in the year 2000 to 410,000 in 2019 and 616,000 in 2020. Although there were over 380,000 Covid deaths in the USA in 2020, the European standard also includes substantial numbers of Covid deaths, and the Covid excess for the USA is “only” 136,000 deaths.
I next estimated the contribution of various factors to the US excess death rate using information on cause-specific deaths and death attributable to selected risk factors in Europe and the USA. I also made estimates of the excess deaths associated with lack of health insurance or under-insurance in the USA compared to Europe where all the countries have universal health insurance, based on a study of the death rates in the non-insured in the USA. Together, the six factors identified in the following graph account for around 80% of excess deaths in the USA.
For 2020, the leading cause of excess deaths was overweight and obesity (around 154,000 deaths), followed by Covid-19 (136,000 deaths), drug use and overdose (103,000 deaths) and lack of health insurance (74,000 deaths). Excess deaths due to homicide and suicide were smaller at 20,200 and 11,200 respectively. If the USA had the European standard death rates for gun homicides and gun suicides, it would have 15,900 fewer gun homicides and 19,200 fewer gun suicides. Around 40% of the latter would still commit suicide by other means. The figure also illustrates the dramatic rise in drug overdose deaths, the vast majority due to opioids both prescription and illicit, which has occurred over the last decade. In a previous post, I examined this in more detail and noted that, in 2019, the USA accounted for an astonishing 40% of estimated global drug deaths.
Why does the US perform so poorly in these areas? Preston and Vierboom argue that a lack of federal oversight and regulation, powerful lobbying structures, deindustrialization of American jobs, and systemic racism combine to create “an annual tsunami” of excess deaths. And that is even without the complete mishandling of the response to Covid by the Trump administration and many state governments.
I recently came across a ranking of countries by average reported happiness. This year’s World Happiness Report, released on March 20, uses data from the Gallup World Poll to calculate average reported happiness by country for over 150 countries for years 2005 to 2020. The focus of the report is on the impact of COVID-19 on happiness in 2020 by comparison with years 2017-2019. I was interested to see to what extent modern versus premodern religious values might explain variations in happiness across countries, along with a number of other factors that were examined in the World Happiness Report. I have posted here previously on my analysis of premodern or “fundamentalist” religious values.
The main measure used for happiness in the World Happiness Report is based on the national average response to the question on life evaluation in the Gallup World Poll (GWP). The English wording of the question is “Please imagine a ladder, with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?”
The following graph shows the happiness rankings of 101 countries for which I have both happiness measures and estimates of the modern/premodern religious values index I developed (see here). The happiness scores are averages for years 2017 to 2019.
In the last decade or so, there has been a renaissance of interest in the therapeutic potential of psychedelics. While natural psychedelic substances have been used by humans for many thousands of years, psychedelics had a massive cultural impact on the West in the 1950s and 1960s. Albert Hoffman, a research scientist working for the Swiss pharmaceutical company Sandoz, accidentally invented LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) in 1938 and discovered its psychedelic properties five years later. In 1955, a New York banker named Gordon Wasson sampled the psilocybe (magic) mushroom in Mexico and published an article on his experience in Life magazine.
Scientists discovered the role of neurotransmitters in the brain in the 1950s, and psychedelics inspired scientists to search for the neurochemical origins of mental disorders previously thought to be psychological. Psychedelics were also used in psychotherapy to treat various disorders, including alcoholism, anxiety and depression, with some promising results, although these studies generally did not reach modern standards of research design.
However, psychedelics were also embraced by the counterculture and became linked in the mind of authorities with youth counterculture and the anti-Vietnam war protests. By the end of the 1960s, most Western governments had outlawed and forced underground the psychedelic drugs which had been legal in most places previously, and also shut down all scientific research.
In the 1990s small groups of scientists managed to start conducting various trials of the therapeutic uses of psychedelics and this has led to the so-called psychedelic “renaissance” in which larger well-designed trials of psychedelic use for treating a range of mental disorders are being carried out by research groups at institutions such as Imperial College London, Johns Hopkins University and New York University. Just today, it was announced that the Australian government will be providing $15 million funding for clinical trials into the use of psilocybin and other psychedelics for the treatment of mental illnesses, including depression and PTSD. Michael Pollan’s book How to Change Your Mind gives an excellent account of the history of psychedelics, both above ground and underground, and the psychedelic renaissance, and was a best seller. See also this article by Michael Pollan on the “Psychedelic Renaissance”.
As part of my work on the global burden of disease for the World Health Organization (WHO), I carried out several assessments of the direct and indirect health impacts of the use of drugs, alcohol and tobacco. I recently did an approximate update to year 2019 for deaths directly due to drug use disorders (overdoses and directly toxic effects) and indirect deaths from road injury, suicide and infectious diseases attributable to drug use. A proportion of HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C deaths can be attributed to injecting drug use with contaminated needles. The great majority of direct and indirect deaths due to drug use are due to the use of opioids, both illicit and pharmaceutical opioids. Very few deaths are associated with psychedelic drug use, but I was curious to get a ballpark estimate for comparison with other drug deaths. I will present a brief summary of the broad estimates of drug-attributable deaths, then review evidence on the likely contribution of psychedelic drugs.
Many people outside the USA have watched with astonishment as fundamentalist Christians have aligned themselves with a serial adulterer and sexual assaulter who lost the recent election and is now seeking to undermine democracy in order to stay in power. Since first elected, Trump has worked hard to equate disagreement with treason. He has banished loyal opposition, sacked people for doing their jobs and called for the criminal investigation of ordinary opponents. But this alignment is not as bizarre as it seems on the surface. Fundamentalists share the value of demonizing and seeking to punish those they see as “other”, one of the key characteristics of fascism, as I discussed in my previous post. This applies to Christian fundamentalists and Muslim fundamentalists alike, as evidenced by the recent murders in France and Austria by Muslim terrorists angered by cartoons.
What is fundamentalism?
So I have extended my analysis of the the World Values Survey (WVS) and European Values Study (EVS) (see earlier post here) to see what it has to say about the extent of religious fundamentalism in the world today. Most religions developed in the pre-modern era and their sacred texts and teachings incorporate pre-modern culture and values to varying extents. Peter Herriot has written extensively on fundamentalist religious beliefs, characterized these movements as attempts to return to the pre-modern origins of their faith as prescribed by their sacred books . He identifies five main general characteristics of fundamentalist religious movements:
Over recent months, there has been a steady stream of commentary in the Australian and European media arguing that the Trump program is fascist. Based on a couple of discussions with people who know much more than me about 20th century European fascism, I thought these claims were overblown, and that Trump’s program lacked a defining feature of fascism, the co-opting of industry of industry and the economy for ultra-nationalist goals. I’ve since realized this is too narrow a view of fascism, and that its expression is quite dependent on history, culture and period and may take a different form in different places and times. Mark Twain expressed this well when he said “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes”.
Wikipedia has a good summary of the debate around definitions of fascism. But I was most struck by some of its quotations from various historians who have specialized in studying 20th century fascism (Wikipedia gives references):
One of the key values of the Western Enlightenment that underlie the rise of science and our understanding of ourselves and the natural world is freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is under attack from the right and the left and from religious extremists. Last week, a French history teacher, Samuel Paty, was beheaded by an Islamic extremist after a lesson about free speech being a fundamental value of the French republic. And other extremists have attacked and killed people in France and Australia in the last week. Police forces and right-wing extremists in the USA have attacked Americans protesting against the extra-judicial murder of black Americans by police. And both the right and left are “cancelling” people whose views they disapprove of and in some cases making sure they lose their job or are boycotted.
Amara Green, a teenage girl who was hit in the face at close range by a deliberately aimed rubber bullet in Minneapolis, is facing months of reconstructive surgery
How can people treat others with such inhumanity? And its not an insignificant proportionof the population. Despite horrifically cruel actions, such as separating babies and young children from their parents, locking them up, and not keeping any information that would allow the return of these children to their parents, a fairly stable 40% of Americans approve of these actions or simply don’t care all that much about them. Evidence is now emerging of the extreme and unprovoked violence unleashed by police on peaceful protesters in the USA. There are now a number of documented cases of police vehicles being driven at speed into crowds. The same tactic that has been used with success by Islamic extremists in Europe. And clear evidence that so-called “non-lethal munitions” have been fired at point blank range at people, sometimes causing death, blindness or severe injury.
The same question has been examined in depth and debated at length regarding the role of the German people in the holocaust. Why did ordinary Germans take part in large numbers in the rounding up and killing of Jews? This has been a question that I’ve thought a lot about, and found three books in particular to be very relevant. I have been rereading these books over the last couple of months, as they examine these questions in depth and reach somewhat different conclusions from each other.