Discover more from Jon Ogden
Language for Theists and Atheists Alike
In my previous post, I wrote about how religion is a “language” for communicating about the transcendent — a language that uses a bundle of methods including ritual, parable, metaphor, song, and more.
Think of it this way. Say you were moved to tears during a beautiful scene in a film and wanted a close friend to have the same cathartic experience. You wouldn’t say, “I cried during a movie” and expect them to be moved to tears. Instead, you’d take them to the movie. In this way, the movie is a “language” that communicates the cathartic experience far better than any information about your experience could.
Thanks for reading! Subscribe for free to receive new posts.
To an extent, religion is like the movie, with its bundle of music, words, and visuals. It attempts to communicate about something transcendent such that a person actually has a transcendent experience.
So, what about atheism? Is it a language in a similar way?
I’d say it’s not. Atheism is just a statement (“I don’t believe in God or gods”) and as such it doesn’t contain a set of methods for communicating about the transcendent the way that religion does. (For what it’s worth, theism also lacks a set of methods for communicating about the transcendent, which is why, one might argue, religions exist in the first place.)
In short, atheism — and theism — are statements in need of a language.
This doesn’t mean that atheists are without a language for describing the transcendent. On the contrary, plenty of “language” exists.
For instance, when the atheist philosopher André Comte-Sponville wrote about a time he was suddenly struck by an overwhelming feeling of transcendence at night, he waxed lyrical to describe it. He wrote, “Above me, the starry sky was immense, luminous and unfathomable, and within me there was nothing but the sky, of which I was a part, and the silence, and the light, like a warm hum, and the sense of joy. Yes, in the darkness of that night, I contained only the dazzling presence of the All.”
The atheist Marius Favre wrote in similar terms about a similar experience, saying, “Had I been absorbed by the universe, or had the universe penetrated me? These expressions had become virtually meaningless, since the border between my body and the world had vanished.”
And Barbara Ehrenreich, another self-proclaimed atheist, writes that when she was a young woman, she was on “a pre-dawn walk” when “the world flamed into life. … Nothing could contain it. Everywhere, ‘inside’ and out, the only condition was overflow. … There is one image, handed down over the centuries, that seems to apply, and that is the image of fire, as in the ‘burning bush.’”
The dazzling presence of the All? Being absorbed by the universe? The world flamed into life?
All of this sounds… religious. In fact, some religious adherents, such as theologian David Bentley Hart, would say that these transcendent experiences are God. This is what human beings have been pointing to via religion — via imperfect metaphors, rituals, and mythologies — for tens of thousands of years. Viewed through this lens, these three atheists are speaking the same “language” as many religious adherents through the ages.
And it’s not just those three atheists. A series of recently published books explore this transcendent aspect of secularism further, including For Small Creatures Such as We: Rituals For Finding Meaning in our Unlikely World by Sasha Sagan (Carl Sagan’s daughter), The Power of Ritual: Turning Everyday Activities Into Soulful Practices by Casper ter Kulle and Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life by Dacher Keltner.
None of these authors hold a mainstream religious view of the world, but they all assert in their own way that having a “language” for the transcendent matters. They even go beyond the call for metaphor and poetry, talking about the need for spirituality, mystery, meaning, and ritual.
“For me the biggest drawback to being secular is the lack of a shared culture,” writes Sasha Sagan. “I can live without an afterlife, I can live without a god. But not without celebrations, not without community, not without ritual. There are no hymns about the testing of theories or mapping of genomes. No festivals to commemorate great inventions or medical breakthroughs. Since I long for ways to honor the wonder of life, I’ve found myself making up new rituals. Sometimes I find I can repurpose the traditions of my ancestors to celebrate what I believe is sacred.”
For Sagan, this has meant, among many things, returning to her ancestral tradition of Passover seder in her own way — a way that incorporates her secular worldview and her husband, who was raised Christian.
Similarly, even though Casper ter Kulle was raised in a non-religious household, he’s found it healthy to hold a weekly Sabbath where every Friday evening he lights a candle, meditates, and then stays off electronic devices for 24 hours.
And Dacher Keltner, in talking to the hosts of the Faith Matters podcast, says that even though he was raised non-religious, his studies on awe have led him to see the wisdom and power of religious practices.
What we’re seeing here is a blend of the secular and the spiritual or religious. These people — and I would argue millions of others outside and inside of religion — recognize both the valid reasons to criticize religion and the valid reasons to celebrate religion. We recognize that transcendent experiences are an essential aspect of life and that religions (again despite all their flaws!) have evolved some helpful methods to communicate about those transcendent experiences through ritual, parable, metaphor, song, and more. We recognize that these methods are a “language” and that language is an essential foundation for shared culture and community.
We also recognize that science and spirituality are not at odds with each other. As Carl Sagan wrote, “Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual.”
If I might cut straight to the point: Finding a shared language that blends the secular and the spiritual matters to me because, like Sasha Sagan, I want shared culture. I want community. And I don’t want just any culture or community. I want a shared culture and community that nurtures the most transcendent experiences that humanity can have together.
Call it spiritual humanism or religion or something else entirely. The point is to hold the wisest aspects of secularism (scholarship, intellectual rigor, a global perspective, etc.) alongside the wisest aspects of religion (tradition, community, shared culture, reverence, etc.). That’s the project that I’m personally interested in.
In so many ways, it’s the exact same project that has been going on the entire time that humans have been around. I mean, Sasha Sagan is certainly not the first in her ancestral line to update the Passover seder to meet her needs and connect with her ancestors. All rituals evolve over time, depending on context and need. Inside and outside of religion, we’re all working to evolve tradition, culture, and community. It’s on us to evolve our language in the healthiest, wisest way possible.
Thanks for reading! Subscribe for free to receive new posts.