Spirituality and the Material Universe

It has taken me many years to fret out what I mean by the question: What to do with words like ‘spirituality’ when applied in a material universe? Now that, at last, I think I have something like answers, the next question is: Can I usefully express myself on the matter? This post will be something of an evolving draft. Here goes….

[This piece has several small updates as of  noon, 25 November 2023]

I have always  been a non-dogmatic atheist. As a pretty well-adjusted public school choirboy, I never felt the need to believe in God. As I grew older, I felt no interest in any of the God-like proxies of the white-bearded divine such as a pantheistic being, or Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Over-soul. I don’t think the Universe has any sort of mind, or spirit, or soul, or purpose. The universe is a collection of things and processes which, as seen on our planet, developed over billions of years. The evolution of life, and then of sentience in animals and sophisticated consciousness within humans seems to have been the product of editing rather than design.

This description of our state of affairs misses out the difficult question of First Causes. I regard that as a being beyond my pay grade. I like but don’t take Pascal’s Wager and I am nearer to having a rather severe close shave with Occam’s Razor. That’s to say, I don’t mind timorously voting against the existence of the divine (especially because I don’t seriously expect retribution for my choice, either in the here-and-now or after the lights-out of death). I think most of the historic mainstream ‘spiritual’ accounts of our universe, though they are often gorgeous, are more complicated than the facts seem to legitimise. That the universe is a material thing, and only a material thing, is of course even easier to assert now than it was when Epicurus and Lucretius first presciently asserted that to be so.

But I am not even a sceptic on the largest matter. I don’t doubt that the First Cause of the universe may have a mind or spirit or soul. My position is simply that there is not the smallest evidence that the universe has ‘soul’ or purpose.  I am inclined to believe that humans will grow into their fullest possibility when they take responsibility for whatever influence they have on the universe or any of its parts. We can’t subtract any of that work to some ‘other’, especially as there are so many rather earthly power relations in the business of manufacturing the case – typically a religion or secular belief system – which have herded us toward this or that account of how we should fit into the universe.

I have a great deal of sympathy with the hundreds of generations of people who preferred to believe in the divine as present in the universe and in persons. They have, of course, often been cowardly: they have  found belief in a mainstream faith to be a better bet than to strike out in heresy or atheism. And of course, contrariwise, many people have been extraordinarily brave in dying for their faith.

Besides, I intend to have my cake and eat it. Religion is in part the product of a desire for explanation, for moral purpose and for personal value. It is of course also a handy opiate of the masses and a salve for the perils of war and the discomforts of poverty, and has thus suited power-elites. Be that as it may, from the point of view of modern generations, we can very pleasantly use the historic cultural and intellectual baggage our ancestors created, including their religious productions. I have spent some of my happiest days and nights in monasteries. I visit churches on a more or less continuous pilgrimage to stained glass windows. And I love church services, provided I can sit at the back, and leave at will. I like reading about religious faith, and religious doubt. I like reading about religious disputes, though I would not have had the stomach to volunteer for the hazards historic participants faced.

Like politics, religion is a species of theatre, wherein words are essential and bendy. I strongly believe that religions have provided valuable and perhaps essential metaphors for the ineffable.  But I have come, a bit late and reluctantly, to the view that I ought to abandon any hope that words like ‘mystical’, ‘spiritual’, or ‘soul’ have anything like proper meaning for those of us who also renounce the idea that there is a transcendental divinity, mind or spirt at work in the universe or in persons.

In practical terms, when persons feel a ‘special’ peace, or feel ‘specially’ uplifted, or calmed or soothed, when hoovering up art, or praying or confessing or worshipping, or meditating (perhaps in a Buddhist sort of way) or walking amongst blossom trees,  they are experiencing something neurological, as well as – quite possibly – something psychological, or intellectual.

There is much else to be said about the history of how we got to the position of thoroughly accepting that we are material beings in a material world and universe. How, in short, we are dust made conscious. I love re-tracing the footsteps of the admirable people – the pilgrims, as I rather think them – who wrestled with the death of traditional religion, and did so in what look like fascinating stages. I rather hope eventually to recount what I found of Tennyson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William James, and other luminaries. By and large, they seemed to indulge in wishful thinking – often beautifully expressed or dodged – as they tried to abandon religion. Perhaps they were deceiving themselves, and perhaps they didn’t want to speak above or beyond what audiences could understand. Along the way I found people whom I think of as pioneers of modern materialism, for instance, the physicist George Wald, who hit the nail on the head in the 1950s. I reserve a particular place for the case of the poet John Davidson. He was an awkward character, and a Lucretian Materialist. He was admired by the literary rogue, Frank Harris, and by Harris’s sometime friend, colleague and employer, Filson Young (of whom there is a good deal on this site). Both men wrote about Davidson with insight, but FY excelled himself in a 20-page encomium to the difficult Scot and was prescient in getting it published in the Fortnightly Review a year before the poet and visionary was found drowned on the coast near his home of Newlyn, Cornwall, in 1910. John Davidson is well worth revisiting.

Meantime, I know that as a teenager I had a suburban cherry blossom experience of being at one with the universe which is of the kind that I presume to have been common to millions or billions of people across the millennia. As an old man, I now find that some ceramic works of art – for instance Lucie Rie’s pots –  are very compelling. I take it that many people now go climbing, or visit art galleries – perhaps especially galleries of abstract modern art – much as people once went to church. They may fall for what I know is called the Transcendental Temptation and make a quasi-religion of their experience. Just as likely, they are thrilled by  being modern materialists.

These observances and experiences raise the question of whether humans have a particular need to transcend their normal day-to-day matter-of-fact way of living. So there we go again: what’s the meaning of ‘transcend’ when we use it in a manner so close to the older – perhaps redundant – religious meanings of ‘transcendental’, as in ‘sublime’ or ‘divine’? No problem, I think. A good old meaning for the verb, ‘to transcend’ is merely to surpass, or to  reach beyond, the ordinary. We can keep that meaning, and deploy ‘transcend’ to catch those experiences which we induce, or which just happen to us, which are ‘special’ and out-of-the-ordinary, and which often seem to be to do with an individual remembering or sensing that he or she is a conscious part  of the material universe, and shouldn’t forget it.

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Publication date

22 November 2023


Mind & body; On art