Sunday, February 7, 2010

'God, the universe and everything': Part 3

In my last entry I looked at the reasons why I disagree with Richard Dawkins’ dismissal of the existence of some version of a non-scripture-based God that can co-exist alongside Darwinian evolution. In this entry I’ll talk further about my experiences, and detail my problems with Dawkins’ critique of the spiritual marketplace.


Years ago, long after they had originally parted company, religion and science were able to exist quite comfortably side by side. Each more or less kept out of each other’s realm. Then Creationism began advancing like a cancerous growth, attacking science on its own territory. Scientists rightly felt that they could no longer simply defend their territory, but had to attack the very heart of the enemy, its truthfulness. Hence, Dawkins led the charge with his masterpiece of reasoned argument, The God Delusion.

Yet there were people who, while in favour of science, acknowledged a layer of experience that seemed to supplement the known material world. These people were willing to live with uncertainty about what that extra layer consisted of, given the limited scientific knowledge we currently have about how the material world actually works. Many of them retained from their religious upbringings the idea of a higher intelligence that was a force for good in the world, but, sometimes through studies of Eastern religions and practices, were able to experience this force rather than merely believe in it intellectually. When scientists began attacking the values of these people, and telling them their precious layer of experience was purely a product of their imaginations, they had gone too far, way beyond their authority and expertise.

Such scientists also failed to acknowledge that the demand by feminists and civil rights activists that doctors take account of human rights, agency and subjectivity had improved the practice of medicine, while their own protocols had also benefited from this demand.

Experiences of the spiritual in a 12-step program

One way in which I’ve experienced some kind of spiritual force at work is through membership of a 12-step program.

Most people will have heard of 12-step programs. They seek to help members beat various addictions by using the 12 steps originally created by Alcoholics Anonymous. Members supposedly gain freedom from addiction by undertaking various tasks and practices as they work through the steps.

Although 12-step programs aren’t religious, they are usually spiritual, as the second step indicates: ‘Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity’. The process of letting go control to harness a Higher Power is seen as a necessity for beating the addiction; the belief that willpower alone is not enough is an important aspect of this process. (Atheists can also benefit, as there is no restriction regarding what one’s Higher Power actually consists of – some believe it is a kind of higher self. And an atheist might view the letting go process as acceding to, say, the healing abilities of one’s unconscious mind.)

I was in a 12-step program for about six years. I don’t believe these programs are perfect, nor that they’re suitable for everybody – there are many aspects of my former program I’m now critical of, and perhaps I’ll detail them in a future blog entry. But for those who can ‘take what they want and leave the rest’ (as the programs themselves advise) they do provide a structure for developing a spirituality that is neither captive to the materialism and positive thinking of some of the new age spiritualities, or dependent on belief in the Bible and the teachings of Jesus.

Many people in my program developed their spirituality very consciously; a few went on to join Christian churches while others embraced or flirted with Eastern religions. It was common for members who ‘shared’ (spoke to the meeting about their ‘experience strength and hope’ with the program) to relate some of their spiritual experiences.

As I said, my 12-step program was far from perfect. But the meeting I mainly attended was in the inner city, and there were plenty of creative types who, while they took the program seriously, didn’t get religious or overly hung up about it. They were trying to let go of ‘self-will’, which led them not only to a compulsion for the addictive substance but to behaving in ways that were generally harmful. Letting go of self-will meant, for these people, finding a kind of authentic path that was a mixture of their own deepest desires and the will of this Higher Self or Higher Power.

I know it sounds kooky, but for people who really grappled with it, this process seemed to result in an ever-increasing experience of their humanity. I saw men and women who’d never had relationships get married and have kids, I saw the career-focused get promotions, the work of the artistic types flourish, and throughout this the grappling and the letting go continued but the joy also increased. Of course I saw much failure and many setbacks as well (mine included) – I hope I’m not glossing this. And the program says you need to stay in it forever to avoid the addiction, but eventually many people seem to simply grow out of it.

Members of the program seemed to be helped along by some of these spiritual experiences I’ve been talking about, particularly synchronicity. One of them put it this way: ‘There are subtle energies …’ I think I know what she meant.

I wonder if, for some members, being sensitive to the feelings of others and the suffering of the world in general helped to fuel their addiction in the first place. I recently heard a writer on the radio referring to such people as ‘empaths’ – those with a surfeit of empathy with the world and a high degree of sensitivity to others. When you drop the addictive behaviour, you return once more to a sometimes painful openness to the world, and you have to learn to deal with it. You may then start to experience the kinds of uncanny connections that I discussed in the previous post.

I see the difference between spirituality and being religious this way: life is suffering, but it can also hold joy. Learning how to deal with the former and grappling with faults in order to reach more of one’s potential and experience more of the latter are worthwhile human projects. Some version of God and a spiritual ‘layer’ over everything is helpful for some people in this process.

What religion does, in contrast, is acknowledge that life is suffering and promise the seeker some kind of refuge from it. But in doing so, it imposes a whole extra layer of suffering by placing bans on perfectly normal human behaviour, mainly relating to sex and reproduction. It then offers the ‘carrot’ of salvation for bearing this extra burden of suffering. Meanwhile, the person’s original faults and difficulties are still not attended to, or not in a way that’s always helpful or realistic, and they will probably develop additional faults while trying to stick to the bans.

Dawkins debunks the spiritual

When the spiritual aspects of life are mixed up with making money, there is the capacity to mislead, and I can understand Dawkins getting angry about psychics and spiritual practitioners who do so. In his television series The Enemies of Reason, he sets out to mock and dismantle what he sees as outrageous claims of psychic abilities by self-styled mediums and mystics and of healing by alternative health practitioners. He believes that this sector has become popular because people have been dumbed down and have no idea of the important role of science and medicine in maintaining health and technological process. Yet he makes his point in a peculiarly disingenuous way.

Anyone with any interest in this topic would assume that, with the resources of a network at his disposal, Dawkins would go straight to the top, interviewing internationally successful mediums like Alison DuBois and John Edwards and paranormal researchers like Rupert Sheldrake and Gary Schwartz (Dawkins did interview Sheldrake at some point, but, according to the latter, dismissed his evidence without being willing to discuss it).

Instead, Dawkins is shown popping along to a psychic fair and choosing the first person he sees to give him a reading. The male ‘medium’ uses tarot cards to direct his intimations. He proceeds to state a number of propositions about dead relatives of Dawkins, none of which appear to be even remotely accurate.

It would be clear to an amoeba that the guy was giving what’s known as a cold reading – fishing about for information or presenting information so general it could apply to almost anyone. You didn’t have to be psychic or even particularly intelligent to work that out. Later in the program, Dawkins visits a whacky woman who waves her arms in the air and tells him she has healed his damaged DNA.

Of course, the point he’s making is that the selling of such ‘services’ is totally unregulated. And yes, much of it is a sham. Homeopathy is just water. Chinese medicine is a fascinating area worthy of exploration (it’s based on herbal medicine after all) but much of what is taught may not have kept up with medicine’s ever-increasing knowledge of bodily processes, and needs to be much more integrated with this knowledge.

Positive thinking, meanwhile, has been shown to be damaging. (However, more and more personal growth teachers seem to be ditching positive thinking and embracing mindfulness, while mainstream psychology is also embracing mindfulness as a treatment for anxiety, depression and chronic pain – a fascinating convergence of the alternative and mainstream.)

When people are making money out of this realm it’s quite proper to start asking questions. But fully qualified doctors aren’t pilloried because of the existence of quacks. More disturbingly, as a side issue, there seems to be an astonishing lack of regulation when it comes to conventional over-the-counter medicines. Many of them seem to provide the most superficial short term relief with dangerous side effects if taken in the long term; synthetic antihistamines, and nose drops containing cortisone, are just two examples. Yet Dawkins isn’t at all interested in the shortcomings of conventional medicine – shortcomings that are responsible for people seeking out alternatives in the first place.

When it comes to regulating mediums, the answer is simple: establish a registration process that is overseen by a peak body. The registration process would include completion of an accredited course that culminates in an exam. However, I can’t see Dawkins advocating something like this. If phenomena such as mediumship and psychic healing are in all cases a sham, then there is no point in regulating them – thus creating a self-fulfilling prophesy. The genuine seeker can’t win in Dawkins’ universe.

Sadly, in this television program, Dawkins makes the same mistake that he accuses the subjects of the program of making. While complaining about dumbing down, he dumbs down his own message, oversimplifying the issues that surround the spiritual marketplace and public attitudes towards science and the medical profession.

Some problems with Dawkins’ brand of scepticism

Something I find particularly annoying is the intellectual inconsistency of scientists working in this area. For example, scientists are constantly discovering neuroscientific explanations for formally inexplicable phenomena, even the grief-stricken receiving visitations from the dead. In such cases, when scientists think they can explain it as a product of the known universe, in many cases the brain, they will listen to and respect the truthfulness of such anecdotes. However, when they can’t, they will simply ridicule such evidence.

The Third Man phenomenon is a good example of this. A recently published book by John Geiger details this fascinating experience, which is now recognised by scientists. As mountain climbers toil up a slope in freezing storms, as lone sailors stare death in the face in raging seas, or single pilots lose sight of the horizon in the pure white of a snow storm, they often see and feel a calm, wise, loving presence close by them. Sometimes the presence is just there to offer a sense of reassurance, while in other instances it steers the ship or plane in a storm and holds course, sometimes almost miraculously.

This very common experience suggests that a kind of ‘higher self’ actually manifests as a separate entity in situations of extreme danger. The book includes many, largely consistent, examples of this ‘third man’ (the experiencers were usually men) feeling and seeing this loving, guiding presence.

Neuroscientists now believe that this phenomenon is purely a function of the brain, and that it’s a marvellous survival mechanism. If so, that raises the question of the kind of feats of knowledge the brain might be capable of. How does this presence know how to lead these adventurers out of danger? If it’s a hallucination, why is it always so reassuring and kind? I don’t dispute that the Third Man seems to be a kind of brain projection; but it certainly raises questions about the kinds of knowledge and guidance that the human brain has access to. Again, it confounds the dichotomy between the inside and the outside of the self.

In the case of the Third Man Factor, a large number of anecdotes were eventually treated as data by scientists. But what about the kind of anecdote in which the subject senses a loved one is going to be badly injured or die before they hear the bad news, or actually sees an apparition of a person they thought was alive, only to hear a few hours later that they’re dead; or has a disturbing, very emotional dream of the loved one’s death or injury?

This is an incredibly common experience, yet because there’s no way scientists can explain this experience in terms of existing knowledge about how the brain works, they simply dismiss it as coincidence: a certain percentage of people will think about a loved one on any particular day; a certain percentage of those loved ones will happen to die on that day. This response ignores the subjective power, the emotional quality, the sense of presence that characterise these experiences.

This is part of the cause of the problem that Dawkins’ television program, The Enemies of Reason, compounds – if we ridicule everyday experiences of the unknown, then those who experience the world in this way will simply turn away from science because it is not interested in their reality. They will turn to the world of the occult and the new age because this area seems to be willing to countenance a wider definition of what it actually means to be human.

There’s one more thing I need to say about this before the end of the post. Of all the abilities that rationalists like Dawkins dispute, the one that surprises me most is telepathy.

Non-human mammals can communicate using noise but they can’t express ideas in words like humans can, nor do they have the technology to communicate when they’re a long way away from other members of their clan or pack. It seems that some kind of basic telepathy within a clan or pack would be incredibly useful for evolutionary purposes. One of Sheldrake’s areas of research interest is the seeming ability of some domestic cats and dogs to know when their owners are on the phone or about to come home (excluding other factors, such as routine, that might alert them).

It would seem logical, too, that if humans had once had this capacity they would quickly lose touch with it once the written word, and later communications technology, could do the job so much better.

Anyway, these three blog entries have detailed some of my thoughts on a huge topic and I’m quite happy for readers to disagree with anything I’ve said. Most importantly I now have Richard Dawkins out of my system – for the time being!

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