Notes on the Seventh Meeting — THE WORLD WITHOUT GOD

It was great to meet again after our long summer away.

At 8:30 we made our way to the living room and began our discussion.

Tom’s Presentation: Charting the Future of the Non-Supernatural Outlook

I started us off by referring to a chart that I had worked up on a whiteboard.

While reading Nietzsche and Gray over the last month, I explained to the group, I had found myself wondering how we might more clearly distinguish their respective positions.

That urge led me to wonder how we might visually represent the differences between Nietzsche and Gray’s and others’ expressions of non-supernaturalist thinking… and then how I might coordinate their various positions in relation to my own.

I quickly realized that I would need to devise a chart for this.

Here’s what I came up with:

OldNewWayChart

The Chart

I explained that there are two axes: x and y.

The x, or “morality,” axis has POWER at the far left and LOVE at the far right. (I could have alternatively labeled it SELF at the far left, and OTHERS at the far right).

The y, or “worldview,” axis has SUPERNATURALISM at the top and NATURALISM at the bottom.

These two axes, crossing each other, generate four quadrants.

Quadrant I

In quadrant I at the upper right, we have at the maximum SUPERNATURAL, maximum LOVE position, who else but… Jesus. (I know it’s sort of cheating, since Jesus is himself supernatural, but it seemed the right place to start due to the familiarity of the message.)

Also in this quadrant I we find MLK, Ghandi, and Pope Francis (I put the Pope a little farther back on the x-axis, since there are so many power-based interests in the Vatican, and of course in Catholic dogma). President Obama is in this quadrant as well (though he is lower on the y-axis, since his religious attachments are thin, a matter of pragmatism and deep respect for civil rights history, as far as I can tell). He is joined by the Democratic Party as a whole.

Quadrant I is the location of much of the heroes of history: driven by supernatural ideals and commitments, but driven in the direction of helping humanity live better, more freely, more harmoniously.

For fun, I called quadrant I “The Best of Religion.”

Quadrant II

In quadrant II, at the upper left, we have ISIS occupying the position of maximum SUPERNATURAL (on the y-axis), paired with maximum POWER (on the x-axis).

ISIS is joined (am I being unfair?) by Ted Cruz. Some of his policy positions reflect a desire to help humanity, and we may presume that he has some limits to what he would do for power, so he drifts right along the x-axis a little towards LOVE… but not much. George W. Bush, who famously let it be known that God himself told him to invade Iraq (and cause, thereby, massive suffering), is there as well.

Hitler appears a little farther down the y-axis. His supernaturalism takes an idiosyncratic form, involving dreams of Aryan supremacy mixed with the Christian myths of perfectibility and the Rapture (read, Third Reich), but he lands in this quadrant II too.

I called this quadrant “Shit Ideologies.”

Quadrant III

At the lower left we have the corner of maximum NATURALISM and maximum POWER.

No illusions, just take what you can, baby!

A number of names came to mind: Pol Pot, Genghis Kahn (or was he supernaturally-inspired? not sure), the Marquis de Sade, Ayn Rand, Machiavelli. A little out from the corner we have Dick Cheney, Napoleon, Stalin, Lenin (this last one falling a little farther along the x-axis: he meant well, after all, though at a huge cost). I even stuck Mick Jagger in this quadrant (for the savage way he worked his way through women without concern for anyone else’s feelings).

Trump belongs here pretty obviously (he claims to be religious but his life shows approximately zero evidence of this). Finally, Vladimir Putin, as a KGB operative for many years, belongs in this quadrant, I think. His embrace of the Russian Orthodox Church is, by all accounts, merely a matter of political expediency.

This quadrant I named “Selfish Assholes.”

Quadrant IV

Where maximum NATURALISM meets maximum LOVE, at the lower right corner, we get some of my personal heroes: Elizabeth Cady Stanton (a committed nonbeliever who fought for suffrage for women); Abraham Lincoln (creeping up the y-axis for his use of religious language in the Second Inaugural, though privately a nonbeliever whose worldview embraced the need for trade-offs and the tragic sense of loss); and of course Nelson Mandela who, though a Methodist in name, was not concerned with supernaturalism at all. Rather, his commitments were based on his concerns for human dignity and raw experience.

Others in this quadrant include John Lennon (he penned the anthem of this quadrant), Gloria Steinem, Winston Churchill, Thomas Jefferson (riven with contradictions but still… the Declaration of Independence), Mark Twain…

This quadrant I called “The Old New Way.”

***

So, having laid out the chart, I then proceeded to lead the group in some brief thought experiments based on it.

I pointed out that there are some possible historical forces, producing what we may call “vectors,” that will operate on this chart over time.

A Vector Towards NATURALISM in the Arts

For one, I suggested, literature and the arts strike me as moving, over time, down the y-axis.

At the top, closer to SUPERNATURALISM, I put Dante, Prince, Blake, Yeats, and barely, Dylan. It would be easy to add many more artists to this list if we give it a moment’s thought: Homer… Masaccio… J. S. Bach… Tolstoy. There are so many gifted writers, musicians, painters and the like, who have, through the millennia, espoused a supernaturalist worldview.

Interestingly, at the center of the chart we find Proust and Shakespeare. Vast as their imaginations are, they make it nearly impossible to discern in their work a permanent move in any of the four directions.

As we move into the 20th and 21st centuries, however, we arrive at the artists who speak to the human experience in this time: Joyce, Woolf, Kafka, etc.

I have placed them all the way down at the NATURALISM base of the chart. But also note that they are square in the center of the POWER/LOVE axis, since they are more observers than moral actors.

In summary, I explained to the group, artists seem to hover at the center line, but are moving steadily down along the y-axis to enable an ever-more accurate understanding of the world (Shakespeare’s holding “the mirror up to nature”).

A Vector of “Good” People Down, from Quadrant I to Quadrant IV, as Love Becomes Secularized

It is my impression, I continued, that just as artists are moving downward, so are our heroes.

The selfless, self-sacrificing acts of, say, a Joan of Arc, or a Mother Theresa, are more commonly found among non-supernaturalists, in the present day. Think of the doctors who risk their lives to serve refugees or Ebola victims. Think of the environmental activists and social activists who fight for clean air, clean water, racial justice, gay and lesbian rights. Think of any college campus. These battles are more often unfolding in secular settings — rather than under the guise of supernaturalism.

I predicted, therefore, that over time this trend will continue, and quadrant I will empty out, carrying the Democratic Party with it. Its fervor will transfer to quadrant IV, the “Old New Way.”

Welcome, I would say to those former supernaturalists. There’s plenty of room for you in the natural world!

A Vector of “Bad” People Up, from Quadrant III to Quadrant II, Due to the Uses and Abuses of Ideology

This was the scariest part of my presentation, in my opinion.

What we are seeing in Europe and the United States, and has long been the case in the Middle East, I argued, is that so called “bad actors,” i.e. those people who seek power and dominance instead of love and connection, are gravitating towards ever-more-inflexible ideological commitments.

Franco in Spain served his ambitions for power by fostering the ideologies of Nationalism and Religion. As already seen, Putin has formed close ties to the Russian Orthodox Church for a similar reason. Lost, alienated young men across Europe find themselves drawn to join ISIS, as a means to channel for their rage, their urge for sexual conquest, their desire for adulation and status — broadly speaking, their lust for power.

In the U.S. of course the GOP long ago learned to harness voters’ self-interest and even hatred by way of a religious yoke: disgust for people of different races or orientations or circumstances can be made more politically effective when harnessed to the causes of “religious liberty” or “sexual purity.”

My point was that just as the “good” people closer to the LOVE side of the x-axis are moving down to NATURALISM, there seems to be a movement of “selfish” (or broken, confused, alienated, angry) people on the POWER side up to an increasingly committed SUPERNATURALISM.

This does not bode well for the future, as the two diagonally opposed quadrants (II and IV) already have begun to speak past each other. Communication breaks down when our frames of reference are so wildly different.

Which Quadrants Do We Hope Have Faded Away…When We Look Back 200 Years from Now?

I asked the group to consider the following three scenarios:

  1. The one that actually appears to be happening. Quadrants I (“Best of Religion”) and III (“Selfish Assholes”) may fade away over the next 100 years or so, leaving an increasingly polarized world, in which a largely well-intentioned, but fragmented, secular world faces a fierce and weaponized supernaturalist threat.
  2. The atheist’s dream. The entire SUPERNATURAL (that is, the entire top, I “Best of Religion” and II “Shit Ideologies”) of the chart gradually disappears. So the world still has plenty of people dedicated to their own self-interest (even disproportionately at the expense of others), but they no longer justify it by way of out-dated and silly supernatural claims. And then there are many in the world who do good without god. In other words, quadrants III (“Selfish Assholes”) and IV (“The Old New Way”) battle it out.
  3. A non-judgmental utopia. Or the entire POWER (that is, the entire left side) of the chart disappears. Amazingly, humanity continues to find ways to reduce violence and even hostility.  We end up with those who are supernaturally inclined doing wonderful things in the name of God (or gods, as the case may be), while those of us who have no truck with “gods” or “spirits” do wonderful things in our lives as well. Everybody’s happy, at least until the sun explodes.

*

The question I have regarding scenario #2, the atheist’s dream, I confessed, is whether our heroes just might end up less effective, without recourse to a supernatural entity! This is hard to admit, but it is a concern.

I sometimes do wonder whether MLK and Ghandi, for example, could have done what they did without supernatural commitments backing them up… Let me be clear: I do firmly believe that MLK and Ghandi — two unusually brave individuals with a very strong moral sense — would have and could have acted in a similar manner even in an entirely non-supernatual world. But would they and could they have been able to rally enough people to support them in their cause?

Do we need to invoke an Imaginary Friend to move the masses?

These are empirical questions, but I’m not sure how to answer them.

*

The question I have for those who would dream of scenario #3, the non-judgmental utopia — the rosy one where people are good both supernaturally and naturally — is: what keeps the supernaturalists from drifting leftward from LOVE to POWER?

For naturalists, at least, selfish assholes or not, you can always engage them in argument, with a basis in evidence and logic, reaffirming our shared interest in human experience. They might not care (see, e.g., Zarathustra, Donald Trump), but at least they have to acknowledge your point.

For supernaturalists, however, even if they mean well, an argument regarding their actions can always be short-circuited by reference to, say, “God’s will.”

ISIS, it must be pointed out, sees themselves as acting out of love; they would no doubt place themselves in quadrant I instead of II! And here is the core of the problem: the subjectivity of supernaturalist thinking is ineradicable, impervious to changing facts. This is damaging and dangerous in and of itself, quite separate from the content of the beliefs.

This realization is exactly what moved me, some 10 years ago, from my formerly passive, enabling position on religion (COEXIST!, as the license plate preaches; don’t be “Islamophobic,” as the current Facebook and Twitter thought police emphasize) to a more assertive atheism (that is, against theism, not against the people who follow it). We can’t even began to engage others in sensible moral dialogue when they still cling to supernatural certainties.

Look, I said, I would be fine with keeping the supernaturally-driven good of MLK and Ghandi and hell, Jesus himself, if it didn’t come at such a price — the enabling of supernatural justifications and habits of certainty. Think of the kids.

Critiquing the Chart

When my chart presentation ended, we spent some time talking over its flaws.

Steve pointed out that the chart implies a static situation, when in fact there are changes over time, and the different features interrelate.

Yann pointed out that it was obvious I haven’t done enough presentations in a business setting. The convention, he explained, is to have the positive part, whatever you are pitching, at the top. Whereas I had clustered all the naturalist loving people at the bottom. I acknowledged that he had a point but asked, “How can you put SUPERNATURALISM at the bottom and NATURALISM at the top? The associations all run the other way!” We’ll have to set our Old New Way graphic design team on this thorny problem.

Walden pushed back on my suggestion that, over time, the arts will move downwards towards NATURALISM. He mentioned how he discovered recently that a jazz musician he enjoys, Brad Mehldau, is religious. It gave him pause but doesn’t change his experience of the music. (Ken located an interesting link to Brad Mehldau’s own eloquent thoughts on art and religion here.)

I agreed that music, being so direct and emotional medium, doesn’t really reflect the supernatural or materialistic commitments of its players and composers. So maybe music is an exception.

It’s more in the realm of literature and visual art, I suggested, that we look for a more accurate thematic representation of the dilemmas and divisions and complicated experiences of our lives. It’s here that an author or painter’s creaky commitments to supernaturalism may, over time, give his or her work a dated quality.

More On the Question of Where We Will Be In 200 Years

Shari stated that she considers humans to be detached from their environment and their connections to other animals. If we could regain our sense of connection, she suggested, we could establish a perfectly harmonious and efficient existence in the world. Perhaps, then, we could end up with the entire left side of the chart fading away?

I scoffed at this, challenging her to describe any perfectly harmonious and efficient group. She clarified that she has experienced this at times, but in a fleeting way. She mentioned that she has been influenced by Zoroastrianism, as well as Ayurvedic practices, in this respect.

I persisted to say that I thought that she was making an unfounded assumption as to the human capacity for “transcendence.” If you really take in, again not just accept but take it in,  that we are products of evolution, animals with conflicting hormonal and neurochemical urges, systems that clash endlessly in our little bodies, than you pretty quickly find quaint the idea of achieving a pure state of harmony with anything.

Yes, Yann interjected, but it doesn’t have to be so pessimistic either. Yann mentioned in this regard that he was frustrated by Gray’s unrelenting gloom and doom — all this talk of the cyclical patterns of human history —  as he read parts of The Silence of Animals. In Yann’s view, there is no need to tip either way into optimism or pessimism.

Humans have a range of behavior traits, he acknowledged (gesturing along the whole of the x-axis on the chart). Some, sure, are selfish and assholic; some are generous, other-directed, “good.” Yet Yann argued that our unique symbol-making conscious minds make us, distinct from other animals, capable of seeing the benefits — and arranging for more and more of the benefits — of these “good” actions. Therefore, despite the obvious blunders we have made in the last century (e.g. burning fossil fuels and devastating the environment through industry and warfare), we can make adjustments going forward! In this way we might, just possibly, avoid ruining the planet for our children. (Although he conceded that we may not achieve this goal — basically it’s a 50%/50% chance in Yann’s mind — again neither optimistic or pessimistic).

I said that I didn’t see it that way. This “specialness,” which he attributes to our species (homo sapiens), is to my mind merely a fancy, self-serving label for what is familiar to us, in our patterns of behavior. Free will is, in my estimation, largely an illusion. Yes we believe that we are rationally adjusting to circumstances and tilting our behavior towards the “good,” achieving “progress,” etc. But I don’t think that is actually right in any meaningful sense. We are merely playing out our conflicting self-driven and group-driven moral impulses, just as other mammals do.

Only we do it with symbols and words that make us feel righteous about it.

As for the record of humanity, Shari suggested, it is pretty bleak so far! The preponderance of the evidence is that we are a ruining the world for many other species. We are in a period of mass extinction due to human action.

Yes, yes, Yann said, we have, no question, screwed it up for other species. But at least for our own species we have done well. Life spans have increased dramatically. Science has provided vaccines, antibiotics, etc.

For how long, though? some of us asked.

Do We Care More for Humans Than Other Species?

In this discussion, at one point, Yann stressed that he does not privilege humans over other species of animals.

I said that, even so, we still favor our own for sheer reasons of familiarity, don’t we? I explained that I personally feel more empathy for my fellow bipedal primates than I do for, say, cows.

Yann surprised many of us by saying, no, he cares just as much for cows. In fact, he is trying to discipline himself to be a vegetarian for this very reason (he has, touchingly, been influenced in this by his son Thibaud, who is so repulsed by cruelty to our fellow animals that he refuses to eat them).

“But you would under no circumstances eat a burger made of human flesh, right?” I challenged him. “In that case you don’t have to ‘try to discipline yourself’ because you have, naturally, at your disposal, more empathy for your particular fellow primate. Don’t you?”

“Nope,” said Yann. “I should care about cows just as much. And I believe that I could love them just as much.” (I made a note that we should read Peter Singer soon in this group. He takes exactly this maximalist position on our ethical obligations to animals of other species.)

Nietzsche’s Theory of the Last Man

Both Walden and Kristen mentioned, at different points in the discussion, that the agendas of different people will always be different. They may overlap, but they will not coincide exactly.

I wondered if, for those of us who happily position ourselves in the “Old New Way,” quadrant IV, on the chart, this diversity of viewpoints, this fragmentation of world views, will always lead us to be somewhat… dissolute.

Can we no longer dream bold dreams and hold the highest ideals?

Jerry mentioned that he missed the sense of moral clarity and idealism that he experienced in the 1960s and 70s. This was one reason to participate in this reading group — to try to rediscover that experience of shared purpose.

I lamented that people used to have an assumption of ultimate meaning, lurking out there somewhere, and as this concept has faded so too has the fervor behind many of the moral causes in the world. Don worried that conservatives, more attune to supernatural and ideological unity, continue to out-strategize the progressive community. They still have a fervor and unity that we lack. Shari countered that such ideologies will always collapse of their own harshness in time.

I brought up Nietzsche’s notion of the “Last Man” in this context.

Zarathustra laments that, with the death of God, humanity will end up trivialized, seeking entertainment and distraction, making no bold commitments, favoring safety and security over risk and acheivement.

No one will want to be ruled or rule.

Warning of this, Zarathustra expects the people to rise up and hail the alternative he offers them: the übermensch! The creative, active, power-hungry man who transcends his animality and his humanity! Quite incisively though, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche has the crowd reject the übersmench in favor of the Last Man.

I proposed to the group that we are, in effect, Nietzsche’s Last Men… and Women. (Let’s open it up to both genders, why don’t we.)

Our aims are small. Our meanings highly individualized. We listen to Adele or Vivaldi or Mingus on our iPod while shopping for the right rosemary-infused ham for a picnic in a carefully maintained public park. So what?

The Call of the Wild

From this we got into a discussion of how far we really can commune with nature.

If our “Old New Way” moral outlook is really grounded in NATURALISM, as the chart would suggest, then how does this work exactly?

I mentioned a walk recently, on Setenay’s birthday, during which a bunch of us chatted the whole time and only minimally touched the furry bark of the trees we passed or the soft undersides of the leaves. But even if we had stopped to hug them and sniff the bark, trace the leaves with our fingers, would that have really provided us with some deeper moral and existential awareness?

Ken mentioned that he does have this sort of transformative experience when he goes camping by himself for an extended period in nature.

Is this enough, though, this altered state Ken achieves for a brief time? Can it compete with the ecstasies unleashed by speaking in tongues in a Pentecostal church, or embarking on a Shaministic journey with spirit-guides?

I held up a naturalist guide, A Natural History of the Point Reyes Peninsula, that I had read recently. I had amused myself, I told the group, when I began reading it, choosing to approach it quite self-consciously as a kind of alternative Bible for someone committed to a naturalistic outlook like myself. Yet in the end, despite the elegant writing about grebes and Tule elk and geological time pushing the rocky Pt. Reyes peninsula northward along the fault line, I was left feeling… fairly the same.

Where is the place for the intense, transformative experience in our Old New Way outlook? Where is the ecstasy?

I mentioned that in the last meeting I had been desperate to have some affirmation that at least we might prioritize “love” above all other values, even without a supernatural directive. If an imaginary Jesus can do it in the New Testament, can’t we?

Don’t we have enough evidence from the experience of love in our own lives to say that it is way forward? I had made the argument that someone like Larry Ellison or Pablo Picasso would benefit from adding a little more love to their lives, even at the expense of other values such as self-expression or the pursuit of achievement. But the group, to my shock, rejected this notion.

They argued for a whole smorgasbord, if you will, of values, and not prioritizing “love” over the others. (See the notes from the meeting on Love to revisit this debate in more detail.)

This gets to the “Last Man” problem that Nietzsche and his Zarathustra lamented, does it not? Is there nothing we stand for anymore?

The First Time I Ever Bested Yann in an Argument 

The discussion wound down to general feeling of good will.

Walden provoked me again with his talk of stopping at the negative direction of “Don’t be an asshole.” Isn’t that enough of a moral directive in our lives, he asked? But we will leave that to the last meeting (Walden, feel free to clarify with a comment, either there or here.)

A few of us stood around for a bit, chatting.

And that’s when one more funny thing happened.

Towards the end of the meeting I thought of the perfect rejoinder to Yann’s insistence that he does not value humans, as members of his own species, any more than he does all the other species on this planet.

“So, Yann,” I asked, my eyes gleaming, “Would you have been just as happy to have two calves instead of your two boys?”

He looked at me, uncomprehending. “Calves?”

“Two calves, Yann. In custom-fit pajamas, big, round, watery eyes, looking up at you from the crib. Would that be just as good as having two small boys?”

“Sure,” Yann said — but I must say, without conviction. “That would be fine.”

“Wouldn’t it get a little hard when all they ever said to you was, ‘Mooooooo’?”

I think I got him there.

Primates that we are, there’s something about other primates like us that just means more.

But he resisted to the end, valiantly.

“Tom,” he said, his arm gesturing in front of him, “We could love a piece of glass as much as a human, if we spent a long time caring for it!”

“I think André or Thibaud would beat a piece of glass,” I offered, not unreasonably.

And that was when, possibly for the first time in our long friendship, I saw Yann concede a point.

“Well, Andre and Thibaud are very special boys…” he trailed off.

His eyes grew soft as he thought of his boys, and I dare say he glowed a little. He glowed with a warmth that a piece of glass — I don’t care if it is green, sculpted sea-glass — could never provoke in him.

Next month we will read the newly published Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel by Carl Safina. So we will get closer to this question of our difference from, and similarity to, animals.

Looking forward to it.

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Reading for Seventh Meeting — THE WORLD WITHOUT GOD

For the meeting on November 18, we will read Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra and/or John Gray’s The Silence of Animals.

Some Brief Thoughts in Anticipation of the Meeting

Though written some 130 years apart, both Zarathustra and The Silence of Animals vigorously reject religion and supernatural claims of all kinds. So far so good.

Both also make every effort to provoke their readers into new ways of looking at the world. We like that!

Yet both, to my mind, represent wrong turns in non-supernaturalist thinking, and that’s why I grouped them together.

After pronouncing that “God is dead,” Nietzsche, through Zarathustra, argues for a life of unbridled selfishness, captured in his vision of the übermensch, driven by the “Will to Power”. Nietzsche’s is a doctrine of cruelty and dominance, and he rejects any countervailing concerns for kindness, mutuality, respect for others.

It seems to me that Nietzsche seriously underestimates the complexity of the human animal. No doubt affected by thousands of years of conditioning, despite his brave and unorthodox mind, he conflates goodness with godliness. So once he strips humanity of its supernatural pretensions, he reflexively strips it of much that is to be valued in life. It’s a “throwing out the baby with the bathwater” kind of problem.

What about our inclination to love, Friedrich? What about our inclination to shape our values collectively?

Gray’s approach is at once more passive, and also more bleak than Nietzsche’s (you didn’t think that was possible? just wait). First the good news: Gray’s picture of a human being shorn of supernatural certainties is far more complex and up-to-date: he sees each of us, I think rightly, as a confused bundle of conflicting impulses, desperately conjuring myths to give our lives meaning. We are not dominated by a “Will to Power” anymore than we are dominated by a “Will to be Liked” — it’s all in a tangle.

Unlike Nietzsche, then, Gray recognizes that along with our self-interest and potential for cruelty, we are also capable of strong sentimental attachments to one another.

But to Gray, it’s all myth and therefore barren and pointless. He paints a picture of the human animal in a state of nature as a helpless, but vicious, beast. Society, he thinks, clothes us in a meaning that is only threadbare at best: a cheap suit, poorly tailored, called “progress,” or “humanistic” showing skin at the elbows and knees.

So in the end Gray throws up his hands, considering  our severe cognitive limitations and unresolvable internal conflicts. Whereas Nietzsche urges humans to be creative and active (though sociopathic), Gray urges us to focus merely on “seeing” the world more clearly.

This too seems to me to leave out much of what makes our lives interesting. Surely we can recognize our severe limitations while also acting in the world, no? Perhaps people can collectively, over time, improve their lot? Why does our status as animals (homo rapians, he calls us) eliminate this possibility altogether?

I hope you are provoked as I was. Enjoy the readings!

Tom