Saturday, November 20, 2010

Hitchens Hijacking the Language of Spirituality

Atheist SpiritualityIt’s time we realized that traditional religion is far from the only source of meaning, values, and a sense of the transcendent. – Julian Baggini in Psychologies

There seems to be a popular belief among atheists that ‘spiritual’ words are unnecessary, obscuring, and should be avoided at all costs. I beg to differ for two reasons. First, the use of ‘spiritual’ language in science will further make the statement that ‘spiritual’ contemplation should not be limited to the fenced in realm of spiritual leaders who claim to be the masters of morals. Secondly, scientific language does not go far enough to convey the emotional affect science can evoke. With these two points in mind (the hijacking and the enriching), I propose that science should be viewed by as a poetics of life. As Richard Dawkins says; “Science is the poetry of reality”. Christopher Hitchens illustrates ‘spiritual’ contemplation of the natural world in an interview with retired Unitarian minister (and self-professed “liberal Christian”) Marilyn Sewell. Hitchens hijacks the word ‘numinous’ when referring to a sense of awe:

It’s innate in us to be overawed by certain moments, say, at evening on a mountaintop or sunset on the boundaries of the ocean. Or, in my case, looking through the Hubble telescope at those extraordinary pictures. We have a sense of awe and wonder at something beyond ourselves, and so we should, because our own lives are very transient and insignificant. That’s the numinous, and there’s enough wonder in the natural world without any resort to the supernatural being required.

Hitchens goes on to describe his classification of ‘soul’ in referring to affective literature:

It’s what you might call “the x-factor”—I don’t have a satisfactory term for it—it’s what I mean by the element of us that isn’t entirely materialistic: the numinous, the transcendent, the innocence of children (even though we know from Freud that childhood isn’t as innocent as all that), the existence of love (which is, likewise, unquantifiable but that anyone would be a fool who said it wasn’t a powerful force), and so forth. I don’t think the soul is immortal, or at least not immortal in individuals, but it may be immortal as an aspect of the human personality because when I talk about what literature nourishes, it would be silly of me or reductionist to say that it nourishes the brain.

Referring to the ‘transcendent’ does not necessarily require a dualistic framework. Referring to the transcendent as an experience – rather than an existing magical reality –  is completely possible within an imminent philosophy. Hijacking the topics and language of spiritualists should not be resisted, but rather, it should be used carefully to enrich the scientific discourses.


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