Monday, 6 October 2008

Comment on Paul Heelas's "What lies beneath"

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly):

We've just updated our main site's homepage (bye bye picture of Sarah and the Velociraptor), and it's now pointing people to Paul Heelas's piece from our current issue, in which he argues that even humanism could do with a spiritual angle. We've had lots of letters about this article, but we'd still love to hear what more of you think. That's what this post is for – leave your comments below.


steffan said...

Seeing no-one else has commented on this one, I'll chuck in my tuppence worth fr0m my new(ish) blog. Sorry if its a bit on the long side!


In this month’s New Humanist, Paul Heelas argues in favour of a humanistic spiritualism. Seeing the headline I was genuinely intrigued, but my initial enthusiasm was short lived. His argument goes like this:

Atheist humanists believe that human rights are embedded in human nature.

These rights are legalistic, rather than ethical or personal. Despite this, their focus on individual rights means that they - and humanism - are egotistical.

All together, this 'disembodied formalism', the 'limited persuasiveness of scientific findings' and the 'relative ineffectual role played by the vulnerability factor' underline humanism's bankruptcy.

Furthermore, the prevalence of prejudice and cruelty in the world at large proves humanisms failure. Coupling this with the fact that the most of world isn't religious, atheist humanism should clearly be abandoned, preferably in favour of New Age Spiritualism.

The reasons for this are:

New Agers are more caring people. Things like magic and Feng Shui may be 'silly' but they lead to better people and to a better world. Spiritualism comes from within and is therefore better than the dogma of both religion and egotistical humanism. In short, 'Spirituality is a delusion, but a valuable one'.

What can be made of all this? The first point is clearly nonsense. Just because humanists think that every person should have some basic rights doesn’t mean we think that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is codified into human DNA. Secondly, human rights are just the base on which we build humanism; it isn’t the be all and end all of it. It is the floor beneath which no-one should be forced to sink lower, not the ultimate peak of our potential. Thirdly, quite how scientific finding are of limited persuasiveness, or indeed what role is played by the vulnerability factor (whatever that is) is not explained, let alone how this kills humanism. Fourthly, the fact that there’s still cruelty and prejudice in the world doesn’t mean that humanism is wrong – not least because these evils are most prevalent where humanism is not. Fifth, the argument that a minority position ought to abandoned, simply because it is in the minority, is particularly ‘brave’ coming from (not so numerous) New Agers.

Things get worse when he tells us why New Ageism is so brilliant. Apparently, they’re more caring, because they believe in magic. By focusing on ourselves rather than others, we become less egotistical (just how remains unsaid). According to Heelas therefore, advocating that every human to be treated with dignity, irrespective of who they are; defending freedom of thought and conscience, even when in utter disagreement; calling for everyone to be entitled to play a full role in their society and government – these are the cold views of egotistical humanists which must be dispensed with, in favour of uncritical self-adoration. Evidence, truth and reason are either irrelevant to a moral world or actively damage it. Only by abandoning our critical faculties – the very things which distinct us from other animals - can we be moral. Seriously; could there be a more inhuman argument?

Despite all this, he has stumbled onto an important issue. Can you be an atheist / rationalist / humanist whilst retaining some form of spirituality? In a word, yes – if we’re clear about what spirituality means. At its best, spirituality is what touches us emotionally. Narrowing it down more, it’s everything that inspires us to be a shared part of something greater than ourselves. Examples of an atheistic spiritualism are boundless. Think of being present during an emotive music concert. Think of the excitement felt when learning something for the first time, and seeing the world anew because of it. Think of how music or film or theatre or novels can captivate us. Think of those sporting moments that make you feel privileged to simply bear witness to them. Think of those scientific breakthroughs, like humans landing on the moon, or eradicating small pox. Think of the power of oratory that a Martin Luther King can take us out of ourselves, lift our heart and open our mind. Think of the wonder of seeing the light of stars cast across the universe from unimaginable distances, then realising they have already been extinguished. Filling our lives with such moments is a big part of what makes life worth living. What is even more extraordinary is that in all of the above examples, we are not participants but merely obersevers. Our ego is – joyfully – at its most irrelevant. Even when such occasions involve other people in some way, they are virtually always strangers to us. Few of us intimately know the athletes, musicians, actors, novelists who touch us so. Yet despite this – perhaps because of this – we can rightly regard our reactions to these events as spiritual, and doing so confidently as atheists, rationalists and humanists.

We can see from Richard Dawkins boundless enthusiasm that unweaving the rainbow doesn’t diminish our wonder towards it. Darwin’s Origin of Species deserves to be regarded as a work of literature as well as a work of science. Such wonderment amongst scientists is not the exception but the norm and is indeed spiritual, in the best sense of the world.

Having come this far, accomplished so much and being touched so deeply – all on the back of rational humanism and our unquenchable thirst for knowledge and truth – to throw it all away just so we can believe in magic and one’s ‘inner self’ seems, well, sacrilegious.

Martin Hughes said...

I am totally confused. This person seems to be explaining, in meticulous detail, in plain language, in cold, calculating terms why spirituality is better than reality. It is only because of secular, rational language that he can try to explain his theory ( and why we can identify it as mumbo-jumbo ).

That is the problem with spirituality or religious belief. Like magic, once you explain it, the effect disappears. His best bet is to keep his spirituality/religiousity to himself and not try to express a formula for others. Each of us cultivates our own sense of it based on observations and our own character.

Alleviate hunger, fear and disease and people will, as if by magic, become nicer, more contemplative folk.

Anonymous said...

. . . limp along as best you can.

** Magical thinking and supernaturalism thrive in a Land of junk-food faith **

The de-deification of nature is one task for the next thousand years.

Everything comes about according to necessity . . . . The goal of life is serenity (euthymia) . . . . The qualities of things are only . . . atoms and the void.
~ Democritus* 500 BCE

*quoted by Diogenes Laertius. Lives. Bk IX ∫45.