Today in A&S (as noted last Thursday): Varieties of Experience, religious & scientific: William James, Carl Sagan, and the question of atheistic spirituality.

Why the James-Sagan  connection? Both were Gifford lecturers in Scotland (in 1901-2 and 1985), both saw the value in variety, both took their spirit where they found it, neither found science and spirituality incompatible, neither thought God the point of it all anyway. Sagan’s widow and collaborator Ann Druyan writes: “Carl admired James’s definition of religion as a ‘feeling of being at home in the universe,’” and at his death was at work on a book called Ethos that would have attempted “to synthesize the spiritual perspectives we derived from the revelations of science.”

So, today’s unconventional assignment: go to my day blog Delight Springs, click on the “pretty good book” in the right margin, and when Google’s digitized version of William James’s “Springs of Delight” appears, enter “spirituality” in the search box. Click around to get a sense for how we’ll begin to deploy that slippery term. Then, in the Delight Springs search box enter “Carl Sagan” and click on “at home in the universe,” “a deathbed non-conversion,” and “blue marble.” They’ll take you to some fun and inspiring Sagan videos that evoke my sense of spirit, at least. See if they ring your bell too.

In a recent interview Rebecca Goldstein, author of 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, muses “that there is  a way of having a strong spiritually transcendent experience that is not a conventional religious experience at all.”  She illustrates the point with Cass Seltzer, “my atheist-with-a-soul,” a man who disbelieves in any transcendent creator God but not in transcendence. He “keeps stepping out of himself and getting swept away by the exhilaration of existence.” He writes The Varieties of Religious Illusion, a nod to both William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience and to Sigmund Freud’s Future of An Illusion. He seems part Sam Harris, part Richard Dawkins, part Spinoza, and a big part William James. (He agrees with James that it’s a “‘scoundrel logic’ that calculates divine provenance” based on one’s own good fortune, yet also agrees with James that at bottom the universe for each of us is personal and subjective. (That’s why one of Goldstein’s arguments is extracted from James’s pragmatism. She, btw, rejects it and comes out in that interview as an atheist.)

So, the question of atheist spirituality might be: what are some varieties of Godless spirituality? What might atheistic transcendence look like? Carl Sagan‘s cosmic spirituality is one distinct variety. William James was probably more an agnostic, but his conception of spirituality too requires no firm commitment to a Deity. (In fact, as previously noted, the point of religion for him was not God but life, “larger, richer, more satisfying.”) We’ll look at other varieties on Thursday (again, begin with the Center for Inquiry’s “Declaration in Defense of Science and Secularism”  and the Secular Humanists‘ Declaration too. Then have a look at the Brights‘ site, and the Center for Naturalism (they make a case for naturalistic spirituality).

And for serious fun, Julia Sweeney:

Following up on Julia’s repudiation of Deepak Chopra’s quantum New Age philosophy: watch for word of a “great debate” in March between Chopra and skeptic Michael Shermer. Deepak: On March 14th Michael Shermer and I will be debating the topic “Does the Mind Exist Apart from the Brain?” It will take place at 2:00 pm in Beckman Auditorium on the Caltech campus. I will be discussing quantum consciousness and the mind-body connection, making the case that any debate already presupposes the primacy of consciousness of the debater. I will be incorporating the latest scientific evidence that consciousness is not dependent upon the brain. Michael Shermer will represent the position that quantum physics does not apply to consciousness and that there is no such thing as a mind apart from the brain. It’s sure to be great fun.


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3 Responses to “Varieties”

  1. Joseph Henry Says:

    I’ve never heard of Julia Sweeney, but after watching that video I’m a fan. I’ve taken more than my fair share of physics classes (classical and quantum), and it’s always a shame and irritation when someone uses scientific terminology to legitimize their own brand of superstition. It’s also amazing how easily a human mind will submit to someone who can wield these words with such perfect fluidity…

    As for an atheistic or agnostic spirituality… I think anything more than a simple appreciation of the complexity of the universe and the natural laws governing it might end up violating the very principles of said worldviews. Is that too strict?

  2. osopher Says:

    A simple appreciation can be profoundly meaningful, Joseph, and for some may be spirituality enough. I would say that it probably is too strict (or if that’s not quite the word… too lacking in an appreciation for the varieties of human experience in the the complex universe?) to be the last word on the subject for everyone. But we’ll see. Your comment poses a useful challenge to the defender of atheistic spirituality to justify the attention we’re going to give it this semester. We’ve got about 13 more weeks to do that.

  3. G. David Niswander Says:

    After one had the opportunity to view the suggested sites for today’s assignment , it is my conclusion that it is a great insight to know that their are so many people concerned in the greater civic cause. This is what one finds it to be spiritual. In my view it is in our spirituality that we can find the need to appreciate and actively fight to keep others from harming this thing we all call nature. It is great to see that Atheist and Secular Humanist are joining together to preserve nature. It is also awesome to see that there is a movement within these groups to demonstrate their spirituality to fight for the separation of Church and State. This is an issue that must be close to all our concerns as citizens of this nation, maybe even as citizens of this world, mostly when we see how damaging fanatical organized religions have been to our humanitarian issues. Hence, to see groups like this forming together and fighting for these issues at hand will hopefully ad to the numbers of people who are taking actions against such horrible acts as mentioned here. In return hopefully making our world a better place to live some day.

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