Mystical Atheism

In 1811, the poet Shelley was sent down from Cambridge University for publishing a pamphlet in which he espoused atheism. Two hundred years ago, such an idea was almost unthinkable. It was bad enough being a Catholic - let alone a Jew or a Muslim - but an atheist!

Percy Bysshe Shelley - The Necessity of Atheism and other Essays
The modern mind readily assumes that by declaring his lack of belief in God, Shelley was claiming to be a reductionist-materialist. But Shelley’s actual words were: ‘This negation must be understood solely to affect a creative Deity. The hypothesis of a pervading Spirit coeternal with the universe remains unshaken.’

I parted with the Christian God when I was thirteen. I could not fathom the concept of an embodied Creator. I became an agnostic - a derogatory term, applied by those who do believe to those who express uncertainty rather than conviction. I have only recently become willing to call myself an atheist, and, as Shelley did, find it necessary to qualify the term immediately.

As Jonathan Miller points out, it is rather strange having to express a negative position. But it is my position. So, as with Shelley, the reader may assume that I am a reductionist-materialist: The universe began with a Big Bang; we arose from the interactions of chemicals, and to those same chemicals we shall return; consciousness is accidental and temporary. Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, because the bell is tolling for you.

Lao Tsu - Tao Te Ching (Gia-Fu Feng Translation)Lao Tsu - Tao Te Ching (D.C. Lau Translation)
Not quite. In fact, not even nearly so. I drifted for a few years, not much concerned with such quandaries, and then, aged seventeen, read a version of Lao Tzu’s marvellous Tao Teh Ching. Lao Tzu - who probably didn’t really exist - was willing to put the question of God or gods to one side, and instead explain the obvious. The universe came from somewhere: out of something unknown. Lao Tzu cautiously gave a name to the ground of causation - with the understanding that this was just a name for something he did not understand. He called it Tao, and presumed it to be the ground out of which everything continues to arise. Now this is very close to Shelley’s view. It has also appealed to more than a few thinkers and scientists along the way. For example, physicist David Bohm gave his own eloquent elaboration of the nature of the persistent ground in his theory of unfolding and the implicate order.

If I had to believe in a god it would be more like the Hindu notion of brahman (not the god Brahma), from which the gods came. Or it might be the cosmic egg of which Ovid spoke. Or the Mother Goddess who gave birth to the father gods of the currently dominant religions (the biblical El seems to have been the child and then the consort of Elat or Ashereh. Yahweh-Jehovah was their child; later assuming his father into Himself. For her pains, Ashereh became Ashtoroth, consigned to Hell by Christians, after a sex change).

Lao Tzu spoke of the universe as a mother, and the idea can be found in many primitive religions: the aborigines of Australia and those of America, for instance. But unlike our biological mother, this mother not only gives birth to us but also receives us when we die, and we are reabsorbed: our chemicals made available for some new construction.

There is a trend in mysticism that points to this original and constant unity out of which our perceived separateness emerges. I should immediately trot out my definition of ‘mysticism’: religion is a set of practices and beliefs that bind a society together; mysticism is a personal exploration of a relationship with the universe. Mystics tend to be burned or crucified by religious groups, because they challenge entrenched belief, and make fun of and belittle the dogma that keeps society bound (the law is made for man, not man for the law - to quote one very famous mystic). Mystics also tend to be the originators of religious, philosophical and scientific groups, which rapidly misinterpret their liberating teachings, and turn them into restricting doctrines for the maintenance of power. To be a mystic, it is only necessary to resolutely try to perceive the truth. In my sense, anyone who seeks to discover a scientific principle, or a natural law, is also a mystic.

Mystics see explanations as metaphors. They see symbols as signposts rather than as objects for veneration. They are not necessarily kindly, but the threshold of mysticism is the comprehension that to live is to suffer; and immediately beyond that comprehension is the realization of compassion for the suffering of others. Mystics are not witches or magicians - who seek to manipulate the world through potions and incantations. They are not necessarily believers in the occult or the supernatural. In fact, they are properly not believers in anything. Disbelief and enquiry set the mystic apart. The mystic is an alchemist of the psyche, trying to transmute the lead of daily existence into the gold of equanimity. Converting real lead into gold is a job for chemists. And good luck to them.

Some mystics have had a profound influence upon the world. Their religious followers will point to the belief in God that they have inculcated, but often the teaching of the mystics has also brought about positive moral changes. For example, Christianity stopped the practice of infanticide in the Roman empire. Sadly, Christians also all but destroyed Classical learning and art, because of blinkered, dogmatic beliefs; so bringing about the Dark Ages. It also greatly reduced the status of women.

Buddhism has a less controversial past. The Buddhist teaching of karuna or compassion has had a positive global influence. Though the peaceful reign of its most celebrated monarch, Ashoka, was maintained by his secret police. Buddhism teaches that the idea of a soul or self is a fundamental mistake. How much more so the belief in gods?

Mysticism is not a shared activity. It cannot be. Although mystics may speak - especially the dim ones, like myself - they understand, as the Buddha said, that they are at most a ‘finger pointing at the moon.’ Whoever would visit that moon must do so under their own steam (or whatever metaphorical energy source they have available to them).

Edwin Schrödinger - What is Life?
The arts and sciences have been richly gifted by mystics. Many of them religious in character - from the priestly Pythagoras to the frantic unitarian and alchemist Isaac Newton. In the twentieth century, several highly notable physicists made statements about the unity of consciousness. Nils Bohr placed the yin-yang symbol on his coat of arms. Einstein made enigmatic statements about God’s refusal to gamble. Fermi and Schrödinger both wrote in terms that would have been recognised by Schopenhauer, Kant or Plato. Schrödinger - like Schopenhauer - made reference to the ancient collection of Hindu scriptures called The Upanishads. He also spoke of the Sufis, and tried to ‘contribute perhaps to clearing the way for a future assimilation of the doctrine of identity with our own scientific world view, without having to pay for it by a loss of soberness and logical precision.’

In the vast literature of Hinduism, there is a strain that distinguishes the absolute with qualities from the absolute without qualities. The brilliant teacher Joseph Campbell spoke often of this distinction. I mention his mention of it in my own essay on his wonderful book, The Flight of the Wild Gander.

In his marvellous examination of atheism, A Rough Guide to Disbelief, Jonathan Miller seemed to ignore Oriental thought - a commonplace in Western histories. But, as I have briefly shown, atheism most certainly did not begin in Classical Greece. Nor does it necessitate a reductionist-materialist belief.

V.S. Ramachandran & Sandra Blakeslee - Phantoms in the Brain
Schopenhauer called The Upanishads, ‘the most rewarding and elevating reading possible in the world.’ The eminent neurophysiologist V.S. Ramachandran also cites The Upanishads, saying ‘if you’re part of the great cosmic dance of Shiva, rather than a mere spectator, then your inevitable death should be seen as a joyous reunion with nature rather than as a tragedy.’

William Butler Yeats - The Ten Principle Upanishads
This echoes the simple beauty of the Eesha Upanishad: ‘How can a wise man, knowing the unity of life, seeing all creatures in himself, be deluded or sorrowful?’

The Prashna Upanishad tells us, ‘As the web springs from the spider and is again withdrawn, as the plant springs from the soil, hairs from the body of man, so springs the world from the Everlasting.’

And that Everlasting can be called whatever you like. I can only reconcile the notion of a personality with it by thinking of the medieval Christian mystic Meister Eckhart’s phrase: ‘Anything that can be said about God cannot be true.’

January 2005