I occasionally describe myself as a spiritual atheist. Slightly oxymoronic, but it expresses something important about my aspirations and beliefs.
Essentially I share many of the aspirations of people who are on spiritual journeys, but I have a fundamentally naturalistic worldview. I seek to grow in honesty and compassion, knowledge of myself and openness to others. I would love to live in a world in peace and in harmony. The language and the stories of people on journeys of spiritual and personal development have a lot of resonance for me. And I would love to be able to believe in miracles, in supernatural ways of healing our hurting world. But when I look into the claims for the divine or the supernatural, I find they have very shaky foundations – too shaky to rest my hopes for a better world on.
For example, while the demonstrations against the Iraq war were going on, I was sitting on a hillside pouring my heart and soul into meditations that, I had been told, would do more to prevent the war than physically joining the demonstrations. I’ve changed my mind since then. Joining them might not have achieved much. But I would prefer to make a small contribution that was definitely connected to the systems of the world, rather than trying to influence events through a mental/spiritual process I had no confidence was doing anything at all.
More recently I’ve come into contact with new age ideas, of energy healing and so on. I’ve been strongly drawn to the beautiful possibilities, but the deeper I look the more illusory they seem. I feel sure that the proponents of these systems are acting in good faith, but to me they are in danger of doing nothing, or even doing harm, because they aren’t checking the foundations of their belief systems carefully enough. I wrote in an earlier post evidence, bio-energetic fields and alternative medicine about some of the problems I’ve come across.
I think it’s often the strength of the compassion of these people that makes them want to believe that their hopes are true. I sympathise, because I want to believe these things too. But on the basis of the evidence I’ve seen I just can’t share their hopes.
Becoming a better person and working for a better world would both be much easier with some divine or supernatural assistance. But I’d prefer to find my own way, based on the best evidence I can find for how the world works, rather than rely on a deus that may never emerge from his or her machina!
Posted in believing, growing, hoping, learning, living
Tagged atheism, belief, energy, god, making a difference, naturalistic, new age, peace, personal development, spiritual, truth
I recently came across a very interesting article on so-called bio-energetic fields by Victor J Stenger.
The article looks at many of the claims made for energy fields, and in particular the idea that these claims are now justified by references to scientific theories such as “Einstein’s theory of quantum mechanics” (sic!). The writer mentions a number of phenomena that are cited as evidence for bio-energy, and comments:
“Once again, like the infrared aura, we have a well-known electromagnetic phenomenon [Kirlian photography] being paraded in front of innocent lay people, unfamiliar with basic physics, as “evidence” for a living force. It is nothing of the sort. Proponents of alternative medicine would have far fewer critics among conventional scientists if they did not resort to this kind of dishonesty and foolishness.”
I must admit that the idea of biological energy is an attractive one. Who would not be drawn to the idea of being able to influence and gain insight into your surroundings, and so becoming able to heal people and understand them better? But the more I look into it the more I recoil.
It’s one thing to have an open mind, and look at the evidence available, but so much of this new age and alternative medicine stuff is incredibly uncritical and undiscriminating, and looks only at the evidence on one side of the story. It is almost certainly true that there are weird phenomena which science hasn’t yet explained – but it absolutely does not follow that all weird phenomena which don’t have a scientific explanation are true!
It alarms and astonishes me just how many of the arguments put forward show lack of critical scrutiny of evidence – often amounting to a real disregard for the truth. I’m particuarly concerned to see no serious consideration of the possibility that energy reading/healing may be wrong (e.g. biased by your expectations or prejudices) or have limitations or ill-effects.
There are some positive dimensions to alternative medicine, particularly the real medical benefits of having the time to discuss all sorts of aspects of your life in a consultation, and feeling that you have been taken seriously as an individual with unique and interesting problems. And some forms of therapy, like acupuncture and herbal medicine seem to have effects beyond placebo.
So it’s important not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. But the more I look into this stuff, I seem to find more bathwater and fewer & more elusive babies!