Sartre, Human Nature and ‘kusala’…

I was re-reading Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1946 piece Existentialism Is a Humanism recently, as I headed off to explore existentialism with some 6th Formers locally. It was an interesting session, and not too doom-laden – I hope…

What struck me though, on my -re-read, was the following passage:

What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards. If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself. Thus, there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it. Man simply is. Not that he is simply what he conceives himself to be, but he is what he wills, and as he conceives himself after already existing – as he wills to be after that leap towards existence. Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism.

This seems to hit the nail on the head. It lays out clearly the consequence of atheism: that we are a starting point, as humans. Without a human nature, we lay aside ideas of having an immutable spirit, or soul – or prior, spiritual form, and look to see what we can do as finite, temporally limited beings.

Photo of Sartre

This account, that tells us we have no recourse to anything but ourselves, is the opening up of freedom. Of course, Sartre and other existentialists (including the religious ones) are very aware that such freedom is far from unproblematic. Freedom in the absence of authority is, in part, where we derive absurdity from. We must choose. But how? With no spirit guide, no Holy book, no metaphysics which can guide morals, we are bereft of guidance.

Yet we must still choose.

This bracing circumstance may seem like a burden, but I want – in future posts – to see if we can employ some Buddhist ideas to help see where it might lead. The primary one of these will be the idea of ‘good’ action as being kusala. In The Philosophy of Desire book I begin to address the meaning of this term – and am largely in favour of the translation as ‘skilful’. This leads me, in that book, to argue for the idea of a ‘well-crafted life’ in a Buddhist context.

What would a ‘well-crafted life’, in an atheistic, existentialist world that Sartre claims we inhabit, look like? That’s what I hope to move on to in future posts..

Žižek and the challenge for 21st Century Atheism

Turns out May (on this blog at least) is Žižek month…

That man again...

I was reading an article (Slavoj Žižek, “The Fear of Four Words: A Modest Plea for the Hegelian Reading of Christianity,” in The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic, ed. Creston Davis (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009) 27-28) where Žižek seems to touch on another of the concerns here. In a previous post I looked at the universalist discourses of mysticism – and the book expands on the problems they, rather surreptitiously, bring with them. Žižek notes a feature of this – the insistence of new-age thought on separating spirituality from religion, and the claim that all spiritual paths share in the same, transcendent, ineffable experience. As he notes below – this is often now presented as the core of religion: and everything else becomes seen as contingent, second-order and therefore negotiable and less urgent. I see this as persuausive and troubling. Troubling because various aspects of religion now fall away: ethics, concerns with social justice, poverty, communal values: all these are now not the heart of religion: but follow later, and in ways open to negotiation and ongoing revision.

 However, when today’s New Age ideologists insist on the distinction between religion and spirituality (the perceive themselves as spiritual, not part of any organizationed religion), they (often no so) silently impose a “pure” procedure of Zen-like spiritual meditation as the “whiteness” of religion. The idea is that all religions presuppose, rely on, exploit, manipulate, etc., the same core of mystical experience, and that it is only “pure” forms of meditation like Zen Buddhism that exemplify this core directly, bypassing institutional and dogmatic mediations. Spiritual meditation, in its abstraction from institutionalized religion, appears today as the zero-level undistorted core of religion: the complex institutional and dogmatic edifice which sustains every particular religion is dismissed as a contingent secondary coating of this core. The reason for this shift of accent from religious institution to the intimacy of spiritual experience is that such a meditation is the ideological form that best fits today’s global capitalism.

To place the pure meditation as the heart of religion is to absolutely comply with Žižek’s final claim here. Such a ‘spirituality’ is not a challenge to capitalism, it is not even an institution that could match or threaten it. It is (as he also says of Western Buddhism elsewhere, such as in On Belief) an ideological supplement to capitalism. It is a balm that lets us continue to tolerate a world of injustice, poverty and inequality – by removing ourselves to an ‘inner self’, and by se-substantialising the world through mystical versions of notions of Māya, and the world as less-real than it seems.

So while we reject religion, we must note that when we do so, we need to pay attention not to finding something to replace its function as metaphysical account of reality, but to how structures to support social equity, fairer distribution of resources and personal and group ethics can be established. This, rather than endless futile bickering about ‘proofs’ for God’s existence with Theists, seems like a proper challenge for the atheists of the 21st Century.

Marmite Thinkers and Spiritual Rejections

As previous posts attest, I am an atheist. One who also rejects Spirituality. However, in some of my talks I have received flak for seeming to defend organised religion (while attacking disorganised religions). I am not sure I do so that much – but I do feel that some of the more positive fallouts of organised religion are absent in the new-age and mind-body-spirit worlds. That is true. I think I may have found someone who almost agrees with me..

By this – I don’t mean Alain de Botton. I am resisting saying anything on the blog about Alain de Botton and his Religion for Atheists.. Partly because I was always taught “If you’ve got nothing nice to say, don’t say anything.” So I won’t. For now.

WSlavoj Žižekhat I want to look at is someone who seems to divide opinion even more starkly than de Botton: Slavoj Žižek. There seems to be a backlash against Žižek at the moment. One writer seems to even call him Buddhaphobic. Perhaps I’ll return to that in another post. Either way he seems to be a love or hate thinker. Personally I’m in the former camp. I can forgive him the endless self-plagiarism (whole chunks from previous books appear in other ones), the digressions, manic presentation style, the sweat and the lapses in Lacanian jargon. Why? Because he is so often very persuasive – and entertaining – and has things to say which actually seem important.

In an interview for Believer magazine he is asked an interesting question:

BLVR: Your book The Puppet and the Dwarf deals with St. Paul. In fact, it celebrates St. Paul’s Christianity in contrast to other forms of spirituality, i.e. gnosticism, new-age spiritualities, etc. So why would an
atheist defend Christianity?

His answer is fascinating…

SŽ: Today, spirituality is fashionable. Either some pagan spirituality of tolerance, feminine principle, holistic approach against phallocentric Western imperialist logic or, within the Western tradition, we have a certain kind of rehabilitation of Judaism, respect for otherness, and so on. Or you are allowed to do Christianity, but you must do a couple of things which are permitted. One is to be for these repressed traditions, the early Gnostic gospels or some mystical sects where a different nonhegemonic/patriarchal line was discernible. Or you return to the original Christ, which is against St. Paul. The idea is that St. Paul was really bad, he changed Christianity into this patriarchal state, but Jesus, himself, was something different.

What I like is to see the emancipatory potential in institutionalized Christianity. Of course, I don’t mean state religion, but I mean the moment of St. Paul. I find a couple of things in it. The idea of the Gospel, or good news, was a totally different logic of emancipation, of justice, of freedom. For example, within a pagan attitude, injustice means a disturbance of the natural order. In ancient Hinduism, or even with Plato, justice was defined in what today we would call almost fascistic terms, each in his or her place in a just order. Man is the benevolent father of the family, women do their job taking care of the family, worker does his work and so on. Each at his post; then injustice means this hubris when one of the elements wants to be born, i.e. instead of in a paternal way, taking care of his population, the king just thinks about his power and how to exploit it. And then in a violent way, balance should be reestablished, or to put it in more abstract cosmological terms, you have cosmic principles like yin and yang. Again, it is the imbalance that needs to establish organic unities. Connected with this is the idea of justice as paying the price as the preexisting established order is balanced.

But the message that the Gospel sends is precisely the radical abandonment of this idea of some kind of natural balance; the idea of Gospels and the part of sins is that freedom is zero. We begin from the zero point, which is at least originally the point of radical equality. Look at what St. Paul is writing and the metaphors he used. It is messianic, the end of time, differences are suspended. It’s a totally different world whose formal structure is that of radical revolution.

What I noted here in the first section was his suspicion of these alternative spiritualities. He seems to see in them a certain self-serving, trendy smugness. And for those in the Christian tradition, it is only fashionable of you find an oppressed discourse of gnostic/mystical rebelliion which grants you some type of victim status. This seems to accord with the way I claim mysticism is deployed by many in the New-age and Gnostic movements. What he does see as worth saving in the Christian tradition is not nice buildings, or moving songs (sorry, couldn’t resist the de Botton dig) – but some thing much more important. That is, Paul as the source for thinking about what radical equality might actually mean: an upsetting of natural orders, of hierarchies, and not of a futile gesture in the face of a society you ultimately capitulate to (as we might characterise the ‘alternative-ness’ of most alternative spirituality) – but of revolution.

This doesn’t make me want to be a Christian, but it makes me think that we (atheists) might have something to learn about just how socio-politically radical a set of ideas can be found in much religious thinking: and how we might yet need some of them in the face of the inclusivist, neo-liberal, post-ideological world-views that new-age spirituality seems to represent.

Heathen atheists? Part 1…

As promised, I wanted to make some comments about Julian Baggini‘s article in the Guardian, his Heathen Manifesto.

As I said in a previous post, I share much of his view that atheism is too often seen as arrogant, shouty and aggressive. That doesn’t mean that this is true of all, or even that many, atheists, but the discussion of Theism and Atheism in the public realm is often futile, combative and just plain annoying. So I was heartened by his statement of intent:

Julian BagginiThis manifesto is an attempt to point towards the next phase of atheism’s involvement in public discourse. It is not a list of doctrines that people are asked to sign up to but a set of suggestions to provide a focus for debate and discussion. Nor is it an attempt to accurately describe what all atheists have in common. Rather it is an attempt to prescribe what the best form of atheism should be like.

This seems intriguing, at least. And off he goes with 12 principles. I will not be delving into all of them in detail, in this post. Just the first one. But I shall (be warned) return to some in the future…

He starts with what atheists call themselves. There has been much discussion around this. Some feel ‘atheist’ is too negative – too much “not-one-of-those”. So perhaps ‘humanist’.

I don’t much like this term, which I discuss the term in Dispirited, where I state that:

Humanism often has noble intentions, but regularly appears as a parody of religious groups.

I go on to say more – but the term seems rather aged and locked into a liberal, institutional political setting in our culture that means it only appeals to some atheists, and really repels others. That won’t do then. We have ‘brights’ for atheists.

Calling those who reject the supernatural and the theistic ‘brights’ is fairly new, but already seems in decline. Despite Daniel Dennett’s claim that ‘bright’ doesn’t imply that the religious person is ‘dim’ – most seem to read it that way, and I would be surprised to see the term last another decade in common use. So – Baggini is right in that stage may be set for a new term.

So he opens the manifesto with: 1. Why We are Heathens.

I have seen a lot of criticism of this term. I don’t much like it myself, and don’t expect it to catch on. Lots of critics have complained that heathen actually has two main flaws:

  1. Heathen historically has referred to believers. Whether it be historical pagans of various sorts, or some damn variety of neo-pagan reconstructionists, they have been believers. Often in many Gods, or Godessess, or in some kind of nature-focused monistic pantheism. But they clearly where/are not unbelievers.
  2. The other objection is that term is often used in a derogatory manner, as a (not very strong) insult against the ungodly. It certainly has a pejorative tone.

Those making objection 1 have a point, but it is not that fatal. Words change their meaning over time – and I am sure Baggini knows the problem, but thinks the benefits derived, and common usage as time goes on, will deal with its legacy-meanings.

Objection no.2 is clearly only put forward by those who have not fully read, or taken on board, what Baggini has to say about the term. Indeed, they seem to miss his key point in favour of the term by doing so. He knows that it is a pejorative term. That is his point, to a large degree. He says so:

If we want an alternative, we should look to other groups who have reclaimed mocking nicknames, such as gays, Methodists and Quakers. We need a name that shows that we do not think too highly of ourselves. This is no trivial point: atheism faces the human condition with honesty, and that requires acknowledging our absurdity, weakness and stupidity, not just our capacity for creativity, intelligence, love and compassion. “Heathen” fulfils this ambition

While I am still unconvinced by the actual term – the first point here is telling. Atheists are often portrayed (and I don’t intend, here, to get into the details of whether there is any basis for that portrayal) as over-earnest, smug, humourless and arrogant. This term demonstrates humour, and humility. Two substantial virtues. I was rather surprised that so many rushed to point out that the term was offensive and abusive -when that was actually (at least in large part) the actual point of selecting it.

So I will not be using the term, I dislike the register and also think it sounds way too close to all those mind/body/spirit things that I’d like to disassociate from atheism. However, I think he is well justified in looking for a better term here. Just for the record, I like his principles 3, 5 (a bit), 7, and 10 (only a little, but yes).

So for now – what will I call myself? Maybe I’ll have to stick with miserable, atheistic, existentialist nihilist git for a while longer yet…

Heathen Manifesto? Is this what we need?

In a recent article in The Guardian, Julian Baggini wrote what he called his ‘heathen manifesto’.

These 12 rules for heathens were his way of trying to go beyond the view of atheists as militant extremists with whom it is pointless to enter into debate. Back in September 2011, Julian wrote about a ‘stalemate’ in the debate about God.

So far – quite interesting. There is a tone of shouty hectoring in some atheist writing. There is a tendency to let the extremes or the most superstitious or crass elements of faith stand for the whole of religious phenomena. In my next blog post I will begin to look at some of the 12 rules – and return later for the rest.

But before I move on – if Dr Baggini is concerned about this stalemate, that must indicate that he has a view that a debate around religion is potentially fruitful and worth facilitating.


At the end of the September 2011 piece he writes of wht needs to be done to:

get beyond name-calling and move this debate forward.

What I wonder is: forward to where?

I raise this not (only) because I am a contrary git, but because I am not sure of what the function of a debate between atheists and theists is. Is it to convince each other to change our views? While better debate in such matters may be preferable, I doubt that such activity makes any difference to where most of us stand: that is – one’s faith (or lack thereof) is rarely the result of a rational, dialectic process. Humans don’t seem to quite operate like that. Furthermore, I am not sure that this is what Julian has in mind: he is not proposing a debating chamber where atheists convert theists (or vice versa). So what kind of debate would he like?  He notes (in the Rules) the importance of secularism, and I largely agree with him on this point. However – this seems non-negotiable (rightly) – so what is there to debate?

I agree that atheists need to clarify our position, to work together and individually to face various challenges: existential, political, ethical and more. That is partly why I wrote Dispirited. However while we might well learn from some aspects of some religious traditions (to disavow this view does seem like militant dogmatism), and have personal and philosophical discussions within the detail of more and less individual contexts and settings: the idea of ‘public debate’ between the larger social groupings seems to make little sense to me. As an aside, I am not quite sure even what ‘public debate’ actually means: does anyone else?

Julian Baggini writes:

It is time, therefore, for those of us who are tired of the status quo to try to shift the focus of our public discussions of atheism into areas where more progress and genuine dialogue is possible

I agree that there is work to do here, and will in future posts engage with the idea he puts forward in his manifesto, but I wonder what we might recognise as success in the context of a public discussion, or what public dialogue even hopes to be.