The Cosmos Is Not Enough


Recommended Posts

Here's a short article I wrote for The Eudaimonist. I was a little cramped for space, and so I might flesh it out more at some point. If there is some idea you'd like for me to flesh out better, let me know. I welcome polite feedback.

---

The Cosmos Is Not Enough

(Originally published in the August 2005 issue of The Eudaimonist,

the official newsletter of the Fellowship of Reason, Inc. All rights reserved.)

When I was little, I would stare up at the stars with profound wonder for the vastness and timelessness of the universe. At five, my mother let me have her old college astronomy textbook, and it became my first Bible. At thirteen, when I faithfully tuned in to public television for every segment of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, it was like I was attending church, not a science classroom. I felt that Sagan’s naturalistic spirituality was my own.

However, when I reached my twenties, my spirituality changed. I did not discover religion – quite the contrary, I became a confirmed atheist. However, I felt that I had graduated from my kindergarten of spiritual development and entered into a more complete form of non-theistic spirituality. I was surprised that most naturalists did not even seem to be aware that there were other spiritual options for them besides Carl Sagan’s.

Spirituality Without Faith is a good example of what I mean. The article starts off well enough. It states, “Just as we can be good without God, we can have spirituality without spirits.” Why is this? Because spirituality “involves an emotional response…which can include feelings of significance, unity, awe, joy, acceptance, and consolation,” and which can “help us in dealing with difficult situations involving death, loss, and disappointment.” This emotional response is evoked through a cognitive context, i.e. our ideas of our place in the universe, and through spiritual practice, such as “meditation and participation in various rituals and ceremonies.” The article goes on to criticize dualistic spiritualities for denigrating the physical, thus leading to “alienation from our physical selves and indeed from the material world as a whole”, and for creating an epistemological conflict between reason and alleged personal revelations from spiritual experience.

I agree so far. So, what is the proposed alternative? The article argues that a naturalistic spirituality can provide a feeling of connection with the world, and since we are fully natural beings connected through causality to a natural universe, it happens to be true. Naturalism also provides mystery by denying the possibility of answers to any questions of ultimate meaning or purpose. And, finally, it leads to wonder at the workings of the universe, and its vastness.

There is nothing wrong with having these experiences. My objection to this spiritual package is in what it lacks – the personal. Focusing on the universe without places too little emphasis on the universe within – our experience as self-determining beings with purposes and stories of our own that go far beyond a contemplation of our quantum makeup. An important aspect of traditional religious spirituality to which the article gives no alternative is “the entire emotional realm of man’s dedication to a moral ideal,” which Ayn Rand discusses in her introduction to The Fountainhead. Of course, she didn’t advocate traditional religious spirituality, but rather a eudaimonistic actualization of one’s highest potentialities, and in so doing one may experience “the exaltation of man’s self-esteem and the sacredness of his happiness on earth.”

I could say that I had found a sense of connection with my daimon – meaning: with my highest potentialities, which are my personal moral ideal – and about this I feel both mystery and wonder, as one might feel while reading a good epic novel. And, in my pursuit of this moral ideal, I have gained a measure of the spiritual fruits of self-esteem and happiness. If we are to avoid alienation from the complete richness of human life, the Cosmos is not enough.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Mark,

There are two places on OL that come to mind where concern with spiritual experience is dealt with.

The first is the thread on Ayn Rand's favorite painting. The fact that she spent long hours contemplating this painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (as related by Jeff Britting in Ayn Rand) shows her concern in life with encountering this experience. John Enright contributed with a poem that portrays this point.

I cannot escape the irony that the traditional Christian image of the crucifixion of Christ by a surrealistic painter is what aroused Rand's "worship" emotions. This shows wonderfully how strong the images are in traditional culture and where they can be used in a new manner.

Another place is an article on mysticism by Rich Engle. He was a hardcore Objectivist, then he had some experiences in life that led him to reevaluate some of his premises. He continues to be Objectivist (but now goes to a multi-denominational church). He has added this "worship" experience to his awareness of being alive. He calls it mysticism, which is a bad word for Objectivists, but if you read the article carefully, you begin to see where he is not trying to negate reason, but instead stay true to something powerful that happens in his inner life, and then add it to his reason.

You touched on that experience here in your article, but from another angle. (btw - That was a very good Humanist article you linked to.) This experience is what mankind's greatest art can inspire (but, obviously, it is not limited to art). I am glad to see this issue being discussed so openly.

Michael

Link to post
Share on other sites

I am currently writing about spirituality in the context of music ( specifically, I am thinking a great deal about the impact of Puccini's music on me). I feel as if the concept of spirituality is one that I have kind of glossed over recently ( recently meaning the last few decades). Anyway, this discussion is helpful. If I come up with anything original ( at least, to me) I will share it with you.

Link to post
Share on other sites

I found this article to be one of the most spot-on, honest treatments I've read on the subject in a long time.

We get in trouble with someone no matter what general name we use for it. I tend to talk about it as "individual religious consciousness". But, with the caveat that I am not referring to a specific form of organized religion. That is key.

As Michael mentioned, I am a part of a religious community, specifically a Unitarian Universalist church in Kirtland, Ohio. Unitarian Universalism is a pluralistic, non-creed based (so it is covenant-based) denomination that includes atheists.

I bring this up because there is often a fair amount of blending that goes on in dialogues of this nature between the individual religious experience and the ecclesiastical one. Like any other community, there are certain things that can be done within it, both spiritually and otherwise, that cannot be accomplished or experienced alone.

My goal in the mysticism article was to differentiate (and historically trace) the individual mystical experience from the word mysticism as it is broadly used (to the point of uselessness) in Objectivism.

There are two books I highly recommend for learning about this area, one old and one new. The first is William James' "Varieties of Religious Experience," and the second is a book by Ken Wilber called "The Marriage of Sense and Spirit."

Your article also made apt mention of various systems' neglect or non-inclusion of either eye-of-flesh reality such as science shows, as well as the same situation in terms of leaving out the interior domain. Basically, there has been a huge rift between modernity and premodernity. Both have their dignities and disasters, and Wilber, who is probably the best integrator out there, makes major headway in this book. I also recommend taking a look at his "AQAL" model, which can be found here:

http://www.formlessmountain.com/KW-WTC/foo...notes/aqal.html

Once again, thanks for this piece and welcome to the OL community.

Best,

rde

Link to post
Share on other sites

Thank you for the kind replies, and for the interesting links. I'm pleased to see that these issues are of interest to some of the people here.

James, if you have an article that you've written on spirituality you'd like to share, I hope you are willing to post it at OL or let me know where to find it. That applies to everyone else here too.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now