There are times when all the world´s asleep
The questions run too deep for such a simple man
Won´t you please, please tell me what we´ve learned
I know it sounds absurd, but please tell me who i am? ..Supertramp, The Logical Song
“He who has a strong enough why can bear almost any how.” ..Frederick Nietzsche
The “how” of life is an interesting question. But “why” is just a silly question. ..Richard Dawkins
I saw another quote from Richard Dawkins, in his bus campaign, that those who protest about atheism “have no decent arguments” and are taking offence “because it’s the only weapon they’ve got”. But spiritual people are not the unthinking mob he claims them to be, and if someone takes offence surely the one question needing to be asked is: why?
When a child is adopted, even if their adoptive family has been with them since the first few hours of their life, and they are happily enmeshed in stable family relationships, they very often have a sense of coming from a different background.
If made aware of the existence of their biological parents, they will never rest until they have traced them to become familiar with their own history. Not from some expectation of a magical transformation, but from a curiosity about their own selves which no worldly distraction can satisfy. It is an intuitive part of their being, and arguing against it or calling them irrational does nothing but confound the situation with the additional problem of shame and secrecy.
As nobody can explain consciousness in terms of atoms, the physical world cannot be equated to consciousness; as a result the urge to transcend matter to find one’s roots is understandable for an intelligent, conscious entity.
This is why healthy forms of spirituality will outlast trendy atheism. Modern atheism is partly a handy evasion of moral code at a time when degeneration is widespread and tempting to act out and experiment with, but for which justification is needed. It is also partly an intellectual game of one-upmanship – one visit to atheist sites where caustic insults and long-prepared barbs are chosen quickly and hurled unerringly at their target. One never sees this kind of insulting behaviour on religious websites – at least I haven’t. And that experience so far has included Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian and Unitarian.
Combative atheism is also a natural movement with a very useful purpose: to force religious forms to account for themselves intellectually. It is no use resorting to Divine support or threatening the atheist with eternal fire. These are the emotional tools of much simpler minds: what is needed is evidence satisfying one who is understandably dismayed that the spiritual lore of mankind relies so frequenty on trust of a very human source: something experience of people tends, if anything, to warn against. There are many sincere atheists who are not insulting about religion but still require explanations: they would accept a spiritual dimension to evolution if it were proved to their satisfaction. For this the superstition or arrogance of the fundamentalist is a hindrance. This is the challenge facing the religious community as a whole, and it is only thanks to the combative atheist – with his extended pallete of colourful insults and witty barbs always to hand – that this phase is now underway.
Because of this last factor, atheism will eventually be an accelerating force for religion; it has already encouraged the spiritual minded to start to think in a biological and genetic way. Truth tends to become enlarged in the face of opposition, and the massive publicity demanded by the more egotistical atheists will serve this purpose; discoveries which will soon completely overturn materialism now have a ready-made audience, and the open-minded atheists will be the first to spread the word.
Spirituality does not deal with the problems of the physical world, but with our own origin. We feel we can never arise from dead matter, for if we know anything, it is that we are not dead. The world is an intriguing place and its activities and adventures can fill a lifetime. But one day that lifetime must end, and so it is not surprising that in reflective moments, or at the approach of death, these ideas return to us.
The Africans brought to America as slaves had a longing for their own culture, and for simple freedom. The blues, the most primal and honest of all folk music, still a musical force today, emerged from this yearning and from their suffering at the hands of the white man. The sense of longing in spiritual music arises also from a being enduring an alienated state – the material world – and yearning for the experience, however fleeting, of one’s true spiritual nature. Atheism and materialism – aside from their useful purpose of updating religion – can never maintain a significant authority simply because the mass of mankind trusts their instinct and common sense far more than do the intellectual elite, who, in their eccentric behaviour tend to allow themselves a latitude for experimentation which they are not keen to grant others.
We all see things which cannot be explained away by laws of physics or patterns in molecules: hope, strength, faith, the bold creativity of a child, or deep feelings reminding us of things beyond this Earth. We know our mortal bodies will end one day; the urge to find the spirit is a defiance against this mortality, an attempt to transcend this temporary world. We hope to encourage others on the same path with whatever we find; the human race thus progresses from many contributions.
The issue of God could never be solved in the physical dimension, any more than the issue of consciousness. We know the material world is a surface created by the interaction of a formless, colourless energy with our consciousness. Beyond a certain point, already reached by physics, it loses its solidity and its predictability. How could any intelligence presumed to be creator of such a Universe be found within such a temporary phenomena, unless – if at all – through realms of consciousness? In human life, mind can judge matter and attempt to rule over it, but not the other way around; any urge within the mind to look beyond matter is an admission of this truth. A yielding of mind’s place to dead matter is a strange act, a suicide of sorts.
Those with the spiritual urge often find the strength to go further than those who feel life is pointless; suicide is an act of despair; faith, sometimes, an antidote to it. Victor Frankl’s experiences in the extremes of the concentration camp bear this out. A transcendent, ecstatic soul on the one side, and a despairing one on the other might be outside everyday experience, but only a slight angle of philosophy is needed to arrive at any such extreme, if the path followed is long enough.
My father was very ill from cancer a few years ago and whenever possible, I travelled back and forth to Toronto on weekends to visit and cheer him up. One May evening that year, a friend with a spare ticket invited me to Ronnie Scott’s in London to see Mica Paris. We had been sitting quite near the stage when the first set drew to a close and I saw I had a missed call from my sister in Toronto. Scott’s has a strict no-phones policy so I stepped out into the rain and found a doorway; my sister informed me that our Dad had passed away, peacefully, a few minutes before.
When I went back inside the club, without any words, my friend seemed to understand, and just held my hand. Here is exactly what happened next: the lights went down and Mica took the stage in silence. “Are there any atheists in the house?” She asked. A few people put up their hands for comic effect. She looked unmoved, and continued. “This one is for you.” She started slowly singing Amazing Grace, acapella, a haunting old-time spiritual song. In a few moments she was joined by her backing singers, then finally the whole band.
When real music finishes, somehow it still lingers in the air, echoing in the mind. There is no sound and like a lost lover, we realise its power by its absence. The feeling in that dark, intimate club was quite indescribable: she raised the roof, and after the deepest of silences, the audience erupted in wild applause to express this feeling.
The thing is, my father was a committed atheist. It was only later I found out Amazing Grace was his favourite song, and that he requested it not be played at his service, as he knew how it could bring out uncontrollable emotions in the bereaved.
This story is only of significance to me, a matter of experience and feeling – but the same can be said of any man’s spirituality. I always felt the performance which swept me away that night, of a song I had never seen sung live, or given much thought to before, was a goodbye between this world and him. “Goodbye” itself is a concatenation of the ancient “God be with ye”, something I find quite heartening. Of course I know all this can be glibly chattered away, dismissed with logic, but the experience itself cannot. “Why” is not a silly question, and at times, it is the only one worth asking.