The Suggested Pivot for Atheism: Rational Mind and Poetic Mind / by Sam Abelow

William Blake's "Newton," 1795, a color print with pen, ink and watercolor.

The Facts of Physics and the Facts of Psyche

If, as a culture at large, which has been rapidly advancing scientifically, we can reactivate the appreciation of the poetry in life we would all better exist in relation to one another and to ourselves. This means seeing some aspects of life as facts of physics and others as facts of psyche.

The intuitions, feelings and other irrational perceptions within the realm of the human mind must be understood symbolically and metaphorically; in this way they are full of meaning and life, but do not interfere with a rational, materialistic conception of the world.

Individuals, by virtue of their predisposed personalities, will have opposite tendencies of perceiving and defining the world. But it is possible to overcome one’s own bias and strive to understand the inferior mode of perception; in this way we move towards a more complete experience of reality and ourselves.

If you would like, before reading my analysis, you may want to watch these lectures which portray seemingly irreconcilable viewpoints on religious ideas:

 

The Endless Debate

Public intellectuals and authors like Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens have been proponents of Atheism and the progression towards a society devoid of religious ideology and superstitions, which submits instead to the graces of logic, reason and science.

They have endlessly debated theists for years and those of faith make the same cases, without much constructive outcome (Hitchens admitted this in several interviews, stating that the religious used the same arguments and he stopped bothering to prepare).

Yet the solution seems obvious: A psychological, metaphorical view of religion and spiritual ideas.

This perspective solves the debate: Theists accuse atheism of being destructive socially, citing the role religion plays in salvaging the dark side of man, giving our lives meaning and saving us from the pitfalls of nihilism. Atheists, like Harris and Hitchens, rebuke, insisting that the worst atrocities of histories are attributed to religiosity.

THE SHORTCOMINGS OF A SECULAR SOCIETY

It becomes clear that, plainly speaking, Western society has been moving, for almost two centuries, in the direction of a secular society. Nietzsche had recognized that, “God is dead,” in 1882. His antidote was the creation of a superior person, who could embody individual philosophies and moral beliefs.

This has proven to be nearly impossible — a task too burdensome for most. Instead, it seems people in the metropolitan and coastal areas of America (who stand for the social movements going forward) have turned to hedonism and narcissism, (as predicted by Dostoevsky in “The Grand Inquisitor”). They have also displayed a large variety of curious neuroses. This is personified by the massive attention towards the Kardashian and Real Housewives melodramas, as well as the obsession with selfies.

The longstanding counter-movement to this has been towards New Age beliefs, which often seem to entail a complete relinquishing of critical thinking, in exchange for fantastical beliefs reminiscent of historical societies. Examples of this include the early Medieval European belief in Dragons and the Aztec’s habit of sacrificing children for their rain god.

So, as Sam Harris often points out, no one book should be considered the hand of a literal god, and therefore held above all others; but some texts, particularly the mythological portions of so-called holy books, seem to have emerged, seeping up from the depths and containing relevant psychological information.

HOW TO VIEW RELIGIOUS AND MYTHOLOGICAL TEXTS

Rather than condemn religious followers, atheists should encourage them to see Christ, for example, in the way characters in literature, particularly fiction are viewed. With this perspective, mythological stories can be instructive and meaningful to life and the human condition, without implicating the outdated superstitions. Most people do not have the opportunity or motivation to study philosophy and psychology in their spare time. This makes it imperative that the writers and thinkers who claim to be experts on the matter are careful with pushing emphatic one-sided views, which come to bare on collective psyche.

There seems to be a massive schism between those conservatisms of religion and the rational-materialists. Both are unable to reconcile the literal belief in a deity (and this god’s responsibility for all of creation) with modern concepts of scientific inquiry. Ironically, both of these approaches look at mythological and religious material as a brute, surface-level concept with concrete hypotheses about the nature of physical reality, rather than a mental, or imaginative, symbolic world. Hitchens often debunks all reason for spirituality by breaking apart the prideful and impetuous bearded man in the sky, as described in the Bible.

Both sides are unsophisticated in this point of view. Primitive people, our ancient ancestors, saw the world in a way best described as mythopoetic, that is an outer world that was filled with spirits and rich with symbolic meaning. The intuitions and images that formulated their stories contained truth on a psychological level

These religious texts must be discussed in the same way an art history major learns to interpret the symbolism of paintings. It must be recognized that true art emerges from the depths, the unconscious, of the painter. Similarly, mythological ideas bubble up from the collective unconscious. This can be understood, can be made conscious, by a modern person; this gives life a sense of meaning that is not purely rational.

Atheists cite the ancient superstitious as merely human excuses for barbarity, from slavery in ancient Egypt to the Christian Crusades and Inquisition and into the modern era.

As much as this is easily deplorable and the logical next step is to admonish any religious affiliation, it has proven impractical for masses to exist without value structures that set them in relation to something “outside” or “higher” than themselves.

STEPS BEYOND STANDSTILL

The human psyche is inherently a producer of creative symbology and part of that includes an instinct towards the transcendent intuition. People can be encouraged and educated to see various aspects of the world, both through the rational mind and the lens of intuitive-poetic mind. Only then will a more encompassing solution to the problem of religion emerge; only then will the debate that Hitchens and Harris prevail upon come to a synthesis with the backlash towards New Ageism. 

Most moderates speak generally in metaphorical ways about their religious beliefs. If more people can be encouraged to articulate this in psychological language, than we can have more common ground.

An acceptance of the poetic mind, the irrational and intuitive dimension of perception, may not appeal to a large portion of people. But, to you — the most rational and skeptic person — I may phrase it this way: There must be a person you've come across who’s search for exalted experiences, that cannot be defined or brought about intellectually, whether with psychedelics, or meditation, yoga or travel. Obviously, it is those people, as a prime example, who crave for life to be full of mysticism and wonderment.

Without the predominant society recognizing this spiritual need it becomes fringe and regressive, back towards superstitions. But, it is the greater collective which suffers without a transcendent orientation: we come to worship ourselves and our possessions, or worse a pernicious political ideology.

Pablo Picasso, "Woman Before Mirror," 1932

Even the most adamant rationalist has been emotionally invested in a movie, even as far-fetched as Avatar or Star Wars. Despite knowing that the plot is nonsensical, the two-dimensional screen and the actors merely in costume, there is a suspension of disbelief and the viewer is transported. In this comparison, one can see how merely representational, or allegorical material can subjectively stir, emote and result in profound subjective movements in psyche.

Of course, fairies are not real and there is no third eye chakra when we dissect the human body. Still, the subjective experience has it’s own type of reality: it is "real" in the sense that Picasso's "Woman Before Mirror" is an accurate representation of beauty and reality.


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For a wonderful comment thread, with professional psychologists, with great interpretations and summaries, clarifications of this article please go here: http://www.reddit.com/r/psychology/comments/50q3yc/the_suggested_pivot_for_atheism_the_facts_of/