What follows is a fairly raw reaction to the recent piece from The Atlantic about the “New Atheist” movement. (http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/11/the-origins-of-aggressive-atheism/383088/) I’ve mentioned them before in the context of a Bill Maher quotation, but this time I want to investigate it in greater depth. The writing which follows, while somewhat raw and far from complete, is designed to reflect the broad sweep of the history of consciousness within which I wish to place the New Atheist movement. The militancy of the New Atheist movement, especially in the United States, is unique compared to, say, the much more quiet religious indifference more characteristic of their more thoroughly secularized culture. I think that the New Atheist movement, though characteristic of the kind of neotony all too typical of the American academy, the intellectual chattering classes, and their rather odd shared worship of a kind of Cartesian materialist orthodoxy which governs the “hard” sciences. Therefore, I think it wise to place New Atheism within a broader spectrum.
Speaking from a perspective informed by Integral philosophy, I think there is a need to demystify some aspects of religion. As scholars as varied as Ken Wilber, Jean Gebser, Sri Aurobindo, and William Irwin Thompson have suggested implicitly in their work; there’s a need to expose the ethnocentrism of the Abrahamic monotheisms. And by ethnocentrism I don’t mean race specifically (although in some cases there is a strong racial component). Rather, I mean the idea behind the Greek root ethnos—meaning “nation.” In a 21st century world where we need a planetary civilization and an ethical circle of care which extends to cover the entire globe, it’s important to remember that most of the world’s organized religious traditions, especially the Abrahamic monotheisms, are creatures of the Axial Age which preceded Christ by 5-6 centuries and featured the Buddha, Lao-Tzu, Confucius, the Hebrew Prophets, Classical Athenian Philosophy among others. The religious movements during and after the Axial Age, many of them trending towards monotheism even if remaining officially henotheistic, reflected the early incipient cosmopolitanism of the epoch. Moreover, these Axial religions coincided with the post-Bronze Age political consolidations of kingdoms around monarchs and emperors. Local peoples on the periphery of these new Axial polities found themselves at the whim of forces beyond their control, and hence their local deities diminished in relevance or were heretofore abolished. New political, spiritual, and cultural loyalties were needed—if for no other reason than to allow for the greater bureaucratic and economic integration reflective of these Axial Age kingdoms to function more smoothly. On the other hand, Axial Age Empires needed to use the new spiritual insights of Axial Age philosophers—specially suited to organizing ancient cosmopolises and addressing social injustices that had built up in the chaotic aftermath of the Bronze Age—as tools for arranging political and mythical legitimacy of new regimes. Hence, the concern with Man’s ultimate relationship to Nature (for Buddhism it is Samsara and the Noble Truth of Dukkha, for Lao-Tzu it’s the impermanence and endless changeability of the natural world and its processes, for the ancient Hebrew prophets it was about Yahweh raising His Chosen People above the “chosen peoples” of other nations and their gods because the Chosen People embrace Prophetic Justice, and for the Greeks it was about fealty to the Logos and the Forms which exist beyond the gods and heroes) elevated the drama of the Supreme Being and his relationship to the spiritually enlightened communities above other social and cultural narratives which bound people together (in the sense of how religiō in the Latin refers to the functional role of religion in binding people in a community together around beliefs and rituals).
Loyalty to the Supreme Being (however monotheistic or henotheistic) in the Axial period necessitated the creations of paradises in the world-to-come for those in the Sovereign Deity’s good graces, or hells of unimaginable gnashing torture for those who pass away in a state of enmity with God. The truths of the perennial religions linked more closely with local environmental conditions, the endless recycling and rejuvenating of Life as it cycles through the four seasons with the cooperative participation of the Four Elements (Air, Water, Earth, and Fire), and the sense of the eternity of the world as such gradually became lost (a good example of this being how the question of the eternity of the world so central to Aristotle and many Pre-Socratic Greek philosophical traditions was blithely discarded by the Medieval Scholasticism of St. Thomas Aquinas which borrowed so heavily from Aristotle—indeed modern science with its Big Bang cosmology is uncomfortable with admitting how dependent that cosmology is upon Latin Christianity’s doctrine of creation ex nihilo). In short, as humanity had ventured further into the grasp of the political economy of an even more heavily urbanized Iron Age agrarian-based civilization; much of the earlier Neolithic and Post-Agricultural Revolution sense of intimate connection with Nature and Her Gaian rhythms were lost. Only the esoteric traditions, especially those like Egyptian Hermeticism, various Jewish and Christian Gnosticisms, the ancient practices of divination and astrology, and Mystery Traditions in the Classical West; retained a living memory of this pre-Axial period. Through this Axial Age forging of a new religious consciousness, a deeper and wider mythical consciousness construct permeated most of the world’s great civilizations. To be sure, local village / town / community / clan / familial identities had always been a major part of human communities and their anthropologies, but these local beliefs and practices still had to contend with the major truths inscribed and reflected in the perennial traditions. Now these once localized mythologies became much more subsumed within broader political and commercial arrangements under new and more powerful kingdoms—Alexander, Ceasar, the later Zhou Dynasty, the great Vedic kingdoms, etc.—themselves resting on Axial Age spiritual technologies and the attendant new myths and cosmologies. The more horizontal connections stretching and ultimately bending along the curvature of the surface of the Earth that united us all into a spherical Gaian planetary egg within the womb of the Cosmos became de-emphasized or even outright displaced by a vertical consciousness. There is now a Heaven above, an estranged Earth between, and a terrifying Hell within the depths. The Axial Age individual, especially one not endowed with the carefully cultivated skills of the sage, mystic, or philosopher; is caught between two axes which pull him apart as the greatest astrological avatar of the Axial Age—the human figure of the Divine Son of Man, Jesus Christ, strung out between the community of humanity his arms would struggle to embrace and the terrifying spectacle of an unfathomably distant yet glorious Heaven Above and the even more horrific Hell Below. Where once the rival community, culture, or city-state competing for access to trade routes, strategic resources, commodities, and/or luxuries was merely composed of minions following a rival local deity of approximate power and equal godly caprice; now such a rival was a threat to an entirely new civilization with Its Supreme Being enthroning an imperial vizier over His Pilgrims on Earth. And such rivals held similar conceptions of their opponents in turn, with oddly similar monotheisms pointing to the deeper Axial-Age archetypes which were congealing as the Age of Taurus gave way to the Age of Pisces. The individual of Axial Age Rome, India, Greece, China, Persia, etc. could not but feel the need to cling closely to the God of his/her new polity and the myths giving that god ultimate cosmic sovereignty. In this newer, deeper, and much more dualistic substage of the mythical level of human consciousness the sublime peace of dwelling with God coexisted by necessity with the definitive “un”-humanity of those who dare fall outside of God and His earthly Kingdom’s spiritual and temporal domain. The most influential of these Axial religions—those following from their Biblical-Koranic patriarch Abraham—have variously subjected the entire planet to their mythologies, thereby de-mythologizing and flattening the entire world of its infinite spiritual diversities as would cutting down a virgin forest strip the land of its biodiversity. Paradoxically, and in turn Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have fought each other using inquisitions, crusades, pogroms, holy wars, holocausts spread by hysteria and fear. For a God who saves so few people in a dead, dis-enchanted, stripped bare world dominated by militarism and reduced to the values of commerce cannot bare the existence of barbarians spawned of demons threatening to turn Earth into a bastion of vice, blasphemy, and spiritual-mythological pollution. Perhaps the violence the Axial Age Empires inflicted upon peoples linked to the pre-Iron Age Perennial Traditions has only been exceeded by the violence Axial Age Empires have inflicted upon each other. And so the de-mythologizing that the Axial Age religions—and here especially the politically and doctrinally orthodox forms of hierarchical Christianity perhaps most particularly (as the Piscean archetype is especially Christian in nature)—conducted against non- or pre-Axial peoples needs to be thoroughly de-mythologized in turn. We need a rational consciousness that recognizes the value of all peoples as stemming not from the law of a capricious soteriological God but rather from the innate Divinity residing within the manifest form of the human person. From this, the Piscean Myth can be reborn and be used as a vehicle to revivify the perennial faiths and their tie to Gaia and Her rhythms, to which fealty from human beings gives Her great comfort and soothes her wrath at the destructiveness of industry and agriculture in the service of human overpopulation to the detriment of the Web of Life. From there, we also need to recognize from that rationality the plurality of human experiences—the 7 billion plus worlds expressed in Psyche’s incarnated avatars who share human form and personality. Thus, the spiritual core of the great Axial Age religions may be integrated under the umbrella of a new civilization, an Integral creation where the questions of Heaven and Hell themselves become publicly heretical. We need a spiritual reality of a revolution of consciousness where the questions of determining Jew vs goy, Christian vs heathen, Muslim vs infidel become the ultimate taboo so that the utopian dream of unity in the Body of an Integral Cosmic Christ vaguely prefigured in some of the Epistles of St. Paul becomes closer to a human reality. The myth of Heaven and Hell enforced in the psychic split within the soul quivering before a capricious Sky Father-God eager to reward the chosen few and punish the lost masses needs to be replaced. It is these DEEP political realities which are splitting off people into the depths of despair in the collapsing late industrial capitalism of the 21st century that are the real myths of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam and the rest of the Axial Age religions that need healing. It is these myths which need mythologizing—and it is to the need for rationality that the New Atheists appeal with such apparent force compelled as they are by the bitterness felt by questioning why such Father Sky-Gods need worship or can even claim credibility—much less existential and political legitimacy.
But the New Atheists must grow and mature. For Reason alone can’t discern what such a Sky Father-God would do; nor, can we prove what He says or does much beyond an intimation that a Divine Presence extends beyond the Cosmic Deep from where the anima mundi seems to appear as a babbling fountain of consciousness. Such a rational consciousness compels societies to give formal recognition to individual rights, but even more importantly to individual differences. Humanity is a many-faceted kaleidoscope whose only unifying trait is its seemingly endless variety as expressed in each and every individual human person. And it is only here, in the Integral space which morally, spiritually, and creatively affords the freedom to really evolve both horizontally across to greater human connection and interpersonal intimacy and vertically to encompass the deep cosmic space above and the necessity to implant rhizomatic roots below which affords the beginning of the creation of a new World-Picture. So, yes, in short, there is a crying need for de-mythologizing the world’s religions—but, only so that human beings can evolve spiritually to reach integral levels of personal consciousness and inter-personal relationships so that new structures of human relations may be born from amidst the dying ashes of an old order.
Nicholas T. Dahlheim