Beyond Words; a talk to Sea of Faith in Oxford by Simon Myerson

Beyond Words: What's Special About Religion?
Preliminary Postscript
Many thanks to everyone who came along to hear this talk and take part in the discussion afterwards. In the light of all the helpful suggestions and ideas which surfaced, I thought I would make a couple of informal comments here. Incidentally, there's a bunch of stuff I didn't have time to mention is in the capacious endnotes, so do take a look at those if you're interested.
At the time of writing, the talk and these thoughts (except this paragraph...) is available for download from my webspace. If this isn't working, or if you have any questions, please feel free to email me for a copy - remove bumph from simon.myebumphrson@gmail.com.
My motivation for writing the talk was really to explain why I am somehow a militant secularist (albeit one who doesn't find much time for proper militancy), more or less a secular humanist, but still a 'pro-religion' atheist.
My argument as I imagined it was: I like mysticism. It's possible to speak of it in precise terms, albeit very personal ones. Mysticism is necessary and indeed a good thing. But on average, mysticism tends to involve religion. And there are good reasons why this will continue to be the case.
If you condemn religion, this misses the point, of course - just because something is likely to happen doesn't make it any better.
Also, what I mean by 'mysticism' as perhaps a little eccentric. It's very much my taste in mysticism - a bit abstract and intellectualised perhaps. There is of course full-blown mysticism, with mystical traditions inside most religions. But all I mean by it is the paradoxical zing possessed by even many everyday religious ideas and experiences.
It's possible that atheists and skeptics are more inclined to see mysticism in terms of 'big ideas' (there are rare transcendental states of mind which mystics strive to achieve) and 'oceanic feelings' or similar ideas. I'm not sure I go for either.
I think that some mystical ideas probably can't be fully appreciated without believing in them - at least for a while. You might have to internalise them, to believe them to fully grasp them. I'm not sure, but it looks to me like some people have no problem with feeling like something's real sometimes and knowing it isn't the rest of the time, and others aren't comfortable with it. To be honest, I've never tried...
Thanks to everyone for coming and thanks David for inviting me to talk - I should probably also thank Richy, who I believe put David up to this.
Now, when David first suggested that I give a talk here, I realised first that I would love to, and second that while I did have a few ideas about religion, they were quite vague and really a long way from coherent. So, putting this talk together made me realise just what my position really is, and I should probably thank David again for that.
Although I know this doesn't describe everyone here, the talk I'm going to give today is directed principally at atheists and people inclined towards liberal/humanist religion. I originally came to be involved with the SoF through the Oxford Atheist Society. I have more or less always been an atheist, and more recently I've begun to consider myself a humanist as well. I'm not exactly an angry atheist in the mould of Richard Dawkins, but I think I am quite an irritable atheist. I think there's a great deal wrong with religion, and I try to be as vocal and annoying about my atheism as reasonably possible in the hope that somehow, that's going to help the situation.
But as I have become more sceptical of religion in general, I have begun to feel closer and closer to religion in particular. I remember very well that a high point for me of last term's Think Week was when, at the end of a week of very interesting, very helpful, very worthwhile talks from various vocal secularists, humanists and atheists, there was on Sunday a talk by Ken Smith from the Sea of Faith. And it was much more mystical, full of religious ideas and unresolved paradoxes. And after helping to organise this week of rationality, it actually came as a great relief to me, and I really enjoyed it.
I don't think this is something which even the most passionate anti-theist, the angriest atheist you can imagine would fail to recognise. But many atheists seem to see it as some mixture of nostalgia, curiosity about religion, and something which is really better expressed without religion in secular traditions. I don't agree with this. Personally, I just find that certain ideas have a particular quality, a sort of extra mystical fizz. It's probably just as common in secular as in religious sources (and just as uncommon, too). But it is almost always bound up with religious thought and ideas. And while religion certainly poses all manner of problems, I think that its special ability to discuss these mystical, spiritual things will always make it compelling to many or most people, and I don't think this shouldn't be seen as a problem.
I want to give a couple of examples of religious ideas which I see as mystical, and to outline what for me gives them that mystical buzz.
A mystical example from religious practise
The first example of the mystical that I want to talk about is something relatively everyday, rather than intellectual or abstract. A Christian service is shaped by the idea that God is present in or among the congregation. This is the focus of the elaborate symbolism which makes up the service. Over many centuries this symbolism has become both familiar and powerful, and it is backed by a vast body of debate about the relevant theological idea, the idea of the Holy Spirit.
Naturally I don't think that it's literally the case that God is present in a Christian service. I don't necessarily think that it's a good thing that that impression is given. But even if only as the driving force behind Christian symbolism, it is a very compelling idea.
In particular, it is a mystical idea. The claim that something which is divine and not of this world is present at a particular time, in a particular place, with a particular group of people, in other words in a relatively concrete, identifiable way, is paradoxical. John 14:17, referring to the Holy Spirit, reads in the translation that I've got,
This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in [or, among] you.
This is a paradoxical turn of speech. It sounds like an offer of knowledge about something inconceivable: the world cannot receive the Spirit, but he will be in you, will be among you. I think this kind of paradox is part of what makes this idea so striking and powerful, and I want to develop this with another example.
A mystical example from religious literature
OK. So, I said that I found mystical ideas as much in secular as in religious sources. There are plenty in philosophy, in literature - and in mathematics, actuallyi. But these mystical ideas almost always draw, at least indirectly, on religious thought. In fact I found my second example of the mystical in Douglas Hofstadter's book "Goedel, Escher, Bach" (which is mainly about philosophy/science). It's his translation of a Koan from the Chinese Zen Buddhist text usually called the Gateless Gate in English. It goes like this:
A monk asked Nansen, "Is there a teaching no master has ever preached?"
Nansen said, "Yes, there is."
"What is it?" asked the monk.
Nansen replied, "It is not mind, it is not Buddha, it is not things."

I don't know if people would like me to read that again?
So this is quite opaque. I guess it probably doesn't have a concrete meaning. The author of the Gateless Gate, who is often known by the Japanese name Mumon Ekai, comments that "Nansen was too kind and lost his treasure." I've certainly found more than one interpretation of this passage, but I think one reading could be along these lines:
Nansen tries to convey something which by definition cannot be known, learned or taught, either through thought, devotional practise, or studying the world (mind, Buddha, things). He is trying to say something important, but he finds that by definition it cannot be said at all.
And, actually, I think that for me, this is what gives religious thought a mystical spark. It seems to talk about something which can't be completely defined or explained. It's a kind of transcendence - we can refer to such things, but they lie outside the realm of language and communication.ii
Of course, from my perspective (materialist and probably quite science-centred) this process must fail - it can never actually succeed in conveying anything except words and experiencesiii. But to me, this picture of mysticism makes it sound like a very natural thing to do. And I think it makes it sound like it has great poetic appeal. You could see it as an art form in which participants use ritual to train themselves to attain a state of mind which is itself the work of art. iv And it would have practical as well as aesthetic value. For one thing, because it's a process of self-control and self-exploration. For another, because the mystical has always acted as a source of new ideas, for example in literature, in science and in mathsv.
So in other words, I think this kind of mysticism is likely to be something which people will carry on doing, and that's a good thing. And I don't think that it can be completely secularised - it is always something people will do religiously. Imagine you want to convey something which appears to escape language. What do you do? You might emphasize the ambiguity of language with paradox and fiction; communal activity might suggest something which lies beyond a first-person narrative; you might also attempt to convey the idea through hard-to-describe experiences. You might choose from repeated ritual, meditation, drugs, altered states, sex and sexual references, music, art, symbolism. And by this point you might as well call it religion!
Religious belief
I've done my best with this talk so far to disagree with my fellow atheists and humanists about religious ideas, and I feel that to be fair I ought to finish by disagreeing with more postmodern or humanist religious circles like the Sea of Faith about religious belief. I think that if very radical religious groups changed the way they saw literal belief, they would be better able to help build a more tolerant and pluralist kind of religion.
Groups like the SoF and other radical religious organisations have a vision of a different way of doing religion, less concerned with literal truth, belief and the supernatural. There is a strong sense that religious ideas have their force as part of a communal narrative, a story, and that this is something which religion should embrace.
But I suggest that this is only part of the picture. I have described mystical ideas as being particularly compelling because they appear to transcend language. In other words, they are constructed to feel part of some capitalised Ultimate Reality. vi. And naturally then, that is what they will usually be taken to be.
I don't know if this is really a fair picture of the ideas which most people understand as mystical or religious. But history suggests that people don't readily decide that their religious narratives are simply narratives, and when they do they are often uncomfortable with the idea.
So if people aren't likely to accept en masse this more tolerant, postmodern approach to religion, are reformist, freethinking religious groups like this one pointless? In short, no. Because groups like the SoF may not be the future of religion. But they do (or could) have an impact on the way people talk and think about religion.
There is some intriguing evidence from extremely thorough surveys in the US that most religious people really don't think there is one religious truth. They may not describe it this way, but most people are happy to mix and match beliefs and practises from different traditions.< a href='#note7'>vii I think this goes to show that that in a connected and diverse world, people listen to many different voices, and very few people seriously act like their point of view has a monopoly on truth - even if officially, according to their professed religion, that's exactly what they ought to be doing.
What if, in this context, there was more of a public voice for naturalist, that is for non-supernaturalist religion? For an unknown number of people this is the only option which is both coherent and comfortable. It must be a small number, but it may not be that small - after all, quite probably only a minority of this group ever actually describe their views in this way.
I don't see myself as part of this group, and so I hesitate to suggest this - but what if there was an effort not to promote this position as a vision for religion, but just to represent the interests of this group?viii Living without the supernatural and without religion is now a highly visible position- no-one can afford to just dismiss it as a non-option. If, without becoming the norm, naturalist religion was seen in a similar way, wouldn't this be a huge step towards a more tolerant, pluralist future for religion?
i The stories of Jorge Luis Borges are a favourite of mine. See also note v.
ii Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote that "There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical."
iii Don Cupitt, on a similar note, has written that "because all thought depends upon signs, we cannot think ourselves clear of language". Although for him, not even experiences can be shared, but only words - in fact "there is no such thing as 'experience,' outside of and prior to language" (Mysticism after Modernity).
iv Borges (see note above) imagined a language in which "Nouns are formed by stringing together adjectives... There are things composed of two terms, one visual and the other auditory: the color of the rising sun and the distant caw of a bird. There are things composed of many: the sun and water against the swimmer's breast, the vague shimmering pink one sees when one's eyes are closed, the sensation of being swept along by a river and also by Morpheus... There are famous poems composed of a single enormous word; this word is a 'poetic object' created by the poet."
v In the West, the ideas of human rights and science were originally promoted as divinely ordained. Early 20th century work on the foundations of mathematics (including Goedel's incompleteness theorems) was motvated by a fascination with the ideal of final, objective truth - ultimate truth. In other words, it had a Christian motivation - the ghost of a faith its greatest figures did not profess.
vi And to fully grasp the idea is to internalise it, to feel like it is indeed real (at least in some sense). Perhaps some mystical ideas, like personal contact with God, have been chosen and spread because, while fully engaged in ritual practise it can be impossible to avoid this feeling.
vii In America, the Pew Forum conducts remarkably detailed surveys of religious attitudes. They found that while people may talk in terms of literal beliefs and religious truth, they don't act or think in the way this would suggest. Americans believe that many religions lead to eternal life, and that there is more than one true interpretation of their own religion. 24% attend services or more than one religion - even ignoring Protestants going to other Protestant services, it is very roughly a fifth. Of course most religious Americans have non-orthodox beliefs, Christians believing in repeated reincarnation for example. Meditation is common, and it's implied that it's seen as a spiritual practise like prayer. Substantial minorities of most faiths aren't sure if God really exists. (Among Catholics, Orthodox Christians, so-called 'mainline' Protestants, and many non-Christian religions it's more than a quarter; only among Jehovah's Witnesses is it less than 10%.) Larger minorities believe in an "impersonal force", not a personal God. Atheists are no more capable of orthodoxy! US atheists are a small and determined band, probably the most convinced and militant in the world. But in fact, 21% say they believe in God! 12% believe in an impersonal God, 6% in a personal god, 8% are completely certain God exists, 12% believe in Heaven, 10% in Hell, and 10% pray weekly.
Are these just misunderstandings or errors? This is out of roughly 550 atheists (1.6%) in a survey of 35,500 people. They identified as atheists after had being given a definition of 'atheism' as lack of belief in God, and could also have selected 'agnostic', 'spiritual', 'just Christian', 'nothing in particular', etc.. Apparent contradictions like this have been observed in other studies (see e.g. Stephen Bullivant, ' Sociology and the Study of Atheism', Journal of Contemporary Religion, 23:3,363-368). Taking all this into account, I think that this is not a mistake. It is another example of the difference between religious identity and religious beliefs, and of the tendency not to see religious truth as a matter of certainty.
viii One could even imagine a national body set up with this aim, rather like the BHA aims to represent those without faith. It would It would presumably be not the Sea of Faith, but a new body with different goals. I don't know what this group would look like - certainly not a religion, although I guess it would have to describe itself in more religious than humanist terms. And if it did exist, I have absolutely no idea how it might evolve and what it might become