So I was recently skimming a copy of Why Genes Are Not Selfish and People are Nice by Colin Tudge. Tudge is the author of The Secret Life of Trees, which I think should be on the bookshelf of any druid or naturalist.
He’s a good writer but I do find myself disagreeing with him whenever he touches on religion and atheism (see his terrible and incoherent review of Richard Dawkins’ Magic of Reality).
Tudge takes the view that atheism is simplistic and fundamentalist and the central question of religion is really not ‘do you believe in gods?’ but ‘do you take seriously the idea of transcendence?’
This got me thinking. Clearly this is wrong, at least with regard to the creedal religions where belief is indeed the central and defining factor. But ‘transcendence’? What is it that we are transcending when we engage in religion? In some cases, it seems to imply transcending or rising above our humanity, or even the natural ‘mundane’ world itself.
Obviously I see this as a problem. In answer to Tudge, I do take seriously the idea of transcendence, but not in the way he might like. I think transcendence is fundamentally opposed to my understanding of human dignity. Many religions see humans as in some sense or another flawed, sinful, fallen or evil. Our human nature is thus something to deny, to transcend and to overcome to rise to a ‘higher’ spiritual plane.
I utterly refute this concept. It is dehumanizing, quite literally. I don’t think we should aspire to transcend our nature, or indeed nature itself, and flee to some nebulous ‘spiritual’ realm. I think humanity and nature should be celebrated, cherished and enjoyed! This world is wonderful, and our existence is wonderful. What is there to transcend? Of course religion is about a lot more than fluffy spiritual transcendence, but that’s a different argument.
A related concept is the word ‘spritual’. This is often defined in opposition to ‘material’ or ‘physical’. Yet this again sets up the dualistic opposition between nature and ‘spirit’, often with the implication that spirit is good while nature is bad. Even without this black-and-white thinking, nature is still seen as somehow incomplete in itself, somehow dependent on spirit to give it meaning and purpose.
Sadly, even the so-called nature religions often fall into this trap of seeing nature as ‘not enough’ in itself, but rather a shadow, imitation or manifestation of some underlying ‘great spirit’, ‘world-soul’ or ‘otherworld’. I think this view devalues nature. I would contend that this beautiful natural world is complete in itself, that it is enough without any spirits or gods and that it is filled with meaning and purpose naturally.
When I go for a walk and look out at a beautiful natural scene, I am filled with a sense of wonder, humility, awe and peace. But this is not a ‘spiritual’ experience. It is a joyfully, unashamedly, material and physical one. It is the natural experience of a natural being in a natural landscape. No spiritual dimension required.
What is it that people want when they seek transcendence or spirituality? What is it about this natural world that is not enough? What more do they want?
How does a forest, with its intricate and complex ecosystem of ancient trees, ferns and flowers, birds and mammals, insects and micro-beasts, so fail to hold human attention that people need to fill it with spirits and fairies? How does a sunrise so fail to captivate that people need to imagine a sun-god?
As Dan Barker, evangelical minister turned atheist writes in The Good Atheist, ‘I don’t need the supernatural. The natural is super enough for me’.