06 August 2009

Is spirituality an intrinsic part of being human?


Is spirituality an intrinsic part of being human?

Two recent authors have challenged the fundamentalist-materialist position of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens that is so entirely unsympathetic to the religious, or more accurately the non-rationalist. They are Reason, Faith and Revolution, by Terry Eagleton and The Case for God, by Karen Armstrong. (They are reviewed HERE by Paul Vallely in the Independent.)

Here I want to appreciatively critique a passage from Chapter 2 of Eagleton's book (p 83). The passage says;

Transcendence, however, did not simply go away. In one sense, this is precisely what Ditchkins (Dawkins + Hitchens) is complaining about; but the matter is more complex than that. The less plausibly religion seemed to answer to the human desire for a realm beyond science, material welfare, democratic politics and economic utility, the more robustly literature, the arts, culture, the humanities, psychoanalysis, and (the most recent candidate) ecology have sought to install themselves in that vacant spot. If the arts have accrued an extraordinary significance in a modern era for which they are, practically speaking, just another kind of commodity, it is because they provide an ersatz sort of transcendence in a world from which spiritual values have been largely banished.

The issues I have are;

1 Transcendence is a, more or less, normal part of being human like the mystical, of which transcendence is an essential part, like philosophizing, like sexuality, like breathing. It couldn't go away unless every new human was subjected to a radical lobotomy. The 'more or less' depends on how crass or sensitive the individual's education has been.

2 Instead of 'desire for a realm' I would prefer something like 'intrinsic state of being'. That which Dawkins and Hitchens would expunge is not a faulty behaviour but an essential part of being human - possible hard-wired, associated with the structure and functioning of the right hemisphere of the brain.

3 Eagleton, like Armstrong is a successful critic of those he calls Ditchkins and a successful champion of this other 'thing' that isn't the rational mind. But the 'thing' is not an aberration, a sop, a weakness, a behavioural defect, a culturally-induced pattern - it is a universal part of being human. Eagleton needs a better term for this 'thing', this part of being human that provides certain states being and engaging and knowing. He might do well to study Armstrong's use of, and explanations of, 'mythos'. However with her use I would plead that it start intra-personally otherwise it gets easily pushed out to being a thing in the social and cultural inter-personal world.

4 Failing to place mythos as art of being human leads Eagleton a set of judgments that are Ditchkins-esque in their severity. His list of literature, the arts, culture, the humanities, psychoanalysis, and (the most recent candidate) ecology are not vehicles for ersatz transcendence but vehicles for the real thing - because the transcendent or mystical experience is part of being human - from nature mysticism to sexuality.

5 To bring in, in this context, the horror of arts commodity-fication clouds the most important argument.

At the community level 60-80% of our friends are artists. They aren't all crippled by commodity-fication. One or two perhaps but the possession of spiritual values is not synonymous with being religious, nor is the absence of conventional religiosity any bar to possessing spiritual values - as the Marxist Eagleton fully demonstrates.

Even at the Tate level of the arts commodity-fication is not primarily the issue. 'Art now doing the job that philosophy used to do' is as much the case as 'art is now doing the job that religion used to do'. Then there is the issue of what gets in and what doesn't get in. This is the prerogative of individual gate-keepers called curators, who along with particular critics, determine the particular kinds of discourse that will be presented. They only indirectly serve 'the market'.

Transcendence, mystical experience and the possession or non-possession of spiritual values exist because we are human, and in the world with others. Good religion feeds these aspects of being human - and rationality for that matter. Bad religion blocks or distorts them.

Eagleton fails to establish that -''beyond-the-reasoning-mind part of being human which I feel is essential for the full success of his arguments. This is for want of a term such as mythos and secondly because he doesn't start with the psycho-spiritual reality of what it is to be human.

Armstrong does so much better in this via her 'we-need-a-balance-of-mythos-and-logos' arguments in her 'Case for God', something I will celebrate in future posts.

I deal further with these and allied issues in my Spiritualizing Pedagogy: education as the art of working with the human spirit

As to the question, 'Is spirituality an intrinsic part of being human?' my answer is yes - good religion feeds these deeper aspects of being human - including rationality. Bad religion blocks or distorts them. As to the differences between the two that also is the subject for further pieces.


  1. Roger, nice post, I am delighted to have you as a contributer. I think some of the confusion does indeed come from language. For example, to say that "spirituality is an intrinsic part of being human" one needs to define spirituality. Is it the authenticity of Dasein as Heidegger would describe it, is it spirited morality, or is it something that can meaningfully be attributed to the divine? Or in other words, is it a human construction that is totally reducible to the neoreological firings in our brains, or is it something more relevant in a larger unfolding of universal purpose?

  2. Also, I look forward to reading the essay that you linked to. I am also interested in the process and pedagogy of transformation

  3. Hi Jason - Greetings from Northumberland!

    Will read back through your posts - not least because I am interested in subjects like authenticity.

    On spirituality I start with the human spirit a distinct level in the hierarchy of spirit the defining characteristic being as AB said mind - though I hope he meant by that heart-mind. A soul is individuated human spirit that we call a person and Dasein would seem to be the beingness of the individuated human spirit.

    Insofar as the names, attributes and qualities of God are manifested in us we are divine.

    Morality = qualities in action i.e. where we draw the line on each issue, and the values we are prepared to set aside in favour of higher-order values.

  4. Good read, thanks Roger!
    Martijn (Amsterdam)