Religion Reconsidered: “What’s Left?” March 2008, MRR #298

One of my many contradictions, from a Marxist perspective, is that I’m a wimpy, waffling agnostic, not a hardcore, commie atheist. The reason I’m an agnostic instead of an atheist has nothing to do with finding flaws in atheism’s arguments against the existence of God, or with finding redeeming features in the horror show that is religion. I’m undecided about whether or not God exists because, throughout my life, I’ve had personal experiences that might be described as spiritual, mystical, even religious.

I’ve had these experiences since I was a kid, long before the psychedelic drug use of my hippie days. A momentary, overwhelming sensation that I was a part of everything, and that everything was a part of me. A fleeting, all pervasive feeling that I had suddenly risen high above this mundane, everyday existence. The inexplicable awareness that I had briefly stumbled upon some greater reality, the true, scintillating reality behind this dingy, decaying façade that was life. I’ve had these experiences well after I stopped doing psychedelics. As for the psychedelics-acid, mescaline, psilocybin-they produced quasi-mystical experiences forcefully driven, selectively amplified, and seriously distorted by the chemicals in question.

I was loosely raised Catholic, though I don’t associate my childhood spiritual incidents with Roman Catholicism. My parents wanted me to get the sacraments up to Confirmation, just in case the Big Guy was Catholic. I was on my own after that, and I never bothered to go back to church. I’ve never tried to cultivate these mystical moments by pursuing a spiritual practice or, Marx forbid, an organized religion either. I simply experienced them, marveling at many of them, enduring the rest, and getting something out of them all. Of course, I’ve come to my own understanding of what Tom Wolfe, in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, referred to as the kairos, the how and why and what-for of this “time out of time,” this “most propitious moment.”

The how is simple enough. The actual experience, no doubt, is biochemically based, a natural, internal analog to the psychedelic drugs I experimented with during the early 1970s. That said, establishing such a cause-and-effect doesn’t reduce the spiritual event to a biochemical phantom, nor does it relegate the whole episode to some mechanical, materially determined process. To grasp why this is the case, we need to delve into a little bit of Marxism, in particular, Marx’s notion of dialectical materialism.

For Marx, the economic base of society gives rise to a superstructure comprised of society’s legal and political structures, as well as of the “higher ideologies of the art, religion and philosophy of bourgeois society,” as Karl Korsch described it in Marxism and Philosophy. Yet, just because the social superstructure is a product of the economic base does not make it any less real. “[Marx and Engels] always treated ideologies-including philosophy-as concrete realities and not as empty fantasies.” “[I]t is essential for modern dialectical materialism to grasp philosophies and other ideological systems in theory as realities, and to treat them in practice as such.” What’s more, society’s political and ideological superstructure achieves a measure of autonomy to act back upon the economic base to change it, creating a dialectical relationship between the two that defines “bourgeois society as a totality.” Or as Marx himself put it in the Introduction to a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: “Theory itself becomes a material force once it takes hold on the masses. Theory is capable of taking hold on the masses … once it becomes radical.”

This clearly distinguishes dialectical materialism from the crude materialism of Newtonian science, in which one billiard ball hits another in a simple linear chain of causality. I’d argue that dialectical materialism is much more akin to the systems and information theories pioneered by Gregory Bateson in the areas of psychology, biology and ecology. But how does dialectical materialism relate to my discussion of personal spiritual experiences?

In contending that mystical moments have a biochemical basis, similar to the endorphin high produced by vigorous exercise, I’m not refuting the reality of these events. No doubt, all individual thought and feeling can be traced back to biochemistry, yet it cannot be denied that these thoughts and feelings frequently have material effects and consequences in that we act on them. In the same way, human interest in and pursuit of spiritual experience spurs activities intended to reproduce and refine those experiences, generating on the one hand spiritual practices like yoga, meditation, chanting, and ecstatic dancing, and on the other hand the practices, institutions and ideologies of organized religion.

This isn’t to repudiate the fact that society’s economic base leaves profound marks on spiritual practice and organized religion, only to assert that the initial impulse for both resides elsewhere. Nor would I be surprised to learn that millennia of spiritual and religious activity, in turn, have acted upon this biochemical substrate to distill and shape it, and that the two have coevolved over time. The great Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages, like Notre Dame or Chartre, can be appreciated, in part, as finely tuned machinery incorporating a variety of spiritual technologies designed to induce mystical experiences in the participating individuals. While the triggers for spiritual episodes are often social and cultural then, their impetus is transhistorical, imbedded in that problematic realm known as human nature. The instances of spontaneous, unbidden spiritual awakening, some resulting in the founding of entirely new religions, bear this out. The capacity for mystical experience seems to be hardwired to some degree into most of us, perhaps as a peculiar expression of the wider human pursuit of altered states through drug use, artistic endeavor, SM, asceticism, exercise and sport. The question is, why? What function does it serve?

Marx posited a kind of human nature in asserting that we are social beings, a concept covered by the hotly debated term species being. You can be sure that human sociality and spirituality are keenly related within the context of species being. That there is overlap between spirituality, sexuality and power also goes without saying. The spiritual experience is often described as fiery, capable of reducing all that is false to ash. In its crucible is forged the certainty of individual belief and the unity so necessary for social cohesion. I’m not sure what Marx thought about individual spiritual practice, but his views on the rituals, churches, traditions, theologies and holy wars of organized religion are well known:

The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness.

Gotta love those dialectics. That religion in bourgeois society serves to delude, comfort and pacify the masses doesn’t tell us much more about the function of the more elemental mystical moment however. Aside from acting as a kind of experiential superglue for personal belief and social unity, there’s another aspect to spiritual episodes that’s worth discussing.

First, let’s talk a little bit about consciousness. Human consciousness arises from a very small number of neural circuits in the brain that monitor the rest of the mind, and the body. Given that consciousness relies on a small percentage of gray matter to function, it cannot possibly be all encompassing, and the scope of human awareness is thus severely limited. With regard to sensory perception, for instance, we are flooded with sensory information all the time, yet our conscious mind is only aware of a small fraction of that information. As an example, our clothing is in constant contact with the skin under it, stimulating our sense of touch over a wide area of our body. We’re not conscious of everywhere our clothing touches our skin though. We feel our clothes only in certain places, particularly when they impinge or restrict us. Therefore, the sensory input from the rest of our skin in contact with our clothes is filtered out of our awareness. Aside from purely biological filters, there are also cultural, social and personal filters that further restrict this torrential sensory flow.

We receive, and process, vast amounts of sensory data on many levels other than the conscious. Aldous Huxley proposed, in The Doors of Perception, that psychedelic drugs temporarily knock out these filters so that we experience heightened sensory impressions, even forms of synesthesia. Whether or not this is the case, the overwhelming influx of sense perception that comes in under the radar of consciousness does have other interesting side effects.

Sometimes, bits and pieces of this unconscious sense data percolate up into an individual’s awareness. The result is a hunch, an intuitive feeling, which cannot be pinned down to anything obvious. When patterns begin to emerge through this process, something quite innocuous can trigger a sudden, epiphanal moment. Then we say “everything fell into place,” “the scales fell from my eyes,” “all was revealed,” and “I saw things as they truly were.”

I’m intentionally using quasi-religious phrasing here in anticipation of my next point. There is a certain category of spiritual experience known as “the road to Damascus” moment, when the mystical episode bowls over the individual and literally changes his or her life. Paul, of the New Testament, had a profound religious awakening on his way to Damascus, and went from being a Jewish persecutor of Christians to a Christian believer. Paul’s personal sense of his place in the scheme of things radically shifted in an instant. Perhaps this kind of spiritual experience is like a hunch on steroids.

What I’m postulating is that certain life-changing mystical incidents act on the deepest levels of human perception, our sense of ourselves and of our place in the universe. None of my spiritual experiences were ever that profound, though I always learned something from them. That all such spiritual moments come permeated with a sense of the supernatural Other, what we interpret as the sacred and the divine and call God, is what gives me pause. Ultimately, it’s why I can’t declare myself an atheist.

BBC-TV did a movie, Longford, about the English aristocrat and prison reformer who became involved with one of Britain’s most notorious criminals, child-killer Myra Hindley. Hindley gets one of the film’s better lines, the implications of which would fill another column. I’ll close on the character Myra’s words. “Evil can be a spiritual experience too.”

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