The musings of a previously unemployed Jewish Freemason. I write about the job search, about Judaism, and about Freemasonry.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Error of Antitheism

Originally posted on October 19th, 2009
September 30th was Blasphemy Day, a day chosen by a small subset of the atheist community to challenge the notion of sacredness. To quote one of the organizers, “There must be nothing sacred in a logical world, because for something to be sacred it would have to be left a mystery, and if you don’t want to know, you are not logical.”

The day was chosen to coincide with the anniversary of the Danish cartoons in 2005 that were seen by some as mocking the Islamic religion, and were received with rioting and great anger by many Muslims. People died in these riots. The level of anger astonished many here in the West. Since then, the UN has had discussions about making blasphemy an international crime. As an American, the idea that freedom of speech might be curtailed around the world is chilling. International blasphemy laws also infringe on religious liberties. After all, the Catholic Church regarded the King James Bible as blasphemous when it first came out, and the Church of England regarded the Douay Bible as blasphemous. And plenty of Christians today regard Today’s New International Version as blasphemous. Should these translations, used in religious services throughout the English-speaking world, be outlawed?

The organizers of Blasphemy Day do not merely want to preserve the right to form one’s own opinion on spiritual matters, however. They assert that blasphemy is a moral imperative: “Blaspheming the sacred is an obligation that every logical person must embrace.”

The author of the above quotes does not distinguish between critical analysis and blasphemy, and I find that really disturbing. There is a critical facility missing in the author’s argument that betrays the great error indicative of all hostile antitheism.

Underlying the assumptions of the vast majority of those who are hostile to spirituality is that no higher consciousness exists than everyday waking consciousness; the voice one hears in one’s head pretty much constantly when one is not asleep. In the Kabbalah, this notion is called Malkuth (מלכות), or the Kingdom, and forms the base of the Tree of Life. This is the ordinary state of consciousness we find ourselves in most of the time. The agnostic wonders if this is all there is. The atheist asserts that this is all there is, and the antitheist denies anyone else any other form of consciousness.

How do these three attitudes play out? The agnostic is open to higher forms of consciousness, but in not engaged in any practice to bring them about. The atheist is content never to elevate consciousness beyond the ordinary. The antitheist, however, wants to control the consciousnesses of others, preventing them from experiencing any consciousness other than the ordinary. That is why an enlightened society can leave atheists and agnostics in peace, but cannot allow antitheists to succeed in their objective of eliminating higher consciousness from human existence.

Freemasonry is founded on two principles that are important to this discussion: a belief in a Supreme Being, and tolerance for the religious beliefs of others. While neither are necessary prerequisites for enlightenment, both together ensure that one’s own consciousness can elevate to a higher level, and that other people can do the same in their own way, under their own free will, subject to their own consciences.

Not every mason will agree with me, but I believe that one can assume higher levels of consciousness without recognizing the existence of the Great Architect of the Universe. Not all Buddhists are theists, and yet achieve very high meditative states. There is nothing in meditation as a spiritual practice that demands belief in a Supreme Being. In mathematics, the concept of quantity begins with three numbers: 0, 1 and ∞. None, one, and all. Nothing coalesces into something, the void materializes and thus becomes distinct or material. The one creates, or replicates, and then there are two, three, four, many, uncountably many, all.

In the cosmology of the Kabbalah, there is Ain (אין), or Nothing, which becomes Ain Sof (אין סוף), or No End, No Limit, and then becomes Ain Sof Or (אין סוף אור), or the Limitless Light. The Limitless Light coalesces into Adam Kadmon, the Manifest Absolute, which forms the Tree of Life, enters the Universe in Kether, and cascades down that structure until eventually creating our everyday world in Malkuth. Nothing becomes the One, which becomes the Myriad, which becomes All. Thus one in meditation can devote one’s attention on Nothing, on the One, or on All.

One of my rabbis remarked that “God is the ultimate atheist.” What he meant is that at the level of God, there is nothing higher. On our side of consciousness, we need to merge All into One before finding Nothing, but at the level of the One, there is no other. God only has non-existence when nothing else exists either. How do we merge All into One? By elevating our consciousness one step at a time.

What elevates consciousness? Prayer, meditation, fasting, trauma, ritual, a high fever, hyperventilation, entheogenic drugs, and dancing can do this, but are not guaranteed to. One person in a higher state of consciousness can bring others with him. A ritual can provide a structure for elevation, and if the principals of the ritual elevate themselves, they can bring the others with them. That is why most religions have group prayer. In the Jewish religion, when a Minyan, or ten men pray together (for egalitarians, ten people), they can generate more spiritual energy than one man can. The liturgy has certain prayers that can only be said when a Minyan is present. Similarly, one man cannot open a masonic lodge.

In C. S. Lewis’ book, The Great Divorce, Hell is described as a big city. A fairly bleary, dull place, everyone is unhappy, ranging from ennui to torment. None of them realize that they are in Hell. A bus route goes through the main street of the city, and buses regularly arrive and depart, taking passengers to Heaven. Anyone can get on the bus at any time, but most choose not to. Some wait for a bus, but at the last minute refuse to board, and others board very hesitantly.

Once on the bus, the passengers get more anxious and alarmed until the bus arrives at the outskirts of Heaven. Nearing Heaven, the passengers realize they are ghosts, and that Heaven is actually substantial. A single blade of grass can cause them great pain, and a single leaf is too heavy to lift. Blessed spirits from Heaven come forth to greet the ghosts, and encourage them to face the pain and ascend, but most of the ghosts refuse.

In the book, a blessed friend of the protagonist comes down to persuade him to remain. He explains that the period of time spent in the gray city was temporary, but only if he chooses to remain in Heaven. From the perspective of Heaven, Hell is miniscule and insignificant, insubstantial and irrelevant, but from the perspective of Hell, Heaven is awful and terrifying, far less comfortable than the soothing banality of Hell.

Using C. S. Lewis’ analogy, there is a bus that runs through Malkuth and takes us to higher realms, but we have to get on the bus. From the perspective of Malkuth, our earthly kingdom, other realms seem insane, irrelevant, irrational, dangerous, foolish, deluded, and wrong. But from a higher perspective, Malkuth itself fades in significance.

Using C. S. Lewis’ analogy, an agnostic either does not know about the bus, or knows about the bus and has formed no opinion about it. An atheist dismisses the bus as irrelevant to his life. An antitheist wants to destroy the bus, the road it drives on, and any traces of its existence.

As Fellows of the Craft, we are deeply devoted to science and reason. “Follow Reason” is the motto of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts. Reason and Doubt are allies, good allies, and we should approach the objects of our inquiry with healthy skepticism. But Denial is not Doubt, and Denial is the enemy of Reason. Those who assert that religious faith and scientific reason are mutually exclusive follow neither when they do so. We can find this assertion among the godly and the godless, but either way, the assertion is toxic.

Religion, Science and Philosophy are distinct mental disciplines, governed by faith, observation, and reason respectively, asking who, what, and why respectively. I pursue my religion by meditation and prayer, study of sacred texts, and communion with others in my faith. I pursue science by formulating hypotheses, conducting experiments, observing their outcomes, and refining my hypotheses in light of observed outcomes; conferring with others observing the same phenomena, amassing data until a cogent theory can be formulated that predicts the phenomena I observe. I pursue philosophy by asking really hard questions and using logic and reason to derive answers to these questions in a conscious manner. I need all three in my life. My mother is not a scientist. That doesn’t make her a bad person, but science has no appeal to her. My father is not religious. That doesn’t make him a bad person, but religion has no appeal to him. Not everyone is a philosopher, and that doesn’t make them bad people.

But denying another their religion, their science, or their philosophy is dangerous. If my religion demand that I murder children, as the ancient followers of Moloch did, we might have a problem. If my science involves performing vivisection on human beings, as Dr. Josef Mengele’s did, we might have a problem. If my philosophy tells me that other people are worthless animals, as the KKK does, we might have a problem. That is why Freemasonry demands tolerance and compassion of its brothers. We neither deny others their beliefs, nor allow others to deny others. Good religion abhors human sacrifice of its practitioners. Good science seeks to eliminate human suffering. Good philosophy advances the well-being of not only its adherents, but also those affected by the behavior of its adherents.

The Italian philosopher Noberto Bobbio warned us that politics obsesses about who when it should worry about how. Communists want to seize the means of production from the owning classes and deliver them to the working classes for their governance. Communists care about who is in power, but because they don’t worry about how they rule, they invite their adherents to commit atrocities. Nationalist movements are similar. What spared American Patriots from this kind of totalitarianism was a keen interest in how the British ruled America, and a firm resolution that how they would rule when they seized power would be just: under the rule of law, subject to the Bill of Rights.

Antitheists believe that faith is inherently evil, and must be eradicated from human consciousness. The only antitheists who were able to act upon this belief have been Communists, and they have an unbroken record of atrocity in pursuit of eliminating faith. The current crop of antitheists disavow Communism, but do not address how their eradication of faith will be any different from the Communist attempt. None that I have engaged with will address how they will achieve their goals.

Most religions have spread through mass violence. A nation invades another nation, and forces its faith on the conquered. In more enlightened times, religions have used reason and persuasion to spread their faith, some with substantial success. Similarly, the largest atheistic mass movements have been spread through mass violence. The People’s Republic of China and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics have spread atheism more powerfully than Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, Harris and the like have done. That being said, the four authors I have mentioned have used reason and persuasion to spread their lack of faith, and have done so in an entirely peaceful way, and they are to be commended for not using violence to achieve their aims.

But the question remains: how will antitheists eliminate religion, faith, altered states of consciousness? How ethical will they be in the pursuit of their goal? Considering that reason is their rallying cry, it’s not unreasonable for us to ask. Contending that religious fanatics use violence to advance their ends does not absolve the antitheist. I oppose any, religious or atheist, who would seek to keep me from my own connection with the One. Where does Blasphemy Day lead? Are celebrants of Blasphemy Day going to mix pig’s milk into the creamers at Starbucks? Burn a Torah Scroll in my synagogue? Are they going to firebomb a church? Shave a Sikh’s head? What are the boundaries? If antitheists eliminate one tenet of human decency, how safe are the others?
Added on October 19, 2009
It has been pointed out to me that agnostics can be on a spiritual path. I agree.
Added on October 20, 2009
I think it’s crucially important to distinguish between the tolerant atheist and the intolerant antitheist. I can live peaceably with tolerant atheists.
Added on October 22, 2009
I think Fundamentalism or religious exclusivism in general contributes to this. Adherents of a particular sect are warned that if they reject even a single tenet of their sect’s practice that they are rejecting God by doing so. It’s no wonder that once a person questions some of the glaring flaws in such a sect’s theology, he is prone to reject religion in general as a result. It’s a naïve error, but no less naïve than the exclusivism that spawned it.

Agnostic literally means “without gnosis, or a direct experience of the Divine.” Positing my own dogma here, the only reason to believe in God, as far as I’m concerned, is either because of an experience of the Divine, or strong signs that such an experience is imminent. Every religion in its original inception guided the adherent, through prayer, ritual, meditation and other devotions, to such an experience. Only later did a hierarchy of rules and restrictions come up to interfere with such an experience. The atheist sees the interference but despairs of having a true religious experience, and ultimately regards religious experience as a hoax or delusion.

In my outreach to atheists, I really don’t care if they believe in God. I care that they are open to higher realms of consciousness, to a consciousness more encompassing than their ordinary waking state. If I can get a person to understand that the rambling interior monologue that is their constant companion is not the full extent of self, and if I can get them to seek what else other forms of consciousness have to offer, I have done enough. To most atheists, the obsequiousness of most religions is deeply repugnant and offensive to them. I prostrate myself before the One because while the One includes me, it is greater than me, beyond my tiny jurisdiction, encompassing all. To an atheist, that’s no different than groveling before an idol. We both despise idolatry, but to the atheist, there is nothing beyond idolatry. There is nothing beyond Malkuth.

If there are higher forms of consciousness, the logical question that follows is how high does consciousness go? What is the apex? But without an experience beyond ordinary consciousness, there’s no point in such a line of inquiry.

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