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The Sacred Mundane

So I was reading (around the first half of) Adam Frank’s The Constant Fire,1 in preparation for my Bloggingheads dialogue with him. Adam Frank’s book is about the experience of the sacred. I might not usually call it that, but of course I know the experience Frank is talking about. It’s what I feel when I watch a video of a space shuttle launch; or what I feel—to a lesser extent, because in this world it is too common—when I look up at the stars at night, and think about what they mean. Or the birth of a child, say. That which is significant in the Unfolding Story.

Adam Frank holds that this experience is something that science holds deeply in common with religion. As opposed to e.g. being a basic human quality which religion corrupts.

The Constant Fire quotes William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience as saying:

Religion… shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude; so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.

And this theme is developed further: Sacredness is something intensely private and individual.

Which completely nonplussed me. Am I supposed to not have any feeling of sacredness if I’m one of many people watching the video of SpaceShipOne winning the X-Prize? Why not? Am I supposed to think that my experience of sacredness has to be somehow different from that of all the other people watching? Why, when we all have the same brain design? Indeed, why would I need to believe I was unique? (But “unique” is another word Adam Frank uses; so-and-so’s “unique experience of the sacred.”) Is the feeling private in the same sense that we have difficulty communicating any experience? Then why emphasize this of sacredness, rather than sneezing?

The light came on when I realized that I was looking at a trick of Dark Side Epistemology—if you make something private, that shields it from criticism. You can say, “You can’t criticize me, because this is my private, inner experience that you can never access to question it.”

But the price of shielding yourself from criticism is that you are cast into solitude—the solitude that William James admired as the core of religious experience, as if loneliness were a good thing.

Such relics of Dark Side Epistemology are key to understanding the many ways that religion twists the experience of sacredness:

Mysteriousness—why should the sacred have to be mysterious? A space shuttle launch gets by just fine without being mysterious. How much less would I appreciate the stars if I did not know what they were, if they were just little points in the night sky? But if your religious beliefs are questioned—if someone asks, “Why doesn’t God heal amputees?”—then you take refuge and say, in a tone of deep profundity, “It is a sacred mystery!” There are questions that must not be asked, and answers that must not be acknowledged, to defend the lie. Thus unanswerability comes to be associated with sacredness. And the price of shielding yourself from criticism is giving up the true curiosity that truly wishes to find answers. You will worship your own ignorance of the temporarily unanswered questions of your own generation—probably including ones that are already answered.

Faith—in the early days of religion, when people were more naive, when even intelligent folk actually believed that stuff, religions staked their reputation upon the testimony of miracles in their scriptures. And Christian archaeologists set forth truly expecting to find the ruins of Noah’s Ark. But when no such evidence was forthcoming, then religion executed what William Bartley called the retreat to commitment, “I believe because I believe!” Thus belief without good evidence came to be associated with the experience of the sacred. And the price of shielding yourself from criticism is that you sacrifice your ability to think clearly about that which is sacred, and to progress in your understanding of the sacred, and relinquish mistakes.

Experientialism—if before you thought that the rainbow was a sacred contract of God with humanity, and then you begin to realize that God doesn’t exist, then you may execute a retreat to pure experience—to praise yourself just for feeling such wonderful sensations when you think about God, whether or not God actually exists. And the price of shielding yourself from criticism is solipsism: your experience is stripped of its referents. What a terrible hollow feeling it would be to watch a space shuttle rising on a pillar of flame, and say to yourself, “But it doesn’t really matter whether the space shuttle actually exists, so long as I feel.”

Separation—if the sacred realm is not subject to ordinary rules of evidence or investigable by ordinary means, then it must be different in kind from the world of mundane matter: and so we are less likely to think of a space shuttle as a candidate for sacredness, because it is a work of merely human hands. Keats lost his admiration of the rainbow and demoted it to the “dull catalogue of mundane things” for the crime of its woof and texture being known. And the price of shielding yourself from all ordinary criticism is that you lose the sacredness of all merely real things.

Privacy—of this I have already spoken.

Such distortions are why we had best not to try to salvage religion. No, not even in the form of “spirituality.” Take away the institutions and the factual mistakes, subtract the churches and the scriptures, and you’re left with… all this nonsense about mysteriousness, faith, solipsistic experience, private solitude, and discontinuity.

The original lie is only the beginning of the problem. Then you have all the ill habits of thought that have evolved to defend it. Religion is a poisoned chalice, from which we had best not even sip. Spirituality is the same cup after the original pellet of poison has been taken out, and only the dissolved portion remains—a little less directly lethal, but still not good for you.

When a lie has been defended for ages upon ages, the true origin of the inherited habits lost in the mists, with layer after layer of undocumented sickness; then the wise, I think, will start over from scratch, rather than trying to selectively discard the original lie while keeping the habits of thought that protected it. Just admit you were wrong, give up entirely on the mistake, stop defending it at all, stop trying to say you were even a little right, stop trying to save face, just say “Oops!” and throw out the whole thing and begin again.

That capacity—to really, really, without defense, admit you were entirely wrong—is why religious experience will never be like scientific experience. No religion can absorb that capacity without losing itself entirely and becoming simple humanity…

… to just look up at the distant stars. Believable without strain, without a constant distracting struggle to fend off your awareness of the counterevidence. Truly there in the world, the experience united with the referent, a solid part of that unfolding story. Knowable without threat, offering true meat for curiosity. Shared in togetherness with the many other onlookers, no need to retreat to privacy. Made of the same fabric as yourself and all other things. Most holy and beautiful, the sacred mundane.

Adam Frank, The Constant Fire: Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate (University of California Press, 2009). ↩︎

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