Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Ken Wilber on the New Atheists


In the newest issue of Shambhala Sun, Barry Boyce has an article entitled "Mind, Matter, or God?" in which he talks about the new atheists with various spiritual and religious leaders. Among those he talks to is Ken Wilber.

~C4Chaos, among others, has lamented KW's (and other integral thinkers) relative silence on this issue, when an integral perspective of some sort could help make a lot more sense of what the new atheists are all about. I don't think what Ken says in the article really adds anything for those of us who know where he stands (if we've read The Marriage of Sense and Soul), but I'm sure it might be useful for others.

In all reality, I found Mary Jo Meadow, a secular Carmelite and co-author of Christian Insight Meditation, to be much more eloquent than any of the other people, aside from maybe Joan Sutherland, a Zen Roshi in the Rinzai tradition.

Anyway, here is some of what KW had to say about the new atheism.

Wilber thinks we are in the midst of an important "national conversation about science and religion," but he finds it "very disturbing" that the conversation spurred by Dawkins, Harris, and the others "assumes that everybody knows what we are talking about when we talk about religion. While science is something that we can fairly well agree on the meaning of, religion or spirituality has a very broad range of meaning."

Boyce then goes on to explain Jean Gebser's stages of personal and cultural development -- the archaic, magic, mythic, rational, pluralistic, and integral. As many of us know, these are sequential stages of development that cannot be skipped -- we must move through each stage in order.

"What we call 'spirituality' applies to both the pre-rational stages of development and the trans-rational stages of development," says Wilber.

In pre-rational modes, like magic and mythic, we have beliefs in things like Moses parting the Red Sea and Lao Tzu being 900 years old, all the standard mythological stories and narratives we find in traditions all over the world.

"The trans-rational stages," Wilber continues, "have almost nothing in common with the pre-rational stages. The trans-rational stages of development have much more to do with awareness and the number of perspectives one can encompass. They have absolutely nothing to do with magic or mythic beliefs or dogmas. The trans-rational forms of spirituality are not really being addressed in this debate, which wastes time telling us that Moses didn't part the Red Sea. Well, duh!

"All religious activity is being lumped together, so that what a Zen master is doing and what Pat Robertson is doing are thought to be the same thing -- it's all just religious stuff. This is absolute nonsense, and it's a disaster. It takes the contemplative aspects of the world's great religions and mixes them in with all the magic and mythic accoutrements that also come with the world's great religions. Nobody is really taking the time to separate these two out."

After a brief aside about the mystic tradition in religion, and its reliance on contemplation and "transcendental meditative experience," the article continues.

Wilber describes the body-mind disciplines in martial arts and the practices in Buddhism -- from the insight meditation of the Theravada to zazen and koans to Vajrayana mantras and visualizations -- as trans-rational forms of practice. "These are paths of contemplation or paths of liberation, not dogmatic beliefs," he says. "As a matter of fact, these traditions have very few belief structures. They're mostly practices: sit, pay attention in this way, count your breaths like this, use a mantra like this, and so on. These are much more like riding a bike than they are like believing in something. They're actual practices you do with your awareness and with your mind. They allow deeper experiences to come to the fore. It's all about experience, not rationality, not dogma, and certainly not about adhering to any sort of narrative."

Wilber concludes by disputing the bright line that most of the new atheists draw between science and spirituality. "Science is empirical," he says, "but empiricism refers to that which is experiential, which is narrowly defined in science as that which can be proven using the senses and their extensions, such as microscopes. Interior realities cannot be seen with a microscope, but that doesn't mean that they cannot be confirmed through evidence. They just require a broader form of empiricism. If you follow the injunctions in Zen, if you perform the experiments properly, you will get the illumination. You will find the data, the experience. Contemplative spirituality is a kind of interior science."

From here Boyce moves into a brief discussion with Sam Harris, who is the most open-minded of the new atheists in that he acknowledges contemplation as a valuable tool, even though he doesn't recognize developmental stages in his work.

In general, this is a useful article for the common reader of Shambhala Sun, but it does little to add to the debate for those of following the various lines of integral thought. Still, I enjoyed reading it.


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