:: The Paradox of the Leopard (2015) ::

:: SOME DIVERSE THOUGHTS TOWARDS A VISIONARY HUMANISM ::

During much of 2014 and the early part of 2015, I have been engaged in writing a grand thesis entitled 'On Vision And Being Human' which seeks to address the ambiguities and 'problems' of visionary and religious experiences in the twenty-first century. Exploring key contemporary scientific theories that relate to humanity and human perception - including quantum mechanics, neurology, evolutionary psychology, and multidisciplinary approaches to Darwinism, as well as ethnography and archaeology - I attempt to build a new and speculative theory which enfolds both evidential science and symbolic cognition into a life-affirming holistic and experiential image of the modern human being, one which aims to transcend many of the contemporary antagonisms of our Western society.

On completing this text, I began to sense the outlines of an emerging pragmatic philosophy which may perhaps be of use in seeking new answers to some of modern life's more interesting questions, and this essay presents the first movements towards setting out the principles of that philosophy, which I have tentatively named 'Visionary Humanism'. At this incipient stage, the philosophy as narrated here is surely not as rigorous as I would like, and probably full of many holes and contradictions, not least in the fact that justifications for many of the statements here are found in much more depth in the thesis from which these ideas have emerged. Nonetheless I present it here as a first approximation, or work-in-progress.

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“Half the people in the world think that the metaphors of their religious traditions… are facts. And the other half contends that they are not facts at all. As a result we have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies.”
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Joseph Campbell, Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor

The Dorze of the highlands of southern Ethiopia are primarily a herding people whose economy and culture depends heavily upon the value of sheep, goats and cattle, and they share their mountain homes with leopards, for whom they have considerable respect and about whom they have a number of interesting beliefs. Among them is the idea, as Sperber reports, that the leopard is a good Christian animal who will not hunt on the various holy days and festivals of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, of which the Dorze are members. Leopard predation is a major problem for the Dorze and accounts for considerable losses of their animals.

This belief in the leopard's Christianity is thus a little strange, and it might be considered at first a kind of psychological appeasement of this animal's negative influence on their flocks, but on the contrary, the Dorze regard the leopard as a moral exemplar, and they contrast its fastidious eating habits favourably with that of the unclean hyena, with the two animals' behaviours in this respect forming the foundations of their complex dietary taboos.

But something interesting opens up when the Dorze are asked whether they guard their animals on Orthodox holy days, given that the leopard is a Christian animal who will abstain from hunting during such times. This might seem to be a logical conclusion arising from their belief, if not a particularly pragmatic one, but the Dorze consistently maintain their watchfulness over their animals, for, as they say, "the leopard is always dangerous."

Leopard In Tree

This is a remarkable paradox: the leopard is simultaneously a good Christian animal who does not hunt on holy days (and thus by extension, the Dorze's animals are safe at such times), whilst also being always dangerous, implying that the Dorze should maintain their guard. Sperber notes that the Dorze do not seek a resolution to this conundrum.

We find a similar situation obtaining among the Ju/’hoansi San people of the Kalahari, who regard the eland as the primary source of n/um or supernatural potency. In their healing and trance dances, shamans often report encounters with visionary elands whom they track across supernatural landscapes in order to acquire the power they need to effect their cures, or to retrieve the soul of one who is ill. Among the Ju/’hoansi, almost half the men are considered shamans and so it might therefore be considered reasonable that when they are hunting elands in the real world, that they would draw upon their shamanic skills to improve their tracking ability. But they do not do this and Lewis-Williams & Challis report that the hunters appear to focus wholly upon the practical skills of careful tracking and persistence running, chasing the animal to exhaustion rather than attempting to utilise any magical power. They also note that:

“Fundamentally the Ju/’hoansi do not confuse the sort of thinking that is required to conduct a successful hunt with the thinking that underwrites non-rational beliefs about animals that come to the fore in myths… The Ju/’hoansi realize that confusing the two ways of thinking would be disastrous. Non-rational beliefs play only a small role in people’s interactions with animals.”

It is as if, among these two peoples, that when it comes to pragmatic tasks such as the acquisition of food, or the securing of one's property, religious and supernatural beliefs are not permitted to impinge upon the efficient functioning of practical or worldly knowledge. Sperber notes that the Dorze shield symbolic beliefs from worldly information, and considers that this condition is applicable in a general sense to human cognition as a ubiquitous feature of our societies.

In my extended essay, ‘On Vision and Being Human’, in which I explore visionary experience and the emergence of symbolic culture among humans, I have come to a similar conclusion, that for cognitively-modern humans there are two types of perceptual information: that which is evidential or empirical, and that which is symbolic. The former depends upon observations of the external world and upon conclusions drawn from worldly experience and, at length, the scientific method, while the latter is subjectively (and often, collectively) meaningful and useful for introspection whilst being essentially fictional in an empirical sense.

This distinction is important in light of our contemporary antagonism between faith and reason, in which an argument is raging over whether God exists or not. The religious hold, against all empirical evidence, that a deity is responsible for all of creation in one way or another, while atheists hold not only that God does not exist but that this lack of evidence renders such a deity meaningless. If we adapt the Dorze view of the leopard into this debate, however, we find that neither side can be fully supported since both their arguments depend upon ascribing deity exclusively to the evidential. The faithful insistence that God is to be considered as literally true is a profound misapplication of symbolic data into the empirical – a situation analogous to the Dorze neglecting to guard their animals from predation on holy days in the misplaced belief that the good Christian leopard is literally true – and indeed we see examples of this odd literalism throughout Western and Abrahamic traditions of religious expression.

In similar vein, we might argue from this perspective that the atheist position that ‘God does not exist’ is inherently paradoxical. Since there is no evidence for God’s existence, we can say on the one hand that the position is correct and has been proven beyond all reasonable doubt. But on the other hand, this means that God represents symbolic data (indeed Sperber says it must be, since it features in human perception but has no empirical foundation, a rather circular formulation) and thus the atheistic insistence upon God as an empirical concept becomes as much a misapplication as is the faithful statement.

God's empirical absence means God is properly not an empirically valid concept, and thus its 'non-existence' (an empirical attribute) is meaningless, and the proven nature of the lack of a deity becomes paradoxical, since symbolic attributes relate to colour, quality and meaning rather than actuality or proof. Indeed, the symbolic presence of deity ubiquitously in all human cultures might point to a humanist notion that while it can no longer usefully answer any questions relating to the external world in comparison to the scientific method, there may be some use for it yet in subjective and collective symbolic realms of introspection that do not require belief and do not insist upon empirical (in)validities. This view begins to question the implicit understanding taken by Dawkins, among others in the New Atheist movement, that ‘meaning’ is an exclusively or primarily empirical phenomenon, and hence anything that is evidentially disproven must of necessity be delusion.

Sperber argues that meaning is largely a symbolic phenomenon, and from this we might suggest that there is no inherent meaning to evidentially-proven events: they simply occur whether we ‘mean’ them to or not. Campbell implicitly concurs:

“What – I ask – is the meaning of a flower? And having no meaning, should the flower, then, not be?”

Here, Campbell communicates deeply with our problem, for if meaning is exclusively empirical, then assigning that meaning to evidential phenomena, which do not require such assignations in order to continue existing, becomes something of an ironically meaningless proposition. But if meaning is exclusively symbolic – and here we are entering territory where we fail to guard our animals on holy days – then we come to a point where that meaning begins to confer a perceptual or symbolised sense of ‘existence’, and the flower of Campbell’s question is dismissed from the world, since it does not partake in the web of symbolism. This dismissal is effected even when the flower continues to empirically exist, hardly a satisfactory state of affairs!

Thus, we should perhaps venture a pragmatic solution to suggest that meaning is valid in both spheres, noting that scientific models partake, to a certain extent, of a symbolic import also. Rational or logical lines of reasoning in which one proposition ‘means’ another may be true also draws upon analogical symbolism in one form or another.

Equally unresolvable problems emerge when one seeks to engage in philosophical proofs of the existence of God as an abstract, a kind of Platonic 'Divine'. Here, conceptual symbolic logic is used to blur distinctions between evidential and subjective with a view to restoring empirical validity to the concept of deity. This is best exemplified by the mystical position of Maimonides, who held that 'the Divine' was beyond all attributes, and beyond even the distinction of being and non-being, a statement that can also be seen in some esoteric Eastern traditions. On a symbolic level, we could argue that Maimonides statement is meaningful, but this is problematic in two ways.

Firstly, mystics and religious people may offer this interpretation of God whilst simultaneously assuming the tacit existence of God and some attributes whilst simultaneously expounding upon his non-empirical (abstract or symbolic) properties, a position which is inconsistent. We may hear, for example, that God is beyond gender and that He is additionally beyond being and non-being. The second statement’s use of the masculine pronoun undermines the first proposition, grammatically and conceptually, and the transcendence of being appears to be closer to a symbolic cognition which has become abstracted into a rarified ‘ideas space’ than any evidential phenomenon.

Secondly, we can infer that Maimonides' assertion is yet another paradox, for if God is beyond all attributes, then this must include, presumably, the attribute of being ‘beyond-all-attributes’, in which case we must logically infer that God has attributes after all. We are close to the point where abstraction seems to extend ad infinitum and it seems much simpler to take the notion of deity as both symbolic and experiential, dwelling in a domain in which attributive statements are considered as perceptual colours rather than abstracted and reified Platonisms or empirical realities.

Kant's concept of the noumenon as a potential 'dwelling place' for God is also emptied of meaning by what we know of quantum mechanics and its prediction that empirical reality has, at base, no fundamental essence or realism beyond the observation or interaction, and no a priori properties, a position which incidentally would tend towards discrediting the Platonic abstracts and ‘ideas space’ mentioned above. As narrated in ‘On Vision and Being Human’, objective reality appears to be an emergent phenomenon arising from millions of quantum interactions rather than a fundamental quality of realism in the universe. This is not conducive to a deity external to our own human perceptions.

What if the only way to get past these problems and paradoxes – and their associated contemporary antagonisms – is to attempt to transcend them? This is the approach of what I am beginning to call ‘visionary humanism’ and there are many possible access points into this emerging and differently-transcendent view of modern humanity. It is to be noted that they all essentially spring from the same pragmatic standpoint inspired by the Dorze and Ju/’hoansi above, with a complementary dualism of evidential with symbolic unified by their ubiquitous and equally essential presence in human cognition. A lengthy justification for the Darwinian and neurological foundations of these two cognitive forms, as well as their equal validities in human agency, can be found in my forthcoming ‘On Vision and Being Human’ essay.

To take one access point as an example, if a strict (by which is meant, bound solely by the principles of selective pressures, adaptive advantages and the selfish gene) view of Darwinism can demonstrate – and produce supporting evidence from the archaeological record from the African Middle Stone Age, as well as a wealth of data from the ethnographic record, to do so – that we created our gods in the process of becoming human, then a direct result of this demonstration is that both nostalgic religious and iconoclastic atheist ideologies are surpassed, and a fuller expression of our humanity is effected. This is because deity can then be recognised as an evolutionary aspect of the human being as fundamental and as essential as any other behaviour or perception, such as language or cognitive fluidity, and indeed may in part emerge from these phenomena, rather than, as Dawkins insists, "a misfiring of something more useful."

This image of humanity accepts the relevance of deity in a non-literal, experiential, symbolic realm while wholly rejecting its empirical validity (or abstract relevance) or literal existence anywhere outside the brain and human experience, and recognises the possibility that in creating these collective fictions, we gained a valuable method towards introspection and self-awareness, as well as a way towards collective motivations which helped to liberate many uniquely human behaviours and perceptions.

No Religion No Culture No Time

That many recent organised religions have tended to misuse this ancestral mode of perception away from such introspective states of being, in favour of political control, obedience and literalism rather than colourful cultural expression and inwardly-focussed experience, should not detract from more ancient and indigenous conceptions of deity. So long as we remain strictly tied solely to images of the empirical as having universal validity (whether taken from an atheistic or religious position) there will always be ‘worldly’ problems of this nature and the dual perceptual humanist model here suggested brings about an inherent pragmatism which also challenges certain conceits within our contemporary religious culture.

Joseph Campbell suggested that the primary function of a mythology is to put one in accord with, and even cause to feel a grateful awe towards, the wondrous horrors of life and being alive. By contrast, Stephen Fry has recently – and somewhat correctly in my opinion – denounced the capricious nature of the Abrahamic God. We may cite the Book of Job in this regard, noting that despite the depradations visited upon the faithful Job throughout his life, upon questioning God offers nothing but disturbing responses such as “Are you as strong as God, and can you thunder with a voice like his?” (ch40, v9) and “Who will confront me and remain safe? Everything under Heaven is mine...” (ch41, v11) Such focus upon personal mightiness, intimidating strength and exclusive possession would, in a human being, be considered as displaying sociopathic tendencies, and the consolation for all of Job’s tribulations seems to be, simply: I am God – deal with it!

While it is true that many contemporary religions now bear, in practice rather than scripture, a gentler and more compassionate conception of God than that implied in Job, there nonetheless remains the fundamental problem that the Abrahamic God is conceived as separate from his creation, and as Campbell points out on several occasions, he fails in his ‘Godhood’ since he is no longer truly transcendent as a sacred and symbolic experience should be. Being literally real, and loudly declaring both his unitarity and jealousy – and we might incidentally argue that this in itself is contradictory – we must state that as symbolism, he no longer symbolises anything but himself.

This is no way for a deity to bring about cosmos-embracing accord in an individual or culture, nor is it a particularly useful method through which one may engage with one’s humanity and affirm its life as having value. In this respect we see profound differences between Eastern traditions and those of the post-pagan West. God here seems more like a socially projected but rather petty Iron Age king, who rules not from love, a sense of duty or confidence in the transcendence of his symbolically-perceived royal power, but from a tyrannical desperation that tends towards a turning away from life and its deeply meaningful symbols in favour of a strange kind of repentance for not living up to a limited view of humanity.

The problem between these two conditions – mythology as accord and skybound deity as cosmic ego – is only resolved by recognising deity as meaningfully symbolic without empirical import. Much of Abrahamic religion makes little attempt towards this symbolism, nor towards any sense of gratitude or awe in the face of its primacy upon submission to a social and global order authorised and enforced by a literally-existing deity’s anger. Gratitude is directed towards the exemplary mythical actions of Christ upon the Earth – and particularly the supreme sacrifice of the crucifixion – or upon the historical actions and teachings of the prophets, but at the ultimate price of having to consider ourselves as inherently sinful. This is a dark and troubling view of humanity, and one that I believe is no longer sustainable in the 21st century. It is, to me, as negative and anti-humanist a view of ourselves as is contemporary economic neoliberalism, founded as it is upon images of rational self-interest and automatism rather than cognitive fluidity and cooperativity.

If, however, we accept, that mythforms (and hence, deities) are simply an ancestral method of seeking to come into such an accord, and we accept their symbolic and non-literal nature, we can modify them to suit our purposes. If God no longer engenders that sense of awe, we can then modify him as we would any insufficiently useful inner narrative, replacing him with one or several deities who will. We would do this because despite several thousand years of literally-conceived and overtly political religious forms, and despite our current cold economic image of humanity, humans bear a deep need – which I will again state is evolutionarily emergent and neurologically founded – to feel numinously connected to a ‘sacred’ world whether that world is literally true or not, and if we consider ‘sacred’ to be a method of human perception rather than an evidential property conferred by a deity, we release ourselves from problematic interactions with scientific endeavours and enquiries into empirically verifiable facts about our cosmos.

Fry’s focus upon God's motivations is also instructive here, since modern atheism seems explicitly quite concerned with morality. While this rather delightfully holds God up to the same standards of proper human behaviour that one would wish for oneself, my sense is that a rising plurality of people are not seeking to live ‘good’ lives in the sense of morally good, but in the sense of having experienced many different things in our lives. Here, then, neither the morality of atheism nor the proscription of organised religion can adequately provide an answer to humanity’s modern condition and its deeper archetypal needs.

All of these paradoxes and difficulties, which we have done little more than list rather than interrogate in any detail, are best resolved, I believe, through the medium of experience and play, and a visionary humanism in which deities are recognised as symbolic introspective artefacts worthy of exploration rather than worship, of experience rather than morality, and of vision rather than liturgy, bears the possibility of liberating mythical images of pragmatic value in the modern world, and perhaps can also offer compelling motivational drives towards some of humanity's contemporary problems.

Our collective human religious and mythical heritage thus becomes no longer a system which we must necessary align ourselves with, or obey in any way, but rather releases us into a wonderful and magical resource which can serve and explore the essential creativity, introspection and value of what it means to be alive as a human being. In some respects, this is the customary practice of artists and creative people all over the world, but I am advocating it in a general sense for everyone.

In view of this resource-focussed image of our sacred traditions, it is perhaps useful to examine the nature of organised religion in the modern world, noting that from a humanist perspective, it can essentially be divided into three streams.

The first stream might be termed Religious Facts. These are empirically verifiable claims, as the New Atheists correctly state, that religion makes upon the cosmos, namely that God exists, that there is a world beyond this one, whether it be conceived as a hidden world of spirits immanent through and parallel to observed ‘daylight’ experience or as a Heavenly abode separate from or transcending our human existence. These have virtually all been empirically precluded by scientific observation and indeed their minimal counterintuitiveness (see Boyer) strongly suggests their true nature as human projections onto the cosmos (as does the Iron Age king image cited previously). The deity's empirical usefulness as well as its evidential reality can also questioned here: cosmology and quantum mechanics, for example, demonstrate that there is no 'place' for God to dwell and Darwinism essentially gives him nothing to do, so on the surface we can perhaps initially presume that the incorrectness of religious facts would lead us to reject them as meaningless.

We have already discussed that this may be an improper position, and have seen the implicit current in New Atheism that ‘meaning’ is deemed to mean primarily empirical or rational relevance, a conclusion with which I profoundly disagree, considering the general importance of symbolic cognition in all human cultures and endeavours everywhere. Furthermore, if it is the case that expectations of hidden worlds and parallel realities, in which a deity can dwell, can be demonstrated to emerge quite naturally from our own human neurology, then a method to deal with and explore these ideas in a new way would contribute to our collective wellness in practical contrast to strict atheist or religious approaches which both seem, again implicitly, to advocate a kind of cultural lobotomy of the pre-frontal cortex from which many of these experiences and expectations spring.

In any case, Religious Facts as they are currently presented may be rejected in an empirical sense while we may later seek to modify them to become religious symbolic experiences in service of introspection.

The second stream consists of Religious Laws, which like the preceding facts are presented as empirical, as proceeding from the deity and hence universal and applicable everywhere. They seek to govern both secular behaviour and religious practice, and structure the various forms of sacred ritual and proper social interactions. A casual glance through ethnography can easily evidence, however, the vast variability of religious laws and as such they are highly conditional, tied to specific cultures at particular times. This stream thus partakes, not of the evidential, but of the social reality and local situation. Religious laws are often heavily proscriptive, with strongly restrictive codes of behaviour for women, and penalties for unsanctioned sexual behaviours or gender identities, suppressing the majority of a given population towards the aforementioned limited view of humanity.

Religious Laws are also often deeply contradictory across social classes and changing historical situations. We might cite in this latter regard the Biblical proscription against murder in the Ten Commandments being immediately followed in Exodus by the story of the Promised Land in which God effectively tells the Israelites: ‘Here is the land of Canaan which I have given you. Go there and kill everyone.’

Religious Laws also function very often as shibboleths, demonstrating commitment to a particular faith, or membership of a particular culture. From this idea, a question may perhaps be asked, particularly in view of archaeologist Ian Watts' perspective of ritual as having an evolutionary origin in behaviours that demonstrate to non-members that one belongs in a strongly-bonded group while preserving more efficient trust-based behaviours, such as language, within the group itself. Dynamics of in-group and out-group are relevant here and Watts notes that ritual is particularly useful for moments of transition, such as the induction of a new member into the group (moving from out-group to in-group) or during 'dangerous' periods within the group in which a stable social situation suddenly enters a period of dynamism. The question is thus a simple one: in this light, what are such shibboleths for and why must faith be upheld so rigorously within a ritual in-group?

The only answer must be that the commitment is being demonstrated to God, who by inference must then not be a member of the in-group. It cannot be to other members of the faith, since in Watts’ conception of ritual, such expensive gestures are not needed to display commitment to your fellow religionists who constitute the members of your in-group. Such shibboleths are particularly prevalent in Abrahamic religions, and suggests again that God signals himself as separate from those who he claims to love, and separate from Creation. This is a profound problem for the modern human seeking to be intimate with sacred experience, rather than to worship something ‘Other’.

Modern organised Religious Laws additionally are nearly always universally applied rather than heuristic, in contrast to the Dorze and Ju/’hoansi situations we narrated earlier, where pragmatic distinctions are maintained. It was stated earlier that the modern Westerner’s relationship to God is rather as if the Dorze did not guard their animals at all on holy days, a conclusion I also arrive at in ‘On Vision and Being Human’. The same can be said here for Religious Laws in that being literally real or empirically non-existent, they must be seen to apply either everywhere or nowhere, and the inner dimension of human perception or the conditional nature of God’s laws are wholly misunderstood.

Thus in general, we may say that we reject Religious Law as being inappropriately (or perhaps, allegedly) empirical and universally-applied, and very often partaking of a social reality in which commitment must be demonstrated to a hypothetical entity whose empirical invalidity means it should properly be shielded from such worldly affairs as social organisation, morality and general models of human behaviour. Many of these laws also spring from a social context of the second millennium B.C. which it is not useful or healthy to apply rigorously in any society of the early third millennium A.D. and Joseph Campbell, among others, has discussed at length the kinds of cultural schizophrenia that this can engender.

The third stream, and we hold this to be perhaps the oldest in human behaviour, is Religious Experience, the only aspect of modern organised religions (and indeed also ancestral cultural practices going back to the emergence of cognitively-modern human beings) that a visionary humanist position would consider universally useful or valuable. This is the experience of deity, or of a sense of the sacred or numinous, whether as an emotional response to a religious ritual, a meditative state or even of an altered state of consciousness in which the deity is seen in vision. Religious experiences beyond such immediate sensations are many and varied, and we might cite the perennial power of narrative mythology to effect strong introspective changes within both the individual and the culture.

Religions nearly always claim these experiences as emanating from God – or in the case of divergent experiences at odds with the local laws, from a malign influence such as a demon – but this is a religious fact to be rejected. Religions also often claim such experiences to be bound by certain laws, namely that only certain things shall be seen, or that such states of being will only come to the deserving or a priestly elite, and even that it is deemed blasphemy to alter mythical narratives according to one's own needs, unless one happens to be a king or council of bishops, in which case alterations are often made to answer political expediency rather than introspective wellness. These ideas we can also reject.

Instead, we can claim Religious Experience as a valuable evolved response, or perhaps a range of neurologically-founded experiences and behavioural features, essential to the identity of the human being, an idea whose justification is discussed at length in my ‘On Vision and Being Human’ essay. Empirical evidence for the Darwinian validities of symbolically-conceived sacred experience can be seen in models such as the ‘Female Cosmetic Coalitions’ hypothesis (see Knight, Power & Watts) whilst the aforementioned neurological foundations are exemplified in the generally-agreed functions of the pre-frontal cortex which Lent summarises:

“It mediates our ability to plan, conceptualize, symbolize, make rules, abstract ideas, and impose meaning on things. It controls our physiological drives and turns our basic feelings into complex emotions. It enables us to be aware of ourselves and others as separately existing beings, and to turn the past and the future into one flowing narrative.”

Evidence is also emerging that this region of the brain may be associated with the generation of diverse altered states of consciousness related to dreaming, the runner’s high, meditation, hypnosis, day-dreaming and drug-induced trance experiences (see Dietrich) as well as with the subjective sensations of unseen presences.

The pre-frontal cortex is thus a centre of cognitive fluidity and symbolic cognition, which in the ‘Female Cosmetic Coalitions’ model is intimately involved with the emergence of both language and religion. Symbolism imposes meanings upon all perception, including upon empirical events which properly have no meaning other than their occurrence, upon social realities thereby acting as an important ‘social glue’ towards collective motivations of a group, and upon introspective, inwardly-focussed experiences arising from visions, participating in rituals and meditative states of consciousness and even dreams. Religious thoughts and experiences are an essential mediating aspect of these wider human processes.

This latter idea is an important point. Lewis-Williams in his otherwise excellent ‘Conceiving God’ explores a wide range of religious and visionary experiences, quoting from diverse sources such as the /Xam Bushmen of the Drakensburg mountains of South Africa, and the writings of Hildegard of Bingen, but concludes rather oddly that the neurological foundations of these phenomena should lead us to dismiss their relevance. Certainly a literal belief in a supernatural realm is no longer tenable, but here we see a re-statement of the exclusivity and empiricality of meaning in the strictly atheist view, and fails to address findings that, for example, meditative practices and spiritual disciplines often contribute powerfully towards human wellness and an enriched, optimistic inner dimension. The emerging approach of visionary humanism is more pragmatic, and aims for greater honesty in gazing into the full range of human perceptual capacities, than this.

We should perhaps state, however, that it is no longer particularly useful to shroud such religious experiences and visionary phenomena in any kind of mystique, for if Religious Experience is to be founded upon neurological and sociosexual Darwinian aspects of cognitively-modern humanity rather than a literally-conceived hidden reality, then a sense of humanist intimacy, rather than grandiose ‘Otherness’ should be encouraged. In this respect, the example of modern organised religions would tend to mislead us back towards literalist interpretations and hierarchical structures which allow power situations to arise. Better examples may be found from archaeological contexts, particularly in my view from the Eurasian Neolithic and early Bronze Age.

One such example of how a modern conception of humanist intimate Religious Experience might be structured can be seen in the Minoan Civilisation of the Cretan Bronze Age, in which an essential religious ritual was the Epiphany. Judging from the various iconographic and archaeological evidences, this apparently ubiquitous practice involved, as Warren notes, pilgrimage to a sacred site which was usually a peak sanctuary far removed from urban locales, a dance in which the deity was evoked whose movements engendered trance and altered states of consciousness and finally the epiphany itself, in which the deity materialised out from the sky and descended to earth to dance with the celebrants.

This apparition was sometimes realised in ‘enacted’ form, in which a living human woman played the part of the deity, dancing and interacting with the other participants during the ritual, and while we can consider this as a kind of ‘dance drama’, Morris & Peatfield noted that even in such dramas, an emotional power lends the dancer an active internal dimension, that what you do affects how you feel. Thus:

“…physical action can be used to affect emotional and psychological states, and to access altered states of consciousness, which transcend everyday realities. In other words: the holistic interaction of body, mind, and spirit creates a conduit to mystical experience.”

But the deity was also very likely to have been seen in visionary form too, and a number of gold ring seal images from the Late Minoan context (1500-1400 B.C.) depict a visionary beholding the floating or dancing deity, or again conversing with a seated goddess, in scenes of subtle beauty and sublime sacred intimacy. Here, we see the primacy of Religious Experience, of vision and the affective power of dance and drama to enter holistic states of being, in a manner which offers significant challenges to the rather passive, worshipful approaches of religious practices in the modern West.

Isopata Ring

We must of course assume that the Minoans had a body of mythology now lost to us which would have coloured these experiences in unexpected ways, and for sure they would have had both Religious Facts and Laws – indeed the visionary nature of their images suggests that they regarded these experiences as powerful confirmations of the literal existence of their deities – but the ubiquitous presence of these epiphanic visions and depictions of dances and rituals in Minoan art across all media, and throughout all levels of society in one form or another, suggests that unlike their contemporaries in the Eastern Mediterranean, they valued experience before hierarchy and ritual practice before laws, and the sacred experience of an encounter with the deity appears to have been open to all. Hence, the Minoan Epiphany offers some valuable lessons for a visionary humanist approach to life.

Another aspect of this Religious Experience must surely be the kind of creative approaches to mythology that Campbell narrated at length in the final volume of his grand vision of the world’s myth systems entitled ‘The Masks of God’. He contrasts traditional and creative forms of mythmaking quite simply:

"In the context of traditional mythology, the symbols are presented in socially maintained rites, through which the individual is required to experience... certain insights and commitments. In what I'm calling creative mythology, on the other hand, this order is reversed: the individual has had an experience of his own... which he seeks to communicate through signs; and if his realization has been of a certain depth and import, his communication will have the force and value of living myth..."

Parallel concepts of this idea, of the lone visionary whose experience is of such profundity that it translates into collective symbol, can be seen in the work of other thinkers, and we might cite Sperber here when he says that:

“Individual works are all potential myths, but it is their collective adoption that actualises... their 'mythicism'.”

Perhaps the most prominent creative mythologist of modern times was James Joyce, whose transposition of mythical forms in his ‘Ulysses’ and exploration of dreamlike eternal landscapes in ‘Finnegans Wake’ liberated some of the most powerful – and sacredly profound, in my view – images of modern English literature. This can be briefly illustrated in the manifest complexities of his Anna Livia Plurabelle, who is introduced in terms which are simultaneously transcendent, immanent and humanist, seamlessly and without any paradox:

“In the name of Annah the Allmaziful, the Everliving, the Bringer of Plurabilities, haloed be her eve, her singtime sung, her rill be run, unhemmed as it is uneven!”

It is not within the scope of this brief and general essay to explore this character in any depth, but in these few words we can see her expressed as ineffable creator, as labyrinthine mystery yet eternally present, as the originator and manifester of all living images, as the one to whom all hymns are sung and as a human woman, wild yet incomplete and imperfect as any other mortal. Commenting upon this, Campbell wrote:

“Anna Livia Plurabelle… is the living source becoming… she is the world of Dream Consciousness, the world as vision… an a priori archetype, primordial image of [woman’s] being…”

It might seem strange to promote an openly fictitious character as having a sacred import on the level of deity, but if we are to engage with our religious heritage as a resource rather than as a limited view of humanity which is to be obeyed or followed, we will quickly see a need to expand that limited view out of the allegedly empirical and externalised projection into the internal dimensions of symbolic fiction which becomes archetype, as it were, a modern manifestation of precisely the kind of ‘mythicism’ that Sperber narrates. Anna Livia Plurabelle thus may stand as a profound and powerful sacred image of womanhood which simultaneously partakes of a ‘traditional’ religious symbolism and of a modernity and agency which challenges those traditions, founded as they most often are upon patristic expectations which may not grant optimum wellness to fully-expressed female human images. Bearing as she does this otherworldly component to her being, she also surpasses strictly materialist (by which is meant, non-symbolic) interpretations of humanity into a subjective and collective experiential world of colour.

Despite being created by a male author, I believe there is room to suggest Anna Livia Plurabelle as, if not a feminist image, then a fuller expression of womankind than most traditional religious images, and the idea of an enriched sacred precedent for all that is female, heroic and transcendent, yet simultaneously human and mortal, is an important one, I believe, for all twenty-first century people – female and male – to explore.

But one needn’t be such a literary genius as Joyce to explore such transcendent creativities. Indeed I believe that the majority of people alive today are living without such self-directed and self-authored sacred symbolic images in which to archetypally structure their lives, and thus a range of important ‘deeply flowing currents’ within modern humans are not being answered. This method of creative mythology is therefore to be encouraged in all people who feel such a need to do so, and in my own life, as a gay man (whose identity, incidentally, is not particularly wrapped up in being gay, but who recognises a collective archetypal and introspective need for what follows) I have found it necessary to create fictional-but-sacred precedents drawing upon profound and transcendent attributes of the Queer, the pansexual and upon radical new images of masculinity in order to deepen and re-structure my life.

Perhaps my most successful endeavour in this respect has been my ‘Song of Lucaion’, a purposefully-archaic, poetical and mythical story of a Queer Hero who sails across the sky in his singing ship, setting the planets into place, and bringing sacred value to divergent sexualities as he does so. In embarking on his adventures, he does not proceed through trickery or violence, the customary modes of masculinity in many of the mythical traditions that have come down to us, but acts through perceptive understanding and intelligent interaction. At length, he dies in the Underworld, merging in loving sexual union with Ayia, the transgendered Lady/Lord of the Underworld, in a moment which might be considered the apotheosis of Lucaion’s Queer attributes, before he rises again into the sky to sing the Song of Heaven.

Here, then, is a radically different image of the gay man than any we have hitherto encountered in mainstream heteronormative or LGBTQ cultures. Lucaion is promiscuously sexual but deeply loving, adventurous but playful and non-violent, and he partakes of authentic mythical imagery and an altered sense of masculinity which is both peaceful yet active and engaging. There is also a pervasive transcendent component to his narrative, and we perhaps need not much discuss on the various advantages the spread of such a transformed masculine experience might confer upon a modern world which sometimes seems to spiral ever further into violence and deceit.

A note is perhaps required here that while creative mythology seeks in some ways to respond to personal needs in respect to sacred images, the import of those sacred images so liberated from such introspective inward voyages should ideally not emerge from egotistic drives or reflect manifestations of superficial or narcissistic projections. Rather, a mythical image is transformed or created most authentically through reference to images of similar mythical origin, emerging from the deepest wellsprings of human experience and partaking of a deeper symbolism than the everyday, into what Jung called the archetypal, Campbell calls the mythical and what I have elsewhere termed the visionary. In this regard, it may be said that Lucaion sprang primarily from dreams, the various images being strung together as a narrative in a unifying introspection which married both ‘daylight’ and ‘mythical’ modes of thought.

There is perhaps a pragmatic possibility in all of this visionary humanism with respect to some of the most pressing problems facing humanity today. I believe that a playful, non-empirical sense of the sacred as founded upon human perception and symbolic cognition, combined with a creative approach to mythology, might be useful in helping to align some collective motivations towards applying positive changes and effecting solutions to society’s issues. Many of these solutions are actually well-known and ready to be deployed but it seems that overcoming political unwillingness, economic apathy and scientific scepticism are the most significant challenges. Given that humans bear narrative and symbolic cognitive faculties as essential aspects of our being, a sacred symbolic mythical image might offer some popular breakthrough in this respect.

For example, it is to be noted that the overwhelming scientific evidence in support of man-made climate change seems largely irrelevant to our political culture, geared as it is towards generating money rather than a sustainable method of living. Several decades of the presentation of rational evidence in a variety of forms has not been able to rouse governments and corporations into action, nor have attempts to configure future approaches in emotional or moral terms, even though many of the solutions are easily available but for the lack of popular will. Thus it occurs to me that an ecological ‘goddess’ image – as an emotive and accessible but entirely subjective transpersonal symbolic image around which to build narrative structures – may be useful method towards engaging motivation to make fundamental changes to the way we interact with the rest of nature.

Is this perhaps a step too far, to essentially recommend ‘new gods’ to address our current problems? We might cite the suggestion as a contradiction to what we have suggested earlier, that organised religions promulgate laws to be obeyed. Here, however, we are not appealing to some newly-universal code of ecological sinfulness to be avoided, but suggesting playfully to humanity to take a pragmatic and selfless view of our place in nature, and doing so in a multi-modal, narrative manner that appeals to the ‘deeply-flowing currents’ of the archetypal and mythical within us. I believe this would be acceptable, so long as we maintain a delicate balancing act between understanding the referential import of the narrative and accepting the fiction, refraining from cult activities whilst accepting that the image bears recursive ‘sacred’ properties which, while understood as being conferred through human agency and perception and not an allegedly-real deity, might nonetheless spur our modern societies into positive action.

Campbell’s meditations on ‘Earthrise’, the photograph of our Planet Earth rising above the lunar horizon as seen from Apollo 8, as a profoundly unifying mythical image for modern humanity, are also relevant in this regard. We might say that Earthrise would perhaps be more appropriate than the ‘eco-goddess’ described above, since while the image itself sprang from a uniquely scientific endeavour, its unique emotional and spiritual impact springs from a fusion of the evidential – the fragile Earth hanging in space being a powerful validation of contemporary cosmology – and the symbolic sense of a universal human sister-brotherhood.

Earthrise

Mythical insights can also permit us strange new perspectives on political currents flowing throughout our contemporary culture. Neoliberalism is perhaps the most prominent of such currents, and while a full critique of this ideology is again outside the scope of this present essay, it must be noted that its insistence upon Machiavellian economics as the ultimate motivations of human behaviour, in defiance of a vast range of anthropological studies demonstrating the ubiquity of collective behaviours (often mediated incidentally by sophisticated systems of symbolism) among humans, along with its foundations upon poorly-conceived and often pseudo-scientific principles, mean that it is not an appropriate method of government for the twenty-first century. Its promise to bring stability can be argued to have led somewhat ironically to both cultural stagnation and a world-encompassing economic instability which is only supported and alleviated by tax-funded financiers and near-obsessive levels of statistical and popular surveillance.

I have elsewhere termed neoliberalism a kind of chimpanzee politics unfit for human consumption, but it is in the mythical image of Hermes that I believe this ideology can find its greatest critique. For Hermes was the god of both merchants and thieves, as well as secrets, and in this unification of apparently disparate human activities we can find a rather unflattering portrait of the global finance sector. I might suggest that wider dissemination of such a Hermetic image might rouse neoliberalism’s many political opponents into action towards a greater social justice and a political arrangement founded upon more positive human images than the Machiavellian and the egotistic. But this is perhaps a lengthy aside!

In these two examples, we perhaps find an aspect of human behaviour – collective, image-driven motivation – that again both organised religions and the New Atheism are currently failing to address. Approaches informed by symbolisms, in addition to the presentation of rational evidence and moral obligation, may provide enough collective inspiration to prevent us from reaching the tipping point of environmental destruction and economic tyranny which from our current antagonistic standpoints seems to be almost inevitable.

In so doing, we may find that we revolutionise our image of ourselves, and come to know our humanity more deeply. I have critiqued the limited view that organised religion presents of the human being, but we might lay the same at the door of the New Atheism also. Many of the underlying assumptions of this modern ideology – and I except Daniel Dennett from this generalisation! – seem to dwell upon a kind of godless Artistotlean-Cartesian system whereby the ‘Cartesian theatre’, to which the senses present information from the world in a rational manner, is generally as being somehow empirically valid, despite evidence to the contrary which suggests that the specific features of that theatre – mind, consciousness and the self – are evolved experiential illusions.

The phenomenon of deity is surely just as illusory and just as evolved, but is regarded as explicitly meaningless, a view we have critiqued already. This, however, is line-in-the-sand stuff, and it is a proscriptive behaviour which is not good science or good humanism, in my view. Either we can accept experiential symbolism as a whole, in which case gods, mind, consciousness, the self and other evolved illusions all together partake in an enriched experience of human life, or we restrict ourselves firmly to empirical views, in which case all of these human phenomena must be rejected. Drawing lines according to our personal prejudices against the ubiquity of human religious experience, or indeed against empirical scientific endeavours, is an increasingly desperate activity that in the twenty-first century can only liberate further distracting dualistic antagonisms.

Our visionary humanist view is rather more resourceful, and views deities as useful tools rather than delusions, and in this regard an analogy may be drawn with both Oriental and psychological ideas of the human ego. In Oriental religion, the primary drive as presented to the individual is to suppress the ego towards an experience of eternity, and ideals of nirvana, ultimate enlightenment, incline towards encouraging an extinction of the ego rather than its mere suppression. Jungian psychologists, often under Buddhist influence, also tend towards ideas that denote the ego as an illusion. However it is to be noted that ego is perhaps a heuristic, an evolved behaviour that allows for the preservation of the individual in dangerous or unsettling situations, and is an important component – but only one of many – in the construction of a balanced self-image.

We hardly need dwell on the psychoses and narcissisms that obtain when this self-image tool gets out of hand, and comes to dominate the individual such that more transpersonal and collective drives are suppressed, but in its proper place, ego has some use and positive value. So it is with gods, I think. They are good for subjective introspection and symbolic life-structuring but when they are literally believed or projected outwards onto the world, behavioural and perceptual imbalances rapidly proliferate. Indeed, one of the most intriguing relations of the human to deity can spring from the Minoan conception of the ‘enacted epiphany’ in which the ritual participant first play-acts, then embodies, and at length becomes the deity in a powerfully unifying image of the empirical human body and the inner symbolic dimension. Here, I feel, is the exemplary visionary humanist image, of the human and the god entwined as one body, and the profound difference between re-symbolised experiential illusion and hyper-rational dismissive delusion is perhaps best seen in this idea.

We can perhaps now understand visionary humanism as a kind of step forward in coming to know ourselves in a new way – pragmatic, but also endowed with a sacred agency founded solely upon human beings, mindful of the illusory nature of everything that we hold to identify as ‘us’, but also delighting in the experiences of those illusions as essential and valuable methods towards deepening our understanding of our humanity and our place within both the symbolically-conceived and evidentially-observed world.

We can come to a new understanding of our inner religious motivations by colouring them with an understanding of the ubiquity of human symbolic cognition, arriving at a place where we easily recognise Religious Facts as being literally-conceived (and thus misapplied) symbols and therefore symbolically false, and Religious Laws as being societally contextual and therefore, to a certain extent, symbolically arbitrary. At the same time we can understand Religious Experience in a humanist way that liberates symbolic deities as meaningful fictions emergent from the human being, which are perceived beyond empirical true/false distinctions into introspective realms where relevance and connection, colour and quality, become more appropriate attributes.

Indeed, we can come to a new sense of why, for many people all over the world, the New Atheism is closer to an ideology rather than a complete experiential picture of the human being. The question can be asked: what happens when one’s entire nervous system is telling one (even though that ‘telling’ may be projected outwards onto the world rather than inwardly-experienced) that those religious experiences are not delusions, but as deeply human as language, mind, the quest for knowledge and ritual behaviours? One would naturally resist this atheism as it is currently presented, even when empirical evidence to the contrary is patently available, for the human mind always trusts its senses – both inner and outer, and for better or worse – first and foremost.

A visionary humanist approach to these ‘sacred’ experiences not only colours a deep and (subjectively) meaningful human life, but it also frees up science to no longer be coloured by religious precepts. We become able to enquire into ‘reality’ and ‘meaning’ in two entirely different ways – one which is external and evidential and subject to the scientific method of hypothesis, experiment and the dynamics of proof/falsification, and another which is wholly internal, colourful, interconnected and subject to mythical and visionary narrative flows which are experientially meaningful yet in an important empirical sense, wholly unfalsifiable, being as they are delightful fictions rather than empty delusions.

Just as we humans have two eyes whose scan of the external world presents two differing pictures which become seamlessly unified through the image-processing actions of the brain, so we also bear two entirely different modes of cognition, whose imports and realms of relevance may be generally separate, but become unified in the fundamentally positive value each one contributes to the totality of the human being. The paradox of leopard as a general metaphor for the human condition is thus not resolved, but experienced, and it is in this experience that I believe we can find the expression of our deepest and richest humanity. I believe that a significant plurality of twenty-first century people are ready for such a nuanced and dynamic approach to the world and ourselves.

BR, March 2015

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:: BIBLIOGRAPHY ::

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Moses Maimonides, (tr. M. Friedlander), The Guide for the Perplexed, George Routledge & Co, 1904, url: http://www.teachittome.com/seforim2/seforim/the_guide_for_the_perplexed.pdf, retrieved August 2014

Christine Morris & Alan Peatfield, Experiencing Ritual: Shamanic elements in Minoan Religion, in Michael Wedde (ed.), Celebrations: Sanctuaries and the Vestiges of Cult Activity: Selected papers and discussions from the Tenth Anniversary Symposium of the Norwegian Institute at Athens, 12-16 May 1999, University of Bergen, 2004

Bruce Rimell, The Minoan Epiphany: A Bronze Age Visionary Culture – Archaeological Evidence for Visionary Ritual and Altered States of Consciousness in Cretan Prehistory, personal essay, url: http://biroz.net/words/minoan-epiphany/, dated March 2013; also as monograph with same title, Xibalba Books, 2015 or 2016 (forthcoming)

Bruce Rimell, The Song of Lucaion, personal mythform and poetic cycle, url: http://www.biroz.net/fernal/lucaion.htm, dated 2014; also in The Fernal Myths, Xibalba Books, 2015 or 2016 (forthcoming)

Bruce Rimell, On Vision and Being Human: Exploring the Menstrual, Neurological and Symbolic Origins of Culture, Xibalba Books, 2015 (forthcoming)

Dan Sperber, Rethinking Symbolism (Cambridge Studies in Social Anthropology #11), Cambridge University Press, 1975

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Peter Warren, Minoan Religion As Ritual Action, Gothenburg University & Eric Lindgrens Boktryckeri A.B., 1988

 

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