Over the last year or two, I have been reading extensively in the work of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and others who have built the public profile of atheism considerably. Harris is especially interesting because, while he is strongly opposed to orthodox forms of religion, he is respectful of mystical experience, especially as it is exemplified in Buddhism. Dawkins made his name with “The Selfish Gene” and has since gone from strength to strength in his writing on evolution.
I see Darwin’s Theory of Evolution as essentially unassailable, despite the continuing howls of protest from the religious right who refuse to believe we are “descended from” monkeys, or share a common ancestor with them. Discoveries in genetics not available to Darwin in his time have borne out his insights in ways he could not have anticipated.
Where I differ from Dawkins is that, for him, any report of an experience that cannot find its place in a Darwinian universe is indefensible. Many of his criticisms—of the New Age, for example—are telling. For me, the mystical experience itself is central, and if it cannot be contained in a Darwinian universe that is only to suggest that there is something else beyond Darwin that we have to accommodate. (This is not to disagree with Dawkins that much of what is alleged to be beyond Darwin is nonsense—or clever marketing—just to suggest that not all of it is, if my own personal experience can be relied on.)
To begin with, let’s take a look at the implications of a Darwinian world for ethics and morality.
There is nowhere and nowhen in the history of the universe that life forms as we know them have been other than separate individuals competing with others of the same species and with other species to one end: to survive and reproduce. 99% of all species that have ever existed are now extinct.
Consequently, and despite all that we know as civilisation, the only meaningful way to interpret “good” and “evil” in Darwin’s universe must be in these terms: Does the activity concerned contribute to my personal chance of surviving and reproducing? Does it contribute to my genetic inheritance being passed on? Note that this may not be how we would want things to be, and it may not be the way we say it should be. It is a description of what actually happens.
We can legislate inside any group in any way that we want to prescribe behaviours, rights and duties, but even our most “civilised” or “humanitarian” systems of morality and ethics will ultimately stand or fall by these simple criteria. Do the groups that adopt them show any advantage in terms of survival and reproduction.
But even if we survive and reproduce in our own generation, that does not necessarily guarantee that our offspring will survive and reproduce in turn. The practices that accompanied our own survival may have generated an environment in which our offspring are doomed.
Evolution is not progressive except insofar as any more complex organism continues to enjoy an advantage in survival and reproduction by virtue of that complexity.
Without a constant environment, then, there can be no absolute standards of good and evil thus understood. Whatever works right now to ensure that I survive and reproduce is good. Whatever militates against it is evil. Short term rules!
It is true that there are aspects of life that appear to contradict this world of “Nature, red in tooth and claw”: instances of “altruism”, of self-sacrifice even, examples of symbiosis, that point to a degree of co-operation. These, however, largely vanish from significance when examined more closely, and if we regard the unit of evolution not as the species but as the gene. Genes that do not assist their possessors to survive and reproduce simply disappear from the gene pool.
Historically, genes, or gene combinations, that have been associated with the formation of supportive kinship groups have survived more consistently than those that have not. What we normally think of as “morality” are the principles that regulate behaviour inside kinship groups. Strictly speaking, morality thus understood, includes the behaviour of the members of a beehive, or a flock of sheep, or a migrating bird species, though we more usually reserve it to describe consciously chosen behaviours. Should we realistically look at some kind of continuum here in which behaviours are partly the result of natural selection, partly constructed or learned?
Once again, such kinship principles are not absolute. They depend in any given environment on their ability to increase the chances that members of that kinship group will survive and reproduce. The moral code in an inner city ghetto is very different from that which rules a small rural community.
(In this matter, without subscribing to the excesses of the postmoderns, I have reached a similar relativist position with regard to morality. However, I do not subscribe to the further belief that all moral systems are therefore “equally valid”, nor to the whole accompanying paraphernalia of "privileged" and "victim". Moral systems are valid only to the extent that they assist their proponents to survive and reproduce. They have no special right to respect outside of that effectiveness, which, one might add, is, like virtue, its own reward.
It is the great fallacy of post-modernism to assert, if not directly, then by implication, that all modes of being have an equal right to survival and reproduction. Darwin himself might well raise a skeptical eyebrow, here.)
If we examine these kinship moral codes, we find that the concept of “neighbour” is important. “My neighbour” gets special treatment compared with someone who is not “my neighbour”. If we want to indulge a fancy, we can think in terms of the human body’s immune system.
Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan asks the question, “Who is my neighbour?” so as to widen the concept of neighbour beyond anything understood by the people of his time. Samaritans were not well regarded at all. They were the pits.
I will contend that Jesus was a mystic. Without going into questions of the Trinity and such, which might well have puzzled Jesus himself, I will contend that he had at the very least experienced the oneness of all being, and was on that basis challenging the insularity of prevailing moral codes. For Jesus, I believe, “my neighbour” was all of creation, including himself. “Love thy neighbour as thyself.”
He was not the first, or the only, person to report this experience, but a combination of circumstances have made him one of its great exemplars. He seems to have been aware of this himself when he promised the disciples that they should do “all that he did and more”. They might all be “sons of God”.
The three words that sum up the Sermon on the Mount, for example, make absolutely no sense outside of a mystical point of view: “Resist not evil.” To resist evil is to react to something or someone that is not me, and not “my neighbour”, something or someone hostile to me or my kinship group.
For someone living in the world of Darwin, it is common sense to resist “evil”, to resist anything and anyone that is seen as diminishing my chance of surviving and reproducing, and to make such terms as are available with anything that cannot be resisted or overcome. As I remarked earlier, there seems to be no time or place in the history of the universe that we can conceive of as any different.
For someone living in such a Darwinian world, the key word is power. Society is ultimately hierarchical, and beyond that the forces of nature, of earthquake and volcano, of flood and drought, of hurricane and lightning and fire, and so forth display a power before which we are ultimately helpless. It is this climate that has generated the religions of appeasement, attempts to negotiate with the powers that be, by way of offering and sacrifice.
A cynic might even frame the emergent priestly class as operating what amounts to an early form of protection racket. “Nice little place you’ve got here. Be a shame if the harvest failed….” Our gleeful cynic might even point to a tradition that held an entire community responsible for the shortcomings of any of its members who might have incurred the wrath of the gods. Later, this proved to be a problem for early Christians. Their fellow community members did not on the whole object to Christian worship as such—they were used to a wide pantheon of deities and demigods. But Christians, by their refusal to worship any but their own god, attracted crop failure, floods, plagues and so forth, sent by the wrathful gods they had refused to honour. And that was not well-received at all.
It is this strand of religion that has given us the theology of the crucifixion. God, as a supremely powerful being, required sacrifice, and the Jewish people had a special relationship with God that involved elaborate and ongoing rituals of sacrifice and purification. Joseph and Mary, we are told in one of the nativity stories, waited in Bethlehem for the required time following the birth of Jesus, before going to the temple in Jerusalem to make appropriate sacrifices, and then returning home to Nazareth. (The other story has them heading off in a hurry to Egypt for several years before returning home to Bethlehem.) Jesus was the son of God, perfect man, born of a virgin, whom God sent into the world as a once and for all sacrifice. Thus the concept of a “loving” God presented by Jesus was accommodated with an all powerful deity.
But this is not what Jesus himself taught. “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”
Leave Jesus aside for the moment. Consider that despite living in an undeniably Darwinian world of competition to survive and reproduce, despite there being no apparent time or place in which things could ever have been different, there have appeared throughout history, over thousands of years and thousands of kilometres and in hundreds of cultures, a series of men and women who have shared a mystical experience that almost invariably they report as being “more real” than everyday experience, an experience not of separation and of competition but of oneness.
This is the mystical paradox. This is the truth that when we know it shall set us free – whatever that might mean!
Joel Goldsmith, the founder of the Infinite Way teaching, and one of the great mystics of the 20th century, was frequently asked by his students to speak to them about the Sermon on the Mount—one of the central bodies of mystical teaching. Invariably he refused, saying that he knew no more than could be found in books on the subject which they could read for themselves. Then one day, as he was about to begin a lecture, an insight arrived and he began for the first time to teach his students about the Sermon on the Mount. And even then, even though he taught no more than could be found in books on the subject, now he taught with authority, from personal knowledge. Perhaps we might add, “and not as the scribes and Pharisees.”
My own quest, as a mystic, particularly since the pervasiveness of Darwinian “reality” came home to me, has been to locate this mystical experience, for surely there is no place or time in the Darwinian universe for it’s information about a oneness that we all share.
There is no place in Darwin’s universe for ideas about “all things working together for good for them that love God”. There is no place in Darwin’s universe for the admonition to “seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all things shall be added unto you.” There is no place for “God’s purpose”. There is no place for the “maya” of the eastern reports, the understanding that Darwin’s world is an illusion to be awoken from.
On the other hand, for the mystic, even though most of his/her life is spent in the same "reality" as everybody else, there is no place in his or her experience of "mystical reality" for concepts of “good” and “evil”, in a universe in which there is no “other”. There is no place for a moral system to rule our relationships with others when there are no others; where, as Joel Goldsmith put it, there is no such thing as “God and…”.
At this point we sooner or later approach the idea of an experience outside of time and space as we know them, outside the boundaries of scientific investigation.