Theologian and Philosopher Dr. David Bentley Hart has little patience for sloppy thinking atheists. Looks to consciousness and spirituality.
photo by: André Batista
The wooden pews in the Greek Orthodox church I grew up in were hard and uncomfortable. I think it was by design. The spiritual path of my ancestors was one of sacrifice, suffering, and of course, fear. The pews fit the path, but the path didn’t fit me. Fear kept me there for a while, but even that wore off over time. As the years passed my forced indoctrination transformed into a genuine curiosity about human consciousness, science and soul. But all along I always wondered what had kept everyone in those pews. How did they find Gnosis/truth/bliss/God through the ridiculous ritual and ceremony that dominates Orthodox Christianity?
Today’s guest, author, philosopher and theologian, Dr. David Bentley Hart may have found a way through. From his scathing and intellectually rigorous dismantling of the physcialism/materialism that mesmerizes secular culture, to his thorough understanding of Eastern and Western religious traditions, Hart’s deep thinking is almost enough to get me back in those pews… well, almost:
David Bentley Hart: If you examine the act of consciousness in which you are engaged when you’re choosing a tie, you already find dynamisms that exceed the possibilities of the naturalist picture of reality.
Alex Tsakiris: We spend a lot of time on this show looking at the science of near-death experiences and other science of extended consciousness. I think it both falsifies this materialism that we’re talking about, and gets us to the entry point of being able to really seriously consider [what lies beyond our physical body]. Do you delve into this science?
David Bentley Hart: It depends on what you mean by the science.
Alex Tsakiris: For example, the science of near-death experience.
David Bentley Hart: No. In fact it may disappoint you but I go out of my way to avoid that because it was never an issue with me since I don’t believe in the mechanistic picture of the soul. So near-death experiences are not surprising to me although, the accounts you read can be disappointing at times. I’ve hand encounters with Bruce Greyson and I was at the University of Virginia. So I did my doctorate and I taught there for a while. And I corresponded with him briefly. But again, what fascinates me is not the way in which extraordinary experiences which may be contentious and contended… you’re not going to be able to hammer that home with great success to a convinced materialist no matter how much evidence you think you’ve amassed. He’s going to dismiss a great deal of it as anecdotal or [because of] the limits of our ability to measure deep electrical processes in the cerebral cortex. All the while that’s going on he’s going to be missing such fundamental issues that would be available to him or her–[such as] Patricia Churchland. I mustn’t leave her out of this. Just from an ordinary phenomenology of consciousness in every moment of life however ordinary the acts of consciousness seem … that remains fascinating. If you can get someone to see there’s a fundamental irreducibility of the structure of consciousness to mechanistic materialism then the rest becomes plausible to follow. It opens the mind. But if you can’t, if you can’t get this through then no amount of merely quantitative evidence of other people’s experiences that you present them with will convince them of a damn thing.
Alex Tsakiris: I kind of agree with you. I think there’s a path in there that I feel comfortable with and that is the science, if you will, of near-death experience and it is a science. We have a hundred or two hundred peer reviewed papers on it and we have the science of after-death communication all over the place. But I think if we focus on that as a falsification of materialism I think what it really brings forward is the metaphysics of materialism. If it’s argued correctly it’s [saying] what’s really at stake here is we’re calling into question, if you will, materialism and in the process let’s reexamine what they’re really trying to sell you here. Because you are not a biological robot in a meaningless universe and you never thought you were … but you kind of went along with it. So I think when your confidence in materialism wanes a little bit I think that’s an opening for what you’re talking about.
David Bentley Hart: You may be right but let me put it this way, there’s a certain sort of psychology involved here that can erect defenses against that.
Alex Tsakiris: A pathology I think you call it.
David Bentley Hart: Sure. If you can accumulate sufficient evidence that you call into question these materialist assumptions, that has a clarifying effect. Still, my interests are in the whole set of logical assumptions underlying naturalism that don’t accord with any experience at all, not just extraordinary experiences. So the person reading it may never heard of an NDE; may never have had an intuition of something happening at a distance; or dreamed of something before it happened. These are all common experiences and they’re attested to but they’re attested to from a first person stance. But if the person who has no experience of this [is] sitting in a room alone reading an argument that exerts his or her own states of consciousness, then it’s much harder simply to ignore what becomes insistently obvious day-to-day. That is my interest. I’m interested in the philosophical account of the structure of consciousness in a way that not only leaves us without a naturalist account of self but inexorably moves toward statements about the transcendent reality of consciousness.
Alex Tsakiris: I’ve done about two dozen shows on atheism and have interviewed many prominent members of the atheist community, so I get where you’re coming from; but I also feel like my position vis-à-vis the atheist has softened a little bit. First off, isn’t this new atheism nonsense really a reactionary position? They might not have your intellectual muscle, and they might be nitwits about philosophy, but they’re reacting to the day-to-day idiocy we get from some of the American Evangelical community. Just stroll through the bestseller list of Christian books on Amazon: the apocalyptic “Left Behind” books; and the simple-minded apologetics of A Case for Christ…
David Bentley Hart: I’ve never even heard of that one but I can probably guess what it’s like.
Alex Tsakiris: These are not towering tombs…
David Bentley Hart: In all fairness I think if you’ve read what I’ve written–and I think you have–you can see I’m just as hard on those people even if they’re not the object of what I’m writing about.
Alex Tsakiris: So what about the atheist as a reaction to that? Can’t we kind of understand where they’re coming from?
David Bentley Hart: Well, it depends. It depends on whom you’re talking about. And don’t leave out the other thing they’re reacting against–the rise in violence perpetrated in the name of Islam, and quite often an attack on religion in general is sort of a proxy assault on specifically Islam as well. So there are all sorts of reactions and reactionary currents but you have to treat it author by author. In the case of Richard Dawkins I think you’d be overly generous there. It’s true that he’s frustrated by six-day creationists but then again, he goes out of his way to seek them out and refuses to engage in an argument with persons of more sophisticated philosophical, theological, or historical training. And at that point, given that, there’s something opportunistic in his reactions.
Alex Tsakiris: Isn’t what’s at play for a lot of these people, the deep wounding that’s been done by Christianity? Again, we can call the logic incoherent and their metaphysics crappy, but if you have a family member who’s been sexually abused by a Catholic priest, you don’t know how to express that. Or if you’re gay, you’re lesbian … you’re told God hates fags or however you’re told that message, you have a deep pain there. Then these people come along and you think, wow, here’s someone articulating what I feel but can’t express. Isn’t that the lure a lot of the time?
David Bentley Hart: If we’re just talking in general about people who reject faith or reject Christianity, I’m willing to give them more credit than that. It may not be just personal grievances. We live in a reality in which children die of incurable diseases, chance disaster destroys innocent people and innocent lives. Pain is ubiquitous. Death is inevitable. So there are serious moral, spiritual and existential reasons to rebel against the frame of reality. I’ve no problem with that.
Alex Tsakiris: This new atheist flag waving maybe has waned. But hasn’t it really reemerged or been recast as what I think is a phony culture war debate between science and religion. One that we keep being is told is central to our culture. To me, it’s so–and I think you point this out in a number of ways–so phony. What’s being passed-off as science is this awkward metaphysics that comes to the conclusion: life is meaningless … a proposition any man in the street would just laugh at. I’m a biological robot. My life is meaningless. The love I share with my family doesn’t mean anything. It’s ridiculous. No one buys into that.
David Bentley Hart: You can convince people to buy in to a great deal. I will disagree with you in the sense that people can’t live that way. No serious molecular biologist thinks of the gene in terms of a master code that inexorably unfolds into three-dimensional structures and as therefore the complete code of life. And at the same time, in some mysterious sense the dynamism of expression in biological, complex, organic systems. If you look at the state of molecular biology now, a whole variety of causalities are considered all the different ways in which gene expression is controlled. The actual coding in the genomic sequence has been one of the surprises of the human genome sequence. But the funny thing is, that was already pretty well known at the time [The Selfish Gene] appeared.
Alex Tsakiris: Absolutely. But that’s the real schizophrenia that we live in. That’s [another example of where] the emperor has no clothes. So you can read Dawkins, and if you’re a molecular biologist you can cover your mouth and chuckle, but you can’t do it out loud.
David Bentley Hart: Don’t miss the crucial point, which is that the metaphor of genetic selfishness and the persistence of this–if you think about this absolutely silly and logically incoherent notion that the reason [for why] we do things is actually this genetic selfishness is already an inept metaphor. [Look at] how pervasive that’s become–you see it on television, you hear it on the radio, read it in the press…to the point where people repeat it as just a given and so it’s not a scientific view, it’s true.
Alex Tsakiris: What is happening with this deep, transformative, experience of God to borrow the title from your book. Is there something at play? Is there something in the air that’s causing more people to achieve this state? When I was a kid this was the kind of thing you thought a few saints and mystics maybe achieved a couple of times on the planet. But now it seems to be happening more regularly. Do you see that, do you believe that? Or are you inclined to think that’s Internet hype?
David Bentley Hart: I’m unaware of it if it’s true to be honest but it wouldn’t surprise me one way or the other. My claim, my answer to that would be that it’s always been more common than we imagined. And I don’t as a rule, even though my interests in mysticism and all the great traditions goes very deep, when I write about consciousness I write about the experience of the transcendent right within the midst of the ordinary–that every ordinary act of consciousness is already saturated with a primordial knowledge of transcendence. So if there is [an increase in awareness]–I think it’s something that would be talked about more–the more oppressively mechanistic the tacit orthodoxy becomes, the more striking and in some sense urgent the expressions of experiences that don’t fit into that picture are likely to be.