Category Archives: Atheists & Atheism

What will survive of us is…

Death and mortality have been much on my mind lately.  You may have noticed this in the last two postings on this blog. Recent events have reinforced this theme; for example, I’ve just been to the Isle of Wight with cousins to scatter the ashes of my late aunt Gwen, while on the same day my wife went to a memorial gathering for Nick Thomas, a scientist, researcher and a former general secretary of the Anthroposophical Society in Great Britain, who died in April.

On the Isle of Wight, my cousins and I had a simple and dignified final leave-taking of Gwen; a poem was read, and the ashes were consigned to the sea, their traces marked by flowers which floated on the water, moving onwards and outwards with the patterns of the tide. Afterwards, we went for lunch in the pub where Gwen had once worked behind the bar, in the village where both Gwen and my parents had lived.

flowers on the sea

My relatives, two of whom had flown from the USA to say their farewells, wanted to take a last look at the house where Gwen had lived and also to look at my late parents’ home, where they had often been welcomed. So after lunch, we strolled the few yards to my parents’ house. We could scarcely recognise it, such was the extent of the changes made to the house by the new owners. Where was the tall hedge? Where was the climbing rose? Most of the front lawn had been covered over by a concrete driveway. The front door had now retreated behind a glass-filled porch. There was no longer any connection between this house and my parents.

We then walked slowly up the village street to see the house where Gwen had lived. This house, too, had been transformed by its new owner – instead of the white-painted brickwork we remembered, the entire surface of the house, even up to the top of the chimney-stack, had been pebble-dashed. This was a clear visual indication that this house, too, had changed and Gwen was not to be found there.

What can be said in the face of such finality? My parents, my aunt, Nick Thomas – all are gone. They, who seemed so alive, so present, are no longer in physical existence. And yet one still feels so connected, can hear their voices, can bring their faces and characters to mind. Surely they are still real, even though not physically with us. An atheist would say that I am being absurd, that consciousness dies with the physical body; we have just one life, that it comes out of nothingness and randomness, and at death there is complete extinction.

Nick Thomas

Nick Thomas

When I got home from the island, my wife told me about the memorial gathering at Rudolf Steiner House in London for Nick Thomas, at which many people had spoken about him. One of the most moving contributions came from 17-year old Flora Kaye, a student from the Kings Langley Steiner school, who got up to deliver a tribute she had written. A few days before Nick died, he had gone to the school, where he taught philosophy to the older classes, to say goodbye to the students. He had told them he would soon be leaving his body and was looking forward to the next stage. Flora felt that, perhaps unlike in lessons, she was now hearing Nick properly and this is what she had to say about it:

“To a man of great wisdom and inspiration.


I hear you ended this form of living. I hear you no longer see with your eyes, hear with your ears and think with your brain. I hear you now. I hear you loudest now your silence becomes eternal, and I feel a pang of grief for not listening sooner. But this path leads me closest to learning more about you and more about myself and for that I am gratefully standing here.

I was told of your journey, your great mind and your warm heart. I then heard your voice and I still wasn’t ready to listen. My ears still developing, I only heard an echo of what you said, still searching within myself for the words you spoke to the world. The words you had been searching for long before my noise, my breath began.

And then I heard you loud. I watched your strength take you by your hand and lift you up. I saw you speaking out with all your heart, where others were too afraid to wonder.

I heard something extraordinary. I heard what I had been seeking.

I heard an embrace of love, of exquisite acceptance of the parting of breath. And most magically displayed, for all youth to witness. You stunned me, in awe I sat, having just experienced such raw expression, with open finality. Most of all I heard a man standing tall and mighty, at the doors, leaving the room with such love for that which you are departing from, and equal love for the next room you are entering.I heard today you stood up once more. I heard you departed with your breath. I heard so strongly your embrace of life, so alive were you.

So full of life are you.

Being witness to your death of life, I see that through dancing with death, you have become closer to life. And now you live on through another realm we call death, more loudly than ever do I hear you alive.

In memory of Nick Thomas.”

My wife said that one could have heard a pin drop after this contribution. It was as though Flora had introduced a note of holy truth, of what is truly real, into the gathering.

Philip Larkin, himself either an agnostic or an atheist and not known for his charitable feelings towards others, was nevertheless a true poet; and as a true poet, from time to time he was able to get in touch with a reality greater than his curmudgeonly persona would normally admit to. One of his best-known poems is An Arundel Tomb, inspired by the 14th century tomb of the Earl and Countess of Arundel in Chichester Cathedral. Above the tomb lie the carved statues of the Earl and his wife, as if asleep in bed:

The tomb of the Earl and Countess of Arundel in Chichester Cathedral (photo via E-Verse Radio)

The tomb of the Earl and Countess of Arundel in Chichester Cathedral
(photo via E-Verse Radio)

An Arundel Tomb

Side by side, their faces blurred
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd–
The little dogs under their feet.

Such plainness of the pre-baroque
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.

They would not think to lie so long.
Such faithfulness in effigy
Was just a detail friends could see:
A sculptor’s sweet commissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base.

They would not guess how early in
Their supine stationary voyage
Their air would change to soundless damage,
Turn the old tenantry away;
How soon succeeding eyes begin
To look, not read. Rigidly they

Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light
Each summer thronged the grass. A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-riddled ground. And up the paths
The endless altered people came,

Washing at their identity.
Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:

Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone finality
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

Larkin’s poem is sometimes seen as ironical (eg the earl and countess lie in stone, with the word ‘lie’ to be taken in the sense of telling a lie – the stone tomb is a public statement that wouldn’t have corresponded to the actual human reality of the marriage) yet the last stanza of the poem, despite the “almost-instinct almost true”, seems to contradict his cynical pessimism. And indeed, it is true – what remains, what will survive of us after everything else has gone, is love.


Filed under Atheism, Atheists & Atheism, Fear of Death, Mortality

Why some atheists like anthroposophy

“The common man is a mystic. Mysticism is only a transcendent form of common sense. Mysticism and common sense alike consist in a sense of the dominance of certain truths and tendencies which cannot be formally demonstrated or even formally named. Mysticism and common sense are like appeals to realities that we all know to be real, but which have no place in argument except as postulates.” (G K Chesterton)

Chesterton, writing in the early 20th century, clearly felt that most people have a kind of natural sense that the spiritual world exists, even though many of us have no means of rationalising why we feel that way.

Others, such as Rudolf Steiner (although some people believe he had an atheistical period in his younger days), came to characterise atheism as a kind of disability or disease.  Lecturing in 1919, Steiner said : “Only those human beings…are atheists in whose organism something is organically disturbed. To be sure, this may lie in very delicate structural conditions, but it is a fact that atheism is in reality a disease…For, if our organism is completely healthy, the harmonious functioning of its various members will bring it about that we ourselves sense our origin from the Divine – ex deo nascimur (from God we are born).”

So there you are, Richard Dawkins et al – instead of having reached your view of a godless universe through the power of your intellect, you are actually just suffering from the effects of a disturbed physical organism. 🙂

Today, in the age of the consciousness soul, there are many people who have lost their natural connection with the divine. In Steiner’s view, humanity is going through a period which started in the 15th century and won’t conclude until the 35th, in which we have gradually lost an atavistic form of clairvoyance. This is a necessary but very dangerous step in the evolution of humankind. It is necessary because as humans we have the unique privilege of developing freewill, which could only happen by entering an age in which our connection with the divine-spiritual beings and their will for our future appeared to be severed. And it is dangerous because this apparent severance from spirit existence has given the oppositional powers the opportunity they didn’t have before, which is to convince human beings through our science and technology that physical, material reality is the only reality and thus to thwart our true destiny as spiritual beings. For all of the shortcomings and difficulties caused us by this present stage, Steiner tells us that materialism remains the vehicle for the initial development of human freedom. It was the task of materialistic science to lead us away from the overwhelming dominance of theology and theocracy in human affairs, and from the unfreedom that had for so long been associated with them. And, as Steiner repeatedly asserts, it is in our relationship as spiritual beings to the physical world that the possibility for human freedom first manifests itself. Put differently, materialism for all its faults and limitations had a very important task to perform, and it needed time to complete it – and it’s still got another 250 years or so to run its course.

In the meantime, we have to find ways of coping with the difficulties of our present age. In Owen Barfield’s words, “Living in the consciousness soul man experiences isolation, loneliness, materialism, loss of faith in the spiritual world, above all, uncertainty. The soul has to make up its mind and to act in a positive way on its own unsupported initiative. And it finds great difficulty in doing so. For it is too much in the dark to be able to see any clear reason why it should, and it no longer feels the old (instinctive) promptings of the spirit within.”

I rather like these concepts and find they bring a savour and a spice to life – human reality is much more exciting and inspiring than anything in science fiction! Many other people, of course, think this is all nonsense and take up the position of agnosticism or atheism. ‘Skeptics’ (as they call themselves) can be very dismissive about anthroposophical endeavours, which are of course based upon the presumption of the reality of the spiritual world. If these skeptics are also parents in Steiner schools who feel that they have had a bad experience, or if they believe that the school has not been open with them about anthroposophy, then their anger and contempt can be awesome to behold – and in this online world, they make sure as many other people as possible get to hear about it. I’m sure schools do get things wrong from time to time and I’m certainly not trying to belittle those parents who have had less than satisfactory experiences. When you have invested such hope (and hard cash) in a school for your children, it is shattering if it then all seems to go wrong. Steiner Waldorf schools, which have such high aspirations, can cause huge anger if they turn out to have feet of clay. I shall be writing in a later posting more about this unfortunate phenomenon and some possible reasons for it.

There are other sorts of skeptic parents, for example those who regard anthroposophy as a bit of a joke but still value the education Steiner schools provide for their children. I came across a good example of this latter type on an Australian blog, Good Reason. In a post entitled: “A Rational Look at Steiner Schools”, Daniel Midgley comments on an article he has read in the magazine, Australian Rationalist. After going through the various criticisms made of Steiner schools in the article, Daniel concludes:

“If there is a saving grace for Waldorf education, it’s that, in my experience, very few of the rank and file parents believe the hype. You do get a core of Steiner believers, including the teachers, but almost no one else takes Anthroposophy seriously. Many parents roll their eyes at Eurythmy and such. The kids are usually pretty down to earth about it, too. At a recent Winter Festival, some parents were trying to foster a reverent attitude during the bonfire, but the kids were chanting “More kerosene! More kerosene!” They keep it real.

I also think that the teaching of religion is handled well, as I’ve mentioned before. Many world religions are represented, and I think this has an inoculating influence on kids. They’re more likely to fall for religion in adulthood if it hasn’t been presented to them before, and the Christian myth is presented at school along with all the other myths.

If you’re a rationalist, and you’re considering Steiner education, or if (like me) you’re already in and you’re only just becoming more of a critical thinker, it’s not impossible for it to work. My kids enjoy their school, and it’s been pretty positive. …The greatest danger from Steiner schooling is to the rationalist parent, not the child; you may go insane from exposure to crackpottery, or you may eventually bite through your tongue.”

In the Steiner school I know best, I certainly came across atheist parents who nevertheless valued the education, even if they thought some aspects of it were screwy – so I’m sure Daniel is on to something in his article.

But although it is quite easy for atheists to be dismissive of Steiner schools (even if some of them like the results), it’s not quite so easy to dismiss something as nonsense when the evidence of your own senses is telling you the exact opposite. It’s indeed an irony, given many anthropops’ ambivalent attitudes to alcohol, that biodynamically produced wine is leading the way in changing attitudes to biodynamic agriculture. Take for example this post by Cory Cartwright: “An Atheist’s Defence of Biodynamics”:

“…I do believe some biodynamic vignerons are amongst the very best in the world. I’ve drank hundreds of these wines, from wines that tout a Demeter certification on their label to wines that I didn’t know were biodynamic for years. In fact many of the producers consider marketing the wine as “bio” to be just that, marketing, so they let the wine do the talking. Despite my skepticism around some of the principal tenets and practices of Steiner’s agricultural followers, I simply don’t care if they are being used.

The resurgence in biodynamics, like modern organics, the Slow Food movement, fukuoka farming, locavores, and natural winemaking was a conscious rejection of the big industrial food supply chain that twisted our view of food, wrecked economies, and wrecked our health. The tenets of modernization, control, simplification, mass production, “big solutions.” When people saw what we had done to one of our most basic of needs they were aghast, and set out to find alternatives that would stop the pollution of both of the soil and of our bodies.

The scientific based winemaking at UC Davis and elsewhere is one that sees a straightforward path between the beginning and the end of winemaking, and deviation is dealt with as harshly as possible. Shouldn’t plant vines there? Irrigation will fix that. Weeds? Monsanto has you covered (which heavily funds UC Davis. Go Aggies!). Vines not doing so well? Chemical fertilizers. Mildew? Bring on the helicopters. Of course this is all very scientific so skepticism about the ultimate problems should be shelved for now while we continue spraying. Aren’t these the questions we should be asking when it comes to winemaking? What price are we paying for this wine when everything is tallied?

I am beginning to work with a young couple in the south of France who have 14 acres of vineyards and olives that are all farmed biodynamically. We toured their vineyards, and they showed us several planting techniques they were experimenting with, from planting density to different cover crops and mixed use vineyards. As we walked through we were struck by the difference between their vineyards and others. They had some bio-culture in their vineyards, the vines looked good, their old growth was healthy. The nearby neighbors had created a moonscape vineyard, dead, except for the vines, and even then the old growth was mostly gone despite being planted at the same time.

When we asked them about the biodynamic treatments they treated us to skeptical laughs. They said it was working, with a wave of a hand towards the vines, and even if the treatments were doing nothing, so what? Practicing biodynamics was getting them out and into the vineyards, with the plants and rocks, getting their hands dirty and teaching them to recognize things that they would never get if they were in a tractor all day, or if they simply killed off all the life.”

The whole article is well worth reading and the photos contrasting the biodynamic vineyard with the conventionally-farmed vineyard are very telling.

The anthropopper can live with being ridiculed by skeptics, as long as others are beginning to see that in applied anthroposophy there really is something rather special that works, and which holds hope for the future – and in such a mad, bad and dangerous world, we all need to believe that humanity can find ways to pull through its present crises. Anyway, as human evolution continues, and once we’re all through the age of the consciousness soul (unfortunately there’s about another 1500 years to go), I like to think that we will be discovering new and much more objective clairvoyant abilities in ourselves; and the reality of the spiritual world will be glaringly obvious to all of us, skeptics, anthropops and the common man and woman alike.


Filed under Anthroposophy, Atheists & Atheism, Biodynamics, Rudolf Steiner, Steiner Waldorf schools