Tag Archives: Richard Dawkins

“Do you believe in an afterlife?”

On most Saturdays, if I’m not too busy with other things, I go to a shop in our village and buy a copy of the Financial Times Weekend. I do this, not because I have any interest in the financial markets but because at the weekend the Financial Times transforms itself into the best UK newspaper in terms of its coverage of things that do interest me – politics, world affairs, the arts, book reviews, gardening etc.

One of the features I always look at is the ‘Inventory” column in the FT Weekend magazine, in which they interview a well-known person and ask them a standard set of 18 questions, eg: What was your childhood or earliest ambition? Private school or state school? Who was or still is your mentor? How physically fit are you? Ambition or talent: which matters more to success? etc. The question I always find myself turning to first of all is: “Do you believe in an afterlife?”

This week the subject was Bobby Gillespie, a musician who co-founded the band Primal Scream in 1982. His answer to the question was: “I don’t. I do believe in a universal energy – we’re all part of each other. We’re just the human race”.

The previous week the interviewee was Kate Clanchy, who is a teacher, writer and poet who was appointed MBE for services to literature in 2018. Her response to the question was: “No. Maybe only a literary afterlife – I think that’s one of the reasons to write. Your words can live on. I believe in the human capacity to remember each other and love each other”.

These two responses are fairly typical of answers to this question. I haven’t kept a tally but my guess is that around 8 out of 10 interviewees say that they have no belief in an afterlife.  I find myself vaguely disturbed by these results. Why is it that so many people who are prominent in public and cultural life seem to know so little about the reality of what it is to be a human being?

A slightly different question was asked of the great psychiatrist Carl Jung in a TV programme called “Face to Face” in October 1959 when he was interviewed by John Freeman. Jung, who was 84 at the time and was still active in his field, spoke to Freeman about education, religions, consciousness, human nature and his relationship to Freud. When Freeman asked Jung whether he believed in God, Jung’s reply was: “I don’t need to believe, I know”.


Carl Jung

This reply has caused something of an outcry, both at the time and in the years since; in 2006 the biologist and convinced atheist Richard Dawkins accused Jung of “blind faith”. I don’t think this is a fair accusation. Jung had worked hard on himself all his life and had worked extensively with a wide range of patients so could speak with the authority of a lifetime of inner exploration. Four years earlier, in another interview, Jung had expanded a little on this theme: “All that I have learned has led me step by step to an unshakeable conviction of the existence of God. I only believe in what I know. And that eliminates believing. Therefore I do not take his existence on belief – I know that he exists”.

Jung’s view, given in letters after these interviews, is that there is something very real and mysterious, which we all call God, but the images of God we all hold are different and inadequate. He seems to have been suggesting that we should recognise that any and all images of God are always different from the actual nature of God.

In that same interview with John Freeman, Jung said this: “We need more understanding of human nature, because the only danger that exists is man himself — he is the great danger, and we are pitifully unaware of it. We know nothing of man — far too little.” Anthroposophists of course would tend to agree with Jung; but we would also go beyond Jung in our view that we already know quite a lot about what it means to be a human being, not only during our physical incarnations but also in our soul and spiritual natures.

I sometimes wonder what I might reply in the highly unlikely event that I was interviewed and asked whether I believed in an afterlife. I should probably say: “Yes I do, and also in many ‘before’ lives as well as afterlives to come”. But this sort of conviction seems to be uncommon today, when a kind of solipsistic cynicism about anything other than the material is more usual.  A quotation from the late, great comic, Peter Cook, sums up this attitude for me: “As I looked out into the night sky, across all those infinite stars, it made me realise how insignificant they are”.

But what would Carl Jung have said if he had been asked about the possibility of an afterlife? Writing in 1934, he commented:

“Critical rationalism has apparently eliminated, along with so many other mythic conceptions, the idea of life after death. This could only have happened because nowadays most people identify themselves almost exclusively with their consciousness, and imagine that they are only what they know about themselves. Yet anyone with even a smattering of psychology can see how limited this knowledge is. Rationalism and doctrinarism are the disease of our time; they pretend to have all the answers. But a great deal will yet be discovered which our present limited view would have ruled out as impossible”.

To my mind, Jung is quite infuriating on this topic – evasive, long-winded and seemingly unwilling to state publicly his private convictions. Jung obviously decided to remain completely empirical in his public observations, confining his work to inner soul images. Jung also speaks of psychoanalysis as the only initiatory path available in the modern Western world.

This is not so, of course, and this is just one reason why for me Steiner is of much more interest than Jung: it is because Steiner has an absolutely clear understanding and knowledge of the transcendent and is able to observe the invisible spiritual realms and report what he has seen. Whereas Jung kept his work firmly in the region of the soul, Steiner was able to develop his capacities of consciousness so as to reveal the nature of the spirit – and to teach how other people can develop these capacities as well.


Rudolf Steiner in 1911.

There is a danger here and that is that Steiner’s teachings, taken on their own, and without any conscious connection to one’s own soul life and inner experience, can lead one to fall into anthroposophy as though it were a religion – which it emphatically is not.  Anthroposophy, in fact, is a path of research and hard meditative work leading to various outcomes in consciousness, thinking, feeling and willing. This is quite a tall order for people living in a culture in which materialistic individualism reigns and there is no connection to the collective forces of the soul – but it is a necessary path to take if one wishes to understand the physical-soul-spiritual wholeness of the human being.


Filed under Anthroposophy, Carl Jung, Rudolf Steiner

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