saying no to spirit

I hesitate to claim any sort of cosmology, any relationship to established religion, to Western esotericism, or to those Eastern traditions so eagerly co-opted by Western seekers.  But I think it’s time we stopped talking about spirit, which has become synonymous with god, which has always been synonymous with the male.  “If god is male, then the male is god”, as Mary Daly pointed out in her seminal work Beyond God the Father.

So I suppose I need to say something about why I don’t accept the notion of spirit at all.

First, here is how we invented spirit.  The male ape became aware of two things; his own mortality, and his inability to generate life from his own body.  And this was the abyss he feared above all to look into.  He could control the female with violence.  He could form hierarchies of males, and his hierarchy could fight the hierarchies of other males for supremacy.  (And now you understand ‘civilisation’.)

But generative Nature was beyond his powers, and this enraged and terrified him.  Rather than come to terms, he told himself it was not so, and projected his pathological denial onto the shimmering web of life that is the Cosmos.  A Mind must have made it all, a Mind like mine, he told himself.  A Male Mind.  The Mind is prior to the Body, he announced, and our minds will not die, but will return to the Great Mind.

Instead of understanding that he had projected his own narcissism onto the Cosmos, he claimed that he had been made “in the image of god”, and that his petty hierarchies were reflections of “universal law”; when in fact they were nothing more significant than chimpanzee social arrangements.  Give god a banana.

And thus he avoided having to face the chthonic and impersonal power of the female principle, within which he lived and died. He was able to justify his own nature, his violent acts, and his oppression of women as “god’s will” (of which he was, of course, the sole interpreter), instead of being forced to confront his anomie; and we have all been suffering the consequences of his delusion ever since.

Mary Daly again:

Patriarchy is itself the prevailing religion of the entire planet, and its essential message is necrophilia. All of the so-called religions legitimating patriarchy are mere sects subsumed under its vast umbrella/canopy. They are essentially similar, despite the variations. All – from buddhism and hinduism to islam, judaism, Christianity, to secular derivatives such as freudianism, jungianism, marxism and maoism – are infrastructures of the edifice of patriarchy. All are erected as parts of the male’s shelter against anomie. And the symbolic message of all the sects of the religion which is patriarchy is this: Women are the dreaded anomie. Consequently, women are the objects of male terror, the projected personification of “The Enemy”, the real objects under attack in all the wars of patriarchy.

(from: Gyn/Ecology: A MetaEthics of Radical Feminism)

Daly’s claim of necrophilia is no exaggeration. Man has used religion to distance himself from woman and nature, and thus make both expendable. Women are construed in patriarchal culture as closer to animal nature, and thus less conscious and less valuable than the fully ensouled and enspirited man, the Default Human. The rape of women and the rape of nature are the same phenomenon of abstraction and domination.

Whether man’s soul is saved and returned to a dualistic heaven, whether he achieves abiding non-dual awareness a la Advaita Vedanta or Zen Buddhism, and thus perceives the physical world as illusion, whether he sees his body, and the Cosmos, as merely the shadowy and imperfect reflection of an ideal Platonic form which exists in a ‘higher’ realm and is accessible only to Gnostic or Hermetic initiates, the message is the same: this world is not his true home. And the profoundly destructive hidden implication is also the same: he need not care for the world, because his real future lies elsewhere.

Even when his religion teaches him compassion and kindness, these are temporary virtues, and usually extended only to his fellow men. Women are to be subject to him; the rest of the biosphere is mechanical or inert, or at best enlivened by an “immanent” god. Man, the peak of creation according to man, is made in the image of god, a primordial spirit which ‘fell’ into matter; and the corollary of his hubris is that the sole purpose of the Cosmos is to contain him, to teach him, to purify him, to absolve him of karmic debt. When he ascends to some supposed higher state, the world becomes disposable; or worse, his sterile fantasy of being the representative of some sort of non-existent Architect of the Universe teaches him that he must ‘transform’ the earth, that Nature Herself is fallen and needs to ‘ascend’ into some purified spiritual state.

It is all necrophilic nonsense. His anthropocentric narcissism knows no bounds; it is the ultimate blasphemy against Nature.

This leads to a set of hierarchical opposites so deeply embedded in our culture that they are all but invisible; here is the inimitable Dr Jane Clare Jones on how the French post-structuralists teased these out:

So first off, ‘binaries and why they are bad.’ As I laid out here – the critique of binaries descends from Beauvoir and Derrida, through the deconstructive strand of post-structuralist thought, and is central to French post-structural feminism. The central idea is that Western thought is structured around a series of conceptual oppositions, and that these oppositions are gendered.

They look something like this:


There are several thing to note about these binaries. The first is that they are hierarchical – the masculine term is privileged over the feminine term, that is, it is conceived as being better. The second is that they are defined by conceptual opposition – and this is where the concept of ‘othering’ comes in. The inferior terms of the binary are understood only as negations of the superior term – as things which lack the privileged qualities of the superior term (non-men anyone?). The significance of this is that the binaries inform the understanding of the people who are defined in opposition to the one who defines; a process by which the white male subject defines his others – women, and the non-white – as an inferior negation of himself. This conceptual mechanism has historically underpinned violence and exploitation aimed at people on the ‘wrong’ side of the binary. Ergo, binaries are bad.


It is Daly’s insight that these opposites, which derive from man’s religious inventions, extend into the secular world. We can see the same contempt for, and fear of, the body and nature in the mechanistic view of science as well as in modern techno-cults like transgenderism and transhumanism.

Francis Bacon, an early dualist, was notorious for saying that you “have but to hound nature in her wanderings, and you will be able when you like to lead and drive her afterwards to the same place again. Neither ought a man to make scruple of entering and penetrating into those holes and corners when the inquisition of truth is his whole object.” A precursor to rape culture, indeed. Note that nature, of course, has a female pronoun.

Post-modernist disciples of Foucault will insist that disciplinary power in society is instituted by text, and that unsaying the text removes its power to construct society; they would nevertheless deny that they are replicating the patriarchal nonsense of Logos (“In the beginning was the word.”)

And modern transhumanists would disavow any notion of imitating a religious tradition, while unironically insisting that the body is mere meat, and that they will soon be able to “upload their minds into the cloud”.

Yet they all replicate the binaries of mind over matter, male over female, spirit over nature, individual over community. And our world bears the scars.

Meanwhile, the Western Hermetic tradition positions itself as ‘spiritual’ rather than religious, as representing a true inner way; yet it is fundamentally based on Platonic idealism and the mystery traditions of the perennial philosophy. It replicates the patriarchal fraud of the male priestly initiate who has access to ‘secret’ esoteric knowledge, and produces the empty solipsistic magical thinking of New Age create-your-own-reality beliefs, which are not much more than the unhappy marriage of christian gnosticism with the toxic individualism of late-stage neo-liberal capitalism.

Its inevitable terminus is in the hideous idea, advanced by theosophist Alice Bailey and her supposed channelled entity DK, that the world will be cleansed and purified to a higher level by nuclear destruction. A world turned into a radioactive waste is preferable to, and ‘purer’ than, a miraculous material biosphere. You can’t get more necrophiliac than that.

An alternative viewpoint, naturalist without being completely reductionist, and avoiding the mechanism of pure material monism, would be what is (loosely) termed panpsychism. Now as a feminist, I regard a lot of philosophical blathering as what Virginia Woolf aptly termed “the processions of the sons of educated men”; endless abstractions, and then even more endless dithering about the precise meaning of the abstractions. Counting the number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin, while failing to notice that the pin has long since fallen over and rusted. As someone whose orientation is fundamentally empirical, I’m drawn to Richard Feynmann’s famous aphorism that philosophers of science are about as much use to actual scientists as ornithologists are to birds.

But I think it’s important to draw the distinction between the notion of nature as inherently intelligent and aware, something we might justifiably refer to as a Mother Goddess, and pure materialism, which usually treats consciousness as an epiphenomenon.

So let’s try to position this within conventional philosophical theories about the so-called mind-body problem. On the one hand, we have patriarchal religious thought, which is dualist (mind is a different substance from body/matter), or idealist monist (mind is higher than body/matter, the world is formed by, penetrated by, and a reflection of, spirit or pure consciousness).

In this view, man’s mind is the link between god, or spirit, and the world. The existence of the world, in a spectacular display of self-aggrandisation, depends on the existence of man, and comes into existence only when man observes it.

This worldview manages, peculiarly, to reflect itself in materialist monism, or physicalism, which holds that only matter and energy exist, that consciousness is merely an emergent by-product of matter, and that science (usually seen as a function of the ‘logical’, ‘rational’ male brain) is the only reliable way of interrogating nature. In some interpretations of quantum phenomena, the same noxious notion that matter arises only when an observer observes it can be found; no-one ever considers whether a bird, or a tree, can be an observer too.

The latter view, unlike religious thought, has tremendous internal integrity, and delivers the enormous benefits of empirical research, but fails to address what David Chalmers calls ‘the hard problem’ of consciousness (so-called qualia); where does the experience of something like, for example, the colour red, come from, if consciousness is merely an emergent property of matter?

An answer to this that doesn’t require all the religious trappings of dualism or idealist monism is neutral, or dual-aspect monism; the notion that the fundamental stuff of which the universe is made has properties of both mind and matter. This leads to the notion that matter itself is fundamentally aware – so-called panpsychism – which is a very different proposition from saying that god, or spirit, is ‘immanent’ in matter. It says that there is a phenomenology associated with the most fundamental particles of the Universe; that it is ‘like’ something to be an electron or a quark.

An analogy to illustrate the difference between idealism and dual-aspect monism might go something like this: if we make light analogous to consciousness, then in idealism, light illuminates objects in the world,or shines through them, or reflects off them. So although they appear visible and solid, then are in fact only brought into visibility, or being, by light from another realm. (This is precisely the metaphor of Plato’s cave, in which he saw objects in the world as the shadows of ideal objects.)

In dual-aspect monism, the objects are phosphorescent, like fireflies or glow-worms; they produce their own light. Nature herself is awake and aware; not the creation of consciousness, nor the reflection of an ideal form in another realm, not something which has a ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’, but awake, entire in herself, and our true home.

Nature free at once and rid of her haughty lords is seen to do all things spontaneously of herself without the meddling of the gods.

– Lucretius

My sense that the latter concept is indeed the state of things is based on, I suppose, induction rather than deduction. I’m very interested in work on animal cognition, which until fairly recently was thought not to exist (or rather, denied). A new field called plant neuro-biology suggests that plants are able to learn and communicate. And most recently, physicists have determined that a physical object that conserves its volume, such as an iron bar, is capable of making decisions. The Cosmos processes information at every level.

This makes awareness, and in many cases, intelligence, a fundamental property of the Cosmos, not the result of an external/different conscious ‘stuff’, or inert matter somehow imbued with, or made from, god-consciousness. It also suggests that the only religious position which makes any sense is simple animism, basic awe and wonder at the living, vibrant world we actually live in, in its particulars: trees, rocks, snakes, mountains, the food we eat, the air we breathe. This diverse and material world as endlessly inventive Mother, nurturing all her species, not merely the human ape.

And this, of course, is exactly what we believed before the inanity/insanity of patriarchal religion got going. The world as Life-Death-Life Mother. The triple Goddess, Maiden, Mother, Crone, observed in the phases of the moon or the stages of a woman’s life, directly present in nature, not a spiritual abstraction or some sort of formless ‘ultimate reality’ inaccessible to anyone except a few, conveniently male, initiates.

This notion fits, too, if you want it to, if you must have a deity, with the pantheism of Santayana and Spinoza, although I’m not a pantheist because to me it has too many overtones of “big being”. I think that any intelligence ascribed to the Earth, or the Cosmos as a whole, is attributable to the awareness inherent in the stuff of which the Earth is made, combined into a living system much greater than us; bottom up rather than top down. It’s too easy to make the god of pantheism into another distant creator or architect, another necrophiliac abstraction.

Regardless of how you construe this, though, and whether you regard yourself as religious (or spiritual) or not, awe at the world around us, and action to preserve it, is the only sane response to the environmental disaster we have precipitated with our hubris. This is a context in which the beginning of wisdom is to acknowledge ourselves, not as the image of god, nor as the master of technology, but as an ape which has run amok and become a pest, a species which needs to rediscover harmony with its habitat, or go extinct. We will deal with ourselves, and if we don’t, Nature will, and then she will go on. And if we die, so will all our posturing about the gods and spirits we have invented to justify our savaging of the earth.

So let’s stop using the word ‘spirit’. We are material beings, this small blue planet is our only home, and our survival as a species depends on our rediscovering our relationship to the material world around us. If you want something to worship, go and sit under the nearest tree. It will tell you everything you need to know.

And if we see material, endlessly generative Nature as the only thing worthy of worship, then the true essence of patriarchal religions and traditions becomes brutally clear: they are sacrilege. Blasphemy. Necrophilia. Obscenity. Let us cast them all down.

Here is the t-shirt meme version: we are not thoughts in the mind of god, but cells in the body of the Goddess.

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

– Mary Oliver: Wild Geese