Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor has recently provoked much controversy throughout the secular/atheist internet community by stating very plainly that he thinks
there is something not “totally” human [about atheists] if they leave out the transcendent
Not surprisingly, secular atheists have been largely offended by this statement, reacting with anger and hostility to the idea that atheists aren’t fully human. I on the other hand have interpreted this comment differently, and find that it is in fact philosophically astute, giving rise to the idea that consciousness is not a static phenomenon isolated from the influence of shifting environmental contexts. In my view, atheists who are fully constituted by non-supernatural narratives are different in some crucial way from those that live life through a religious filter, perceiving and attending to the world in terms of a delusional, but experientially “objective” spiritual reality. One commenter suggested this line of thought, but only jokingly, when he said:
There is a temptation to agree with them, I’m afraid: the idea that I’m a post-human mutant bestowed with the super-powers of reason and the ability to see through superstition is flattering.But it’s not true. Everyone has those powers, it’s just that some of us have had the good fortune and a history of experience that allows us to shake off some indoctrination. Nothing more.
It seems like a deeper analysis here is warranted. Shouldn’t we as atheists take seriously the notion that, by virtue of the radically concrete and irreligious narratives that structure our phenomenal fields and constitute our mental life, we are profoundly different than the mystic who hears God speaking to him, or the everyday Christian who sees the world in terms of God’s purpose for his life, day-to-day miracles, blessings, prayers being answered, etc? This isn’t a value judgment; it’s a fact.
If we view the difference between the consciousness of Christians and atheists not in terms of the internal mechanisms of rationality and cognitive optimization, but rather, in terms of the contextual narratives that fundamentally shape how we perceive and attend to the world around us, then perhaps we will realize that human consciousness is evolving at a more rapid pace than we have previously supposed. Nietzsche was perhaps right after all.