An Atheist and Sam Keen’s New Book

Wonderful review. It is always an honor and pleasure when a reviewer gets the argument right. I recognize myself in this review…Sam Keen

Posted on June 24th, 2011 –A book review by Kile Jones of “In The Absence of God: Dwelling in the Presence of the Sacred,” New York, N.Y.: Harmony Books, 2010 by Sam Keen

Sam Keen, author of numerous books on religion and philosophy, as well as the editor of Psychology Today for two decades, has written a new book exploring ways in which a different understanding of spirituality may revitalize a post-industrial, scientific world.  He calls us to have the “courage to wait patiently on the border of agnosticism and faith, forsaking the false certainties promised by the God of traditional religion” (4).  The kind of spirituality laid out in this book can relate to many religious philosophies, both old and new: it primarily strikes me as a view of spirituality akin to Eastern philosophy, with its focus on communion with nature and poetic expressions of who or what the divine is; it may also be compared to post-metaphysical, or Heidegerrian, philosophy of Being, religious naturalism, mysticism, existential and apophatic theology.  Although comparable to these takes on religious belief, Sam Keen forges his own ideas about what the sacred is and how we may better understand it.

He begins his book by focusing on the “God shaped hole,” or longing for the sacred, inside of each human being.  He then tries to find a tirtium quid between “dogmatic religion and a profane world” (7).  He notes the false utopias that both religious dogmatists and secular governments have promised over the centuries.  Keen doubts that “the imperatives springing from modern secularism can create a civil community” (12).  He thinks that without “some vision of the sacred” humans have a diminished impetus towards compassion and reverence for life.  And yet humans are intrinsically drawn towards the sacred: “something very like an instinct for the sacred is triggered by our awareness of the limitless creativity of the cosmos, of the fragility of the human condition, and of our absolute dependence on a source of life that is beyond our control” (18).  This relates to Friedrich Schleiermacher’s definition of religion as a “feeling of absolute dependence.”

Keen is quick to highlight how traditional religion has commoditized the primal root of religion: the experience of wonder, awe, and the sacred.  The surety promised by traditional religion along with the constant noise of a consumer society means that “spiritual renewal involves a radical change in identity, worldview, and lifestyle that can only blossom where solitude and silence allows us to listen to the still small voice of G-d” (31).  Here Keen clearly supports the idea of the “solitary thinker” who goes through a “desert experience” of self-reflection and enlightenment.  There is also a kind of verbal fasting from what Keen calls the “prostitution of language” (52).  This can be a healthy response to overused, trivial, and institutionalized language that upholds the uncritical status quo.

“To be authentically religious,” says Keen, “is to be passionately concerned with the meaning of existence, and to linger with questions of origin, and purpose, not because they are answerable but because we are swept up by our own cultural myths when we cease to ask these questions” (58).  Here a healthy agnosticism keeps one on a journey, a path, a Dao of the sacred.  Unlike revealed religion, Keen thinks that the sacred and the scientific are not that far apart: “Sacred vision reveals no fact that is not available to secular investigation.  No miracles.  No supernatural events.  No explanations.  No special knowledge” (70).  And yet Keen seems reactionary, even polemical, towards the “seduction of secular salvation through science and technology” (81).  He would be at home with postmodern critiques of modern technological society.

Keen spends time in his book analyzing what he calls the “elemental emotions,” namely wonder/awe, gratitude, anxiety/dread, joy, grief/mourning, reverence, empowerment, potentiality/purpose/vocation, empathy/compassion, sacred outrage, hope, trust, and humility.  “Our basic choice,” writes Keen, “is either to open ourselves up to the full range of emotions or to limit ourselves to a monochromatic life” (84).  Each of these emotions is connected to the experience of the sacred insofar as they each reveal something about us and our existence in the universe.  And just when you think Keen has made a hermit of you he says poignantly: “We need to say something…Our feelings demand expression” (132).

Saying something about God, on the other hand, has its problems.  In a fashion shared by apophatic and negative theologians, Keen says that “all authentic religious language is agnostic and poetic—a way of handling the untouchable, of pointing out that which is without location” (139).  Thus the right attitude towards the deus abscondita, “is one not of belief or disbelief but of experimentation and play” (147).  This sacred play is not simply individualistic, even though it may begin that way.  Keen ends his book by emphasizing how the sacred ought to connect people of different backgrounds, experiences, cultures, and worldviews.  It also ought to promote justice at all levels of human encounters: ecological, political, and economic.  Ultimately one could classify this book as an attempt to bring a disenchanted humanity back to its natural enchantment.

Although far more positive and socially constructive than many of the programs of traditional religion, it may still strike some as overly romantic.  In my opinion it also creates a false dichotomy between traditional religion and a secular world devoid of values.  Many values emerge in secularism: humanism, sympathy, freedom, and liberty, which are found throughout secular philosophy, literature, poetry, and music.  People may not need re-enchantment as much as a realistic, liberal, and educated understanding of universal human rights and how to enforce them.