"It seems to me beyond dispute that, on the one hand, religion is real and universal and, on the other, God is unreal but has localised aficionados." This quotation sums up, in a sentence, the case that Billington wishes to make. He believes that religion is natural to the human species but that it need not entail a belief in a deity. In arguing his case he draws extensively on Eastern religious traditions that emphasize the role of meditation to achieve those altered states of consciousness he labels transcendental, numinous, or spiritual. These, he holds, constitute the real "stuff" of religious experience.
Clearly, if Billington is to make his case convincingly he needs to establish at the outset what he actually means by religion, and his opening chapter is intended to do this. He discusses various suggested characteristics of religion in some detail but, probably wisely, does not offer a definition of his own. (The task is notoriously difficult to achieve.) His central point, however, is that it is not necessary to believe in God in order to be religious. He doesn't much care for ritual either.
Subsequent chapters look at different ideas about God (deism, pantheism, animism and so on) and at reasons proffered for believing in God. None of the arguments stands up, in his view, and he thinks that it would be desirable to remove references to God from public life and from education, although it is not his purpose to argue for that here. His focus is on the kinds of experience that are often labelled mystical, and he discusses these both in general terms and with reference to Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism. All this is well done although the material will be pretty familiar to anyone who has already explored these topics. There is no mention of Sufism, perhaps because this theistic mystical tradition would be rather difficult to reconcile with his main thesis.
The most important part of his discussion comes in the later chapters where he argues for the religious outlook which he thinks we should be adopting in a post-theistic time. I was reminded here of Aldous Huxley's claims for what he termed the Perennial Philosophy: that is, the view that all the great religions are pointing towards a common core of human experience. However, Billington does not make the common mistake of claiming that all these traditions are saying exactly the same thing in different words; he points out, for example, that there are important differences between Hinduism and Taoism. But he does hold that the meditation techniques favoured by many Eastern systems lead to true insights into the nature of reality.
Among the conclusions he draws from his analysis is the thought that death doesn't matter because consciousness ceases with death and this is equivalent to eternity. This reflection, which he has derived from reading the writings of Heidegger, has apparently brought him tranquillity and peace of mind. I am not sure how generally applicable consolation of this kind will be. (In fact, however, he does not seem totally to exclude the possibility of some form of postmortem experience, but is merely agnostic about it.)
My main impression of the book is that Billington seems to be trying to hold on to the remnants of religious belief for primarily emotional reasons. He can no longer believe in God but he is unwilling fully to accept the implications of his unbelief. (Here he is quite similar to Don Cupitt, from whom he quotes.) In a concluding section he tells us that "the religious person in a post-modern age" will seek out experiences prompted by music, nature, and other circumstances which cause him to enter "a state in which he has lost the sense of individuality and become absorbed in some other element".
The list of experiences he gives corresponds to what Marghanita Laski, in her important book Ecstasy: a study of some secular and religious experiences, called triggers to ecstasy. Like Billington, Laski linked ecstatic experience with creativity and thought it to be very valuable, but she did not attribute a transcendental or revelatory quality to it. The difference between these two writers is that Laski did not accept the validity of the totality beliefs that ecstatic experience often gives rise to, whereas Billington, I think, does. This really is the central question: do altered states of consciousness genuinely provide knowledge of the "ground of being" or Brahman, the term Billington prefers? Which opinion one chooses is probably ultimately a question of temperament.
Rational Mysticism (John Horgan)
12 August 2005