Have you heard about the naturalistic spirituality movement developing in Europe called Syntheism?
I’m pleased to present an audio recording of a conversation between our own Daniel Strain, Executive Director of the Spiritual Naturalist Society, and Alexander Bard and Hampus Lindblad, two key figures in the Syntheism movement. I have also transcribed this conversation, which is displayed below. The transcription, unfortunately, doesn’t quite capture the enthusiasm and passion of this conversation, but the discussion itself should prove fascinating regardless of the medium. Enjoy — and as always, please continue this conversation in the comments section below.
DANIEL STRAIN: Hello, I’m Daniel Strain, Executive Director of the Spiritual Naturalist Society. Our organization works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship. Our motto is “happiness through compassion, reason, and practice.” You can find us online at www.spiritualnaturalistsociety.org, and our book, Exploring Spiritual Naturalism: Year One, is now available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble websites.
Today we’re speaking with two key figures in the Syntheism movement: Alexander Bard and Hampus Lindblad. Alexander is a philosopher, record producer, activist, and judge of Swedish Idol. Hampus writes for Syntheism.org. Welcome, and thanks for your time today, Alexander and Hampus. We’re very happy to be chatting with you.
ALEXANDER BARD AND HAMPUS LINDBLAD: Thank you.
DANIEL: Hampus, can you give us a brief encapsulation of what Syntheism is about for listeners who may not have heard of it?
HAMPUS: Well, it really depends on who you ask. For me, Syntheism is a way of acknowledging that the mystery never went away when God died in the Nietzschean sense. It’s really right in front of our eyes in every present moment — it’s just a matter of how we look at it.
ALEXANDER: Let’s pick an historical event to begin with. What we discovered is by studying Eastern philosophy, we discovered this richness of different ideas. I mean, the division between religion and philosophy was created in the west 400 years ago. If you’re an easterner, that division never existed. And there’s something lacking when we discovered all we have is Christianity and this sort of post-Christian individualism and New Age and that’s it. [Laughter] And for me, I find it very troublesome that New Age is the only thing we’re being offered if we left Christianity behind. If you’re a spiritual human being, then you’ve got to sit with all these old ladies with crystals and things, you know. It’s so ridiculous. It’s not compatible with modern science and we need to get out of that.
Just walk into cathedrals, sit down, and just ask yourself why you and your friends cannot build a building like this today and you have the answer that Syntheists try to address.
DANIEL: That’s a great way to put it. How did you get started with this idea, this movement? I mean, I know, intellectually, you talked about the genesis of but in terms of organization and actually getting it going, how did that come about?
ALEXANDER: The idea was born, really, at the Burning Man festival, I think 4 or 5 years ago — I can’t know the exact date. That’s one of the great things about it: nobody knows where or when it started, which is great. And the idea is that for some Burning Man is a religious experience. Someone sarcastically called it the hajj to Mecca for Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and that’s probably right — but then it is a religious practice. So the interesting thing is, I think, the religious practice exists already and Syntheism is just a term that encapsulates that. And I would definitely count Spiritual Naturalism as an American version of Syntheism.
HAMPUS: Yeah, reading on your website, I would see this as another way of framing Syntheism. There’s a huge overlap. It’s great.
DANIEL: Yeah, that’s one reason I’m so excited to talk to you guys. I feel the same way. And Alexander, like you I also had a transformative life-changing experience at my first burn. In fact, I wanted to ask you about that because, aside from the particulars of the events that took place or substances imbibed or anything like that, internally and in terms of experience and realization, what kinds of things — for you — do you think became more apparent through that experience and what implications do you think that had on your views and philosophy?
ALEXANDER: Well, if you look at radical philosophy today, for example, Simon Crichtley or Slavoj Žižek, they all address the issue of “Where did utopia go?” You know, the idea of utopia was something that was absolutely necessary for human society. And for some reason we’ve become totally cynical over the last 100 years and killed the idea of utopia. And we laughed at christians for believing in a kind of utopia like the New Jerusalem or something, but hey, do you have anything better to provide? No, we don’t. And I think a human society without utopia is a really scary one because there’s no way to prevent ourselves from going to collective self-destruction unless we have a utopian belief.
You can be sarcastic about burning and and I’m sure you can go to Burning Man as a social theorist and totally deconstruct it, say it’s just another form of capitalism, a Californian way, or whatever. But the fact is that people do isolate themselves for seven days and they get rid of the money and get rid of the instrumentalization of human relations and trying to look at other human beings at property. We’re human beings! It’s an attempt at returning to authentic relationships between human beings, which is what, I believe, religion was always about. Religion was never about God. Religion means the healing that connects people, the healing between people that can connect them with each other. That’s what religion was supposed to do.
Syntheism, to me, which is a spiritual naturalism in terms of theory, and Burning Man is a practice of it… We just need a wider term, I think, that includes all these attempts at creating a science-evidenced sort of spirituality. Pantheism would obviously be a term for it, but Syntheism is more than Pantheism. There’s more to it. There’s so many ideas that we’re incorporating into it as well and I think we need [another] term for it. And Syntheism is a beautiful term. Number 1: it’s generic, nobody owns it; and number 2: syn-theos in Greek means “the god we create,” which is the opposite of Abrahamic [religion] where God is supposed to be this very big penis in the sky who’s created us. And that’s just ridiculous. And the idea is that we human beings are here, we are an emergent reality of the universe itself — an emergent expression of the universe itself … all seven billion of us. That, in itself… If that isn’t spiritual, I don’t know what is. And Syntheism, that means we apply the divine on this.
To me, the name “God” is an amazing name for all the dreams of humanity projected into one point. What would you name that? You would name it God. And that is what we need to [do, to] retake the “God” word but just give God proper qualities that we can actually believe in. In that case, Syntheism is the God that we choose to believe in and can believe in. Whatever that means.
HAMPUS: …And as we placed it in the future as a future potential, as we look through natural history where emergent phenomena like biology coming out of chemistry, chemistry coming out of physics, I mean, this has obviously happened. It’s behind us. We have no idea what’s in front of us and this is were we can place “God” in this sense.
ALEXANDER: Quentin Meillassoux, the French philosopher — he’s a synthesist, by the way — has written a brilliant book called After Finitude that came out three years ago. In this book, he says that there actually have been three amazing emergences in history. Number 1: the universe itself, or the multiverse if you’d like. There is something that exists rather than nothing. Number 2: life exists. That is an amazing thing, that life can exist! And that was something emergent that just happened. Suddenly life was on one of these planets. And [number 3]: consciousness. At least to us human beings, it’s a really, really amazing thing. Maybe it’s a byproduct of language, I don’t know, but consciousness is an amazing thing. Why couldn’t there be a fourth amazing emergence that suddenly happens to human history? And that would be God. And suddenly God would be there. And why don’t we create God, in that case, if that’s what we want?
HAMPUS: Another analogy with Burning Man is they have their commandments — the Ten Principles — and they’re obviously man-made and they’re very transparent in how they created it. And still, there is no outside God, there is no Creator God necessary here. And yet, amazing things happen in the desert. People have religious experiences, they come together, they are being religious in the original sense of the word — religare, what binds together. People bind together in the desert. We do the same thing in Sweden in our little Burn, The Borderland. It’s an amazing transformation going on there, and, you know, we disagree on some principles, but we put our focus into that and things arise from this.
DANIEL: It’s the creating of a sacred space. And it’s true that a person could go to this and have a completely cynical experience or an external experience. But it’s just the same as you can drink wine and eat bread, doesn’t mean you’re having the same experience as someone going through the eucharist: that internal experience that someone can have. It’s not that just moving your body into the physical location of one of these events is going to magically do this. People have to have a certain understanding and perspective and a readiness and acceptance… all of that [needs] to be brought into the experience, and for me that’s one of the realizations that I came to. For the first time, I started to realize how ritual could have a real function and meaning and purpose for naturalists. Before that, my only experience with ritual had always felt like empty theater. It had been … you’re sitting there, you’re doing something, you’re kind of looking around … it’s not transforming. It’s not infused into your being it’s not carrying you along. You’re just external to it. And I think that’s because we’ve got this divorce, now, between the perspectives of the modern world no longer are compatible with a lot of the mainstream religions and so of course their rituals don’t have the same meaning for us. The same way someone might go to Burning Man and say “What is this foolishness?” if it’s not relevant to them and their perspectives.
ALEXANDER: I think it’s interesting that even though Syntheism was born at an American event it really took off in a big way in Northern Europe: Scandinavia, Holland, and Germany. These are probably the most atheistic societies we’ve ever had on this planet. In Sweden alone, where [Hampus and I] live, 95% of the population are essentially atheists. I kind of believe that, to be a Syntheist, it’s great to first become an atheist and then [realize] you’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Compared to America, where you’re surrounded by Christianity and Abrahamic religion all the time, it never died out, it’s around more than ever and, while Christianity in America is now imploding, it’s going more and more aggressive in that process. Whereas in Scandinavia, you know, there are no Pentecostal Christians around anymore. And abortion and things like that are just taken for granted. We don’t have the issues you have in America. It’s interesting, here, some spiritual need is at the forefront. And that’s why Syntheism took off in this part of the world in such a rapid way and you have the alternatives, you have atheism there and you have New Age there and Christianity’s just out of the picture all together. And then all of a sudden, there’s just this huge spiritual need there and we started the Synthesist congregation. But the interesting thing is within a week after we started the congregation here in Stockholm, and started to celebrate mass and experiment in all these things, we had a phone call from the Zen Center of Scandinavia and they said “Let’s collaborate,” which makes perfect sense to me if you’re into Zen or Dzogchen or, you know — there’s so many rich traditions in Eastern philosophy.
You know, I converted to Zoroastrianism more than twenty years ago which is a rich Iranian philosophical tradition as well, which is pantheistic and that’s exactly what’s compatible with the ideas you have, with Spiritual Naturalism, and the ideas we’ve had in Syntheism. We just need to combine these things and start seeing them as one united movement. It’s a new form of spirituality that’s compatible with science and that addresses our own needs that we really want to be spiritual beings.
DANIEL: You know, I see the same thing coming about where in the last ten years, I think. We’ve been losing a percentage point per year in terms of religious belief. As a lot of my atheist, humanist, friends and colleagues and things have become very excited about this, I kind of look at it with a little bit of caution, because as more and more people shed their former faiths and become atheists, I think I see a new problem arising which is nihilism, meaninglessness–
DANIEL: There’s still a concept of the lost soul even within a naturalist view and I think that you guys are ahead of the curve there and so your challenge is probably confronting that, that need, that — okay what now? If we’re not going to have this, then what will we have? We’re human beings and we have a full human experience.
ALEXANDER: I would even say atheism, to begin with, is nothing but a negation. It doesn’t address anything. It only says no to lots of things. And there’s not one atheism, you have to have one atheism for each god you deny. So you have to have Christian atheism, Jewish atheism, Islamic atheism, you have to go on and on and deny all these gods and at the end of the day you end up with a god you cannot escape and that’s the universe itself. All you need to do is insist that God and the Universe are the same thing and then atheism is over — the game’s over — because you cannot deny that the universe exists and that it’s amazing, it just creates and creates and creates. And you have to relate to that anyway and so how can you escape God if God and the universe are the same thing?
I think God is always something much bigger than we are and I want to create, together with other people who share that belief with me, I want to create a road out of individualism. Because individualism is exactly what is now killing the planet which makes us exploit everything that’s laying ahead of us because if we’re gonna die soon anyway, we might as well exploit as much as we can before we die. And so we end up with a Cartesian worldview. It was no better than Christianity. And it’s also a false worldview. It’s incredulous, not compatible with science, because science does not say that you, as a human being, are a god. It says that you’re just a human being and that’s it. And I want to be a human being living in a divine world and I think I can be that, through exactly those ideas that we’re now exploring together.
HAMPUS: We’re focusing on the relations.
ALEXANDER: Yes! I mean, to begin with, if you look at physics — and we write a lot about physics in our new book, Syntheism: Creating God in the Internet Age — we’ve gone to the new physics, not in that sort of New-Agey sort of “quantum mechanics and the brain” sort of way, but rather looking at what physics really tells us, and the starting point of quantum physics is really Niels Bohr’s correspondence with Albert Einstein in the mid-1930s.Because Einstein was the last big Platonist, and his worldview was incorrect. What Niels Bohr really told us, he said “The universe is essentially a relationalist phenomenon.” The relations are primary and everything comes out of the relations. Every phenomenon that we see or that we experience in the world is actually the result of a relation that is primary to it. So there’s nothing less than two anywhere in the universe, like Nietzsche said, and that’s absolutely correct in physics.
I think an excellent Syntheist manifesto here is Karen Barad’s book Meeting the Universe Halfway. Karen Barad is a professor both of philosophy and of physics and she’s at Stanford, and she debuted with this amazing book called Meeting the Universe Halfway a few years ago. Just read that book, and if you don’t go spiritual after reading Barad’s exemplary explanation of what the new physics is then I don’t know what’s going to make you spiritual.
DANIEL: I really like what you guys said earlier talking about emergence because as you know emergence is a part of the complex systems theory, and it was reading about complexity science that I had, maybe, my first kind-of feeling of epiphany, eye-opening experience. It really changed my whole view of the universe.
ALEXANDER: Was it Stuart Kauffman?
DANIEL: Stuart Kauffman was talked about in it.
ALEXANDER: He’s a Synthesist! [He] reinvented the synthesist manifesto.
DANIEL: His recent book about God being the underlying creativity in the universe… Back then, when I read that I was… I liked philosophy and science but there wasn’t much in my experience or worldview that had to do with experience and I don’t know how to explain it but I wasn’t very open to those kinds of things, so when I read that it really was just revolutionary for me. And from there I started getting involved in, instead of Western philosophy, I started being attracted to Eastern philosophy and for the past eight or nine years now I’ve been studying the intersection between Buddhism, Taoism, and Western Stoicism. So Stoicism for me is… it was a really great gateway philosophy to the Eastern religions, because there’s a lot of overlapping themes and what have you. And the way you talk about God is similar to the way the Stoics talk about Zeus, the breath of the universe, the active principle moving through all things, the Logos—
ALEXANDER: And again, Greek philosophy was great up to Plato then it all went downhill. Heraclitus, for example — what an amazing thinker! And even before, Zoroaster, the Iranian inspiration for Heraclitus, about a thousand years before him.
DANIEL: Heraclitus is like a Western Taoist, for me—
ALEXANDER: Exactly! The problem is when Plato came onto the stage and what we then got was the mixture of Judaism and Platonism, of course Christianity, and we got the Egyptian idea of concentrating your whole life on the afterlife, and dualism, since then dualism has completely dominated Western thinking. And finally we had a break, which was Spinoza. And Spinoza’s amazing contribution to Western thinking was to finally introduce the idea of a monist world where everything is tied together and everything affects everything else. Welcome to the world of modern physics!
DANIEL: Yeah, or re-introducing it from earlier Stoic and even Buddhist connectivity and interdependent origination. One thing I like to think about: you’ve got the Buddhist notion of emptiness, or no-self, no-soul, anatta, and when you combine that with the ancient Greek notion of God as the soul of the universe, you see that the question of whether God exists and whether we exist are one and the same. God is as real as you or [me]. The question is, are we real? Do we exist?
ALEXANDER: I would say Spiritual Naturalism, great, and also this other American phenomenon called Ecstatic Naturalism — the philosopher Robert Corrington’s idea — it’s exactly the same thing! But the thing is what we developed with Syntheism was we said if we’re going to create God or rather project God onto the universe, then why stop at just one? Why not go for several? And we discovered, when we went into this, we can actually develop four different types of divinity that we can believe in! You just mentioned two of them. One is the No-Self or the Emptiness or what philosophers call the Primordial Void. That is Atheos, the God Who Does Not Exist or The God Who Comes Out of Nonexistence. The second concept is Pantheos, obviously, the most obvious one — the universe and God are one and the same thing. It means everything that has existence is, in itself, therefore, divine, so the universe is Pantheos. Then we discovered the third one, and that is this thing of both, interestingly, Taoism and Nietzsche, and that is Entheos, Entheism, that there is difference. And if there is difference of any kind whatsoever, that in itself is miraculous. And everything in existence starts with difference, that there can be two things that are not identical — that it can be Hampus, Alexander, Daniel, the three things that are not identical. So the world is full of all these things that are different from one another which enables us to realize two amazing things: creativity, there can be lots of different things, and time. Because time is a miraculous thing in physics. Time is the line along which everything happens and time is nothing but change. As soon as things change, there’s time and without change there can be no time. That’s why if you’re a Platonist, like Albert Einstein was, you have to believe time is an illusion. But if you’re a Heraclitist, then you can believe that time is actually the basis for everything and the really miraculous, weird thing is time so Entheos is the divinity of time. I mean all these three ideas exist in metaphysics, really great metaphysics, from the Greeks or from India or China, they’ve all more or less encapsulated these three ideas: the nothingness, the everythingness of reality, and also the difference of reality. But there’s one more interesting thing: future. Utopia. How the world can be different from what it is now. That is also a very important aspect of religion, that religion should also be a social critique. It should also be an ideal. The world we live in is not a good one because it could be much better. Especially if you go more spiritual. And that is the idea of Syntheos, the God of the Future, Utopia, the God that we can actually create.
HAMPUS: And also the relations between them—
ALEXANDER: And you have also the relations between these, yes. It’s an amazing, you can extrapolate in so many different ways, create so many different [things]. And I think human beings have different tempers. Some people are really into Atheos and the going into the nothingness and the non-self and vipassana meditation all those things are really Atheistic in a way. But I’m a happy Pantheist. I just want to embrace the universe and I want a relationship with it. and the creativity of the universe can also make me an Entheist. But I’m also Syntheist; I go to Burning Man and all these festivals. I want to create artistic things together with other people who share my beliefs.
DANIEL: The Pantheism is related closely to the notion of bifurcation in complex systems where you have a whole system and then you have these sub-systems and they all kind of come together, and it’s almost kind of the way the Trinity is discussed how it can be one being and three beings all at once—
DANIEL: How does this play out in your actually practice? Because we talk about ideas and concepts and we write and we speak but, of course, as you know, the truth isn’t in language, it’s in experience. And so how does this play out for you in the way you’re building your rituals? Because what we want to do in this society is to start really building the practice so it’s not all just talk. Can you tell me something about how you’re approaching ritual and practice?
ALEXANDER: We’ve been very pragmatic in building slowly because the one thing that’s really dangerous is to make people disappointed when you’re not moving fast enough. Obviously people go to all these events, there are all these participatory festivals — that’s a great way to start because they are spiritual events in themselves. But we also celebrate mass and we started by doing it in each other’s homes in Scandinavia and Holland and Germany and then, eventually, now we’re looking for a permanent space. There’s talk, we have a budget for it, now we’re looking for it as we speak because I think we now need to find space where we can have parties, we can also have masses several times a week for people who like that. These days you need an office to run your web pages from, things like that. Book publishing. But all these things, I think it’s important that each person goes to themselves and says “what do I want to do? What can I contribute?” And mass obviously is one thing, meditation is another thing and we can combine — we can be syncretist here. We don’t have a problem borrowing from other religions and other forms of spirituality and also communicate and have dialog with them. As long as we stay away from New Age stuff, I can be fine with it.
DANIEL: For me it comes down to… I think for naturalist spirituality, an important component is the adoption of humility as a spiritual practice, as a spiritual value. And so humility in the claims that I make, or when I try to say “this is true, this is truth.” And in some ways it’s divorcing this notion of spirituality from the notion of claim-making where people have this idea that their spiritual source is supposed to be the place where they go for knowledge about the universe in terms of just raw fact. And so what we do is, we say, well, we’re imperfect beings. We don’t have the ability to know all things with perfection so we’re going to reduce our claim-making to being just the things that we can experience and know and prove to others and show to others. When we adopt that, for me, I call it apoche, the Hieronian term for “withholding assent,” and so that’s a way that I’m talking kind of the naturalist approach to knowledge and I’m trying to change our attitudes about it so that it becomes, rather than a tool to criticize other people, it becomes a personal, spiritual value of humility and it’s about humility in our imperfect claims of knowledge.
ALEXANDER: Like Hume once said, be not sure of anything, really, [but] we can certainly be sure of things that are not true. And I think it’s very important because one of the things that was addressed immediately, really, in Europe, was people were afraid it would go down the path to New Age where old women walk in with the crystals and where anything is sort of accepted because everybody’s afraid of conflicts. You know, you need to teach people to separate person from opinion. You can have all kinds of opinions, it doesn’t add a thing to human value. It doesn’t subtract anything either. You are, as a human being, as you are — you are worth everything as a human being —
HAMPUS: And nothing!
ALEXANDER: And nothing. Yeah. But opinions must be you must be open to the fact that they can be criticized. For example, if you’re saying what you do with the Spiritual Naturalist Society, you are saying “we’re compatible with science,” well then you can’t allow people to run around in the name of the SNS claiming all kinds of things that are not compatible with science, and I think it’s also important to understand that we hate conflicts, yes, but we need a certain form within which we can be incredibly spiritual, we can really go into this and immerse ourselves in a spirituality and actually believe that what’s happening to us is real. And that is only possible if we know for certain that we don’t just allow any idiocy to walk into this room and to spread it around because we have to keep that out. And you guys are doing wonderfully and we’re trying to do the same thing here. And you can do it with a soft hand, you can do it in a very supportive way by encouraging people to be more seeking the truth rather than to bind to anything that sounds fabulous. And I think that is where New Age has made a terrible mistake, even to the point where the vast majority of New Agers today are ashamed of calling themselves New Agers. You know? We can learn from their mistakes. We don’t have to repeat them. To me, it’s very important that the people that I share a spirituality with are actually interested in truth and share my curiosity of the universe and science.
One of the things we did here in Europe is we declared [the particle accelerator] CERN, in Switzerland, a sacred building. I think it’s a sacred mission! I think we’re playing hide-and-seek with God here and that’s a wonderful thing.
HAMPUS: The exploration of the universe and how it works is a sacred act.
DANIEL: Absolutely. I agree, too. And we have so many traditions that are coming together in this sort of naturalistic spiritual paradigm where there’s naturalist versions of Christianity that look at the Christian story through the filter of — Michael Dowd, for example, he talks about how for him God is reality, and revelation is our investigation of reality, things we learn about reality, and becoming right with reality is our salvation. So this can be phrased in so many ways and, like you talk about, there’s different personalities, different sorts of people from different points in their life, and there’s so many ways we can do this. But at the same time, the things you’re talking about with our standards of knowledge, this is how we’re going to unite the natural with the sacred — Reunite the natural with the sacred which has been schismed. It’s that platonic dualism that split the two apart.
DANIEL: It said everything that’s sacred is supernatural and everything that’s mundane and meaningless is in the natural. But we’ve got to get rid of that and reunite the natural with the sacred and I think that the way you do that is by maintaining that reason. You couldn’t have come up to Socrates, for example, and say you know something because you got it through meditation or because you felt it in your heart or you have faith. You have to provide your reasons, and Socrates would grill you on your reasons and want to discuss, you know, “how do you know this is true?” and have a reasonable approach. But at the same time, when you actually look at the practices of Stoicism and Buddhism and Taoism and all these things, it’s undeniable that what you’re looking at is spirituality.
HAMPUS: That’s the irony of this. People mourn the loss of the supernatural when it’s really the supernatural that created this problem to begin with. And they feel the disenchantment of the world — there’s no magic — but they’re not framing the question right. They’re not challenging their own metaphysical axioms that create this sort of so-called schism. And it’s really illusory.
ALEXANDER: It’s like, if we use Freud here, it’s like people are sitting waiting for the Great Big Dad to step into their lives and save them and change everything. Well that’s not going to happen. You have a capacity, inside yourself, to taste the world by uniting yourself with other people who share your belief. That is the really divine thing. This is divine immanence rather than divine transcendence. Transcendence is to always try to escape from the world we live in. I happen to think the world I live in is amazing, fantastic, and I don’t want to be anywhere else. I want to make this world divine, I want to share my spirituality with others, and the strong spiritual experience of that, I want to share them with brothers and sisters who share my beliefs. I want to create a new kind of religious community that celebrates immanence. That’s exactly, when you mentioned God is reality, well God is immanence, and immanence is reality. That is where God is and always has been and never anywhere else.
HAMPUS: We need to challenge all these things, the idea of immortality as being something desirable also.
ALEXANDER: Martin Hägglund is a Swedish philosopher who lives in America. He’s a professor at Yale. And he’s written a brilliant book called Radical Atheism where he uses Jacques Derrida’s philosophy as a starting point. Read Radical Atheism. Very good. And then he then explores the history of survival as the history or goal in life rather than immortality and how these two thoughts always fought it out throughout history. Of course, you think if you think it through properly, survival says “I want my life to be slightly longer than it is now because it’s so wonderful so I want to prolong it,” but at the end of the day, when I’ve tried and done everything, I’m finished with it, and I expect to die and I’m gonna love dying because I’m gonna leave this space to somebody else to do the same journey. And I will return to where I came from. And that is the real spiritual attitude towards life, I think. And immortality was always a compensation thing, it’s like, it’s always people who don’t have a proper life, who don’t live life, who, like Freud said, live according to the death drive, they live a dead life — a life without life! They’re always the people who come to me and say they want to live forever. Well why don’t you live right here and now? It’s like you’re postponing your life all the time because it’s gonna be 150 years from now, suddenly you’re gonna be alive. I’m alive now! And that’s exactly what I enjoy and the really strong religious experiences I’ve had have actually been also about confronting that [fact that] I’m going to die one day. And I realize that that’s a relief. It’s going to be a relief, when I get to that point. I’m to be unified with the universe when I die, and I’m happy with that. Then until that happens, my separation from the universe is something that I want to enjoy, and I want to enjoy it together with my brothers and sisters who share the same experience.
DANIEL: When you were talking about time earlier, I was thinking that that’s another way of talking about impermanence. To me it seems that there’s two great kingdoms of spiritual approaches and they have to do with how one responds to the reality of impermanence that we see around us. We obviously see there’s impermanence around us. So the first group says “We will try to imagine that there really is some exception to impermanence. There’s some permanence that we can hook our hopes to, either an afterlife or immortality or something like that that we can hitch our hopes to.” And then the second category, the second great kingdom of philosophy is that which says “Okay, there’s impermanence — how do I come to terms with it? How do I make peace with it?”
ALEXANDER: Yes, yes!
DANIEL: That wraps in the book we were talking about before, about how do we bring ourselves into alignment with nature and — as the Stoics would say— walk with nature, walk in accord with nature? We have cultivated ourselves through our spiritual practice and compatibility with the nature of our reality and the natural result of that is happiness and flourishing. And to me, coming to terms with that, making peace with our impermanence and seeing the beauty of that whole system of ever-changing flux, that’s all part of that whole spiritual practice.
ALEXANDER: We are impermanent. I’m going to be very personal for a bit: Hampus’s dad, who was a great friend of mine, as well, died only a few weeks ago. And the way we approach, together — Hampus and I — the loss and the grief and everything, obviously, is that we started to look at ourselves as There was a Hampus with Hans there was an Alexander with Hans and then Hans has died — he’s left us — now there has to be a Hampus and an Alexander without Hans. We are changing as well. Part of us died with him. Because we die all the time and new aspects of us come alive. Dealing with impermanence is the realization that you, yourself, are impermanent. There’s no solid you! There never was. The current fantasy of a solid ego in there is just an illusion. There’s no such thing. And to embrace that, to embrace your own impermanence, is what spiritual excercise is all about.
DANIEL: Part of you may have died with him, but part of him lives with you as well.
ALEXANDER: Yes! Yes, yes.
DANIEL: My mother, when she passed away, it was right at a moment when I was started to learn about these kinds of ideas and, of course, I mourned and what have you, as any person would — I loved my mother very much — but I can’t tell you how fortified I was during that experience because of these kinds of understandings and ideas and perspectives and what effect they had on me. It’s like there wasn’t this kind of crushing feeling that some people experience with loss. You can’t put these things into words, really. [Laughs] It was amazing what a difference in your experience these ideas and practices make.
ALEXANDER: Spirituality is all about “How are we gonna handle it and do it in a truthful way?” And that is perfectly possible. That’s exactly what spirituality should be there for.
DANIEL: You guys have a book coming out. Can you tell me about the book? What is it called? When is it coming out?
ALEXANDER: The book’s coming out in October and it’s going to be released internationally. It’s called Syntheism: Creating God in the Internet Age. I just got the Swedish version from the printers yesterday. The English version comes out in about three weeks. I’ve written the two versions in parallel so the English version is coming out as well in three weeks time. And I’ve written three books before with my cowriter Jan Söderqvist. Together those three books were released, The Futurica Trilogy, and they’re sort of big in cyber-philosophy — we’re cyber-philosophers — so we deal a with philosophy in relation to technology, technological change, and the fact that technology is the one thing that really dominates contemporary society. Technological change is what change is all about these days. But we’ve done a lot of technology stuff in the previous three books and we felt like we really wanted t go down the road of spirituality and I had gotten involved in the Syntheist movement and my cowriter, Jan, was really interested too and we thought there’s all these Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris books and all that stuff around with this sort of aggressive Anglo-Saxon atheism, which for us in Scandinavia is kind of something we did a hundred years ago, and we were sort of interested in a post-atheist spirituality — where could we take that?
It was actually through discussion forums where Hampus was heavily involved, for example, where we started exploring the ideas together with other people. And what my cowriter, Jan Söderqvist, and I have done this past year is to put together all these ideas and build a proper theory of that. One was a deep interview I did with Larry Harvey who founded the Burning Man movement. Another starting point was to talk to Karen Barad and people around her about the new physics and how that’s being approached by philosophers these days and then tackle the issue of where Syntheism could fit in as a post-atheistic religion. What would that be? And then we encountered these four different concepts, which is so enlightening, that we could actually approach it: Pantheism being just one of them, Atheism [with a soft A —ed.] — the idea that the primordial void is the starting point of creativity — and Entheism, the idea of Taoism, that difference and change and time are essential, as well, and are solidified. And then obviously the idea that gives the name to the whole movement, Syntheism, where I would include Spiritual Naturalism. Definitely that is Syntheism in practice. And the fourth idea is that we can project God onto the universe or we can create God. Or, if you like, wherever we are together, God appears. The idea of the Holy Spirit, interestingly, in Christianity. Get rid of the Father, get rid of the Son — they both died — but let’s save the Holy Spirit. It’s an amazing concept from Christianity. And the Holy Spirit really is the idea that we are together like the three of us are right now — that is the divine.
HAMPUS: It’s just affirmative nihilism. We have to go beyond nihilism. How do we do that? So for me, one of the most important concepts of all is the concept of feedback loops. I think if you understand how they work you can apply that in many different areas to life, in yourself and in your work. And it’s I think, what we’re doing is sort of a collective feedback loop. We’re trying to trigger this loop. We’re trying to be self-fulfilling prophets. That’s Syntheos. We’re trying to create Syntheos in the future by our actions in this present moment right now.
ALEXANDER: And we have different roles where I’m a theorist, and I love to be an observer and to write books. What’s great working with Hampus is that he’s a theorist too but he’s also a practitioner very much. He’s organizing events and festivals, these kinds of things. All I want to do is to take my little talent and to supply it to a group of people who have other talents and together we can create something amazing.
DANIEL: We definitely have to get off the page and get out there and do things [and have experiences] — we have to bring in artists and philosophers and poets and musicians and all of these things have to come together. I’m really excited about it. I can see you guys have the same kind of vision about the future and I really look forward to more interactions between us and more communication on all this. I would love to get deeper with a lot of these things with you guys and do some more collaborative things. So thank you very much for your time. I feel like I could probably go on with you guys for the whole day.
ALEXANDER: You know one thing, Dan, if you look at history, really great ideas pop out in many different places around the same time. What you just called Spiritual Naturalism is Syntheism. It’s exactly the same thing. It’s the same idea, just different names. And we can choose the names — I don’t care which, let people decide which name they want to use or if they want to use both, whatever — the important thing is to present this idea to the world and we support people and make them do things. I’m not really interested in doing it myself. I’m interested in inspiring people to make it their own idea. People ask me “So what is this Syntheism thing about?” and I go back to them and I say, “Well, it’s your idea too! What do you think it’s about?” And that motivates people to do amazing things.
DANIEL: Yeah, I’ve told people that, well, there was a field that I had to type into the tax form. I had to put something in there, and in the field for the name of the website. But, yeah, I don’t like to get hung up on semantics either. I think it’s about the idea. So thank you guys, and I guess we’ll go ahead and end here — but this is just the beginning. Thank you!
ALEXANDER: See you soon! Bye.
Thanks for listening and/or reading. You can find out more about Spiritual Naturalism at www.spiritualnaturalistsociety.org, and you can learn more about Syntheism at www.syntheism.org. Don’t forget to join the conversation in the comments.
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4 thoughts on “Syntheism: A Naturalistic Spirituality in Europe”
Wow! We hold a Sabbath service via Skype every week in SolSeed. Michael Dowd actually visited us on Skype once in September 2013 and he got really excited because, he said, we were the only group he knew of that has a weekly naturalistic religious service. Now we know there are others. I am hearing about more and more of these kinds of groups, humanistic pagans, naturalistic pagans, atheopagans, et cetera. Its great. I think there is a movement of movements all reaching for religion without a personal god or the supernatural or making stuff up. It gives me hope for an even brighter future than the present.
Absolutely! It’s great seeing all these groups forming and starting to come together. This is a very exciting time; we’re witnessing the beginning of a grand movement. Thanks for being a part of it!
Wow, this was a great interview. Some of Alexander’s history of ancient philosophy is a bit sloppy and inaccurate, but he more than makes up for it with his infectious enthusiasm.
That’s great Eric. We are pleased to know SolSeed as a partner-organization of the Society! I share your enthusiasm for everything going on in the narger movement. We hope to add more ritual-type events to our calendar soon 🙂
B.T., It was a pleasure talking with Alexander and Hampus. We hope to interact more in the future.