Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Overcoming death, pain, and loss is the emotional driver of traditional religious spirituality

Spirituality Without Faith
These remarks are based on a talk given for the Humanist Association of Massachusetts in June of 2001 and were published in the Humanist, January, 2002.

Characteristics of Spirituality
Authentic spirituality involves an emotional response, what I will call the spiritual response, which can include feelings of significance, unity, awe, joy, acceptance, and consolation. Such feelings are intrinsically rewarding and so are sought out in their own right, but they also help us in dealing with difficult situations involving death, loss, and disappointment. The spiritual response thus helps meet our affective needs for both celebration and reconciliation. As Richard Dawkins puts it in his book Unweaving the Rainbow, we have an "appetite for wonder," an appetite for evoking the positive emotional states that are linked to our deepest existential questions.

But what might evoke these states? Spirituality often involves a cognitive context, a set of beliefs about oneself and the world which can both inspire the spiritual response and provide an interpretation of it. Our ideas about what ultimately exists, who we fundamentally are, and our place in the greater scheme of things form the cognitive context for spirituality. By contemplating such beliefs we are temporarily drawn out of the mundane into the realization of life’s deeper significance, and this realization generates emotional effects. But equally, the spiritual response thus generated is itself interpreted in the light of our basic beliefs; namely, it is taken to reflect the ultimate truth of our situation as we conceive it. The cognitive context of spirituality and the spiritual response are therefore linked tightly in reciprocal evocation and validation.

A third essential component of spirituality is what is ordinarily called spiritual practice. Since the intellectual appreciation of fundamental beliefs alone may not suffice to evoke a particularly deep experience, various non-cognitive techniques can help to access the spiritual response. Activities such as dance, singing, chant, meditation, and participation in various rituals and ceremonies all can play a role in moving us from the head to the heart. And it is in the heart, or gut, after all, where we find the most powerful intrinsic rewards of spirituality, as profound as its cognitive context might be.

Although the emotional content of the spiritual response - feelings of connection, significance, serenity, acceptance – is common to all spirituality, the background beliefs and specific practices vary tremendously. Almost all of us have the biological capacity to feel spiritually transported, but the cognitive context of those moments and the techniques to induce them are a matter of our culture. A fascinating variety of spiritual traditions have arisen, ranging from the rigorous, ascetic regimes of Zen meditation to the ecstatic communal celebration of a Sunday morning gospel service, and each tradition has its own conception of the world and the individual’s place in it. Stemming from these beliefs there are a multiplicity of spiritual objects of veneration, of deeper realities to be encountered: God, Earth, Nature, Emptiness, angels, devils, ancestors, previous incarnations, the Force, you name it (for a current, pop-cultural sampling of these, visit Beliefnet). For each tradition, spiritual experience is taken to be the direct appreciation of the ultimate truth about the world, a way to transcend one’s limited everyday perspective in the quest for meaning, unity, and serenity.

Traditional Spirituality
Many, if not most of these traditions, as well as some "New Age" beliefs, involve the idea of a distinct spiritual realm, something set apart or above the everyday physical world (some types of Buddhism being notable exceptions, of which more below). The varieties of spirituality are thus to a great extent varieties of dualism, at least in their cognitive contexts (belief systems). But why should this be the case? What drives the intuition that we and the world we inhabit are of two natures, one physical and one immaterial?

Part of the answer lies in our instinctive fear of death, which many religions allay by positing an immortal soul or spiritual essence which survives bodily dissolution. We gain ultimate security by virtue of being, in our true selves, something other than the physical, something that joins with a larger, non-physical and changeless realm after death. Overcoming death, pain, and loss is thus the emotional driver of traditional religious spirituality. We want cosmic reassurance, to be exemptions from mere material, changeable nature, and our spiritual nature functions to connect us with that which is changeless and immortal. Thus the fear of death and its standard religious solution produce the dualism of body and spirit, of the natural and supernatural. Such dualism, of course, is central to religious traditions such as Christianity, Islam, and Judaism which have held sway for millennia in much of the world. (It should be noted, however, that some contemporary theologians have questioned this dualism, reaching nearly naturalistic conclusions about human nature, if not God’s. See, for instance, Whatever Happened to the Soul?, edited by Warren S. Brown, Nancey Murphy, and H. Newton Malony, Fortress Press, 1998.)

Not just religion, but the Western philosophical tradition too has shaped the more or less commonsense view that we exist as bodies inhabited by souls, spirits, or mental agents. Cartesian mind-body dualism, although widely rejected in the current academic philosophical and scientific communities, is still the norm in lay culture. Such secular dualism comports well with the comforting tenets of religion, even if it no longer has a scientific basis. Moreover, it has to be conceded that it certainly feels, at first blush, as if we are more than strictly material creatures. Who is it, after all, that is looking out at the world, having feelings, thinking thoughts, and making choices? Surely it can’t just be my physical brain that does all that. Given these historical and psychological factors, it’s perhaps not surprising that varieties of dualism still dominate in both the secular and spiritual arenas. [...]

Difficulties with Traditional Spirituality
As much as the characteristics of traditional spirituality provide answers to the questions of death and meaning, two major drawbacks are evident. The problem of death is solved by splitting ourselves into two substances - one material and perishable, the other spiritual and immortal - but as a result the material becomes inherently inferior in its changeability. The physical becomes the merely physical - it assumes a second class metaphysical status. This in turn leads to alienation from our physical selves and indeed from the material world as a whole. Gross matter is denigrated in comparison to subtle spirit, and the material only has value to the extent that it is animated and directed by spirit. It can’t accomplish anything of significance on its own. But of course we are embodied, and our world is material, so from this alienated perspective most of our lives is an unfortunate entanglement with crass physicality while awaiting the better, immaterial world to come.

Added to the dualism of substance is the dualism of having two types of knowledge, ordinary empirical knowledge derived from the senses and confirmed intersubjectively (e.g., as in science) and the knowledge gained from the personal revelations of spiritual experience. Despite the arguments of some, such as Stephen J. Gould in his book Rocks of Ages, that these constitute "non-overlapping magisteria" which can’t conflict since they have fundamentally different concerns, the fact remains that both sorts of knowledge make claims about what ultimately exists and they reach different conclusions. Science gives us no reason to believe in the supernatural (there is no scientifically admissible evidence for such a realm), while the firm intuition of spiritual experience, as interpreted within its traditional, non-naturalistic cognitive context, is precisely that a separate immaterial reality indeed exists. If I make use of both methods of knowing, then eventually it is likely I will confront some basic cognitive dilemmas: which method, and therefore which conclusion, is correct? In deciding the momentous question of what fundamentally exists, on what grounds do I choose science over spirituality, or visa versa? When do I stick with my spiritual intuitions, and when do I stick with science?

The upshot is that these two dualisms, one metaphysical, one epistemological, put adherents of traditional spirituality in a poor position to achieve, in this world, the apprehension of fundamental unity, even if they are promised salvation in the next. And unity, of course, is the essence of spirituality. Being of two natures and two minds, the traditional spiritualist is torn between the physical and immaterial world and unified with neither. Naturalists, I believe, suffer no such handicaps in their approach to ultimate concerns.

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