The Spiritual Naturalists
A short while ago I attended a secular spirituality group for the first time. This is a group that attempts to apply spiritual or contemplative methods within a non-supernatural framework. So for example, they would look to meditation methods for its psychological effects rather than claims about energy, reincarnation or God. However, there seemed to be some confusion when the group leader introduced the discussion question: What can we get from religion that can be used in a naturalistic context?
Some thought the question was nonsense as they felt religion as worthless; one person said there was no need for religion because plenty of secular methods for social control existed – as if this was all religion was for. These responses were surprising, because even though the group was naturalist, it was also spiritual and a prime source for spiritual influence is religion. Sadly, their views of religion are common, even among the faithful.
For many, religion is a reward and punishment system designed to control the masses. People are given arbitrary rules to follow; if they do them, they are rewarded. If they don’t, they are punished. One’s reward is only available after death, although at times and for reasons unknown, God may intervene in the here and now. This view is especially pernicious among apostates, and I initially held it when I was an apostate, but my development took me to a radically different conclusion.
Many years ago, I was “religious” in the most shallow sense of the word; I followed the rules so I would enter heaven and avoid hell. I didn’t think about the religion too much, as I was brought up in it, so I took it for granted. Still, my exposure to other people planted doubts in me. I saw good people of other faiths, and it bothered me that they would be damned just because they believed differently. However, I refused to confront these doubts and hoped they would somehow resolve themselves. They didn’t. Instead they accumulated until finally, they (coupled with an excuse to “sin”) led me to effectively abandon my religion. I still paid lip service to it, but it was out of habit and a desire to avoid strife at home. Shortly after, even that lip service was abandoned. Normally, this tale ends with Atheism, but not here.
I still believed in God, I just did not believe any of the religions represented God’s will. In particular, I felt God only wanted goodness from people, and this was unrelated to their religious beliefs. Therefore, I believed Christians’, Jews’, Atheists’, etc… fates was based solely on their ethics and not their beliefs. Ironically, because of my more open beliefs, I became less tolerant of organized religion!
Since God only cared about ethics, I believed organized religions distorted God’s will and forced people to forgo many of life’s pleasures. Why couldn’t people have premarital sex or feel pride as long as they didn’t hurt anyone? I remembered all the opportunities I lost because of my religious beliefs – beliefs that I now saw as a lie. The more I reflected, the angrier I became. I got cynical, and who knows where this would have led me if it hadn’t been for another twist – one that was in the works while I was still “religious”.
A while back, I started meditating to improve my concentration. However, the meditation also improved the quality of my life. This led me to go further. Well, meditation goes hand in hand with Buddhism, and as my religious beliefs waned, I focused more on it. But wait, did I leave one religion just to jump into the arms of another?
Not quite. On the one hand, Buddhism is considered to be a religion by many, and it includes numerous religious-sounding elements. On the other hand, it is deeply philosophical and psychological, and as such has been heavily secularized. It was this secularized Buddhism that I approached, and even then I was weary. Naturally, I discarded Karma and Reincarnation, but was also skeptical about the non-supernatural stuff until it was proven in practice. For instance, Buddhism taught that various attitudes like pride, greed and envy caused pain and should be abandoned. As I applied these things, I found that yes, I was happier for them and was a better person too. But wait… pride… greed… envy. Hey, where did I hear that before?!?!?!?
That’s when I realized that many of the things religion prohibited were not arbitrary, but would bring us pain in the long run; in short, we’d be happier for renouncing them. So it wasn’t about denying ourselves pleasures, but skipping these superficial pleasures (which were traps) to find a deeper joy, one we could experience IN THIS LIFE. The key was attitude.
For many, the role of God in religion ironically makes them less religious, because they don’t internalize the values. Rather than seeing teachings as inherently valuable and keys to the truly good life, they become like children trying to please a parent, superficially putting on the masks of things like humility so that God would reward them. This may have been where Buddhism’s lack of a deity helped. Without a central deity, people were forced to confront the fact that they weren’t trying to please anyone and had to internalize these teachings. So the issue was internalizing vs. merely outward acts. But what do I mean by internalizing?
I mean your mental state should match your physical act. For example, if you believe in non-violence, then you should not react violently to someone. However, to internalize, this reaction must be external and internal. You must not avoid violence while inwardly entertaining revenge fantasies. Rather, keep your act and mental state in harmony. If a violent thought pops up (apparently of its own accord), do not suppress it or entertain it; just let it go. In short, you are not just to act non-violently, but to BE non-violent. This goes for all the rules. Before I go on, let me make sure I am not misunderstood.
I am not saying all religions are the same or they exist for a psychological effect. I am saying there are some striking parallels among faiths and philosophies. These parallels exist both in the teachings, the lives of the various exemplars and the psychological states reached. What’s more, one can read religions through a psychological lens, internalize and gain profound psychological benefits as a result. Just what – if anything – exists beyond the experience and what the experience means is up to each individual practitioner to decide.
This was the key. EXPERIENTIAL RELIGION. By the time I came to this conclusion, I abandoned my theism for agnosticism, yet ironically was more friendly towards religion! I was less interested in a religion per se and more interested in the experiential aspects. So for example, it was Contemplative Christian traditions, rather than Christianity that caught my interest. Sufism instead of Islam. Kabbalah instead of Judaism. And so on. It also gave me a perspective on helping others find this deeper happiness. Instead of introducing them to something new, I would point them to the experiential traditions in their own faith (if they have one) to take advantage of their pre-existing beliefs. Which brings me back to the present.
Answering the Naturalists
Although I answered the question at the meeting, it was not as detailed or thought out as the above. If I were to go back with the benefit of hindsight, I would first ask them to step back. It’s important to realize their religious experiences may have been the worst religion had to offer, which may be why they left. I would explain to them that there is an EXPERIENCE that can be had with religion, even though it’s been largely underplayed and many have not experienced it. This EXPERIENCE is inherently satisfying and far better than what we normally experience. It is this that we can get from religion, and it is available to us all, even without religion. But they would need the right attitude.
Do not split hairs over whether religious experience is purely psychological or delusional or whatever. After all, the same argument could be made about happiness – which science tells us is just biochemistry. However, do we decide to stop pursuing happiness because of that? Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. The point is the experience, nothing more, and nothing need be said or speculated about it. In fact, it’s the skeptical “what is it really?” attitude that often gets in the way of the ability to experience this and to enjoy life itself.
Study the psychological, philosophical, neurological and practice-based underpinnings to find out how to reproduce them. Read some of the works in the Further Reading section of this blog. Understand that there is a dimension in life that can be called religious and depending on how one defines the ultimate (God, ultimate reality, pantheism, ground of all being, etc…), some of us might be quite religious.
There is little, if anything original in my views; I just stumbled on them myself. As the reading list below shows, many have thought deeply and written profoundly on this subject. While not everyone below is completely naturalistic and while you may not agree with everyone, they at least have looked deeper at the question of religious experience, even if they may have a different idea of what a/the religious experience is.
Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief
Studies the “God” part of the brain. Notable in that the edition I read had praise from both Atheists and Priests!
The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James
Psychological study of religious experience. An oldie, but goodie. James’ is very pragmatic and earnest. The link above is the entire text, since it is old enough to be in the public domain.
The Perennial Philosophy by Aldous Huxley
No Boundary by Ken Wilber
Takes a different approach by studying religious experience in terms of unity and separation of consciousness, and charts human consciousness in a spectrum.