Monday, December 31, 2012

A few words about "atheist spirituality"--"spirituality" for the godless

I meditate. I've meditated regularly, at some times more seriously than at others, for well over a decade. Though I subscribed to a continually waning degree of pantheism and/or panentheism during the first eight percent or so of that time, and thus would have to concede that my practice developed for what we might call "religious" reasons, since dropping all pretenses and pretending about the supernatural and woo of all sorts, I've continued the practice, continued to find it valuable, and, most interestingly, haven't had to change anything about it except my underlying motivations for doing it in order to continue it.

I'm not particularly aiming this post at meditation, though. Since I opened with it, I'll make a very brief statement that I tend to be rather closely aligned with Sam Harris's view on meditation--it is a valuable practice that requires no belief in gods or magic or the supernatural to return major benefits. Unlike Swami B.V. Tripurari, who recently wrote a piece for Huffington Post Religion, "Is There a Secular Meditation?", I see absolutely no reason to introduce any sectarian anything into the practice, i.e. I disagree with him fundamentally and think his piece was outrageous bordering on egregious. I'm not particularly surprised, though, given that he is a swami with a nonsense theology to protect and promote, for it is what he bases his life upon and how he makes at least some portion of his living.

After reading the swami's piece the other day and realizing that the tenth chapter of my God Doesn't; We Do is about "Spirituality without God," I put something about atheism and spirituality on Twitter to see what kind of reaction I might get. It was pretty interesting, once someone bit, though it was predictable: a sharp disdain for the term "spirituality" was expressed by a few folks who want to steer thoroughly clear of any bridges to the supernatural--for which they can hardly be blamed. Indeed, I was even informed, rather to my amusement, that I'm missing the "point of atheism."

A more astute comment pointed out that indeed, this is a matter of semantics. As I see it, the term "spirituality" already exists, already means something, could never have included God (because there is no God, almost surely), already resonates with people, and thus could be reclaimed from the religious, as morality has been (unless you ask the super religious). Indeed, I make the analogy to alcoholic spirits, team spirit, spirited people, diabolical villains, and sprightly gymnasts all without needing to invoke any thoughts of the supernatural. Why can't the set of practices and experiences that people already call "spiritual" retain that name without calling to anything more than what they really are (which is nearer to self-actualization combined with a set of practices and emotional and psychological states)? As a matter of fact, another term that is not identical already exists to capture most of the woo, and it is spiritualism, not spirituality.

Sure, it's playing with fire. I've already noted that the word "God" is broken, in my opinion, as a metaphor. It carries too much connotation with it and means too many things to too many people, and my goal is not to create a sect within the set of atheists who would claim that they are "spiritual but don't believe in gods" because that is already a notion that is being abused (mostly by pantheists) and is thus misleading. I admit it, the terminology here has to be careful, but there's apparently not better terminology available yet because the religious terminology has dominated the entire scene for millennia, negating the need to create another term that encompasses all of these states, emotions, practices, methods, and goals in a neat package that already resonates with people.

Frankly, I think purely  secular "spirituality," to use this term in quotes to indicate what I meant via the last sentence, not only can exist, but that it can do the job that people seek it for better than religious approaches can. On the one hand, secular approaches need carry no baggage (often harmful) like all other religious ideas do. On the other, secular approaches to any mental activity are going to be de facto imbued with more freedom because there are no explicitly stated rules, regulations, goals, or other nonsense when one is a freethinker (indeed, the swami indicates that all meditation has the goal of "ego-death," which is nonsense that applies only to his particular religious conception of meditation). Furthermore, secular approaches, more trustful of science, are more likely to be well-informed by the findings of neuroscience and psychology regarding "spirituality" than their sectarian cousins. Even further still, secular approaches are vastly more likely to employ rational skepticism and thus avoid overstepping the boundaries whereby, in the words of one fellow on Twitter, people will "seek emotional experiences and label them supernatural." Um, not if they don't think there is a supernatural.

I'm particularly caught by an observation by neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor (do follow this link to watch her describe what follows), which she hit upon through the unfortunate circumstance of having a rather severe stroke that, fortunately, did not kill her. This insight hit me hard, largely because I spend years meditating very seriously and achieved some of the "deep" "spiritual" experiences that the mystics talk about and because I deeply value science and skepticism and knowing how everything works if I can. I made a connection almost immediately that grounds "spirituality" in the natural instead of the supernatural, and it even sheds light upon how the esoteric Eastern meditative traditions may be missing the point.

In very short, the "ego-death" that the swami talks about in his rather narrow piece could very possibly be what Taylor describes as taking offline (or quieting) the brain's left hemisphere's interpretation of reality, opening up the experience of the right hemisphere. If that is correct, then the goal of "ego-death" is a very limited goal. Sure, learning to get the brain to handle interpretation in a fundamentally different way is a very difficult task, but then to take that (and the profound insights it offers) and mistake it for the "true" reality is to fall for an illusion every bit as misleading as the "illusion of the ego" their traditions attempt to teach people to transcend. (Here I can meet Sam Harris at a term that he uses with caution that Christopher Hitchens advised may be beyond redemption or even completely nonsensical.)

The goal of godless "spirituality" would be, then, to engender the kinds of states of mind and psychology that allow us to have these tremendous insights offered by the meditative spiritual traditions and then to see them in the proper, scientifically-grounded light, taking from them the kind of benefit that they have to offer while keeping connection to the reality that we seem to be minds that arise from brains that have halves that each process information about reality profoundly differently. I include in these "spiritual" pursuits the fulfilling emotional states that people often call "divine," a term whose other meaning indicates immediately that seeking these is almost certainly worthwhile, as well as psychological goals like self-actualization, as described by Abraham Maslow (or perhaps, if it makes sense, some state of realization beyond actualization).

There's no need to inject the supernatural into any of this, and indeed, many good reasons to keep it out, and yet there's no need for the common a-theistic knee-jerk away from the term "spiritual" and everything that hides beneath that umbrella--of note, again, not including any spirits, which have never been there in the first place. What we are short on, perhaps, is a better term, but in the meantime, I'm entirely content advocating for an effort to take it back from the religions, pointing out while we do that they don't even have the proper perspectives (rational skepticism, evidentialism, pragmatism, etc.) to make the most of the effort--to say nothing of how they mostly peddle "Spirituality Lite" (Chapter 9 of God Doesn't; We Do) instead of anything resembling real "spirituality."

For suggestions, I'm all ears. I certainly don't intend to mislead, though honestly, just as Christians have usurped holidays to their advantage over the centuries, I'm not afraid to use a term to draw people out of religious traditions if part of what keeps them there is that they fear they'll be losing a cornerstone of their experience if they drop the belief in myths, legends, magic, and dogma.


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