Monday, March 17, 2014

Spirituality, erm.. something like that, for atheists

In God Doesn't; We Do, I devoted the tenth chapter to discussing "spirituality" without God (after using the ninth to explore my thoughts on how religion tends to make for "Spirituality Lite"). Sam Harris, who is certainly expert in this field, will be releasing a book about the topic this fall, entitled Waking Up. The idea is important to most people, and at least some of us who don't believe in God (and those that believe there is no God), and yet there is tremendous resistance to it by many who reject the supernatural.

The heart of the resistance is that the term "spirituality" is loaded with baggage, either being connotative of religion or outright religious. Perhaps this is an accurate assessment--I don't know. I do know that after a lot of trying, I'm still almost at a bit of a loss for anything like a better term for the baby that I think gets thrown out with this woo-soiled bathwater.

To reclaim a term?

Part of the discussion hinges on the term. If "spirituality" is really the best term--even if those reasons are merely the force of the tradition of language--then we should make an effort to reclaim it from the religious and put it squarely in the light of the naturalistic. In particular, it belongs in the brain, that organ that apparently defines all of conscious experience. Whatever is going on--and it is something--is a fact of neurobiology and, to some extent, sociology, and clarifying this in a way that removes the antisupernaturalist taboo on the whole endeavor would be nothing but a boon for humanity.

If, instead, we can think of a better term that captures all of the legitimate, non-dualistic meanings that are understood by that word, then perhaps we should use the alternative. Doing so would help cleave a stronger divorce to the fantastic realm of spirits, which would possibly be helpful at least in the short term. Note, though, that people will continue to imbibe "spirits" and express team "spirit" while rooting for the home team without batting an eye about the equivalent dualistic baggage. Also, the chocolate I had the other night was absolutely divine (godlike), and now I'm considering getting more of it to share with my angelic (like angels) children unless their behavior becomes diabolical (like devils). It's really quite glorious (full of the splendor of God).

To replace the term?

Following the thoughts of a friend, I tentatively suggest using the term "the numinous" for what normally gets called "spirituality," though there are issues with this word as well. Mainly, "numinous" is directly tied up in meaning with overtly religious ideas, so it isn't actually baggage-free. Indeed, "numinous" comes from the Latin word numen, which means divine will. People who wish to maintain special statuses for their cherished religious beliefs will be quick to point this fact out and exploit it, and those who want to separate themselves as much as possible from worldviews of that kind will complain likewise.


On the other hand, hence offering "the numinous" as a suggestion, the term is relatively unknown, and the connotative baggage in popular use is almost absent. That gives us an opportunity, one that will almost certainly be poisoned if we try to take it, to define the connotation of the term "the numinous" to mean "spirituality without the dualistic baggage about spirits and souls."

A tempting alternative would seem to be to retreat to the Greek for mind, nous, and use the word "noetic." That's not possible, though, as some of the most outlandish woo-meisters around have already appropriated that word, even talking of "noetic sciences." Spare us all. "Transcendent" is similarly poisoned.

Since much of what I would bundle under the "spiritual" umbrella is tied tightly to Abraham Maslow's idea of self-actualization, the term "actualization" could be used, but there are at least two problems with doing this. The first big problem with it is that it doesn't actually capture everything under the "spiritual" umbrella, which includes so-called "transcendent" experiences, the positive-psychological states sometimes called "elevation" and "flow," and social elements. A second is that used in this way, "actualization" doesn't come off as much less woo-ish than does "spirituality," despite being centered upon "actual" instead of "spirits."

Ultimately, given these challenges, unless a properly new word that fits can be suggested, "spirituality" might be the best term, and it should probably be reclaimed. I'm open to good suggestions.

The difficulties--meaning

There's a particular issue with the term "spirituality" if we want to replace it with some completely naturalistic alternative word; it's notoriously hard to define. Consider the textbook Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Approach, 4th ed., by Hood, Hill, and Spilka, which punts on the effort, saying it, like religion, is too nebulous to admit good definitions. In the vein of this challenge, they make a significant case in the first chapter that "nothing but" kinds of definitions for religion and spirituality have a very good chance of being wrong. Suffice it to say that if some of the leading experts in the field writing a popular textbook for it feel "spirituality" is a word too difficult to define, finding a superior alternative is going to be one hell of a challenge.

"Spirituality" simply means a lot of things, and much of what it means is tied up in whatever is meant by "religion." Hood, Hill, and Spilka, and the legions of people who declare themselves "spiritual but not religious"--a rapidly growing segment of the population that I think most atheists should warmly welcome despite its inherent problems with falling prey to nonsense--agree that "religion" and "spirituality" are, in fact, distinct, however much their Venn Diagrams overlap. For my part, I tend to think of "spirituality" as being a fundamental part of psychological and sociological functioning for human beings, and religion is a parasite on spirituality. (In this light, discarding the word "spiritual" because of its ties to religion is a bit like discarding dogs and cats as pets because without fastidious treatment they are all but certain to carry fleas.)

And then, making matters worse, there's another "spirit" word at play here. It is the one the antisupernaturalists hate; it is the one most of the "spiritual but not religious" people mean when they say that spirituality is important to them. That word is spiritualism, and it does not mean the same thing as spirituality, despite the similarities.

The lay definition of spiritualism is what we associate with the frauds called mediums who claim to talk to the dead, and the philosophical term means "the doctrine that the spirit exists as distinct from matter, or that spirit is the only reality." Though it frequently is, it should not be conflated with spirituality, and being against spiritualism is not a good reason to decry human spirituality.

In fact, looking up the entry for "spirituality" in Wikipedia returns something very interesting. Note, particularly, the first line. (Links and emphasis in original.)

The term "spirituality" lacks a definitive definition,[1][2] although social scientists have defined spirituality as the search for "the sacred," where "the sacred" is broadly defined as that which is set apart from the ordinary and worthy of veneration.[3]
The use of the term "spirituality" has changed throughout the ages.[4] In modern times, spirituality is often separated from Abrahamic religions,[5] and connotes a blend of humanistic psychology with mystical and esoteric traditions and eastern religions aimed at personal well-being and personal development.[6] The notion of "spiritual experience" plays an important role in modern spirituality, but has a relatively recent origin.[7]
Whatever we mean by the term "spirituality," we formally agree it shouldn't be confused with the idea that spirits exist distinct from matter.

Personally, I think that the only parts that need to be retained are that these traditions involve practices (the traditions not mattering) that reliably produce certain brain states, and that those neurobiological events are tied to personal well-being and personal development. I agree with many psychologists in that some dimension of human experience that usually gets called "spiritual" is vitally important--a need--though I don't believe it extends in any significant way beyond neurobiology, psychology, and sociology.


The difficulties--cultural role of "spirituality"

Another enormous difficulty exists when we talk about the role that spirituality plays for people. Though I often disagree with his interpretations, I find social psychologist Jonathan Haidt (of NYU's business school now) to be profoundly insightful with many of his observations. One of those is that human morality can be understood as psychosocial valuation, means by which we evaluate ourselves and others, and that human psychosocial valuation is at least a three-dimensional universe. The three dimensions, in brief, are kinship/closeness, reputation, and "divinity," which is at least linguistically tied to being "spiritually good."

This third, abstruse, probably-poorly-named dimension is often invisible unless one knows how to look for it, but it defines most, if not all, of the psychosocial evaluative rules (culturally peculiar moral frameworks) that can't be explained via closeness or reputation. In the contemporary grumpy-atheist subculture, carrying such low esteem for woo that one completely rejects whatever constitutes spirituality is a state of "divinity" in that culture, which is to say "spiritual goodness." "Good atheists" don't buy into nonsense, after all. More widely, that guy at the gym with that hat and that strut that you recognize to be a "douche" is a "douche" because he scores low on your "divinity" spectrum.

And, other than all of the "cool" people you've ever known, guess who scores highly on the divinity spectrum of any given culture or subculture? (NB: I think it is the moral values framework that defines the culture, not the other way around.) "Spiritual" people, at least usually. Why do so many of us turn to priests, pastors, gurus, shamans, swamis, and "the enlightened," for certain insights of wisdom? Further, why do we define these people as being "good" in the first place? They are so because they're "divine," which is to say that they're doing well in this abstruse dimension of psychosocial valuation Haidt called "divinity."

Being devout in a religion is a fast shortcut to being "good" in any culture or subculture that has positive estimation of that religion. For those who think poorly of religion, we should note that secular atheists have their own sets of moral frameworks (no, we are not one unified cultural group), and even in the cases when ours are more grounded in the real human values (moral facts), we have our own "divine" role models. This is true even when we reject authority and even reputation, as often happens, and the ways this comes up are myriad and nearly ubiquitous. Since this is an integral component of how we evaluate ourselves and others, we cannot simply ignore it out of our systems. We do it without realizing we're doing it even when we pretend we're not because it's a huge part of how we make sense of ourselves and each other. (Indeed, I'd argue it's the biggest part since we're only close with a relatively small number of people and, likewise, only a relative few are famous, even in the niche circles we sometimes run in.)

The enlightened

To explore further, let's turn to the term "the enlightened" because it crosses a lot of borders. One need not get caught up in Buddhism or Taoism to use the term "enlightened" to describe someone who, in rougher language, really has their shit together. We nearly all venerate the wise and the generally "good." And note that this is stronger when moral values are tied into it. Consider just one example: How many moral vegans consider themselves "enlightened" to the reality of animal suffering? Is it all of them? And does it matter that many of these people are atheists who don't believe in the first bit of Buddhist doctrine? Not in the least. "The enlightened" are those who see some truth, and we hold high (moral) esteem for these people, sometimes even when they are outside of our own cultural values frameworks. The "holy," the "divine," the locally morally "good" all have this in common.

This means that spirituality--here, doing well by one's cultural moral framework--is tied up with moral evaluation, which is utterly integral to human cultures, thus humanity. Perhaps it is more accurate to say things the other way around, that by attempting to refine oneself in the moral framework of one's particular culture or subculture, one is engaging in some element of spirituality. To intentionally attempt to "better" oneself in any way tied to the third dimension of psychosocial valuation is a significant part of what would be called "spiritual practices" in any context that would let itself use that word.

It's ridiculous, but it's not

Of course, many "spiritual practices" are ridiculous because they're based upon superstitions or upon rituals and traditions based upon superstitions. Many others are not, even if the practices themselves got their start in the ridiculously superstitious. Sometimes it's a complicated blend. Take the Catholic practice of confession, for instance. It seems that this action, which has nothing to do in reality with beseeching a curious holy and impartial intermediary to help the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving, perfectly just Creator of the Universe to forgive you for whatever transgressions, has a potent psychosocial role. It resets people's "to hell with it, I'm bad, so I might as well be bad" self-assessment. Note that it can't even be taken as asking forgiveness from society since confessions are done in private (supposing a priest that doesn't gossip). This magic little ritual, superstitions and all, works profoundly well and may actually have become part of the Catholic doctrinal structure because it works, even though no one knew why until recently. (Note that understanding the mechanism can allow a secular alternative that is likely to be as effective or more so with the superstitious elements removed.)

It is not an unfair assessment to see much of the function of religion as very early attempts at psychology and sociology, and despite their dramatic limitations due to lacking falsifiability and statistical analysis, they were able to wheedle out many keen observations relevant to these fields. (And note how often these fields discover something that validates something about religion--a fact no religious apologist will let you ignore for long!) Inexact, dogmatic, desperately prone to getting things profoundly wrong, and hung up on superstition as religions are, still a good deal of that which made its way into religious doctrine counts as fairly solid psychological and sociological observation.

This abstruse third dimension of psychosocial valuation, "divinity," is the result of some of what goes by the name "spirituality," and most religions have tapped into its importance and psychosocial utility (going rather too deep, in fact). Going to church regularly will make you "good." Keeping the Sabbath will make you "good." Taking off your shoes before entering the ashram will make you "good." Turning to face along the great circle connecting you to Mecca and praying five times a day will make you "good." Attending to the rites, rituals, and traditions will make you "good." Honoring what your culture finds "divine" will make you "good." Denying this fact isn't going to make it go away, but it will cripple us from working with it in an effective manner, while religions continue to exploit it.

Ridiculous, but not ridiculous, practices

Other spiritual practices, like meditation, are similar. Meditation, on the face of it, is ridiculous. It seems a patent waste of time. The instructions are to sit there--or stand there, or lay there--and either to do some obscenely mundane and boring attentional task like focusing on the breathing or the wavering flame of a candle or, even more crazy, nothing at all. And yet not only will you hear from the personal experiences of those who meditate that it is emphatically not a waste of time, so shows hard research. In The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt indicates, in fact, that ten minutes of quiet sitting, even by people who don't think of it as meditation and don't know "how" to meditate, can be as effective as Prozac (or similar drugs) or cognitive-behavioral therapy for dealing with problems like depression and anxiety. Other research corroborates these suggestions, among other unequivocal benefits to this traditionally "spiritual" practice. To paraphrase a popular sentiment among atheists, meditation, it works, bitches.

And with meditation, if done seriously, comes stuff that's hard to describe in words that don't start sounding very "spiritual." This happens to people with certain kinds of brain injuries and to people on certain drugs as well. Whatever the neurobiology of these states of consciousness happens to be, the language that deals with it up to and including now is nearly all "spiritual" language. If that's the best way we have to think about brain states of these kinds, then we're kind of stuck with thinking about them that way. Perhaps Harris's new book will clear this up, or perhaps it will argue instead for reclaiming the word from the woo-meisters and the Spirituality-Lite parasites.

Nothing in the nature of these experiences and practices or in the measurable changes in the brain and cognition demonstrably caused by them suggests anything but that they are in some way of rather substantial value. And nothing in them suggests the first bit of dualistic woo. To imagine otherwise and thus reject the lot because one doesn't like the connotations of the word "spirituality" is a grievous error and profound tragedy, and it is based on little more than a knee-jerk overreaction. Certainly those who explored these matters before we knew enough to describe them well could only do the best they could with it, which resulted in steeping them with overt spiritualism, and certainly the frauds who exploit people with it take advantage of the desperation often tied up in spiritualistic fantasizing. These failures do not generalize to the field in total.

The rituals, the traditions, the values about "purity" in one form or another, and even the pursuit of wisdom via means like meditation all seem ridiculous, and they are--but they're not. Recognizing that they form an important part of what it means to be human beings, we being ultrasocial animals with complex psychologies and societies, is something that is largely missing from secular society, and it may be one of secularism's major weaknesses. Still, I empathize with people who dislike the term, and I warmly invite them to do better if they can.

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