Does spirituality have anything to do with the supernatural?
Julian Baggini recently wrote that he overheard a traveller claiming "I don't believe in God, but I'm a spiritual person". I'd guess that this person was saying that she does not believe in supernatural entities (let alone in beseeching them for benefits), but nevertheless experiences spiritual emotions (which is to say, love) and believes in the human spirit- the mental and social existence by which we develop personal meaning and express love for the world we find ourselves in and the people who populate it.
The word spirit is widely used in secular ways- team spirit, human spirit, high spirits. This is a sign that the language already makes room for what we all sense- that what we see before us is the core meaning, and that the common assumption that this "spirit" has a supernatural component or origin is an added hypothesis, not the core meaning. If we, given the evidence of contemporary biology, neurobiology and psychology, conclude that there is no such thing as an afterlife, a Cartesian soul, angels, or holy ghosts, then animal and human spirits remain as a practical matter, even if supernatural spirits are a dead letter.
This accords with the various spiritual movements that have found a home here in California, from EST to the summer of love, to burning man, most of which have little to do with supernaturalism, or if they do, of a very tempered sort.
Jesus was right that man does not live by bread alone, but wrong in his physics- that an invisible being shrouded in inscrutible writings tells us how to live or needs our prayer, that Jesus was the son of god, that believers live everlastingly after death and nonbelievers are damned forever to hell, etc. These were all metaphorical issues at best, if not self-serving propaganda, and to take them literally was and remains an error. The ancient Egyptians located the soul and its capacity for communal responsibility and gratefulness to creation in the heart, carefully embalming hearts of the deceased for eternity while scooping out and discarding their brains. That scientific error had no effect, of course, on their capacity to exercise their spiritual emotions. As Barak Obama says, his mother was intensely spiritual, without believing in god, spirits, or anything of the sort.
Thus, whether believing in supernatural spirits or not, spirituality labels our capacity to express enjoyment in connecting with others, in experiencing love for our surroundings, and even in listening to new-age music and meditating. The deeper forms of this enjoyment tend to fall on the instinctive axes of purity and sacredness, which form our responses to dirt vs cleanliness, bodily functions vs abstraction, courseness vs nobility, mundane versus unusual events (rainbows, waterfalls, thunderstorms .. beauty of all kinds). In this way we keep our ideals in sight and subjectively transcend the mundane day-to-day of the human condition. Whether there is some other reality to escape to is a separate, scientific question whose answer appears strongly negative. At any rate, it is the inspiration of these feelings and this quest that is critical, with usually positive results.
Indeed spirituality could be described as a form of love, focused on entirely intangible objects in the case of religion, complete with attendant blindness, infatuation, and jealousy, such as we see expressed by the lovers of Allah in the Middle East. The terminology of religion is drenched with such romantic displacement, referencing the heavenly father, the love he has for us, the marriage of nuns with Jesus, his everlasting mercy, our desperation and desolation were he to desert us, hatred for those who fail to appreciate the same love we do, etc. and so on. However, infatuations with invisible beings are liable to misuse by those entrusted to interpret the desires of the love-object, as well as being over-amplified by particularly imaginative devotees. Thus keeping this kind of love directed to real objects, such as visible people and surroundings, is psychologically healthier than the alternative, forming a grounded spirituality rather than a religion whether dogmatic or mystical.
Another way to approach the cognitive origins of spirituality is through the work of psychologist Carl Jung. Jung's focus was on the unconscious, which runs our lives, is deeply mysterious, is (as far as we are concerned) omniscient and omnipotent, is the source of our energies, and generates fantasies and dreamscapes that recapitulate time and again the basic forces of human nature. The unconscious is central to understanding ourselves and our meaning in life, and is the subject of endless symbolic representations in religion and myth ... of the center, yin and yang, the inner core, the foundation stone, the cross, the mandala, etc.
Myths of the hero's quest usually symbolize this inner core of the self as an object of great power, often hidden in a cave, a body of water, or an underworld, such as the pearl of great price, the grail, the ring, or the magic sword, which when found may make the hero whole, healed, or help her save the world. It is really the image of god within, though its valence may occasionally be dark and demonic instead. It is what religions commonly term the soul, whose supposed supernatural properties symbolize the unfathomable ground of personal existence which, because it encompasses our existence, also generates the existence of the entire world on our behalf, in a manner of speaking.
It appears to be natural to flip what is internal, deep, and personal into the most cosmic conceivable entity ... the supernatural god that is everything, inheres in everything, knows everything. While polytheistic gods represent only parts of our psychological selves, whether anger, love, dedication, selfishness, creativity, etc., monotheism amplifies the entire subconscious foundation (the inner cosmos, one might say) into a correspondingly lofty and over-inflated projection. Thus it is that believers are so "deeply" attached to belief- not because it makes rational sense or models the external world, but because it represents the most important and personal element of existence, with which they are in continual communion, from which they receive counsel, and with which they seek a closer relationship.
How else to explain such things as the phantasmagoria of the book of Revelation? These are in no way visions of reality whether past or future, but expressions of extreme inner turmoil and pain- of the powerlessness and humiliation of an oppressed sect, salved by a fantasy of world domination by the righteous in a hopefully imminent future. Similar dynamics lie behind the hidden twelfth Imam of Shia Islam and other millennial and salvational ideas, clear up to Communism and its mythical classless, stateless society.
One instance of this tension between inner and outer (projected) depths has been the contest between Gnosticism and Christian Orthodoxy, where Gnosticism (subject of a future post) tends to be mystical, concerned with personal, even occult, spiritual experience and whole-ness, tied to a conception of the divine as lying within, rather than without. The early chuch patriarchs fought long and hard against such "heresies", despite their abundant concordance with much of Jesus's teachings. And they had to fight them over again in the modern age, as first the Protestants sought personal intermediation with Jesus and the Bible, and now post-Nietsche, when the whole idea of an exterior god appears increasingly ludicrous, and new age and psychotherapeutic movements find spiritual expression once again in a quest for, or study of, the internal cosmos.
Jung described these tensions 90 years ago:
The barrage of materialistic criticism that has been directed against the physical impossibility of dogma ever since the age of enlightenment is completely beside the point. Dogma must be a physical impossibility, for it has nothing whatever to say about the physical world but is a symbol of "transcendental" or unconscious processes which, so far as psychology can understand them at all, seem to be bound up with the unavoidable development of consciousness. Belief in dogma is an equally unavoidable stop-gap which must sooner of later be replaced by adequate understanding and knowledge if our civilization is to continue. (Symbols of Transformation, 1916)
Ritual practices of mental journey such as prayer, fasting and meditation accomplish the purification and separation from mundane life that help many people pay attention to deeper sensibilities which are the wellspring of spiritual feeling. The circumambulation of the Kaaba during the hajj is an example that symbolizes a return to the center- of the universe, of the religion, of the original tribal tradition, and of the soul/self. Specially noteworthy are the hallucinogenic drugs used to attain what participants routinely cite as highly meaningful spiritual states, such as ayahuasca, peyote, and perhaps marijuana. These clearly enhance spiritual sensibilities as they alter consciousness, providing an awareness that consciousness is a dynamic construction built on a highly mysterious, even foreign, unconscious and neurochemical foundation, as they also amplify feelings of connection with what is coming through the opened doors of perception.
But there is a fine line between recognizing, even participating in, the significance of spiritual practices and symbologies, and lending them personal belief. Each person appears to have individual thresholds of suggestibility and sensibility in this all-important field of personal meaning. But the dangers of "drinking the Koolaid" should not keep atheists from appreciating the psychological powers such belief systems, or from engaging with them as metaphorical vehicles for personal expression and communal understanding.
Cognitive science is just beginning to evaluate how the most basic decisions and concepts are made, and is relatively far from analyzing how the brain creates feelings like consciousness and spiritual emotion (what Freudians tend to call "infantile regression"). Depth psychology is currently neglected because it deals with complex psychological themes that have yet to be seen in an MRI, even as they inform every movie, cartoon, and novel. This resembles, ironically, the occultation of all mental contents during the scientific behaviorism heyday of the 1950's, when technical limitations created an analogous conceptual blindness. We know that the fount of meaning and motivation, not to mention religious theology, lies inside the brain. Can atheists be comfortable experiencing and expressing spiritual emotions, even as we simultaneously analyze their origin and their misappropriation into the rationalizations of religion?
- NYT columnist Charles Blow gets it.
- It is rather ironic that the pope, of all people, would deprecate witchcraft in Africa, when Jesus himself cast out devils in Mark 1, and the Vatican still employs an exorcist and trains them. Is there is a bit of professional jealousy here?
- Bart Ehrman's quest for truth and reason.
- Why do we tell stories? Our brains are social modeling machines.
- Theology, as presented on YouTube.
- ... or as presented on the Philosophy bites podcast.
- A very nice professor of religion discusses meaning.
- Psychologists are studying goodness.
- Somewhat lighthearted philosophical discussion of reason vs religion, aiming for reconciliation, but admitting that he can't get there.
- Daniel Dennett gives an excellent talk about cognition and religion- far better than his book, actually.
- The cartoonist gives me a hard time!
Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. -Keats