I have been thinking about the idea of spirituality and its relationship to religion and then my own atheistic outlook. It is something that has actually been bouncing around in my mind because of some reading at the beginning of Godless by Dan Barker as well as some discussions on various podcasts. Well the most recent podcast is the Secular Nation Podcast
#20 where David Driscoll is interviewing David E. Comings and the idea of spirituality was discussed quite a bit and it really kind of resonated with me as I listened. In the podcast Dr. Comings basically used the term "spirituality" for that feeling of being connected to something bigger or higher then yourself.
Anyway what I am considering and thinking about here is the idea of “spirituality” and how that relates to the human condition and if you can be an atheist and yet still be spiritual or can you say “I am not religious but I am spiritual,” and so forth. At this time in my life I actually think you can do this. These very human experiences which manifest as deep feeling of connection to something bigger, feelings of transcendence and joy, different states of consciousness and so forth.
Now with religion what I see happening is that I think religion uses what is really a part of an aspect of is to be human and appropriating it to validate the religion. So what I am seeing is that religion takes these experiences and ties the experience to religion as a part of validating the religion. Religious services try and create an environment to generate the experiences and religions focus on these experiences and provide words and langauge to convey and express them. These experiences are then tied to the religious practice alone and efforts taken to make that the only way and time they can be had is through the religion. You go to a church and the music and the rhythms and being surrounded by others generates these intense feelings and this then becomes the presence of god. (Just as a side note its in my little bio but my father is a Lutheran pastor, and I in my younger years helped set up exactly this kind of thing.)
I guess I am bothered by this because these feelings of connection, these "spiritual experiences" are not just due to religion, in fact I would say that they aren’t really at all. In fact I see this as perhaps a trap that religion creates in that it tries to take the human experience and monopolizes the sensation as this is needed as some kind of proof of the presence of the divine, but then it is important that no one be allowed to experience these things outside the religious context or they may realize that it does not come from a supernatural source. So it is important that day to day human life seem mundane, dull, “fallen” and that only through belief or religion can one actually have a life of powerful experience and fullness and actually feel alive and connected. Well to me this is a hijacking of the experience, of really of life itself. And yet this control by religion for this part of human nature is so strong that it seems that the terms and language to discuss such moments seems to necessitate falling back to religious language because that is the only framework available.
I remember having many powerful emotional and deep connection experiences, and I would call them spiritual because that is the language I have to work with, but that brings its own bias and so I hesitate to go there. One such experience I had which was a particularly powerful one was in Yellowstone National Park on a hike to a waterfall. Coming back I was so overwhelmed by the feeling of connection to life and such an altered state and I just ran and ran along the path, and to me who was not all that fit a young man I was amazed at how fast I was going and after I did not feel fatigued or tired. My father of course took my descriptions of the experience and spun it into a religious context and even gave me a book that described a similar experience by monks. And yet I did not accept this at the time and this was like 20 years before being even introduced to the atheist viewpoint. And now I read the beginning of Dawkin’s book The God Delusion and I see yet another experience that seems parallel to my own, with the boy lying the grass and having a heightened sense of awareness but who then put it in religious terms yet again. And although I could have also put it in a religious context, my experience to me was simply not linked to some godly source, which Dawkin’s then goes on to point out in the text that other rationalists and scientists have similar experience but do not then connect it to supernatural belief. Why I did not go that route I cannot be sure, but I have never been much of a believer.
So to me there is a problem that there may be experiences of connection that could greatly enhance life, living, and just our experience of this world which are denied, blocked, and not explored because of religion’s take over of this aspect of human experience. In the Secular Nation interview Dr. Comings and the host mentioned having a spiritual experience with golf. Exactly my point, there are so many paths to a depth of human experience, and so much is just not explored or accepted when religion is very strongly saying it is the one true way and we should be afraid of any other way. And then because religion is the place for these experiences, even if people have these experiences then they really have little choice but to resort to religion as a means to explain or express it. Religion is what that currently has a stranglehold on the concepts and language to explore that aspect of humanity. If you have this heightened experience and feeling of connection there is little to do but to fall back on the supernatural as explanation.
So I think that there are two problems here with, for a lack of a better word, “spiritual” experiences. One is that there may be many ways to achieve feelings of connection and intense emotional moments but so often only a religious or supernatural path is allowed or even known about to deal with that experience. Another problem is that there is a lack outside of a religious context to describe or conceptualize these experiences and so then there is little terminology for the ability to communicate what has heppened. But I think not having a god concept to fall back on might actually be helpful as one can’t rely then on the easy answer of the source of the experience as being just god or the supernatural, but instead one has to put the work and perhaps get to a deeper understanding of who we are as human beings.
I do really think that these moments of connection and feeling are imortant and there may be a great loss in not accepting and exploring these experiences on a rational basis and perhaps coming up with a new understanding of ourselves and better ways of expressing the human experience in a more natural way rather then appeals to the supernatural and the unknowable. I think accepting that such spiritual moments can be really life changing and have meaning to the person and that these moments can be held in esteem and even awe and yet be rational and grounded in a truly amazing natural world.