Documenting the Coming Singularity

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Spirituality and Religiosity: An Exploration

By 9:10 AM
Disclaimer: I anticipate some difficulty in writing any article with spirituality as a theme, simply because of the potential for giving offence. For all articles in this vein I intend to write as objectively as I can, while at the same time holding on to integrity and honesty. If I fail in this, I apologize in advance. I also apologize in advance for any factual errors I may unknowingly commit. End Disclaimer.

It has been my experience, and probably yours as well, that human beings come with a built-in need for some deeper meaning in their lives beyond the everyday processes of sleeping, eating, working, et cetera. We generally find that material things are somewhat limited in their ability to meet this need. They can and do provide the opportunity to survive, and even to be comfortable, but give us meaning? Not very good at it. And so we humans search for this elusive "thing," this sense of knowing why we are here on planet earth, of knowing why we live and breathe and procreate. We want an answer to a simple question: What's the point?

Of course many people get along just fine without exploring the meaning of life, but this undeniable fact does not negate the existence or validity of the need. It is there, and rises sometimes to the surface of our consciousness, perhaps at mid-life, perhaps following a traumatic experience.

Why is it there? We usually don't think of other species suffering existential angst, so why do we? Those who believe in a deity will say it is because an ultimate being placed it in us when we were made. In other words, it is a design feature. Those who favor a more scientific approach might say that it is simply a result of our advanced brains, that it comes with sentience, can't be avoided. Wherever its origins, human beings the world over have this need and seek to meet it in various ways. This article will explore this need and how it can be met.

What is spirituality? Like just about any word, it can have different meanings to different people. In its most basic sense, it means having a focus on things of the spirit, rather than on material things. But what are things of the spirit? Since spiritual things have no physicality, they must be invisible, yet real. We won't include, for the purposes of this exploration, things that have not or cannot be proven, by scientific method, to exist, for example ghosts, or even a deity. I cannot say that these things do not exist, but I can say that they have not been proven to exist. Well, what's left? Can a soul be proven to exist? Not by the definition of something that exists apart from the physical brain, no. But the mind, the consciousness, the essence of who we are, yes, that can be shown to exist. Doesn't take much proving though, since we all experience being conscious ourselves, and we interact with other conscious beings every day.

So from this perspective, spirituality would mean being focused on what some call the life of the mind; others call it the inner life; still others call it simply our consciousness. But doesn't everyone have that focus? After all, everyone thinks. Ah, but we are not speaking merely about mentation, wondering what to have for lunch, or whether to buy the red blouse or the white one. We are speaking of higher thoughts, in some ways the highest thoughts. When you are concerned about what you want your life's purpose to be; that is a form of spirituality. When you desire to live for things that go beyond physical survival and material comfort; that is a form of spirituality. The need to find meaning and purpose, pursuing satisfaction of that need, that is spirituality. The answers turn out to be different for different people. Some contend that the answers don't exist, only the questions. But the fact is that spirituality will find its way down different paths and expressions. What are some of those paths and expressions? We can fairly divide them into two categories: Religious and non-religious (for want of a more descriptive term).

Religious Spirituality

I think I had my very first existential thought as a freshman at the University of Florida. I remember I was at a dance in the basement of Broward hall in the first month or two of the fall term. The lights were low, the music was blaring, young freshmen like me (who else would go to a freshman dance?) were milling around, some dancing, most with a plastic cup of beer in hand. The thought just popped into my head: There has to more to life than this. I was shy, homesick and intimidated, so there was that. Nevertheless, I felt a longing for a more satisfying and meaningful existence that what was on offer that night. As it happens, many people look to religion, which certainly claims to answer neatly these kinds of feelings. The only problem: Just about every major religion, in its official form, claims to have the only correct answers. Some are more willing to give a bit of credence to some of the teachings of other religions, but on the whole, theirs is definitely the best of the lot. So, if you choose the religious answers, there is the question of which set is the most correct. But perhaps, for many religious people, it is not the most correct answers they seek, but the most relevant for them.

Most of us have probably never looked closely at the teachings of other religions. We perhaps grew up in a religious home, or were introduced to one particular religion and one particular branch of that particular religion, a bit later on. Either way, we tend to go with the one we grew up with or found out about when we were younger. It seems to me, however, that certain men and women, through history, through whatever means, came to propose a set of answers that resonated and continue to resonate with millions of people. Their answers just feel right. That religious philosophy seems relevant. It meets my existential need. The Buddha proposed his philosophy, his answers. Moses proposed his. Mohammed his, Christ his, Joseph Smith his, Zoroaster his, the authors of the Vedas theirs, L. Ron Hubbard, his. And there will be more as long as humanity continues to wonder why we are here.
All of these religious sets of answers have in common a belief in a deity or deities, meaning beings that are supernatural, usually very powerful, invisible, to be worshipped and appeased by mankind in order to be blessed. Hindus have Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva and others. The followers of Islam have Allah. Jews and Christians have Jehovah (or Yahweh), while Christians also have Christ. Buddhists have those few who have attained enlightenment, nirvana, and have no need therefore to be reborn. Included among these is the original, Gautama Buddha, or Shakyamuni by given name. Strict adherents might argue that one cannot separate belief in their deity from their teachings about life, but less strict followers may take this path. For example, many religious people believe that Christ was a very good, very wise teacher, but that he is not divine or supernatural (even though the same writings that contain his teachings also have him claiming to be divine).

Setting aside the question of belief in the supernatural for a moment, we can probably find some worthwhile answers to our existential need in each of these major religions. In fact, if we set aside the idea of worshipping and praying to divine entities, we are left with the second major path of finding meaning: Non-religious spirituality. By using the term non-religious, I am not characterizing the origins of any philosophy, but rather taking some of the ideas without the supernatural, worshipful, aspects.

Non-Religious Spirituality

If we can extricate the supernatural and the concept of worshipping a deity or deities, and simply look for the essence of the teachings of some of these teachers, what will we find enjoined? Fundamentally, we will find two components of spirituality:

Moral Thought and Conduct. Within the moral teachings of the various philosophers, religious and not, there are differences here and there; but there are far more important consistencies. The overarching theme has to do with self-discipline, or giving careful thought to our manner of life. We find the opposite of profligate licentiousness. Reckless living, and a thought-life that leads in that direction, is discouraged. For what reason? For the simple reason that such living is harmful and causes suffering to ourselves and others. The golden rule applies to our dealings with those around us: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. We generally can anticipate how our actions and words will affect others, although there are not a few wives who will vehemently deny that their husbands possess that particular skill. When we are hurt, we can imagine that others can be hurt in similar circumstances. When someone steals from us, we learn that stealing from others is hurtful, for example. But what about those actions which only damage ourselves? What can be wrong there? Consider how we limit our own capacity to help others when we have harmed ourselves. Therein lies the answer to that question.

Compassion in Word and Action. I apologize for taking my wise sayings from Christianity; it's simply that I am more familiar with the sayings of Christ than any other philosopher. I have no doubt that equally important sayings could be quoted from any major teacher. In any case, these come to mind: It is more blessed to give than to receive. And this admonition: Give, and it will be given to you. Whether these ideas come from an all-powerful God, or a wise teacher's observation of human interaction, there is validity to these and similar words. The first saying points out what we know by our own experience, that there is a deep sense of satisfaction that fills us when we serve and care for others. This does not include allowing people to unfairly take advantage of a kind nature, but has more to do with giving thought to how we can help improve the lives of other people, whether it be family, friends, or even strangers. The second saying holds equally true, that putting out good things brings good things back. Again, I will attempt to clarify what this does not include: When a preacher tells me that every dollar I give him will come back to me ten-fold, I reach for the remote. We are talking more about the fact that loving and serving others, in most cases, results in others loving and caring for us. A devoted parent who experiences the devotion of his/her children knows the truth of this. Of course there are countless other examples I could give that time and your precious attention do not permit.

We can be spiritual people in either a religious or non-religious context. It is when we place the greater emphasis of our lives on spiritual, rather than material things, that we become spiritual people.