Sunday, June 12, 2011

Defining Spirituality

I've often had conversations with people about religion, faith and spirituality--a fact which may seem odd, coming from an atheist.

As I've tried to explain (sometimes very cryptically), I see religion, faith and spirituality as different things.

In my opinion, religion is an organized system of beliefs and rituals that offer those who believe a sense of existential coherence and the opportunity to participate in a community of shared values.

Faith, on the other hand, I see as a belief in a higher deity or original, originating and overarching purpose for human existence, however you choose to define that entity or purpose.

Many people of faith do not necessarily adhere to or participate in a particular religion, and many people who self-identify as "religious" are not necessarily what I would call people of "faith."

What many find odd is that, although an atheist, I would still describe myself as "spiritual." 

Interestingly, sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund recently discovered that there are many natural and social scientists who also describe themselves as "spiritual" atheists.  

In her essay, "Finding the Sacred in the Secular," posted on Big Questions Online on May 25, 2011,  Heather Wax interviews Dr. Ecklund, who describes the mindset of scientists who do not believe in God but who simultaneously insist "that there is something out there that's larger than themselves that has a hold on them."

The spiritual atheists that Ecklund interviewed tended to separate themselves from the general public's perception of "spirituality as being synonymous with a belief in God."  Instead, they seek a spirituality that is consistent with science.

According to Ecklund, "These are people who really prize rationality. So they don’t want to do anything that seems irrational, but they can’t stop seeing in their own minds and in their experiences that there seems to be something out there beyond themselves."

In particular, Ecklund notes, "They didn’t want to be doing something that was inconsistent with their identity as a scientist. So they didn’t want to be a scientist in one part of their life and then have this other kind of loosey-goosey spirituality over in this other side of their life."

Ultimately, Ecklund found that while atheist scientists who do not identify themselves as "spiritual" would generally downplay the importance and relevance of questions about "the meaning of life," atheist scientists who identify themselves as spiritual
"would talk about how they found awe and beauty in nature, they found awe in the birth of their children, they found awe in the very work that they do as scientists. They just couldn’t see that as being explained only by science—there has to be something else out there beyond themselves. But then they did not see that as being God, or needing to name it as theism of any sort."
I often wonder about how the ways in which we identify ourselves in terms of religious belief, faith and/or spirituality affect our daily perceptions of reality.

As human beings, I think we have an inherent tendency to be incredibly self-absorbed on a pretty regular basis.  So it's no surprise that the Screaming Mimi I mentioned in a previous posting is still out there--with no sense whatsoever of the irony of her position as someone who staunchly advocates individual freedoms-- rudely and repeatedly telling everyone to "stop praying."

To date, I have resisted the admittedly mischievous (but, in my opinion, very understandable) impulse to tell her that the Soviets would have loved both her attitude and her moxie.

I will continue to refrain, but God knows, it's hard.  (Sorry, I couldn't resist that one.)

Like everyone else, my life, my voice mail, and my inbox is regularly littered with people obsessing and depressing, with litanies of complaints about things like weight gain, grades, courses, kids, co-workers, "injustice" (broadly defined but usually limited to a personal sense of having been individually wronged somehow), bad dates, male pattern baldness and menopause.

Some of those complaints even originate with me.

And then there is my best friend.

12 hours after returning home from an 8-hour stint at the oncology clinic (on her birthday, no less), where a routine check of her son's blood counts and a necessary platelet transfusion turned into an emergency CT scan and fears that he was bleeding into his brain, and 48 hours after she received news that his stage 3 brain cancer is spreading in spite of six grueling months of radiation and chemo treatments, she wrote in her online journal at CaringBridge:
"But we are not quitters and we just have to pull ourselves up and carry on.  Life is never certain.  Every day is a gift, is it not?  And its our job to live in the here and now & be the best we can be.  Thank you for listening, caring, and for reading to the end." 
She is not religious.  She is not a person of faith.  Like me, she identifies herself as an atheist.

But, I would argue, she is very spiritual.  And to me, her spirit is more admirable than many expressions of faith and religious dogma.

Her words also represent a kinder and more humane attitude than what is typically associated with the term "atheism."  It's definitely not the attitude of that self-important, loud-mouthed, Royal-Pain-In-The-Ass I described above, for example.

(Sorry, it just slipped out.)

My friend's children are Catholic, because her husband is.  So although she doesn't "believe" in the same way that others around her do, she is nevertheless comfortable letting others believe what they believe.  In spite of her own personal convictions, she is willing to acknowledge that, as William James said, "No one has all the insights."

In "Celebrate the Myriad Ways," Richard T. Hull describes the experience of his son's accidental death from a drug overdose and the response of friends, family and the community at large to that death.

If you scroll through the article and read the next-to-last paragraph, I think you'll be surprised--and in some cases, shocked-- at the kinds of comments that Hull and his wife received.

People can be presumably well-intentioned and yet sadly oblivious.

I think Hull's response, however, speaks to the heart of what distinguishes faith, religion and spirituality.  Although not a man of faith or religion, his words are, in my opinion, deeply spiritual.
"We could have taken offense at much of what went on at the service and much of what was said to us before or afterwards. But it occurred to us that uncritically accepting the outpouring of others’ consolations was the essence of what it is to be a humanist: one who seeks to understand and celebrate the myriad ways in which humans try to deal with the tragedies and stresses of life. Secular humanists hold that this life is all we have...".
As Hull acknowledges, however, this viewpoint is not the end of one's emotional and spiritual engagement with others because
"with that recognition comes another: that humans must have, within the limits of mutual respect, the right to live this life under whatever structure of beliefs makes it tolerable and gives it meaning."
In the end, Hull describes how he and his wife 
"decided to let all these reflections on life from the myriad of traditions and beliefs that give rise to them be expressed without criticism from us. We were just grateful for the love and concern that prompted those remarks that, taken literally and personally, could have destroyed many friendships."
In the end, even in their overwhelming grief, they chose the spiritual meaning of others' (in some cases, incredibly insensitive) remarks over the literal and the personal, because it offered a chance to connect with others in kindness, compassion and tolerance.

It gave them an opportunity to continue to see the good in others--and in life itself--in spite of their own, very significant and very senseless, personal tragedy.

If that is not the essence of spirituality, I don't know what is.

1 comment:

  1. Good post.

    As I've tried to explain (sometimes very cryptically), I see religion, faith and spirituality as different things.

    I feel the same way. They are in fact different things.


Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."