Spirituality does not require religion.


Buddhist Temple in Leshan, China.

Buddhist Temple in Leshan, China.

Back in 2010, the culture editor of Jesuit magazine ‘America’, the Jesuit priest Reverend James Martin wrote a book titled ‘The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything‘, in it, he criticises those who consider themselves spiritual, but not religious. I thought I’d offer my criticisms of several points Martin raises.

I felt it worth pointing out first – as a reference – exactly what spirituality means to me. For me, spirituality is serious inner engagement with what it means to be human. Whether we as individuals choose to involve religion or not in our personal journey, we are all spiritual, because we are all flawed and we do not like flaws. As a complex and diverse species blessed with curiosity and a burning desire for definitive answers – this, I believe is the reason for the development of religion – we cannot deal too well with flaws. We want definitive answers now. Prior to the scientific method of inquiry, we invented wonderful tales and myths to explain the seemingly inexplicable – and often terrifying – in a simple way, because we need answers, even when answers seem so complex and far away. It is how we explained volcanoes and earthquakes, rainbows and vast oceans. Not only that, but we evolved as a group species, across habitats, with a yearning for individual freedom, creating diverse social bonds. We are intrigued by beauty, we cry at the pain of others, we try to grasp fleeting happiness and make it last, we have different triggers that anger us, and we have no idea what the hell is going on most of the time, and that’s a frightening idea. We are simply very confused apes. Spirituality is a way we deal with that confusion. Evolved human intelligence has produced brilliant, yet tangled minds that brought great development aiding the survival of the species, but at the cost of inner emotional turmoil that affects us all. Spirituality is simply an individual shaped by the majesty and flaws of human evolution, and by their own experiences and memories, attempting to reconcile those confusions and those contradictions, a sort of unraveling of tangled wires in our minds, by our own minds. If religion helps an individual with that, great. If it doesn’t, that’s okay too.

Martin says:

“Religion can provide a check against my tendency to think that I am the center of the universe, that I have all the answers, that I know better than anyone about God, and that God speaks most clearly through me.”

– For Catholics to speak of their faith as humble, despite having their own city state and a massive palace, takes quite the imagination. And so I would argue the opposite to that which James Martin asserts. Religion does not check a tendency to believe oneself to be the centre of the universe. Quite the opposite, religion teaches that the chosen few are the centre of the universe. We inhabit an infinitesimally small section of time, in a universe so massive in both time and space that it requires great arrogance to believe a small section of a global population on a tiny planet are the ones blessed by a universal creator. We do not know how a universe springs into being. It is religion that teaches us that a personal God did it. A God that created everything specifically for humans, and cares who you have sex with. Indeed, not only are the chosen few the centre of the universe, not only was all of time waiting for over 13 billion years for them to spring up for a few seconds, but the rules of the chosen few must be placed upon those who do not adhere to its beliefs. The shackles of religious privilege in a secular country like the US can be quite clearly observed when we note how long it is taking to afford equal rights to same-sex couples, and the absurdity by which Christian bosses at Hobby Lobby believe the private lives of their employees, are to be linked to God against their will. We see ISIS insisting that their brand of Islam must engulf an entire region, whether the people of that region accept it or not. Martin’s implication that spirituality requires religion, is not humility, nor is it checking a tendency to believe oneself the centre of the universe. It is the exact opposite.

“More problematic than Sheilaism are spiritualities entirely focused on the self, with no place for humility, self-critique or any sense of responsibility for the community. Certain “New Age” movements find their goal not in God, or even the greater good, but in self-improvement — a valuable goal — but one that can degenerate into selfishness.”

– This strikes me as a particularly bizarre passage. The implication is that without a religious base for spiritual development, there can be no sense of humility (again, ironic given the history of the Catholic church), self-critique, or sense of responsibility, yet the goal is self improvement; which requires self-crique, and a sense of humility and responsibility. Critique, humility, and a sense of responsibility are not wholly owned subsidiaries of the religious community, which is why Eastern traditions – like Taoism – do not invoke an all powerful personal God for spiritual guidance. Gautama Buddha rejected the notion of a creator and personal God, and by Martin’s standards, Buddhists are therefore lacking a key ingredient to spiritual development. Critique, humility and a sense of communal responsibility are evolved traits from a communal and individual species, that informs our decision making, our daily interactions, and our progress as individuals and as a species. Without the development of human intelligence from Homo Habilis, through to Homo Sapiens, there would be no religion usurping the legacy of our wonderful ancestry. Religion owes its existence to evolved developments in human intelligence, not the other way around.

“Human beings naturally desire to be with one another, and that desire extends to worship. It’s natural to want to worship together, to gather with other people who share your desire for God, and to work with others to fulfill the dreams of your community.”

– This is true. But it’s not limited to gathering for religious purposes. Spiritual people do not require a belief in God to gather and to share spiritual experiences and stories. Church or Mosque or Synagogue are places that may facilitate that communal sense in-built to human beings, but we’ve been gathering, telling stories, painting art works, playing music, listening to each other and progressing long before the first Church sprang up. Secular atheists do not require the invoking of God in order to gather, to share stories, and to ‘work with others to fulfill the dreams of the community’. We don’t believe in a God, so it wouldn’t aid our spiritual journey to do so.

As an atheist, my spiritual journey is an attempt to understand myself on a deeper level, to progress, to love, to be a better person, to experience beauty, to always question my motives and thoughts, to establish my place within the wider community, and to reconcile conflicts in my life and in my mind. It does not require a belief in God.

It appears to me that the Reverend James Martin has attempted to claim spirituality and the natural human ability for self critique and development, for religion. As religious folk attempt to do with morality, it seems the religious are now taking credit for the evolution of human intelligence. Quite contrary to Martin’s attempts, Christianity simply attempted to anchor the moral musings, as well as spiritual developments of a single time and place – 1st Century Palestine – for the rest of forever. Religion therefore jumped on a moral and spiritual train already speeding along the tracks, whilst implying that they have been driving the train all along.

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