A tendency towards spirituality
Almost from the moment humans started to engage in abstract as well as purely transactional communication, a tendency – one might almost call it a need – for spirituality started to develop.
It seems that there is virtually no civilisation or society on Earth through the ages that has not developed some kind of mythology to explain the human condition in a spiritual context. And the last three thousand years have seen the evolution and codification of the great world religions. This quest for a spiritual or religious understanding of “life, the universe and everything” (acknowledgements again to Douglas Adams) seems to be almost universal and unshakeable.
Broad churches or narrow religions?
I should just point out that if I refer somewhere on this website to a particular religious group, I am always talking about all those people who would categorise themselves as being, even nominally, part of that group.
Thus when I talk about people being Christian, I do not mean that in the narrow sense adopted by many fundamentalist denominations who use the term only to include people adhering to their own particular ‘rules’ for belonging. Which means that for them, the term ‘Christian’ has a more exclusionary sense describing more who is ‘out’ of the group and not ‘really’ Christian, rather than being inclusive and denoting those who see themselves as part of the broad church. And of course, Islam also seems to be rent by such factions, as are a number of other organised religions.
I prefer to see it this way: if you say you are of a particular religion, what right do I have to judge your percentage of adherence to who knows what rules, usually set arbitrarily by particular tribal cultures? (And in using that last term I refer just as much to western Christian culture, as to any of our favourite whipping-boys in other cultures.)
One of the quotes from the Bible that seems to be most often ignored by today’s ‘scribes and pharisees’ is Matthew 7:1 – “Judge not, lest you be judged.” Some church people are especially fond of throwing the word ‘sin’ around, and would definitely be able to quote this verse verbatim, but they often conveniently forget the ‘plank’ and the ‘speck’ mentioned in Verse 3. A reasonable person might say that an attempt to point out something about a person’s behaviour or attitude that could help them is worth trying and can be beneficial all around. But how often do you get people only too willing to point out others’ shortcomings, when they are a walking advertisement for the planks in their own eyes?
A modern case for Atheism?
At this point in the 21st Century, for many people religion has developed a rather bad name.
Fundamentalists of all ilks seeking to defend their view of the world seem determined to enclose themselves (and often many others) in a pre-scientific bubble that ignores virtually all the scientific and humanities discoveries made since the Age of Enlightenment. Especially as the world becomes more technical, they prefer to retreat into an almost medieval world-view. And we have extremists of many religions killing and committing other acts of violence, with destruction and repression rampant in the name of a narrow understanding of “what God wants”. Virtually every major religion has its fundamentalist or extreme adherents.
The 20th Century, with its unprecedentedly destructive events, but also the rise of consumerism and technology, has seen a mass exodus from established religion in the West. But it has also brought about the rise of what could be considered two new quasi-religious movements – at least in the way adherents seem to embrace them.
Firstly, there are the religiously anti-religious – the New Atheist movement, spearheaded by people such as Professor Richard Dawkins. Seemingly obliged to preach at every opportunity that there is no God, the fervour of their pronouncements often has almost the flavour of a religiously-held belief system, not much different to any other fundamentalist doctrine. Certainly, there is much to recommend Dawkins’ rationalist and educated approach to the problems of the world, but there also seems to be something missing in his completely mechanical view of existence, determined only by physics and biological random chance.
Almost as fervent is the hedonistic materialism that has come to function almost as a belief system for some, certainly as a philosophy of life. This seems often to be taken to mindless, almost nihilistic extremes. To the outward observer, these people seem lost, unable to find a focus. But materialism does seem to have replaced religion for many people today.
Is that really all there is?
It is clear that most humans at some point in their lives have some kind of either psychological or biological impetus to seek a spiritual dimension in their existence.
And I don’t know about you, but the more I hear about discoveries about the wonders of the universe and the laws of physics our research and technology keep opening up to our gaze, the more I see an underlying intelligence or creative force at work in its design.
Not the ‘Intelligent Design’ of the Christian Creationists, but an underlying order and connection postulated but not proven by Einstein, who said, “That deep emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God.”
If I have to take a scientific point of view on this, I like Einstein’s. He was very critical of many of religion’s and particularly Christianity’s faults. However, there is a clear spiritual dimension or attitude in such statements as “All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree. All these aspirations are directed toward ennobling man’s life, lifting it from the sphere of mere physical existence and leading the individual towards freedom”.
Besides, on a purely utilitarian note, medical and psychological studies suggest that a non-judgemental spiritual observance – not based on fear, guilt and low sense of self-worth – can have positive effects on health. And people in less developed cultures who have a tolerant and welcoming attitude to all spiritual beliefs also seem to have a higher happiness ratio than others.
So, it’s up to the individual as to what their belief system is, but it seems an enlightened spirituality could just be good for you.
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.–Thomas Merton Thoughts in Solitude (1956)