There’s a false dichotomy often thrown up by apologists for religion: those of us who champion the virtue of rationality are labelled as “materialists”, who ignore humanity’s spiritual needs, leading necessarily to an empty and joyless existence. Set against us materialists are the world’s various religions, concerned utterly with spiritual experience (so they claim) and hence necessary to counter this soulless materialism.
In this post I will argue that religion is neither necessary nor sufficient for real spiritual well-being, that rationality and “materialism” can do at least as good a job (and possibly get in the way somewhat less), and that therefore religion has nothing left to offer.
The universe is clearly a material thing (with apologies to various airy-fairy philosophers; for my purpose, I can see, hear, touch, taste and smell the world, so it exists ) governed by material laws of nature. Scientific enquiry over many years has made incredible strides in understanding this material world, but there’s a lot we don’t yet know.
And a lot of people who don’t even know (or even actively deny) what is known.
We come then to the notion of spirituality: the idea or feeling that “there is more in Heaven and Earth…”. The feeling that we are more than simply cause and effect. It touches on notions of free will, aesthetics, love, wonder, creativity and so on, and lands, I think, squarely on the concepts of meaning and purpose.
Religious bigots like George Pell condemn atheists as coarse, uncaring, lacking purpose, and fearing the future. (Interesting here is Sigmund Freud’s statement that religion will never die as people are too fearful of death.) [if I remember to, I'll come back and edit this with the actual quote when I find it]
Unsurprisingly I refudiate this. First I will discuss why I think religion is neither necessary nor sufficient for a full spiritual life, and then turn to looking at the way that rationality can in fact be so.
Given that religion’s (stated) raison d’être is spiritual life, where in the hells do I get off on saying it doesn’t address spirituality? Because its vision is so stultifyingly narrow – that moreso than the demonstrable fact it’s, well, wrong.
Religion tells you the meaning of your existence. It tells you how to behave, and even how to think. It reduces all the wonder in the world to a plaything of a godling’s construction (heh – my iPhone wanted to change godling to gosling ).
They teach fear: of unbelievers, of evil, the devil, god himself – even of the world, it seems to me. At least Christianity, if not other religions as well, diminishes the world by giving us complete dominion over it. It tells us there is nothing (except god) that is greater than us. Whence real spirituality when the world is beneath us, and all that us above us is god, and all the works of our lives are purely to glorify god? It seems to me this diminishes the real value of the universe around us, and of everything we think, feel, experience, and do.
To me that is completely lacking in soul, or spiritual virtue.
Clearly we are not simply coldly rational robots. Not only are we not all that good at being rational, we find pleasure and fulfilment in things that we don’t think about in a rational fashion. I choose that wording deliberately: I don’t think these things are irrational, simply because we don’t behave rationally around them. Love, for instance: few of us choose our mate rationally, but the existence of the feelings that lead to this pair-bonding is perfectly rationally explicable. Likewise having children – moreso in fact. They’re expensive, aggravating, stop you sleeping for evermore, messy, destructive …. But awwwwwwwwwwww what about one of those? We don’t choose to have children on rational grounds, but the urge to procreate, again, is clearly able to be understood rationally; if that urge weren’t there, we wouldn’t be here. The more an organism procreates, the more its genetic material continues, the more successful it is in evolutionary terms. Likewise, pairbonding would have conferred evolutionary advantage, so love can be understood as something that makes rational sense, even though we don’t engage in a rational process.
I accept that not everything we do is determined by conscious, logical, rational thought. However, that doesn’t mean it is irrational; these things can be understood rationally. It’s similar in a way to my notion of ethical behaviour: we don’t in the course of everyday life debate philosophically about every course of action; we simply act in accordance with our character. However, the nature of our ethical character and consequent decisions can be understood philosophically – and that understanding can help us to develop further as ethical beings.
Similarly, while we don’t necessarily engage in rational debate about everything we do, rational thought and investigation can help us – individually and as a species – to grow. To understand and engage with the universe, and especially this Earth, better.
It can help us feel connected.
What could be more wonderful, beautiful, and yes: even spiritual and mystical, than the (true) concept that we are star-stuff? That we are made from elements forged in stars and blasted out by supernovae, come together to be us. That when we die these elements will become part of other things, animals, even people. The fact that this is demonstrably true makes it even more beautiful, to my mind.
Sure, you or I won’t be around to see what happens after we die, but that simply makes the world, and our time on it, that much more beautiful and precious. it’s like freesias, cherry blossom, and jacarandas: they flower so beautifully, and so very briefly. Somehow the fact it’s so brief adds to the beauty.
Do I need to state it? Anyone reading my blog knows what I think anyway. this universe in which we find ourselves is incredibly beautiful, strange, and terrible. Understanding it rationally, far from diminishing that spiritual sense, can enhance it. Reducing it to the whim of a petty jealous narcissistic deity robs it of something very deep and important.
I have meaning; I have purpose; I have love. I have joy, beauty and wonder. All I lack is God.
And I do not miss Him.