On Defending True Spirituality And Taking The Word Back From Spiritually Bankrupt Fundamentalism

So Chris Mooney’s article in Playboy about the spirituality of scientists has sparked some interesting debate in the atheist blogosphere. His new post on the subject explicitly interprets his aims and themes in the piece as essentially saying what I interpreted them to be—to defend the idea that you can have completely sufficient spirituality without religion and that various great scientists are even role models of spiritual endeavor through their passionately engaged science.  He restates the thesis thusly:

It is clear throughout that we’re talking about spirituality without religion, e.g., “a growing number of nonreligious researchers,” “a prevalence of spirituality detached from traditional religion,” “Einstein saw no reason to believe in a personal God or the supernatural,” “[Darwin] ultimately concluded he would have to remain an agnostic with respect to God,” etc.

But Jerry Coyne accuses him of deliberately and dishonestly conflating two utterly different concepts of spirituality in order to make a false equivalence between them so that the real disagreements between faith and science can be entirely glossed over:

There is absolutely no doubt, unless you’re obtuse, that the purpose of Mooney’s piece is to show the commonality of scientists and religious people—as both are “spiritual”—and thereby make common cause of the two magisteria. Just look at the title of the piece: “The born-again scientist: spirituality comes to the lab.”

I will admit, the title is the most objectionable part of the essay for sure.

But if we are concerned with the truth, why not point out that it is true that both atheistic and agnostic scientists (and atheists and agnostics in general) have the same basic propensities to have spiritual feelings and feel great meaning in their work and in what they discover?

It’s true.  They do. (Or at least some very notable ones do).

And what is underhanded about making that a basis for there to be “common cause” between religious institutions and scientists on public policy?

Imagine Coyne had written this sentence:  “the purpose of Mooney’s piece is to show the commonality of scientists and religious people—as both are “moral”—and thereby make common cause of the two magisteria.”

If Mooney had written a piece about the charitable activities of atheist scientists or of Non-Believers Giving Aid?  What if his conclusion was that atheists care about being moral people in their own way and that their concerns for morality have the same basic evolutionary origin as the religious people’s and that atheist morality can be so sufficient by itself without any religious trappings that various atheists could be held up as role models of morality?  And what if he used that as a basis to say that believers should not mistrust scientists but work together on common moral goals on the level they do share?

Would that have been an objectionable way to appeal for us the “two magisteria” to make common cause?  Why would it?  If the goal is earthquake relief and the means of getting it to the afflicted does not involve religious proselytizing, why not encourage the faithful to recognize that even though many scientists are atheists and agnostics that they are still morally motivated, share the same values, and can be worked with on public policy?  Why not say that in general, religious people should view atheists as also concerned about moral goals?

Why is it different with “spiritual” goals?

The obvious reason is because the religious way of interpreting “spiritual” has a ton of disreputable baggage.  It involves affirming superstition, irrationalism, dogmatism, intellectual and institutional authoritarianism, and in many ways is spiritually harmful.

I get that, on that point, Coyne and I see eye to eye.  But is that a reason to abandon the word “spiritual”?  No, because, it’s the same problem with morality.  What many religious people think of when they talk about morality is superstitious, irrationalistic, dogmatic, intellectually and institutionally authoritarian, and in many ways morally harmful.

Nietzsche’s hyperbolic attention grabbing way of attacking the ugly tendencies of morality which religion had convinced people were integral to morality itself was to use rhetoric that implied he was against morality itself.  He called himself an “immoralist”.  That incendiary maneuver has misled countless of Nietzsche’s readers and, while it certainly provokes people and gets their attention, creates a lot of work to prove Nietzsche is really interested in saying constructive things about how we should live ethically.

A lot of people think he wants to simply tear down morality and replace it with rank immorality in some crude reversal where one just does the opposite of what is morally good since one is an “immoralist.”  Maybe in Nietzsche’s time and place and for the ethical advance Nietzsche wanted to push this was a wise rhetorical strategy.

I don’t think it is a good strategy today.  I think today’s atheists are right to abandon the nihilism and subjectivism of Sartre which played into the religious’s hands.  Existentialist atheists who argued that life without God was one of despair and nihilism did as much to cement the false dichotomy of theism as the realm of meaning and hope on the one hand and atheism as the realm of senselessness and despair on the other as any Christian apologist could have.

In fact, the nihilistic existentialists essentially adopted a Christian standard of value and judged their lives meaningless according to it.  And the legacy of that atheism which gave the game away to Christianity and let Christianity define itself as hopeless is precisely what the New Atheism is fiercely opposing.  That’s what makes it “New”.

It’s a New Atheism because it aggressively pushes back against the ideas that morality and meaning are either exclusively or even properly the domain of faith traditions.  It’s a New Atheism because it encourages constructive community among atheists and a world that is optimistically, self-consciously atheistic and refuses the defeatism that insists such an endeavor is bound to fail because it lacks guideposts of morality and meaning.

So, to me, the question is why not take the words “spiritual” and “religious” and say the same thing we say about the word “moral”—authoritarian, regressive, irrationalistic, dogmatic, misogynistic, homophobic, patriarchal, racist, superstitious faith traditions have neither exclusive nor even proper claim to these words.

Religiosity and spirituality are words for capturing a number of tendencies of the human psyche and the cultural forms which instantiate them.  They can be embodied in wildly malleable ways in different times and places, societies and individuals.  Just like morality, regressive and authoritarian traditions in the West have tried to claim exclusive the ability and the right to define and give practical forms to religiosity and spirituality.  But it’s not their right.

I do not mean this just as a matter of tactics for fighting faith-based religion.  I mean this as a matter of truth.  On rationally defensible moral grounds, I think it wrong to call that which is immoral “moral” just because religious institutions have made people think it is moral.  And I think it is an abuse of the word “spiritual” to call “spiritual” those practices and beliefs which harm people spiritually.

Now there has also been a lot of hand-wringing among the atheists that the word “spiritual” is itself a hopelessly vague term with wildly different interpretations from person to person.  But, again, just because people (including a great many atheists) have very different (and often very philosophically incoherent) things in mind when they refer to morality, is not a reason that we jettison that word.  Again, I ask, why is spirituality different?

Why cannot we do what we do with morality and say there is a difference between practices called spiritual by this or that person or culture or religion, etc. and what is ideally called spiritual?  And what is ideally called “spiritual”?  How do we determine such a thing?

We can start the same way that we pursue the question of what is moral.  We turn to paradigmatic instances of morality and try to find their common features.  These paradigms could be characteristics shared by all moral actions or they could be virtuous role models who exhibit morality in an exceptional and imitable way.

Similarly, to understand a normative ideal worth calling “spiritual” we can ask what are the characteristic features that people generally call spiritual and decide which among them are worth promoting among people.  Just as we distinguish between the things people call moral but which are really harmful to moral purposes, we can ask, which allegedly “spiritual” practices ennoble the human spirit and lead to greater health, happiness, and rationality and which ones retard these things.

We can say that the feelings of awe related to worthy objects of awe is rationally justified and worth calling spiritual, whereas feelings of awe for inferior objects is spiritually crude.  We can say purportedly “spiritual” practices like meditation or fasting which help a person orient his or her life for overall successful living and which are consistent with a full embrace of other rational and moral goods, are worth calling spiritual.

But practices called spiritual undermine their critical thinking faculties, endanger their lives or others, encourage the human weakness for superstition and/or authoritarianism, etc., should not be allowed to call themselves spiritual.

Just as people presently distinguish that they are “spiritual but not religious”, it may be incumbent upon rationalists to start asserting that we are “spiritual but not superstitious”.  Or, even, pound the idea into people’s heads that true spirituality rejects superstitiousness.  True human elevation of spirit liberates itself from the ignorance of authoritarian superstitious eras past and the outmoded faith-based traditions formed in those eras which desperately try to keep those eras from ever ending.

While I understand Coyne’s horror at the possibility that people will conflate Einstein’s sublime spiritual feelings with the spiritually, rationally, emotionally, and morally stunting feelings that fundamentalists call “spiritual”, Einstein himself could not have so liberally used the word “God” or expressed his feelings with the other misinterpretable terms he did if he was obsessed with avoiding the fundamentalist’s misappropriations at all costs.

Should he have been more careful?  The fundamentalists have gone and misappropriated and abused his words and even he complained about this in his life.

I am open to arguments that he should have just conceded various words with confusing connotations and used to doggedly insist just that.  But now I am inclined to think that he and the many deists and truly moderate religious people who took the common words available to us and used them for themselves do a great service in helping to counter the myth that fundamentalism has exclusive rights to the spiritual, the religious, and the moral.

While I wish the moderate faith-based believers would simply abandon their remaining unjustified faith beliefs for a more honest rationalism just as much as Coyne does, I appreciate that at least they inject flexibility into religious language and concepts such that there is a wide swath of popular piety which feels comfortable increasingly secularizing itself and taking more rationally and morally approvable interpretations without there needing to be any formal schism with religion entirely (which would be a taller order).

In America many millions of people have nearly totally secularized but for some dutiful lip service to religious traditions and beliefs such that we live in a predominantly secular culture.  This happens in no small part because of moderates developing and propagating habits of talking which let their religious concepts breathe and evolve rationally and morally.

Of course, the more someone has latitude to live as is in fact rationally, morally, financially, artistically, and spiritually best for them without ever having to jettison all the crudities of their religious beliefs, the more they feel like throwing off the whole of institutional religion is not a necessary nuclear option.  It can make them complacent in hanging on to a few ineffectual faith-beliefs and so, yeah, have a few extra bits of irrationality they shouldn’t.

But this legion of moderate religious people who flexibly let their religious language take more rational, moral, modernly acceptable “true meanings” are what stand between us and the theocratic, fundamentalist wing turning us into Pakistan.

Yeah, I wish faith-based thinking vanished like any other immoral practice.  And yes I am willing to point out the contradictions between even the moderates’ remaining faith-based beliefs and science.  I am willing to force them to see their cognitive dissonance and encourage more atheism.  I am passionate about it.

But I think they have the right idea by not letting the fundamentalists define the spiritual and I think PZ Myers has the wrong idea saying we cannot call Darwin a “religious” or “spiritual” person because he saw through the absurdities, immoralities, and failed science of the Bible.  I think that’s to his credit as a spiritual person that he was strong enough to reject the false.  Why let people who believe false and immoral things get an honorific term like “spiritual”.

In a war over words it is much easier to change what people mean by the word to make it conform with what it really should mean than it is to try to get people to turn on a beloved word altogether. And this is not deceptive or underhanded when it is a way of correcting misperceptions of what the badly used word should mean.  The concrete content of what it is to be “healthy” or “rational” or “moral” changes as our knowledge and values improve and so should the content of what is meant by the word “spiritual”.

These are value words, which implicitly point towards ideals and using them for what better realizes what the words want to idealize is as good a strategy as any to get people to value what they should.

The only unsalvageable word I want to bite the bullet over and fight to the end is “faith”. But I think atheists should take back “spiritual” and “religious” from people who give them an atrocious name.

Coyne went on:

What a smarmy and intellectually dishonest piece of accommodationist tripe, relying as it does on conflating two completely disparate notions of “spirituality”!  Can we agree, then, that when we get all emotional about a piece of music or a novel or a nebula, or experience wonder at the products of natural selection—that we give these emotions a name different from “sprituality”?  That just confuses the diverse meanings of the term (which was Mooney’s intent) and gives ammunition to acoommodationists.

No, I don’t think all of us mean something different than “spirituality”.  It is common parlance for people to talk about music affecting them spiritually.  Mooney is not abusing the language in this instance.  He is taking a common connotation which is faith-neutral and making this common denominator the essence of spirituality.  This totally undercuts the fundamentalist and would never fool a fundamentalist.

A fundamentalist religious person and Coyne want to agree that deep emotional feelings in response to wonder, sublime, gratitude, awe, beauty, the numinous, interconnectedness, time, success, etc. are insufficient for spirituality.  That spirituality somehow requires superstition and faith-based beliefs.  But why? Many a moderate is open to the evidence that the most integral, constitutive components of their spiritual experience really are the same as the scientist’s or the atheist’s.

This is not dishonestly implying two different things are the same.  Mooney is clearly demarcating the concretely particular differences in which scientists have and express these feelings.  What he is pointing out, correctly is that they have the same basic psychological and evolutionary origins as the faith-based person’s do.  He is not saying they are experienced identically or conceptualized identically but that the important part is the same and, therefore, the valuable essence of spirituality is independent of faith-based beliefs, institutions, and practices.

And he’s right, what is valuably spiritual about faith-based spirituality is possible without any of the irrational or morally regressive baggage, just as what is valuably moral about faith-based morality is possible without any of the irrational or regressive baggage.  It’s the same, true, important argument.

The only people he will persuade are those willing to see spirituality as separable from fundamentalism and as capable of flourishing without it.  He won’t “fool” anyone into thinking the scientific realizations of spirituality are identical to the faith-based ones, only that they are at least as good.

Now, insofar as people might take away from the fact that “scientists can be spiritual too” the false conclusion that traditional faith-based beliefs can be seamlessly reconciled with all scientific truth, they would be wrong. If Mooney says such things elsewhere, I think he’s wrong and will happily denounce any glossings of the truth on those conflicts.  I will get especially indignant if he ever appeals to “Two Magisteria”.  But this article of his just does not do that, it leaves that question conspicuously absent and just focuses on a kind of spirituality that transcends dogmas.

This post focused on the idea of arguing for “True Spirituality”.  For a comparable, but different, argument related to religion in which I convinced myself as I wrote that the moderates’ language of “True Religion” was defensible and preferable to alternatives, see my post True Religion?

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