This Clergy Project Member Gave Spirituality a Whirl

Editor’s Note: Unlike previous poster, Mason Lane, who was decidedly-not-ever-spiritual, this Clergy Project member discusses his musings on spirituality and his struggle to understand his long journey away from supernatural beliefs.  He also has a question for you.

=========================

By Scott Heller

  1. When you were religious, did you also think of yourself as spiritual, or not? How did you talk about spirituality to the people in your congregation?

Calvary Chapel, the nondenominational church I was with distinguished itself from other churches by claiming not to be religious. True Christianity was about having a relationship with Jesus, not following a religious rituals, doctrine or traditions. Organized religion was looked down upon and anyone belonging to a denomination was probably not a real Christian. So when I was in the ministry I never thought of myself as religious. I taught and preached that the essence of spirituality was to maintain a close relationship with God. The basis of this relationship included prayer, fellowship, worship, bible study, obedience, being led by and filled with the Holy Spirit, following the will of God, resisting Satan and the temptation to sin. Ironically, in retrospect all of these strike me as forming the basis of most any Christian religion. So although I thought I was spiritual but not religious, I was in fact just plain religious.

2.   Did you go through a “spiritual but not religious stage” on the way to being non-religious? If so, please describe it.
Since I hadn’t really thought of myself as religious, there really wasn’t a time along my journey to atheism that I considered myself as spiritual but not religious. For years I considered myself an agnostic and if pressed I would label myself as spiritual but not a fundamentalist\evangelical and eventually spiritual but not Christian. My path from fundamentalist Christianity to agnosticism to atheism involved a great deal of philosophical, theological and secular research. For a long time I remained open to the idea of a spiritual realm and some kind of God-like being. I hoped to find something that transcended the natural world or at least the existence of a sum greater than the parts, which I could identify as supernatural. But in the end, I could not find any evidence for it. However, leaving my earlier faith and relinquishing a supenatural worldview wasn’t just cerebral, it was also tied to my original belief that the essence of spirituality was found in a relationship with God. I realized early on that despite my most sincere efforts to maintain that close relationship by being religious and doing all the ‘right’ things, God remained aloof. From the beginning it was a one sided relationship with the burden of maintaining it on me. My later efforts to salvage the supernatural led more and more to a theory of a God who was an impersonal being. I could feel at one with nature and appreciate the idea of everything being interconnected and even so-called mystical experiences, but none of these required the existence of God or established God as a being with whom humans could maintain an interactive relationship.

3If you know people who are spiritual but not religious, what are they like?

The people I know and have met who claim to be spiritual but not religious came from a church background which they found too restrictive. Being spiritual without being connected to a particular organization or its doctrine allowed them to embrace a plurality of beliefs about the supernatural from many eastern and western traditions. Most seem to embrace a holistic and somewhat pantheistic worldview in which spirit is in everything and everyone and all is interconnected.

Beatles_ad_1965_just_the_beatles_crop

“I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together” – The Beatles, I Am the Walrus

Many of these people continue to pray and worship in the more traditional sense while others meditate, dance, form drum circles or some combination of all the above. This kind of spiritual worldview seems to me to be a natural offshoot of our postmodern age, which has given up on objective truth from science, the church or other sources and instead embraces relativism, subjectivity and pluralistic but often contradictory beliefs.

  1. What other questions I should be asking about this?

A question I struggle with is this:

Why, despite the overwhelming lack of evidence for the supernatural, do so many people retain a spiritual worldview? Is the brain as some have suggested wired for spirituality?

If there were any truth to this theory, as an atheist and evolutionist I would identify it as an evolutionary by product that serves as a coping mechanism. Many psychologists suggest that God or spirituality provides people with meaning and purpose in life. If God or some other supernatural force created the world directly or indirectly there must be a reason and humans have been given the privilege of participating in that purpose. Whether it is God, angels or the loving spirit of the universe, humans are cared for and helped in good times and bad. A supernatural worldview allows people to feel like they have a role to play in a cosmic drama. As an humanistic atheist I question why so many people hold on to such an antiquated myth, especially when a life lived without any supernatural hocus-pocus behind the scenes gives us the freedom to write our own purpose, to write our novel everyday as we interact with the unfolding drama in the natural world.

Many religious and spiritual people have incredible imaginations so I doubt creativity is the limiting factor. My best guess is this:

People are afraid to accept that we are all we have (which is a lot!) and perhaps the bigger rub is that writing your own life story is an awesome responsibility.

I am curious to hear what others think about this.  Please share your thoughts.

=====================

Scott Heller _smBio: Scott Heller is an atheist and former pastor who lives in beautiful Colorado. He was “born again” in 1978 at Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa, CA. After his conversion he worked in various church roles and as pastor for 12 years. Leaving the ministry was a difficult transition but he was eventually able to establish a second career in Technical Management. He is a member of The Clergy Project and holds 3 master’s degrees: Biblical Studies, Management of Technical Resources and Counseling.

>>>> Photo Credits: By EMI. – Billboard page 15 1 May 1965Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by We hope using CommonsHelper., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39594102

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  • mason

    Scott, I really enjoyed your post and answers! Well done.

    From everything I read and hear (relatives included) it’s the same old party line of “Personal relationship with Jesus, not religious); the “We’re the genuine label, all others are false, accept no substitutes,” marketing. Even when I was in the thick of it all I’d hear the “We’re not religious,” line and I’d think of James 1:27 “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world,” and wonder how the word religious ever got so demonized? Oh well, I was already juggling so much other cognitive dissonance in my brain I didn’t need to create a group schism with that question.

    I’ll toss in my 6 cents about your question: “Why, despite the overwhelming lack of evidence for the supernatural, do so many people retain a spiritual worldview? Is the brain as some have suggested wired for spirituality?”

    1. Cultural habit. As credulous children we are immersed in and hear the nonsense almost incessantly, unless we were born into a secular home which makes it clear “Remember, we’re the sober ones on a bus full of drunks.”

    2. Reckless/careless word choice. Many mean something like awe, wonder, overwhelmed with a nature experience. I’ve found this to be the case even with people who don’t believe in the “supernatural” but will use “spiritual.” Then we chat and they make it clear they really mean awe, wonder, etc.

    3. Human ego-centrism and simple greed to believe they are more than they actually are. Religions play upon this greed teaching the adherents they are now a “Child of the King”, going to Paradise and have super powers, will rise from the dead, rule on planet Earth, will get a mansion in Heaven, etc. etc.

    4. Kids everywhere love the idea of “superheros”, monsters, and imagining themselves as a superhero or super monster. These imaginative childish ideas just carry on into an intellectually stunted adulthood, and is easily merged with religious promises and cosmic spiritual tales.

    5. Fear of death. Fantasy can serve as an antidote of the harsh reality of death for every creature that’s born.

    6. Believing is one of the easiest things a human can possibly do. Children start using the Internet at average age 3, and are subject believing anything they are told by adults. Just consider how readily most children accept the religious bullshit in assorted flavors they’re served. Consider the many thousands of religious/spiritual tales ancient men created and that human cultures all around the planet have believed. Thinking, considering evidence, accepting reality takes intellectual courage and work.

    I do not think humans are in any way hard wired for spirituality or religion, but we are for curiosity, awe, wonder, study, unless those qualities get damaged by spirituality and religion.

    • Linda_LaScola

      This is quite a carefully thought-out list, Mason, and I agree with everything but the first part of your conclusion: “I do not think humans are in any way hard wired for spirituality or religion”.

      I think SOME humans are hard-wired for spirituality just as some are hard-wired for athletic prowess or carrying a tune, and some aren’t.

      [edit] I should add that I *think* these things, I don’t KNOW them to be true. I’d like to know. I think it’s possible to a serious study on this issue and I wish it would be done soon.

    • ElizabetB.

      Great list!
      “6. Believing is one of the easiest things a human can possibly do.” I’d say maybe up to age 2 — then it’s test, test, test… & a bunch end up as habitual skeptics. I remember in college complaining “I can’t seem to make up my mind about ANYthing!” and obviously that remains my m.o…. on everything except compassion. Even truth & beauty always have to be acknowledged as subject to interpretation.

      • mason

        What you did at age 2 is something far too many Americans just can’t ever find a way to veer off the Easy Street ride.

        • ElizabetB.

          I was thinking about typical 2-year-olds… which, come to think of it, does raise the question about some as they grow older — what happened?

      • See Noevo

        “I remember in college complaining “I can’t seem to make up my mind about ANYthing!” and obviously that remains my m.o…. on
        everything except compassion. Even truth & beauty always have to be acknowledged as subject to interpretation.”

        Why is your desire to show *compassion* not likewise subject
        to interpretation (and to evolution?)?

        • ElizabetB.

          Good question! I wondered about that as I wrote it… but so far I can’t think of an instance compassion is off base…. What’s your take?

          • See Noevo

            What constitutes *not* being “off base”?

          • ElizabetB.

            Compassion being always in order : )

          • See Noevo

            Why?

          • ElizabetB.

            Can’t see any downside to it… do you?

          • See Noevo

            The basis for what constitutes a downside or an upside is
            merely a meaningless matter of taste.

            From your atheist/evolutionist perspective, that is.

          • ElizabetB.

            Well… could be that my taste would be to attribute it to a religious revelation : )

    • Scott Heller

      Thanks Mason,
      I can tell you’ve lived a similar journey. I also really appreciate your well thought out response. You’ve given us a lot to think about.
      I do agree with Linda that some people do seem to have a inclination (hard wired seems to strong and lacks sufficient scientific data) towards a certain something that transcends the natural realm. Many poets and philosophers come to mind. I think as many have brought up, that the term spiritual is a poor word to describe it. Perhaps we need to expand our secular vocabulary to adequately embrace these experiences or human propensities.

      • mason

        Scott, I’m apparently inclined, actually completely convinced, that nothing transcends the natural realm, except the human imagination. And I have no way of stopping that exercise. :)

        As to why such an inclination towards that which hasn’t an iota of evidence I cite the billionaire who still wants more and will never be satisfied since what he wants is always “more” and can’t even grasp or appreciate what he already has. And, if an iota was discovered it would then be part of the natural material realm; the Universe.

        Wonder, awe, marvel, fascination, astonished, reverential, are enough for me. Maybe I’m lacking in greed? Spiritual has definitely evolved into the bullsh&t usage category. :)

        • Scott Heller

          Whether it’s be greed or something else humans do seem to have a hard time being satisfied with what they have right in front of them. Thanks for the reply.

      • mason

        John Harkey Gibbs has expanded the secular vocabulary & coined a new term in his blog today: “Humanuality”

        • Scott Heller

          Nice, i plan to start using that!

  • ElizabetB.

    Thanks so much for the post! An incidental — thanks for “I Am the Walrus” — put off by the Beatle crowds, I missed the interesting ideas — fun to catch up a little!

    “…a life lived without any supernatural hocus-pocus behind the scenes gives us the freedom to write our own purpose, to write our novel everyday as we interact with the unfolding drama in the natural world.” As I understand it, this is possible with process theology — was just listening to someone [I think it was John Cobb] on Homebrewed Christianity saying the greatest damage done in religion is the idea of a god of omnipotence. Instead, humans are purposeful parts of the evolving universe/s. What I’m trying to figure out is why, in their thought, there needs to be some element that’s called “god,” “luring” people and events toward the good…. Seems like maybe this is a variation of your question?

    • Linda_LaScola

      What I’m trying to figure out is why, in their thought, there needs to be some element that’s called “god,” “luring” people and events toward the good.

      In my opinion, such a god is needed only to give process theologians a familiar hook to explain their thoughts. Otherwise they’d be atheists. Christians wouldn’t take them seriously anymore and they’d be actively contributing to the downfall of Christianity, which they have no desire to do.

      • ElizabetB.

        Something like that’s probably true for many or most, but I’m not sure about a careful philosopher-mathematician like Whitehead. I think there’s something those serious thinkers are trying to get at that I’m not getting yet, so I’m giving it a try!

        ps about music… looking for something substantial about Christian atheism on the net, ran across a neat essay about Kurt Vonnegut — that mentions his surprise at how awful the words of the requiem are and says he went home and stayed up “half the night” to write his own version:

        “He found the words that sounded so lovely when sung in Latin were ‘terrible…promising a Paradise indistinguishable from the Spanish Inquisition…sadistic and masochistic,…

        “ ‘I got rid of the judges and tortures and the lions’ mouths, and having to sleep with the lights on.’ Kurt changed the opening and closing line, ‘let light perpetual shine upon them,’ to ‘let not light disturb their sleep.’ He explained that he didn’t want his beloved sister Alice and his first wife Jane and all the other dead people to have to try to ‘get some sleep with the lights on.’ In his translation, Vonnegut wrote of Jesus:

        ” ‘My wild and loving brother
        did try to redeem me by suffering death on the cross:
        Let not such toil have been in vain.’ ”

        “Making the Requiem Mass more merciful was so important to Vonnegut that he found a specialist in church Latin to translate his words and a composer to set them to music.”
        https://imagejournal.org/article/kurt-vonnegut/

        Would love to hear it! I ordered a $2 copy of the book containing the words (I hope), but can’t find the music so far. Interesting how he and Brahms and Beveridge share the instinct to fix the words : )

        • ElizabetB.

          Book arrived today! “Fates Worse than Death: An Autobiographical Collage” — and requiem is there! both English and Latin — plus the traditional words.

          Haven’t explored yet, but following leads I see/hear the music on line: “Stones, Time & Elements: a humanistic requiem by Edgar David Grana,” Vonnegut, reader, with description:

          “This was a collaboration between Kurt Vonnegut and Michael Brecker and myself. Kurt wrote the text after hearing Andrew Lloyd Weber’s requiem. He felt strongly that the text needed to be humanized and that God was a pan natural force neutral and unjudging.”

          Looking forward to exploring; plus the memoir itself looks great! The music doesn’t resonate with me, but sounds like Vonnegut liked it immensely
          https://edgargranamusic.bandcamp.com/album/stones-time-elements-a-humanistic-requiem

      • Linda_LaScola

        Let me add that I don’t think they (sincere theologians) are doing this cynically. I think they really do have a soft spot for Jesus and Christianity and want the traditions to continue in a reasonable way in the future.

        • ElizabetB.

          o! I see.. I do agree with you. Sorry I didn’t get it! That’s an interesting light to read Whitehead by… that will be interesting! thanks!

        • Scott Heller

          Linda, I agree with you. I think process theologians are trying to salvage xtianity in the post modern age. But why?

          • Linda_LaScola

            Maybe it’s not so much ‘salvaging” Christianity, but holding on to the parts they like – perhaps have fond memories of from their childhood – or aspects of the religion that click with them as adults. And maybe this salvaging will become less and less an issue as fewer people are inculcated with Christianity as children and as Christianity is less societally pervasive.

          • ElizabetB.

            Unless Christianity takes a radical turn… listening to more ‘homebrewed Christianity’ for a few minutes this morning, I heard philosopher/theologian John Caputo ridiculing the question of some religious people, “Is this all there is?” He describes “all there is” in Dennett, Highland, and Lane terms and implies it’s absurd to want “more” than all this. If Christianity went his way, it might not be so bad? From his writeup in the Syracuse University directory:

            “John D. Caputo is a hybrid philosopher/theologian intent on producing impure thoughts, thoughts which circulate between philosophy and theology, short-circuits which deny fixed and rigorous boundaries between philosophy and theology. Caputo treats “sacred” texts as a poetics of the human condition, or as a “theo-poetics,” a poetics of the event harbored in the name of God. His past books have attempted to persuade us that hermeneutics goes all the way down (Radical Hermeneutics), that Derrida is a thinker to be reckoned with by theology (The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida), and that theology is best served by getting over its love affair with power and authority and embracing what Caputo calls, following St. Paul, The Weakness of God. He has also addressed wider-than-academic audiences in On Religion and What Would Jesus Deconstruct? and has an interest in interacting with the working church groups like ikon and the “Emergent” Church. He is currently working in a book on our frail and mortal flesh, probably to be entitled The Fate of All Flesh: A Theology of the Event, II.”
            http://asfaculty.syr.edu/pages/rel/caputo-john.html

            Interesting! a non-religious, non-spiritual christian? : )

          • Scott Heller

            Good point

    • mason

      As Linda points out it’s their “hook.” With out the hook they wouldn’t have an industry. Just follow the money and power trail.

      Altruism, caring, compasion, “good”, didn’t have its genesis with humans. https://www.thedodo.com/7-astonishing-animal-moms-who–543168457.html

      • ElizabetB.

        Seems like kindness and cruelty are sort of endemic to the universe/s. May kindness grow

    • Scott Heller

      Yes it does sound like you are asking the same question. For awhile I found process theology quite attractive, but came to the same conclusion. In one of his books, (can’t think of it at the moment) Cobb writes about the God of process theology being impersonal. Which begs the question of why call the luring or persuasive force “god” at all?
      Could be as Mason and Linda have said that this is all that keeps them attached to xtianity and they have established an entire educational institution on it, so dropping the “god” hook would cost them. Seems like a case of wanting your cake and eating it too.

      • Scott Heller

        The book I couldn’t remember is entitled, The Process Perspective. Interesting I’ve never thought of whitehead as a xtian, but he definitely wasn’t an atheist and applied ideas to theism. Again I have to ask why?

        • ElizabetB.

          I like Linda’s phrase “have a soft spot for Jesus and Christianity.” The essay about Vonnegut made me curious about what the author wrote that Vonnegut “forgave” him for — and turns out that he’d written how returning to a “Christian” UU congregation, King’s Chapel in Boston, had been a mental lifesaver for him, hugely meaningful. Maybe experiences like that explain their attempts to stay within the tradition while discarding ideas that they don’t affirm.
          http://www.nytimes.com/1985/12/22/magazine/returning-to-church.html?pagewanted=all

          Thanks so much for your explorations!!!

  • See Noevo

    “As an humanistic atheist I question why so many people hold on to such an
    antiquated myth, especially when a life lived without any supernatural
    hocus-pocus behind the scenes gives us the freedom to write our own purpose, to
    write our novel everyday as we interact with the unfolding drama in the natural
    world.
    Many religious and spiritual people have incredible imaginations so I doubt
    creativity is the limiting factor.”

    What would be your top examples of how a religious person lacks freedom
    – to write his own purpose,
    – to write his novel everyday as he interacts with the unfolding drama in the natural world,
    – to exercise his perhaps incredible imagination?

    • mason

      “I question why so many people hold on to such an
      antiquated myth, ….”

      I’d say because they were bushwhacked and bullied into the nonsense so young and credulous, and the fears they face about becoming their new self (very real with the fundamentalist Evangelical or other fundamentalists), and the social pressure they may be under, will require great intellectual courage to let go, when they’re quite unsure of what and how to hold onto.

      You might consider submitting an article about this subject with more of your thoughts and opinions on “Why can’t they let go? Are they missing anything? If they’d unaware of how stunted they are, what’s the difference?

  • mason

    I did have one additional thought about “spiritual”.
    I think a new and appropriate definition of spiritual would be: SPIRITUAL; noun, Used in 21st Century society, and particularly on Internet dating sites, as a way to describe oneself as a decent sentient human being who does not belong to any organized religion.

    • Scott Heller

      Lol…i think that fits

    • Linda_LaScola

      I like it — except it’s a noun, not an adjective. Sorry — 7th grade grammar class has stayed with me.

      • mason

        I think I put noun …. ???

        • Linda_LaScola

          oops – I mean it’s an adjective, not a noun

          • mason

            yep, I looked up spirituality when I checked it :) that’s why you’re the Editor … I’ll change it to adj