A spirited discussion about the relationship of science and religion has been going on for a long while. This discussion has largely focused on questions of cosmology and the ultimate nature of our world. I would like to suggest that another, perhaps more important, component of this discussion has received far less attention: the valuation of our internal resources.
Science has been brilliant in helping us exploit external resources. This brilliance has often blinded us to the availability of internal resources. The development of one’s inner resources is an integral part of spirituality. While the wisdom of inner resources is not religious by itself, it has long been associated with religious traditions. Further, it is one of the few things that the world’s major religions have in common.
What are inner resources? There is an old saying that “the best things in life are free.” These superlative freebies are the more prominent products of inner resources such as love; friendship; religious experience; and the contemplation of beauty, truth, and goodness.
Of course, in recent times we have managed to make the pursuit of love and friendship rather expensive. Religious experience is scoffed at, even by many who proclaim they are religious. Contemplation of beauty, truth, and goodness has slipped from being the meat and potatoes of a higher education to being but crumbs upon its table. Yet, for all that, many people still recognize these as the things that can make life richer and more fulfilling.
Many scientists pursue their disciplines as much, or more, out of curiosity and a love of knowing as out of a desire to make money. Many of them have described a scientific “aha moment” as among the happiest in their life. Such scientists understand that there is a truth in that adage about the best things in life. Yet science as a discipline tends to be wary of the internal, which is not a ready object for empirical study.
Inner resources remain mysterious, even with recent advances in the study of the brain. While there have been exponential gains in our understanding of brain chemistry and even the chemical pathways of happiness, the question of how these chemical reactions translate into the existential experience of joy still eludes us. Meanwhile, evolutionary theory helps us understand why certain human activities might be rewarded by the experience of joy, as they serve the survival of the species. But why something like the contemplation of beauty should be so rewarded is much harder to explain. Despite its being difficult, there is no reason to think that, at least in principle, this could not be explained in naturalistic terms.
Though a certain line of religious thought has relegated the spiritual to a supernatural sphere accessible only in death, a perennial line of religious thought provides an alternative understanding. “The kingdom of heaven is within you” states the evangelist Luke. “Samsara and Nirvana are one and the same,” adds the Buddha. In this view heaven/nirvana is an internal resource accessible here and now. There is nothing supernatural about it.
Accessing the kingdom of heaven is an extreme of the notion of the internal good. A simple walk in the woods, however, if we go our way with a caring heart and focused attention, can become, at least briefly, a visit to that kingdom. I suspect that most people who adhere to naturalism yet also cultivate spirituality, do so because of such an experience of the simple joy of being in the world.
Billions of dollars are spent each year around the world to pay for market research and the effective promotion of commercial products. The market economy would certainly not favor people learning to find joy and fulfillment in the freeness of their hearts and minds. This is for us, however, a genuine alternative. Let me hasten to add that this is not an either/or choice – external goods and internal goods are both goods. There is no reason not to pursue both. It is only to say that, if like so many of us Westerners, our life is filled with purchased things but we still feel a bit empty, maybe it is for want of those very things that cannot be purchased – that can only come from the cultivation of the soul.
We naturalists well understand that the cosmology presented by science is more accurate than the various mythic cosmologies of religion. But religion offers people many values besides cosmology. The cultivation and harvesting of internal goods is such a value. There is no reason why spiritual naturalism cannot be as effective, indeed more effective, than any religion in promoting and aiding in the cultivation of internal goods. I do not think that we are there yet, but perhaps it is time we move forward in this direction.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.
Written by Thomas Schenk.
Photo: (cc) H. Kopp-Delaney