Archive for February, 2013
The sojourn of humanity
…so we are all spiritual…
Have you experienced that sense of awe that buoys the spirit at those peak moments when in the presence of being and the world? Some have wondered from the earliest, Am I generating this sense of spirit or is there really something out there?
For eons humans mistook mind for spirit, especially this expansive, ennobling aspect of it, this temporal spirit enthralled by its own imagination and yearning and, no less, the very improbability of being. Is there really something in here, an essence that’s me?
If we can be lonely in a crowd, perhaps, the most trying loneliness is that of a crowded world that may not care, one that is about something else altogether, or seemingly about nothing at all. This is the loneliness of being face to face with a society which is alien to us and to which we are equally alien.
Religion at its best urges the individual to turn a loving face to society, to embrace it, love it, love all mankind, for in that love which seems to manifest our spirit outward to the world we see our love reflected back again.
Religion remakes that indifferent world into one in which we are made ultra-relevant by its solace, its brotherhood, or by its promise of an afterworld that’s a caring paradise in which all will be made right, whole, just—an afterworld that makes the trials and tribulations of this world more bearable, more beautiful, more like the best of all possible worlds—a world worthy of being internalized into the fabric of our reality, our worldview.
The mind of man (and woman) wishes to rise above the everyday world. This wish is an old one. Remember those cave drawings tens of thousands of years old in France and Spain? That art, and a lot of art, is a special activity in which an aspect of our world is re-examined or re-presented through a varying array of mediums. This act of art is one way the human mind handles its world spiritually. It’s a way of handling the world by which we may fleetingly gain transcendence over it.
The world, in the sense of all that exists, is an imposing reality. It is everything to us. Through it our needs are met. Within it our triumphs and defeats play out. Its story is largely our story. Our communal origin myths connect our story to its place in the world’s narrative—another artful connection that ties us to our world.
Most of us have that sense of being that seems to very much suggest a self and, does it perhaps, hint at a soul?
Figurative speech can capture that sense of the human spirit, that soul-like thing. There are important things to say about the human spirit that are not necessarily true—things that have a certain resonance that seem to ring true at a deep level within us—the metaphorical corollaries of life, let’s say. That’s one of the better functions of religion. It gives us permission, if not enabling us, to consider our spirituality.
Religion seems to dwell more on the supernatural realm and less on us as individuals, perhaps because we don’t know how to talk directly about our spirituality. Religion has come forward with the metaphors, the poetry and the myth that gives us a way to express our spirituality where in its absence we don’t know what can be said literally.
Some say without God there is no spirituality. All evidence seems to the contrary. From the individual perspective the core spiritual experience seems to form as emotions peak and a spiritual eruption happens. We’re programmed not only to believe, but to be rewarded psychologically for it. It may be as simple as our forming a spiritual question—contemplating a spiritual possibility—and being internally rewarded for it.
On some level we know the spiritual nature of every human being is temporal, mortal—that’s the experience of the everyday world we live in. On the other hand, it seems as if we have souls. Hasn’t everything we’ve felt, hoped, or dreamed under God, every inspired work of art, every musical note performed, been achieved as if there were souls, spirits, and gods? As far as anyone knows, though, all art, all inspired works, were also achieved in the absence of the same. It belittles humankind none to say we did it all on our own without any supernatural help.
The true believer says we hold an indwelling piece of the divine. The truthseeker, rather, says we have nothing more than an inner-self (some say not that either). Whatever it is, it is a self-like thing that responds to inspiration—and soars aloft when properly nurtured.
Recent insights have shown not religion but religiosity to be a likely evolutionary adaptation. By that is meant an inborn propensity for religiousness. Along with our bellicosity, that may have been what carried our narrow band of humankind through turbulent times in the past.
Religion evolved with humanity and because of that there is a certain “spiritual” nature hard-wired within us. This gives rise to a spiritual need which is felt as an urge that must be satisfied. That spiritual satisfaction comes in the form of a psychochemical reward that approaches joy or ecstasy.
In this amazing age of digital communication the interconnections between people form a vast array of communities across borders and around the world—interest groups and causes are joined that would be possible no other way. Where we were scattered statistically, we are gathered digitally. We belong to a growing global village.
Beliefs of the religious kind have a deep source within us. In the deep core of our human selves, that source may be hidden from us. Perhaps because of it, we have a need to know what it is that we are a part of. Perhaps only then can we define who we are and in the early days this identity may have been the beginning of knowing oneself.
What is spirituality?
The neurochemical reality of belief
Consider the believer and her spiritual sense—her spirituality—and the underlying reality of it. SPIRITUALITY is an experience of certain internal mental states. One example from the nascent science of neurotheology is the increase in activity in some brain regions while other areas shut down producing a sense of oneness with everything. Similarly, a release of neurochemicals, serotonin, oxytocin, dopamine and others, reward us by producing a pleasurable state when stimulated by spiritual thoughts, beliefs, or experiences. (This is not to say that we didn’t have to learn to make this association before rewards would come. It’s certain that we did.)
Consider this thought experiment. A young believer feels like she’s experiencing the divine. The right neural pathways fire. The right neurochemicals flow into the right brain regions so that she has a convincing experience validated by her feelings. The believer senses she’s had a brush with the spiritual realm, perhaps her god or her savior. She senses it, physically and emotionally and infers that she’s experienced it spiritually. (The nonbeliever has a somewhat different experience as he doesn’t attribute his buoyant mood or intellectual epiphany to the supernatural.)
Consider this. I have a rewarding experience, let’s say, while writing aspirational thoughts on the ennoblement of the human spirit. Consequently, the same neural circuits fire within me, the right brain regions become active or inactive, and the same neurochemicals reward my brain just as they did the believer.
Is the believer’s experience spiritual while mine is not? Obviously not.
If the thought or activity elicits the same neurochemical response that produces the same feeling or excited experience that happens within a religious setting, then it is a “spiritual experience” though of a truly secular nature.
Natural selection programmed us to experience an extra tweak from the religious experience—a little nudge to make believers out of us. It would have had tremendous survival value for each individual (as well as the entire troupe) to be devoted participants in the vital tribal religion. Religion bonds the individuals and undergirds the social structure strengthening all to a greater degree than would be possible without it.
Religiosity/spirituality has an organic source within us. It grew up with humanity. It is in our DNA, not a single God gene, possibly a suite of genes or even some aggregation of genes and epigenes which support our innate propensity for religiosity and spirituality. At least that’s the hypothesis that seems to have the most explanatory power and best fits the reality we’re experiencing. It remains for genomic research to sort out.
Believers who reject organized religion say they are “spiritual, but not religious.” The New Age people have given us an example how we too can wrest our spirituality back from organized religion. The New Agers just aren’t noisy about it and their pronouncements, platitudinous as they are, don’t sound so threatening to other believers.
People want the spiritual experience—to transcend the world, to be above and outside the mundane. Life seems unvalidated without it. They want to have faith, to believe so badly that they simply do it. That’s the reality they want so they accept it, adopt it, and live it.
Why would the nonbelieving community care about spirituality? We’re not blank slates. We’re all hardwired for belief so nonbelievers too have spiritual needs (certainly some less than others). The nonbeliever, too, endures some discomfort in foregoing the meeting of that need.
Most of us want to achieve a level of fulfillment and wholeness in our lives. We wish for something significant to satiate that need inside, to quell our angst, our drive for spiritual satisfaction. We seem to suffer when we deny or suppress our spirituality while those engaged in the most farfetched belief practices seem to benefit from it.
In spite of the recent growth of evangelical Christians there is also growing skepticism of the existence of a spiritual realm. That doubt in the face of an ever-present spiritual need—that may be the dilemma of the Postmodern Age—we are spiritual beings in a completely secular universe. Maybe that will be, for the long haul, humankind’s dilemma. As meaning seekers we will have to seek it elsewhere. It remains to be seen if this spiritual need must be met in order to have a healthy and viable society.
It’s been the rising human spirit that’s brought forth everything good in the world and some of it has been inspired by the idea of a transcendent god. Our collective human spirit can’t remain devoted only to a god, though, and expect that to be the responsive, viable vehicle needed to meet humanity’s spiritual needs.
Many believers want to act upon their compassion for their fellow man. If we can all exercise mutual compassion, we could bring to an end that old mindset that one faith is pitted against another and that nonbelievers are embattled by believers. We may still be challenged by extreme fundamentalism, but that’s not all of Christianity—or any other religion. We should emulate the wish of the young evangelist who said that he wanted his neighbor’s world to be better because a Christian was in it. We should all be worthy of expressing that sentiment.
We should make a new beginning, welcoming all religions into the larger fold of universal human values. Can we agree to rise above our divisive beliefs and ideologies to embrace the humanity that is everywhere in the world? If we are to reach humanity’s next plateau we must. We should all reach over the belief divide and offer common cause in our hopes and dreams and good works projects.
We must no longer allow religious belief to divide us. We must openly invite theists and nontheists of good will to come together in tolerance and understanding. We have some things in common. Goodwill toward humanity. A future to share.
The most spiritual of the religious persuasions have nothing more than the nonbelievers have. We are all in a material world. Spiritual doesn’t have to mean supernatural like ghosts, gods, demons, angels, or devils, if spiritual experiences are the same mental phenomenon that nonbelievers have. On this side of a divide between the real world and some hypothetical spiritual realm, we, believers and nonbelievers, have neurochemically generated our peak experiences, epiphanies, and the sort. “Spiritual” for believers and for nonbelievers ultimately is the same thing. It’s a sense, a feeling. How we interpret it is what’s different.
If we do bring upon the world whatever we dwell on, can’t we choose human unity? Is it incompatible with human nature? Humanity does mature over time. We can set goals for our future and rise to meet them.
While the United Nations brings the world’s governments together, the aspiration of worldwide human union could bring humanity together. If social media could enable the Arab Spring, imagine the strength of persuasion the Earth’s population could bring to bear.
The better religions already had grand aspirations for humanity within them. That’s why their better parts have universal appeal while their dogmatic content does not. We do seek the noblest forms of humanity—and we always will. It is for each of us to seek that within ourselves.
Affirm the humanity that unites us not the beliefs that divide us.
Humanity is our only hope. It’s who we are and it’s all we have. When the world wants to badly enough we can all come together, then slowly we will be healed and become whole. The highest aspirations of humankind will be realized, the oneness of humanity and the equitable treatment of all.
The fourteenth Dalai Lama has called for a true kinship of the faiths. We must do more than have the religious leaders meet occasionally. If humanity’s spirituality is the common source among religions, and even nonbelievers can feel the need, let it be the uniting force.
The noblest aspirations of religion distill down to love and compassion for humanity. Though our figurative human spirits may not be the immortal variety, when we share our visions for humanity, if we truly have humankind’s best interest at heart, those spirits will unite in a common bond and divisive beliefs in the supernatural, erroneous cosmology, flawed morality, and humanity-negating dogma will fall away.
Aspire! Speak of our one humanity. Suggest human unity. If we continue to try with goodwill toward all, we can ultimately make our oneness real by a confluence of the people.
How will nonbelievers fare in a confluence of faith and humanity? We’ll have faith in humankind that when they’ve blunted the barbs of each religion, we’ll all fare well.