On personal spiritualism and liberal religiosity

A little while back a friend asked me if I thought that recent violent acts by religious fundamentalists have stained the benefits of interiorized spirituality. Since this is a good question and one at the heart of much of my thinking on religion and “spirituality” (I’ll explain the shutter quotes later), I figured I’d make my response a fairly detailed blog post, and also address some related issues that she may not have actually had in mind.

Here is the question as she posed it:

“wouldn’t you say though that recent violent acts (various) by religious fundamentalists have stained the benefits of interiorized spirituality (not ritual religion)???”

The first step in addressing this question is to ask: i) What is “interiorized spirituality” as opposed to ritual religion?, and ii) What are the benefits of it?

By interiorized spirituality, I figure that she intends the following: i) liberal (i.e., nonfundamentalist, nonjudgmental) theistic religiosity practiced largely outside of a church setting, primarily on one’s own; and ii) unspecified deistic spiritualism (i.e., believing in a higher power, but not claiming to know the power’s name, moral preferences, etc.) embraced by methods such as meditation; and iii) nonsupernatural “spiritualism” such as secular mindfulness meditation (the shutter quotes reflect how spiritualism, while often used in this context and one of the better communicative terms we have for this purpose, is nevertheless a rather poor word to describe the mindfulness-cultivating practices of those who do not believe in any sort of spirits and whose practices have nothing to do with spirits).

What are the benefits of these practices? For mindfulness-based practices, the benefits are many: improved concentration, insight into one’s own thinking, values and priorities, wisdom through insight, a decreased sense of separation from others and one’s environment, relaxation, and so on. For the latter two categories, benefits could include reviewing one’s values and priorities, studying a popular branch of moral and existential philosophy (e.g., Christianity), relaxation, decreasing one’s sense of separatedness from the world and others, a source of reassurance and support, and a sense of meaning, purpose and an anchor for morality. Another benefit for each of these practices is the sense of connection to others that one meets who engage in similar practices.

So, do I think that the acts of some religious fundamentalists put a stain on interiorized spirituality? I’ll address each category of spirituality separately.

Nonsupernatural (Secular) “Spiritualism” (Mindfulness Meditation)

I do not think that religious fundamentalists behaving badly will have any negative impact on this group. In fact, unless fundamentalists begin to specifically attack this group, I imagine that fundamentalists will only promote secular “spiritualism”. The reason for this being that the more ridiculous the fundamentalists are, the more many people begin to question religion as a whole, the more attention people like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris get, and consequently, the more an increasing number of people may begin looking for non-religious alternatives to spiritualism.

Unspecified Deistic Spiritualism

My response here is similar to that for the previous category. To the extent that fundamentalists behave badly, they could create a bad name for the religion (e.g., Christianity, Islam, Judaism) as a whole. Consequently, certain people may go looking for alternatives. For those inclined toward belief in a God, a non-specified deistic spiritualism might be appealing.

Independent Liberal Theism

A person with a well-developed liberal theism (e.g., a thoroughly practiced liberal Christian) could continue on with little interruption, as they would clearly distinguish their perspective on Christianity from fundamentalists who might attack an abortion clinic, fiercely rally against stem cell research and gay marriage, and curse Muslims and atheists as the scum of the Earth. Similar for a thoroughly practiced liberal Muslim.

What about those with less-developed liberal faiths? These people could have their religious affiliation shaken by the behaviour of fundamentalists in conjunction with the response of people like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. Some of these people may never have even read their religious scripture, or may have only gotten the Sunday School version – i.e., a cherry-picked assembly of the warm, fuzzy, thought-provoking, wisdom-conducive, prosocial readings, with the sections discussing slavery, stonings, slayings, rapings, genocides, subordination of women, and all the other less pleasant content largely ignored.

My Thoughts on the Three Categories of Spiritualism

Nonsupernatural Secular Mindfulness Practices

I have great respect for these practices. In fact, I practice mindfulness meditation myself, along with application of the tools of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. The tandem of meditation with CBT, often called Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), constitutes an excellent set of practices for the cultivation of insight, wisdom, improved psychological well-being, decreased depression and anxiety, improved focus, present-moment orientation (or, mindfulness), and relaxation. Further, by promoting a decreased sense of detachment from others and the world, an increased sensitivity to moment-to-moment experience, and insight with regard to one’s priorities and what’s “really important” (e.g., realizing that there is more to life than the competition of the rat race), mindfulness meditation could even promote prosociality.

Mindfulness meditation practiced in conjunction with CBT can be further supplemented with consideration of various schools of thought on moral and existential philosophy, and all of this can be done independently and in a group setting. We have here the building blocks here for an enriching engaging prosocial secular community. I hope to one day help in realizing such a community.

Liberal Theism and Spiritual Deism

While I can certainly acknowledge that people within these categories are generally harmless, sometimes motivated to engage in prosocial behaviours by their beliefs, and find their faith to be personally and socially beneficial, there are many personal and social risks created by liberal theism and spiritual deism.  These problems are generally rooted in the fact that these beliefs are not held in isolation from the rest of the person’s sense of personal and social identity and their worldviews. Rather, they are central pillars. They are at the core of many believers’ beliefs regarding right and wrong, how to live, why to live, what to live for, what really matters, what happens after death, and the all important question for those who feel they’ve been dealt a bad hand in life: is this a just world?

Because of how emotionally and existentially loaded even liberal religious beliefs can become, even liberal religionists can be dogmatically committed to their beliefs; they’ve got so much riding on them! They may not have any interest of imposing their beliefs on others, but no amount of rational argumentation will move many of them to seriously call their beliefs into questions. Because of their deep personal commitment to their beliefs, they are often very displeased when their beliefs are called into question and are displeased all the more when, upon not being able to defend their beliefs on rational grounds, they do not nevertheless receive respect for their beliefs. Not only have their core beliefs been threatened on epistemological grounds, but their sense of entitlement to epistemological respect has been violated. [Note: I have produced a list of pitfalls that every religious argument that I have ever heard has fallen into, here]

This sense of displeasure at having one’s religious beliefs challenged and criticized and the sense of entitlement to have one’s rationally unfounded beliefs respected as a simple matter of common courtesy is the cause and consequence of our social rules which we call political correctness with respect to religion. Because certain – read: most people – have deeply invested themselves and their communities in a set of rationally untenable beliefs, these beliefs are outside of the bounds of criticism in many sectors of discourse. So, when there are federal hearings on the legality of abortion, stem cell research, or gay marriage, or when tax dollars are being wasted over hearings regarding the teaching of Intelligent Design/Creationism in schools, we cannot simply say: “but your religious beliefs are completely unfounded and thus carry zero weight”. We are effectively hand-cuffed in these situations, and religious moderates have as much to do with this as anybody. When the subject of criticizing religious beliefs come up, it is reliably the religious moderate that is the first to jump up and demand “religious tolerance”. It’s not the religious fundamentalist. They’ll only jump up if you criticize their beliefs. You’ll also get a fair number of appeasing atheists and agnostics jumping up along with the moderates. The primary reason for this is that many of these nonreligionists have been duped into thinking that it is inappropriate to subject religious beliefs to the same degree of criticism that one would not only be allowed but be expected to apply to other rationales for political decisions. Our political correctness with regard to religion is impeding our ability to be honest, rational, prudent and fair in politics – even when dealing with policies launched by religious fundamentalists in the name of their faith. This political correctness is also an impediment in other areas, such as science classrooms where many teachers feel unnecessarily fearful or apologetic for teaching evolution.

Taking an even bigger picture approach, religion as a whole seems to be a social destabilizer. When we have many individuals and communities revolving around rationally untenable beliefs, dogmatism is guaranteed. And when more than one of these belief systems exist – which they do – potentially volatile us/them-ism can readily develop. As if differences in skin colour, language, face and body structures, and culture weren’t enough to create gulfs between groups, we now have gulfs with respect to different communities’ ways of conceptualizing the most important issues with regard to individual and social life! When individuals and communities tie their identities and senses of purpose, meaning, morality, and so on to a set of rationally untenable ideas, insecurity of the highest and most volatile order is rarely very far off.

One of the things that makes this so unfortunate is how unnecessary it is. We can live moral, “spiritually”-enriched, rewarding personal and social lives without having to hold any unfounded beliefs. As discussed above, mindfulness-based approaches could serve as a foundational pillar to all of this.

While I have no interest in forcing religion out of people’s lives (in fact, I would stand up against such conduct), I do support the complete loosening of the constraints against criticizing religion. I think that our society would be well-served by moving away from religiosity and toward the type of secular “spiritualism” I described above. But such a transition should and can only occur on people’s own terms. Necessary first steps for the promotion of this sort of transition include the enabling of speech critical of religion, discussion on how religious belief (even when liberal) is ripe for dogmatism, and establishing secular cultural alternatives.

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