Spirituality can be an uncomfortable word for atheists. But does it deserve the antagonism that it gets?
- While the anti-scientific bias of religious fundamentalism requires condemnation, if we take a broader view, does the human inclination towards spiritual practice still require the same antagonism? The answer, I think, is a definitive "No."
- Rather than ontological claims about what exists in the universe, the terms spiritual and sacred can describe the character of an experience. Instead of a "thing" they can refer to an attitude or an approach.
- One can be entirely faithful to the path of inquiry and honesty that is science while making it one aspect of a broader practice embracing the totality of your experience as a human being in this more-than-human world.
The tension between science and religion is old news to us moderns. Historical events like the Catholic Church's trial of Galileo or the Scopes Monkey Trial over teaching Darwin in schools, seem to imply that religion and science are incompatible. More recently, writers like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and other 'New Atheists' have been vigorous in their condemnation of the anti-scientific bias of religious fundamentalism. But if we take a broader view beyond these fundamentalisms, if we ask about the human inclination towards spiritual practice in general, do we still have to find the same antagonism? The answer, I think, is a definitive "No." And that answer is important as we consider the totality of what it means to be human.
First, it's important to distinguish between religion and what I'll call spiritual practice. In his excellent book "Sapiens," Yuval Noah Harari defines religion as "a system of human norms and values that is founded in the belief in a superhuman order." There are two parts of this definition that are important for our discussion. First is the "system of human norms." That phrase points to a lot of stuff, but it also means politics. There is an aspect of organized religion that has always been about establishing and enforcing social norms: Who is an authority; who justifies who is in charge; who marries whom; who tells you how to behave. This aspect of religion is about power within social hierarchies.
The second part of Harari's definition refers to a "superhuman order." Note that he does not say a "supernatural" order. Why? Because some religions like Buddhism don't pivot around the existence of an all-powerful deity. This distinction is important because it allows you to see a point many scholars of religion have made after looking at the long human history of what I'll call spiritual endeavor. From our beginnings as hunter-gathers, we have always been responding to a sense of a "superhuman order." That response has taken many different forms from beautiful paintings on cave walls to beautiful paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Even though I consider myself an atheist, experiences of a superhuman order have been with me since I was a kid.
In my first book, I looked in depth at this response, its history, and its relation to science. Even though I consider myself an atheist, experiences of a superhuman order have been with me since I was a kid. Heck, that's what science was to me—an order expressible in mathematics beyond the purely human. In fact, many of my deepest experiences of being alive had come to me through my scientific practice. Working through some line of mathematical reasoning or encountering some image of a nebula or galaxy, I'd get thrust into an overwhelming sense of the universe's presence, of its perfect unity and wholeness. At first, I saw the laws of physics as the source of that order but as I got older my focus widened.
Now, one could say that my experiences were "just awe" and nothing more. But as the great scholar of religion, Rudolph Otto noted, awe is the essential component of a spiritual experience. It is an encounter with what other scholars have called "sacredness."
So, what are we to make of these words "spiritual" and "sacred"? Some strident atheists recoil at these terms because they believe they must entail a belief in supernatural entities. This is a mistake. Both can point to something much broader. Rather than ontological claims about what exists in the universe, spiritual and sacred can describe the character of an experience. Instead of a "thing", they can refer to an attitude or an approach. This is the central point William James made in his masterwork "The Varieties of Religious Experience." To speak about sacredness is to understand that some experiences (the birth of your child, coming upon a silent forest glade, hearing a powerful symphony) evoke an order that is more than just our thoughts about that order. And to speak of "the spiritual" can call to the highest aspects of the human spirit: compassion, kindness, empathy, generosity, love.
This kind of understanding of spiritual and sacred have always been with us and they may, or may not, have anything to do with a particular religion. This is where we can draw a distinction between a spiritual practice and a religious one. In a spiritual practice, people purposely attempt to deepen their lived sense of the superhuman order they experience. It is, literally, a practice. You work on it every day, perhaps using meditation or ritual or service to others. The methods differ but the daily application and aspiration are the same.
The important point is that spiritual practice has a purpose: transformation. It is to become a person who lives in accord with that sense of experienced order, that sacredness. Such a lifelong aspiration and effort can happen within an individual religious tradition if there are domains within that tradition that truly support this kind of interior work. Unfortunately, the politics of religion can sometimes keep this from happening. As scholars Joseph Campbell, Walter Houston Clark, and others have said, church can be a "vaccination" against the real thing.
It's also possible to build such a practice outside of established religious tradition. In that case, the difficulty comes in inventing forms that can support a lifelong practice. There is something to be said for traditions or rituals that have endured for many generations and the best of these often occur within some religious traditions.
The bottom line is human beings have felt the need for spiritual practice for a long, long time. That means that even as participation in traditional religions drops, people claiming to be "spiritual but not religious" and people who embrace science continue to grow. The writer Annaka Harris and her spouse New Atheist Sam Harris are, for example, strong defenders of science. They have also both written about the importance of contemplative practice in their lives.
I have long argued that science is one way that the aspiration to know the true and the real is expressed. It is one way we express that sense of an order beyond us. But there are other ways that go beyond descriptions and explanation, and all of them make up the totality of being human. That means you can embrace science in all its power and still embed it within the larger context of human experience. All of us can be entirely faithful to the path of inquiry and honesty that is science while making it one aspect of a practice meant to embrace the fullness of your experience as a human in this more-than-human world.
Is death the final frontier? We ask scientists, philosophers, and spiritual leaders about life after death.
- Death is inevitable for all known living things. However on the question of what, if anything, comes after life, the most honest answer is that no one knows.
- So far, there is no scientific evidence to prove or disprove what happens after we die. In this video, astronomer Michelle Thaller, neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris, science educator Bill Nye, and others consider what an afterlife would look like, what the biblical concepts of 'eternal life' and 'hell' really mean, why so many people around the world choose to believe that death is not the end, and whether or not that belief is ultimately detrimental or beneficial to one's life.
- Life after death is also not relegated to discussions of religion. "Digital and genetic immortality are within reach," says theoretical physicist Michio Kaku. Kaku shares how, in the future, we may be able to physically talk to the dead thanks to hologram technology and the digitization of our online lives, memories, and connectome.
Christians and Muslims that pick out unconscious patterns are more likely to believe in a god.
- Georgetown researchers found strong implicit pattern learning implies belief in a god.
- The study included American Christians and Afghani Muslims, representing two different religious and cultural backgrounds.
- Further research on polytheistic religious believers could provide insights into a cognitive basis of religion.
In Genesis 1:27, one of the writers of the Bible claims that "God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created them." The reverse is most likely true: man created a god with his attributes. Physical features are not the only qualities gods share with humans. Pattern recognition appears to be another.
A god that can make sense out of patterns in nature is certainly a powerful being. According to a new study from Georgetown University, it appears that humans endowed with this skill are more likely to believe in a god.
The team, led by Adam Green, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology and Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience, writes that religious variability is common. Universal themes might be extracted from disparate regions, but each of the hundreds of religious practices that came be known broadly as Hinduism espouse different ideas.
The same holds true for every religion: Buddhism has a "great vehicle" and a lesser one; Shia practices are wildly different than Sufis; Japanese Buddhists practice quite different rituals than California Buddhists; what's divine in one Christian sect is blasphemy in another. While the more fervent religious believe their views to be correct, open-minded believers are likely to see the possibility of communication.
To combat the problem of relativism, Green's team chose volunteers from American Christians and Afghani Muslims, two varied religious and cultural samples. They wanted to know if implicit pattern learning—"perceptual mechanisms evolved for predictive processing of environmental information"—is a predictor of belief in a god.
Why religion is literally false and metaphorically true | Bret Weinstein | Big Think
The answer, according to their research, is yes. As Green notes,
"This is not a study about whether God exists, this is a study about why and how brains come to believe in gods. Our hypothesis is that people whose brains are good at subconsciously discerning patterns in their environment may ascribe those patterns to the hand of a higher power."
Consciousness only provides a sliver of data that our brains pay attention to. Bottom-up processes operate below the conscious threshold, such as the biological operations that maintain our body's homeostasis. Threat detection and other forms of perception are also processed from the bottom-up, although, as the authors write, top-down processing is not an entirely separate domain. The two inform one another.
Intuition is another example of bottom-up processing that appears in consciousness. We pick up signals from our environment and process it unconsciously all the time.
"Because individuals are not aware of such bottom-up influences, intuitions drawn from unconscious processing may instead be consciously interpreted via explicit belief narratives that provide a rationalized context for beliefs and behaviors."
A general view of the beach and a surfer as photographed on March 20, 2014 in Marina del Rey, California.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
Face processing, implicit racial bias, and pathogen avoidance provide further context. In fact, cleansing rituals likely evolved from an unconscious fear of disease. Our ancestors applied a spiritual dimension to their bathing rituals to make sense out of unconscious drives.
For this study, 199 (mostly) Christian volunteers in Washington, D.C. and 149 Muslims in Kabul watched a sequence of dots on a computer screen. They were tasked to press a corresponding button every time a dot appeared. Participants with strong implicit learning abilities began to unconsciously recognize patterns in the appearance of the dots, preemptively hitting the corresponding button before they appeared. None of the volunteers claimed to have seen a pattern, suggesting their guesses were unconscious.
The team observed a link between the strongest implicit learners and religious belief. Recognizing patterns before they appear is correlated with belief in a god. The team was surprised to discover such a strong correlation between two disparate religious and cultural groups, suggesting the potential of a universal theme. As Green notes,
"A brain that is more predisposed to implicit pattern learning may be more inclined to believe in a god no matter where in the world that brain happens to find itself, or in which religious context."
An interesting next step could be studying polytheistic groups, where pattern recognition is likely stronger. It's one thing to give credit to one god for everything, but quite another to assign a variety of divine figures for the relationships between natural phenomena.
The authors conclude that they cannot write off top-down processing as part of religious belief. Indeed, faith likes has multivariate influences. Still, this research details another cognitive basis of belief, highlighting common ground we all share regardless of the form of our deities.
Placing science and religion at opposite ends of the belief spectrum is to ignore their unique purposes.
- Science and religion (fact versus faith) are often seen as two incongruous groups. When you consider the purpose of each and the questions that they seek to answer, the comparison becomes less black and white.
- This video features religious scholars, a primatologist, a neuroendocrinologist, a comedian, and other brilliant minds considering, among other things, the evolutionary function that religion serves, the power of symbols, and the human need to learn, explore, and know the world around us so that it becomes a less scary place.
- "I think most people are actually kind of comfortable with the idea that science is a reliable way to learn about nature, but it's not the whole story and there's a place also for religion, for faith, for theology, for philosophy," says Francis Collins, American geneticist and director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). "But that harmony perspective doesn't get as much attention. Nobody is as interested in harmony as they are in conflict."
We should care about constitutional rights for all, says lawyer and religious freedom scholar Asma T. Uddin. If they are denied for some, history demonstrates how they may be at risk for us all.
- Islam is being challenged as a religion in America today. Opponents claim it is not a religion, but a dangerous political ideology.
- Lawyer and religious freedom scholar Asma T. Uddin challenges that view and explains why it is a threat to the religious liberty of all Americans, not just Muslims.
- In U.S. history, Catholics, Jews, and Mormons have all been "denationalized" as Americans and persecuted for their beliefs. This destructive precedent is a threat to all Americans, across all belief systems.
Dressed in an all-white suit with a white tie, attorney Joe Brandon, Jr., paced back and forth in the county courthouse in Rutherford County, Tennessee, in 2010, peppering witnesses with incendiary questions. During some of the proceedings, Brandon wore brightly colored ties with checkered shirts and checkered suits. In all of his looks, he channeled the brash comedians from the 1950s and 1960s—except that Brandon's stage was an American courtroom, and in this courtroom, Islam was on trial.
"Isn't it true that in the Qur'an, Mohammad had a six-year-old wife that he had sex with … Is that your idea of what a religion is?"
"Sharia law includes instruction on how to beat your wife … How is Sharia law going to affect our society, our jobs and our freedoms?"
"How can something be called a religion that promotes the abuse of women?"
"Do you believe in having sex with children?"
Brandon represented four residents who were challenging the county's issuance of a construction permit to the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro to build a mosque. The residents' concern was that the county had treated mosques like any other house of worship, and Islam like any other religion, when in fact, in their view, Islam was not a religion at all. They believed Islam was actually a dangerous political ideology that posed security threats to the local community and to America. This, precisely, is what Brandon argued in court.
The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro in Tennessee.
Photo: Saleh M. Sbenaty/Wikimedia Commons
The "circus," as a county attorney called it, went on for six days. It troubled me then, and continues to trouble me today, and not just because I am an American Muslim. It troubles me because I value and seek to protect all Americans' religious liberty. I see, perhaps more clearly than many others, that the claim used against Islam in Murfreesboro can be used against followers of any other religion, too.
In fact, historically, it has been used against other groups. In 19th-century America, nativists resented the new influx of Catholic immigrants. The anti-Catholic animosity was so strong that, on more than one occasion, it resulted in mass violence. As with anti-Muslim claims today, American nativists claimed that the Catholic Church acted as a foreign entity with monarchical tendencies, portraying the Catholic Church as incompatible with American democracy and calling into question the loyalty of Catholic citizens. Even as recently as John F. Kennedy's run for the presidency in 1960, prominent Americans claimed that the Vatican would exert nefarious political influence if a Kennedy, a Catholic, won the White House.
Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, and his brother, Hyrum Smith, were killed by a mob in Carthage, Illinois, on June 27, 1844.
Lithograph source: Library of Congress
None of this is new. A few decades before Kennedy's campaign, Henry Ford distributed the tract, "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," an anti-Semitic fabrication that falsely claimed to detail meetings of Jewish elders seeking to control the press and the world economies. Mormons, or members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, have also faced immense persecution in the United States. In 1838, Missouri governor Lilburn W. Boggs issued an expulsion and extermination order directing Missourians to treat Mormons as "enemies" who "must be exterminated or driven from the State if necessary." In 1883, Mormons faced what many have called a precursor to President Trump's travel ban. That year, President Grover Cleveland asked Congress to find a way to "prevent the importation of Mormons into the country." And in 1903, after the election of US Senator and Mormon apostle Reed Smoot, the U.S. Senate subjected Smoot's faith to a four-year proceeding because it feared Smoot's role as an apostle in the Mormon Church made him loyal to the Church over U.S. laws.
In each of these cases, the marginalized religious community has experienced what Yale historian Timothy Snyder calls "denationalization." This, he says, means, "You take people who are your neighbors and you define them not primarily as your neighbors and fellow citizens but primarily with some larger world community, all of whose members hold the same views." Today, Muslims are the ones denationalized, in some of our laws and in our public perception of Muslims' rights. But while Muslims are the latest victims, the attacks on their rights impacts all Americans.
Again, history bears out this point. When hostility against a specific group results in particular laws targeting them, those laws may later impact a much broader group. For example, the denationalization of Catholics in the 19th century culminated in the formation of a political party, the Know-Nothing Party, which sought a type of political purity and advocated for laws that banned public aid to parochial schools and prohibited public school teachers from wearing religious garb. The anti-garb statutes targeted Catholic nuns, and both sets of laws sought to limit Catholic influence over American public life. While these laws are rooted in anti-Catholic animus, today they impact people of every religion. Pennsylvania uses the religious garb ban against Sikh teachers in turbans and Muslim teachers in headscarves. And the ban on aid to parochial schools is used by many states against religious schools of all types.
"I see, perhaps more clearly than many others, that the claim used against Islam in Murfreesboro can be used against followers of any other religion, too."
In today's context, if we cede power to the government to regulate Muslim religious practice more heavily than it regulates other religious practices, we create a precedent that will ultimately limit all Americans' liberty. For example, if courts and legislatures are empowered to accept Brandon's claim that Islam is not a religion and Muslims do not have religious freedom, they can accept those claims about every other religious group the majority may fear or hate. If, as some prominent individuals want them to, courts start to parse Islamic doctrine to decide which parts are acceptable or likeable and which aren't, they open the door to courts parsing the beliefs of every other religious group, too.
This is not to say that all religious acts are protected—those that pose serious risks to life, safety, national security, and other government interests the law calls "compelling," can be legitimately restricted. But what Brandon sought when he tried stopping the construction of a mosque, what 19th century nativists sought when they wanted to keep nuns out of public schools, and what the U.S. Senate sought when it grilled Senator Smoot, is much broader. It has nothing to do with pragmatism and the protection of compelling interests, and everything to do with a fear and hatred that is capable of subsuming all Americans' rights.