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.
There is a lot we don't know about psychedelics, but what we do know makes them extremely important.
- Having been repressed in the 1960s for their ties to the counterculture, psychedelics are currently experiencing a scientific resurgence. In this video, Michael Pollan, Sam Harris, Jason Silva and Ben Goertzel discuss the history of psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin, acknowledge key figures including Timothy Leary and Albert Hoffman, share what the experience of therapeutic tripping can entail, and explain why these substances are important to the future of mental health.
- There is a stigma surrounding psychedelic drugs that some scientists and researchers argue is undeserved. Several experiments over the past decades have shown that, when used correctly, drugs like psilocybin and LSD can have positive effects on the lives of those take them. How they work is not completely understood, but the empirical evidence shows promise in the fields of curbing depression, anxiety, obsession, and even addiction to other substances.
- "There's a tremendous amount of insight that can be plumbed using these various substances. There's also a lot of risks there, as with most valuable things," says artificial intelligence researcher Ben Goertzel. He and others believe that by making psychedelics illegal, modern governments are getting in the way of meaningful research and the development of "cultural institutions to guide people in really productive use of these substances."
Don't let a crisis be wasted. Use this moment to find meaning, purpose, and to refocus on self-care that will improve your mindset and relationships.
How have you been feeling, thinking and acting during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you implementing the right self-care so that you can be the person or leader that you want to be?
In this Big Think Live session, Deepak Chopra, M.D. and author of Metahuman, will bring his concept of "radical well-being" into the coronavirus context and discuss ways we can further our self-care and personal development—even, and especially, in this time of mass uncertainty. Watch the live stream to learn:
- The 3 major threats to well-being posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
- The STOP Method for dealing with stress (Stop, Take 3 deep breaths and smile, Observe your breath, Proceed with awareness and compassion). The goal is to observe your emotions without judgment and shift your mindset toward a restful, alert response rather than a reptilian, primitive one.
- The 4 As for increasing emotional intimacy and connection with others: Attention, Acceptance, Appreciation, and Affection + BONUS: making Amends.
Deepak Chopra's most recent book is the national bestseller Metahuman: Unleashing Your Infinite Potential.
Big Think has launched a line of apparel and goods that celebrate the life and work of four geniuses.
If I have seen further it is by standing on ye sholders of Giants.
– Isaac Newton
Isaac Newton is perhaps the most influential scientist of all time. He discovered and formulated the law of gravity, the classical laws of motion, the nature of color and optics, and invented calculus in his spare time. He invented the reflecting telescope, determined why the planets don't move in perfect circles, and he later went on to invent the little indentations around the side of coins when he was the Master of the Mint for Great Britain. His contributions to science are nearly impossible to overstate.
He's also the reason behind Neil deGrasse Tyson's classic meme.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: My man, Sir Isaac Newton
How deep are America's cultural fault lines? Depends on which data you crunch.
- America is a divided nation, but perhaps its divisions are as much in the eye of the beholder.
- This map charts the geographic fault lines between 'crazy drunk' America and 'bible study' America.
- Strangely, Las Vegas falls in the latter category – and Salt Lake City in the former.
American fault line
One nation, divided between the bible and the bottle
Image courtesy of Boyd L Shearer Jr
America is not one nation – not even two, but a seemingly endless procession of opposites: red vs. blue, black vs. white, coastal vs. heartland, Hispanic vs. Anglo, millennials vs. analog natives. Of course, the precise course and depth of each of those fault lines depends on which type of data you decide to crunch, and how.
Here is a map of the United States divided into two very different – though perhaps not entirely mutually exclusive – demographics. In one corner: 'crazy drunk' – or 'crunk', if you're into the whole brevity thing. In the other: 'bible study'. The raw data for this map was spooned out of the bubbling vat of megatrends and metadata that is Twitter.
"The goal was to determine the mood of the country's population," the mapmakers explain, "whether they were tweeting more about getting drunk or about going to bible study." One might question the methodology of their survey: perhaps the national mood has more than just those two settings; but let's run with this and see what happens.
A Texas three-way: bible, drinking, and neither (or both?)
Image courtesy of Boyd L Shearer Jr
"Roughly 8,000 tweets were collected for each population. The 'crunk' population was created from tweets that said 'Let's get drunk', 'let's get f***ed up' and 'Let's get crunk'. Minor variations were also added to this population, e.g. 'Let's get crazy f***ed up!' The second population was created from tweets that said 'bible study'."
Not every mention in either category was genuine. In their sentiment analysis, the surveyors found an error rate of 4% in the 'crunk' category (i.e. "a mocking or derisive tone about getting drunk"), and 2% in among 'bible study' tweets.
The map shows the results of the survey, plotted in various shades of colour: light and dark orange for a slighter or stronger preponderance of 'crunk' tweets, light and dark blue for a smaller or larger plurality of 'bible study' tweets, and grey for areas where both categories were equal in number, or where too little data was available either way.
Bible belt blues
The South is overwhelmingly blue, for 'bible studies'
Image courtesy of Boyd L Shearer Jr
Not entirely unsurprisingly, "the Bible Belt is clearly shown (in blue), and large urban areas in the South easily favour the 'bible study' tweets". On the other hand, "the greatest concentration of 'crunk' tweets tend to exist in college towns and military bases, both of which are populated by younger twitterers."
Interesting to note are the general rules, and their exceptions.
- Blue dominates in the South, from east Texas all the way to North Carolina and down to Florida.
- Orange holds sway in the Northeast, around the Great Lakes, in the Southwest and on the West Coast.
Trending towards piety
Crunk Megacity: a zone from Boston to Washington DC is dark orange
Image courtesy of Boyd L Shearer Jr
- Texas seems split down the middle, with orange ruling in the southern and central parts, blue in the east and scattered throughout the north and west, and what seems like a slight majority of counties undecided between the two.
- Florida also has its fair share of both shades, but - surely to the surprise of some – seems to trend towards piety rather than hedonism.
- The urban corridor from Boston to Washington is shaded dark orange, representing a large concentration of crunk-leaning tweets.
- Yet despite the general orangeness of the entire area, some areas in the northwest stand out as bible-proof islands in a sea of crunk – notably Aroostook County, the northernmost part of Maine (also because it is the largest county east of the Mississippi).
Orange Utahns and praying in Vegas
Orange Utahns? Yes, and: Who stays in Vegas, prays in Vegas
Image courtesy of Boyd L Shearer Jr
- Similarly, flecks of blue are scattered among the overwhelming majority of orange on the West Coast, for example a rather large area just inland of the San Francisco Bay.
- Curiously, Clark County, Nevada is blue rather than orange. Apparently, who stays in Vegas, prays in Vegas.
- On the other hand, Salt Lake County, the most populous county in Utah (and home to its capital, Salt Lake City) is solidly orange, despite the state's devout reputation.