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I never meta eulogy of an idea I didn’t like April 21, 2013

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Religion.
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In dealing with periodic depression and even moments of feeling invincible, powerful, and brilliant (which I know I am not), I sometimes have this sensation of this overwhelming sense of certainty concerning the thoughts which inhabit my mind.  When I feel confident, I believe it.  When I feel powerless, I believe it.  And sometimes, not often but significantly, I have another kind of experience associated with a different kind of certainty; not of the nature of the world, but of my relationship to it.

It is a feeling of transcendence, being able to comprehend issues in a way which are barely articulate, but which my mind is able to dance with freely for a little while.  And then it goes away, and I am unable to describe it well in many cases.  Sometimes, these ideas turn into blog posts.  This is not an example.

In fact, the idea I did have earlier today, while at work, fizzled away as I had no time to jot down the mnemonic phrase which would have stored it for me for later.  This post is, in fact, started as an attempt to resurrect this idea, but is turning into a meta-idea about a dead idea.  A eulogy of sorts.

The ideas contained here are the neighbors of this idea, vaguely related by adjacency and possibly kinship, but missing it almost entirely.  Like the dead, I can now only speak of it in vague, impersonal terms.  I knew this idea, for a moment, but it is gone now perhaps to never be met again.  So, rather than merely despair at it’s loss, perhaps we should meet it’s family and perhaps a piece of it will shimmer through them.

There is a feeling that I have, sometimes, which I could call spiritual.  In fact, I used to think of it in this way (sort of), until I started to think about the concept of spirituality and found it to be an empty, meaningless term.  It simply does not point to anything.  It seems to point to something, and this seeming is tied to very powerful parts of our mind, and so this seeming is overwhelming and convincing.

I am not sure, but I think that this type of experience is what people refer to when they talk about having spiritual experiences.  I’ve had them all of my life, but never associated them with either god or anything else supernatural.  What association I used to have with them, while younger, would have been with some sort of Buddhist enlightenment, Taoist insight into the Dao, or perhaps even apprehending a part of Tillich’s Ground of Being.

But don’t worry, you have not lost me to any religious rebirth, or even a crisis of lack-of-faith.  In fact, I have been aware of such concepts, both intellectually and experientially, for many years.  I just never interpreted them as anything (much) more than my brain being weird.  In centuries past, I might have had little choice but to choose a religious life of sorts, having the proclivities to think about things in the ways that many mystics have in the past.  I’m glad I’m alive now.  This life is much more to my liking than that of a monk or strange religious hermit.

Yeah, I’m some sort of atheist mystic.  HA!  Saint ShaunPhilly, indeed.

This sensation usually leaves me with a strong feeling of community and connection to others.  I feel stronger emotional ties to people in my life after such experiences.  I have the sensation of being tied to people around me by some bond, almost tribal in nature, which is almost compelling enough to give the spiritual-but-not-religious some slack.

Almost.

But because I’m also very prone to self-challenging moments of skepticism (OK, cynicism too), I realize that this sensation is an illusion.  And so when I talk with people who get caught up in describing things this way, and tie it to some religious worldview, vague spirituality, etc I am both amused and annoyed.  In such moments I’m watching people rationalize a completely natural brain phenomenon (an interesting one, no doubt) as a spiritual experience, and they are interpreting it as some truth about the universe, and not just a truth about how consciousness often does NOT correlate with reality.

Yes, such experiences teach us things about ourselves, but usually mostly in the context of how the brain processes which make us up operate in relation to reality, and not about reality itself.  Self knowledge and perspective are important, but we do need to have a skeptical method (science) at hand to check our conclusions against.  We need to check our biases, as well as we can, to make sure that we don’t draw the wrong conclusions.

Because when we draw conclusions (which often occurs in a cultural context which is drenched in religious and theological baggage) without skeptical checks, we start to divide ourselves into doctrinal tribes via the similarity of our conclusions.  But we have to be careful to not think I’m talking about religion per se here, because this is a thing we all do (atheists included) and is not limited to religion.

The tribalism which religion utilizes in order to build community, but also to build walls, seems tied to this sense of connectedness which I was describing above.  Granted, for some this connectedness is associated with a human family (these tend to be liberals) rather than a nationalistic or truly tribal connectedness (conservatives).  This sense of tribalism is more fundamental than religion, but religion uses it well.

Religion is not the source of anything accept its own peculiar theological logic puzzles.  Religion is, rather, a strange combination of various cognitive, emotional, and social behaviors and processes.  Getting rid of religion would solve nothing.  Instead, we need to be focused on improving our awareness of how the basic parts of human behavior–emotional blind spots, cognitive biases, and social herd behavior–influence our worldviews and beliefs, so that we can be sure that those beliefs are rational.

In short, we need to be more aware of how our private experience leads to emergent properties in human behavior.  We only have control (limited though it is) of our own mind, and our influence of others will grow from this.

Have you ever been socially talking with a bunch of liberal-minded people about religion?  You know, the types who are not religious themselves (or only vaguely so), but who will speak very respectfully about religions and view criticism as some angry and irrational hatred of other people’s beliefs? They don’t believe any of it (or most of it, at least), but they will not tolerate criticism of people’s sacred cows.  You know, those shouting “Islamophobia” recently.

No?

Well, I have.  Hell, I graduated from  a Quaker school in liberal Philadelphia, so this was my upbringing.  What I learned, over the years is that in many cases what is happening in such encounters was that these spiritual thoughts, feelings, and experiences are somewhat common, especially among sensitive and educated liberals (remember, I’m a liberal in many ways myself, so this is in many ways an internal, and in some ways a self-,criticism).  To criticize the concept in general, and not just specific theological claims, is to criticize their own experience (and thus to criticize them).

And I hope I don’t need to tell you that while liberals are much better, at least where politics comes in, at maintaining a rational scientific literacy and understanding, they fail in many ways.  Profoundly.  Big Pharma, sophisticated theology, theistic evolution,  and…dare I say it…New Age….

This “spiritual” awareness it pretty ubiquitous, and pulling away the curtain to reveal the “wizard” behind it is pretty unsettling.  And when people are unsettled, they act tend to act poorly.  All people have qualities, deep inside and unchosen, which are good and bad.  The problem is that religion allows you to rationalize the bad ones, while giving you the sensation of having provided the good ones in the first place.  The sense of community of an idea, of connectedness and belonging, makes it feel acceptable to rationalize terrible thinking.  Because while most of us have the impulse to think certain things, having an organized group of people who call that idea the truth is a means of escape from thinking more about it.

Skeptics and atheists are not, qua skepticism or  atheism, mean or overly-critical people.  But without a doctrine to appeal to, a skeptic is forced to use reason (and hopefully they will do so) when faced with a challenge.  But those who are attached to the spiritual, the religious, and to theology have a bubble around them which keeps them further away from the skeptical tools they have access to.  They are capable of using those tools, but when emotions come into play, they seem to be too far away to get  hold of.

Here’s to more people abandoning that bubble.

And here’s to an idea, lost, but which was born within the family of these ideas and which may one day be raised again.

Maybe on the third day.  I do go back to work then, so it would make it most annoying for it to be then since I’ll likely forget it again.

I swear, if the universe is somehow conscious, it’s a total dick….

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I prefer religion to spirituality October 5, 2010

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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You know how when you are talking to someone about religion and they make some comment about how they agree that religion has been a problem, then they follow-up with saying that’s why they aren’t religious.  Then you smile, and when they continue to say something like “I just have a personal relationship with Jesus” or “I’m just spiritual” you throw up in your mouth, right?

A lot?

Why are you looking at me like that?  That has never happened to you?

Well, nevermind then…

Here’s the thing; religious institutions are not inherently good or bad.  The scandal about the cover-up of child molestation, rape, etc by the Catholic Church is one example of bad, and the civil rights activity of many churches is an example of good.  But inherently, religions are not the problem (nor are they a solution, but I’ll let that go for now).

Now, religion includes many things, and not always belief in gods or spiritual things.  The community, rituals, traditions, architecture, etc that comes with religions are often good things on a social scale, and I freely recognize this and rarely have an issue with the whole religious institution itself.  Hell, even the Catholic Church has some nice things going for it.

But spiritual?  That’s another thing altogether.  First, what the hell does it mean? I have heard all sorts of rationalizations, fumbling definitions about experiences through meditation, prayer, etc.  I know.  I’ve had those experiences myself (some of them, anyway).  It is supposed to be about direct relationships with gods, spirits, powers, or perhaps magick.  But there is no good reason to believe any of it.  None of it survives scrutiny.  It’s all personal experience and anecdote, just like all paranormal woo-woo out there.

Why, if there is anything to spirituality, hasn’t anyone won James Randi’s million dollars?

So when someone says to me that they are not religious, but they are spiritual, I wince because they are admitting that they are trying to disassociate themselves from religious institutions and claim belief in these silly, nebulous, and vague ideas of spirituality.  They are clinging to the part of religion that often is the problem; faith, credulity, and the belief that they are in connection with the powers of the universe.  It’s worse when they claim that they have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ but are not religious.  I just want to slap the old forehead when I hear that one.

(Yes, I mean my forehead)

The idea seems to be that our personal “spiritual” paths are somehow superior to religious tradition.  But spirituality is part of the many religious traditions, people! Those who started new religions, sects, etc were doing similar activities as those who claim they are not religious today.  And, of course, only a few of them did so in any significant way.  Many others were probably often killed or otherwise socially ostracized due to their heresy.

Example: The Buddha was not following the religion of his time and place, he was seeking his own path and created a new one.  His meditation and subsequent ‘enlightenment’ was a personal spiritual exercise outside of the dominant religious tradition, even though it was influenced by it.  He might have said, if he were as unaware as many I’m talking about in this piece, that he was spiritual but not religious.

And that’s why Buddhism is not considered to be a religion today.

(My forehead us really starting to hurt)

It just seems that every schmuck out there who is “spiritual but not religious” is thinking of himself (or herself) as some unique person not going with the mainstream.

Just like everyone else.

(ouch! Why is my palm so hard?)

If you are doing spirituality, you are doing religion.  If you are doing religion, you are probably doing spirituality, of some sort.  Spirituality without religion makes no sense.

I’ll make that simpler.

Spirituality makes no sense.  At least religion gives you community.  And I’ll bet many of you spiritual-but-not-religious people have your own community somewhere, don’t you?

(Seriously, my forehead is red and sore)