A: So, do you have any religious beliefs?
B: No, I don’t believe in religion. But I am spiritual, you know?
B: Yeah, you know, I just think we’re all connected by this… energy. There’s a oneness to the universe that flows through everything. It’s kind of like a quantum energy that’s a part of all of us and connects us with everyone else and everything else in the universe, you know? …”
I’m an anti-theist. I stand in opposition to faith-based belief (which is to say belief for no good reason) which perpetuates ignorance, impedes societal progress and, in large part, inflicts considerable harm on our world.
That said, I must admit that I have a greater measure of respect for those with sincere religious convictions (problematic as they may be, and the charlatanism of grifting faith healers and pedophile priests notwithstanding) than I do for those who describe themselves as “spiritual”.
Oh man, do I ever hate that word. “Spiritual”.
To me, it seems there are two kinds of “spiritual” people:
1) Atheists who are too chickenshit to either admit it to themselves, or face living with the social stigma of being branded (gasp!) an atheist, and;
2) People who just really don’t know what the hell they believe at all.
I was there (in that quasi-“spiritual” twilight zone) or pretty close to it, for a longer time than I’d care to admit. (I haven’t yet written part two of “Why I’m an Atheist”, but when I do, I’ll be delving into my semi-woo years). Certain vague, undefined notions, of a “beyond”, an “other side”, some almost Platonic otherworld – all these muddles ideas kept a loose grip on my imagination for years after I’d abandoned the church and the few tiny shreds of Christian faith I’d ever had.
Although I never succeeded in “transcending”, I made serious attempts at transcendent meditation. Ouija board opportunities presented themselves occasionally, and I had tentative hopes for ghostly connections. I briefly dated a witch in college, and while never really persuaded by her assertions of the power of certain charms, trinkets and herbs, the depth of her conviction at least made me wonder if there was something to it.
One of my best friends swore on his life that the story he told me, in great detail, of the ghost that he’d seen, was absolutely true. Who was I to doubt him? My brother from another mother, who I’d trust to my dying day?
The closest times I ever came to “religious” or “spiritual” experiences – and this is the most unsurprising thing in the world – happened under the influence of psychedelics. And the truth is, I highly value those experiences. The sensation that there MUST BE, no, there IS so much more to this reality than we’re able to recognize while bogged down in the mundanity of our everyday lives is not only overwhelming, but accurate.
Amost none of us take time to see the forest for the trees. Most get so wrapped up in our daily schedules, obligations, responsibilities, and last ditch attempts at squeezing in a few good moments that we never just, say, contemplate an apple, wonder how it turned out that way, marvel at how beautiful and shiny its skin is, and say, “Whoooaa…”
Of course, I don’t outright condemn the “spiritual” folks, who in large part are seeking, in Huxley’s words, to cleanse the doors of perception and reclaim the “magical” wonder of the world that so many (very much mistakenly) think that science has reduced to cold calculation.
They’re well intentioned, especially in deliberately breaking from organized religion. I’ve dabbled in “spiritual” myself, and a lot of my friends along the way have had at least one foot in that door.
But at the end of the day, “I’m spiritual” generally translates to “I haven’t really thought this all the way through yet.”
Among the “spiritual”, some believe in “energy” but have no idea how to explain what that means.
Some are interested in pursuing “alternative” medicines, riding on the assumption that “natural is better”.
Without continuing the interminate, detailed list of the many woo ways of the “spiritual”, I’ll simply say that my frustration with this crew flows from two things.
One, to be “spiritual” is to be driven by emotion without regard to reason. On this level, I can empathize. In a world where so many injustices are perpetrated, moral outrage is a reasonable response much of the time. And on a certain level, to seek the higher moral ground is commendable. But that higher ground needs to have a bedrock foundation of reason and scientific legitimacy.
As an example, yes, the health care system has been largely hijacked by the pharmaceutical companies, and yes, that’s an ominous reality. But the proper response is not to reject proven scientific medicine in favor of homeopathy, “kanpou” (traditional Chinese medicine), crystals, or whatever other non-medical remedies might be deemed to be “healthier” or “less harmful”. As a diabetic, I would have died if I’d taken this approach. I say, three cheers for recombinant DNA technology, even if it’s totally “unnatural”.
And yes, I understand that many “spiritual” people do not reject modern medicine altogether. I’m not simply trying to set up a straw man. But many reject, at least in part, not only the validity of modern medicine but also the larger validity of the scientific method as the most reliable means of understaning, explaining and predicting the world we live in.
And medicine is a clear illustration of the real harm that can be done when people embrace non-reality based beliefs.
My second big frustration is that most of the “spiritual” have taken only one half step towards – but resist fully commiting to – embracing a naturalistic, reality-based foundation of belief.
Whether it’s for fear of negative labeling, or a desire to hang on to the notion of a “magical” world, or simply the desire to feel like they’re a part of something larger, those who consider themselves “spiritual” in nearly all cases have come from religious backgrounds, taking one step away from dogma, but unwilling to completely sever the ties.
Let it go, people. Take that extra half step. The beauty and mystery of the natural world is more beautifully mystifying and captivating than any archaic, stale superstitions could possibly dream of.
And the world will be a better place when more of its human inhabitants live their lives upon a foundation of reality-based beliefs.