“Spiritual but not religious” is a meme of a joke these days, because (as this BBC Magazine piece shows) the term spiritual can cover a multitude of new-agey sins. Interestingly the list of “spiritual” books includes Pirsig’s 5m-selling ZMM, but none of the books are actually mentioned in the piece. Instead we get interview quotes from the like of Copson and Baggini:
Humanists [I’m one] are deadlocked over the issue of the “spiritual” category. Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association, accepts that:
For many people it’s a shorthand for saying “there must be more to life than this”. Its vagueness is unhelpful. It can be used for everything from the full Catholic mass to whale songs, crystals, angels and fairies. As a humanist I prefer to avoid spirituality. Humanism is about the belief that human beings find value in the here and now rather than in something above and beyond. People have social instincts and as a humanist it’s about reinforcing those instincts.
His “preferring” to avoid it is on exactly the same level as some “yearning” for it. Real vagueness as to what more is, is best met with acceptance for what it is, not with wishful thinking. But that vague more is still here and now. Everywhere and always, for a humanist who believes there is more value to the human spirit in the cosmos than can be usefully rationalised or “explained” in classical empirical scientistic terms. That’s spirituality. It may “transcend” the simplistic, reductionist scientistic, but it’s not a different place and time, just harder for our real, here and now, “social instincts” to access confidently through these science-memetic filters of our times.
Looking for those alternative explanations can be lead down some whacky and dubious (and worse) avenues for sure (just ask Mystic Bourgeoisie / Kat Herding). Religious tradition is one such avenue, but “New-Age++” fashions come and go.
Philosopher Julian Baggini writes in The Shrink & the Sage:
The search for meaning can be exhausting. There is a yearning for something more. My short reply is that you can yearn for higher as much as you like, but what you’re yearning for ain’t there. But the desire won’t go away.”
Author Mark Vernon says:
That doesn’t make [the desire] a bad thing, but it may lead to awkward questions. And that may explain why the research finds that spiritual people have more mental health problems. You’re going on an interior mental journey. It’s risky to go and try and see things from a bigger perspective. The promise is tremendous but the journey can be very painful.
It’s there all right – it’s “the Buddha in the machine, and the machine is you”. The problem is the “yearning” and, perversely, the more the world around us says it’s not there, the more problematic becomes that yearning. The risk of mental illness is a common angle and recurring outcome [and a topic of this blog] of the “effort to outflank the entire body of [received wisdom of] western civilisation”. But that’s a feature of the science-meme’s response to the yearning, not a problem with the underlying desire to find answers to awkward questions. There but for grace … go we all … unless we can trust and live for today with the easy [highest value] pragmatic answers.
Science is as good a religious traditional source of “easy” answers as any, providing its practitioners don’t become so arrogant as to believe it’s the one true path to privileged value, and learn to live with those who don’t. Personally, I choose humanism.
(PS by easy scientific answers – I’m not of course trivialising the effort, difficulty and value of science, just suggesting that vague answers, where certainly & uncertainty have not been objectified, are harder for the scientistic to accept. Simply not liking vagueness – on your own terms – is no response to its existence.)
(PPS Of course this week’s “Value of Culture” series by Melvyn Bragg is addressing exactly this debate about whether different “cultural” outlooks – a la CP Snow / Matthew Arnold etc. – have some hierarchical advantages of value over others.)