Can Spirituality Survive Religion?

In an 1876 speech, “The Great AgnosticRobert G. Ingersoll said, “Religion should have the influence upon mankind that its goodness, that its morality, its justice, its charity, its reason, and its argument give it, and no more.” (Ingersoll, 14). In many ways, Dr. George E. Vaillant makes the same argument in his Spiritual Evolution. He suggests that today’s religions have survived, and will continue to survive, because of their emphasis on the positive emotions – which, according to Vaillant, are faith, forgiveness, hope, joy, love, and compassion. But, in today’s world, are religions, especially Christianity, which is the most dominant tradition in America, a significant enough source of positive emotions to justify their flaws?

To be clear, Vaillant does separate ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality.’ While generally defensive, if not fully sympathetic to religions, he does admit that “intolerant dogma … [and] religious beliefs have provided cultural justification for some of the most heinous and selfish human behavior ever committed” (Vaillant, 11). In his argument promoting spirituality, he addresses (but, as I will try to explain later, does not adequately answer) the question of why individuals seeking spiritual unity seem to so often lead to brutal institutions; he writes, “Sometimes in a quest for unity rather than community, religions forget to love their neighbors as themselves” (Vaillant, 79). He explains, “On the one hand, religion asks us to learn from the experiences of our tribe; spirituality urges us to savor our own experience. On the other hand, religion helps us to mistrust the experience of other tribes; spirituality helps us to regard the experience of the foreigner as valuable too” (Vaillant, 188). While “cults and religions tend to be authoritarian and imposed from without,” Vaillant argues, “[S]pirituality is more likely to be democratic and arise from within” (Vaillant, 189). While he clearly differentiates between the two, he notes that they often go hand-in-hand: “[T]he survival of the world’s greatest religions, relatively unchanged, for the last two thousand years has been due as much to their ritual emphasis on the positive emotions of faith, forgiveness, hope, joy, love, and compassion as to “guns, germs, and steel” or cancerlike memes” (Vaillant, 186).

Clearly, Vaillant recognizes that, for all the positive emotions that come with religion, religion also brings a significant amount of problems as well. So how do we tell the difference? Here’s where I find Vaillant’s argument problematic: “[T]he way to distinguish such unshakeable beliefs is to ask whether they are empathetic or paranoid” (Vaillant, 75). But, outside of his clear examples of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Hitler, the difference is rarely clear. Admittedly, he acknowledges, “The danger is that the line between self-soothing trust and self-soothing delusion is unclear” (Vaillant, 75).

Specifically regarding Christianity, Vaillant contrasts the “belief in religious dogma that led to the Spanish Inquisition” with the “faith in a man [Jesus] who spoke of what was in his heart and lived his message” (Vaillant, 66). But that idea is inherently flawed. If we truly take Jesus and his message seriously, it almost certainly leads to conflict. As professor Crane Brinton told Vaillant, “If you don’t believe your religion is the only religion, you have no religion” (Vaillant, 190). Sure, in many ways, Jesus and his followers, like most religions, have provided many benefits to the world, as Vaillant notes. But that doesn’t change the problematic fact that Christianity rests upon having the one true belief system. Jesus himself, in John 14:6, says “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Vaillant argues “[T]he danger is the lack of empathy and the false beliefs of those who profess faith,” but immediately before that he argues that “Faith … is not the danger.” (Vaillant, 79). But if your faith inherently suggests that, for example, Jesus is the only way to ‘the Father,’ it’s almost guaranteed that a lack of empathy will follow.

Especially problematic is how Vaillant defines faith, which, to him, “involves basic trust that the world has meaning and that loving-kindness exists” (Vaillant, 73). Not only is faith, as defined by Vaillant, possible without any blatantly anti-scientific and/or supernatural beliefs, but faith, in the more common sense, is defined as “firm belief in something for which there is no proof,” which often requires quite a different worldview. Indeed, many Christians believe in Hell, which is generally considered a place of suffering. According to many Christians, Jesus – and only Jesus – is the only way to be ‘saved’ from Hell. The belief that many people will suffer for all eternity for not accepting Jesus is hard to justify with the idea that spirituality is only about positive emotions. Furthermore, the belief that your religion – and only your religion – has the ‘Truth’ leads to more intolerance, making Vaillant’s argument especially unhelpful in today’s world. If you believe that someone you know is bound for eternal hell unless they convert to your religion, you obviously should want to help them get into heaven. Is that empathetic? After all, making people uncomfortable or even suffer – as is the case with the Spanish Inquisition – for a short time could arguably be justified if that short-term pain could save them for eternity. Clearly, the line between ‘empathy’ and ‘paranoia’ is almost never as clear as Hitler and Martin Luther King Jr. While I have my reservations about Freud, his idea of religion as “a universal obsessional neurosis” seems especially useful, considering how arbitrary Vaillant’s distinction between ‘empathy’ and ‘paranoia’ is (Pals, 65).

In his support of spirituality, Vaillant writes, “[S]pirituality refers to the psychological experiences of religiosity/spirituality that relate to an individual’s sense of connection with something transcendent (be it a defined deity, truth, beauty, or anything else considered to be greater than self) and are manifested by the emotions of awe, gratitude, love, compassion, and forgiveness.” (Vaillant, 187). While in general I agree with his statement, I would argue that, again, “a defined deity,” in practice, is often incompatible with real tolerance and love. Oscar Wilde famously quipped in The Picture of Dorian Gray, “To define is to limit” (Wilde). This is especially true with defining deities – which, arguably, is what led to what we call religion today. Religion, according to Robert Bellah’s definition, “is a system of belief and practices relative to the sacred that unite those who adhere to them in a moral community” (Bellah, 3). Additionally, Durkheim, as noted by Bellah, defined “the sacred as something set apart or forbidden” (Bellah, 3). Similarly to how “writing created dogma as well as technological advance,” making certain ideas sacred – set apart or forbidden – inherently limits humanity’s pursuit of knowledge (Vaillant, 51). As Vaillant pointed out, a “major reason that many prefer science to religion is that the former is more ready to admit error,” since we think for ourselves rather than accepting something as the unquestionable truth of God (Vaillant, 205).

In the end, religion must be ruled out. Instead, we should embrace, as we already do, social play, which “is firmly based on a foundation of fairness” and seems to have helped humans develop a sort of justice, according to Marc Bekoff and Jessice Pierce (Bellah, 80-81). Not only do social bonds, especially parental care, provide us with our needs and safety, they also help us develop culture, history, morality, science, and literature (Bellah, 90). Play has reduced divisions and conflicts, while religion, which sprang from play, has often promoted divisions and conflicts.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Bellah, Robert N. Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011.

Ingersoll, Robert Green, and Tim Page. What’s God Got to Do with It?: Robert G. Ingersoll on Free Thought, Honest Talk, and the Separation of Church and State. Hanover, NH: Steerforth, 2005. Print.

Pals, Daniel L. Eight Theories of Religion. New York: Oxford UP, 2006. Print.

Vaillant, George E. Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith. New York: Broadway, 2008. Print.

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York: Modern Library, 1992. Print.

Recommended Readings – June, 2014

Every so often, I share some of the articles that I’ve really enjoyed recently, regardless of the subject or length or source. Feel free to check out some of my other recommendations from 2013 (February 17thJune 20thJuly 28th, & August 8th) or earlier this year (March 2014), as I try to make my suggested articles as timeless as possible – after all, as Henry David Thoreau suggested in his Life Without Principle, “Read not the Times. Read the Eternities.” Below, in no particular order, are seven articles that I highly recommend. Let me know what you think.

A cartoon by Tom Gauld, Guardian Review.

A cartoon by Tom Gauld, Guardian Review.

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Recommended Readings (March 2014)

Every once in a while, I try to acknowledge some of the most interesting articles that I’ve read recently. (Feel free to check out my lists of recommendations from February 17thJune 20thJuly 28th and August 8th.) I’ve tried to recommend readings that are relatively timeless, with some from this month and some from sources from the past. I tried to include articles that are interesting or funny or thought-provoking or insightful or all of the above, but there’s no real methodology. Below, in no particular order, I’ve provided the links and some of my favorite quotes from the readings.

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Recommendations (July 28, 2013)

I’ve come across a lot of great works over the past few weeks, so I thought I’d share some of my favorites.  Most of these are not new, but they were new to me, so they might be new to you as well.

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Recommended Reading (6/20/13)

“How Geography Explains the United States” –  A very informative, yet digestible, explanation of how geography has shaped America and its worldview by Aaron David Miller for Foreign Policy on April 16, 2013.

“Study Finds College Education Leaves Majority Of Graduates Unprepared To Carry Entire American Economic Recovery” – Yet another masterpiece by the comedic geniuses at The Onion from May 13, 2013.

“The God I Don’t Believe In” – One of the best article about the nature of God that I’ve ever read, written by Rabbi Richard A. Block for The Huffington Post on June 10, 2013.

“A CLOSED LETTER TO MYSELF ABOUT THIEVERY, HECKLING AND RAPE JOKES” – Comic Patton Oswalt’s brilliant contemplation of life is masked as a examination of comedy, but even those who aren’t huge comedy fans can appreciate the letter from June 14, 2013.

-“From Ike to “The Matrix”: Welcome to the American dystopia” – Andrew O’Hehir’s June 16, 2013 article for Salon argues that the current state of America is “part Orwellian security state, part Huxley wonderland and part “Matrix.””  Whether or not you agree with his arguments, it’s a thought-provoking piece.

“150 Years of Misunderstanding the Civil War” – There seems to be a consensus among the American public that the Civil War was a noble and worthy conflict.  While recognizing the unimaginable horror of slavery as well as the Civil War’s role in abolishing it, the article presents intriguing, yet balanced, arguments that the Civil War wasn’t the glorious undertaking that it’s often cracked up to be. I also strongly recommend Ta-Nehisi Coates reply to the article.

-“Richard Nixon, hero of the American Left” – Warning: it’s long, even longer than the other articles on this list.  Still, Emmett Rensin’s May 5, 2013 article for Salon utilizes some of the most seductive prose that I’ve read.  Example: “My teenage descent into Nixonalia started the same way my Boomer parents got into drugs: with the toke that didn’t kill. … When a young person finds out that taking a toke doesn’t unleash an unimaginable horror into their lives, it does violence to their faith in received wisdom. Boomers decided that everything they had been told about drugs was a lie. For me, it meant that, for about five years of my life, I absolutely loved Richard Nixon. It just took one toke.”

Recommended reading (Feb. 17, 2013)

This weekend I’ve made time to read what I want rather than forcing myself to endure assigned readings.  Here are some of the articles that I especially enjoyed:

“The Essay, an Exercise in Doubt” by Phillip Lopate for The New York Times. A great article discussing what makes the art of an essay so intriguing: “Argumentation is a good skill to have, but the real argument should be with oneself.”

“The Killing of Black Boys” by John Edgar Wideman for Essence magazine. A powerful take on the lasting legacy of an unimaginable tragedy: “I cannot wish away Emmett Till’s face. The horrific death mask of his erased features marks a place I ignore at my peril. The sight of a grievous wound. A wound unhealed because untended. Beneath our nation’s pieties, our lies and self-delusions, our denials and distortions of history, our professed certainties about race, lies chaos. The whirlwind that swept Emmett Till away and brings him back.”

“5 Reasons to Grand Amnesty to Illegal Immigrants” by Ed Krayewski for Reason. A well-argued defense of an unpopular idea: “What’s wrong with granting amnesty to hard-working, tax-paying individuals whose only crime is their immigration status? Indeed, amnesty is not only the best solution to our immigration problem, it is the only feasible solution.”

“How Crazy Is Too Crazy to Be Executed?” by Marc Bookman for Mother Jones. A detailed account of Andre Thomas’ gruesome insanity: “Andre had cut out the children’s hearts and returned home with the organs in his pockets. For another, he was careful to use three different knives so that the blood from each body would not cross-contaminate, thereby ensuring that the demons inside each of them would die. He then stabbed himself in the chest, but he did not die as he had hoped.”

“American Citizens Split On DOJ Memo Authorizing Government to Kill Them” from The Onion. As always, The Onion uses satire to point out society’s absurdity: “On the one hand, I get it—it’s important for the government to be able to murder me and any of my friends or family members whenever they please for reputed national security reasons. But on the other hand, it would kind of be nice to stay alive and have, maybe, a trial, actual evidence—stuff like that.”