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Spirituality and the Failure

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March 5, 2012 by admin

Spirituality is religion’s last-ditch defence, the final redoute of superstition. Let me explain.

Currently in the UK, around one million people attend Anglican church services on Sundays. That’s about 2% of the population. A recent study by Christian Research, part of the Bible Society, has suggested that, by 2050, this will decline to around a tenth of that figure. The response of the church has been to say that people are celebrating their religion in different ways – at home, for example, or at car boot sales (seriously).

Even if one accepts that excuse, there’s another conculusion that flows from it – one the church authorities probably would not like to acknowledge. And it’s that the figures then clearly show a decline in organised religion, or in any kind of religion if one defines the latter as adherence to specific creeds, philosophies or dogma.

That isn’t news. Religion proper has lost its grip in all modern, advanced societies (with, perhaps, the freakish exception of the USA). Even Tony Blair, ex-Prime Minister of the UK, confessed that he had had to mask the degree of his religious belief for fear of being regarded “a nutter”.

While it is often said that around three-quarters of the UK population (precise figures vary) are ‘Christian’, we know this to be a cultural rather than spritiual phenomenon, much like non-believers being cultural Jews or cultural Muslims. This is the proportion of the population that ticks the box marked ‘Christian’ out of habit, or because of a lack of a viable alternative. Similarly, people continue to have children christened because it is one of those social events that you do. (There are many members of my extended family who were so baptised, or had their children baptised, even though there isn’t a believer among the lot of them. Luckily, that doesn’t include me.)

So, being religious is increasingly regarded as an aberration. But this decline in religion has left behind a residue.

It’s not uncommon for someone who does not adhere to any specific religious mythology to say that they are, nevertheless ‘spiritual’. What exactly does this mean?

Even those who know me, who understand that I am an atheist, a humanist, and rationalist, sometimes ask me how I nurture the spiritual side of my nature. They are surprised, sometimes offended, when I explain that I don’t have one.
Spirituality is the human flaw that leads to religion. It is a weakness. It is the metaphorical throwing up of hands and saying, “I don’t understand, therefore it must be mysterious”.

Not everything can be explained. The fantastic and ever-expanding body of knowledge that is science – mankind’s richest treasure – is and always will be partial. This is why people become scientists. They are explorers venturing into the unknown, expanding our understanding, shining light where there was darkness. And yet there will always be elements of our existence and the universe around us that will remain beyond our comprehension.

There are many reasons for this. The universe is a staggeringly complex place. No body of knowledge, however large, could possibly match this complexity. And mankind has evolved to fill a niche in this universe: our minds and our senses are designed to function within this niche. They are specialised for a tiny subset of the phenomena the universe has to offer. For example, unaided, we cannot see things that are minutely small. We cannot perceive the passage of time on a geological scale. There may be many natural processes that we are not equipped to notice, let alone explain. And there may be phenomena we will simply never encounter.

The challenge is, what do we do about this?

We already know one response: it is to say that whatever is beyond our comprehension must be the work of supernatural forces. This isn’t just feeble, it’s dishonest and arrogant.

It’s intellectually dishonest because, at the same time as saying that we don’t know, we are inventing an explanation. Ascribing phenomena to the gods is a process of saying that we do know, that it works like this. By resorting to spirituality, we are saying that we have an answer for everything – a profoundly arrogant act for a lowly mammal that has existed for so short a time.

At the same time, this approach abandons all the disciplines that underscore rational philosophies. So it’s feeble because we’re saying “this is too hard, let’s just make something up”. Explaining the universe through science and mathematics is hard. It requires intelligence, intellectual rigour and training. It demands hard work and a constant struggle to expand the concepts, laws and techniques that enable this understanding. Above all, it requires the honesty to say, “We don’t know. Maybe we’ll never know”.

We are mere mammals. There is no good reason to suppose that we could know everything. To think otherwise is an anthropocentric conceit.

Actually, some among the religious also admit these gaps in our knowledge. They say that such things are only for god to know. This sounds like humility but is, in fact, the opposite. What it’s saying is: “It’s not my fault I don’t know. Neither I nor my philosophy is at fault here: because this is something that cannot be known.” That’s like a Victorian proclaiming “heavier-than-air flight is impossible because I cannot do it”. It is hubris.

As we know, science, in the few hundred years in which it has been established, has rapidly and repeatedly chipped away at the ignorance of the faithful. It has provided explanation and understanding for much that was in the dark pool of ignorance from which religion draws. To surrender to god in this way is a response that looks less and less tenable every day.

Resorting to a spiritual explanation is to give up trying. It is as though people reach a limit to their comprehension and beyond it simply scrawl “here be dragons”. Scientists, on the other hand, reach that precipice and use it as a vantage point from which to gaze longingly into the void thinking “what sense can we make of this?”.

I can understand how this happens. Some people are afraid of the idea that there are things we cannot explain. Others prefer the trite mythologies of faith to the intellectual challenges of science – it’s an easier option. I guess some just like the stories.

This is why I say that spirituality is a weakness. It is, indeed, the basic mechanism upon which religions are built.

As organised religions lose their grip, some people still cling to more nebulous forms of spirituality – not because it contains any inherent truth or performs any valuable function, but simply because it is comforting in a complex, mysterious and threatening world. And so, as the more formalised faiths crumble, it is not surprising that their place may be taken by imported or home-grown mysticisms of various shades of woolliness and silliness.

Humankind has no destiny. We are the result of an incalculable sequence of accidents and random events. In the words of a cynical song from the World War One trenches (sung to the tune of Auld Lang Syne), “We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here”. But if one was to set us a goal, the achievement of which would be reasonable cause for pride, it would be the final eradication of the weakness that is spirituality and the summoning of the honesty to say that we can’t explain everything.

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