[TL;DR at the bottom]
Religion is hard to define. Ask an ancient person what religion is and they wouldn’t know what you were talking about. To them, it was not discrete from the state or any other institution, it was all the same thing. Ask a non-religious person what religion is and they might call it an old cult that holds superstitious beliefs. To them, religion is interesting but a relic of the past, and something we need to move beyond. Ask a religious person what religion is, and they’ll say it’s the truth. To them, it is a family that knows truths granting key insights a secular person cannot access. Ask a secular person what religion is and they might say a charitable organization that holds particular beliefs. To them, it’s a reflection of pluralism’s diversity and a country’s tolerance for freedom of thought and speech.
The tension lies between two primary poles; religion as a sociological group that serves a particular function in a person’s life, or as a philosophical group that holds a school of thinking about the universe. Do the rituals come first, or the beliefs? Is the community behavior more important, or the individual conviction?
This question is important to me because I am exploring my spirituality and beliefs through the creation of a “religion.” So then, what exactly is it that I am creating?
My humble answer is a vision I have in my head, for myself and others. For myself, I want to have a clear spiritual identity. I want to be able to say “I am a Terran” and be confident that I can explain myself to someone who can say back with confidence “I am [religious]”. For others, I envision sharing my spiritual progress and hopefully providing a kind of service to those who don’t have the time or knowledge to do this work themselves. This feels particularly important to me when I see people leaving established religions but find themselves spiritually lost. I have put enough thought into this that I think it could be useful to other people.
To this end, I will use my own definitions of religion and spirituality to help clarify what I’m up to.
Spirituality: The process of generating value.
Religion: An organization and understanding of spirituality.
Under these definitions, I am sharing my spirituality in a form people can use. I call this project a religion because, if I am successful, other people’s spirituality can be organized according to the model I’ve prepared.
Spirituality is the foundation of Religion
I’ve landed on these definitions through meditation on my experience within religion and my knowledge about them. While I was Protestant, I worked hard on my spiritual practice; I said my prayers, read vigilantly, and tried to build a relationship with the Christian God. Naturally, my spiritual practice was not original, it had been taught to me through my upbringing in the church. The practices and knowledge I engaged with were prepared for me by the religious authorities. It was definitely my spirituality; I gained enormous benefit from it and it brought me through some difficult periods in my life, but its structure was organized according to my religion.
Some respond to this organization with disdain. A hyperbolic example is a belief that spirituality is something that every person should discover for themselves. Besides the ironically prescriptive nature of that belief, it seems to assume two main things. The first is that everyone has the time, energy, knowledge, and desire to discover their spirituality for themselves. The second is that there are no wrong ways to be spiritual. I disagree. Not everyone is capable of structuring their own spirituality, just as not everyone is capable of making their own philosophy or ideology. A diverse outlook should recognize that skills vary between people, and this includes spiritual skill. In addition, I do not believe that all spiritual structures are acceptable (just as, incidentally, the people who say spirituality should not be dictated by religion). For instance, I don’t think human sacrifice is an acceptable form of spiritual practice for obvious reasons. It’s important to be willing to say a spiritual practice might be harmful. Some practices are better than others, whether by their quality to the participant or their ethical merit.
With that said, there’s plenty of room to explore. Spirituality has evolved into many diverse forms over human history and this is something that should be celebrated. There is no right answer for how a person makes sense of their place in the universe, though some answers work better than others. Finding what works and what needs improvement is a constant project for humanity.
The “Why” Question is the Source of Value
The engine of spirituality is the “why” question. Asking “why” for any given problem or phenomena positions the questioner to engage with their relationship with it. The “why” question is the foundation of most spiritual tools, where the answer is, in one form or another, “because it’s important to you.” This is different from “how” questions where the questioner does not need to engage with their own relationship with the problem in order to solve it. Both questions are vitally important, but only one is important for spirituality. Answering a “why” question will contextualize the asker’s position in the universe, allowing them to justify themselves. When the question comes up again, the answer they discovered before will help to reestablish their justification. The product of this process is value.
Spirituality Endures Stress
I say that spirituality is “justifying” a person’s relationship in the universe because spirituality is usually most important during periods of stress. In our age of alienation, we’ve cut away a small portion of spirituality and called it “self-care” under the cynical notion that more alienation is necessary to heal us. But a competent spiritual practice will engage with many aspects of a person’s relationship with the universe. Stress is not the only spiritual motivator, but it will likely be the prime one due to its immediacy. However, the stress itself is not the engine of spirituality, merely a potential fuel. Other potent fuels are guilt, ecstasy, the sublime, etc. I might explore these other fuels in a future post, but for now, I will stick with stress because it tends to be most common.
Stress causes tension between a person’s internal world and the external universe, which encourages the person to have a spiritual epiphany. These spiritual epiphanies try to justify the relationship between the person and their stressor by giving it meaning. A spiritual epiphany may not necessarily remove the stressor, but it does give the person tools to endure it, commonly called value. Afterward, when the person uses the tool (value), they are engaging in spiritual practice, the point of which is to maintain their justification with the universe.
These spiritual epiphanies don’t necessarily remove the stress, but they usually do a good job of justifying it, at least for that moment. Oddly, the bad-faith theist argument “there are no atheists in foxholes” (meaning that there are no atheists in mortal danger because they would convert to God under the pressure) actually understands this even though it misses the point. While it is perfectly possible that an atheist can be in a foxhole, there is a good chance they crawled out of it with a spiritual epiphany or the material to have one. They wouldn’t have converted to the Christian God, but instead gained clarity about what was important in their life or something of that nature. You tend to hear people say things like, “it really put things into perspective” or “it really put my life into focus” when they experience something stressful. They say it because they justified why the stress was important to them and what they must do about it.
Further, it is usually hard to have spiritual epiphanies while comfortable, as many pious people will bemoan. In periods of comfort, these people will search for ways to continue on their spiritual journey in a controlled setting (or they might ask God to “send them a trial” if they’re feeling really ambitious). These pious people will usually put themselves through difficult trials, such as climbing a mountain, fasting, flagellation, or sitting in pews. Ecstacy at the release or accomplishment of a trial, especially within the parameters of a myth, is such a powerful experience that it becomes a goal in itself. These practices usually start to become harmful when spiritual epiphanies are conflated with spiritual practice. Where an epiphany is an amazing experience that yields a new tool to justify a relationship to stress, it is not appropriate for day-to-day living. Spiritual practice, on the other hand, is not glamorous or exciting but it is important for getting through day-to-day life, especially when the stressor is chronic or permanent.
Being able to distinguish between spiritual epiphanies and spiritual practice is important for being spiritually competent. A fitting analogy are tools in a workshop. A competent craftsman will use the tools at her disposal and buy new tools when she reaches a problem in her work that only a new tool can provide the solution for. A foolish craftsman will never get new tools and try to use the old ones in ways they were not meant for, possibly putting herself in harm’s way. Another, equally foolish craftsman will go out to buy tools regularly to give them the feeling of productivity without actually accomplishing anything; and fill up their workshop with trash in the process. In this analogy, buying a new tool is like a spiritual epiphany, and using the tools for work is a spiritual practice. It is important to know when to do what.
Spirituality’s relationship with stress is why much of it is concerned with death. Death causes stress through its finality and inevitability, making loved ones wonder why they exist in a universe where death is a reality. Asking “why” doesn’t necessarily denote an intelligence behind death, but it does position the questioner to confront the change that has occurred in their life. The spiritual practices that emerge from people’s relationship with death are fundamentally an attempt to justify their relationship to it. An encounter with death leads to spiritual epiphanies which are potential tools to deal with death in the future. Myths about balance, divine judgment, the vitalist soul, and the afterlife emerge as some common examples of these tools. The rituals, stories, myths, and meditations are practiced regularly, especially when a person dies, in order to manage the stress of the situation.
Science Cannot Replace Spirituality
Science can never replace spirituality because science answers “how” questions but cannot answer “why” questions. This is a feature of the Is/Ought distinction and must be considered with the utmost respect. Answered “why” questions are values, and they are the tools to endure with a stressor, but they cannot remove it. In contrast, answered “how” questions are facts, and they are the tools to manipulate a stressor (potentially removing it) but they cannot endure it. This is why both questions are so important but need to be clearly distinguished. Trying to answer “how” questions with values leads to pseudoscience and superstition, and answering “why” questions with facts leads to nihilism and alienation.
An example of a “how” question paired with a value is the fundamentalist Creationism movement. They put on a show of being scientific and inquisitive, usually beginning their arguments with statements like, “Newton was a Christian too, so science and religion are totally compatible!” The reason they say this is because they are trying to provide a foundation to mix their “how” question with their values, namely, God’s love. Once that is established the essential creationist argument goes as follows: “how did the universe come into existence? Because God loves you!” The question engages with mechanisms and physics, while the answer engages with a personal relationship. Obviously, this is a simplification, but it is not an exaggeration. The creation week as described in the Bible makes little attempt to provide facts for the “how” question of “how did the universe come into existence?” Instead, it posits an entirely different question, “why does the universe exist?” and answers it with an appropriate value; “because God made it, and saw that it was good.” God’s love is a “why” answer that engages with the reader’s relationship to the beginning of the universe. This answer overpowers Creationists because it is emotionally relevant, making them want to maintain it. Creationists trying to fit the Biblical narrative into science will come up with elaborate theories and ideas that will sound very scientific and might even have valid insights. But because they already have the answer to their question written down in their sacred text, they are not honestly engaging with the scientific method. A Creationist might argue with me by pointing to their body of work and say, “surely that’s all scientific!” which could be true, but the creation myth in Genesis is not, and as long as that story is the goal they are striving towards in their scientific pursuit, they will be failing as a scientist. The result is the pseudoscience of Creationism where thoughtful, well-meaning scientists try to incorporate their values into their “how” questions.
Conversely, a “why” question answered with a fact can lead to classic nihilism. Usually, this is a process of one “why” question, “why do I matter?” that is successively and ruthlessly answered by facts. Depending on where the person begins in their journey, they will experience many values to their question broken down by facts. Platitudes like, “God loves you,” or “I love you,” or “I love myself,” will be replaced by ugly answers like, “There is no God”, “Love is biochemical phenomena which compel animals to breed, and you are one of those animals”, and “Your ego is an illusion concocted by your brain in order to focus you on surviving long enough to die with progeny.” These ugly “how” answers break down a person’s spiritual world until they are left viewing the universe as a giant machine devoid of meaning. What makes them all the more overpowering is that the facts are correct. A person is left drowning in this meaningless universe because they are inappropriately placing facts after their “why” question. The person is alienated from people around them because they believe that their relationships don’t matter. They encounter a mechanical universe that does not care, and so they cannot either. “Nothing matters,” they conclude and might fall into depression or frolic into a caricature of hedonism. Of course, they do matter, but that is not a conclusion the facts can provide them.
The value of an answer depends on the question it is applied to. In the same way that Creationism is bad science because it uses values to answer a “how” question, nihilism is bad spirituality because it applies facts to answer a “why” question.
The reason why this doesn’t work is that a fact cannot justify the premise of the “why” question, which is usually, “why do I have a relationship to this phenomenon?”. An answer to this question must always justify the relationship, which will generate a value. Simply describing the relationship does not justify why it exists. Causal descriptions, themselves facts, might briefly feel like they justify the relationship, but they just kick the can down the road leading to an infinite regress of facts that are unhelpful. The only way to fully answer a “why” question is by justifying the relationship it references. The justification produces meaning, which functions as tools the person can use again.
To summarize: Spirituality produces value through justifying relationships identified by “why” questions.
The Role of Religion
From here we can begin to get a glimpse of what religion is, and the niche it should inhabit in the modern world. Religion’s niche is to equip a person with tools necessary for having a healthy spiritual practice. If religion is the organization and understanding of spirituality, then it is a way to share spiritual models (theology and/or ritual and/or myth). It can be a system of progress and development, where new models of spiritual practice are being discovered and used to make people’s lives better. Understanding values as generated things can give us a means to produce updated ones, allowing for a concept not explored often enough; spiritual progress. Just as science is constantly updating the facts in order to make them align with contemporary understanding, so can spirituality be constantly updating values in order to keep them relevant. Religions are the institutions that will house this spiritual work, providing safe spaces to explore personal issues and develop methods to approach them with competence. As a consequence of the nature of “why” questions, religions will be community-based, not clinical or alienating; the emphasis will be on relationships with people because “why” questions are all about relationships. Religion will not be about facts, it will be about values, and how to live life to the fullest. As long as we understand the point of spirituality and the necessity of distinguishing it from science, religion can flourish as a means to develop mental health and social justice. This conviction is my motivation for Terranism.
TL;DR – Spirituality is the process of generating value. Spirituality produces value through justifying relationships identified by “why” questions. Religion is an organization and an understanding of spirituality. Religion’s niche is to provide people with the spiritual tools necessary to engage with life.
- The Case for God – Armstrong
- Intelligent Thought: Science Versus the Intelligent Design Movement – Brockman
- Nonoverlapping Magisteria – Gould