"Fearlessness is the first requirement of spirituality. Cowards can never be moral." -- Mahatma Gandhi

Monday, March 14, 2011

Spiritual Experience versus Religious Belief

"Spiritual . . . But Not Religious" on tumblr
When I say that I am "spiritual but not religious," it is not to say that I have conflict with any outwardly religious tradition or particular teachings, nor do I point (as many do) to the 'religious' wars that seem to be a sustained motif of violent conflict through out all ages - yet, I suspect, if peoples did not fight over religion, war would just be 'justified' in different terms. Rather, it is simply that I am intensely interested in the "inner" spiritual (or religious) "experience," but not in the "outer" content and forms of religions, except to the extent they are used to produce higher spiritual experiences and/or higher states of consciousness.

In a recent issue of Psychology Today, writer Massimo Pigliucci asks "what, exactly, does it mean to be "spiritual but not religious," or for that matter, just plain "spiritual?" Unfortunately, of the three possible alternatives Pigliucci examines, none of them differentiate between 'inner' religious or spiritual experience and 'outer' religious observance, ritual or identification.

Pigliucci postulates that the descriptor "spiritual but not religious'" popularly utilized in any number of research studies, opinion polls and social media sites could mean either: (a) that the person so described believes in "spirits' a rather pinched and narrow view, even Pigliucci suspects (b) one who devotes part of her time and energy to cultivate her "spirit," as opposed to just being concerned with "material" things, or, finally (c) someone who takes care of cultivating and reflecting on his ethics, of behaving justly and compassionately toward his fellow human beings, and of nurturing his aesthetic sense through arts and letters.

I feel that none of these give a whole picture or descriptios of what it means to be "spiritual but not religious." I flatter myself that I am a very 'spiritual', and rather narrowly limited 'religious person.' I seek an inner religious/spiritual experience that will improve my ability to realize higher states of consciousnsess and awareness. Pigliucci's first possibility, even he rejects; while his third category, cultivating ethics and acting compassionately - which may, perhaps, be a byproduct of spiritual or religious practice - can be equally descriptive of the true religionist, agnostic or atheist alike.

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I am "spiritual but not religious" because one's adherence to 'outer religions,' while they provide much good to virtually all of their adherents (saving, perhaps, those who become ravingly "fundamentalist" in their beliefs and actions), does not necessarily indicate one is seeking an 'inner' religious or spiritual experience. If I found that adherence to one particular faith, denomination or creed would provide me with a shortcut to the attainment of the highest 'inner religious' or 'spiritual experience' I would likely join it. Yet, I have seen no evidence that this is the case for anyone. Rather, all wisdom traditions and religions throughout the world and throughout all times seem to have triggered such inner awakenings in at least some of their adherents.

Not surprisingly, as on the big questions of consciousness the perspective of Psychology Today temds to fall into the paradgmatic materialist/empiricist camp, giving little credence to intuitive and subjective studies, a more balanced viewpoint may be found in a Beliefnet.com excerpt of Robert Fuller's new work, "Spiritual but Not Religious."

"The increasing prestige of the mind sciences, the insights of modern biblical scholarship, and greater awareness of cultural relativism," Fuller writes, have "all made it more difficult for educated Americans to sustain unqualified loyalty to religious institutions." Fuller's thesis is that many Americans (and by extension most Westerners), have begun "to associate genuine faith with the 'private' realm of personal experience rather than with the 'public' realm of institutions, creeds, and rituals." As this trend grew, he notes, even "(t)he word spiritual gradually came to be associated with a private realm of thought and experience while the word religious came to be connected with the public realm of membership in religious institutions, participation in formal rituals, and adherence to official denominational doctrines."
William James (1842-1910)

Sadly, 'outer' religious rituals and forms need not be antithetical to deep 'inner' religious or spiritual experience, a point made by William James in "The Varieties of Religious Experience." 'Inner' and 'outer' religious experience are not antithetical to one another, it is just that the latter is not prdictive other, and one suspects that the correlation is very, very low. at least in traditional Western religious movements. One suspects there may be a higher correlation in the Eastern wisdom traditions, which would partially explain their rising popularity amongst Westerners apt to describe themselves as "Spiritual but not religious."

Yet, as Fuller eloquently concludes in his excerpted article, 'inner' spiritual (and dare I say, 'inner religious') experience is a nearly universal, if almost wholly unrecognized, phenomena. He rightly observes that "(w)e encounter spiritual issues every time we wonder where the universe comes from, why we are here, or what happens when we die. We also become spiritual when we become moved by values such as beauty, love, or creativity that seem to reveal a meaning or power beyond our visible world."

Fuller notes that "(a)n idea or practice is "spiritual" when it reveals our personal desire to establish a felt-relationship with the deepest meanings or powers governing life." He or she who pursues that desire with single minded devotion and great effort is likely to experience that "felt-relationship,"which the religious and wisdom traditions of all ages and all countries identify with a higher consciousness which is the essential trait of higher religious or spiritual experience. And it really does not matter what you call it; the point is that you experience it.

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