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Religion vs. Spirituality vs. Materialism

March 27th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

It’s a painfully slow process, but religion does seem to evolve over time. Just a few hundred years ago, nearly everybody in the Western world believed that God created the earth over a six-day period about six thousand years ago, that it was at the center of the universe and designed specifically for humans, whose lives were a kind of test to determine which of the two afterlife locations—Heaven or Hell—they would spend eternity in. In spite of all the dogma about angels and demons, saints and saviors, the so-called ‘mystery’ of the trinity, and mathematical formulas to determine the length of your stay in purgatory, it was a remarkably simple, comprehensible view of the cosmos.

But in spite of its best efforts, the Church ultimately failed to hold back the advances of science, and today we know that the earth formed over billions of years, is merely one speck of dust in an unprivileged location within an incomprehensibly vast universe, that humans evolved from other species over eons of time, and that Heaven and Hell can’t be found by looking through a telescope. Religion has done its best to accommodate itself to these facts, going to great lengths to try and reconcile scientific truth with Scripture. But in spite of its best efforts, and in spite of the fact that plenty of people simply ignore science and cling to the old dogma, more and more rational people are turning elsewhere for answers to their questions about the underlying nature and purpose of existence.

Recently there has been an explosion of what some might call the “Deepak Chopra” approach to religion—an approach that sheds itself of the term ‘religion’ altogether and instead adopts the word ‘spirituality’ for its self-description. In contrast to religion, spirituality does not purport to have all the answers, but claims that if we look inside ourselves we can at least know enough about the meaning of our own lives to figure out how best to live them. It casts off the language of saints and sinners, prophets and messiahs, and adopts the scientific language of atoms and quarks, big bangs and quantum probabilities. It is humanity’s attempt to embrace science without letting go of God.

Clearly, spirituality is far superior to religion in terms of a fundamental worldview. It is far more rational to believe that God is some kind of universal consciousness manifesting itself through the laws and properties of nature than to believe God is an old man with a beard who manifests Himself by placing the image of His son’s face on a grilled cheese sandwich. Most forms of ‘spirituality’ involve some form of reincarnation, and it is far more rational to believe that our consciousness takes other forms after bodily death than that it spends a few thousand years in a waiting room and then gets bumped upstairs to paradise for the rest of all eternity, presumably to pass the time by eating as much chocolate as it desires without getting fat.

But many people would say that spirituality is just the same old hogwash, only dressed up in modern clothing. The idea of a universal consciousness, they say, is just as silly as the idea of a personal creator God and ought to be treated with as much disdain. The idea of any kind of immortal soul, whether it spends eternity in one place after death or is reincarnated again and again, is simply a fantasy. Everything can and will eventually be explained scientifically, purely in terms of material and the mechanics of natural laws.

This view is called materialism—not to be confused with ‘materialism’ in the everyday-language sense of placing too much value on material possessions—and its core hypothesis is that everything in the universe can be reduced to material substances and natural laws. And that perhaps these material substances can be reduced to natural laws as well, making the entire universe nothing more than various energy fields interacting with one another. To put it simply—it’s all just particles and forces, and the particles are just a special type of force.

To get a clearer understanding of what each of these views really says about the nature of existence, let’s narrow our scope to one object—the human brain. Religion says that God designed this object as a vessel for the soul, which will depart from it once it no longer functions and fly away to another plane of reality. Spirituality admits that this brain is the product of an evolutionary process, but insists that there is some conscious force guiding this process towards a specific end, namely the coming into being of an object capable of processing rational thought, a kind of window into the material world for a soul which transcends it. Materialism sees this as a clump of matter developed over billions of years through blind natural selection, the extreme level of complexity of the electrochemical processes taking place inside it giving rise to the illusion of consciousness which passes completely out of existence once these processes cease.

Because we still know very little about the brain and even less about consciousness, there is still plenty of room for debate between spirituality and materialism when it comes to the human mind. Materialists have the daunting challenge of explaining how exactly a bunch of electrical sparks in a clump of matter can produce consciousness. Just try thinking about that for five minutes and see if your head doesn’t start to hurt. But materialists insist that such an explanation can be found, and we just need to keep running experiments until we figure it out. And once we figure it out, it’ll be perfectly clear that consciousness and brain matter are simply two aspects of the same phenomenon, that at its core it’s all just interactions among energy fields.

Many philosophers insist that such an explanation simply can not, in principle, be found. You can explain every element of the electro-chemical process in the brain which produces the sensation of ‘red’, but you still haven’t explained what ‘red’ is because the only way to know such a thing is to actually consciously see red. Just think about how you would explain what ‘red’ is to a blind person. You simply can’t do it.

So materialists run into a problem when it comes to consciousness. Just about everything else from the Big Bang on down can be comfortably explained in terms of forces and particles, but when you get to everyday human experience the scientific explanations become much less satisfactory. Materialists insist we just need to learn more, but there are plenty of good arguments to be made that science just can’t and won’t explain certain things.

And so it appears that spirituality will be with us for quite some time. I certainly welcome this as a good thing, a sure-fire improvement from the old dogmatic religious ways of looking at things. While plenty of atheists will blast Deepak Chopra and those like him for simply dressing up religion in new clothing, I for one see it as a positive thing that people are providing an avenue to those unready or unwilling to give up God altogether to at least give up the characterization of God as the Divine Judge who favors certain groups over others and condemns people who disobey Him to eternal torture. The sooner humanity rids itself of the belief in that kind of God, the better.

But the question remains as to whether the slow evolution of religion eventually leads beyond spirituality and finally embraces cold materialism in the end. Do we keep making God more and more abstract until the idea finally disappears altogether, or do we just keep coming closer and closer to understanding God’s true nature?

I simply haven’t decided yet, though I’m currently leaning towards the belief that nothing exists whatsoever that could be justifiably called God. I’m uncomfortable believing anything that can’t be tested scientifically, so as much as I like the ideas of reincarnation and universal consciousness—ideas which I came to on my own during many sleepless nights of my youth undergoing my own personal process of religious evolution—I just don’t want to accept them on the basis of intuition alone.

Luckily, I don’t have to. By contrast with religion, spirituality does not insist that you pay a penalty for lack of belief. The only thing you lose by not adopting a spiritual worldview is the missed opportunity to learn some kind of lesson, if the purpose of each life is in fact to learn a lesson. My soul is in no danger of eternal damnation, so I’m perfectly free to accept or reject any claims of theosophy—a luxury that theology does not grant so freely.

Still, I want to acknowledge that I find many of the ideas of spirituality not only appealing but logical, perhaps even more logical than materialism. Could it be that everything exists purely by accident, that the marvelous complexity of life and the miraculous properties of consciousness such as love and the appreciation of beauty are simply here because given infinite time and infinite universes, these things are simply bound to come into being at some point? Did natural selection really produce beings capable of self-reflection after billions of years of chance mutations without any kind of invisible hand guiding the process? It would seem you’d need trillions upon trillions of years to get from micro-organisms to human beings if the only forces at work are genetic mutation and natural selection. And is consciousness really just a peculiar side-effect of certain clumps of matter being arranged a certain way, of billions of tiny electrical charges firing simultaneously in very specific patterns, or is there something far more fundamental to awareness, something which extends beyond the brain and touches the very fabric of reality itself?

I honestly don’t know. It could be. It might not be. But that, I believe, is the most important advantage that both science and spirituality have over religion—there is no claim to absolute certainty. It’s not the silly beliefs that make up religion (or the silly beliefs that make up spirituality in some peoples’ opinion) that leads to evils such as child abuse, invasion, occupation, oppression and genocide. It’s the belief that one way of looking at the world, that your way of looking at the world, is the one True way, and that you need have no justification whatsoever to believe—and not only that but to know for certain—that you are right and everyone else is wrong, that leads to all the problems associated with religion.

So let’s hope religion keeps evolving, and more religious people let their uncertainty lead them to spirituality or even all the way to materialism. I think both of these views can co-exist quite comfortably. It’s the unjustified certainty of religion that has to go.

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