Monday, April 11, 2011

Religion-shaped hole: spirituality

It's often said that religion fulfills a human need, and atheism fails to come up with a substitute.  The crudest and stupidest way to put it is that atheists have a "god-shaped" hole in their hearts.

But there are more reasonable ways to put it such that most atheists would agree.  Most religious people must be religious because they get something out of it, and it probably isn't a sense of intellectual integrity.  So what are they getting out of it?  Is it possible that people feel they won't get the same thing out of atheism?  Is it possible that this biases people against atheism, even though, rationally speaking, it does not make an argument for God?

To organize my thoughts, I am splitting this into two parts.  Each part will relate my own experience with a particular need that is supposedly fulfilled by religion.  The first "need" is a sense of spirituality.

I don't have a need for spirituality.  I have never had the need.

When I was Catholic, I never did get a sense of spirituality.  Mass was an exercise in counting seconds away.  Praying was a chore, one I could skip without consequence.  I remember one time in my Jesuit high school we were all asked to relate a moment when we felt spiritual.  I said I felt that way when I solved puzzles and got that "Aha!" moment.  But privately I didn't think that was comparable, and I got that terrible feeling that you get when you've just shared something deep and personal about yourself, except it was a lie.

And then I left religion, and what did I find?  Atheists are very emphatic about experiencing a sense of wonder at the universe.  There is an entire atheist sub-movement called secular humanism with the explicit goal to fulfill this need for spirituality (and other needs usually fulfilled by religion).  Carl Sagan and Albert Einstein are frequently invoked as people who both experienced and evoked awe and inspiration.  The very first chapter in The God Delusion is called "A deeply religious non-believer", referring to how scientists often get mistaken for religious because they "touch the nerve-endings of transcendent wonder" and "[wax] ecstatic about nature and the universe." 

I was very resentful of this emphasis on spirituality (I once blogged about it), but I was extremely hesitant to talk about it.  I understood why spirituality was emphasized so much, and I didn't want to mess it up just because it made me feel left out.  But in more recent years, because of my involvement in queer discourse, I had a realization.  I realized that the feeling I get when people assume I need spirituality is the same feeling I get when people assume that I need a girlfriend.  I will not explore this analogy, for it will surely fall apart, but it was the origin of my realization.  From there I've been able clarify my thoughts and become more confident in speaking up.

There is a problem here, and it is not a problem within me.  The problem is in my religious upbringing, in the atheist movement, and in the humanist movement.  The problem is a failure to recognize human diversity.

I won't speak of other religions, but boy did my Catholic experience have this problem.  It was filled with mandatory rituals and ceremonies.  In all my religious education, it was constantly assumed that I felt religious experiences, or at least felt a need for them.  There was much talk of god-shaped holes placed there by God.  And what about people who did not feel this?  Did God not bless them?

I've been told that I'm just too young.  If that's the case, then why are young people forced to go through all the motions?  Why not wait until they're older when, supposedly, they'll come to appreciate it?

As for the atheist and humanist movements, they have it wrong too. There is an overemphasis on spirituality, which is fine to some extent.  It's used to counter the stereotype that atheists have no meaning in their life.  But stereotypes cut both ways.  They hurt the people who don't match the stereotype, and they hurt the people who are perceived as confirming the stereotype.  It's too rarely that atheists discuss people who don't get this sense of spirituality.  And this is what the silence says: people who don't care for spirituality have no meaning in their life.

What's worse is that the atheist and humanist version of spirituality is very narrow.  It's all universe this, cosmos that, and sometimes a mention of meditation.  What do I know, since I don't care for any kind of spirituality?  But I bet there are a lot of people for whom this narrow version of spirituality is ineffective.

I've been told that there must be something in my experience which can be interpreted spiritually.  Why is there such a need to pigeonhole my experiences when it feels so unnatural to me?  And if spirituality is so broad, why do atheists only ever talk about a narrow version of spirituality based on physics and biology?

So, here's what we need to do as atheists.  First, we need to recognize that not everyone needs the same things and gets the same things out of religion.  I need no spirituality and found nothing spiritually unsatisfying in atheism.  But that doesn't mean that everyone else will feel the same way as me.  And there's no way that I can personally fix that.  How can I help other people find spirituality in a secular worldview when I feel no need for it myself?  Similarly, just because some atheist finds spirituality in the CMBR does not mean he should expect everyone to feel the same way about it.  And if he wants to know what needs other people have, he needs to listen to other people.

Second, we need to get on religion's case for this same problem.  If religion's defense is that it's fulfilling certain needs, then we should point out how religion is fulfilling them all wrong.  Religion is blindly assuming that everyone has the same needs.  Rituals only cater to a very narrow sense of spirituality.  The talk of god-shaped holes is extremely marginalizing to many.  And you know what happens to people who find religion spiritually unsatisfying?  They leave, because it certainly isn't intellectually satisfying either.

(distantly inspired by Rationally Speaking)


Jachra said...

This particular post, Tristan, seems oddly lacking in rationality in certain aspects. I don't disagree with your overarching point - that spirituality is NOT something that should be assumed - but I have two particular quibbles:

1) I fiercely debate your labeling the feeling Carl Sagan, Albert Einstein, and others have experienced as 'spirituality.' A sense of awe and wonder can be secular, nonreligious, and nonspiritual. Indeed, I think those who have experienced it (and are indeed atheists with no interest in spirituality) might have a fair shot at being insulted by this characterization. It is purely an emotional response, you know it and they know it.

2) Not ALL atheists will push this idea, that you A) require spirituality or B) require a sense of awe and wonder. Notice that the vast majority of speakers and writers who talk about this experience couch it in purely personal terms. If it doesn't apply to you, it isn't MEANT to apply to you, and if it is then the speaker has made a mistake.

miller said...

1) Some have called it secular spirituality, and others have described it as a nonspiritual alternative. I tend to gloss over this distinction because I don't care for it either way. I also very much dislike when people seem to think that even if I'm not spiritual, I must at least enjoy a nonspiritual Saganesque sense of awe, especially as a physicist. Well, I don't. And I hate the disappointed looks I get for this.

But I shouldn't let a personal dislike get in the way of recognizing a distinction that is important to others. Point conceded.

2) It's often argued that atheists still have meaning in their lives because many of them experience spirituality or a sense of wonder. I'm sure that most people who argue this do not really believe that these are required for life to have meaning. But what good does that do me if it's not reflected in what they say?

It's like, when people argue that we shouldn't discriminate against gay people because they love in the same way straight people do. Except there are some who don't. Oops, we forgot about them! It may be a good argument for some audiences, but it leaves a silence for those who love differently.

There is a silence here too. And even if very few atheists push the idea, even if NO atheists push the idea, something needs to be said, somewhere. And so I said something.

miller said...

BTW, who's this "Tristan" you speak of? :-)

Jachra said...

Someone! That's for sure.

I will concede that someone needs to go 'wait a minute, this does not logically follow' whenever an atheist or someone else claims that atheists MUST have spirituality or a spirit-shaped hole in their spirit or some nonsense like that.