If not spirituality, then what?

Posted by on August 13, 2011 in Thoughts | 6 comments

As a continuation of some of the thoughts I expressed in my article “An Atheist and Spirituality“, I think it is worthwhile exploring some of the traits of being human that some may call “spiritual”. To be sure, the human experience is complicated and multifaceted, so there are many avenues worth exploring on this topic. And it is true that the human species is a relatively young one in the scope of things, and our journey of exploration is only just beginning. So it is no wonder that when we don’t understand something that we will label it incorrectly, we endow it with improper qualities, and we mistakenly identify happenings in our own brains as somehow being the will of outside forces.

So, what are some of the qualities of the human experience we incorrectly label as “spiritual”?

Firstly and most obviously is the idea of a “soul”. I don’t see, and have never seen, any evidence to suggest that there is any such thing. The very idea is a by-product of self-awareness coupled with very complex problem-solving abilities that we have evolved over millennia. We also, due to our empathic natures, struggle with the idea of death, because we wonder about and fear what happens when our hearts stop beating. We hate the idea that our brains simply stop functioning because so much happens in our brains over a lifetime, and for that to just stop seems a mighty waste indeed. We see others die and hope that all the thoughts and experiences that person had are somehow still around after they are gone, and we like to think that when we die, the same will happen to us. This idea has been very conveniently used by the religious to try to control the actions of people, by claiming to know what happens to us after we die. The idea of “soul” lives as a fanciful idea inside our brains, not in the realm of the intangible spirit.

“Since our inner experiences consist of reproductions, and combinations of sensory impressions, the concept of a soul without a body seem to me to be empty and devoid of meaning.” – Albert Einstein

Secondly, is the idea of a human “connectedness” that we feel, connections with each other, our families and pets, the world around us and the universe. We feel connected because we are connected. Not by some invisible force or spiritual strings, but by our very existence. We owe our existences to the earth, the stars and our parents. We interact with each other, and take parts of this interaction with us when we go our separate ways. We are connected to the sun and the planet earth because the very molecules we are made up from came from them, and before that, from the death of stars. If we weren’t connected, our families and societies as we know them would not exist. There’s nothing spiritual about it, there is only the biological advantage of kinship passed down through human evolution.

“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of star stuff.” -Carl Sagan

Thirdly, what of mind-reading, fortune-telling, ESP, soulmates etc.? I’d go so far as to say that these are misunderstandings of the way we process our world around us. We are pattern seeking animals. we seek to find patterns to help us renegotiate the world around us. We make correct and incorrect judgements of the world based on these, but so often it seems we place importance on things that may just be happenstance. But we also misread the emotions we experience, the level of subtlety with which people interact, and the feeling of bondedness we feel for one-another. And there are always those who are ready to claim that they are in touch with the “spirit” realm based on their abilities to read people and convince them of something, as in the case of fortune tellers and mind-readers. The power of suggestion is very strong, and we are all subject to its whims. As for ESP, see what James Randi has to say on the subject.

“Here’s something to think about: How come you never see a headline like ‘Psychic Wins Lottery’?” – Jay Leno

And fourthly, but by no means lastly, is the idea of spirits themselves. God and Gods, ghosts, demons, elves, phantasms, ghouls, poltergeists, tree-spirits etc., all hold two things in common; there is no evidence for them, and all have been used as ways to explain away things we once did not understand. This is the most troublesome of “spiritual” ideas, because people have convinced themselves, despite all evidence to suggest there’s no such thing, that they can speak to these spirits, and that these spirits can alter reality, change the course of things or deliver good or bad fortune to us. Prayer and ouija-boards go hand in hand, in that they claim that they are somehow connecting with “the other side”, and that these ethereal beings are somehow guiding the goings on in our world. Once upon a time, many believed that tree-spirits control the forests, and water nymphs control the streams. Others believed that the old house down the road was haunted by a ghost. And of course there are thousands of historical gods that have fallen out of favour over the centuries. As we progress in our understanding of things, so do the spirits fall by the wayside. The thing that goes “bump” in the night is now the house settling, the ghost in the old house is a trick of the light, water turned into ice by the frost-demon is just temperature at night causing water to solidify. If looked at in enough detail, we can explain away almost all of the realm of “spirits”, and those we can’t, it just means we aren’t asking the right questions.

“Prier Dieu c’est se flatter qu’avec des paroles on changera toute la nature. (To pray to God is to flatter oneself that with words one can alter nature.)” – Voltaire

This is by no means comprehensive, but I hope it adds to my earlier thoughts.

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6 Comments

  1. In a nutshell, people believe in a soul because people want there to be a soul and there are many supporters to validate the wishful thinking. I just heard a debate between an theist & atheist in which the atheist made the point that belief was based on wishful thinking. The theist replied that atheist beliefs were based on wishful thinking too. The atheist asked how so & the theist said the atheists wish that they did not have to be judged by God. The atheist had no answer, but I would have said, but I wish I could meet God so can ask him, if he is the Christian god, why did he deceived us by making the universe appear to be formed by natural causes, leaving only an error-ridden ancient book as god’s only evidence. Also, why would he send all the gullible people who believe the incredible stories of the Bronze Age book to heaven & all the people to Hell who used their god given brain to use critical thinking skills to conclude there were no god.

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    • Well I wouldn’t call the atheist’s standpoint “wishful thinking” at all. Instead I would just call it “thinking”. I don’t “wish to not have to be judged by god”, bceuse by all my reckoning, there is no god to wish about. Semantics I know, but semantics are very important, especially when dealing with matters of religion and philosophy.

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  2. Martin,

    As a newcomer.to these new ways (for me) of forming a perspective of the world, this post resonated with me more than all the others. The reason this is so, is that it made me realize that–from the time we walked on two feet, we have constantly sought to assign magical meanings to natural- world occurrences, whether to calm fears or control human behavior, explain unfathomable events, or for whatever reason. The more scientific knowledge we acquire, the more truthful (but no less meaningful) our understanding becomes.Now that we have reached the pinnacle of inexplicable occurrences -god-to whom we can answer all questions with faith, the religious hang on all the more tightly their ultimate explanation : God. We can scoff at ancient peoples, who thought that an eclipse of the sun meant the deities were angry,because that was merely a natural occurrence, but they are incapable of applying the same reason to their different religions.

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  3. The human , and animals are made up of two parts : the physical and the spiritual . The physical cannot live without the spiritual , but the spirit can live without the physical .

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    • @Jim If you can offer up some proof for this statement, then I am more than willing to listen. Otherwise you are making a baseless claim.

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  4. If there was a god that created the whole universe, considering that we have evidence that the universe could have created itself, what was this god’s job in the first place? assign physical values to commodities at the point of the unity called the big bang?? and then just sit back and relax and do nothing about the universe afterwards. It is known as a fact that the universe took it’s own course to forming itself to the way it is today. So the question really is, which argument can a religious person make to justify their god’s existence and omnipresence: the moral one, the maker of the universe, the maker of life?? all of these views fall short in the wake of scientific fact. now if you want to believe in your imaginary friend, no one can stop you. But if you want everyone to believe in your imaginary friend, just because you’re not brave enough to face the harsh truth, I don’t think anything can help you. I, for a fact can tell you that coming to terms with the real truth is very liberating in both small and big ways. Disbelief in gods comes with the disbelief in ghosts, the disbelief in hell and the disbelief in the rules given in all the story books called ‘scripture’ by many.
    You become good and do good because its the right thing and not because you’re scared that you’re going to be punished if you don’t do it. Fear works as a driving force only to a certain extent after which it is useless. Most importantly, you lose the fear of death and thus gain the courage to live your life, when you shed those prejudiced religious views. Everything is chance, face the fact, there is no greater purpose preset in any of our lives except for the propagation of our species. Everything else we do, we do because we can.
    I am proud to be an atheist and live on fact alone with no fiction involved.

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