Is “Spirituality” Necessary?
Image “Raft of the Medusa” (detail) by Theodore Gericault, La Louvre, Paris via Wikipedia.
I’m confused. It seems much talk these days about reconciling the differences between atheism and religions is through the lens of the “spiritual”. Sam Harris is a big proponent of the idea that spirituality is a real and necessary concept in the human psyche, but I just don’t see it. Given that we can measure “spiritual experiences” in FMRI machines, and can simulate them with deep brain stimulation, does this not point to the idea that “spirituality” is simply a brain activity, one that can be switched on and off much like hunger or sexual arousal? Even if “spirituality” is a universal concept, it seems that it is merely a brain function, and one that is triggered by sensations in the world and in our bodies. To give it a “higher meaning”, one that sits outside the realms of normal daily brain function, goes against everything we are learning in the field of brain sciences, and i think this is a mistake.
Because historically we knew nothing of the workings of the brain, that the brain was a pinkish-grey mass with no moving parts and little to indicate its workings from the outside observer, it has always been seen as a mystery zone, one beyond our cognition, and therefore became elevated in it’s “spiritual” importance from that of just another organ in the body. But if it is so, that these spiritual experiences are somehow to be elevated in importance to above that of any other brain function, how can we reconcile it with the corporeality of the human body?
The reconciliation between religion and lack thereof should, in my opinion, hinge on something we can know, such as a universal human experience of the world around us, and a knowledge of our interpersonal relationships, both through cultures and hard-wired in our DNA. We are all only separated via our genes by a maximum of thousands of years, and we all are relate in this way, through “blood”, if you will. Far more powerful evidence of universal human experience arises from our shared physical heritage, and I think we should not be forced to think of the most powerful connection between all of humankind as a dependence upon some vague metaphysical construct.
An article recently appeared in the Royal Society of the Arts blog by Jonathan Rowson, titled “The Brains Behind Spirituality“, and by the title I had hope it would talk about the real and tangible mechanisms of the so-called spiritual experience, but quickly devolved into presumptions about the importance and universality of the spiritual within societies. There is no denying that the majority of people worldwide place a high importance on their organised religious practices, and that the part of the brain that creates a spiritual experience in this context is heavily involved, but could this not simply be a mistake in our ability to recognise what the brain is doing? “Spiritual” experiences, in the context of religious experiences, so often lend themselves to a certain expectation of what is required of a person during the rites and rituals of that religious practice. For instance, when a group of people gather and hum in a certain way, breathing becomes regulated and slowed, and the brain responds by going into “a trance-like” state. The body’s sensations change, and we feel “removed” from our corporeal shells, lifted out of our physical bodies, and most of the time this feeling is somewhat pleasurable.
I know this feeling well. As a teenager I was interested in the “spiritual experience”, and practiced meditation and “astral travel”, a sensation where you can move about the world without the confines of gravity and physical barriers. It seemed real at the time, and the sensation of flying and passing through walls was a very cool thing indeed, but the thing is, it never happened. My physical body was lying back on my bed the whole time, and my mind was creating the scenarios from what I already knew of the universe. If astral travel were true, I should have been able to see, and then describe, things of which I had no knowledge prior. Of course all I could ever do was report back those things I already knew.
By no means is my story of “spiritual experience” a nail in the coffin for spirituality as a whole, but what it shows is that the brain is capable of removing a sense of “place”, and creating new “places” within itself. How many times, when reading a really good book, when you put the book down, do you feel like you’ve been drawn back to “reality”? And the discomfort of realigning your sense back in the physical world takes a minute, during which time you feel a little disoriented? Much of the purported “spiritual experience” is this way, and it shows how powerful the brain is, when focused, on creating a reality for you.
The problem with reconciling atheism and religions by using “spiritual” as a doorway is that it begins the reconciliation from the wrong standpoint. The question should not be “What do atheists have in common with theists?” but “What is universal about the human experience that transcends the differences in belief?” Sure, we can all have spiritual experiences, if that’s what you’d like to call them; Seeing a huge emotive painting by Gericault at La Louvre and feeling “moved”, sitting in the sun on a warm spring day, taking in the magnificence of a view from a high vantage point, or simply appreciating all the wonder and diversity that nature has to offer, could all be called “spiritual”, but in reality, it’s just the sensation of observing intensely, or being swept away by outward stimuli.
The other major problem with “spirituality” is that it often presupposes the existence of a “soul”; An intangible “you-ness” that makes you individual from every other person on earth. While the exact mechanisms that create individuality, and a sense of self, in people is still unknown, to chip it down to an intangible, invisible, unmeasurable “spirit” is just about as unscientific as we can get. The word “soul” is a handy way to describe something of an inner core of our beings, but it does little other than “describe”. The problem arises when the idea of “soul” is used as a tool of fear, as happens in religious practices, but there is no evidence that this “soul” actually exists at all. “Spirituality” and “soul” are used together in the same sentence with the ease that one might put butter on toast, the main difference being that butter and toast actually exist.
An emotionally moving experience, or the realisation that you are just a speck on a speck on a speck, may be enough to make you reevaluate your position in the universe. It may be that opening your eyes to the the wonders of the universe at large is just too large a proposition for our land-bound bodies and brains to fully comprehend. And there is no doubt that, after a trance-like state, you may feel more rested and relaxed, or more connected emotionally, or just invigorated. But there is nothing within the realm of what is called “spiritual” that can’t be explained by simple brain chemistry.
I think the mistake of reconciliation between believers and non-believers is one of information availability and education, not trying to conflate universal human experience with “spirituality”. What do you think?