Secular Spirituality: A Misnomer?
It would be difficult to deny that many of our fellow humans have experienced a mental state in reaction to an event external to themselves that they would classify, for lack of another term, as spiritual. (It would be equally difficult to overlook that the word, and its derivation spirituality, are often overused, or exaggerate the actual mental state the user experiences—remember what happened to “awesome”?) But what is a spiritual experience, anyway? This mental state may also be described as reflecting a sense of wonderment or awe, or something magical (in a positive way), or a state of enchantment. Since the root of spiritual and spirituality is “spirit,” the words often connote a more religious context inasmuch as “spirits” are often association with the supernatural and gods and invisible forces, or the smaller, little helper gods like jinns, angels, and ghosts of both good and bad characters long since deceased. But for the non-believers in supernatural forces or spirits big or small, to what are they to attribute this feeling, this experience? How important is an experience like this for our general mental function or well-being, if at all? Can it be explained by some calculus of neurological processes?
These questions and many more lie at what the editors of The Oxford Handbook of Secularity Oxford, 2017) call “religiosity’s intersections with contemporary secularism” in their introduction to a chapter in the book titled “Secular Spirituality.” But short of having access to this high-dollar textbook, let’s use our own sources…..
Visitors to NOSHA’s monthly program for July were fortunate to have heard Daniel Lev Shkonik speak to the subject and cover the question of possible overlapping of the ways religion (or the supernatural) and the secular. Mr. Shkolnik is a proficient writer of poetry, fiction, and essays, and the essays, at least (I have only glanced through his fiction and verse), are liquid-like but deeply thoughtful at the same time, providing references to standard works on the subject at hand, and splashed with fresh metaphors and allegories. For starters, several of his essays posted on the blog he writes and edits, Another Bread of Faith for Patheos.com are here, most all of them addressing secular spirituality, humanism, and things intersecting and between; and contributions to BangaloreReview can be followed here.
Shkolnik’s premises parallels Charles Taylor’s analysis and recommendations for the presumed malady of the “disenchantment” of the modern human. The subject was first formulated by sociologist Max Weber in his paper “Science as a Vocation”; and theorizes that the “rationalization” of modern society man beginning with the dawn of the Industrial Age or earlier, everything that was once spiritual, awe-inspiring—enchanting—has succumbed to the powerful logic of economic plenty, the creation of a liberal political structure that values the rights and freedom of each individual, and the scientific and technological conquest of man over nature. Supernatural gods, angels, and invisible forces, once responsible for directing the earth and its inhabitants had, in practice, a poor track record, and their following slowing drifted away to the pragmatic charms of A Secular Age. According to Taylor, the loss of a part of our emotional experience to rationalization has left us at a loss for a part of our humanity as well, and could be at the heart of modern malaise. Mr. Shkolnik tells us something similar: we need to feed our emotional core: “My point is: there is something the supernatural provides that reality does not. Many people seem to grasp for that which is impossible to fill a gap that no amount of concrete scientific discovery will fill. A long-standing evolutionary predisposition to the belief in the supernatural. It seems the world as it really is is not enough for the human mind.“ (1) As a replacement for the spirits of the past, Shkolnik proposes we “create a ritual, a ceremony, and events to bring purpose and meaning.” Walking at night alone in cemeteries or with a group in cemetery mock-ups in parks or wooded areas is one of those events he participates to capture a moment or two of that feeling of connection to humanity and the universe. Little nuggets of spiritual frisson, like capturing the sparks of light of that are fireflies in a jar, enrich the soul and fill the void left by too much emphasis on reason and science.
This outlook of Shkolnik has many elements that can be attributed to both “spiritualism” and “secularism,” and it may be a humanistic concept to recognize the emotional component of mental life and ways to balance that against the demands of its rational self and its capacity to reason, and its ability to replace or substitute conditions—including emotional states—contributing to its misery or well-being, but I fail to see how this resembles (other than similar words) the essence of the core beliefs of secular humanism.
Emotions run the gamut from the sublime to the noxious. Today’s mass culture and political movements in the developed West (and East) are replete with examples. The leader of the free world bares his wretched emotional core almost on a daily basis. Any suggestion that more emphasis on the “emotional core” would be a positive or even tenable action is a direct descendant of the Counter-Enlightenment movement that followed on the heels of the early 17th-century Enlightenment (from where secular humanism borrows its primary foundation—progress through reason) and includes the Romantic era in literature and arts and letters, as well as conservative political theory and the beginnings of nationalism.
Actively attempting to capture these moments of enchantment, whether alone listening to music (or tripping on psychotropics), or with other individual or group rituals would seem to have a predetermined outcome: some altered state of emotion is likely to occur, and, whatever it may be, shall be considered “spiritual.” Though unlike its mystical cousin in this regard—in which the subject is passive and the experience “happens” to it—both secular-spiritual and mystical experiences share other qualities such as: “experience gives the sense of having encountered something at once ‘wholly other’ and ‘more real than reality; an encounter with the ‘Truth,’ with that which is ‘real’; its ineffability (resistance to description); and its personal and private nature.” Any analysis and explanation of the inexplicable and private, individual experience is problematic for anyone accustomed to using reasoned arguments and critical thinking because of a lack of descriptions (define your terms) and its focus on individual experience, rather than seeking out a more basic common thread extending to all humans. There are 7 billion such sources for the unique experience, but how do we find the common ground? Is the quest for the spiritual—secular or otherwise—a privileged exercise in self-exploration and fulfillment, or an exercise in hedonism, or a neurotic escapism? (3) Is it yet another flashback to Tom Wolfe’s “Me Decade”?
Can everyday experiences be spiritual? Can my pitching in with others toward a common cause be as rewarding as your elusive and ephemeral spiritual experience? Say, for example, a few hours of stoop labor at the local food bank, or driving nails at a Habitat for Humanity house? How about pushing that green “Vote” button in the booth, and then on leaving, meeting one of your co-volunteers from the Ms. or Mr. Progresivo campaign phone bank waiting her turn in line?
Do seekers of the spiritual experience through rite and ritual risk settling for, and substituting, those means for achieving the desired effect for the end itself?
To be fair, there exists, at least for some, experiences that are strongly evocative and sometimes have psycho-somatic side effects, such a feelings of relaxation and calm or a heightened awareness of the capacities of one’s senses. Maybe approaching the rim of the Grand Canyon for the first time would be one, though some of the effect is diminished by knowing in advance something about what was coming. I am convinced the first human that encountered that view had a truly enchanted experience. And I will appreciate those rare and powerful moments, happen as they may, to me. But I won’t actively seek them out, nor will I call them “spiritual.”
My personal thanks (and I’m sure I speak for others at NOSHA) to Daniel for taking his afternoon off to make this presentation. As he told me afterwards: “A little food for thought.” It was a lot, actually.
- Shkolnik, Daniel Lev. “Has Science Killed the World Trying to Understand It?” Another Breed of Faith, December 14, 2018, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/anotherbreedoffaith/
- Ibid. “Rather than live under an organized religion, or join an occult movement that fills our need for the fantastic, we can seek out moments of “real magic” with which to fool ourselves……. I walk away from these experiences with a sense of fullness, giddiness, or deep calm. I know at one and the same time that what I felt and saw was not real and yet it felt better than reality.”
Marty Bankson, reporting for The Humanist Advocate