What is up with spirituality?

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What is up with spirituality? I mean, from an atheistic perspective?

In my experience, atheists tend to focus on the empirical question of whether there is an all-powerful supernatural creature behind all that we observe. And yeah, there probably isn’t.

But having won that point, what does one make of the extreme popularity of religion? I think the usual answer given is something like ‘well, we used to be very ignorant and not have good explanations of natural phenomena, plus we tend to see agents in everything because our agent detection software is oversensitive’.

Which might explain the question ‘Why would people think a supernatural agent controls things?’. But what seems like only a corner of religion.

Another big part of religion—and a thing that also occurs outside religion—seems to be ‘spirituality’—a cluster of things I find hard to describe, but which seem pretty disconnected from explanatory questions of where trees came from or why the crops failed.

Some stylized facts about spirituality:

  • People across religions have ‘spiritual experiences’ that involve particular styles of feeling
  • People can have spiritual attitudes more broadly
  • Spiritual attitudes involve less interest in ‘worldly’ or petty things
  • Spiritual things often involve sacredness and ritual
  • Spiritual feelings are often associated with awe and the word ‘transcendent’
  • Spiritual experiences do not present themselves as about hedonic enjoyment of the experience
  • Spirituality is connected with ‘meaning’ and tends to feel deep and significant
  • Spirituality tends toward an interest in philosophy, especially metaphysics, especially regarding whether everything is one, the nature of selfhood, the possibility and nature of ‘souls’, the nature of love
  • Certain drugs seem to induce spiritual or adjacent states
  • Spirituality tends to be fairly positive, in the sense that from a satisfactorily spiritual mental place, one expects the world to seem broadly good or at least compatible with peace
  • Spirituality is related to ideas of connecting with something beyond yourself
  • Spirituality is sincere
  • Spirituality is serious
  • Spirituality is normative
  • I suspect that from a spiritual vantage, this list might seem like a mundane missing of the point

Why are people into spirituality? Why is it a kind of thing that humans can experience? Why is it a thing they experience so much?

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I'm newish here (six months or so) so if this comment takes things in a bad direction or is otherwise inappropriate please delete it. It might also be too long.

With that clearing of the throat, I would like to suggest the following:

  • that the atheistic perspectives become more informed about the actual nature of the philosophical/ theological tradition, especially within the dominant (Thomist) tradition of Western Christianity. If this site is seeking to become 'less wrong' through exploration and respectful dialogue then please hear a representative of that tradition when they say 'the existence of God is not an empirical question' and 'God is not a supernatural agent'. I suppose this is a way of saying 'don't assume that pre-Enlightenment thinkers were stupid', which is good advice whether what I am specifically saying here is true or not. Denys Turner (top philosophical/theological professor ex-Cambridge UK) put it like this: atheists (the atheists who make such arguments) haven't even reached the 'theologically necessary level of denial' - it's not that the specific claim being made by the atheist is incorrect, it's that the implication that is believed to follow does not actually follow. (Turner paper is available here if anyone wants to read it https://www.jstor.org/stable/43249944?seq=1 )
  • that an aspect of spirituality (or 'wisdom traditions') that is missed in that otherwise estimable list is that it involves techniques to enable a closer appropriation of the truth. That is, in order to discern the truth correctly, it is necessary to address internal questions involving matters of character and will. This requires time spent in reflection and most especially it involves the cultivation of the virtue of apatheia or detachment (I believe there to be a significant overlap across different wisdom traditions on this point). Most especially the edifice of modern science remains dependent upon the practice of spiritual virtues of this sort in a way that is less denied, more ignored. The edifice of scientific research depends on things like the honesty of the researchers, and therefore upon the institutional cultivation of such honesty. In so far as institutions succeed in cultivating such honesty then they are operating as spiritual bodies. I would personally argue that the edifice of science that we presently have is structurally dependent on that Thomistic tradition I mentioned above, and that it could not exist separately from that tradition, but that's an argument that might be distracting as it is very contentious
  • lastly, that an important form of spirituality that is also massively understood in contemporary culture, although it is of major historical significance in the West, is that of magic. Rightly understood, this is not about Harry Potter-esque actions that violate natural law but about 'change of consciousness in accordance with will' - in other words, it is about the training of the intellect in ways of seeing. (Some of the ways of seeing can be bonkers of course.)

So - apologies if this is not the sort of thing desired here (or if it has been engaged with elsewhere on the site - as I said, I'm newish) but I hope it might contribute to the conversation.

Some questions (either answers, or summaries of answers plus pointers elsewhere for the full treatment, would be fine):

the existence of God is not an empirical question

What kind of question is it?

God is not a supernatural agent

What kind of agent is he?

“theologically necessary level of denial”

In what sense is “theologically necessary” a relevant or interesting category in epistemological terms? (More bluntly, if you like: why should we care what is, or is not, theologically necessary, as distinct from what is epistemologically necessary?)

it’s not that the specific claim being made by the atheist is incorrect, it’s that the implication that is believed to follow does not actually follow

What is the specific claim, and what is the believed implication?

techniques to enable a closer appropriation of the truth

What, exactly, is an “appropriation of the truth”? I have never encountered this phrase, and am unsure what it could mean.

In so far as institutions succeed in cultivating such honesty then they are operating as spiritual bodies.

This claim seems to beg the question by defining ‘spiritual’ in a way very different than how it’s normally defined. No conclusions that might be reached after starting with such an unusual usage could possibly apply to ‘spirituality’ in the way the term is normally used.

I would personally argue that the edifice of science that we presently have is structurally dependent on that Thomistic tradition I mentioned above, and that it could not exist separately from that tradition, but that’s an argument that might be distracting as it is very contentious

Indeed.

lastly, that an important form of spirituality that is also massively understood in contemporary culture, although it is of major historical significance in the West, is that of magic. Rightly understood, this is not about Harry Potter-esque actions that violate natural law but about ‘change of consciousness in accordance with will’ - in other words, it is about the training of the intellect in ways of seeing. (Some of the ways of seeing can be bonkers of course.)

Needless to say, this runs into the usual “show me the money” (a.k.a. “cake”) kinds of problems that we see with ‘Looking’, ‘kensho’, and all the rest. Absent an answer to such demands for demonstration of effectiveness, the mere fact that ‘magic’ is not judged to be important or worthy of study is simply correct and appropriate.

Maybe it's that we lack language to articulate what are in fact perfectly bioelectrochemical experiences, due to millennia of religious dominance? And so when we need to describe these inner states, we resort to the language of spirituality?

From this perspective, "what's up with spirituality" is another way of saying "what's up with having feelings, especially important and meaningful and hard-to-explain feelings" and "why are people into exploring their feelings?" Which is totally a valid question.

But automatically couching it in terms of "what's up with spirituality" seems, to me, to be a symptom of the history of language and politics. Are you more interested in the feelings, the framework, or the culturally-specific ways in which people connect the two?

From what I've read, the hormone Oxytocin appears to be behind many of the emotions people generally describe as "spiritual". While the hormone is still being studied, there is evidence that indicates it can increase feelings of connection to entities larger than the self, increase feelings of love and trust with others, and promote feelings of belonging in groups.

The emotion of elevation, which appears to be linked to oxytocin, is most often caused by witnessing other people do altruistic or morally agreeable actions. This may explain the tendency for many religions and spiritual groups to to encourage individuals to share personal or mythological stories that promote elevation. I suspect that the sensation described by many religious groups as "the Holy Spirit" may often be elevation, or at least include elevation in the emotional cocktail. (Some studies indicate that Oxytocin promotes the release of Seratonin, which could be behind the more general feelings of well-being that aren't directly associated with Oxytocin.)

I'm no neurologist or psychologist, so take all of this with a grain of salt. I think the most productive outcome from reading this post would probably be to simply look up Oxytocin and read the studies themselves. 

One of the standard stories is that it's about social cohesion. Especially with rituals done as a group, and other features like visibly taking on costly restrictions in a way that demonstrates buy-in.

Sosis & Alcorta (2003).  Signaling, solidarity, and the sacred: The evolution of religious behavior

Why is it a kind of thing that humans can experience? Why is it a thing they experience so much?

Just to answer this part very narrowly thinking about my own experiences, what is it like when I have experiences I would identify as being the same kind of thing people mean when they talk about spiritual experiences?

The answer is something like a dissolving of self identification into being blended with the rest of the world. In these experiences, I "forget" I'm separate from the rest of the world and am just part of everything. It feels like the subject-object distinction falls away and all is unified.

This can happen to greater or lesser degrees (more or less of the total sum of experience in a moment undergoes this). I suspect this is the kind of thing that would be identified as a spiritual experience.

Honestly, though, I think spirituality is a weird word to use to talk about this and I don't. I just recognize that it seems to be pointing to the same kind of experiences I've described above.

Different comments here provide different parts of the puzzle: cooperation (especially in large groups) is why, oxytocine (probably) is how. Addressing the facts about spirituality:

Certain drugs seem to induce spiritual or adjacent states

Well, of course, if something is implemented in the brain, there is probably a way to hack the signals by applying chemistry or electricity to the relevant parts of the brain. This is just as true for spirituality as for everything else the human brain does.

People across religions have ‘spiritual experiences’ that involve particular styles of feeling

Yep, people across religions have the same biology.

Spiritual attitudes involve less interest in ‘worldly’ or petty things
Spiritual feelings are often associated with awe and the word ‘transcendent’
Spiritual experiences do not present themselves as about hedonic enjoyment of the experience
Spirituality is related to ideas of connecting with something beyond yourself

These are all about the ability to prioritize something above my personal desires. If I feel that X is more important than my personal desires, and you feel that X is more important than your personal desires, we have a wonderful foundation for cooperation on X-related things! And it scales easily; if you can convince hundred, or thousand, or even million people to prioritize the same X, you get massive cooperation.

There are other possible foundations for cooperation, for example understanding that cooperation can bring mutual benefits. But this is way more complicated! First you need to establish that the cooperation on given project will actually bring more benefits than whatever is everyone's next best alternative. Then you need to agree how to share the profit. Then you need to keep watching out for people trying to stab you in the back and take all the profit for themselves, either individually, or as "inner circles". -- How much easier, if everyone simply believed that X is more important than their profit. Then none of this would be necessary.

And before anyone says "but us nonbelievers can also cooperate: we have countries, armies, corporations, free software, friends helping each other, etc., all without religion", most of these examples either involve some coercion or they don't scale or they have a "religious vibe". You pay taxes because otherwise they would put you in prison; you obey your boss because otherwise you would starve; your friends are limited by the Dunbar number; and your Star Wars fandom is considered creepy by mainstream people.

Spirituality is connected with ‘meaning’ and tends to feel deep and significant
Spirituality tends to be fairly positive, in the sense that from a satisfactorily spiritual mental place, one expects the world to seem broadly good or at least compatible with peace

Well, if something is more important than my personal desires, it should feel significant and rewarding.

Spirituality is sincere

Most people are bad liars, so the best way to convince someone that you value Jesus above your life is to actually value Jesus above your life. Then again, most people are hypocrites, so they will skip the parts where you are supposed to sell all your stuff and donate the money to the poor. Yet, if someone in the community actually sells all their stuff and donates the money to the poor in the name of Jesus, they will probably be rewarded by social status. And people probably won't steal money from the church, because that involves too much risk of going to hell. So... it doesn't work perfectly, but it beats the alternatives. People will cut the corners, but they won't oppose their religion directly, and sometimes will do what is required of them.

Oops, I have conflated spirituality with religion here. But I suspect that this "I believe in unspecific higher power that makes me feel good and requires absolutely nothing from me" is a recent invention. More precisely, freedom of religion is a recent invention. In the past, your tribe had a religion and you either followed it or you got killed/exiled; and spirituality is how you internalized it.

(I wonder if there is any research of how much people who are "spiritual but not religious" are able to cooperate; on the scale from organized religion to atomized atheists.)

TL;DR - Religion exists because Cthulhu. 

People exist in a universe greater and more hostile than they could ever imagine. Everyone can be snuffed out in a heartbeat for no reason at all. There is no meaning or purpose. Humanity is nothing more than insignificant bacteria on the surface of some irrelevant rock. All of us will suffer and die and be forgotten as the nothings we are.

Now, you can choose to contemplate that existential horror and risk insanity, or you can cede to your culture and your biology (because we can induce religious elements with fNMRI and drugs to some degree) and pretend that you matter and that there is order and justice in the world.

Most people would rather spend an eternity burning in Hell than a second considering that their consciousness is a temporary accident of chemistry that will end very soon.

People exist in a universe greater and more hostile than they could ever imagine

People haven't known that for long. And the knowledge coincided with a decline in religion.

Your universe is full of threat, and that wouldn't change if your entire universe was one tiny little room. People have always known that merely existing in their environment carries a significant risk of death.  Knowledge of a bigger universe simply increases our awareness of doom. 

As for an increase in secularism, I think that belief always finds purchase, and it doesn't have to be in things we typically describe as religion. It's not difficult to find people that believe things they either can't explain (which is science, for lots of people) or things that are demonstrable bullshit (The Secret is a best selling book).

Belief has utility. It wouldn't exist if it didn't. Anything with utility can be preserved by natural selection. The same belief of Gods that built the Temple also built the entire society and infrastructure required to build the Temple. A myth created something real.

For explanations of popularity of religion, there's identity (simulacrum level 3), the same thing that guides dogmatic political allegiance. It probably has some basic psychological drives behind it, some of which might manifest as spirituality. This predicts spiritual experiences associated with politics.

Spiritual feelings are often associated with awe and the word ‘transcendent’

After being born, at the crucial stages of the development of our being, we are left in a stage of utmost dependency. We own nothing, we are helpless, and the world is full of obvious but unnatainable meaning. At this stage, every growing human needs the percievable world to be fairly well-intended to even survive through infancy, let alone thrive. So evolution hardwired us to seek bonding with our caretakers. That wiring manifests in the form of an intense feeling of fullfillment when we reaffirm or strengthen that bond.

I suspect that transcendence and spiritual awe are more common with people who feel helpless in their life, as an attempt to recreate that feeling of being helped and supported by a powerful entity beyond understanding. Monotheistic spirituality, with the figure of the loving father-god, goes as far as to explicitly state that the believer should forgo understanding and be a helpless child in the hand of the benevolent god.
 

I think you want John Vervaeke's series "Awakening from the Meaning Crisis". Very grounded in the scientific materialist framework, and thoroughly answers your question while also giving a wonderful historical overview of Western meaning-making. You'll know if this is for you after watching the first two episodes, possibly after the first one.

I think you're not asking 'why belief', but rather 'why spiritual high'. The brain produces dmt and the brain produces natural analgesics, we are not sure about the origin of dissociative experiences, but chemicals can induce them. Through certain behaviors, which are given cultural significance, it is possible for some people to get high on themselves.

Removing bullet point 1 from the list is probably appropriate, an organized religion distrustful of spiritual experiences can exist. Some orthodox religions that are out of vogue were explicitly distrustful of these spiritual experiences, and more likely to blame them on satan or djinn than the favor of a venerated deity.

That said if a purveyor of religion figures out a way to create a pleasureable emotional state in others, that state could be associated with the religion or offered as evidence of its' truth for the purpose of persuasion. I think this is common today in the USA.

If you want a shortcut to a spiritual experience without religious context, a look through erowid leads me to think that taking ketamine (nmda antagonist) and DMT should get you there without the need for an angry man in the sky, though you would be breaking some laws and risking real prison time depending on how you got everything together. Therefore, while spiritual experience became associated with religious practice, it probably is not at all.