Although I do not believe in any of the gods proposed by the world’s religions, I do have feelings of wonder, awe, connectedness, and transcendence that might reasonably be described as “spiritual.” However, describing and sharing these feelings in the absence of belief in a deity can be difficult. For one thing, as soon as you use the word “spiritual” to describe yourself, the word “supernatural” comes to many minds. And in my experience, there is some reason for this: the word “spiritual” is too often connected with some kind of belief in the supernatural, AKA woo (or in the longer but in my opinion more descriptive version, mumbo-jumbo). It’s enough to make an atheistic primate wonder whether it’s time to stop using the word “spiritual” altogether.
I’ve long been interested in certain Eastern ideas of spirituality, which often seem to offer practical advice for living well without a lot of dogma (at least as they have been presented in the West). As a bonus, some of these approaches also treat the body gently, as something to be cherished, rather than as an enemy to be conquered or disciplined. (The word for this in the Catholicism of my girlhood was “mortified,” as in “the mortification of the flesh.” Ugh.) The problem is that you can generally only get so far into any reading on Buddhism or yoga before bumping up painfully against woo (reincarnation, karma as a true causative agent, levitation) or a renunciatory spirit (celibacy, avoiding alcohol) that is one of the more unfortunate aspects of religion, IMO. If enlightenment is attainable only on the mountaintop away from real life, it has little value for me. (I have found a few non-mumbo-jumbo books about Buddhism and mindfulness; see the list at the bottom of this post.)
So I was very interested in Philip Goldberg’s American Veda, which chronicles the spread of Eastern spiritual concepts in America, from Ralph Waldo Emerson to today. (He specifically investigates only the broader spiritual concepts of what he refers to as Vedanta-Yoga—e.g., “one truth, many paths”—rather than religious ceremonies, deities, and such.) I may have more to say on the book as a whole later. For now, I’m going to focus a couple of things that struck me for what they say about how science is related to Eastern spiritual ideas.
In a chapter on the founding of the Esalen Institute, the famed retreat center that explores humanistic spirituality, Goldberg quoted Jeffry Kripal as saying that Esalen offers
“a kind of secular mysticism that is deeply conversant with democracy, religious pluralism, and modern science.”
Sounds good, especially when compared to fundamentalist versions of Christianity and Islam, which are often opposed to religious pluralism and/or modern science. There are echoes elsewhere in the book of this suggestion that Eastern spirituality is suitable for a modern secular society. However, a little later, in a chapter on the influence of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (guru to the stars, most notably the Beatles), Goldberg quotes Harry Oldmeadow, a theorist of religion:
“The interest in Eastern spirituality met some deep yearning for a vision of reality deeper, richer, more adequate, more attuned to the fullness of human experience, than the impoverished world view offered by a scientifically-grounded humanism.”
I initially interpreted the first quote as implying that people were actively seeking a spirituality that was compatible with other things they valued, e.g., science and democracy. The second quote seemed contradictory: it seemed almost to imply that even if people accept science and humanism, despite the relatively shallow, less adequate world view they offer, they remain hungry for something more. I’ve encountered this attitude before, and I still find it discouraging. Some of my most powerful feelings of wonder, and some of the deepest, richest, most mind-opening thoughts I know, are profoundly connected with our scientific understanding of the world. To me, the quest for an adequate spirituality is about finding a way to make room in my life for those feelings and nurture the experiences that give rise to them (not getting too caught up in the daily round of work and chores) and trying to share them with others. It is not about supplementing the inadequacies of a scientific-humanist world view because I don’t find that world view inadequate.
Goldberg’s book is not specifically about science and Eastern spirituality (although he does have a chapter about that topic, which I’m just about to read), and he certainly doesn’t delve very deeply into what “compatibility with science” might really mean. The people and events he describes often seem to involve a fair amount of woo (e.g., after making a hit with transcendental meditation, the Maharishi went on in the 1970s to try to train people to levitate). The picture overall is fascinating but definitely not one of a mumbo-jumbo-free spirituality, and reading this book is leading me once again to question my use of the word “spiritual” in connection with myself. I’d love to hear what others think. Do you describe yourself as spiritual or as “spiritual but not religious”? Do you think it makes sense for atheists/agnostics to describe themselves as spiritual? I’d be especially interested in hearing from anyone who grew up with the original ideas behind Eastern spirituality and religion in these ideas’ native habitat.
Here are the non-mumbo-jumbo books on Eastern spirituality:
- Confession of a Buddhist Atheist
by Stephen Batchelor
- Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening
by Stephen Batchelor
- The Feeling Buddha: A Buddhist Psychology of Character, Adversity and Passion
by David Brazier
- Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness
by Susan L. Smalley and Diana Winston
- Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness
by James H. Austin
- Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom
by Rick Hanson