Science and Eastern spirituality

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:


  1. The title “Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist” reminds me that after the Pew Research Center released statistics from one of their surveys on religion in America, they published a question from someone who wrote in to say “I’m Jewish, and I’m an atheist. How should I have responded to your survey?”

    Somehow I’m pretty sure you won’t find many people who consider themselves to be both Christians and atheists.

  2. I’ve gone back and forth on this specific question myself (“Am I an atheist? Am I spiritual but not religious?”, etc.) — I used the latter phrase for a while but eventually stopped using it because of the same reason you’ve articulated. Spirituality to a lot of people extends beyond awe into the realm of woo (excellent wording, btw!). My sense of spirituality was (is) based on (a) awesome natural phenomena (b) a quality I like to call ‘goodness’. I used to tell people I believe in goodness (as a pun in the lines of “I believe in god”).

    I also suspect what you get out of science is up to the eye of the beholder. I can’t believe someone would not feel good about a lot of awesome scientific discovery out there. To give you an example, I’ve honestly not felt any better in recent times than when I read/watched articles/shows about the earth, its creatures, the many natural phenomena that we would have no clue about but for science. What about the scientific improvements that lead to better lives, better health, etc.?

    And since your topic is about intersection, I’ll also add that spirituality and religion intersects in a lot of ways for most people. I suspect this is the point Jay makes above about someone being Jewish and an atheist?

    (I will have to try one, if not all, of the books you’ve referenced above)

  3. Dear Friends, The eastern philosophy is based on human values, that is again depends on the circumstances in which we are all living. Whether god is there or not is not that important, are we living as humans or as animals? Most of the animal kingdom has certain restricted methods they follow in order to sustain their race. They all show affection and love towards the people who are equally love them. They all live with humans whom they are associated and also serve them and protect them also in case of if there is any need. But whereas humans with their brain go on and on try to dominate others by his muscle power or by other means in order to acquire power or show his supremacy or delve in comforts of money, women, slaves and spirits. Others follow this wind or flow.
    Only a person who is wise can swim across or fly against currents to give relief or show that for living there is another path, where everybody can live in PEACE, HARMONY and SERINITY. Such a person is termed as enlightened one. His knowledge power is abundant, love and affection towards fellow humans is absolutely free, and such a person never expects anything from others rather he gives everything what is in possession. Their heart is lighter than light, mind is brighter than all the stars put together. But still he/she would like to live as common man/woman. And also would like to bow to those who preach spirituality or live as saints. Even he/she serves them as slave, such is compassion they have. They know that that is the way one can protect human rights on this land called as earth. Because those people only know something about what is life?
    Even though they are capable of showing their utmost supremacy, they never reveal it out, as they know that what they have learnt is also limited or it may be nothing, because this world is full of crooks, scoundrels, and incompetent regulators; and also these people want use this for their benefits rather than working for the benefits for the society of humans.
    This is the eastern philosophy, which based on fundamental principle of everybody has the right to live, right speak it out, and do some work for earning for his/her kith and kin and guide them to prosperous life, here it is healthy life and not minting money.

  4. You made the same mistake in understanding karma that you did when understanding god. You were told “god exists, and he is an old man who agrees with me all the time and hates gay people and women.” You found out the second half was a complete and transparent fabrication, so you said “god doesn’t exist.” The reality is more like “god is not as simple as this simpleton would have had me believe.”

    It is such with karma. I may tell you that karma is the method by which people who disagree with me are given what I consider punishment. Your daily life shows that your ideas of righteousness and punishment do not align with mine, and that no one’s idea seems to align with god’s. So you say that karma does not exist.

    Newton told us that causality exists, at least in certain interactions, and that the interactions are mediated by two quantities: distance and mass. We have since learned that Newton was overly simple. Yet we do not say that this disproves causality.

    It is such with karma. Karma is _the_ law of cause and effect. If you discover that what you have been told about causality is incorrect then you have merely learned that another ape was wrong when his lips were moving. You did not learn that karma doesn’t exist.

    American fundamentalist christianity is founded on the idea that simpletons can attain the protection of god through a simplistic interpretation of ink on paper. So they are lost when they find that their interpretation is bogus.

    As Bheemeswar said, “as [enlightened ones] know that what they have learnt is also limited or it may be nothing.”

    The fact that our knowledge of god and karma is incomplete is a source of destructive cognitive dissonance for fundamentalists. Enlightened ones chose to vibrate on the frequency of ignorance, as they know there is no choice. The ensuing cognitive consonance is then constructive.

    I do not know the Mahirishi but it may be the same there too.

    The purpose of a catholic priest is to share his insider knowledge about god with you, such that you may be trapped by the same illusions that trap him.

    The purpose of a guru is to lead you down a path, the experience of which will make you gain your own insider knowledge about god, such that you may love your illusions for what they are.

    I’ve been trying to explain this “karma exists” concept to you for three years now and have made little headway. I would have to be retarded to believe that explaining with rational words is the only way to teach such wisdom — it isn’t even _a_ way, let alone _the_only_ way. So it would not be ridiculous for me to try to teach you that karma exists by teaching you to levitate instead.

    Woo is essential. The woo you experienced as a child compels your actions today. Believing that woo is inessential is as fruitless as believing that god hates women.

    I do not know where to start — accept that you are always wrong when your lips are moving? Or accept that the Mahirishi is always wrong when his lips are moving. Both are true. Love both.

  5. Is spirituality maybe being confused with emotion in conjunction with a particular situation? Remember Giant Double Rainbow Guy? His experience was clearly emotional but he claims connection with the spirits also. I’ve seen a number of grand sites of nature and of human endeavor and experienced deep emotions. When I held specific religious beliefs I easily turned those emotions into spiritual feelings. Later as I “lost my religion” I still experienced such emotions but I don’t attribute them to any kind of spirituality.

    I don’t think eastern religion has any special claim on tolerance or harmony with nature. The Old Testament is full of “how to” maintain and preserve flora and fauna. Then look up Dorje Shugden and the Dalai Lama. Mahayana was originally used as a term or derision and the Mahayana Buddhists later used Hinayana in the same way. There are numerous other divisions between the eastern religions and lack of acceptance of another.

    In America there does seem to be a grand mix and match of various religious concepts to bolster a particular set of beliefs, and that’s not such a bad thing.

  6. Great responses–thanks, everyone!

    @zero: I agree about the emotional component of powerful experiences; it’s easy to interpret the feelings in terms of a particular religion, but that’s certainly not the only way to interpret them. I think emotions do provide data, of a sort, about our interactions with the world, but I wish we knew more (and taught our kids and ourselves better) about what to make of the data.

    @Greg: I wonder if we’re using words differently. You seem to be working on the premise that there is some objective meaning for concepts like god or karma, as if they were Platonic ideals, even if many people misunderstand them and thus misuse the words. (Am I on track at all here?)

    When I mentioned karma, I was thinking specifically of the belief that god or some other supernatural force is involved in seeing that people get the appropriate rewards and punishments for past actions (which could include actions in past lives) and, by extension, the idea that no suffering is undeserved. Not everyone who believes in karma would describe it that way, but many do, including many who belong to the religion in which the concept apparently originated. I don’t believe in supernatural forces or past lives, and some things that happen to people are, for all practical human purposes, random (I don’t see being killed in an earthquake, e.g., as a punishment for past deeds).

    I do believe that our actions have consequences, which are adequately explained by the workings of the natural world, including the intricate tangle of humans and their relationships. My first guess is that you’re trying to persuade me to accept the word karma to describe this concept of actions having consequences. The reason I don’t do that is that karma has a vastly different meaning to many other people, a meaning that involves concepts that seem unfounded in reality to me, and we have a perfectly good set of secular words to talk about causes and effects.

  7. I was about to post a long explanation of why I am spiritual, but then I read Greg’s reply, and your reply to Greg, and I am no longer able to get up on my high horse and tell you why I am what I am. The interchange between you two almost exactly mirrors the discussions I have with my dad when I tell him why I am spiritual and/or why I am an anarchist. I am antagonistic; he is imperturbable. I go off and fume, then I meditate, then I see the beauty in his unconditional love of me and I am humbled and my ability to love returns. This is my woo, I suppose.

    I am deeply spiritual. I dance, pray, eat, meditate, do activism and read the work of feminist scientists, all with the same reverence. Science is part of my worldview (just as it is part of the worldview of process theology and many other religious and spiritual traditions), but I am not a positivist. I don’t support Science any more than I support Religion, until I know what practices are being used to come to a given conclusion. For example, I don’t accept scientific experiments that study biological sex as a binary, when previous science has already demonstrated that that is not a valid way to study biological sex.

    But, I do respect many of the practices of science, such as curiosity, peer review, and systematic investigation. I find these practices to be compatible with most religious/spiritual practices, such as reverence and gratitude. They are really one and the same, for me. Understanding the science behind a life form I see before me helps me to feel a deeper awe in its presence.

  8. Regarding “God exists, and he is an old man who agrees with me all the time and hates gay people and women.” The latter clause provides meaning to the former. Without a definition of God he just sits there, undefined. With the definition, we can either reject God or say “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” In the latter case, an alternate definition should be provided. If we do not know what God is, then “God exists” reverts to “something exists, but we don’t know what”. This seems to be a perfectly accurate statement–certainly things we don’t understand exist. But why give attach that fact to a name that carries so much baggage?

    If we don’t mean the “God” of Christianity or Judaism, or the “karma” of Hinduism or Buddhism, why use those words?

  9. Also, Jay–from a recent post in Jerry Coyne’s blog:

    “The old joke goes, “What do you call a Jew who doesn’t believe in God?” The answer is, “A Jew.” And that’s largely true, but there are some exceptions to Jewish atheism.”

    So, there’s the answer to the guy who wrote in to Pew. :-)

  10. @Mary – We are using different words. “Supernatural, a. Being beyond, or exceeding, the power or laws of nature; miraculous,” 1913 Webster. Laws…that’s mostly “forces” for we physicists. Suppose I am aware of gravity and electrostatic and then I discover magnetism. I only acknowledge 2 forces, and it doesn’t appear to be one of them. I declare that it is supernatural. You say, “you are an idiot, your understanding of the 2 known forces is just infantile, it is clearly natural because it governs the interaction between natural things.” You might forget for a moment that you’re talking to an idiot and instead say, “actually, magnetism is just a manifestation of electrostatic, see Einstein.”

    Suppose I then go on to discover spirit-healingnetism (spingtism for short), a mysterious force — if you are righteous and you pray facing north-north-east at least 3 times but not more than 5 times a day, and your kid is named Joshua, then any form of cancer will be miraculously healed by slaughtering a lamb. So I say I have proven the supernatural. You go back to my definition and say, “no, supernatural things break the laws of nature, you have merely discovered a new and complex law of nature, it is probably a many-times-derived property of laws we already know, in fact.”

    A supernatural thing does not involve the laws of nature, the laws which govern the interactions between natural things. So if it _does_ govern the interactions between natural things, such as between cancer cells and my immune system, then it isn’t supernatural.

    I don’t know how much more pedantic, dualist, and science-loving I can be to get across the point that it is not even the slightest stretch to say that the definition of the word “supernatural” is “that which does not exist.”

    Yet I’m not talking about “that which does not exist.” Neither were the authors of the old testament, who included no fewer than 5 variations on, “Hear now this, O foolish people, and without understanding; which have eyes, and see not; which have ears, and hear not.” Nor was Jesus, who followed up “seek, and ye shall find” with “For everyone that … seeketh, findeth.” From a semantic analysis of these words, could you possibly imagine that they were suggesting any possibility other than using our own natural organs to study our own natural world, as a way to understand god’s intentions? Even the ridiculous Genesis, “God created man in his own image,” suggests that we may know god by inspecting elements of nature.

    The definition of the word “karma” is also not “that which does not exist.” I cannot possibly be more clear: if you believe that karma doesn’t exist then you do not know what karma is. If you also believe that the vast majority of people who use the word “karma” also do not know what it means, you would have merely restated a million obvious truths, such as “a monk is different from a lay person,” or “a guru has knowledge beyond a novice,” or “what they have learnt is also limited or it may be nothing.”

    Other words you brought in from left field: punishment. Karma, at least in buddhist circles, does not describe punishment. “For, owners of their deeds (karma) are the beings, heirs of their deeds; their deeds are the womb from which they sprang; with their deeds they are bound up; their deeds are their refuge.” (Buddha, The Word) Earthquakes do not punish those who build on top of fault lines, but people who build on fault lines are heirs to that action.

    That same “Buddha, The Word” document begins with “first truth, the noble truth of suffering.” How much more clear could they possibly be that reality is not fair? That suffering is not punishment, but the greatest blessing we will ever have! To quote Dr. McCoy, “what’s so damned troubling about not having died?”

    @Patrick – That’s pretty brave to allow fundamentalist idiots to define god. We should not use “science” because Pons & Fleischmann think it is the act of getting rich without performing thorough investigation. But there are more fundamentalist idiots than cold fusion nuts, so we’re safe? Okay, dictionary by democracy, how many people do you know outside of grad school who think that engineering is the art of performing experiments to find out what works? I tell you that if you were to “man on the street” survey that question you’d soon declare that we cannot use the words “engineer” and “scientist” to describe separate hats. Maybe you’d also steal from me the power to use the word “hat” as a synonym for “mode of operation” while we’re attacking my belief that all language is metaphor? This mob semantics approach would also tell you that there’s no point differentiating between Europe and Africa, because no one really knows what continent Afghanistan is on. How about the richness added to my life by
    knowing the difference between “tactics” and “strategy.” I mean, even Jean-Luc Piccard occasionally got those switched.

    You will not likely find anyone anywhere to seriously object to my definition of god as creation. The purported first use of the word “god” even makes it explicit: Genesis 1:1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. Maybe “creator” instead of “creation”? I’d argue maybe “created” instead of “creation”. No matter, this god concept has survived a many millenia long translation party, I assure you it’ll survive our uncertainty on suffixes.

    And approaching it from the other side, what isn’t god? You’ll find no other definition of god that doesn’t attract a crowd of serious detractors. “God hates gays” is not universal even in mainstream christian denominations.

    The only thing about the definition of god over which there is any serious debate is how much agency or intentionality to give it. In modernity we know that intentionality is an illusion caused by consciousness. And we know that consciousness is an emergent property of a complex system. I think it is a very atheist thing to say that “creation is an emergent property of nature.” And it is a very theist thing to say that “god is intentional” but once we learn the true definition of the word intentional, don’t we want to say that is “god is the illusion of intentionality created by an emergent property of nature”? This illusion has been very compelling at times and remains as compelling as any of our other modern illusions.

    The act of opening your mouth is the act of communicating unclearly. A lot more hay is to be made discussing the attributes of god than arguing over its existence.

  11. Greg: Terminology of specialized fields is determined by those in said specialized fields. So, yes, I’ll let the religious (of whatever form) define god. In any case, god needs definition, and I think it is difficult or impossible to find definitions of god that are both meaningful and not absurd. If we reject the absurd definitions of all the various sects, we may have to conclude that for all X, god is not as simpleton X would have me believe. I’m not sure there’s anything worthwhile left over.

    “God is creation” fits well with my opinion on that point. Then when you proceed to a more substantive definition, “god is the illusion of intentionality created by an emergent property of nature”, I think you leave almost all of the religious behind. This seems to be a rather unique meaning for “god”, and is bound to cause confusion.

    Sarah: Neither I or the non-religious people I know (scientists or otherwise) reject terms associated with religion simply because they are associated with religion, but because we don’t think they are useful.

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