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Spirituality: It’s only human

This week's question to the On Faith panel:
“The world today really needs the perspective, the rest, the enjoyment that Sabbath gives,” Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman says in an interview with Sally Quinn, making the case for a weekly day of rest.__ In this season of Congressional recess, family trips and controversy over whether or not President Obama should take a vacation, why does rest matter? Is vacation spiritual?

‘Spiritual’: what a weaselly word that is! Much like ‘Intelligent Design’ as a euphemism for ‘Creationism,’ ‘spiritual’ is a word that believers throw in when they’d like to claim something for religion, but suspect they wouldn’t get away with it. ‘Spiritual’ is conveniently ill-defined and therefore perfect for their purposes, conveying, as it does, a vaguely religious implication that humans are special, somehow elevated above the other animals, attuned to other-worldly influences and having an added dimension that cannot be satisfied with mere Earthly matters. ‘Spiritual’ leaves open the possibility of ‘mysticism’ and ‘higher powers’ and ‘immortal souls,’ without ever having to spell out, and therefore defend, what is meant by such things.

We non-religious might also resort to the word on occasion, when groping for a term to describe a particularly intense sensation of peace or beauty or harmony; but generally speaking, it is rare to find an example of ‘spirituality’ being used in a context where ‘emotional and psychological well-being’ would not be a more appropriate term. Well, shorthand can serve a useful purpose, and ‘emotional and psychological well-being’ is a bit of a mouthful; but still, we should not forget that that is what we are really talking about, and we certainly should not be fooled by the other-dimensioned overtones of ‘spiritual’ vocabulary into thinking that emotional and psychological well-being actively requires us to dabble in matters religious.

But isn’t this just a quibble over vocabulary? Well, no: I think it is more than that. The believers’ habit of passing off ‘emotional and psychological well-being’ under the label of ‘spirituality’ is an attempt to claim this kind of well-being as, at heart, a religious phenomenon, something for which openness to religion and religious beliefs is a prerequisite. Since emotional and psychological well-being is something we all need and strive for, it is a particularly sneaky way of trying to ensnare the unsuspecting. It is also part of a more general tendency on the part of the religious to try to claim that those of us who do not share their beliefs are lacking in something other than mere credulity. How often do we hear from religious apologists that lack of religious belief is responsible for a gamut of social ills, from alcoholism to family breakdown and from sexually transmitted diseases to crime (claims that fly in the face of the facts, as it happens, since research demonstrates a clear correlation between religiosity and a whole host of social ills)? This tendency reached its peak - thus far, at least - in 2009 when the then-head of the Roman Catholic church in England and Wales, Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, actually stated in a BBC radio interview that anyone who left out the search for God in their lives was ‘not fully human.’

Again and again we see religion attempt to hijack some core aspect of what it means to be human and claim it as religious: our ability to love and our appreciation of beauty, for instance. The most obvious example is morality. Humans - humans believing in the full spectrum of gods and in none - have been giving thought to what it means to lead a good life and have had a lively sense of right and wrong for as long as they have been keeping records. And indeed, since we evolved as social animals, we should expect nothing less: as social animals our success as individuals depends on our being able to interact harmoniously with the other humans in our groups, whether we take ‘group’ to mean family, circle of friends, or wider society. Notions of acceptable and unacceptable, and the boundaries between them, may (indeed, do) vary over time and from place to place, but transgressing against the behavioural expectations of our own time and place has never been in our best interests. Religions came along and codified sets of values that were already the norm in the societies that spawned them: as Christopher Hitchens has rightly pointed out, the desert-wandering Israelites would never have made it as far as Mount Sinai if they had needed the Ten Commandments to tell them that murdering each other was not a helpful way to carry on. And yet religion has been so successful in its hijacking of the notion of morality that the question of how we can be moral without religion now comes up almost every time atheism is mentioned, and the religious indoctrination of children is almost universally excused on the basis that it’s good to bring them up with a sense of right and wrong. This hijacking of morality by religion has been one of the greatest heists in history, and yet it has passed almost unnoticed.

Read on



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