“Do you believe in God?“
This tends to be the question at the core of spiritual discourse. Of course, there then need to be some follow-up questions: where do you believe the universe came from? Do you believe in an afterlife? Do you believe in good and evil? — to name just a select few.
I have recently been pondering some questions less-often-posed during our discussions on spirituality:
Must we look within or beyond ourselves for mindfulness?
Must we look to the past, the present, or the future to truly know ourselves?
Are there any absolute facts?
Trust me: there are more to these questions than what may meet the eye! Let me explain.
As an agnostic, always open and curious to hear others’ beliefs, I am constantly evaluating and questioning my own. However, I really like this topic of how religiosity has a profound impact on how we seek peace, contentment, and identity.
Buddhists, Hindus, and many “spiritual atheists” today may look within themselves for comfort — believing that everything they need is inside themselves, and in the present. The arts of meditation and mindfulness stem from this belief — that in order to reach that point of heightened awareness of feel truly complete and grounded to ourselves, we must learn to concentrate wholly on the present moment, and within. Completely separate ourselves from external distractions — or even our own physical bodies— in order to tap into the inner-consciousness or soul.
Theists may agree that a degree of separation from worldly pleasures and a deep focus is required to feel at peace and true to ourselves. But rather than believing that everything we need to feel happiness and fulfillment is already within us, a Christian, Muslim, or Jew may argue that we are born incomplete — that God is the missing piece that we’re searching for. So essentially, from a monotheistic perspective, we must look beyond ourselves and towards God to achieve true fulfillment and completion. This also implies looking towards the future — either towards the afterlife or the (second or first) coming of the Messiah, depending on the particular faith — when we will allegedly be free from present restrictions and be one with God. And so, under this worldview, neither us alone nor the present moment is enough to achieve fulfillment.
And then there’s the materialist atheist belief that we are, in essence, simply animals that came to be by chance. No special purpose, no soul, and no spiritual awakenings. Just the earth’s elements that we can see with the evolution-produced eyeballs in our skull, and think about thanks to the chemicals in the fat-masses we call brains. Just our physical forms trying to compute and make the best of our brief time during this random chance at existence.
John Gray (the British philosopher that is, not the American pastor — perhaps not surprisingly!) has written extensively on this. His book, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, challenges the originally religious belief— albeit now also the dominant narrative among secular belief-systems — that humans are special somehow. That we are working towards a destiny of peak intelligence and awareness.
From the biblical belief that we were created in the image of God for a special purpose, to the Marxist worldview that humanity is destined for some sort of utopic future — you could argue (that is, if you subscribe to a more nihilistic view of the world) that both beliefs are just as egocentric as each other. Both put humans on some sort of pedestal, making assumptions about our alleged important purpose in the world that no one can prove we even have.
To a hardcore atheist who sheds any religious influence whatsoever, we are simply animals. Animals that made some bold choices and got repeatedly lucky against all the odds in terms of species development, sure— but animals, nonetheless. With no particular purpose or destiny but to live as best as we can and learn along the way.
The aforementioned philosopher, John Gray, is also fascinated by the seamlessness with which seemingly opposing mythologies are blended together. Just as the fascist and the communist leaders of the 20th century — supposedly sitting on two extremes of the political spectrum — curiously seemed to amalgamate into one toxic approach to leadership, perhaps there is a similar loop in the spectrum of religiosity. From the aggressive evangelists on one end, screaming that anyone who disagrees with them will “go to hell,” to the similarly smug and self-congratulating hardcore atheists on the other, who deem all with differing ideologies to be stupid, and choose to preach the “good news” of the apparent lack of meaning in the world to the masses in laughable parallel to the very people they make their enemy. It’s another meet-in-the-middle kind of situation where neither extreme is desirable.
This unlikely melding between religion and atheism is also apparent when it comes to the idea of progress. As Gray himself points out:
“When contemporary humanists invoke the idea of progress they are mixing together two different myths: a Socratic myth of reason and a Christian myth of salvation.”
Could it be that this notion of “reason” is just as abstract as other concepts such as salvation or purity? After all, there are ethical dilemmas that even the most skeptical of hardcore atheists would struggle to crack. So does this mean that the world is completely devoid of structure or answers? Most of us prefer to have it both ways — we deem certain directly religious ideologies, such as the Ten Commandments, as fiction. Meanwhile, we blindly subscribe to the belief that there should be laws in society. That the notions of “right,” “wrong,” “good,” or “evil” even exist at all. But if the world is truly a random accident, then how could they?
This absence of universal morality implied by non-believers bears echoes to my previous article covering the paradox of liberalism — in that nowadays, we often see cases of liberal democracies punishing individuals for their choice to be conservative — even if this poses no harm to others — such as wearing modest dress. This is essentially punishing people for exercising their right to freedom of choice in the name of freedom of choice… How can we claim that all are free to do as they choose — as long as it is in line with a particular worldview?
Overall, I believe that spirituality implicates a great deal more than simply whether you go to the church, the mosque, or the yoga studio at the weekend. Most of us — both religious and non-religious alike — don’t put enough thought into who we truly are, and how we go about finding out. You may pray from time to time, and not realize that you are essentially reaching beyond yourself and towards the future to seek comfort. Just as you may prefer to meditate and not be aware that in doing this, you are looking within yourself and to the present moment for the answers. And in the same vein, you may look to the past to try to understand who you are — to your ancestors, the history of our species, and all of our animalistic tendencies that linger on, despite our best efforts.
So instead of simply asking people if they are religious, maybe we should rather be asking what they view to be the purpose and destiny of the human race — It could at least shake up any already-awkward dinnertime conversations on the topic of religion…
I hope for more judgment-free, meaningful discussions about religion and spirituality with this dimension of our spiritual direction and identity in mind. It’s a real shame that we often deem the subject to be off-limits, due to its inherent depth and sensitivity. Despite these curious differences in how we view the world and our place in it, even across the faith categories we feel obliged to put ourselves in we may just see eye-to-eye more than we expected once we allow ourselves to open up about it.
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