Spiritual but Not Religious: An American Ideal

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© Cynthia Decker

The idea isn’t new. Institutional religion is fading into obscurity as the rise of science and individualism presents modern humans with a difficult question: what’s next? American attitudes towards freedom reject the dogma of old mythologies; we don’t want to be told how to live by institutional monoliths or antiquated stories. Scientific incision is undermining religious authority and the spirit of the individual is beginning to glimmer. But science, too, has its own stories and dogmas that are now inciting rebellion. “Spirituality Without Religion” is emerging, perhaps as a response to the materialistic narrative born of an overbearingly scientific outlook. As we grow more interested in the quality of our lives, the marriage between the spiritual and secular is gaining prominence. Interest is mounting for a sense of well-being that is sturdier, deeper than the gratification of hedonic desires and material pursuits; castles made of sand. Furthermore, as the secular world becomes more deeply infiltrated by egoistic dispositions, where people in positions of influence pursue their self-interest at the expense of others, spirituality offers a potent remedy, and a welcomed altruism.

Perhaps science, at its best, could fill this void left in the ruins of religion. Who could deny the expansive spirituality inherent in the inner-workings of Nikola Tesla, Einstein, or Schrödinger? Let alone the scientific method of The Buddha. But these minds are generally the exception, not the rule, of science:

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A byproduct of bad science is to marginalize the subjective dimension of human experience, inducing an impotent materialism incapable of providing the enduring sense of well-being our awakening, self-aware selves seek.

Well-being within a materialist framework is an endless ride on the hedonic treadmill, an impetus of constant motion to keep away the stillness that reveals its futility. This is a narrative of ceaseless change, where well-being is dependent upon external conditions. And as Sam Harris points out in his fantastic book, Waking Up:

“Ceaseless change is an unreliable basis for lasting fulfillment. Realizing this, many people begin to wonder whether a deeper source of well-being exists…Is it possible to be happy before anything happens…?”

— Sam Harris, Waking Up (2014)

Increasingly, this is where we are. People are beginning to want something more than the transitory pleasures materialism has to offer, but refuse to turn back to that antiquated vessel of spirituality, religion. In response, we needn’t reinvent spirituality. It’s already been adopted into the American tradition of individuality by the likes of William James, Emerson, and Thoreau. But we do need to revisit myth, narrative, and context. A new story by which to countenance ourselves; a new vessel of spirituality.

“And it’s so true it’s trite that human beings are narrative animals: every culture countenances itself as culture via a story, whether mythopoeic or politicoeconomic; every whole person understands his lifetime as an organized, recountable series of events and changes with at least a beginning and middle. We need narrative like we need space-time; it’s a built-in thing.”

— David Foster Wallace, Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young (1988)

The “American Project” is to find a balance, a middle way between today’s infatuation with politicoeconomic progress and the revolted-against mythopoeic dimension of traditional religions.

A New Spirituality

Firstly, we must define spirituality when it’s disentangled from religion, without stripping it of value. The work and insights cultivated in the name of spirituality have been refined for millennia, and the requisite arrogance for starting completely over is unimaginable, not to mention horribly inefficient.

This is where Sam Harris shines. Distilling the principle insights from thousands of years of contemplative work into simple, accessible language that preserves the integrity of the teachings (mostly, anyway). He writes:

“…The feeling that we call “I” is an illusion. There is no discrete self or ego living like a Minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain. And the feeling that there is — the sense of being perched somewhere behind your eyes, looking out at a world that is separate from yourself — can be altered or entirely extinguished. Although such experiences of ‘self-transcendence’ are generally thought about in religious terms, there is nothing, in principle, irrational about them. From both a scientific and a philosophical point of view, they represent a clearer understanding of the way things are. Deepening that understanding, and repeatedly cutting through the illusion of the self, is what is meant by ‘spirituality’…”

— Sam Harris, Waking Up, p. 9

Again, this idea is not new. Harris echoes what Alan Watts declared back in the 1960’s with his short & sublime book, The Book On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are:

“The basic thing is therefore to dispel, by experiment and experience, the illusion of oneself as a separate ego.”


“We do not need a new religion or a new bible. We need a new experience — a new feeling of what it is to be ‘I’. The lowdown…on life is that our normal sensation of self is a hoax, or, at best, a temporary role that we are playing, or have been conned into playing — with our own tacit consent…The most strongly enforced of all known taboos is the taboo against knowing who or what you really are behind the mask of your apparently separate, independent, and isolated ego.”

— Alan Watts (1966)

Touching upon what differentiates Watts’ call for spirituality from Harris’, Maria Popova comments in her own piece on Harris’ book:

“But what makes our era singular and this discourse particularly timely, Harris points out, is that there is now a growing body of scientific research substantiating these ancient intuitions.”

The new spirituality for the modern age is grounded in the now scientifically-backed notion that our conventional idea of “self” is an illusion. To develop modern spirituality, we’re compelled to explore this scientific, philosophic, contemplative truth in all its metaphysical & practical consequences.

But Can We Ditch Religion?

On the treatment & understanding of religion itself, however, I diverge from the modern aversion. We must remember that religion is not confined to forms of the past. Religions of the future need bear no semblance to the old dogmas and myths. In adopting the narrative that we’re dropping religion altogether, I believe all we’re actually doing is feigning ignorance. In what world is the Super Bowl not a religious event? Malls on Black Friday, Elvis Presley’s Graceland, Earth Day, or the World Science Festival?

Religions are systems built upon values, an emergent property of our deepest held beliefs. By ignoring the role of religion, we simply withdraw ourselves from actively shaping those fertile underlying values. In consequence, Capitalism is inadvertently becoming the world’s prevailing religion. Economist and philosopher E.F. Schumacher points out the danger of turning our backs on the “higher motivations” that used to lie in the religious domain:

“Nature, it has been said, abhors a vacuum, and when the available ‘spiritual space’ is not filled by some higher motivation, then it will necessarily be filled by something lower — by the small, mean, calculating attitude to life which is rationalised in the economic calculus…”

— E.F. Schumacher, Small if Beautiful (1973)

And again with Alan Watts:

“When the throne of the Absolute is left vacant, the relative usurps it and commits the real idolatry, the real indignity against God — the absolutizing of a concept, a conventional abstraction. But it is unlikely that the throne would have become vacant if, in a sense, it had not been so already — if the Western tradition had had some way of apprehending the Absolute directly, outside the terms of the conventional order.”

— Alan Watts, The Way of Zen (1957)

But rather than acting upon our distaste for the “conventional order” by chanting “we want no order!” as both the Merry Pranksters and the Beat Poets attempted in the mid-20th century, we can simply adopt a new and distilled conception of what religion is (and, of course, what it isn’t).

Spirituality & religion have always been interwoven because they are built upon each other. What makes this difficult, and perhaps underlies much of the religious muck throughout history, is that spirituality begets religion, but religion does not necessarily beget spirituality. Adopting a system of values (religion) without doing the prior introspective work of uncovering them for ourselves (spirituality) leaves us vulnerable to all kinds of problems. Perhaps an ideal religion would be continuously ratified by each member rediscovering the core principles over and over again for themselves, forging bonds with others, and the religion itself, from the mutualities unearthed in their individual processes.

This autonomous path is what Nietzsche recognized as essential to the process of self-knowledge:

“No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life…There may be countless trails and bridges and demigods who would gladly carry you across; but only at the price of pawning and forgoing yourself.”

— Friedrich Nietzsche, Schopenhauer as Educator: Nietzsche’s Third Untimely Meditation

The search for objective values — collective morality — is a perennial quagmire. With a new religious understanding, we aren’t asked to accept these values from an anthropomorphic God, or the Church, but our own subjective experience. This new dialectic establishes our individual investigation into the illusion of the self as the sole source of collective ethics. Our spirituality asks us if this variety of introspection can uncover any morality that transcends relativism.

Whether or not we can unearth shared values from myriad individual experiences might sound like an impossible project, and it’s perhaps one of the most worthwhile and rich questions of our time. But when we look back at those who’ve earnestly & diligently devoted their lives towards cultivating spirituality, something that’s been done for thousands of years, we find largely similar reported values. Namely, variants of compassion, wisdom, and love (though defining these for secular application is no easy task).

These values are fittingly broad, yet all-pervasive. We don’t need an overbearing religion that impedes upon our individual liberties, but a set of ethics from which our actions spring, and towards which our ambitions aim, offers potential in truly ameliorating the human condition; an actual feat of ‘progress’.

We’re in a unique and unparalleled historical moment; never before have we been so well equipped to work towards such a system. An individualism rooted in unity & interdependence; lives rooted in a union of science & spirituality.

“The task of our generation, I have no doubt, is one of metaphysical reconstruction.”

E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful (1973)

A Religion and Spirituality Metaphor: Up the Mountain, Down the Mountain

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Artwork by Jillian Sinnott

Harris’ distilled definition of spirituality defines the journey and destination:

“…repeatedly cutting through the illusion of the self, is what is meant by ‘spirituality’…what contemplatives throughout history have discovered is that there is an alternative to being continuously spellbound by the conversation we are having with ourselves…And glimpsing this alternative dispels the conventional illusion of the self.”

— Sam Harris, Waking Up (2014)

If dispelling that illusion is the journey to the summit, how do we get back down? How should we govern the aspects of our lives that we don’t consider spiritual? We can meditate, paint, or do whatever we consider our introspective practice every day, but what about the rest of the day? Whether enlightened or not, we’re still human beings. We all still have bowel movements, laundry to do, and secular affairs to face. We still need to live in the world.

If Spirituality characterizes the journey upwards, or inwards, religion characterizes the equally difficult journey of coming back down, or out. Religion grapples with the question, “how can we live out here with the experience we found in there?” (of course, in the end, it seems the ultimate goal is to perceive that there is in truth no difference between “in there” and “out here”).

To many, this is what the new understanding of spirituality encompasses. Both the journey and leading a life in accord with the subsequent experiential values. This is fine, we can choose to discard the term ‘religion’ altogether and have ‘spirituality’ encompass both aspects of the journey, or we can use religion in a revised form. Doesn’t matter. What is important, especially if we choose to discard the term “religion”, is to acknowledge that an earnest spirituality cannot remain an abstraction. How we practice our spirituality is personal, but that this practice informs how we live in the world, and in relation to others, is imperative.

Spirituality & The American Project

Diligently participating in the work implied by spirituality as we’ve defined it is difficult, and often contrary to our very understanding of living well. Conventional measures of productivity place sitting quietly and doing nothing at the very bottom of useful actions. Much of my generation, the Millennials, are so hell-bent on improving ourselves — life-hacking — that any second not spent doing something productive, or working towards a measurable goal, is precious time wasted. Seeking to improve ourselves is a notion that can be salvaged, but not when it’s conceived of as constant accumulation, or self-centered growth.

A potential antidote, the variety of introspection this revived spirituality calls for, is, quite conveniently, right in line with America’s defining premise of individualism. Spirituality asks us to trust nothing but our own experience, reminiscent of that which Emerson called for back in 1838 in his infamous Harvard Divinity School address:

“Whilst the doors of the temple stand open, night and day, before every man, and the oracles of this truth cease never, it is guarded by one stern condition; this, namely; it is an intuition. It cannot be received at second hand. Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul. What he announces, I must find true in me, or wholly reject; and on his word, or as his second, be he who he may, I can accept nothing.”

The American project is one of self-reliance. We’ve been emboldened to both trust our own experience and, often, reject what lies beyond it. The latter has some negative implications. Generalizing the current state of our experience onto others fails to allow for the malleability, the wide, perhaps boundless spectrum of experience itself. The subjective experience of a financial analyst who’s never meditated is very likely to be of an entirely different order than that of the monk who’s spent decades doing so. This is Sam Harris’ whole point. It’s how he can retain the disposition of a staunch scientist, unrelenting skeptic, and still endorse self-transcendence:

“Until we can talk about spirituality in rational terms — acknowledging the validity of self-transcendence — our world will remain shattered by dogmatism.”

— Sam Harris, Waking Up (2014)

This ‘self’, the ‘I’ we experience, is taken to be the backdrop, the ultimate ground from which we exist. Most of us live this way, experiencing life through our default windows into the world. But consciousness is not synonymous with “I” (really interesting neuroscience supporting this). My self is not consciousness itself, it is merely one of myriad moving parts, or features; contents of consciousness.

The ruse in which man unwittingly participates is that ‘I’ am the fundamental canvas upon which experiences transpire. But ‘I’ am nothing more than one of these transient experiences. This dogma-inducing illusion can be done away with. ‘I’ — defined by Harris as “the (almost) ever-present subject of my experience” — am a false bottom, beneath which lies pure, undifferentiated consciousness.

Through disciplined practice, it’s been established that we can reduce our attachment to the contents of consciousness, with degrees of success on a sliding scale, allowing our default mental states to become less attached to their contents, more attuned to the whole, to consciousness itself: the unchanging canvas upon which experiences transpire. This allows for the stability that a well-being founded upon ceaseless change lacks.

Pursuing this course, however, imparts an individual responsibility upon each and every one of us, especially those dawning the label of “spiritual but not religious”. As Nietzsche told us we must build our own bridges, Sam Harris tells us that the only tool we have to cultivate spirituality is our own consciousness:

“Only consciousness can know itself — and directly, through first-person experience.”

— Sam Harris, Waking Up (2014)

To continue the American Project — revived in the lineage of William James and Ralph Waldo Emerson — of developing a spirituality free of frivolities, but brimming with the potency of an enduring well-being, we’re left to do it ourselves. To Wake Up, each and every one of us, as Harris calls for.

It’s a privileged, exciting, and daunting project. But if we’re interested in a deeper source of enduring well-being, the uniquely human potential to “be happy before anything happens”, or a notion of progress that actually contributes to bettering the human experience, then reclaiming spirituality as an American ideal offers hope.

If you jived with any of that, find more at: www.musingmind.org

Written by

Interested in many things, like consciousness, meditation & economics. Sure of nothing, like how to exist well, or play the sax (yet). More: www.MusingMind.org.

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