The Curious Conflict between Secularism and Spiritualism
On the modern attitude towards reason and beliefs.
The return of spirituality is a curious phenomenon. In the modern age — more than any other before it based on the progress of science — people are still determined to attach themselves to the idea of something beyond the observable. In the face of the modern, spiritual worldview, trust in rationality and science seems to be unsatisfactory, if not passe. Yet, with all the talk of well-being as a result of spirituality, it is important that for our own sake we do not substitute belief in the supernatural for logical reasoning and evidence. How should we approach this conflict?
It is a historical fact that science has given us almost all the comforts of the modern life. One would not be able to read an e-book about yoga without an e-book reader. Science and technology clearly win when it comes to providing measurable advantages to our everyday existence. At the same time, the calculated, measured approach of the scientist leaves people wanting when it comes to feelings. The secular approach appears cold, uncaring — just like the Universe it describes. What good is living in an air-conditioned apartment with clean water and ample food if we feel as though there is a meaning-shaped hole in said life?
It is not by accident that we still want to believe in “something more” — whatever it may be. Religion might have been a tool of social control in the past, but it’s the ideas that it offered that attracted people before the control was in place. And thus, as people turn away from religion, we also observe a turn towards spirituality. We might not care so much for the hierarchy, but it seems we still feel the need for the unexplainable or unmeasurable.
Those who argue against religion or any mysticism often point out that the subjective need to “feel good” should not overcome the lack of evidential support. Such arguments often miss the point that the turn to mysticism often takes place precisely in the moments when the capacity for rational thinking is diminished — deadly illness, surviving an accident, or losing a loved one. Those who argue for spirituality sometimes respond that there are measurable advantages to being spiritual, even though the evidence sometimes points in the other direction when it comes to being religious. There is a mass of overlapping concepts and multiple points of contention. We presumably do not want to feel miserable, yet we don’t like being deceived either.
Perhaps to solve, or at least understand, this problem, we first have to look closely at the framing of the situation. What is this “spirituality”? For a concept which is thrown around so often, people rarely care to define it. And the name itself seems to be a bit of a misnomer, too. While many spiritual people might profess their belief in supernatural entities, is any such thing necessary? Is it possible to formulate a definition that wouldn’t clash with the scientific world view? Perhaps the best approach would be to call spirituality an appreciation of subjectivity in the pursuit of mental well-being. Thus, it doesn’t necessarily invoke any personal deities, cannot be easily measured with weights, lasers and spectroscopes, yet doesn’t necessarily clash with science.
Let us consider now how we think about the problem itself. The very title names a conflict — an antagonism to be resolved in a clear victory by one of the sides. Yet, when we consider spirituality as simply the psychological aspect of our life, without any required supernatural parts, the conflict seems to disappear. I think this shows how the Western way of thinking shapes our perception of the world. For if we think about this for a while, it seems as though both groups — the proponents of scientism and mysticism — have really not been telling the entire story. The antagonism was manufactured by presumptions of cold amorality on one side and superstitious naivety on the other. The way in which the two sides sat down to talk forces them on this path and makes them talk past each other.
What then, if there is no conflict? What if science is the best way to describe the observable Universe while some spiritual practice can play a role in well-being, as the data suggests? Why does one need to fight the other, if both are meant to serve the same people?
We cannot organize our life around pure hope — superstition masked by appeal to old texts and rituals. It provably doesn’t work and it can hurt us. We also won’t get far if we start to deny that the way we feel affects the way we live, and claim that just by producing more discoveries and newer technologies, we will quench our thirst for meaning. We have the psychological aspect to take care of.
The two can coexist. They can augment each other in building a saner population. We need no deities, but we need to be well, just like we need water, if society is to thrive. The view that spirituality should replace rationality is as mistaken as the view that with enough scientific progress we will no longer need any feelings. The sense of community does not necessitate any shared delusions. Spirituality needs no spirit. Meditation does not need religion. Our greatest mistake, it seems, is that we want to see a conflict where there need be none.
(Originally published on Course of Matters)