The Spiritual Benefits of Materialism

Spirituality without beliefs may seem an oxymoron. What I mean by spirituality, however, is certain feelings, i.e. chemical and electrical changes to neuronal states, which are touted as the height of what it is to be human and the domain solely of religious belief systems.

Secularism, particularly atheism, is often attacked for not allowing outlet for producing these special emotions, without which the non-believer is missing out on an important part (maybe THE important part) of being human. This is assumed to denote feelings of wonder and astonishment at life, the universe and everything, which is supposedly unimaginable without wondering at the concept or being that created these things. These feelings are in fact conveyed beautifully by Richard Dawkins (Unweaving the Rainbow, The God Delusion) or can be experienced by watching Brian Cox’s BBC TV series without resort to the divine. What I think those who are immersed in a religious belief system mean when they describe feelings of ‘oneness with god’, ‘giving oneself up’ etc, are important neuronal states that are important to cultivate. I think this spirituality is dismissed by non-believers, but my conviction is that we can and should experience these states too.

By now I may seem to be talking nonsense, how can I become one with a god that does not exist? So perhaps I will seem to slip even further down the rabbit hole by discussing my findings from reading an array of ‘sacred’ texts over the 5 or so of years. The Bible, the Qur’an, the Dao Te Ching, the Buddhist scriptures, the Upanishads, for all their differences in theologies are all are trying to describe and promote the same two ideals. One is that we should strive to do the best we can to foment social well-being. There is a gamut of writings and research on how these are human universals explained by evolution, paleo-archaeology, psychology and neuroscience and have been outlined in secular, non-sacred texts, Confucius, Aristotle etc. And there is an array of atheist texts over the centuries that explain why these shouldn’t need belief in the divine to be important. The argument that we can be good without god has been well made and accepted by non-believers. The second thing the texts have in common is the importance of cultivating personal happiness, which is interpreted in disparate theologies but described in similar images. These are ideas of mentally letting go, losing oneself in meditation, in the individual suppressing feelings of the Self or ‘giving up’ the Self and becoming one with the universe/god/Brahma. Early results from neuroscience studies on mediation and prayer suggest these are not skills to be sniffed at simply because of their historical attachments, any more than explanations for morality or the weather used to be confused with the will of supernatural beings. These practices can provide a range of benefits simply by training the brain. These benefits include helping with depression, reducing pain, and improving cognition and attention span. These are not based in any mystical, supernatural or dualist ideas but on material changes in the brain.

If research continues to show these trends, without negative side-effects, there should be no reason why mediation should not become a tool for exercising brain functions in the same way that running exercises leg functions. Mental education classes in schools would become just as important as P.E. classes, who wouldn’t want to improve children’s attention span? Perhaps this post would have been better called the material benefits of spiritualism!

In the insula and the prefrontal cortex are circuits responsible for the ego, the notion of self and stream of consciousness, the internal voice that talks to us and well as the list of concerns and goals we have and the feelings of stress that go with them. Meditation and other similar, spiritual practices have been shown to quiet these activities, calming ourselves, putting aside what we have to do in the future and what we worry about, stepping back from the chatter of internal dialogue and associating ourselves with the increasing activity of certain brain functions. Other circuits constituting a lateralised network give us experiences to do with existing in the present moment, without concept of time or boundaries, so it can produce that feeling one being one with the universe.

An expected side-effect of the combination of these changes of activity in the brain would be to encourage us to be self-less in thought and behaviour when we lose our sense of self. This has indeed been demonstrated, mindfulness increases activity in circuits responsible for compassion and judgement. (There is a good write up about it here.)

The next question is do feelings of compassion towards others under duress lead to actions to reduce their distress? At least one study shows this cultivated compassion is acted upon. Whilst being mindful of the caveats of much of current neuroscience research, it would appear a tentative consensus is starting to form that yet another advantage of mediation and loss of ones feeling of self is an increase in the feeling of selflessness and the will to act selflessly.

This has finally provided some, limited evidence to back up the many strong philosophical arguments that we don’t need religion to be selfless. We all have the ability to alter these brain functions to various degrees, but the religious can be better at cultivating them, and historically have been, because they have more experience with these mental exercises. It requires practice to separate the normally combined functions of narrative and experiential focus. The religious on average have had more practice, at the moment, but as always I argue there is no a priori reason they should be privileged in this ability. I would also argue they can also be better at suppressing them, when beliefs are a strong part of identity and our identity comes under threat we activate those brain circuits and that’s when a them versus us mentality surfaces.

As a Skeptic I know the problems with anecdote and appealing to shared experience, but the subjective experience I would compare this to is being in a crowd at a sporting event or at a music gig where the delight and passion for the skill of the players, the shift in mood and the awe-inspiring climax causes the loss of self identity and a feeling of oneness in the group. I think this is the closest non-believers have to brain states that come from group worship in a church, although I don’t know whether there’s any objective evidence that demonstrates these have the same strong effect on our psychology.

In Defence of Secular Religion

Now that we have a working idea of a spiritual materialism as a philosophy and way of life the next question is, do we need the institution of a secular religion?

I’ve often come across an attack on ‘new’, more vocal atheism, Skeptism or general secularism that they are trying to be, or will become a new ‘religion’. I’ve heard this from friends and family and read this in many internet articles and comment boards. The assumption is that the non-believer will recoil at their strong views being compared to such a dirty word as religion and put their point across less strongly, if at all. I will use the term non-believers or the abbreviation NBs to refer to atheists, agonistics, humanists and secularists, I will term the practice as secularism as I think this is the common thread that unites these positions, at least in the public sphere.

While I idolise Darwin, Newton and Socrates I wouldn’t seriously genuflect to an idol in their image, the reduction ad absurdum which is implied, and sometimes an explicit accusation. A less extreme version is seen in doubts displayed by Francis de Waal

‘…what would happen if we were able to excise religion from society? I doubt that science and the naturalistic worldview could fill the void and become an inspiration for the good. Any framework we develop to advocate a certain moral outlook is bound to produce its own list of principles, its own prophets, and attract its own devoted followers, so that it will soon look like any old religion.’

This is an intriguing ending to a fascinating essay on animal ethical behaviour.

My argument is that secularism looking like any old religion should not necessarily be a bad thing, to a very carefully managed extent. I will attempt to demonstrate this possibility by discussing what I will deem ‘spirituality’, which I use to describe an individual’s personal feelings and experiences, but NOT beliefs; and ‘religion’, which I use to denote communal experience. A compounded set of beliefs that generally go together at the exclusion of others, such as Christianity or Hinduism; I will term ‘belief system’.

I describe spirituality as not encompassing beliefs because secularism is not a belief system; it is the attempt to remove belief systems from influence outside designated buildings, homes, places of worship etc. Whether the acceptance of scientific, historical or geographical/sociological facts as determined by primary and secondary research count as beliefs is an argument I won’t go into here.

My description above of the commonalities in the behaviours and experiences of different belief system shows that it is not in fact important what your beliefs are. And again the science backs this up, non-believers still get the benefits of meditation, so it doesn’t even matter if you have no (theological) beliefs at all!

The way I have defined ‘religion’ here is to emphasise human activities centred on the atmosphere of community found in a church, and therefore also a place to learn and to teach, to discuss while feeling comfortable. This broadly-speaking takes the forms of preaching, interacting with peers and seeking guidance. Non-believers have versions of all of these of course. NBs have lectures instead of preaching and the significant difference here is that there is room for Q&A at the end, and one could say room for disagreement. Interaction with peers and seeking guidance, when put thus, of course are not limited to only those with religious belief systems in common, in particular the internet makes these things easier in general and more likely to cross group barriers. However, I think secularism at present is lacking in some areas of these and that religion has the monopoly on them. These thoughts are regarding the intermediate level between the very personal talking to close friends and the very impersonal internet discussions or paid, institutional therapy sessions. Things like Skeptics in the Pub groups bare a resemblance to what Christians (or at least Church of England) call ‘cell groups’, or a church congregation. An atheist church in London recently made national headlines, so clearly others are feeling the same.

Please note that I am again not talking about NBs embracing dogma, but congregations who preach about or discuss issues critically, or discuss critical thinking skills and without recourse to what Sam Harris calls ‘believing incredible things about the nature of the universe’ (End of Faith, 2004, p. 28). A recent study showed that the religious constantly rate themselves as happier and more satisfied with their lives, and this is due to the close friends they make at church.

Since the non-believer has no place that is sacred, everywhere is sacred, and it is easy to sit by a lake or in any other quiet spot to be alone and reflect on life, the universe and existentialism, there is no need for a secular church. But we maybe need secular priests and thus secular churches. By this I mean somewhere one can go to be alone, but with the choice to talk to someone who, without charging by the hour, will check if a person is okay when alone in the pews, will discuss problems while being removed from them, perhaps unlike friends or family, who can’t be unbiased judges, and offer guidance and comfort. Of course this may seem like the threat of a hovering sales assistant when browsing in a shop! Again this person would not and should not talk about unprovable premises or push agendas and could still guide within a framework of critical thinking, helping the person to examine their emotions and thought as just that, emotions and thoughts, and the cognitive reasoning behind their own actions and those of others. Personal problems and guidance should be about these things surely?

As with any institution the problem would be one of transparency (and funding!), so I acknowledge these ideas are somewhat pie-in-the-sky. I do think these ideas on secular spirituality and religion are why the very idea of secular religion is not something to be laughed at, disliked, dismissed or concerned about. Without fulfilling some of the cognitive, emotional human needs put forward above religion will have the domination of these aspects of humankind and secularisation will be less viable. Nonetheless, perhaps we are closer on the road towards secular religion than we think. Remember that participation is entirely optional.

– The Spiritual Materialist


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