Separating the Wheat from the Chaff: Faith-Free Spirituality

In the Q&A printed in the back of Carl Sagan’s The Varieties of Scientific Experience, he is criticised for missing that we are physical and spiritual beings. He replies that there is no evidence that we have an extra element that is not matter, although we are more than the sum of our matter due to the emergent properties of the various combinations of matter that we are made up of.

Both are right, and the feeling that each has, that the other is not making sense, underlines the difficulties believers and materialists have in communicating. The truth, as far as is consistent with science, is that we have no extra element, we are not literally physical and spiritual beings, but we have psychical and spiritual needs. These needs are what many religious believers fear will not be fulfilled by scientifically-based materialism as it stands now, and many pronounce could never be and that many (the majority?) of non-believers don’t notice or deny are true needs.

To say ‘spiritual’ need not mean more than deeply emotional, but fulfilling these types of emotional needs have only recently been looked at separate from the trappings, beliefs and the faith of religion. Under the discourses presented by the majority who hold the materialist worldview they have rarely given the importance that the developing scientific paradigms are showing them to deserve. (Carl Sagan’s answers in the above citation suggest he falls outside this majority and recognises the importance of spirituality.)

Religion also has different meanings that need to be divided and defined. We can speak of religion as:

  1. An organisation – places of worship and the group of people who work there, as well as religious bodies such as charities.
  2. Beliefs, broadly grouped as:
    a. Specific/Denominational – whether the form of the divine, the creed belonged to or the teaching on a particular moral issue.
    b. Personal – an individual’s interpretation of scripture, unique insight or experience or combination with other beliefs.
    c. General, including:
    i.  Faith is a good thing
    ii. There is something beyond the material world
    iii.There is a better life than this one
    iv.There is a soul which is the true ‘self’
  3. Emotional states which are interpreted through the eyes of beliefs, but in fact are a result of:
  4. Certain behaviours/activities: solitary, such as meditation and prayer or communal such as group worship (although each can be done solo or collectively.

This top-down approach is usually how people think of religion, but the organisations are the least important to my blog. Religious organisations (1) will not be discussed much here, there is much current and historical evidence that they do both harm and good. I do not think that it is conclusive that these positive or negative results are caused directly by the other aspects of religion, listed above. Things that are universally human such as in-group, out-group behaviour are certainly exacerbated, and likely prolonged by religious beliefs, but humans are quite capable of this without religion and it’s hard to disentangle them as causing of problems. Religion institutions certainly are powerful in focusing and directing human tendencies to do both good and bad and I personally would argue that their damage to well-being has been disproportionately large compared to their benefits. This is not a focus of my blog, however, and I don’t feel the need to add to the wealth of literature out there,

I would say that the results of beliefs (2) are far more lopsided; allying with the new atheists I am convinced unproven and unprovable beliefs and blind faith are extremely pernicious to society and likely to be damaging to an individual. Whether it’s that appeasing what is found in the extra-material world (ii.) will help gain access to the next life (iii.) or that beliefs that are dualistic (iv.), they are problematic, e.g. the latter is now implicated to reduce concern for health, if people are dualists, if they believe they are more an immaterial spirit or soul that moves around in a physical body as a vehicle for this spirit, they are less likely to have concern for it and seek out medical advice new research shows. Just a small demonstration that science is the key to what we should and shouldn’t take from religion, I discuss elsewhere whether science does or could show that disproved or unprovable beliefs are something we should take from religion.

I argue that we should support practices/behaviours (4) when they have a positive effect on emotional states (3) and that whether they are can be said to have positive effects are entirely material questions which have been, are being or can be demonstrated through the use of science. That is to say with double-bind, randomised control trials where applicable. A positive effect being ones in the sense of Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape, his utilitarianism of well-being, preferring what increases well-being for the most people to the greatest degree for the longest period of time.

I also would argue that, following Karen Armstrong, religions are formed as a result of doing activities (4). We then experience the emotional states (3) and it is those that we interpret by creating beliefs (2), which then inspire certain individuals to form or join organisations, rather than the beliefs being true and causing the behaviours. (Once formed the organisations spread the beliefs and the order my reverse with people being familiar with the beliefs before they try the activities which give them the experiences, which they then interpret through the prism of the belief they already have been given and act as confirmation.)

One thing that religion has got right, when it works well, is living a happier, more peaceful and compassionate life, and it is admirable for putting great importance upon it. Unfortunately, it has confounded actions towards this noble, achievable, morally and scientifically justifiable goal with ones based on unproven claims about the nature of the universe (whether it’s god(s), karma, souls or eternal life). It has tainted this goal with misguided desires e.g. eternal life, justice in an unjust universe, pleasing god/karma rather than doing deeds for their own sake and earthly consequences; and perpetuates tribalism, judgement of others, and lack of responsibility of ones own actions.

Religion as a whole, then, can be described as a set of behaviours unconsciously developed for, or emerging from, certain human needs relating to well-being. These behaviours can be solitary or communal and either inwardly-directed or outwardly-directed. Outwardly directed behaviours receive a lot of attention, falling broadly into charitable ones and antagonistic ones. Inwardly directed ones are either dismissed or regarded as intractable and inscrutable by critics and even by supporters.

There is nothing wrong with religion in theory as presented above, in fact research is showing that it is essential, and there wouldn’t be any problems in practice, provided the behaviours are selected based on demonstrations of their efficacy to promote well-being by the scientific method and the explanations for how the world and the behaviours work kept separate from subjectivity. Unsurprisingly, the modern advances in neuroscience as well as insights from psychology and sociology, whilst needing to be taken with the caution appropriate in all new science, are the tools needed as we develop ways to tell us objectively about our subjectivity.

As with most human things developed prior to scientific investigation, e.g. medicine, weather-forecasting, religious behaviours have no strong intellectual selection pressure, some happen to hit on a good way of improving well-being whilst others are neutral or detrimental, maintained in use by cognitive biases, the placebo effect etc. This should be no different from the fact that superstitious beliefs and practices based on them were used in the past to try to influence physical health or weather-forecast until science started to tell us what does an doesn’t work, we are still using it to sort through many alternative medicine claims, which is why we can’t dismiss all herbal or Chinese traditional medicine in the same why we can dismiss all homeopathy. It would seem, however, that religions have had a greater success at hitting upon things that work to help our spiritual needs than they have at things that work on our medical or forecasting needs.

Of course religion also incorporates beliefs about these behaviours in an attempt to explain the world that gives rise to the subjective experiences associated with looking after our spiritual needs, but surely these originally came after the behaviours are hit upon and experiences took place (read any conversion account to see this)? There’s no more reason to believe the explanations of religions for spiritual experience than there is to believe ill-health is caused by possession by evil spirits or bad weather by Thor. Just because we have ‘spiritual’ needs doesn’t mean spirits exist.

Science is not absolute, none of its suggestions can work for everyone all of the time, it gives guidance on what statistically is more successful, outliers are harder to predict. But it’s the best starting point we have, in medicine science informs general, initial practices, medical staff mediate to tailor to specific individuals. Science is also limited to consequences, it cannot justify our premises, e.g. do we want to maximise well-being?

Spiritual Materialism is what I humbly put forth as the answer; we can do away with the chaff of religion and yet it is necessary to keep the wheat of it. Science is the best way we have for separating the two, and it’s already begun to have success in doing so.

– The Spiritual Materialist


8 thoughts on “Separating the Wheat from the Chaff: Faith-Free Spirituality

  1. Religion is neither good or bad, in and of itself. It just depends on what we do with it and how that, in turn, impacts human behavior. Religion was not only invented by man, it is run and controlled by man. The control aspect of it provides the means to negatively impact human behavior as religious figures interpret the Word of God to suit their own agenda. The focus, in my opinion, should therefore be on the bureaucracy of religion as opposed to its beliefs.


    • Thanks for my first comment! I respectfully disagree, I think many of the beliefs are bad, if not inherently, then in their effect on psychology and behavioural impacts on the world, which is the only measure that is important in the end. The organisation side can indeed be used for any purpose, it is my conviction that redirecting it to discourage beliefs and encourage emotional well-being would be the best thing for the world.


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