- Dion Ogust
It’s the New Year.
We have a new president. A new Congress. We’re going to try to rebuild the economy the Republicans destroyed. What else do we need? How about a new religion?
A natural first reaction could be, Wait a minute, we already have too many, and they’re the source of most of the trouble in the world.
One thing I learned as a ski instructor is that it never works to say “Don’t do that.” Whatever people are doing, however wrong it is, they’re doing it because they want to accomplish something. To get them to change, you have to replace it with a new and better way. This is something atheists should have figured out too. But they just keep pointing out how wrong religion is and then are surprised when hardly anyone deconverts. The trick is to figure out what is people are trying to get to, what’s wrong with the way they’re going about it, then come up with a better alternative.
Here—in superbrief form—is what atheists and secularists say is wrong with the religions we have now. (To be precise, theistic religions, not those that are simply collections of spiritual practices.) In their view:
• The truth claims of religion are false.
Indeed, they are necessarily false and anything that we explain based on a theistic premise will be necessarily wrong (or meaningless).
• Theistic religions are inherently divisive.
People go to war, riot, and kill over them. In many societies with multiple religions, or even just different sects, one group is dominant and members of the other, or others, are second-class citizens, subjected to various levels of oppressions.
I’ve been to the headquarters, meetings, and conventions of atheists and secular humanists. Let me be brutally frank. While the individuals in them are wonderful, as movements they are sad. They don’t arouse enthusiasm (there’s more passion at comic book conventions), they are not especially joyous (even a mystery writers convention is more fun), they don’t spread their gospel, and they don’t convince many people to hand over money.
Let’s say they’re right. Yet religions, which are wrong, are vastly more successful. Why?
Human beings do, in fact, have a spiritual dimension. What is spirituality?
In our natural state—the way God made us and abandoned us in this fruitful but dangerous and terrifying place, before we had learning, literature, technology, and science—we were nonetheless aware that things were taking place beyond our senses and beyond our comprehension. We could see those mysterious forces manifest themselves. There were seasons, growth and change, life and death, winds and tides, warmth and cold, light and dark—but we could not “see” the forces themselves.
Also, there were mysterious forces at work within us. Love, loyalty, greed, lust, terror, despair, hope, justice, morality, family, creativity, invention, curiosity, all sorts of things. We didn’t know where they came from or how they operated. Indeed, in large measure, we still don’t.
Spirituality is that part of our mind—a form of intelligence—which tries to apprehend those unseen forces and find ways to respond to them. Spiritual ity is completely unsuccessful when it tries to understand and manipulate the external forces of the physical world.
Praying for rain is a great example. It doesn’t work. The way to deal with water shortages is dig wells, build irrigation systems and aqueducts. So, too, with the rest of the external world. The best approaches are through rationality, technology, and science. Spirituality is successful in manipulating the unseen in ourselves. It can induce calm, happiness, even ecstasy, and better health. It can transcend pain and fear. It can build community and bind people closer together. It can rise above the constraints of rules and conventions, of governments, violence, force and power. For ill and for good.
Spirituality is very successful in manipulating other people. Both individually and in groups. Religion is spirituality made manifest. It takes the practices and ideas that we have created out of our spiritual nature, organizes, and codifies them. It creates a class of experts and administrators and finds ways to fund them. Then, as with all human endeavors, its first loyalty and its overriding impulse becomes its own self-perpetuation.
We have two conflicting world views. Each does some things well, and others badly. Atheism is consistent with the other ways we think, logic, rationality, empiricism, and science. It is friendly to their truths. But it does not move our spirits.
Religion routinely defies logic, denies science, and insists it is beyond the rational and empirical. But it does get people up and do things. To organize and relate. To build and to tithe. (As well as exclude, oppress, and go to war.)
Let us take the best of both, and leave the worst behind. The flaw—the fundamental problem—with religion is that it is based on a false notion: God. The flaw—an equally fundamental problem—with atheism is that it only addresses our rationality. Its only strength is criticism. Which is not very inspirational.
Let the new religion be called: Spiritual Humanism. It is based on the recognition that those things that are best in us—courage, honor, loyalty, truth-seeking, invention, ethics, artistry, spirituality itself—are ours.
Not His, Hers, or Its. They’re ours. It’s absurd to give them away. Let us reclaim them. Humans are imperfect. But at least we know it. It is we who strive and aspire. God doesn’t.
Even in our monotheistic mythologies, God kicked us out of the garden, naked but for fig leaves, and left us to fend for ourselves. And we did. We made tools and invented science. We invented language. Learned to manipulate symbols. Created art and music. Invented clothing and forms of transportation and commerce. We built roads and cities.
We created spirituality. Out of that impulse, we created gods and religions. We created a wide and exciting variety of them and we change them at irregular intervals. Though they deal with what is called the sacred, they are no more eternal or sacrosanct, in theory or practice, than forms of government. Which are always worth criticizing and certainly worth changing on a regular basis.
That is worth celebrating. Even worshipping. I would especially like to think that a spiritual system based on the sacredness of human beings would necessarily be inclusive, not divisive. (But my sense of reality says that no matter how perfect the thought, someone will figure out how to pervert it in practice.)
Well, there it is, an act of hubris in 1,000 words. If anyone bites, we can apply for tax-exempt status, organize a choir, and find other people to tithe.