It’s easy enough to see why spirituality and religion came to exist in the first place, but it’s impossible to understand why they still do.
Financial analysts often use what is called a plug. That is, they often construct complex equations where they don’t know all the variables and values, so they will simply create a variable to be named and measured later. It allows the equations to balance and the analysis to proceed. Spirituality is a plug, an unknown variable, something to allow the mysterious equations of life to balance. How did our world come to exist? How big is the night sky? Why do we have the right to take the land of the tribe in the next valley? The belief in spirits fills both gaps in our understanding as well as our emotional need to understand “why.”
It’s not at all hard to imagine a cave woman sitting around the fire, going crazy wondering what’s beyond the night sky, and finally putting her whirling mind to rest by coming up with the idea that while she might not know the answer, that something does know, a sentient, intercessionary being that exists on another plane.
We humans can drive ourselves mad thinking. We created the idea of god as a mental pacifier. Then again, there’s that whole tunnel-of-light afterlife thing, which seems to be ubiquitous.
But why are we still spiritual? We no longer sit around the fire staring up at the night sky and wondering what those points of light are, but we’re still spiritual. Indeed, some argue we are now more spiritual than ever. Not only do many of us believe in a monotheistic God, but we also believe in “energy flows,” in karma, in good luck charms, in all manner of invisible powers and beings.
Spirituality should be receding. We don’t know everything, but we know a lot more than we used to. Science and mathematics have significantly reduced the list of things we don’t understand, from the weather to the cosmos to the sources of disease. Still, people continue to cling to the idea of unseen forces.
Perhaps it’s because spirituality allows us a direct line to the mysteries of the universe rather than having to go through intermediaries. Those of us who eschew spirituality are very reliant on other people to explain the unknown to us. I mean, I get the idea that there is a Higgs boson, but I haven’t ever really seen one. I have to take the word of some guys in Pasadena, Cambridge and Geneva that such a thing exists and is important. And it’s not like those guys have explained it (or can explain it) to me in a way I can understand. Maybe those who study the Bible have made a choice between reading the user’s manual or calling a help line in India. In trying to understand the unknowable, they prefer to read the manual (the Bible or the Koran) rather than calling the help line (taking an advanced physics course.) Spirituality is in a way self-determination and thus empowering, and perhaps will always be with us.
Religion’s continued existence is even more puzzling. Again, it’s easy enough to see why religions emerged, likely some convergence of need and opportunism. Think about what early societies were like. People needed: medical treatment, weather forecasts, a justice system and provision of social services, including charity and income redistribution, matchmaking, counseling as well as entertainment and an excuse to get together. Entrepreneurial priests saw an opportunity to meet those needs (and become rich and powerful without having to work very hard) and voila, we have religions.
However, we have better ways to meet those needs now. We live in a highly specialized and developed culture, and we have specialists to fill most if not all of those needs. For medical treatment, very few of us go to the priest instead of the hospital (and if we do and our child dies, we go to jail). For the weather forecast, we turn to meteorologists. The government handles justice and provides for the indigent and we have much better entertainment options than having feasts and contests organized around saint’s birthdays (although Christmas seems to have stuck). Nor are we an illiterate lot that needs someone to stand upand read a book to us. And much of the other stuff—counseling, matchmaking, we have chosen to contract out to the private sector.
Indeed, the increase in spirituality, especially the individualized version of spirituality that’s now emerging is in its own way a threat to religion.
Spirituality should be obsolete, but hangs on, perhaps in response to some primordial human need. Religion is obsolete, and its current expansion into the political sphere and generally strident tone may be the death throes of an institution on its death bed.
Categories: Religion & Philosophy