With the passing of Pope John Paul II there have been more calls from the religious establishment for more spirituality. Indeed, in his first official visit to the gathered faithful in Bari, Italy, Pope Benedict XVI said, “It is not easy for us to live as Christians.” From his “spiritual” point of view, the world in which we live is “so often marked by runaway consumerism, religious indifference and by secularism.”
Christianity, like most religions, equates spirituality with the contemplation and reverence of beings from another dimension. Virtually every religion and new-age “spiritualist” doctrine claims some way of connecting man to another world. These include Zen Buddhists, Hindus and a plethora of other sects. For radical Muslims, spiritual devotion is expressed by suicide bombings that take as many innocent victims with them as they possibly can, on the premise that the bomber will be rewarded in the other world.
Needless to say, religion does not justify the value of spirituality in terms of its practical, earthly benefits. Rather, Christianity and other religions counsel men to pursue spirituality as an alternative to the pursuit of this-worldly material values. For them, spirituality means denying themselves the pleasures of this earth.
Consider art, surely an important source of spiritual enrichment. Religion has long sought to suppress it, because delight in the pleasures of the earth has been seen as the antithesis of spirituality. In both Islamic and Jewish orthodoxy, painting portraits is forbidden. Both drama and dance, which are rightly described by many as modes of emotional expression and often of immense spiritual release, were outlawed by the Puritans and still are today by many fundamentalist religious sects. Most recently, the famed Harry Potter series has been condemned by the current Pope as an enemy of Catholic morality.
Religion’s suppression of art is just the beginning of its opposition to the needs of the spirit. Not only does religion discourage the contemplation of beauty, but it stifles overall emotional well-being by inducing guilt and anxiety. Christianity even celebrates the “fear and trembling” of Abraham, driven by faith to murder his only son. Religion’s celebration of faith, of the “evidence of things unseen,” encourages men to doubt the evidence of their own senses, fomenting distrust of the mind.
Man does have a spirit, but the spirit is more than our emotions. It is everything about us that is not simply material. This includes our hopes, our desires, our feelings, and our thoughts. If one acknowledges that “spirit” refers to man’s non-material mind, then religious spirituality is decidedly unspiritual. The fact that the religions of the world pit the spiritual world against the material world is the first proof that religion is aimed not at nurturing your spirit, but at stifling it.
Real spirituality is the recognition that the mind, the spirit, is real and is of this world, and that its connection to this world must be tended to properly, not subverted or negated. Spirituality is a natural, earthly component of being human.
Consider some activities known to provide moving experiences. Every two years, thousands flock to the Olympics to witness inspiring athletic excellence. Millions yearly visit museums to contemplate great art or attend ballets and stage plays and musicals. People use precious vacation time, their accumulated dollars, to travel far and wide to experience the awe of some powerful sight, such as Niagara Falls or the breathtaking Manhattan skyline. Most people spend thousands of hours over the course of a lifetime cultivating their friendships and romances.
What does man accomplish by such pursuits? He does not improve his digestive system by basking in the sight of a “delicious” still life, nor does he cure any physical ailments by hearing his favorite band. It is, indeed, a spiritual need he fills. For instance, he gets renewed emotional fuel to pursue his goals: the sight of an Olympic ice skater, fiercely determined in her dance routine, achieving that long-pursued gold medal, can affirm a viewer’s conviction that his hard work, too, can bring its just reward. And even apart from any practical inspiration it might serve, such an experience is an emotional delight unto itself–a thrill that makes life more vibrant and worth living.
In the end, religion subverts the human spirit because it subverts the reasoning human mind. At its core, religion is a supernatural worldview accepted on blind faith. Yet the core of the human spirit is human reason. Our emotions are simply our mind’s response to things in the world our mind judges to be important. We are happy when we achieve our long-planned and long-sought goals. We enjoy the sight of pristine painting because we value our own untrammeled faculty of sight. We fall in love with people who embody our most considered and cherished values. In opposing the centrality of human reason, religion denies us the possibility of these forms of fulfillment. In their stead, it leaves only the possibility of the neurotic satisfaction that comes from avoiding the cooked-up dangers of a rumored hell.
We should reject any mystical view of spirituality as harmful to our spirit. Let us embrace an earthly, rational spirituality–a love of the profound pleasures of this world, and of our human ability to enjoy them–because it recognizes that our spirits are a part of our selves and our lives on this earth. Our minds have to be tended to so they flourish and reach new heights.
Simon Patkin is studying at the Ayn Rand Institute’s Objectivist Academic Program. He also runs Capitalist Solutions, a free enterprise think tank promoting rational self-interest in Hong Kong and is also an occasional contributor to the South China Morning Post opinion pages.
Members of The Undercurrent staff contributed to this article.