Saturday, 5 September 2015

Religious, not spiritual

Religion isn't a dirty word yet but, judging by current usage, it soon will be. The big mainstream religions still boast plenty of adherents, but on-trend believers seem far more comfortable describing their belief systems as 'faith' or 'spirituality', rather than 'religion.' And those with non-traditional supernatural beliefs are notoriously keen to assure anybody who might be listening that they are 'spiritual, not religious.'

In ordinary usage, the words 'religion' and 'faith' refer to more or less the same thing - if you hear about a 'faith group' or a 'faith-based initiative', you know that religion is involved. But 'faith', with its connotation of trust, sounds more positive and 'spirituality' less regimented. Ideal, in fact, for an institution in need of a brand makeover. Misogyny, authoritarianism, child abuse, irrationality, intolerance, violence, groupthink, stifling conformism, prurient prudery, self-righteous moralising, pomposity, sermonising and a succession of very silly hats are just some of the negative associations that the word 'religion' has picked up over the centuries.
In this context, the change of terminology is just a linguistic cleaning product, applied to wipe away a stubborn residue of past misdeeds and mistakes. Religion is reborn as faith or spirituality in the same spirit of euphemistic renewal that saw the Ministry of War re-brand itself as the Ministry of Defence,* Windscale scrubbed up as Stellafield and the institution formerly known as the Inquisition re-invent itself as The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

But, if you're being a bit more picky, religion and faith aren't exactly synonymous. Here's part of what the Online Etymology Dictionary has to say about faith:
mid-13c., faith, feith, fei, fai "faithfulness to a trust or promise; loyalty to a person; honesty, truthfulness," from Anglo-French and Old French feid, foi "faith, belief, trust, confidence; pledge" (11c.), from Latinfides "trust, faith, confidence, reliance, credence, belief," from root of fidere "to trust," from PIE root*bheidh- "to trust" (source also of Greek pistis "faith, confidence, honesty;" see bid). For sense evolution, see belief. Accomodated to other English abstract nouns in -th (truthhealth, etc.). 
From early 14c. as "assent of the mind to the truth of a statement for which there is incomplete evidence," especially "belief in religious matters" (matched with hope and charity). Since mid-14c. in reference to the Christian church or religion; from late 14c. in reference to any religious persuasion.
And here's Wikipedia on religion:
Religio among the Romans was not based on "faith", but on knowledge, including and especially correct practice. Religio (plural religiones) was the pious practice of Rome's traditional cults, and was a cornerstone of the mos maiorum, the traditional social norms that regulated public, private, and military life. To the Romans, their success was self-evidently due to their practice of proper, respectful religio, which gave the gods what was owed them and which was rewarded with social harmony, peace and prosperity.
In short, faith is about what you believe, religion is about doing things in the prescribed way. At first sight, this might seem to validate the modern preference for faith, or spirituality, over stuffy old religion with its Pharisaical quibbling over ceremony and outward show. 

But I'm not so sure. Speaking as a nonbeliever, spirituality doesn't impress me much. It doesn't explain anything that isn't better explained by experience, observation and clear thought. Spirituality also seems pretty dull and complacent, being utterly confident that its own superior wisdom gives it privileged access to deeper truths than those obtained through hard-won experience of actual things, or the intellectual effort of trying to understand how stuff works. So you hear spiritual people without the first clue about cosmology announcing that they just 'know' that God caused the Big Bang and that the Big Bang hypothesis itself validates their existing belief system, because holy people already had creation myths long before science (glossing over the fact that the, scale, timescale and sequence of events described in the most influential creation myths bear no relation to anything confirmed by actual observation).

The sheer arrogant incuriosity is breathtaking, considering that spiritual people supposedly exhibit more humility and reverence for mystery than the rest of us. But it's spirituality which claims to answer our deepest questions, unlike 'arrogant' science. As Dara O'Brien said, 'But science knows it doesn't know everything - that's why we still do science.' Which, IMHO, sounds a damn sight more humble than announcing, on the basis of zilch evidence, that you have special access to esoteric knowledge about the most profound mysteries of existence. 

And the idea that there's tons of important stuff out there that nobody knows about, just waiting to be discovered, is way more exciting than the notion that a bunch of self-appointed wise people have already discovered the secrets of everything that's knowable, or worth knowing, if only we'd just pay attention and stop wasting everybody's time questioning things and discovering new stuff.

As a nonbeliever, I have rather more time for what some believers do, rather than what they believe. A lot of the ceremony in Churches, Mosques and Temples may refer to unconvincing beliefs, but some of it is hugely impressive in its own terms - from the sacred music of Bach to the sacred geometry of Mosque architecture.

More importantly, some religious people get together in communities and do socially useful things, either directly, giving time, money or other resources to good works, or indirectly - the very act of getting together as a community or congregation can provide companionship, support and solidarity - the sort of things that make people happy, but haven't been a priority ever since Margaret Thatcher announced that there was no such thing as society, a fitting slogan for our consumerist dystopia, where profit is the measure of all things and there's infinite theoretical choice, but somehow There Is No Alternative.

And, sure enough, some non-believers have picked up the doing part of other belief systems - the religion, not the sprituality - and run with it. The Sunday Assembly, ('a church for people who don’t believe in God') has the following mission statement:
  • Live Better. We aim to provide inspiring, thought-provoking and practical ideas that help people to live the lives they want to lead and be the people they want to be 
  • Help Often. Assemblies are communities of action building lives of purpose, encouraging us all to help anyone who needs it to support each other 
  • Wonder More. Hearing talks, singing as one, listening to readings and even playing games helps us to connect with each other and the awesome world we live in. 
You could define the 'wonder' bit as more spiritual than religious, but the rest of what's been borrowed here is straight out of religio - people getting together and engaging in practices intended to promote social harmony, peace and prosperity, except, this time round, without the gods.

There are, of course, counter-examples; when religion is good it is very, very good but when it is bad, it is horrid - the inflexible enforcement of petty, random norms without regard for individual differences, or happiness, tedious sermonising, the creation of stupid, tribal divisions between people who do things our way and those who commit the heresy of being different. And I can't help thinking that the Middle East would be a far better place if there were more spiritual, mystical Sufis and fewer inflexible Islamists murdering those who fail to comply with their prescriptive version of what constitutes correct religious practice.

But here in the West, I can see some point in borrowing from the good bits of religion - the community, social interaction, getting stuff done and generally trying to increase the sum of human happiness. What we don't need, I'd say, is more spirituality, more self-absorbed hand-waving, based on repect for the mere unsupported conviction that you're in the right. 

We are already at peak spirituality, now that 'passion' and 'belief' are seen as more important than evidence, knowledge and experience, when it comes to making decisions. So long as you believe hard enough that, say, Iraq was harbouring unspecified Weapons of Mass Destruction, or that the best medicine for a recession-weakened economy is a massive dose of austerity, the sincerity of your faith trumps mere evidence and allows you to carry on regardless of how wildly improbable your assertions are.

And if you're not a Very Important decision maker, an individualised, privatised, spiritual approach to your problems means that you're on your, own, away from the support and solidarity of congregation and community. Which, of course, makes it easier for the few at the top to divide, rule and pick you off, one by one.

If you asked me to choose between spirituality and religion, I'd choose neither of the above. But if you forced me to choose one or the other, with a loaded gun pointed at my head, I'd pick religion, on the grounds that it at least offers the possibility of getting together with other people and getting useful stuff done, where all spirituality seems to offer is complacent self-belief backed up by self-indulgent blather about the ineffable and undisprovable.

*or the US War Department transition to the Department of Defense.