This is one of those more speculative posts that I make once in a while. I don’t vouch for having great confidence in what I have to say here, but I think it’s something worth thinking about.
We talk a lot about “spirituality,” but there seems to be little understanding of what it’s actually about. Spirituality and religion seem to be related, but atheists and other non-religious can also have spiritual experiences. Some examples of the latter experiences are: pondering the cosmos, astronauts going into space and seeing the Earth, climbing a high peak, finding a fundamental law of nature, listening to a particularly complex and stirring classical piece, and so on. Religious people, on the other hand, claim that their God experiences are also spiritual experiences. What do these things all have in common?
In our post-Enlightenment societies, we operate under the assumption that “thinking” and “feeling” are basically two separate domains which have nothing to do with each other. We know that neurologically this is bullshit, but that’s the assumption behind our ultra-rational worldviews, that “thinking,” in order to be effective, must be segregated from “feeling,” and that “feeling” is inferior and should be relegated to personal matters. “Thinking” was associated with men, as an active process, and “feeling” was associated with women, as a passive process (also note the correspondence between “feeling” being only for personal matters and “women” being relegated to the private sphere).
But these experiences, I think, unite thinking and feeling so much that they force us to acknowledge their union: they involve our intellectual understanding, but they also go beyond our understanding. Our brain is made to deal with things that exist at our scale, things we can apprehend directly, like tables, chairs, cats, dogs, grass, trees, distances that go from millimeters to kilometers. We do not need metaphors to understand these basic things, as we can make mental images of them pretty easily based on our experiences. Things like time and space, which exist on a scale we can’t imagine, things like music, which is mathematical but affects our brain at a deep level in ways we do not understand, the discovery of something abstract like a law of nature, which is not directly perceivable but affects everything around us, and the paradigm shift that it creates, are all experiences which combine intellectual understanding with our emotions in an undeniable way. We are no longer able to say “this is intellectual and this is emotional.” Therefore we call it “spiritual.”
The thing you feel spiritual about has to be at your intellectual and emotional level. A person who has no interest in science would not get much from analyzing quantum physics. Someone who has absolutely no affinity to classical music would probably not be moved enough by any piece to have a spiritual experience.
I think monotheistic religions are spiritual for the same reason. The concept of God is an intellect-based concept, but at the same time it is fundamentally unknowable, mysterious: contemplating God therefore becomes a spiritual experience, because it both requires intellectual understanding and it requires you to go beyond it. It is an artificial sort of spirituality, because it is based on confusing the believer with nonsensical or contradictory statements. As such, it is more hypnosis than spirituality.
I think we have to be careful to distinguish between inducement of trance by confusion, and actual spirituality. I don’t think anyone gets a spiritual feeling by reading a confusing book, like the Bible. But the confusion and contradictions serve a hypnotic role, in that they force people to defend the contradictions and, in doing so, their belief in deepened because they have invested their own understanding into it. The spirituality of an experience stems from the experience itself. The confusion created by religious concepts doesn’t stem from the experience, but from our initial incapacity to understand it. If the concept of “God” was material and perfectly comprehensible, I doubt most religious experiences would be spiritual experiences: the only spiritual experiences left would be those that everyone can have (like pondering the cosmos, listening to classical music, etc).
If we didn’t take such care into separating “thinking” and “feeling,” what would happen? I’ve already looked at this from the political perspective. However, what I want to ask here is, would it mean the end of saying some experiences are “spiritual” and that most are not? We know for a fact that all our experiences actually involve both understanding and feeling. If we got in touch with that fact, would we stop making such distinctions and just live like whole beings all the time, involved in both thinking and feeling, instead of having these experiences we acknowledge as “spiritual” and label the rest as either “thinking” or “feeling”?
Give me your ideas in the comments.