Monday, December 21, 2009

Can You Spot The Difference?


Religion and spirituality, it seems that these two always go together, like peanut butter and jam. You would think they were synonymous. No wonder people are so confused. The two actually have so little in common that they could as easily be seen as opposites. They do share one common feature. They are both ways of responding to the desire for union. We are spiritual beings and so we have this impulse. If I were to suggest a short definition of spirituality it would be this: the process of merging oneself with, by surrendering to, a greater unity, AKA God, AKA Infinite Awareness, AKA Truth. No one can know the path of another. It is a journey, not a guided tour.

It is possible to temporarily sate this desire for union through substitutes. Falling in love is one way. One might also identify with one's nationality or cultural group or even a sports team. We take such pleasure in these things because they allow us to transcend our little ego selves. These are easily seen as substitutions for the ultimate and true Oneness that is the guiding star of the mystic. Religion falls into the same category as these other sops and distractions. It pretends to be what it is not. It claims to deliver what it serves to distract from and prevent.

Occasionally, genuine spiritual seekers will make use of a religion as a mythical narrative to assist their understanding. There is almost no end to the number of stories that could serve this purpose and religious stories aren't really special. Unless these mystics are very discrete, they fall afoul of their own religious authorities in the process. Priests do not approve of this sort of thing. Religions are threatened by any real spiritual progress on the part of their followers. That's because religions are not spiritual paths. They are belief/control systems. Examining and questioning one's beliefs is an essential, important part of any true spiritual path and religions can't have that. It would undermine their power and authority.

You can always spot a religion by it's focus on rewards and punishments, the old carrot and stick. Sometimes it's heaven or hell, sometimes karmic boons or debts. All that is required is belief and obedience. I find such threats and promises inappropriate and offensive. Is union with the divine not considered enough of a prize? Is the experience of separation from It not painful enough?

Morality is whatever the religious authorities tell you it is. You're not supposed to develop the ability to determine it for yourself. You are not qualified. Never mind what you know in your heart. Religion actually destroys our ability to be truly moral by demanding that we choose against what we know to be true. Once again an important aspect of spiritual growth is headed off at the pass. Every time I hear that phrase, religion and spirituality, I have to suppress my gag reflex.

Another case of misrepresentation exists with regards to science. There is confusion always between science and scientism. Again, we have a belief system masquerading as a path to truth. I've actually heard, on more than one occasion, the statement: "As a scientist, I believe...". Real science is an open-minded method of discovery. There is no a priori reason for it to restrict itself to the physical. It's early representatives simply agreed to do so to avoid stepping on religion's toes (for obvious reasons). Scientism is defined by it's belief that matter is the primary reality. There is no evidence that this is so, and plenty to refute it. Refusing to admit the existence of anomalous facts in order to defend one's beliefs is not science. It's pretty much the same as religion. Ironically, this is why religion and scientism will never agree. Science and spirituality already do.