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Monday
Feb202012

RS55 - Spirituality

Release date: February 26, 2012


Is "rational spirituality" a contradiction? In this episode, Massimo and Julia try to pin down what people mean when they call themselves "spiritual," what inspires spiritual experiences and attitudes, and whether spirituality can be compatible with a naturalist view of the world. Are there benefits that skeptics and other secular people could possibly get from incorporating some variants on traditional spiritual practices -- like prayer, ritual, song, communal worship, and so on -- into their own lives? Massimo and Julia examine a variety of attempts to do so, and ask: how well have such attempts worked, and do they come with any potential pitfalls for our rationality?

Julia's pick: "Critical Thinking - Why Is It So Hard to Teach"
Massimo's pick: "Buddhist Retreat - Why I gave up on finding my religion."

References:

Are Spiritual Encounters All In Your Head?
Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion

Reader Comments (12)

I read the "Why I Ditched Buddhism" article and it really seems to miss the point of Zen and Vippasana Buddhism in the west...most if not all of the superstition has been removed and the main goal is to "study" the self. It's obvious that the author misunderstands the idea of attachment and detachment. Enlightenment makes you morally infallible?? That's not anything I've ever come across in Buddhism, at least not in the sense Horgan uses it.

I'll grant that Buddhism as a "religion" is not very appealing and I am repulsed by the fluffy, new age aspects, but if you check out a few choice Gil Fronsdal podcasts or Stephen Batchelors book: "Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist" you may get a better understanding of why many skeptics are attracted to Zen or Buddhist thought. In any case, I find Horgan's characterizations shallow and suggest looking beyond his article at something more solid.

As an amateur and fence sitter - I don't feel qualified to discuss this too deeply, but as a skeptic and atheist, I still find a lot to admire in the philosophy and practices arising from Buddhism. I guess Sam Harris can explain it better...

March 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterStefan

The University of Pittsburgh campus is dominated by the Cathedral of Learning, a 42-story building with the look and feel of a cathedral, but populated by a large common area and then university offices and classrooms. Included in it are the Nationality Rooms where various ethnic groups who form most of the backbone of the city of Pittsburgh donated materials and styles of their native lands to construct classrooms that preserve the essence of their countries. Some of these countries no longer exist as independant countries anymore so are especially precious. This space comes closest for me of capturing the essence of a space with no religiouos affiliation that feeds the need for beauty, silence, meditation, and grandeur.

March 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRuth W

This might be relevant to your interests:

In 1979 Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn founded the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts to treat the chronically ill, which sparked a growing interest and application of mindfulness ideas and practices in the medical world for the treatment of a variety of conditions in people both healthy and unhealthy.

Much of this was inspired by teachings from the East, and particularly from the Buddhist traditions, where mindfulness is the 7th step of the Noble Eightfold Path taught by Siddhartha Gautama, The Buddha, who founded Buddhism almost 2,500 years ago. Although originally articulated as a part of what we know in the West as Buddhism, there is nothing inherently religious about mindfulness, and it is often taught independent of religious or cultural connotation.

March 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLL

Great episode, this is an interesting topic. Massimo, your pick was a John Horgan article, he has an entire book that is quite relevant to the overall episode, his book _Rational Mysticism_, which I recommend. You spoke of the concept of sacred, and then said that you thought for you the closest things to qualify would be reason and democracy, but that you still think those are instrumentally valuable rather than intrinsically valuable. But don't you have to value some things intrinsically? In your own explanation of the ends for which reason and democracy are instrumentally valuable, you identified knowledge of reality and human flourishing as the relevant ends--do those count as "sacred" values for you? Or are those again instrumentally valuable for some other ends? (Is this a foundationalist picture or a coherentist web?)

Massimo, you also spoke about the value of social communities that religions provide, and said that for you, you are fine with an unstructured community. But what you described doesn't involve any institutional continuity of the sort that successful religions provide over very long periods of time. Is there no value in that? I think of what the Long Now Foundation is trying to do to promote long-term thinking, as well as fictional examples where religions (perhaps intentionally designed religions) provide mechanisms for guiding extremely long-term behavior of societies (e.g., _A Canticle for Leibowitz_ and _Anathem_). The ability of secular institutions to last for centuries or millennia seems to be relatively rare (democracies in particular haven't had such a great record of long-term survival, though republics have done a bit better. The ultra-long-lived Japanese family company Kongo Gumi, allegedly founded in 578, is associated with religion--a construction company that builds temples (and which finally sold out to a larger company in 2006). (There are some other multi-century-old companies not associated with religion, which also tend to be businesses owned by wealthy, politically connected large families.)

March 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJim Lippard

Jim Farmelant also just pointed out to me that Tom Clark has been writing about a naturalistic understanding of "spirituality" for some time, e.g.: http://www.naturalism.org/naturali.htm

March 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJim Lippard

From all I've read of Horgan's work, he has one of the most superficial understandings of buddhism I've ever read from someone asserting they know what they are writing about!

Now, I am NOT some apologist for buddhism; there are many aspects of the doctrines that have accumulated over time that are absolutely nonsense. However, the analytical meditative practices and understandings of perception and consciousness are often quite profound.

As for the one point you raised; yes, Gotama left his family. And, if all you know is the legend, it sounds incredibly harsh: the man left his wife and new born on the day his son was born! Yet, what we have in the earliest texts tells another -- less dramatic story. Gotama longed to leave home for some time, his father (a raja) wanted an heir first. So, he married off Gotama, but no child came till he was 29 years old. When Gotama left home, his wife and son were well cared for. They were not "abandoned" to eek out survival. Finally, as promised, after his "awakening," he returned home and his son and wife eventually joined him and also attained "awakening."

So, while not a fuzzy family value story by our age's cultural values, not anything all that unusual at the time.

I am an atheist and absolute naturalist, and teach a form of zen (which means "meditation") that I refer to as Zen Naturalism, as anything that reeks of supernaturalism is rejected. And yet, even within the most traditional lineages and sects of buddhism, there have long been currents of thought that reject such "mysticism."

March 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFrank Jude Boddio

First time listener, first time poster, long,long time friend of Benny - love your podcast!

I think you missed the point of spirituality although you touched on it when you talked about your psyche. While some of the tools you mention such as prayer, meditation, ritual, and song are useful in many other contexts, there is a fundamental purpose of spirituality to be good for the soul, or you could substitute other words like "mental health", "psyche", and so on. While you mention feelings of awe and wonderment when contemplating the vastness of the universe, it is during tough times that people go on spiritual journeys.

The concept of a "spiritual journey" is important, regardless of your feelings about what happens when we die (afterlife, reincarnation, the-end-of-everything, etc.). Those who describe going on near death experiences are sometimes changed in ways that cut to the core of their identity and change the way they live the rest of their life. Some cultures, such as those who ritualistically consume DMT-based beverages, also lay claim to spirituality, and I think you missed this important aspect of it too.

March 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Levine

Massimo, I am surprised you would rely on your 'pick' article. It is so full of basic mistakes about Buddhism that it is embarrassing. In relying on this rubbish you are no better than the Christian who reads some misrepresentation of evolution and then uses it to tell all their friends about how evolution does not make sense. But I still love you and the podcast lol!

March 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChris Penny

I love that Julia brought forward the image of physical exercise as ritual. Mental discipline (study, contemplation) has long been an accepted spiritual practice across many traditions, and increasingly, physical exercise has become a kind of secular spiritual practice for so many. You see this clearly in yoga studios, where yoga is presented as a series of postures, focused on the breath, our “animating spirit“. I would love to recommend a book, which I believe you will find delightful, fascinating, and, for an academic text (Oxford), very entertaining! Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice by Mark Singleton.

April 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterWilliam W Goudy

Sam Harris (at least based on the views expressed in his first book) does not seem to agree with your assertion that consciousness is simply a byproduct of the brain.

While there is much to be said against a naive conception of a soul that is independent of the brain, the place of consciousness in the natural world is very much an open question. The idea that brains produce consciousness is little more than an article of faith among scientists at present, and there are many reasons to believe that the methods of science will be insufficient to either prove or disprove it.

(source: pg. 208, "The End of Faith" by Sam Harris)

April 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAlastair F. Paisley

I don't believe in god in the sense of an anthropomorphic creature that rules---don't buy it at all. But if you define god as being,
existence, fundamental isness of all things, then ok, there is a god; for what is more patent than that existence is? And if we define ourselves by that existence then no matter what forms come and go, no matter what changes occur--including death-- we are ourselves as existence. This is the only kind of transcendence I subscribe to. And, it is all very rational since one cannot credibly deny that existence is--it is the most fundamental postulate of all; so fundamental, it is ignored----like a fish who asks "what water?"
Existence transcends any individual thing and yet everything is of it and apparently it never ends. Seems to me being makes a perfectly splendid god, without all the fuss. That's my story and I'm stickin' to it.

January 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDevon Manchester

I don't believe in god in the sense of an anthropomorphic creature that rules---don't buy it at all. But if you define god as being,
existence, fundamental isness of all things, then ok, there is a god; for what is more patent than that existence is? And if we define ourselves by that existence then no matter what forms come and go, no matter what changes occur--including death-- we are ourselves as existence. This is the only kind of transcendence I subscribe to. And, it is all very rational since one cannot credibly deny that existence is--it is the most fundamental postulate of all; so fundamental, it is ignored----like a fish who asks "what water?"
Existence transcends any individual thing and yet everything is of it and apparently it never ends. Seems to me being makes a perfectly splendid god, without all the fuss. That's my story and I'm stickin' to it.

January 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDevon Manchester

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