Can You Have Spiritual Meaning without Religion?
Even if you have largely rejected religion, I believe you can have a life view that has deep spiritual meaning—a view that is both realistic and feels sacred.
Why does this matter? Because most of us would like to find a little more meaning in life, and maybe understand how the busy details of our lives fit into a bigger picture. We just don’t want to get that meaning from religion.
Being Nonreligious: Rejecting Dogmatism
Most of us are non-religious.
We live outside the influence of the church and any sort of formal religion. Only about 20% of Americans attend church regularly. In the discussion that follows, I am going to assume you are in the 80% who do not. If you do find meaning in religion, this discussion might not be for you—but please feel welcome to tag along.
You probably have some good reasons for not being religious.
Perhaps you don’t like the church’s teachings on gays, or birth control, or race. Maybe the whole heaven and hell thing seems ridiculous to you—what God would torture people forever because they do not believe certain things? When you think about the big bang, evolution and the holocaust, maybe even the idea of “God” seems impossible.
When we reject these ideas, we are rejecting dogma—teachings that come from religious authorities, like the church, preachers and theologians. We are also rejecting dogmatism—the seemingly arrogant assertion of truths that do not agree with well known facts.
At some point you may have consciously revolted against such ideas, or you may have left them behind without a lot of thought. Maybe you simply followed your parents’ leading into a nonreligious life. Either way, you now live in a sort of gap.
Most people are in the gap
Like millions of others, you probably live in a space where you have left dogmatism behind but have not found—maybe haven’t even sought—a new way to view life, a new “big picture.”
You are plenty busy with your work, your family, and a hundred streams of information pouring at you every day. You might like a “big picture” understanding of life, but who has time to figure out religion or God (or no-God for that matter) or any of that philosophical stuff?
Besides—you may be saying—you know a lot about how life works. You know what you want and what you don’t want. You feel that you know right from wrong. You manage life well enough.
But what if you could see beyond the joys and hurts and general busy-ness of life? What if you could “transcend” the details and see a whole picture that gave the details more meaning—what might even be called spiritual or sacred meaning?
We No Longer Believe in Authority
Let’s start with you. The most important idea to think about is how you fit the big picture. You—actually individuals in general—are a big reason for this problem. (It also turns out that you are a big part of the solution!) You think you have the right to reject “truths” taught by others. You want to think for yourself.
Let’s take a moment to remember how you—and most individuals in the Western world—became so independent.
Before the modern age most people did not assume they could think for themselves when it came to knowledge about religion or God or the meaning of life. People relied on accepted authority. For people in the West, that authority was the church. People did not need to think much about such things—the church supplied the “truth,” and the “truth” included all the big stuff: like where humans came from and where they were going when they died, who God was, and how the physical universe was arranged.
From about 1500 until 1800 AD philosophers and scientists proposed new ideas about how life works. What had been unquestioned dogma was questioned by more and more people. Old beliefs about chemistry, physics and the universe were replaced by scientific theories—theories that in turn were tested in experiments. Religious authorities began losing influence.
Eventually, especially after the printing press made the Bible and many other books widely available, regular folks started thinking for themselves too.
Dualism: A Split Reality!
A funny thing though—as muchas people began to think for themselves in practical, “earthly” matters, they still mostly trusted the church, or at least their own preacher, when it came to religious matters. It seemed as though whatever was too abstract—too “spiritual”—to physically touch, or to prove or disprove, was still left to religious authority.
You could call this a type of dualism—the notion that physical reality and spiritual reality were two completely different things—that there was the natural and the supernatural. You got natural truth from science but spiritual truth from spiritual authority.
But, in the nineteenth century, science and religion finally came into open conflict. Growing knowledge about geology, evolution and genetics put into question many old dogmas about creation, human life, and even moral choices.
In many peoples’ minds the dualism of science and spirit failed the reality test. People began solving the conflict by letting scientific reality push religion and religious dogma out of their lives.
You—The New Authority for Spiritual Meaning
So you and I arrive on the twenty-first century scene quite accustomed to questioning authority. We want “spiritual meaning” to be about this world, not about the supernatural and not about some other world. And of course, we cherish our own opinions.
However, we live our very busy, technologically advanced lives mostly without thinking about religion or “spiritual meaning.” We use our feelings, our “gut,” to decide what is right and wrong and we are pretty good at it.
But that leaves us with a problem. Without a “big picture,” (a picture religion used to supply) we often have the uneasy feeling that our lives have no center. And it’s not just about feelings—we don’t have a mental framework within which to understand ourselves and the world we live in.
You might say we have lots of knowledge but no core vision of life.
This is far from a hopeless situation. Living in this “gap” presents us with a wonderful opportunity. And you are at the center of this opportunity. Just as you are now your own authority, your knowledge is a perfect resource for a wonderful way to see the world.
I repeat from my opening paragraph: I believe you can have a life view that has deep spiritual meaning. Fortunately, the explosion of knowledge means we have a lot more to work with than our ancestors.
Contemplate What You Know
“But,” you say, “I am not a philosopher. I am not a theologian. I know very little about science or history.” Here is what I say to that (and by the way, I could make those same arguments about myself):
“You know far more than you think.”
Fortunately, the explosion of knowledge—about everything from life in China to the the human genome—means we have a lot more to work with than our ancestors.
In the second half of this article, we will look at what you already know about people, science and spirituality for shaping your the “big picture” of life.
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