The elements of secular spirituality

“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?” — Richard Dawkins

When one goes through a crisis of faith, the journey is really one of a destructive nature. Basically, one discovers that one’s worldview is a massive house of cards that sits on an intellectually unsustainable foundation and this house of cards collapses.

Although I think this harrowing journey is important, it does definitely have certain disadvantages; often, the process of destroying the house of cards has far reaching personal consequences, to summarise them in a word: we lose a sense of spirituality. (This fits in nicely with the standard LDS narrative of people who lose their faith “they have lost the Spirit”).

This is because our former spirituality is intimately connected with a large superstructure of truth-claims: you are special because you are a child of God. You can become better because of the Atonement. Your life has purpose because of God’s plan, and so on. So our sense of spirituality and spiritual feeling relies heavily on faith; the belief in these truth claims at best without evidence, and at worst against the evidence.

Getting caught in the eddy of negativity

Imagine for a moment that going through a journey of faith is like riding a boat down a river. A faith crisis is like a rapid ride that rips you from side to side, tossing you overboard and making you lose your balance.

As this is happening, many of us get caught in a kind of “eddy” — “the eddy of negativity”, a kind of small whirlpool that spins us in a circle again and again.

This negativity can take various forms, be it anger, hurt, frustration, and has many inputs; our family relationships (mostly LDS), ongoing awareness of recent statements and movements from the LDS church, and so on. This eddy is the process of being emotionally “triggered”, again and again by these inputs.

Firstly, I want to legitimise the feelings of people within this eddy. I understand why people are angry and frustrated, I am not going to pretend I never am. But ultimately being stuck in the “eddy of negativity” is not a good, long-term and sustainable place to be.

We need to heal, come out of the spiral, and continue down the spiritual journey to find a better and healthier place, that’s what this article is about.

The weak area of secularism; spirituality

For thousands of years religions have dominated the spirituality space, becoming the de facto provider of spirituality to mankind.

During this time, our lack of understanding of science and the universe around us has lead to a massive amount of meme mingling; spiritual ideas have been mixed in with supernatural and superstitious claims to become the religious world we see around us.

Naturally, as we’ve come to learn more about the universe, and as we are seeing now, religion is on the retreat and secularism on the rise. I praise this and think it’s great. But before we just wholesale toss religion out the door, we need to take some time to learn some of the wisdom that is contained within religion in the areas of spirituality, stripping it of the unfounded and irrational claims, and pulling out the spirituality element, which can be painful at first, but is incredibly rewarding.

So in the remainder of this article I am going to present a preliminary framework of the basic elements of secular spirituality; all of these are borrowed from religion, but stripped of supernatural / superstitious truth claims.

Idea #1: The wisdom of principles and storytelling

There’s no point seeking out enlightenment in terms of consciousness and personal experience if we fail to learn wisdom in the process. Many of the so-called “great” religious leaders of the world have fallen into this trap, there’s no point making amazing statements or achieving amazing states of mind, and then running off with other people’s wives.

The first thing we need to adopt from religion is the value of repetition in storytelling, to teach principles.

Principles are generic models of reality that are incredibly useful to generalise patterns which we observe. The patterns we’re interested in are the ones that lead to health, prosperity, and happiness.

To give an example of this, think of the story of the “boy who cried wolf”. This is a parable told to young children that teaches the principle of credibility, and how that is liked with the principles of integrity and honesty. This parable is repeated often as a bedtime story to teach children the principles behind it, to a point where they never forget it.

In order to create a viable spirituality as an alternative to religion in the secular world, we need to adopt the pattern of storytelling (parables) and the wisdom of seeking out and centering our lives on principles.

This has, of course, been done in many ways already. Good movies that touch us do this effectively, good books that we read, seminars, and many others contribute to this element of spirituality.

Idea #2: The value of meditation

Another great lesson which has emerged from a religious background is meditation. Primarily this comes from the Eastern religions, including Buddism, and has been repackaged in our society into the secular variation of “mindfulness”.

The thing to stress about meditation in the context of spirituality and faith transitions is this: meditation makes no particular, objective truth claims. Meditation is a practice to alter the state of mind and the experience of consciousness.

Over the past many months I have increasingly gotten into the practice of meditation and mindfulness. It started out with the basics using an app on my phone, and then I read a book about it, and began practising more often.

Meditation is capable of doing many things, and I think there’s a lot to be said of the practice, but primarily the aim is to improve our state of consciousness. I’ve found it helpful to relieve stress, improve concentration and bring feelings of gratitude and peace to my heart.

Meditation has been discussed much and I won’t go into any more detail.

Idea #3: The value of prayer

As I discuss in a previous article, I do not believe prayer actually does anything to the world outside the person praying. Praying for rain likely does nothing to increase the probability of rain. Praying that Trump not be made president will likely do nothing. In other words, if there is a God and he works in the world, this is indistinguishable from the ordinary noise / patterns of reality.

However, there are bounds to this, which can be understood through the placebo effect.

To illustrate: praying that one might find one’s lost car keys might actually improve the odds that one finds the car keys — because of the placebo effect.

But beyond using prayer to attempt to influence reality, it has other benefits. I will break down traditional prayers into four major components (originating in Mormonism), and then discuss how these can be translated into a secular type of prayer. I will go into more details in this section as I believe it is much less discussed.

Component 1: Gratitude

Part of prayer is traditionally thanksgiving to God. Again, this requires faith — the belief that God is there and he is deserving of the credit for good things that happen in our lives.

But it is possible to remove faith altogether, remove the object of our prayers (the one being prayed to; God) and just be grateful generally. Along with this we can replace the object with other objects that are more likely to be deserving of credit.

Example: 

Old Narrative: “We thank thee God for this food.”

New Narrative 1: “We are thankful for this food.”  (no object, general statement), OR

New Narrative 2: “We’d like to thank mom for preparing this food, dad for earning the money for the food, and all of the farmers and other people who work hard to put this food in our hands”. (replaced the object with those actually responsible for getting the food to us)

This is the gratitude component.

Component 2: Repentance

Most religions include the idea that we are unclean and require repentance for our mistakes, AKA the forgiveness of God. While I think the concept of “sin” is a man-made construct (as all concepts are), that doesn’t mean there is no benefit from reflecting on our behaviours on a day to day basis and seeking out ways to improve ourselves.

Assuming that the part of “asking forgiveness of the person you’ve hurt” is already complete, here is what “secular repentance” could look like:

Example:

Old Narrative: “Please forgive me Lord for shouting at my wife today”

New Narrative: “Today I shouted at my wife. This is not consistent with the values that I hold. I slipped up, I failed. I’d like to do better.”

This can help us to let go of our past mistakes, not dwelling on them (as religious repentance does as well) and to move on and improve ourselves.

Component 3: Awe

A sense of awe is capable of eliciting certain positive spiritual feelings and religious experiences. Usually in religious prayers awe is obtained by humbling oneself to God, the perceived great creator.

In a secular sense this is possible as well, again without the need of faith or unsupportable truth claims:

Example:

Old Narrative: “Lord, we are nothing compared to thee, we humble ourselves and ask for thy mercy and grace”.

New Narrative: “We are so small compared to the amazing scale of the universe. We often think so much of ourselves, thinking we’re smart or good. But actually, we are like ants to the rest of the universe, and are amazingly privileged to be here”.

Component 4: Well-wishing (compassion, empathy)

Finally, in many prayers we pray for the well-being of others. Again, I don’t think there’s any reason to believe this actually does anything for those people. However, it does have some benefit for us, in increasing our feelings of compassion and empathy towards others.

Example:

Old Narrative: “Please bless sister Jones that her knee will heal soon and she’ll feel better”. (Probably does nothing for sister Jones!)

New Narrative: “Recently misses Jones hurt her knee. We feel bad for the pain that she has endured. We wish her well with a speedy recovery, and are ever aware of the difficulty of enduring pain. May we be more compassionate towards her.”

Example of a secular prayer

Finally, with all of these together, here is an example of a secular prayer before eating dinner. Of course, a few things have to be said upfront:

  1. This is intentionally constructed to have all 4 components, it’s not necessary to have all 4 all the time
  2. There is no need to say secular prayers at any given frequency. Sometimes it’s just a matter of “do you feel like it?”
    1. So this example is before eating dinner, but there’s no need to do this every day.

(component 1: gratitude)

“Every day we wake up. We’re safe. We’re home. We are with our loved ones. They are safe and healthy, as are we.

We are immensely privileged to live in this time. There are more opportunities available than ever before. There is more information available than ever before. Each day of our lives we enjoy health, prosperity, and happiness.

Tonight we are eating some lovely food. We’re thankful for this food. We’re thankful for mommy who cooked it for us. We’re thankful for all of the people who work so that we can eat.

Part of the food that we’re eating tonight is chicken. Chickens are conscious animals who can experience joy and pain. In order for us to eat this food, chickens had to lose their consciousness forever. May we always remember what sacrifices are made for something as simple as us eating meat….

(component 2: repentance)

… We do our best every day to be kind to one another, but we don’t always succeed. May we forgive and love each other, and work together to be the best people we can be for each other….

(component 3: awe)

 … At the end of the day, we are small pilgrims in a massive universe. Small people in a large world. We are amazed by the fact that we can be here, a part of this great universe. Stars died so we could be here….

(component 4: well-wishing)

… Every day we interact with many people. We wish them well and hope for their lives to prosper. We try to help where we can and when it makes sense within our capabilities. May our love and empathy for them expand as we try to sincerely understand them, their wishes and dreams.

(component 5: humour) **

RAMEN

Conclusion

These are just a few of the starting points for possible secular spirituality. There’s so much more that can be done here, and the ideas of secular spirituality can become so much more coherent (we haven’t even touched on the idea of community yet).

Perhaps one day I will write a book about the subject, but in the meanwhile it’s just a matter of experimentation and borrowing / cleaning up more ideas from religion.

Shawn 02-11-2016

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