Time to Wake Up! Spirituality Versus Religion: A Dead End

09/03/2014 04:58 pm ET Updated Nov 02, 2014

I was brought up (well, sort of brought up -- my parents never went to church except for the odd funeral and occasional wedding) in a tradition which valued questions more than answers and thought it was a good idea to believe in God because it saved you from believing in anything or anyone else. You have to believe in, rely on, someone or something and it's best to keep your belief and reliance as supple as possible. You can't help making assumptions but best to make them as rationally and compassionately as possible. I know this is anathema to strong believers and unbelievers alike -- the fundamentalists on both sides of the divide who cannot live without certainties. I particularly liked a response to one of my recent blogs from an atheist who wrote, "Quantum physics is enough for me!" What a statement of faith! And one from the other side, in reaction to my positive take on yoga practice: "Ah! So Jesus Christ isn't enough for you!" Well, certainly not any version that wants to demonize yoga, for God's sake!

Frank Bruni in last Sunday's New York Times (August 31, 2014) introduced readers to atheist Sam Harris's latest book Waking Up (out this month). It promises to be a gentler, friendlier version of his critique of religion, although it sounds as if that old canard, "I'm spiritual but not religious" is front and center. I wish someone would write a book critiquing contemporary spiritualities and do it as severely as many of those who trash religion. There are a lot of whacky spiritualities out there as well as toxic versions of religion. People who tout spirituality over religion don't know that they tend to be spiritual parasites feeding off traditions, collections of stories and myths, the foundation of institutions like monasteries, universities and hospitals, not to mention a long line of human beings who have gone before them (and, by the way, not all of them were stupid). Bruni cites Sam Harris's experience of a feeling of peace near the Sea of Galilee, and asks the question, "Which comes first, the faith or the feeling of transcendence? ... Mightn't religion be piggy-backing on the pre-existing condition of spirituality... a narrative constructed to explain states of consciousness that have nothing to do with any covenant or creed?" The trouble is when I interpret this feeling through a story, it's dogma. When he does it, it's free of such filters. It is sanitized by the secular. It's as if the attic of religion is now open for raiders who need a story or two to fill in the gaps. The attic is crammed with stories, meditations, practices, and it's all there for the taking -- to throw into the toy-box of spirituality.

Bruni is gracious enough not "to give short shrift to the goodness" of religion. But what the critics of religion seem to be unaware of is there own reliance on dogma (not least the dogma of the privileged place the language of science which dominates modern discourse). G.K. Chesterton once wrote that there are only two kinds of people (yes, one of those kinds of statements): "People who believe in dogma and know it, and people who believe in dogma and don't know it." Dogma isn't necessarily a dirty word.

There's no doubt that religion needs reimagining and revisioning. A recent clip on the news showed an extremist Islamist telling the camera that in the West we were arrogant bastards making ourselves the center of attention, whereas they, on their side, were doing God's will. There is no greater pathology in religion in mistaking God's will for one's own. A heavy dose of atheism is in order.

The good thing is that we're in a new place and Sam Harris and others have helped to bring us there. All I want to point out is that much of what Sam Harris suggests as "new" has been around for centuries and there are traditions already in place that he would find congenial. I can't see how a prevenient fuzzy feeling of transcendence is "ruined" by religious people imposing narrative and dogma on it. Spirituality is not a pre-existing condition. Interpretation, however crude, is built into "experience." As a monk once told me years ago, "Just because you've experienced it doesn't mean it really happened!"

But Harris and Bruni make me feel less alone in the midst of a crowd of believing and unbelieving fundamentalists. There are a lot of us out there on both sides of the divide who know that there is no experience without interpretation and that we're invited into an ongoing and endless conversation about what our experience means. That's why we need to get to know each other. We need more of us in the conversation.

Joseph Campbell wrote this many years ago: "Half the people in the world think that the metaphors of their religious traditions, for example, are facts. And the other half contends that they are not facts at all. As a result we have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies." It's time that those of us who embrace the metaphorical come in from the cold. I was also brought up with this dogma: that I have more in common with another human being than could possible divide us before we even get to the issue of belief. Bruni quotes Harris: "There's no truly secular or rational alternative for talking about questions of meaning and existential hopes and fears." Bruni thinks there should be. My hope is for something different: an alliance between those believers and unbelievers who have given up the lust for certainty and who stand in contrast to those (believers and atheists alike) who embrace certainties that are already agents not only of prejudice but also terrible slaughter. Yes. It's time to wake up before it's too late. The poet Hafiz puts it well.

Out of a great need
we are all holding hands and climbing,
not loving is a letting go.
Listen, the terrain around here
is far too dangerous for that.

Alan Jones, dean emeritus, Grace Cathedral, San Francisco.