The spirituality option

The most harmful aspects of religion are those that arise from a holy book of some kind, because those books are the sources of rules and dogmas and create insider-outsider conflicts. When people lose their commitment to a text, then they are more likely to be accepting of diverse views.

What I think is interesting is the growth of what we might call ‘spiritual movements’ as an alternative to traditional religion. This article about the rising popularity of meditation as one of these alternatives.

Brach is riding a massive American wave of meditation, a mind-training practice meant to heighten self-awareness and compassion. Its popularity is particularly high among Americans who don’t identify with a particular religious affiliation, a group that’s grown from 7 percent to nearly 20 percent of the population since the early 1970s. In a nation of people busily crafting their own religion, meditation may be the new American prayer.

Brach is a Buddhist meditation teacher and member of the Buddhist clergy yet finds traditional Buddhist texts sexist and cold. She strips religious language out of her classes so as to not turn off secular types but worries about people not going deep.

Her followers include devout Catholics and Muslims, trauma-struck veterans and 12-steppers with a range of addictions.

For some, meditation’s spread raises questions. More conservative religious groups reject the idea that healing comes from within and not from God.

It strikes me that this kind of thing will be appealing to people who want to shift away from traditional religion but still want to be part of some sort of spiritual community, and so should be encouraged. While many such ‘spiritual’ beliefs are as evidence-free as traditional religion, they lead to much less social problems.

So while I believe that people are better off without religion, I recognize the strong need that some people have to hold on to some sense of the transcendent, that there is something bigger than themselves, a god even, and that such a belief gives them comfort. ‘Hard atheism’ of the kind that I hold that rejects the existence of the non-material may not be appealing to some people, at least initially.


  1. mike11111 says

    I’m definitely a “hard atheist,” but I’ve always been interested in meditation.Practicing meditation is something that’s helped me a lot as I’ve grown up, keeping me calm, being aware on the present moment, and staying focused on the important things in my life.

    Yes, practicing meditation can be connected with all sorts of evidence-free belief system (with varying levels of harm), but it doesn’t have to. For me, it’s just good practice for my mental health, and meditating helps me cope with stress and depression. I’m sure there’s a physiological reason for why meditation helps people, it may even be connected to what people experience when they “pray.” But it does not have to have anything do with religion, or even spirituality. It’s just good medicine for some people.

  2. machintelligence says

    Navel contemplation seems pretty innocuous to me, as long as it is their own navels at which they are gazing.
    There does seem to be a relatively high woo component in the beliefs of the nones.

  3. Mano Singham says

    I agree. I have a secular friend who swears by the practice and encourages me to try it out. But I tend not to get stressed out about things so have never had the urge to try it out.

  4. AsqJames says

    Juvenal wrote “mens sana in corpore sano” – a healthy mind in a healthy body. In my school library there used to be a poster which said “Reading is to the mind as exercise is to the body.”

    We know that while exercise may be necessary for a healthy body, it’s not on its own sufficient – you need a good diet, moderate alcohol intake and other things too. Just as we all need to eat a balanced diet (as well as do some regular exercise) to maintain a healthy body, some form of mental relaxation (as well as intellectual stimulation) seems necessary for a healthy mind.

    The specific form of exercise you engage in, and the national/cultural root(s) of your diet are less important than that you do some exercise and don’t go to McDonalds for every meal. Similarly, whether you read Dickens or Darwin (or find some other form of intellectual activity) is less important than stimulating your mind on a regular basis. It makes sense that whether you relax by painting water colours, knitting, chilling with friends or learning a specific form of meditation is less important than taking time to wind down in some way.

  5. lanir says

    Personally, the aspect of religion that I think causes the vast majority of issues is the “organized” part of organized religion. I’ve met a number of pagans for example who have belief systems they have thought out themselves. The idea that morality should make sense is hard to dismiss when you’re thinking on your own. With a huge organization with hundreds of years of sheisty behavior behind it decides to pull the wool over your eyes though, everything changes. People start to defend indefensible ideas solely on the basis of longevity or because they don’t personally know the con-man who’s originally responsible for the idea.

    There’s obviously some unsubstantiated beliefs in the mix there. But by and large my anecdotal experience has been that on their own, people come up with relatively harmless fantasies. I certainly can’t say the same about the fantasies of organized religion, which largely appear crafted to stop people from thinking so they will give their power to some authoritarian figure.

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