I’ve been thinking about Jonathan Rowson’s latest enquiry within the RSA’s Social Brain project, asking what it is that people mean when they say they are “spiritual but not religious”. It’s a good question, and Rowson argues that the answer (or at least the enquiry) should help us understand better what’s going on around us in these troubled times.
In this light I found myself watching the Wachowski siblings’ film of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which plays around Buddhist-like (but unspecific) notions of rebirth and the possibly transcendental significance of our individual actions (I’d say the film is by turns entertaining and irritatingly pretentious, but that’s not my main focus here).
I’ve also just finished reading Peter Hoeg’s The Elephant Keepers’ Children, a much more playful (and generally funnier) piece of work. It’s ostensibly about religious faith, but more about the way reality keeps crashing in on our schemes of things, urging us to a kind of acceptance which is not transcendental in its claims: it is a celebration of diversity and absurdity, a comedy that’s the polar opposite of satire.
Satire divides and deliberately demeans. It highlights absurdities which we would do better to remove from our lives. Hoeg’s comedy, which works in the tradition of gentle humorists like James Thurber and Flann O’Brien (albeit with a higher octane level of caricature), asks us to embrace and enjoy that absurdity in each other, to accept the hopelessness of our dreams of a higher state, while understanding that those dreams are an important part of what we are. It is virtuously inclusive and life-affirming in the process.
Religion at its best promotes that same openness towards others and to life, usually expressed through some developed notions of love and compassion. This may be one of the core elements shared by all major faiths. It may be part of what people mean when they say they are spiritual but not specifically religious.
Religion at its worst does the opposite, dividing the saved from the doomed (usually with pretty clear rules setting out how you qualify for each category) and encouraging its followers to look away from the pleasures and pains of this life to some kind of further significance after death. It’s the latter baggage that the spiritual-but-not-religious usually want to reject.
Rowson’s starting point is a little more anthropological, suggesting that faith might be a commitment to certain cultural norms rather than matters of belief (such faith he suggests doesn’t need to equate with a series of propositions about how the world is). The trouble is that this is probably not how most believers would see their own faith. Or at least it seems more like a description of how the vaguely religious treat the procession of births, marriages and deaths in their lives, a vagueness that the Church of England in particular has been very tolerant of, though from personal experiences I’d say Catholicism is far more demanding and I’d imagine that those drawn to more evangelical faiths feel the same way (I am not denigrating earnest or committed Anglicanism in this, but observing the way mainstream faith has worked at least in England, though it’s interesting to note that this is less true in other parts of the UK).
None of this makes Rowson’s question any less interesting, but rather it suggests that the focus should not be on those with formal faith, but on those who can’t embrace such formality, and still want to reach in some way for the metaphysical, especially if this is how the majority of the European population would describe itself.
I’d probably place myself somewhere in that very broad… er, church. Religious statements about life after death seem to me ridiculous, not because the idea itself is ridiculous, but because there is nothing sensible any of us can say about it, and that includes any notion drawn from superficially attractive Eastern traditions of rebirth (which seem to dance like a reflection off water through Cloud Atlas). At the same time a rigorously materialist view of our existence, while in a sense irrefutable, doesn’t seem quite adequate. It’s like explaining music in terms of mathematical relationships: you can do this, and it’s often interesting, but it won’t help you hear the music for what it actually is.
We have a pretty fundamental need to make sense of whatever is going on around us, which often enough will entail making sense of the senseless, or of trying to find meaning in the meaningless. Conventional religion addresses this need by offering a different frame of reference (“God works in mysterious ways” ). This other frame of reference seems to me as random as the things it’s trying to explain, but this shouldn’t lead us to ignore the important presence of our imaginations in how we experience the world. It may be that those imaginations are a product of routine brain function, but again this doesn’t tell us anything about what’s going on in and around our heads. As the younger Wittgenstein put it, it is not how the world exists that is mysterious, but that it exists.
I’d guess that those who describe themselves as spiritual but not religious are articulating the feeling that there is something more to life than the clash of atoms. In doing so they will often reach for a barely-articulated sense of the connectivity of things (hence the irritating platitudes of the Cloud Atlas film). I agree with Jonathan Rowson that we need to understand this sense and work with the grain of it in any ambitions we might have to make our lives or societies better. We need to understand better what it might mean if only because the current government’s notions of a happiness index, which I suspect are trying to get at the same thing, are themselves too crude to tell us very much.
Perhaps we need to be working to help the people who say they are spiritual but not religious to understand better what they mean, to help us all get beyond the platitudes. It may even help the religious if we can all move away from untenable notions of certainty. Rowson touches on this when he suggests that ethics may be better understood as a social disposition than something intrinsically rational. This doesn’t mean that everything is optional in what we believe. It is to accept that our beliefs, like our consciousness, are embodied, whether literally in our bodies or in our social and cultural institutions. The ramifications of this are pretty big, and I guess that’s why Rowson is pushing the Social Brain project down this particular road. It’s a journey we need to make though it’s fraught with difficulty, not least in how we balance an apparently attractive openness with the knowledge that some beliefs really are crazy, and many are pernicious. I want to think more about how we can respect beliefs we judge to be wrong in future entries.
You can find Jonathan Rowson’s blog on the subject at