Secular Spirituality: Sacred acts, profane thoughts

Sacred and Secular (image by NoiseCollusion, Flickr, CC)With today’s post I want to embark a bit more upon this new direction that I spoke about last week, a direction that is to be infused with more of my own spiritual understanding and will be written in more of an opinionated style.  What I’ve picked as a topic to start this new tone is one that has always interested me and is becoming increasingly more important and central to modern life in the developed world: secular spirituality.

Firstly, what do I mean by secular spirituality?  Well, I mean a form of practices and moral codes that recognise the need for awareness of something bigger than oneself – something inspirational or serenely calming – and yet wish to remove such practices and moral codes away from religious beliefs and/or dogma.  We see very basic forms of this idea present in many yoga or meditation classes held at gyms, for example.  Basically, spiritual practice and the perceived improvements that such activity could bring; but without metaphysical or supernatural belief, nor in many instances any form of organised or structured system.

It’s an interesting concept, and certainly one that has been expressly and consciously tested in many different ways over the last century or so.  I’ll explore some particular manifestations of this idea in later posts (as well as many other forms of new religious or spiritual movements), but suffice to say that for the most part secular – or non-religious – forms of spirituality seem to be plagued with just as much exploitation and examples of malfeasance as religious ones. With today’s post, I just want to open up the idea for some conversation.  Provide a platform that we can then build upon in subsequent posts, as well as give a few initial reactions that I have to the concept of secular spirituality as a whole.

There is an interesting attempt by many strongly secular people and groups to reclaim human experiences and endeavours previously thought only to exist within the sphere of religious belief and ritual practice.  Many of these people, such as Daniel Dennett for example, are worth listening to in many regards.  We cannot ignore the fact that the last century, and in particular the last twenty or thirty years, has seen a massive advancement in our understanding of neurology and genetics.  Our understanding of the religious and spiritual impulse should now include some of the hypotheses and research done in these fields, as well as the many other forms of human advancement that have occurred (technology is a particularly fascinating one that we will look at later).

But there are some concerns which I believe should be raised at this early stage of emerging manifestations of secular spirituality.  The first of which is to understand that ‘secular spirituality’ is not itself a homogenous whole – there are as many variations of it as there are ‘religion’ – so we must be careful when discussing its pros or cons to always keep this in mind.  Just as we must equally understand that not all forms of religious ideology or beliefs are as rigidly dogmatic and absolute as some right-wing fundamentalist Creationists might have us believe – and, in fact, some of them find remarkable cohesion with modern scientific beliefs and empirical evidence.

It’s also worth keeping in mind in this regards that most forms of secular spirituality emerged out of the more open-minded and philosophically considered forms of religious belief and activity to begin with, so we shouldn’t dismiss all forms of religion just because we feel that a new model of thinking is now available. Nor should we instantly presume that the secular (which, to many, means atheistic) way of thinking is inherently better or worse than a religious viewpoint, nor vice versa. To do so is to embark upon the most common form of human folly.

Secondly, and I mentioned this earlier, we cannot and should not for one moment think that by removing the ‘religion’ from spirituality we ipso facto remove a lot of the problems and issues that are of valid concern.  There are many non-religious people and oraganisations who exploit and abuse, con and mislead others for their own agendas.  Prime examples of where this issue can be found within secular spirituality can be seen in the many training groups known collectively as ‘Large Group Awareness Training’ or ‘Human Potential Movements’.

These are your stadiums filled with supposedly newly awakened individuals listening to the every word of some motivational speaker, or your forum training seminars filled with lost individuals seeking a new-found sense of personal confidence or ability.  The stories of damaged minds and exploitative abuse are not hard to find when it comes to many forms of organised secular spirituality.  On a larger scale, it is no secret that many highly secular forms of government and politics have been and are responsible for numerous heinous crimes against humanity.

The final idea I wanted to raise with today’s post is that there might actually be an important role for religious belief to play in spirituality at a very basic level – even if the beliefs are not scientifically or empirically true. This issue of debate abounds amongst many, admittedly more esoteric, circles that practice ceremonial rituals of one form or another.  A common way of looking at such practices is that you are working with aspects of your own psyche, dealing with subconscious issues and habits that might be improved by utilising symbolism and ritual structure.

But what I would stress is that, even if this is the be-all-and-end-all of such practices, just maybe the result depends on the religious belief in the first place.  After-all, it is two different things neurologically to be doing or going through such practices with a religious, metaphysical, paradigm than it is with a purely psychological non-metaphysical model.  Something worth thinking about anyway, and I’d very much like to hear your thoughts on this topic.

So that gives a very quick introduction to a new issue which will be looked at in many different ways here at Future Conscience.  Secular forms of spirituality are emerging all over the globe, and some of them are growing very rapidly indeed.  Many of these are purely the realm of the individual, picking and choosing practices and moral codes from different places until they create something they feel works for them.  Other manifestations of secular spirituality are very well organised and systematic about their approach; others still are equally as abusive and dangerous as many extreme religious organisations.

One thing is for certain, spirituality is a term that covers some fundamentally important aspects of what it is to be human and to interact within a community – whatever those aspects are, we are beginning to explore them outside of the trappings of religious belief systems and social structures.  Such an exploration should be seen as pivotal to the eventual future direction of humanity as a whole, and is worth our attention and thought at a very deep and considered level.

What do you think? Is secular spirituality going to become the new form of religion for most? Do we require spirituality of one form or another to function as a cohesive society? Any thoughts you have on the topic of secular spirituality would be much appreciated…


5 Responses to Secular Spirituality: Sacred acts, profane thoughts

  1. GLPer says:

    We see a lot of argument between athiests and theists these days. Whenever I claim to have sympathies with both sides of the debate, I soon realise that neither side has much sympathy for my position.

  2. guest says:

    I feel that secular spirituality effectively reconciles the dichotomies presented between new scientific understanding and traditional religions. For this reason, secular spirituality will become increasingly popular in the future in place of organized religion. I see this transition as a natural progression which is morally neutral. Whether people experience their spirituality through obsolete organized rituals or through a synthesis or reason and our capacity to feel positive emotions, there will be no difference in the net happiness of the human race between these two scenarios. This is because the problems in society at large arise from the failure of individuals to fully understand our diverse thought processes. One can reach enlightenment in his/her lifetime only through a thorough internal journey, and religiosity is irrelevant to the attainment of happiness. 

  3. Zubair Khan says:

    To replace religious fanaticism which is a hurdle to the social and scientific development I think secular spirituality has the power to fill the vacuum. Human beings can not live in a spiritual void scientific  development is so effectively razing the false moral values imposed by religion and hence  cessation of many injustices in the name of religion. In fact religion and spirituality are the opposite of each other. Accepting specific dogmas as absolute truth and rejection of all logical arguments  which are in contradiction to the preconceived idealogis is in fact rejection of the social development and ending the  journey to nirvana. In short term intellectuals and in the long rum most of the people will accept secular spirituality as means of spiritual catharsis.

  4. Judith says:

    Writing an article for school on religion and spirituality in a postmodern world, and was wondering who wrote the article above- I would like to cite the author in my bibliography.
    I do hope you can help. It’s due in 2 weeks.

    • FutureConscience says:

      I’m glad that you found the article useful, Judith!

      All the articles and posts on this website (except three or four, as noted) are written by myself, and your question comes at a good time as I will soon be deanonymising the website.

      All the best,

      Robert Gordon

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