A Grounded Spirituality

By Theo Kitchener

Spirituality, to me, means practices and ways of thinking that get you in touch with your spirited self.

What I mean by your spirited self is the person you want to be, the joyful one, that takes life as it comes, makes good choices to have a balanced and whole life, and chooses to do something about the world because you’re not in denial and you care. Your spirited self also doesn’t let you feel guilty or depressed about the world because it knows that this craziness is not your fault, that you’re doing the best you can, and you choose to feel sad about it all when that’s present, and enjoy your life the rest of the time.

Having a grounded spirituality is crucial to our ability to change the world and live well on this planet. I’m not talking about losing one’s sense of spirituality; I’m talking about being spiritual in ways that are grounded in reality. In my opinion, that’s generally what’s been missing from atheist discourse in the past, and I’d like to talk more about how to do that, a little bit in this article and more in upcoming articles.

The couple of times I’ve gone to Synagogue with my family as an adult, I’ve had a yearning for something like it that really fits my worldview. Because it’s lovely, it really is, but I wish we were singing about something I really care about instead of singing about god.

I sit there and imagine: a large group of us, sitting in concentric circles under a beautiful big old tree, singing songs about utopia, love, nature, freedom, peace and self-care. I imagine us meditating together, sharing our grief in truth mandalas, people talking to each other during the singing in low voices, children playing and much hugging and talking and eating afterwards. We could do it every Sunday. I just feel like it would help us centre ourselves, it would be a great reminder of our values and goals, it would be fun, and it would build community. It would help us connect with our spirited selves.

Over the last couple of months, I’ve been having some pretty intense conversations with a lot of my friends and housemates about new age spirituality. Previously I’d never chosen to have these honest and confronting conversations because it felt like it wouldn’t be a good idea to say what I really think. That old taboo about not talking about politics and religion, well I didn’t realise it, but it still applies. I’m still not sure that it’s a good idea, but it feels important.

People started wondering why I care so much. Which was great, because I’d always thought that it was as simple as that I was right and they were wrong, and it just bothered me that they might believe “stupid things”. Which isn’t what it’s about at all. I’ve learnt a lot from these conversations, and it’s forced me to examine the reasons why I do care. Turns out my reasons are political and ethical.

To be clear, I don’t have anything against anybody with different views. I don’t judge them to be crazy, or stupid, or absolutely incorrect—in fact, I’m largely agnostic on actual possibilities now, as I believe there are some things that scientific endeavour simply cannot answer at this stage of human development. My respect for them does not hinge on their belief system. I accept that everyone has come to their own beliefs or ways of thinking for their own reasons, which undoubtedly makes complete sense to them. Should I have found myself in their shoes, I would, in all likelihood, have adopted similar beliefs.

Still, in response to my own research and pondering, I do find myself typically on the side of the skeptics with regard to such worldviews. But while it can seem scary to be open and truthful with others about my own way of understanding the world, it is also important that critiques and grounded alternatives are not muted out of fear. For it is my belief that supernatural worldviews, despite their purported benefits, actually run counter to our attempts to change the world.

So why do I care so much anyway?

At first, the only thing I could enunciate was that irrational thoughts form the root of what’s wrong with this crazy world. Greta Christina, an atheist writer, argues that since skepticism and rational thinking are skills, if you let yourself believe one thing that isn’t grounded in reality, you’re much more likely to let yourself believe other things of that nature. She says “after I started applying skepticism to religion, and eventually let go of my spiritual beliefs, I became much better at critical thinking. In all areas of my life. Politics, relationships, money, health – everything… This is often not easy. I’m human, with a human tendency to believe what I already believe or what I want to believe; and better critical thinking often means letting go of ideas I’m very attached to.’’

There are things people choose to believe, which don’t stem from rational thinking, but which have very real consequences for others. Climate change denial is one obvious example. Perhaps the most classic example though, in regards to new agers, is anti-vaccination. A recent major study concluded that there is absolutely no statistical link between vaccination and autism, yet there are still plenty of pseudoscientific studies out there (supposedly scientific studies that don’t meet widely accepted standards for methodology), as well as anecdotal evidence where children fall sick in various ways after being vaccinated, which continue to scare people off. For a while there the pseudoscience on the internet had me convinced, but I quickly saw the light, and the absurdity of the anti-vaxxer movement. We may not automatically associate new age spirituality with harming others, but these beliefs can become dangerous when put ahead of ethics, other people and the planet.

Then there are those beliefs that cause harm to the believers themselves. Without a rational thinking practice, people are more easily manipulated. There are those, for example, who believe that their chosen alternative medicine will save them, despite their declining health, which can lead to what may have been an avoidable early death. In India there are countless of examples of gurus swindling poor Indians and rich tourists for all that they can, in order to sell nothing more than snake oil cures for their ailments.  And perhaps most insidious is the belief that one’s financial hardships are not a result of the system, but rather of their own shortcomings or past lives.

The clincher for me is that religious and spiritual beliefs can shield people from seeing their lives and the world as they are. Which can lead to a lack of interest in changing things, both in your own life and in society at large. You know that ‘religion is the opiate of the masses’ quote from Karl Marx? Well what follows it is even better:

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions… Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses…

The main critique of so-called ‘hippies’ by political activists is their inclination towards passivity. While hippies and activists often share many of the same values, the former tend towards a faith that ‘everything will be ok’, while the latter recognise the value and necessity of political action. The reverse critique is that activists are too serious and stressed out. This is, of course, not entirely unfounded. In my opinion, both ‘sides’ need to learn from each other—yes, we need serious action, but let’s not allow the weight of the world to permeate every aspect of our life. A balance between ‘getting serious’ and ‘having fun’ is key.

Debunking new age ideas

Perhaps most oddly in all of this are those beliefs for which there is not only no proof, but which can be explained in ways that do not invoke the supernatural. The classic example is manifesting, where you simply think of something that you want and the universe will find a way of bringing it to you. Some people believe that this is an amazing supernatural process, when often it can be explained through some combination of concrete action, an openness to opportunities, a trust in intuition, coincidence, and simply patience. Of course, getting what we want can be amazing, but it’s just that the world is amazing. I once wanted a swag, and one day found one on the street, and then the very next day found a swag mattress on the street. Instead of saying ‘the universe provides’, I say ‘the community provides’ or ‘nature provides’.

Lately, every time somebody invokes the supernatural to describe a phenomenon I’ve decide to take the time to actually do some research. And there is almost always either substantial proof that it can be explained by science, or substantial reasoning that suggests that it probably isn’t true at all. Considering the prevalence of these unchallenged beliefs, including within my own social circles, I think it’s important to share what I have learned. I’ll talk specifically about a couple of widely popularised (supposedly) scientific stories, which has been described to me as cornerstones of the new age.

The story of the hundredth monkey. According to the tale scientists studying monkey learning behaviours discovered that once a hundred monkeys had learned from each other how to wash sweet potatoes in the sea, a tipping point was reached and almost instantaneously the entire monkey population (even those on other islands) began washing sweet potatoes. This story, presented as fact by Lyall Watson, is used by new age proponents to prove the existence of a ‘collective consciousness’ and to support the hope for a rapid shift in consciousness at some point in the future. I’d argue that such a shift is possible without a collective consciousness: we’re highly interconnected via the internet and face-to-face interactions. Attitudes and beliefs are contagious. We don’t need supernatural ways of learning to change the world.

To further extinguish the spiritual flames, the truth is that Watson fabricated the entire story. Ron Amundson, another researcher, contacted the original scientists to corroborate the facts, which they could not, and subsequently published his exposé in the Skeptical Inquirer in 1987. Watson responded: “I accept Amundson’s analysis of the origin and evolution of the Hundredth Monkey without reservation. It is a metaphor of my own making, based—as he rightly suggests—on very slim evidence and a great deal of hearsay.” Bizarrely, though, Watson’s admission remains largely unknown.

Another prominent story is the pseudoscientific experiment performed by Masaru Emoto. Emoto assigned labels with phrases such as ‘thank you’ and ‘you fool’ to jars of water, and talked to (or screamed at) and focused feelings on the appropriate water jars each day. Apparently, under microscopic examination, the water that received positive words produced beautiful water crystals, while those receiving negative words produced chaotic crystals. The study promotes the idea that, since our bodies are mostly composed of water, how others feel has a big impact on us. I would argue, however, that this phenomenon can be explained by our insecurities and interdependence.

Again, raining on the new age parade, the problems with Emoto’s study are many. He chose to publish only the photo evidence that supported his claims, he failed to control for temperature and humidity between samples (even the photographer breathing on the sample could have influenced the pictures), and he chose not to use double-blind testing—the photographer knew which ones were which. Emoto has been offered a $1 million dollar reward if he were to replicate his findings under double-blind conditions, an offer he has reportedly ignored. More recently, he encouraged people to do the test themselves with jars of rice in water receiving emotions and words for a month. The results, as shared online so far, have not been promising – predominantly and indiscriminately mouldy.

I’ve found similar stories, a lack of properly scientific research, normal explanations and sometimes proof that the stories are incorrect in regards to people who have been said to not eat or drink for months or years (one of whom runs $100,000 workshops about how), dogs who know when their owners are coming home, and people who are able to tell if someone is staring at them from behind. The research suggests similarly that crystals don’t healhomeopathy doesn’t work, and neither does astrology. That $1 million dollar reward, by the way, is one amongst many that have been around for a long time, being offered to anyone who can prove anything supernatural. None of them have ever been claimed.

Rational thinking and science

If there’s no proof for something supernatural, and there is a non-supernatural explanation, then it’s probably the latter. This is Occam’s Razor. Author Greta Christina invokes the example of believing that throwing a rock at your TV will turn it on. You can’t be 100% sure that this isn’t true (even though there’s no evidence that it is, and rational explanations that it probably isn’t), but you probably wouldn’t actually do it since you might hurt your TV. And while most people tend to apply rational thinking to their day-to-day activities, many people continue to metaphorically throw rocks at TVs in their spiritual and religious beliefs. The reason people do it, I suspect, is that they feel like they’re getting something out of those beliefs. There are all kinds of warm and fuzzy payoffs that religious and spiritual beliefs bring, which I’ll address shortly and talk about how they could be replaced with much more meaningful and useful ways of thinking.

Interestingly, according to Keith Stanovich, rational thinking is a skill, and it only has a very low correlation with intelligence. It requires extra effort, knowledge and practice. There are several types of questions that people normally get the answers to wrong. Try answering this question before you read the answer:

Jack is looking at Anne, but Anne is looking at George. Jack is married, but George is not. Is a married person looking at an unmarried person?

  1. A) Yes
  2. B) No
  3. C) Cannot be determined

More than 80 per cent of people choose C. But the correct answer is A (See Stanovich’s article for the solution and more interesting practice questions). This one is a lack of fully thinking something through, and settling on the first answer that comes to mind. Other kinds of errors occur due to our biases and our lack of training in rational thinking (in things like probability, scientific methodology and logic). I know that there have been a number of times when scientifically-trained friends have been able to point out flaws in my own thinking—this is something I wish to learn to do better myself and to be able to help other people with.

There doesn’t need to be such a wide dichotomy between spirituality and science. They can co-exist, but it requires applying critical thinking to your own beliefs. The first error people tend to make in accepting new age beliefs is failing to research the scientific reliability of the ‘proof’ they’re being offered—“has this already been debunked?” And the second is our natural tendency to accept anecdotal experience as proof. Taking extremely rare coincidences as proof of something supernatural is an example of non-probabilistic thinking – of course, bizarre coincidences do occur, albeit infrequently.

Another trap we can fall into is the circular condition of allowing our own beliefs to shape our experiences and then invoking these beliefs to explain these very experiences. For example, while people often believe that repeating positive affirmations such as “I am lovable” to themselves will convince them that they are, the research shows that actually if you don’t already believe that you are lovable, you’re likely to either feel nothing or to feel worse. But because of the overriding belief that these affirmations work, people continue using them. This is the reason for double-blind testing in scientific studies – the preferences or expectations of the researcher or the participant have a tendency to influence the results in the absence of such controls.

Friends of mine have challenged me with the idea that science itself is a faith or belief system, that science is my religion. However, I don’t believe that science can be considered a belief system for it doesn’t offer concrete answers. It is inherently agnostic. Science is built upon doubt: scientists bend over backwards to make sure that their own claims make sense, and to try to disprove the claims of others. Science is ever-evolving and open to new information; nothing is gospel and anything could be disproven (there are many things for which there is such an overwhelming amount of evidence that it’s unlikely they will ever be disproven, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be).

Scientific revolutions can be slow and, yes, peer pressure and funding pressure can have an influence on the process. But it’s impossible to keep the truth from revealing itself, no matter how much vested interests may try. Scientists did, after all, eventually accept the theory of evolution and discredit the flat earth theory. We might suspect that, should the evidence be there, science could be used to affirm supernatural beliefs too. So far, it hasn’t. While we might just be in the early stage of that process, I have not come across any evidence of supernatural phenomena that meets scientific standards.

Rupert Sheldrake, a popular pseudoscientist, now argues that we’re in the beginning phase of a scientific revolution, where evidence is being wilfully ignored. However, his arguments seem to be based either on pseudoscience or false dichotomies, including his claim that scientists see the universe essentially as a big machine, when actually it’s a lot more complex than that. For example, despite Sheldrake’s protestations, ecologists do see ecological systems as much more than just the sum of their parts, they are living systems with emergent properties. It appears that many new age writers are basing their critiques of science on these kinds of false dichotomies and false representations.

For many people, perhaps another reason to prioritise new age beliefs over scientific proof is that science is a bit scary. Science has given us the potential to make the world unliveable for humans (e.g. nuclear bombs), unhealthy for humans (e.g. fat- and sugar-heavy processed foods) and incomprehensible for humans (e.g. putting man on the moon). But this is not the fault of science, per se. Indeed, these changes have come about largely as a result of the co-optation of science by industrialism and militarism.

What belief gives you and why you’re better off without it

Here’s my take on some of the reasons people find religion/spirituality attractive, and how I prefer to look at things.

Spiritual/Religious Belief Gets You A Grounded Spirituality Gets You
The belief that you’re on the right track. The knowledge that there is no right track. Only choices, all of which will have both positive and negative outcomes.
Less fear of death. Living with the fear of death means that you learn to live in the present, overcome fears and take control of your life choices to ensure that you enjoy your life more.
Belief that a deceased person has been reincarnated or gone to heaven, or the ability to ‘talk’ to dead people. Not shielding yourself from the fact that life is unfair, which can have very positive side effects on your day-to-day life.
Belief that everything is connected and that you’re part of a much bigger whole. Knowledge that everything is connected and you’re part of a much bigger whole. Think of fragile ecological systems, compassion for others, or the side effects of inequality. Being able to explain it logically rather than stating it as a belief, makes it much stronger in terms of convincing others, which is critical if we’re going to change the world.
Belief in your ability to manifest what you want. Trust in your own ability to take action, trust in your intuition, an appreciation of coincidences, and an accurate disbelief in getting everything you might want.
Belief in a grand narrative that we’re moving towards a shift in consciousness, or a coming time of heaven on Earth. Trust in yourself that while you live, you can deal with however bad the world gets, and an accurate belief that everything might not turn out ok, which leads to a stronger desire to take action.
An appreciation for the world that comes from seeing it as magical/not being able to understand it all. An appreciation for the world that comes from it just being totally amazing, beautiful and extremely complex. Even sacred, in the sense that it is infinitely important.
Ethics based on what you’re told and what your community thinks. Ethics based on your own conceptions which are often much stronger. For example, I’ve always lived in communities where being judgemental was unacceptable, however (like most people, I suspect), I’ve been largely just pretending not to be judgemental. Only recently have I learned that it’s not in my interests and been slowly learning to listen well enough to my own needs to not need to go there.
A sense of a god-given or spiritual purpose to life. Can help people feel ok about a meaningless or unenjoyable life. A knowledge that there is no purpose to life, which leads to choosing ways to find meaning and enjoy life.
Regular community interaction and ritual that affirms your beliefs. Something like the utopian, nature-based singing, meditating community gatherings and truth mandalas I described earlier.
Belief in magical healing powers. Acceptance of life not always being fair, and a rational/critical approach to all kinds of medicines.
Belief in non-attachment as a way to avoid negative feelings. Caring about what happens to you while having the trust that you can handle whatever comes up means you get to enjoy the high points of life more.

Additionally, emotionally fulfilling practices like noticing the beauty in the world, appreciating every small gift throughout your day, meditation, being in touch with your feelings and your intuition/deep rationality, acting in service to others and the world, looking after yourself, and developing your own values and ethics would all fit into my idea of a grounded spiritual life.

Essentially, what I’m suggesting is that we take the best parts of spirituality, without all those bits that shield you from the world and its often-negative realities. Shielding ourselves from the inconveniences and horrors of the world can mean we never really learn to deal with what we can’t change, or take action to change what we can. While I recognise that what I’m suggesting can be harder than just believing, such a project is incredibly worthwhile and necessary, both personally and politically. When we find healthy ways to look at the world without blinkers we feel a lot more emotionally and spiritually fulfilled, and we’re much more likely to change the world into one where we accept and act in line with our dependence on nature and each other.

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