"Can there be a non-religious spirituality? and, If so, what might be its forms?"
These two questions are asked by John Haldane in a provocative essay, "On the Very Idea of Spiritual Values," in Anthony O'Hear, ed., Philosophy, the Good, the True and the Beautiful (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000). With the help of Haldane and a few other contemporary philosophers I'll attempt to answer them in at least a provisional way. And in so doing I also hope to delineate possible and important relations between religion, spirituality and philosophy, all three concepts conceived rather broadly or generously. This is the first of several posts on the topic.
It could well be argued that our question has been asked and answered "on the ground," as those identifying with New Age practices and religions as well as "new religious movements" (NRMs) often make claims to the effect that their spirituality is distinct from conventional religions (which in many respects is true), indeed, that their spirituality transcends religion, or at least is utterly distinct from conventional religious worldviews. Thus transcendence is not here meant in the Hegelian sense of Aufhebung, which involves preservation as well as negation, but rather more simply as an absolute negation of religion qua religion. In other words, New Age devotees believe they can do without conventional religious worldviews, even if this or that belief or practice is derived from or parasitic upon one found within such traditions. Not surprisingly, there are exceptions, as when Sathya Sai Baba proclaims his followers need not give up their existing religious tradition to follow his teachings (which revolve around a 'spiritual principle' of love as a 'path,' 'virtue,' and 'duty,' characterized by Sathya Sai Baba as sanatana dharma, a Sanskrit expression used by Hindus today to mean 'eternal religion'), including bhakti yoga practices, as well as "good works" or such karma yoga (spiritual realization through selfless social and political action) endeavors as the establishment and support "of a variety of free educational institutions, hospitals, and other charitable works in over 166 countries."
Nonetheless, many post-modern expressions of New Age spirituality and the practices of NRMs often exhibit antinomian (or even libertine), narcissistic, and irrational features or tendencies that are poles apart from existing traditions of spiritual practice. New Age devotees are also inclined to invoke a consumer preference model of religiosity, selecting this or that belief or practice from existing religions to suit their personal tastes, sans the forms of self-discipline, the nature of moral and religious authority, and the reliance on spiritual exemplars that are an integral part of commitment to a religious tradition. New Age religiosity thereby evidences the "dilettantism" in respect to communities and traditions bemoaned by MacIntyre, Bellah and others, although I will later explain how "communitarians" have mischaracterized the source of such dilettantism as owing to the Liberal ideal of personal choice (or 'voluntarism'). Some of the students in my course on "world religions" are often anxious to assure me that, while they don't belong to any religion, they have their own religious beliefs or spiritual practice culled from one or more religious traditions (from my end, I inform them that it doesn't matter for the purposes of our class whether they are religious or not, in a conventional sense or otherwise). While I'm sympathetic to the conditions and reasons that might explain and motivate the construction of this sort of purely personal "religion," I'm no less troubled by its proliferation and the corrosive effects it has over time with regard to traditional religious worldviews.
I won't attempt here to give a full account of the various meanings of spirituality or the connotations of the word "spirit," but perhaps we can adumbrate the properties of a kind of spirituality or, better, spiritual praxis, that has as its necessary but not sufficient condition existing religious worldviews and comes closest to capturing, if anything does, the essence of religion. I'm assuming, with John Cottingham, that
"There is, to be sure, a cognitive core to religious belief, a central set of truth-claims to which the religious adherent is committed; but it can be extremely unproductive to try to evaluate these claims in isolation. There are rich and complex connections that link religious belief with ethical commitment and individual self-awareness, with the attempt to understand the cosmos and the struggle to find meaning in our lives; and only when these connections are revealed, only when we have come to have a broader sense of the 'spiritual dimension' within which religion lives and moves, can we begin to see fully what is involved in accepting a religious view of reality." (From Cottingham's The Spiritual Dimension: Religion, Philosophy and Human Value, 2005)
Cottingham himself, at least with regard to Christianity and theism in general, outlines the various connections between religious truth-claims and spiritual praxis, but here I want to focus on his treatment of spirituality, bearing in mind that "Spirituality has long been considered to be a concept that is concerned in the first instance with activities rather than theories, with ways of living rather than doctrines subscribed to, with praxis rather than belief." Cottingham introduces a notion of spirituality that encompasses both religious and non-religious worldviews alike, including, therefore, metaphysical or philosophical naturalism, existentialism, and atheism (the latter of course is not a worldview but plays a prominent role in the non-religious worldviews of the 'new' or 'militant' atheists: Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens; an atheism strikingly different in tone and temper from, say, that of J.J.C. Smart):
"The concept of spirituality is an interesting one, in so far as it does not seem to provoke, straight off, the kind of immediately polarised reaction one finds in the case of religion. This may be partly to do with the vagueness of the term--in popular contemporary usage the label 'spiritual' tends to be invoked by those purveying a heterogeneous range of products and services, from magic crystals, scented candles and astrology, to alternative medicine, tai chi, and meditation courses. Yet at the richer end of the spectrum, we find the term used in connection with activities and attitudes which command widespread appeal, irrespective of metaphysical commitment or doctrinal allegiance. Even the most convinced atheist may be prepared to avow an interest in the 'spiritual' dimension of human existence, if that dimension is taken to cover forms of life that put a premium on certain kinds of intensely focused moral and aesthetic response, or on the search for deeper reflective awareness of the meaning of our lives and of our relationship to others and to the natural world. [....] So construed, both supporters and opponents of religion might agree that the loss of the spiritual dimension would leave our human existence radically impoverished."
In contemporary philosophy we can cite two recent works by non-religious professional philosophers that help illustrate this more capacious conception of spirituality at the "richer end of the spectrum:" Owen Flanagan's The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World (2007), and Julian Baggini's What's It All About: Philosophy and the Meaning of Life (2007). Both books, in the end, are preaching to the choir and there's nothing intrinsically wrong with that. Their paramount virtue consists in not being dismissive of the "search for meaning" in the manner of many philosophical positivists and post-positivists or "scientistic" philosophies. Flanagan, who is enchanted by the Buddhist doctrine of "no-self" (anattā/anātman) and Buddhist philosophical psychology in general, especially insofar as it has some semblance to one of the better known works in the philosophy of personal identity (i.e., Derek Parfit's Reasons and Persons, 1987 ed.), attempts to "naturalize" Buddhism, believing, contrary to the vast majority of Buddhists, that this religious tradition "can be stripped of its supernatural elements without losing anything essential to it." Works in this genre seem rather predictable and, what is worse, often reveal a facile or limited knowledge of religious (especially non-Western) worldviews, inexcusable inasmuch as they're crafted in the workshop of philosophers. All the same, we might be grateful that among at least some professional philosophers, the "search for meaning" is no longer a meaningless question.
In our next post we'll continue this discussion of non-religious, philosophical spirituality, but as it applies to earlier periods in the history of philosophy as portrayed in two books by Pierre Hadot and Martha C. Nussbaum respectively.
I leave you with the following from a contemporary philosopher, Michael McGhee, who writes about our subject from the perspective of a practitioner, that is, a devotee of "philosophy as spiritual practice," yet one unusually sensitive to both religious and non-religious worldviews:
"[W]hat matters beyond all else in philosophy, which is the love of wisdom, is a spirit of inwardness, which you have to cultivate for yourself, a practice of inner silence, even before reflection, which philosophy is thought to start with. Inwardness lets in another possibility, a new position from which what has seemed the very terms of reflection may come to be reflected upon. It is a moment of philosophy, therefore, before analysis, which it then inspires, but if it is absent analysis is sterile. [....]"
"Philosophy is also a conversation, and what matters beyond all else here is demeanour, how we listen, how we speak or write, not seeking dominance, not indifferent to the well-being of the other, but encouraging inwardness, a friendly, even an 'erotic' spirit, and we have to learn when thinking can be shared, when its communication can only be indirect, and when we have to stay silent." (Michael McGhee, Transformations of Mind: Philosophy as Spiritual Practice, 2000)