Thursday, November 09, 2006

After The Politics, It's Time For Religion.

I've just finished Daniel C. Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. It's kind of an odd book, and I wasn't terribly impressed with it at first... He spends 40 or 50 pages talking about why he considers it a legitimate exercise to write the book before he actually gets around to, y'know, writing the book, and then another 150 or so giving me a strong impression of talking a great deal without actually saying very much. But around the 200-page mark either I woke up or he suddenly started being a lot more coherent and interesting, and I enjoyed reading the rest of it.

Anyway, there's a passage (at about page 300), that I wanted to quote, mostly for my own benefit, because I really, really like it and want to look at it more:
In the course of my research on this book, I found one opinion expressed in slightly different ways by people across the spectrum of religious views: "man" has a "deep need" for "spirituality," a need that is fulfilled for some by traditional organized religion, for others by New Age cults or movements or hobbies, and for still others by the intense pursuit of art or music, pottery or environmental activism -- or football! What fascinates me about this delightfully versatile craving for "spirituality" is that people think they know what they are talking about, even though -- or perhaps because -- nobody bothers to explain just what they mean. It is supposed to be obvious, I guess. But it really isn't. When I've asked people to explain themselves, they typically beg off, along the lines of Louis Armstrong's oft-quoted reply when asked what jazz was: "If you gotta ask, you ain't never gonna get to know." This will not do. To see for yourself how hard it is to say what spirituality is, take a stab at improving on this parody, boiled down from many frustrating encounters: "Spirituality is, you know, like, it's like paying attention to your soul or having deep thoughts that really move you, and not just thinking about who's got nicer clothes and whether to buy a new car and what's for dinner and stuff like that. Spirituality is really caring and not being just, you know, materialistic." Along with this common and unreflective view of spirituality goes a stereotype of the atheist: atheists lack "values"; they are careless, self-centered, shallow, overconfident. They think they know it all, and yet they completely miss out on the spirit. (You really can't be a good person unless you have a spiritual life.)

Now let me try to put better words in their mouths. What these people have realized is one of the best secrets of life: let your self go. If you can approach the world's complexities, both its glories and its horrors, with an attitude of humble curiosity, acknowledging that however deeply you have seen, you have only just scratched the surface, you will find worlds within worlds, beauties you could not heretofore imagine, and your own mundane preoccupations will shrink to proper size, not all that important in the great scheme of things. Keeping that awestruck vision of the world ready to hand while dealing with the demands of daily living is no easy exercise, but it is definitely worth the effort, for if you can stay centered, and engaged, you will find the hard choices easier, the right words will come to you when you need them, and you will indeed be a better person. That, I propose, is the secret to spirituality, and it has nothing at all to do with believing in an immortal soul, or in anything supernatural.

Honestly, I think the whole book may have been worth reading just for that bit.


  1. I assume you deleted all the politcal comments, sorry. I guess I was one of them

  2. Huh? I never delete anything here, unless it's spam. Try clicking one post down. :)

  3. *turns a shade three shades of red due to embarrassment* By the way, nice post!(referring to the blog entry below this) Libertarians.I'm telling you, that's the way to go :)