Evidence-Based Spirituality — Part 5 of 10
I’ve been going out of my way to talk about Christianity in an attempt to show that a) even ultra-dismissivist/exclusivist doctrines aren’t an evidential dead loss; and b) what you mean by religion, if you’ve never studied any general or comparative religion, might well be just Christianity with a few regional bells on.
Many people for some reason think Christianity epitomizes all religions, where in fact it is in many ways highly atypical of religions worldwide. In its insistence on Faith in an exclusively-salvific historical truth, which is what many non-Christians see as central to it (myself included), it doesn’t actually resemble most religions. Certainly not the ones which interest me more, and which have given birth to most of the techniques I use.
Religions in general often don’t make these kinds of claims. As Eva Wong points out for example (1996), Taoism never really developed a concept of ‘heresy’, because Taoists never usually claim to have ‘the one right way’. A bit of study on polytheistic religion (see Paper 2005, my review here) in general shows it tends to be less exclusivist than the monotheistic variety, too. I’ve seen Hindus defend British paganism against Christian attack before now. If admitting to not knowing everything is one of Tart’s, and science’s, tests for likelihood of reaching the truth, then some religions are closer to that standard than others, and closer than most secular people ever really notice, because most secular people assume otherwise (D/E).
So I think it’s necessary to know something about religion in general, before you begin talking about religion in general. Otherwise you might just mean Christianity when you say ‘religion in general’, which would be rather unevidential of you. It would also miss the fact that many religions might happily ally with science even on spiritual questions, without it being such a big deal as it would be with the rather touchier monotheistic faiths. Scientists have trained themselves to look right through religion, as if it wasn’t really there. But let’s face facts: in turning the scientific lens onto spiritual phenomena, we’re turning it onto religious (that is spirituo-cultural) phenomena too, at least to some extent. Tart, in asking Shinzen Young questions about Buddhist meditation, is to some extent asking religious questions. (And scientists often feel more at home with Buddhism than with Christianity, as you may have noticed!)
Case in point: Tart, as mentioned, thinks it is self-evident (there’s that word again, so often a sign of D/E in progress) that ‘nothing new has happened in religion in centuries’, ‘religions are stuck where they were’, etc. But has he checked this out? Is he speaking from a position of knowledge here? He talks as if he wants to discomfort his audience into an admission he’s right — but as far as I’m concerned, he might be the one who should be feeling more uncomfortable. He hasn’t tried to gather evidence. He’s being dismissive, in fact.
When I look over the recent world of spirituality and religion, I seem to see almost nothing but ferment and experiment. I’ve already talked about some, and the Hesychasm stuff in Western Christianity shows just how much people are looking for the new within that religion — as they regularly have since its inception, by the way. But I see so much more… I see the Dalai Lama co-operating with scientists. I see yogis participating in work with Dean Radin. I see a massive new set of nature-based religions appearing, drawing millions in, some of which, like the Druidry of John Michael Greer, have strong relationships with sciences like ecology. (Certainly they’re not all anti-science, since archaeology matters to so many of them! They need to be able to reconstruct the pagan past.)
I see Christian priests using NDE evidence to counsel the grieving. I see figures like Mircea Eliade weaving Christianity into a wider context and writing major work on Yoga and Shamanism at the same time — come to that, I see the broad Western interest in Shamanism generally. I see Rawn Clark testing the effectiveness of the Bardon Hermetics training system using questionnaires (2003, and Bardon was rather Christian, as are some of his followers eg. Moryason, although not all. Which means Christian Occult techniques, which have a long history BTW, are being used by pagans already). In fact I see people experimenting with many meditation systems and feeding back to each other on numerous websites with multiple agendas, some more religious, some less.
I see an entirely new bud-off in China since the eighties, Chi Kung, with its enormous boom that profoundly affected China and the world (see Palmer 2007) and its emphasis on empirical testing — which falun gong, unfortunately a lot more dismissivist like its Communist parents, has somewhat damped. This is a massive set of training ideas and systems with a lot of different branches.
And I see whole slews of psychologies interacting with religion in new ways — Jung, Assagioli, Wilber. I see new test-based spiritual lineages beginning to form, not just Glenn’s but, for example, the Monroe Institute, (which is one of the few to be entirely based on original research without any budoffs) or the similar IAC of Vieira. These ‘OBE schools’ have many aspects of their craft down to a teachable set of skills, like Glenn arranged for Chi Kung and meditation — and like many Druid orders too for that matter. And I believe those organizations are actively testing to improve their understanding. I see the Esalen complex, to which Tart himself owes so much, and their “religion of no religion” as Kripal has termed it (2008). I see Quakerism in the UK (formerly a Christians-only movement) turning pagan…
I could go on; the point is, there are huge developments happening in religion and spirituality. The ferment of the 20th century touched it just as much as any other aspect of life. Before one says even the most traditionalist religions are “stuck”, it’s really worth looking at their history, which is often one of constant seeking — the Western ones certainly not least. Sudden flowerings and movements have occurred in all the ‘big’ religions and they are far from over. Look at the recent history of Judaism, Reform here and Hasidism there, by the gods! I simply don’t think we can accept this idea that religion and spirituality never change. I suspect that people who think this haven’t given the matter more than the most cursory investigation.
And even this isn’t the whole story, for I see it assumed by some that a religion which simply preserves old forms isn’t doing anything much, when it might be doing something very important. Can we afford to just dismiss that on no evidence? How do we know that in 100 years something won’t bud off that has been preserved for centuries, like Kabbalah, like Chi Kung, like Yoga? This is the point. Such concentrated forms of spiritual technique need many generations of work.
Before dismissing religious approaches, then, I think we need to understand them to some degree. It might not be religions that are ‘stuck’, nearly so much as one’s ideas of them. They have been a bogeyman but we need more subtlety now. Religions provide us with much of our basic view on spiritual questions still. Tart’s idea that religion’s job is to make us more compassionate, usher in a more peaceful earth, and prepare us for the afterlife, for example, has a very Christian tone — not all religions have those particular focuses, but he assumes them. His thoughts on life as illusion come from Buddhism. For all (what we can consider their obvious) ‘faults’, religions are a natural outgrowth of the human system, and they are the default setting for connecting with the world of spirit. As Donella Meadows says, before you change a system, you have to feel its rhythm.
And please, don’t say ‘religion’ if you mean ‘western abrahamic book religion’. That’s lazy. Especially if you haven’t realized that’s what you mean!
Next post we’ll come to a nub that applies to “spirituality” and to “religion” equally – I will argue that all of it is evidential and always has been. The scientistic assumption (and it really was no more) that religions believe things on no evidence needs to be laid gently to rest. See you then!