22. Why Do You Dismiss With Spirituality Entirely?
Q: Robert, I find your words interesting and provocative, but when you dismiss spirituality entirely I find that I cannot accept that. Spirituality exists all over the world and throughout history. Spirituality is a reality for billions. How can you, an individual person, simply wipe away all of that just by calling it magical thinking, or escapism?
A: That’s a fair question, and I am willing to discuss it, but the most direct answer is that long ago a sudden and unexpected change occurred in my way of understanding self and world. My sense of being was transfigured all at once, and drastically, so that the ideas and beliefs called “spirituality,” which seem to occupy so much thought, so much debate, so much struggle, and so much unhappiness, to my mind seem moot, hardly worth discussing.
If you imagine that I dismiss spirituality entirely, most likely you have misunderstood my words. The word “spirituality” comprises a large bailiwick, and certainly there are parts of that territory which I do not dismiss, at least not entirely. I have even quoted at times sources normally considered to be part of “spirituality,” although I don’t see them that way myself. If I quote, I am quotingwhat I consider to be wisdom, not “spirituality.” And there is a difference — a vast one.
Further, I do not walk through this world blithely “dismissing” spirituality like some public atheist. My words here are largely replies to questions from people who have recognized in my outlook a kind of freedom they have been seeking for themselves, but have not found in religion and spirituality. I’m speaking tothem, not to those who find meaning in worship or in pursuit of so-called “self-realization.”
If some such version of “spirituality” flips your pancake, fine by me. People in this world believe all kinds of things. To each her or his own. I am not trying to tell you what to believe. That damage has been done already. I just say what I see.
Ever since that sudden change I mentioned, I have no beliefs and don’t need any. In my world, there is no certainty. I don’t need that either. In my world each moment is unrepeatable, once-upon-a-once, sui generis — a thing unto itself — so participation in each moment freshly, without being weighed down by the premature cognitive commitments called “beliefs,” is the way this eagle flies.
No one, I say, chooses what to believe. Most likely each of us is born with a certain propensity to believe what we are told, and then the substance of those beliefs depends upon what we are told. It is as if one is born with a cup waiting to be filled with ideas, but the content of that cup depends on the luck of the draw—one’s family of origin and its mythology, plus the authoritative precepts of the wider cultural surround.
It is likely, for instance, that a child raised in a devout religious family, living in a neighborhood of similarly devout families, will grow up believing in a “supreme being,” while the child of atheists whose friends are atheists too will believe that “God” is a mythic character. Both children, however, will have had those beliefs imposed upon them, most often intentionally by means of purposeful indoctrination, or at least by osmosis.
If we can agree that no one actually knows whether the supposed supreme being exists or not, then in both cases, the children will have had beliefs presented to them as if they were facts. That’s how the damage is done. Once indoctrinated in that way, many people simply conform, and never even notice having been indoctrinated. Others struggle with their doubts. Some replace one set of beliefs with another. Only a few, it seems, manage to find what Jiddu Krishnamurti called “freedom from the known.”
But that very freedom—freedom from the known—is what my correspondents want to discuss. So freedom is the subject under discussion here, not “spirituality,” a topic for which I have scant enthusiasm. Unlike the gurus and preachers, I make no claims for the facticity of my views. This is not proselytizing. My words are self-expression, not dogma. If asked a serious question, I reply as plainly as possible without regard for anyone’s feelings.
With that as prologue, I regard most of so-called “spirituality” as a collection of superstitious behaviors and baseless conjectures passed from generation to generation via indoctrination beginning in infancy—a schooling principally in magical thinking and self-deception. The worst feature in that landscape of nonsense is the idea that the world we see with our eyes is somehow less “real” than some other “better” world, and that if we could somehow enter that “other world,” either after death, like a Christian or a Muslim, or here and now like the “self-realizers,” the pains of ordinary life would be magically transformed into “perfection.”
Once that idea takes root, then comes the need for so-called “faith,” along with doctrines, practices, and instructions, all aimed at attainment of that perfection. From my perspective, that is a sad spectacle. Children, I say, need facts, not “faith.” Children thirst for facts, particularly facts about living and dying. If you doubt this, just watch how a child’s interest perks up when an adult for one reason or another begins to speak candidly.
The human body has no “spiritual” needs. The body needs air, water, food, clothing, and shelter, not god, salvation, or self-realization. It is not the body that spirituality aims at “saving,” but rather the collection of habitual thoughts, attitudes, and feelings called “myself.” That self—“myself”—when faced with its own unstable, transitory nature—including the fearful suspicion that “myself” will die when the body dies—craves a way out. In response to that craving, the story arises of another world or another way of being in which death is not “real.” That story, I say, is pure, one hundred percent speculation motivated by wishful thinking. That is the kind of “spirituality” I discredit as escapism.
Children have all kinds of questions about life and death. To answer such a question with fairy tales about the “other world,” as if that answer were more than just wishful conjecture, but “Truth” in which the child ought to have faith, is to lie to that child, to abuse that child, to expose that child to a kind of mental virus —a meme— which once caught is hard to shake off.
If, for example, a child is taught that she has an “immortal soul” and that she, as a “sinner,” requires salvation by means of faith, prayer, and obedience, that very teaching itself creates a problem which never would have existed in the first place without the implantation of that fairy tale.
Then, once malarkey like “born a sinner requiring salvation to avoid hell” has been installed in the child’s mentation—which is really like infecting the childwith a social disease—more malarkey must be put forward as the “cure.” An imaginary cure for an imaginary illness. From here, that seems so sad.
If you consider yourself spiritual, as apparently you do, then most likely you imagine already knowing something about reality, whether that purported “knowledge” consists of something like “Jesus is God,” something more abstract and philosophical like “only consciousness exists,” or something grandiose like “I am one with God.” Or, if you don’t imagine already knowing, you presume that someday you finally will know. When that day comes, you reckon, everything will be “better” than it is now.
I repudiate any spirituality that claims, in one way or another, that the everyday world of ordinary perceptions, feelings, and thoughts is only a pale reflection of some supposedly greater reality. I know nothing about any other “reality.” I have no way of knowing such a thing. The human mind—which is my mind as well as yours—is not, I say, sufficient to that task, and there is no way of improving that mind so as to render it sufficient.
All the faith in the world—the credulous embrace of scriptures, prophets and saviors, practices, instructions and the rest—says nothing about reality. Absolutely nothing. You ask how I can say that. How can I, an individual person, discount an entire world of beliefs, including gods and saints, which countless millions accept as “Truth”? I say it from a perspective that sees all such beliefs as second-hand ideas imposed upon minds that were hobbled from day one by those ideas.
Although “spirituality” tries to deny it, as far as we know, we human beings are primate mammals very much like bonobos or gorillas, albeit born with a slighter thicker prefrontal cortex within which spiritual beliefs may be harbored and entertained, along with countless other hypotheses and explanations. Imagination may paint all kinds of pictures, but there is a vast gulf between surmises, suppositions, and presumptions, and knowing.
Conjectures about the original source of all we see, think, and feel, what it all means, where it’s all headed, who and what “I” am, and other such questions defy knowing, I say, and can only be believed, disbelieved, or, as in my case, allowed to blow in the wind like dust.
Our physical, social, and sexual needs are very much like those of our primate brothers and sisters, and we act them out in much the same manner. That much we clearly know through observation, just as we know, because we can observe it, that desire and aversion drive our behaviors. A desire for “transcendence” or for “self-realization,” is still, at root, just desire. An aversion to inconsequentiality, mortality, and death, is still just aversion. There is nothing “spiritual” about being driven by aversion and desire, regardless of what is feared and what is sought after. If you understand that, I say, you are as free as you ever will be.
The world we see right now is the only world we really know. The quest to find something “else” aims at make-believe, a kind of magical thinking imposed upon us as children, and inflicted in turn by us upon the next generation of children.
Naturally, all of the above is my understanding. Take it for what it’s worth, or reject it entirely. It’s all the same to me. In this moment, things are as they are and cannot be one whit different.