I’ve just read a book called “Conceiving God: the cognitive origin and evolution of religion,” by David Lewis-Williams. I bought it because Philip Pullman had reviewed it as ‘astonishingly original and convincing.’ Most of it isn’t particularly original and quite a lot of the book is pretty boring, but the author has a theory about where religion comes from. I don’t disagree with what he says, which is that all religions are a belief that there is a world of spirit beings that can affect the physical world, but the belief in them arises from certain brain-states that are universal to the human race, which are then interpreted according to the culture of the people who experience them.
As I say – I don’t disagree with the arguments he gives against religion or the reality of the gods which religions are based on, and it doesn’t do any harm to point out that Christianity is as blood-soaked and immoral a religion as Maya. Or that all religions are power-structures, even in egalitarian societies, such as the hunter-gatherers of South Africa. But reading his description of the brain-states is like reading a description of colour written by someone who is colour-blind.
I’ve always felt that religion’s main purpose is to kill off genuine spirituality by controlling it and forcing it to conform to a set structure of beliefs which are conveyed to the masses by an elite.
I see nothing in most organised religions that remotely connects with my own spirituality.
But what do I mean by spirituality? If I don’t believe in spirits (as objective ‘somethings’), then why spirituality?
I suppose I can only answer that it’s not a very good word, but the people who use it – as in ‘I’m spiritual rather than religious,’ do seem to have a common understanding of what they’re talking about, even if it’s not about actual spirits.
It is about ‘brain-states’ – but not the migraine-like hallucinations which Lewis-Williams describes. Or even altered brain-states brought about by ascetic practices or drugs – which I feel do have some valid claim to be spiritual. Those practices are a way of opening into a connection with the unconscious. Although I’ve never felt any need for drugs, I’ve found meditation and ritual and even pushing the body by fasting and isolation to be useful practices. And movement – always movement and dance. I have a naturally strong connection with my unconscious and I’m synesthetic too, I’m used to seeing images. If a particularly strong and clear one occurs I don’t think it’s an external reality – I know it’s arising from my inner world. These experiences are more like dreams –with all the power and meaningfulness of dreams. Even when I hear a quiet voice speaking in my ear, I know it’s my own deepest wisdom, not an angel or God.
Most of the spiritual practices I do are about harnessing the archetypal images from the dream-world while I am awake and conscious, because they have the power to transform, they are filled with energy, and they connect us in ways that are far beyond any descriptive, linear, analytical thoughts. They come from the imagination, which is a part of the full spectrum of human experience that the poor colour blind scientist can never really get.
So, yes – there really is no God out there. No devil or angels or other spirits. There is our own deep wisdom. The Universe is awesome beyond utterance, but there is no intelligent design, nor any purpose for it all – except the purposes that we create ourselves. And those are the only purposes that matter.
Any religion worth its salt will tell its followers to love their neighbours. The trouble with religion is they think we’ll only do this because God commands us.
Spiritual people understand that we must love our neighbours because it is as necessary to the life of the soul as food and water are to the life of the body. We don’t need to be commanded to do this. It wells up naturally from the moment of spiritual connection. It is the only way we can be truly human.
I know many people who practice paganism. I do myself actually. But so many of them are just as into power as any established religion. Not only do they have their hierarchies, but they all seem to want to do magic, which is an attempt to control the Universe into giving them what they want. Power and control.
But we are not abandoned children in this Universe, needing a parent-god to tell us it’s all alright. We are fully-grown adults who are required to live responsibly, take our own authority and look after the world we live in. Spiritual practice helps with this because it enables one to have a fuller vision of where we are and what we are doing. It creates a sense of connectedness and well-being that continues long after the meditation or ritual – or even the drug – has worn off. And this energizes us to create hope, beauty, care-full-ness and connection in our daily lives.