Through my personal observations, I have come to the conclusion that most religious moderates rely on spirituality as the backbone or implicit justification for their beliefs. In our modern world, it would be difficult to accept any scripture as divine truth unless supported by the believer’s emotional connection with what he/she believes to be a god. Through meditative activities such as prayer, people are able to form a relationship with this invisible spirit that bolsters their faith and boosts their confidence in scripture. It is my belief that the comfort of this supportive spiritual friend (God) is what sustains people’s faiths and encourages them to keep believing.
Many people believe that the atheist view on spirituality is that it simply does not exist – there is no spirit realm so how can we participate in activities such as meditation and prayer? The intention of this post is to identify and debunk the link between religion and spirituality.
Scientific studies have showed us that prayer and meditation initiate heightened or reduced activity in specific areas of the brain. One particularly interesting discovery is in the brain region that contributes to our sense of self, or our identity. This part is largely inactive in tests performed on spiritual gurus, indicating a rather obvious but important point: during prayer, the believer tends to lose his/her sense of self, surrendering it to a greater sense of unity with the universe. This euphoric sensation is, among monotheists, associated with God. Surrendering oneself to God, allowing him to take charge of one’s life, entrusting him with the events of one’s life, allowing him to “take the wheel” (to steal from a Carrie Underwood song), – all of these attitudes and dispositions of a person in prayer contribute to one’s sense of reduced self-awareness and oneness with a higher power.
In response to this observation, a religious person might be inclined to argue that just because we can now trace alterations of brain activity in moments of deep meditation does not disprove God or that these people in prayer are actually connecting with a higher power. And, of course, this is true. As many intellectuals have noted over the years, it is impossible to disprove that which cannot be proven in the first place. However, I think the scientific background on spirituality is still incredibly important. Why? Let’s look at this rationally. What is a more intellectually honest interoperation of people’s spiritual experiences? Taking them to be actual modes of communication with the supernatural? Or our brain’s way of achieving a heightened level of happiness that we instinctively link with God and religion? I’ll take the latter.
It is my sincere belief that one does not need the attachment of religious dogma to lead a life that involves productive meditation and a greater sense of happiness. I think it is time that we detach the two and interpret spirituality for what it really is and how it can improve the human experience. The legitimacy of spiritual experience is not in doubt. But our scientific capabilities have made it possible to explore new modes by which to reach such forms of emotional comfort and psychological peace, and have brought to light the notion that the source of such experiences does not have to be God. Rather, it is the predisposition that God is the intended target of prayer that leads one to express a connection or relationship with God.
I believe spirituality to be the backbone of religion. Without it, it would not survive. Of course, I could be wrong. But I believe it is this emotional relationship with God that keeps religious moderates faithful. And once we abandon the notion that God is the necessary vehicle for reaching spirituality, we can begin to make an honest, intellectual attack on the violence that religion ignites around the world and a true assessment of religion’s value and place in society.