Spirituality Misdefined

Consideration of the Templeton Prize offers an opening to understanding what the demand for greater spirituality in American life seems to come down to.

The most recent Templeton prize has been to Charles Taylor, a professor at Northwestern University. The Templeton Foundation was set up to study the “Big Questions”, ranging from questions about the laws of nature to the nature of creativity and consciousness. Yet in practice the Foundation has seemed intent primarily on proving that religion has a significant part to play in understanding the human condition, or that religion is an important alternative to science in investigations of “reality”. The person presently in charge describes himself as an evangelical Christian.

The Prize is given every year to a person who has made a significant contribution to “Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities”, or, in other words, makes the best attempt to “expand human perceptions of divinity and to help in the acceleration of divine creativity”. Its monetary value is always set a bit above that of the Nobel prize to accentuated the Foundation’s belief that its goals are of greater significance.

After looking at several of the writings of Charles Taylor on the internet, he seems to have served Foundation purposes quite well. From his position as a philosophy professor, he attacks modernist thinking or “overcoming epistemology”. What this seems to mean, for example, in a discussion of religion and violence is that the scientific method does not make possible the construction of platforms from which to apprehend what is better and what worse in human behavior or human arrangements. Thus, while religion has led to violence on many occasions, so have anti-religious movements such as communism and fascism. The conclusion of all this is that societies exist and must exist on a foundation of belief that continues over time and expresses the judgment of the community in preference to that of rational argument.

What this comes down to is an argument that we should cling to religious beliefs because science is unable to provide answers either behaviorally or rationally to the existential or social questions that face succeeding generations. Since science either cannot address such questions convincingly or does not, then we must all as a society accept the religious beliefs that have guided the past. This will hold us together more firmly into moral communities and will offer the greater happiness to all.

This seems to me a ridiculous way to approach knowledge. Let me quote from a letter I published in the New York Times Science section on March 7, 2006.

In his essay ‘The Oracle Suggests a Truce Between Science and Religion’ (Feb. 28), William J. Broad argues that a truce should be declared in the ”war between science and religion” because neither answers all the questions that humanity confronts. He criticizes the arrogance of Daniel Dennett and Edward O. Wilson for appearing to claim that science will ultimately be able to solve the problems that religion has traditionally addressed.

While no one wants a ”war,” Mr. Broad does not seem to understand that it is the continued unwillingness of most scientists to confront irrational religious claims that threatens both political and educational progress, particularly in the United States.

Science may never be able to answer all questions, but it is healthier to leave some questions unanswered than to fill the voids with nonsense.”

The Templeton Prize is awarded, then, to persons, often scientists, who are interested in instilling character as well as knowledge into their students (and readers). By “character”, what seems to be meant is belief in the precepts and fundamentals of religious traditions. The facts that numerous studies have failed to show behavioral advantages for true believers over nonbelievers within our society or to show that there is any correlation between social behavior and the extent of religious beliefs in societies, perhaps rather the reverse, are simply ignored. We are then being urged by the Templeton Foundation and all right-minded folk to believe in two mysteries — the mystery of how apparently nonrational dogmas can be “true” and the mystery of why the advantages of believing in these dogmas fail to show up in behavioral studies.

There is quite a different meaning of spirituality that even the most irreligious can subscribe to.  Michael Shirmer has pointed out the scientific side of spirituality in the following passage: 

Spirituality is a way of being in the world, a sense of one’s place in the cosmos, a relationship to that which extends beyond ourselves. There are many sources of spirituality; religion may be the most common, but it is by no means the only. Anything that generates a sense of awe may be a source of spirituality-art, for example. Consider the 1889 post-Impressionist painting ‘The Starry Night’ by Vincent van Gogh. It is a magnificent swirl of dark and light, punctuated by stars, with the sky and land delineated by horizon, and the infinite vastness of space hovering over humanity’s tiny abode.”

Van Gogh painted the conflict between body and soul, between objective and subjective, and between outer and inner experiences. As he told his brother, Theo: “I retain from nature a certain sequence and a certain correctness in placing the tones. I study nature so as not to do foolish things, to remain reasonable-however, I don’t mind so much whether my color corresponds exactly, as long as it looks beautiful on my canvas.” In fact, van Gogh described ‘The Starry Night’ to his brother as “an attempt to reach a religious viewpoint without God.” Read “spiritual” for “religious.”

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