Monday, January 04, 2010

Mission Statement

First: I only attack causes that are victorious; I may even wait until they become victorious.

Second: I only attack causes against which I would not find allies, so that I stand alone – so that I compromise myself alone. – I have never taken a step publicly that did not compromise me: that is my criterion for doing right.

Third: I never attack persons; I merely avail myself of the person as of a strong magnifying glass that allows one to make visible a general but creeping and elusive calamity.

Fourth: I only attack things when every personal quarrel is excluded, when any background of bad experiences is lacking. On the contrary, attack is in my case a proof of good will, sometimes even of gratitude.

- Nietzsche


To expand a bit upon a recent discussion with a friend:

It's amusing to make fun of religion. But even as much as I enjoy it, I have to admit it's an easy target, at least in America. The cultural center of gravity has shifted here, so that "spirituality" has the sort of authenticity cachet that religion no longer does. In my opinion, the respect paid to religion here has just as much to do, if not more, with basic politeness and force of habit than any heartfelt conviction. In an interconnected, multicultural village, it's just passé to claim that one belief has an exclusive lock on the truth.

Therefore, in an attempt to somewhat live up to the above principles, I find it more relevant to attack spirituality. That's where all the cool kids hang out these days. So what exactly is my problem with it?

Most importantly - and I'm generalizing here, of course, by necessity - the fact that it retains the same metaphysical concepts, the same theoretical constructs, as traditional religion. The "spiritual-not-religious" trend is a superficial rebellion, a rebranding of the same old product, a way to give the appearance of freethinking individuality without having to actually risk the disorienting vertigo of true intellectual independence. As I just mentioned, it has more to do with a passing nod to current social norms of individuality and cosmetic diversity than any radical rethinking of values. Find me a self-described spiritual person who doesn't share with any hidebound Christian most, if not all, of these same basic concepts: souls, an afterlife, some type of moral yardstick against which human lives are being measured by someone (God) or something (karmic law), a teleological progression to existence. The only significant difference I see is that they like to cherry-pick other cultures and religions for concepts and terminology they can use to buttress their pre-existing conclusions without actually challenging any of them. All those different traditions have "important lessons" to teach us on our "spiritual journey", don't you know. But metaphysical bullshit is still metaphysical bullshit whether it comes from a fundamentalist Christian, a Tibetan Buddhist, a Sufi mystic, or even an evolutionary psychologist.

More to personal taste: I've always been irritated by how often people split the difference between two sides in an argument in order to pat themselves on the back for their reasonableness (as opposed to the irrational fanatics on either side of them). This person believes the Bible is the inerrant word of God, that person is a strict materialist, therefore they must both be equally wrong! Well, no, Goldlilocks. Truth is not always equidistant from two points of view of your choosing. I suspect that people frequently retreat to some vague concept of spirituality because the idea of outright atheism seems too certain to them, even if they can agree with most of the criticisms of the idea of a personal, loving god. As to why being certain in this regard is thought to be so foolhardy and reckless, I would suggest that even people who weren't raised as doctrinaire Christians have internalized the idea that one of the most offensive things you can possibly do to the Christian God is doubt his existence, however meekly and hesitantly. Safer to go with Pascal's wager.

And of course, the word "spiritual" itself just has too many metaphysical overtones for me. It implies the same old mind/body duality that has always plagued Western thought, the idea that our most cherished concepts, like beauty, truth, and joy, are somehow distinct from the everyday world, rather than arising from it and contingent upon it just like everything else.

I enjoy thinking about the big picture and my place in it. I experience states of mind that any mystic would recognize. I retain a sense of wonder about the mysteries of existence. And I cheerfully accept that none of those thoughts and feelings are going to survive the death of the brain and sensory organs that give rise to them. I just think that worldview is more properly described as "philosophical", or "reflective", or "contemplative", not spiritual.