By Michel Camille Bordeau
There is an ever-increasing body of research in psychology, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, and religious studies that question the often assumed connection between theistic religiosity and spirituality. What’s gravely missing from traditional theistic assumptions is that spirituality as much as religiosity are matters of external influences. Were we ‘ingodtrinated’ and or taught spiritual practices early enough in life to internalize them? And, as much as they are matters of personal choices—did we have a choice early in life? Do we still have a choice now that environment is less of an influence? Do we always have a choice?
Determinism is not as self-evident as we traditionally believe. In fact, spirituality can be without/outside the confines of religion, non-theists can be spiritual, and most spiritual journeys do not presume a ‘relationship’ with a higher entity—unless that higher entity is us. Since the advent of Buddhism, long before our brand(ing) of near-exclusive theo-spirituality, being spiritual did not necessitate a god and, most importantly, a god did not determine our spirituality and religiosity.
In The “GOD” Part of the Brain: a Scientific Interpretation of Human Spirituality and God, philosophically trained Matthew Alper, borrows from biopsychology to bridge the gap between cognition and behavior in order to illustrate the distinction between what he calls ‘religious’ and ‘spiritual impulses’.
Religious Impulse: “The ‘religious’ impulse compels us to engage in a variety of shared ritualistic behaviors such as church attendance and adherence to church codes and customs. This impulse therefore functions as a social adaptation, one that serves to provide us with a common set of mores, beliefs, values, and motivations, thereby reinforcing the group dynamic. As a social organism, it is necessary that we maintain a common ideology as it serves to sustain the survival strategy of strength in numbers—basic biophysics. Moreover, the religious impulse not only fosters the group dynamic, but also provides the individual with a necessary sense of purpose and community.” (93)
Spiritual Impulse: “… [T]he ‘spiritual’ impulse generates an altered state of the consciousness… one that evokes feelings of awe, serenity, and ecstasy. Because we are ‘wired’ to ascribe spiritual status to all things—including our own experiences—we tend to interpret these altered states as evidence of some divine or transcendental reality…. It is for that reason that it’s possible for a person to be highly religious (devoted to church doctrine and ritual), though completely aspiritual (incapable of having spiritual experience). Inversely, it is equally possible for someone to be highly spiritual, though not at all religious.” (93)
At any given moment in our lives, we have a chance to determine our own spiritual and religious impulses, hurray! Although in the earlier years of our lives, our choices in matters of spirituality and religiosity are highly influenced by our environment (community, parents, need for social acceptance, etc.), as adults, we have the choice to determine the nature of our influences—for instance, choosing enriching over toxic impulses. We are free to will in religious and spiritual matters! No puppet master but yourself. Isn’t that remarkable?
Many might be surprised to find that religious determinism can be re-determinated or simply terminated. I am not one of them, since I was fortunate enough to be given a chance to determine my own religious and spiritual paths, to create meaningfulness in my life as I saw fit, very early on in my life.
Indeed, I was around eight when I had to deal with my first major existential ‘crisis’. Soccer practice (the secular ‘church’ I wanted to join) and catechism (the ‘learning’ my paternal grandmother thought I could benefit from) were both on Wednesday in mid-afternoon. By choosing what I wanted more, I would disappoint my grandma and maybe her god. By choosing what I wanted less, I would disappoint myself and most certainly my friends. What was I to do? What would my choice say about me?
Thanks to my ever-pragmatic mother, I got out of that ‘existential’ trap fairly easily. She had me attend catechism one week, soccer the next and I had to make a choice by the subsequent week. Yes, you read correctly, my mother allowed me to choose between sports and religion. What did I choose? What do you think most eight years old would pick if given the choice?
I would be dishonest if I claimed that I disliked my one hour of catechism, although you won’t see me do it again. I remember being taken by the quaint church and all its intricate decorations. It was like being inside a doll house, and I was G.I. Joe and there were other Joes and Janes, and we all seemed ready to unleash the fun! Even the sparse religious art displayed throughout spoke to the artist within—aren’t we all artists at that age?
The light shining through the stained-glass windows and the serenity of the quiet setting felt wonderful, and the memory of it still feels good to this day. At the time, it was in cheer contrast with the lack of serenity, the loud setting I called home. I even liked the priest, who seemed to be more of a teacher figure (I loved my teacher back then) than a parental authority (I never responded well to authority figures). The only thing I didn’t care for was to have to sit quietly for so long, when I spent many hours of the week doing the same at school, and when I knew that my buddies were running around on a soccer field. The grass was definitely greener on the other—soccer—side of life.
Mercy rule(s) and catechism lost the spiritual battle to soccer. On the third week, I was running away from screaming coaches (no less authoritarian than clergy men/‘make-believers’), and loved every minute of it. I became a devoted admirer of Platini, Maradona, Socrates, Keegan, etc. I watched every game I could on television. I subscribed to soccer magazines. I asked for a new soccer ball or begged f0r a jersey of Saint-Etienne at every gift-giving occasion. I dreamed of joining the ‘creed’ and one day becoming a professional player. I dreamed of soccer fields every waking moment of the day; I was hooked, I was a believer.
Thanks to my pragmatic mother, I was given the choice of my religious and spiritual impulses. And that freedom to determine my existential future would stick with me. I chose soccer as my ‘first’ religion and, for years to come, it provided a strong enough ‘sense of purpose and community’ (religious impulse) and on numerous occasions it generated ‘an altered state of…consciousness’ by conjuring feelings of ‘awe, serenity, and ecstasy’ (spiritual impulse).
But one day, I outgrew the soccer impulse, its religious and spiritual benefits no longer worked. As I grew, as I changed, it was displaced and replaced by other secular expressions of the religious and spiritual impulses—vacationing, eating out, writing, loving, etc.
Thanks to my mother, I was taught to make meaningful choices at an earlier age. Thanks to her teaching, when I was ready to move on spiritually, I began the new journey without qualm, guilt, or even apprehension. She entrusted me with my own life. What a great gift of existential emancipation! Thanks maman!
BTW: You don’t need my mother’s permission to make your next spiritual, spirited choice. It’s all on you, but you You got it, anyway!
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Michel-Camille Bordeau is the founder and author of The School of Seshata (www.scriptotheism.net),a blog about secular spirituality and the home of the Scriptopedia Project. Michel earned an M.A. in French Studies from The Ohio State University (1998). Mid-life crisis oblige, he is returning to college in August 2011, to pursue an M.S.W. with a specialization in Mental Health & Drugs of Abuse. Before relocating to Atlanta, Michel was an Academic Advisor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor campus, for nearly ten years. He has advised many students (and parents) on academic and life matters. He taught English, Public Speaking, Humanities, and French at various colleges and universities. In 2002, Michel published PoireSucrée, Salée, Epicée, a short novel about a dance teacher forced to face the demons of her past. He is currently seeking representation for Seeing Purple, a dystopian novel set in Anaïs Abelard’s hometown, the New Orleans of tomorrow, also home to the power-hungry mega church known as the Calvinistry. Michel considers himself an amateur ‘atheologist’ and he often writes under the nom de plume Anais Abelard.