Some of this is a bit rambly but bear with me!
When people ask me about my beliefs, I tell them I’m an atheist. But why then, they ask, do you go to Buddhist meditation retreats?
Firstly, I’m not a Buddhist. I just find that there is wisdom and truth in many Buddhist teachings and I get a lot out of meditation.
Secondly, the definition of ‘atheist’ simply means not believing in a god. Theist = someone who believes in a god or gods. A = without (from the Greek root). So a + theist = someone who doesn’t believe in a god or gods. Buddhism does not worship a god, so being a Buddhist (or adopting Buddhist practices) and being an atheist is in no way a contradiction in terms.
With that cleared up, I do not have a problem with people saying that they are religious. The OED defines religion as: 1. The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods, and/or 2. A particular system of faith and worship. That I understand.
Christianity is a religion. Islam is a religion. Hinduism is a religion. Sikhism is a religion. Etc.
Many people who I meet on meditation retreats and in yoga classes, however, talk about being ‘spiritual but not religious’. The dictionary definition of ‘spirituality’ is this: The quality of being concerned with the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.
Now here’s where I struggle.
First of all, let’s talk about what we mean by ‘material’. This is another word that gets bandied about in spiritual circles: I’m not materialistic. I don’t want a big car and to be rich and famous (fair enough; neither do I or most people I know). But ‘material’ just means stuff that exists in the physical world, and I don’t see how we can convincingly claim that there exists some sort of transcendental soul that is a separate entity from our physical bodies.
Our brains are incredible things. The average human brain contains 86-100 billion neurons, which fire approximately 200 times per second each, at a speed of around 200mph. Consciousness itself is a neurological phenomenon, as is the ability to think meta-cognitively, I.e. thinking about thinking. Our brains (in tandem, of course, with our nervous systems and the rest of our bodies) are capable of creating the most beautiful and the most destructive mind states. We can have great insights into the nature of reality and feel at one with love and loss, birth and death. We can also hurt ourselves and others, grieve, kill, fight and hate.
People often claim to experience great spiritual awakenings whilst under the influence of psychedelics, and I don’t doubt that these experiences can be life-changing. Spiritual seekers travel to Peru for ayahuasca, or to Koh Phangan for mushrooms. But there is nothing inherently spiritual as opposed to material about these big shifts in consciousness: after all, they are induced by manipulation of certain (material) areas of the brain.
In meditation, too, I have had some profound (though short-lived) experiences of inner silence, wakefulness, wholeness and interconnectedness. At times, I have felt in love with everyone and everything, and I have felt a deep sense of peace and stillness under the cacophony of life. I just don’t see the point in calling it spiritual because it’s not separate from anything real or material.
Maybe it’s just a question of language, but I think language is important. We need to be clear about what we mean so that we are on the same page when we discuss or debate issues.
And anyway, is existence not amazing enough? Consider the beauty of blossom in springtime, a newborn baby, the fact that the stars we see in the night sky no longer exist, the patterns in a wrinkled, dying leaf, the engineering that allows us to fly in huge metal tubes with wings to the other side of the world in less than a day, or the fact that we on earth are probably not alone in this vast, unfathomable universe.
When we see things as they really are, why do we feel the need to add some sort of woo-woo terminology to make it seem more special than the utterly mind-blowing and unthinkable reality that it really, materially, is?