A comment thread elsewhere took a tangent. I was asked this:
“How does your new found wisdom assist in the betterment of the human condition?”
The “new found wisdom” should be read with a slightly sarcastic tone, I suspect, but I figured it would make an interesting post.
As well as the obvious tribal ‘belonging’ that all identities provide, religion is important because it provides the framework for our spiritual experiences. “Spiritual” is a problematic word, because it is so strongly associated with religion or the supernatural, but there isn’t an obviously better one.
I have had and still have spiritual experiences: I expect you do to. I was taught certain stories for interpreting these: that certain feelings corresponded to the Holy Spirit, certain behaviours were worship, certain events answers to prayer, certain motivations God’s calling, certain propensities temptations, and so on. Because the spiritual experiences are important to us (they are to me, I’m sure to you too), the stories we get told about what those experiences “really are” become critical.
The Spiritual and the Story
Nobody experiences God directly. They have an experience, which they then interpret through the stories they know about God, either specific or general.
When a Sufi is transfixed in worship, they are enthralled to Allah, when a Wican does likewise it is to the Goddess. When a Voodun speaks in tongues it is possession by a Loa, when a Pentecostal, it is the Holy Spirit.
In fact, the kind of story you know guides the kind of experience you have. Many Christians I know cannot speak in tongues, because they don’t have the doctrinal (i.e. story) framework to allow it. Where I did, so I could. And now I understand how it works I still can.
But to most people the story is very strongly linked to the experience. So much so that someone denying your story feels like them denying you even had that experience. If I say “there is no God”, you hear “I think those important and deep experiences you had of God were either faked or delusions”. Which is clearly wrong, and you know it.
Separation and Enlightenment
So we should try, as a species, to unlock the story from the actual experience.
The stories could still be a way to induce the experience. I certainly do that – I can guarantee I’ll have a certain type of spiritual experience at midnight mass this Christmas. I have a different kind of experience when I meditate, or pray, or hug a tree.
But understanding the reality of the connection between the two is very liberating. It means you are free to experience the same transcendence through the ritual and practice of other faiths, or to develop the skills to induce it without any interpretation, if you can.
It gives a new appreciation for the real world, the amazing cosmos we inhabit, the beauty and savagery of other pepole, and the infinite creativity of the human urge to interpret their spirituality in stories and doctrines. And (if you’re interested in the bible and early Christian history like I am) it gives you a new level of appreciation for the bible and Christian doctrine.
Were it widely understood, I do think that would benefit humanity. There are things that would benefit more, of course, but still, I can’t help but see it as a net positive.