For far too many years,
I mistakenly equated religion and spirituality. As a child, I was raised Catholic, and was well schooled in the heresy of other religions, and even worse, the atheist heathens. They were all hell-bound. As a teenager, I was too curious and had far too many questions and doubts for my parents’ comfort. I found fellowship in my Catholic youth group, but was agnostic by the end of high school, and an atheist soon after. Through psychology, I began to understand how human needs drove religious belief, and I researched anthropocentrism, our need to see ourselves as the most important, central entity in the universe. I understood how this worldview fueled religious beliefs, and I became well steeped in the many rational objections to religion. I was clever, but not wise during this middle stage of my spiritual journey. Worse still, I didn’t wise up until my parenting years were nearly over. Thus, my daughters have had to forge their own spiritual paths. I am blessed that they are each thriving in life, but as usual, the rear view mirror is clearer than the windshield.
As a psychologist, providing psychotherapy to religious clients has been a more straightforward issue. It’s not about me, or my personal or spiritual beliefs during the therapy hour. It’s about you and the resources we can martial to help you grow and reach your personal goals. Your spiritual beliefs and resources are amongst these resources. I try to work within your spiritual system. If the power of prayer works for you, use it, and use it often. If you’re not religious, connectedness and existential joy are still important, and can be developed via secular spiritual practices. Either way, the practices are more beneficial than the beliefs.
In my third stage, I recognized that spirituality is a larger tent than religion. I began to grasp that secular spirituality celebrates and develops both consciousness and connectedness. Atheism is a starting point, not a destination. It is an oppositional stance; it focuses on what you don’t believe in. It alienates you from your religious brethren, and begs for an alternative. Consciousness is an amazing gift, and we can stand in awe of it, and develop it, without claiming that it exists independently of matter. Spirituality celebrates our existence, our consciousness, and our connectedness. We can connect to divine spirits, as religious folks do, or we can connect elsewhere, to life, humanity, the universe, the “All.” We can practice gratitude for our short lives, or greed for immortality. We can practice pride in our central position as God’s favorite pet, or humility as a single entity from an isolated outpost in a possibly well-populated universe. We can bask in existential joy for our gifts of life and consciousness, and connect with our fellow humans and other creatures, standing in awe of the All. We can focus on our similarities with others, rather than our differences. I think I finally get it, or at least one version of it. Which is timely at age 68, because the fourth and final stage of my spiritual journey will be my encounter with death, and the challenge of accepting life and its finality on its own terms.
Beyond Atheism – A Secular Approach to Spiritual, Moral, and Psychological Practices is my attempt to share what I’ve learned, in all stages of my spiritual development. Hopefully it will help you along your path, as many others have contributed to mine.