Thursday, November 30, 2006

Spirituality in Music

Even more so than dance, music is part of many religious rituals. There has also been a strong connection between classical music and spirituality. Much classical music was actually written for the church.

Music with a very strong and repetitive beat is used in animistic and shamanistic societies to help induce trance like states.

Music does not, however, need to have religious inspiration in order to be spiritual. The composer Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote much music that is considered spiritual in nature despite being somewhere between Atheism and Christian Agnosticism in his own beliefs.

Modern dance music is also used both with and without drugs in order to induce trance like states, and in this respect is similar to shamanistic rituals.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Spirituality in Dance

As with sport, many professional dancers have intense spiritual experiences during performance. This should not be surprising as dance forms part of a number of religious practices.

The whirling dervishes of Sufi Islam spin until they fall over, then lie on the ground feeling their body merge with the Earth. Dance is also deeply ingrained within Hinduism both as a practice in ritual and as imagery within the religion. Shamanistic and Animistic rituals make great use of dance within their rituals as a method of inducing a trance state. New age religions have also used dance within their rituals.

Dance does not, however, need to be part of a religious tradition to induce a spiritual experience. Outside of religion, many dancers have had a very deep sense of the spirituality of dance. Isadora Duncan described her search for a dance that was the “…divine expression of the human spirit through the medium of the body's movement.” This linking of dance and spirituality continues into modern dance music, and dance continues to be seen as a way of both expressing and experiencing spirituality.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Spirituality in Sport

There are many reports of spiritual experience in sport. There have been a number of studies into what is know as flow experience, or more commonly known as the zone. Flow experience is not the same as intense spiritual experience but does sometimes include a sense of spirituality.

Flow experience is not found equally across all sports. Whilst some people have reported flow experience in cycling, it does not appear to be as common as in other sports. Cycling is a physically intense endurance sport in which people are often aware of pain. This may work against flow experience. The Zone usually refers to a situation where a person is performing within a sport to the peak of their ability and that performance is automatic, or flowing, lacking much conscious effort.

There have been attempts to pin down what characteristics are present during this state. Various characteristics tend to be present, starting, first and foremost, with mastery of the sport itself. Where skill exists, people can find themselves in a situation where their performance seems effortless, experience of time distorts as they focus entirely on the present. Their actions and their awareness merge and what they are doing, there and then, is its own reward. A clarity of aims also seems to be required going into the experience. It is as if nothing needs to be thought about and therefore thought drifts away.

The flow experience is not spiritual in most cases, but on occasion does seem to include spiritual experience. Another aspect of the flow state is a loss of self or self consciousness. Again, this varies from sport to sport, being more common, for example, in athletes, but not so common in figure skaters, where greater levels of conscious control are required. Sports where a loss of self consciousness is part of the flow experience are more likely to lead to intense spiritual experience.

This is an area of study which is growing and a greater understanding of it will develop over time, It does, however, seem to already suggest that the nature of physical activity is something that can be used to create intense spiritual experience.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Ritual and Spiritual Experience

Ritual plays an important part as a path to intense spiritual experience. Ritual is a form of moving meditation. Ritual is a means of slowing and calming the verbal mind. Where a ritual is learned by heart and no conscious effort is required, the mind is quieted as it goes into a form of autopilot. Rituals that can do this include reciting of words or singing. These acts help to drown out other thoughts.

The ritual can be a word repeated over and over again. It can be a prayer or a hymn. It can be a recitation, or even a ceremony that includes aspects of all of these, as well as physical movement, such as prostration, crossing of yourself or spinning in a dervish dance.

Where ritual acts are used as a path to spiritual experience, the interpretation of the experience will be framed by the religious context. The spiritual experience itself will be very real, and it will act as a confirmation of the reality of the specific religion.

If intense spiritual experience is reached through rituals which help calm the mind, we should expect to find it outside of religion when similar activities take place. We should find spiritual experience in things such as repetitive physical activity. We should also expect to find it where a person has such a mastery of an activity that no conscious effort is required and the mind and body are felt to be in total harmony.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The Elements of Spiritual Experience

Despite the lack of common religious elements across cultures, there are common elements around intense spiritual experience. These are usually experienced through, and associated with, specific religions. They are often at the root of mystical traditions within religions.

Intense spiritual experience is a state of consciousness that moves beyond language based thought. The sense of self disappears and the feeling of being separate melts away. The self disappears into a sense of a greater whole. A feeling of everything being as it should be, is often reported. ‘Everything just is.’

Going into an intense spiritual experience, a person passes through a phase of language based thought and returns to language based thought when coming out of an intense spiritual experience. It is at these points that the cultural interpretation defines the meaning of the experience. This is when the spiritual experience becomes a Christian or Muslim or a Hindu experience.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Spiritual Experience

To be part of society, to be part of any group, is to have a spiritual experience. For many this is not enough and they seek out a deeper level of spirituality, a more intense experience. The desire for a deeper spirituality is the spiritual gap that many feel and which helps religion continue to exist in the face of rationality and experience.

Intense spiritual experience is usually associated with religion because it is through religion that people often have and interpret intense spiritual experience. The path to spiritual experience is culturally dependent. For a Christian, the path is usually Christianity. The intense spiritual experience then becomes seen as evidence that Christianity is the true way. Similarly, the Hindu or Muslim will find in spiritual experience the evidence that Hinduism or Islam is the truth.

If intense spiritual experience is found outside of religion, this will often still be interpreted as religious if the person experiencing it is religious. What happens, though, if an atheist finds spirituality, including intense spirituality, present throughout life?

Depending on the person, spirituality proves Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and nothing.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Spirituality and Evil

In most religions, evil is the transgression of rules against other members of your own faith. In this circumstance it is typically the evil of an individual that is being defined. Some individuals have a lesser capacity for empathy and spirituality and therefore only follow rules insofar as they feel obliged to. These individuals often have specific personality disorders and are not the norm in human societies. Most people have a predisposition towards empathy and spirituality and therefore generally follow rules willingly.

Group behavior and group morality is very different. What is evil when carried out within a group is, often, not considered evil when carried out against an outsider, indeed it is sometimes allowed. Many people of religion do now take a wider view of moral responsibility. They recognize that the attack of one group by another is evil. They recognize violence by one group against another is evil, regardless of the faith of the opposing sides.

Evil, when committed by groups, is a partner of good. Good and evil are two sides of the same coin, and they both grow out of spirituality. Spirituality creates a group and allows a person to see themselves as more than just an individual. An intense sense of belonging can lead to the disappearance of individual thought. It can also lead to anyone outside the group being viewed as outside the moral consideration of the group. Spirituality and spiritual experience promote the group interest over individualism to some extent, and in doing so, allow both great self-sacrifice and great evil to flourish, depending on how that spirituality is directed.

‘You are part of this community and the needs of this community override the needs of all others.’

‘You are part of this community and this community is part of a wider community of man’

The two views above promote and direct spirituality and morality towards very different end points.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Spirituality and Morality

Many religious people cite the very existence of morality as a creation of religion, and as having no real authority without religion. Humanists, on the other hand, argue that religion is not required for morality to exist. The Humanists are right. Morality exists as much for Atheists as it does for Christians or Muslims. Non-religious moral codes have often grown out of philosophy regardless of the absence or presence of God. What is the case, is that spirituality and morality go hand in hand. A sense of belonging creates the need for a set of rules to govern behavior between members.

Spirituality creates communities and morals allow communities to function. One leads to the other and a breakdown in one tends to lead to a breakdown in the other. When we follow rules, we expect reciprocal behavior from others. We expect them to follow the same rules. Minor breakdown in rules do not threaten society as a whole, but if there is a widespread breakdown in the rules of society, a tipping point is reached where the society or community no longer exists, and no-one follows the rules.

Similarly if people do not feel as if they belong to a society or community they are unlikely to respect the rules of that society, and the following of rules only continues where transgression is likely to be discovered and punishment. The threat of punishment is a very poor substitute for the voluntary acceptance of morality.

Spirituality and morality are required for communities large and small to exist. In some societies in the past, spirituality, morals and society were all part of the same thing. Each defined the other. There was a unity between them. As societies become more complex, these things separate out and have a much looser connection between each other. When society embraces freedom, spirituality and morality are also changed. Morality must accept tolerance of other people’s behavior unless they do harm, and people must be capable of feeling a sense of belonging with diverse groups of people, regardless of individual beliefs. Without a shift in that direction, a free society is not a stable society and will inevitably drift backwards towards compulsion.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Spirituality and Community

Spirituality creates communities. Spirituality exists along a spectrum of experience and intensity, but it gives humans the feeling that they are part of something bigger than themselves.

What is society? Can you touch it? Can you see it or hear it? Is it just an illusion? If humans did not have the ability to believe in non-physical reality and did not have the ability to believe they were part of non-physical structures, how would society exist?

The question of whether such a thing as a spirit exists independently of a person’s body is not what is being discussed here. It is the belief itself, that there is a non-physical reality that individuals are part of. Without that belief, communities would not exist. It doesn’t matter that people may all have slightly different views of what society is, it is the fact that they have the ability in the first place, to believe in something which does not physically exist.

What is true for society is true for other communities, such as political parties, religions, sports teams, any collection of humans who exist as a group.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Beyond Religion

If there is no common conception of God between religions, no common revelations, no common morals, nothing that can be identified as a core religion, what is it that is common between religions? The common element is a notion of spirituality.

Spirituality is the idea that man has a non-physical element and that the non-physical element is part of a greater reality. Man is more than an individual, and this non-physical reality is more important than the material world. Spirituality is a feeling of being part of some non-physical thing which is greater than the individual.

This is the thing man cannot get beyond regardless of rational scientific progress. This is the god-shaped hole. It is not god-shaped at all. From a cultural of monotheism, it is interpreted as a god-shaped hole. It is actually a spiritual gap. Spirituality is usually expressed through religion, but it is not intrinsically religious. Spirituality does not grow out of religion. Religion grows out of spirituality.

Friday, November 10, 2006

The Ethic of Freedom

Reciprocal behavior is the structure behind ethics. One type of reciprocal rule, which is sometimes referred to as ‘The ethic of reciprocity’, but is more commonly known as the Golden Rule, appears in most religions in some form. It is often expressed as ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’.

This is only one form of reciprocal rule and it is misleading to name it ‘The Ethic of Reciprocity’, as this suggests that it is at the heart of all reciprocal behavior. Reciprocity is not inherently good. It can lead to good or bad outcomes. ‘Kill or be killed’ is a reciprocal rule. A masochist following the golden rule would not violate it by inflicting harm on others. Many warrior leaders throughout history accepted that if they were weaker than their opponent they would be killed. ‘Give no quarter and expect none’ (take no prisoners, and do not expect to be taken prisoner) is a reciprocal rule. The golden rule applies equally in Theocracies and other forms of dictatorship as it does in democracies. The flip side of the golden rule becomes ‘I expect everyone to act like me’. ‘I expect to be persecuted if I blaspheme and I will punish those who blaspheme.’

Reciprocity is a structure for creating rule sets and appears to be part of human nature. It is neither good nor bad. It simply is the way we are.

If you live in a complex society that contains a mix of people with different religions, politics and cultures, what reciprocal rule can be applied to create a community out of diversity? What reciprocal rule includes tolerance?

The implied rule in a free society is the ‘Ethic of Freedom’, which is ‘Let people do live as they want, as long as they do no harm to others’, the flip side being ‘I will do as I want, as long as I do no harm to others.’ This freedom of personal behavior is not new. Throughout history such communities have existed. Trading ports often had a large mix of races and cultures and these ports often stood outside the normal conventions of the host country.

In a free society, people’s own ethical systems, whether religious or not, will inform their behavior, but the behavior of others should only be of dispute if it harms others. The formation of rules must take place through a rational debate around the harm caused to others, not through divine laws.

This may seem like a dilution of a person’s religious beliefs, but it is actually a structure that allows religious freedom for all. If religion enters the political arena it will, when successful, discriminate against other people on the basis of their religious or secular beliefs. Most religions do include the notion of final judgment by God on people’s behavior and beliefs. The religious person should, therefore, be able to rely on a divine judgment by their God to punish unbelievers and sinners, not the state. Through a reliance on divine judgment, the religious person should be able to live within a free society without attempting to undermine it.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Rules of the Game – Part 2

In most societies, sex is controlled to some degree. For some societies adultery is illegal and punishable. In other societies it is considered wrong but is not illegal. Polygamy exists in some societies. A man can marry more than one women, and in rarer cases a woman can marry more than one man. Viewed from a society that is monogamous, these arrangements are bigamous and adulterous.

What truly universal rules around moral behavior exist across all human societies today, let alone across the span of human history?

What is universal is the existence of rules. Rules tend to exist around the same areas – violence, property, sex. The rules essentially exist around those areas which are most likely to lead to conflict. Conflict makes it hard for a community to exist. Rules, morals, ethics, allow a community to exist, they help create communities.

Like games, the rules may vary and they may change over time, but without rules there are no games. It is the existence of rules that is shared across societies, not the actual rules themselves. If there is such a thing as a universal rule it is reciprocal behavior, not in the sense of ‘an eye for an eye’, but more, ‘I will behave as I expect everyone else to behave’. This is the foundation of any rule set.

People can and do break rules to their own advantage, but as with games, there is only an advantage if most other people continue to obey the rules and the advantage is greatest when most other people are unaware of the rule violation.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Rules of the Game - Part 1

People play many games – card games, board games, sports, word games. The games have little in common with each other. What they do all have in common is the existence of a set of rules that people are aware of and comply with. Without rules, the games cannot be played. People can and do cheat, but an essential part of cheating is that other players are not aware of it. The rules of different games vary tremendously and there are no core rules that apply to all games, it is only the existence of a set of rules itself that games have in common.

Life and living in a community is not, however, a game. Surely there are a core set of rules that all communities have in common, and if so, what are they?

There are some obvious rules that exist in most societies such as - Do not kill, Do not steal. These rules, however, are not as straightforward when looked at in details. Killing is not actually banned in most societies, it is strictly controlled, but not banned. Similarly stealing, depending on your definition of it, is not actually banned, but again, is strictly controlled.

The most that can probably be said about rules across societies is that certain types of behavior come under strict control. What that strict control is, varies from society to society.

Killing is mostly restricted to authorities. Only the state or leaders can approve killing, either as a punishment or through war with enemies of the state. All other killing is prohibited and leads to punishment. Whilst this is mostly true, it is not universally true. Some societies allow ‘honor killings’ by families of their own members.

Property is another area that is controlled in most societies, but again the control varies across societies. In most societies, property can be removed from an individual by the state. In conflict, property is often won by the victor. In some historical societies, this property included the defeated people. Historically, people could be owned, and although much rarer today, it is still a practice that exists unofficially in many societies.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

The God of Contradiction

If there is no consistent set of revelations, doctrine or morals across cultures and religions, does this prove that God does not exist? No, it simply proves that there are many different religions with different rules and morals. The contradictions prove, in absolute terms, nothing. Contradiction is unusual but not absent from scientifically validated theories.

Perhaps one God does exist and that God has given out contradictory rules of behavior to different people. If this is the case though, how do we decide which rules to follow? Do we decide by place of birth? What if we live in a society where many religions exist side by side? Do we just follow the religion of our parents? What if our parents have different religions from each other? Do we just choose any religion we want? Why then does some doctrine make the worshipping of other Gods forbidden? In a number of religions, the worshipping of only their God is the most important rule and precedes all others.

A God of contradictions leaves people with no guidelines as to how they should lead their lives. A God of contradiction would make it impossible to recognize the word of God, because that God would be capable of saying anything. A God of contradiction leaves God’s word with no authority at all.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Proof of God

Although the existence of God cannot be proved or disproved, many claims made about God or in his name can be tested. The age of the universe is open to scientific enquiry. The origin of man is open to scientific enquiry. Large scale historical events such as floods which wiped out almost all of mankind can be scientifically studied. There are many claims which are made in the Bible and other holy books which can be scientifically studied. When claims about the physical world made in holy books are tested, they invariably prove to be false. The biblical age of the universe is false, the story of man’s creation is wrong, there was no worldwide flood that wiped out all humans apart from one family. These claims are wrong. If the stories are allegories and metaphors it doesn’t matter that they are wrong. If the bible is the word of God, it does.

As with the comparison of science and social science, it is still worthwhile to test the validity of things which cannot be scientifically tested. How then do you test the wider, less specific claims of religion? One way is by comparison between religions which developed without contact with each other.

If there is a God who interacts with man through revelation, the revelations between religions should be the same. The rules of life should be the same. Again, religions fail this test for most of their revelations and rules. Morals do vary between religions. Worship varies. The number and nature of Gods vary. Nothing suggests that there is one God with a consistent set of rules for man to follow.

Where moral rules have been created through revelation, they are very different in their treatment of fellow worshippers and people of different faiths. In practice, this has historically meant a difference between members of the same community and other communities. You must not kill, is often ‘you must not kill members of your own community’. You must not steal is often ‘you must not steal from members of your own community’. The rules around how you treat members of other communities and other faiths is often very different and very brutal. Religion has historically been a group identity and a set of rules for helping member of that group live together in a community.