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While I attended a Jewish elementary school, I have never considered myself religious. Even from a young age, theology baffled me. Could God have really created himself from nothing? Why weren’t there any stegosauruses on Noah’s Ark? As I got older, I remained skeptical. While I did not see myself as an atheist, religious mythology did not seem to have any pertinence to the world I lived in. Religion was relevant, but only inasmuch as it caused political and global conflict. In and of itself, it was an unfortunate relic of the past.
I still do not consider myself religious or pro-religion, but, since that time, I have come to have a better understanding of religion and realized that religious tradition does matter. Religious people are happier than nonreligious people and crediting that happiness solely to delusion is an intellectual cop-out. Religion allows people to address aspects of their lives that, otherwise, they have trouble addressing. We do not need to endorse religion or even abstain from criticizing it in order to apply these principles to secular life.
Religion may make people happier because it allows them the time and space to grapple with fundamentally unanswerable questions about life. Questions about what it means to live, die, love, suffer and grow. Religion is not cathartic because it answers these unanswerable questions, it is cathartic because it forces people to ask them. In a similar sense, genuine spirituality does not provide false security, it acknowledges insecurity. Comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell understood this well. He argued that most people are not seeking a meaning for life, but an experience of being alive. The act of discussing and reflecting on life allows us to engage with this experience, even if the resulting discussions and reflections can seem futile. In some unexplainable way, it is this very engagement that allows us to bring meaning to our lives. This sort of engagement is what we need more of.
Too often today, we quantify our experiences, yet do not conscientiously participate in them. We can traverse the earth in a single day, yet remain disconnected from the places we travel to. We can communicate with thousands of people at once, yet feel more alienated than ever. We can access millions of artistic works at any given time, yet use them primarily to distract ourselves. These mechanisms of the modern world are not inherently bad, but the ways we use them reflect a spiritual deficit. Many contemporary technologies are seen by us as paths to happiness, when they are, in truth, ways for us to avoid pain. At times, this is the pain of boredom, at times, the pain of loneliness and, at other times, the pain introspection. This constant tendency to avoid pain and discomfort is something that we need to be skeptical of. Just as we must acknowledge uncertainty in order to find meaning, we must acknowledge and experience certain types of pain in order to experience joy. Experiencing pain is not the opposite of experiencing joy, it is an intrinsic part of it.
While we do not need organized religion in order to reflect on and engage with our lives in meaningful ways, without it, we often neglect to. What the non-religious can learn from religion is that it is imperative we provide ourselves with opportunities to do this. This sort of meditation can be achieved by writing, by arguing with friends, by travelling—even by watching movies. Spirituality can manifest itself in an infinite number of ways. In fact, organized religion is probably not an ideal way to participate in this sort of contemplation, considering the myriads of conflicts it causes. While many kind and thoughtful people are deeply religious, too many people use religion to justify delusion, intolerance and violence. Furthermore, religion does not always involve the sort of introspection I described above. Religion often exists without spirituality, just as spirituality often exists without religion.
True spirituality is not antithetical to intellectual thought, it is inextricably intertwined with it. There is no point in understanding the world if one sees no purpose in living in it. There is also no point in holding a belief if that belief is demonstrably false. Authentic intellectual thought involves spirituality and authentic spirituality involves intellectual thought. This is what Albert Einstein meant when he proclaimed that “science without religion is lame and religion without science is blind.” Both intellectualism and spiritual engagement are about the processes of searching. They are about the ways we look for logic, beauty and fulfillment both within ourselves and within the world. And, as even the most maudlin Hollywood movies tell us, journeys are never about destinations, but about the things discovered while journeying. We do not need religion, but we do need to acknowledge meaning in the immeasurable. In order to live well, we must value the things that we cannot truly understand. These things include our relationships with other people, our connections to nature, and our perceptions of the sublime. Most of all, they include the singular experience each of us has of what it is like to be alive. To paraphrase Joseph Campbell, the life in front of you should not be clear. If it is, it is not your life, but somebody else’s. Your own life you make with each day you live.
Jonah Dratfield is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]