“Spirituality and religion are often used interchangeably, but the two concepts are different. Spirituality involves humans’ search for meaning in life [and is] subjective, intangible, and multidimensional…, while religion involves an organized entity with [pre-established] rituals and practices about a higher power….”
Ruth A. Tanyi, 2002
God is not a religious concept, yet the vast majority of people seem to assume it is. To me, this conflation is not only frustrating but dangerous.
Why dangerous? The authority religion once wielded in our culture has been waning for over two centuries. That’s fine by me. While religion itself is neither good nor bad, humans have used it to justify so much wrongdoing that its myths smack of hypocrisy. The trouble is that many modern day people who reject religion throw out the baby with the bathwater. That is, because they see the constructs of religion as a hoax, they assume god must be a hoax, too.
In a godless universe, many abandon their search for an ever-expanding
meaning in life. “There’s nothing out there,” they decide, “so it’s just me against the world.” With that attitude, they grow deaf to spirit’s call to actively love the world, to grow our compassion and act on it, and to nurture our talents so we can birth our unique contributions to the flow of life.
Why are 25% of US women my age currently taking antidepressants?* In my opinion, that number has shot up, not clinically, but because so many are spiritually starved. Lack of faith, I believe, complements fear and self-centeredness: What’s in it for me? and My actions don’t matter lead ultimately to cynicism, emptiness, and despair.
Admittedly, I know quite a number of moral atheists and once considered myself one. These people do love, maybe even strive to help others and live with honor, but they shy away from examining WHY. Press them and they’ll offer some truism like, “Because it’s the right thing to do.” But what defines “right”?
As a young atheist myself, I remember getting super annoyed with 19th century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard when I read his three stages of individual actualization: 1) living for selfish pleasure, 2) living in the in-between place of ethics, and 3) taking a leap of faith.
In those days, I wanted ethical life to be the most awake state of mind. “There is no God, but I do good anyway” struck a chord of individual courage. I imagined us ethical folks blazing a noble trail through life without sticking to the trodden lanes of religion.
But Kierkegaard, that asshole, pointed out that to live by ethics is to live in an either/or state, torn between what we crave to do and what we sense we should do. If we really looked into that inner sense of what’s “right,” we would recognize the call of goodness itself and open our hearts to it fully. There, he said, we would find god.
Well… actually, Kierkegaard said “God,” and for him that meant Christianity complete with Jesus’ resurrection and the whole kit and kaboodle. The leap of faith, Kierkegaard said, was to abandon objective criteria and embrace instead the non-rational truth of religion.
Hubble: Sombrero galaxy
So… I hop off that bus at the paragraph before last.
My leap is not to religion, but to a view of the universe that mainstream culture still dismisses as nutty. It’s based on my own near-death experience, when I left my physical body and glimpsed the other side, along with the 14 paranormal experiences that followed, and corroborated by thousands of other NDErs led to the same truth: Love powers the universe.
Love powers the universe is, to my thinking, the only true north we need to orient meaningful lives. For me, that means having faith in the god I experienced as overwhelming love in the light of the other side. For others, it can mean simply living in loving kindness. One’s spiritual path is one’s own — as in Buddha’s dying advice to “be a lamp unto yourself.”
Spirituality in AA
I find it frustrating every time I hear AA referred to a “religious organization”or even one affiliated with religion. Much of the public at large seems sorely misinformed on this point. For example, the film The 13th Step claims to be “a stark expose… of AA’s disempowering 12-Step belief system, whereby members must agree to become subservient to a higher power…”
What a bunch of crap!
The 12 steps don’t present a “belief system.” They’re offered as a roadmap for self-evaluation and growth: 1. Is alcohol kicking your ass? 2. Is your life (getting) batshit crazy? 3. Ask whatever your heart trusts in to guide you and 4. try looking at the stories you tell yourself about your life 5. so you can reality-check them with someone objective and against your ultimate sense of truth, then 6. get ready to change and 7. ask for help changing and fucking mean it. 8. Figure out whom you’ve hurt and 9. go ask them if you can set it right. 10. Keep checking on yourself for bullshit rationalizations and 11. keep seeking your god and 12. if you’re getting well, help others do the same.
As the appendix on spiritual experience tells us, “With few exceptions our members find that they have tapped an unsuspected inner resource which they presently identify with their own conception of a Power greater than themselves.” How is this subservience?
On the other hand, if I’d tried to get sober in the bible belt, I’d probably be dead now, because it’s likely that many AAers in Christian-dominated regions do present AA as a Christian-based recovery. How sad! I could not have absorbed something so counter to my own sense of truth — not even to save my life.
* * *
I have a Facebook friend across the world in Turkey, a self-employed floor polisher who saw me in this film and reached out to me about life after death, which he calls the real reality. Raised Muslim, Uğur Hakanoğlu has independently studied ancient texts from which the Quran was assembled, searching for spiritual truths. Perhaps because his conviction must leap the language barrier between us, what he writes to me always resonates powerfully:
“Some people are thinking they are atheist, but they only hate wrong human religion that humans made… Church, mosque, and other areas [are] like lying machines. They are [to] earn money and they don’t say true… We have to respect all lifes, like god. Ignorance and fear, they are guns. All bad minds use these two guns…
“Life is not earn, Louisa. Life is Love, in my mind. When we go to the forest or seaside, we take photo or video, we are choosing not to live. Everything is telling us his/her life, telling what I am and why I am here, but we don’t listen. We are only looking, not seeing. Sea, tree, sun — everything telling us only about love. Love change all mind. There are no borders, no nationality. If I have good English, I will say more.”
Of course, not every aspect of religion is a “lying machine,” and many religious people are deeply loving, humble, and sincere. In AA as in all experience, loving all is what heals, as much as being loved.
PS: I’ll be giving an hour-long talk, telling my NDE story and reflecting on it, at the International Association of Near-Death Studies annual conference August 30th, 10:00 – 11:00 a.m. in Bellevue, WA. Conference details here.