My View of Spirituality and Religion:

a Personal Introduction

 

 
This introduction is a quick-start guide to my ideas about religion and spirituality. My website contains articles, blog posts, and jottings on several subjects. Some of these writings are about spirituality and religion. After reading this introduction you should be able to wade into those writings with some idea of where they are going. (As a starting point, you might want to read my blog titled Religion: the Next Version and follow the links in it.)

Many of these writings address a major problem of our time: the so-called war between religion and reason. I believe that this war is unnecessary. Some religious beliefs are in serious conflict with reason and science, but the most important core ideas of the world's major religions do not conflict with reason or science at all. Some religious beliefs are irrational, antiscientific, or just plain nasty - but that does not mean that religion itself is irrational, antiscientific, or nasty. Some of the basic beliefs shared by all major religions are fully compatible with reason, science, and enlightened morality. It's possible to be religious and also have your rational head on straight. You just have to be careful to separate real spiritual thought from all the superstitions and dogmas that people have built up around it. That's a big task.

I'm going to begin right now by explaining my views on religion very briefly. The arguments and evidence for these conclusions are explained in my other writings. Many philosophers have explored the possible rational foundations for spiritual ideas. The conclusions presented here are the results of my attempt to explore those foundations.

- Mark Sharlow



1. Despite all the faults of religions, the world's major religions contain a core of rational beliefs.
By now everyone has heard the skeptics' stock criticisms of religion. The beliefs of different religions contradict each other, which means that not all the religions can be true at once. Some religious beliefs contradict scientific fact. Other religious beliefs contradict healthy morality by supporting cruelty, intolerance, and oppression. These facts tell us that many religious beliefs are false - some of them dangerously so. However, the religions of the world also contain a core of sensible beliefs, left over after all the superstition is stripped away. This core of sensible beliefs does not conflict with science, reason, or reasonable morality; it is consistent with all of these sources of truth. What is more, this core of beliefs has rational support. It is not only consistent with reason; it is supported by reason. In a little while I'll say what this rational support consists of.


2. The sensible core beliefs of the world's religions deal with alleged spiritual realities, such as God or the human soul. However, those spiritual realities are not what the conventional religions say they are.
Most believers think of God (or the gods) and souls as supernatural beings - intangible, ghostly beings that interfere with natural events in a way that can violate natural laws. In reality these spiritual beings are not supernatural. They are not really things at all - not even invisible and intangible things. Instead, they are what philosophers call "abstract entities." That means they are features of the natural world, instead of extra things outside the natural world.


This view of spiritual realities as features of the natural world might seem contrary to religion, but only at first. Surprisingly, this view fits comfortably with the insights of the greatest religious thinkers, both Western and Eastern. It is friendlier to the religious outlook than is the traditional, supernatural view of religion.

3. Human experience and reason support the valid core beliefs of the world's religions. Specifically, these beliefs are supported by the rational analysis of a type of experience that we could call poetical experience. By this I mean the delicate, subtle, and deep perceptual experiences, rooted in feeling and thought, that poets and artists sometimes record in their work. By calling these experiences "poetical" I don't mean to imply that only working poets and artists have these experiences. Many other people have them also. These poetical illuminations are not just emotional experiences. They have nothing to do with phony "religious" experiences based on hallucination or illusion. Poetical experiences come in many flavors. They range from simple experiences, like deepened perceptions of everyday things, up to the sublime, transcendent states of clarity or ecstasy that some call "enlightenment."

4. Poetical experience is not merely subjective. Instead, it is a way of knowing about reality. It reveals authentic facts about the world. These facts are not accessible to science, at least in science's present state. However, there is no reason to think these facts are supernatural. They are natural facts, but they are facts of a special sort. Rational arguments show that poetical experiences of this kind yield real knowledge. This is part of the rational basis of religion.

5. The facts discovered through the analysis of poetical experience include:
  • The natural world is not just a physical or material system. Besides its physical features it also has spiritual features.

  • The natural world is meaningful. Nature is not just a meaningless collection of material particles. It has a significance and an importance that go beyond the characteristics of matter alone.

  • The spiritual side of reality includes a supreme spiritual reality. Eastern thought calls this by names like "Tao" or "Brahman." Western thought usually calls it "God" - though it is not like the simplistic god image that some believers hold. This supreme spiritual reality is what philosophers call a perfect being. It does not have to be a supernatural creator to be real - so it can exist whether or not there is a supernatural creator.

  • The supreme spiritual reality has a kind of oneness with objects, events and persons in the natural world. In a sense, the supreme spiritual reality encompasses the entire natural universe - though this does not reduce by one bit the reality, individuality, and importance of persons.

  • People are not just their bodies. They also have other features that are not obvious to the senses acting alone. These features make up what could be called a soul. The soul is not a ghostlike supernatural substance as some people believe. Instead, the soul is an abstract entity (see point 2 above). It might be possible for a soul of this kind to exist after the dissolution of the body, either through a new body or in some other way.
These beliefs are among the rational truths behind the popular beliefs in a spiritual world, God, and the human soul.

6. Religions are partly expressions of humanity's poetical experiences. Opponents of religion have thought of many possible sources of religious belief, including human gullibility and other mistakes and quirks of the human mind. Besides these sinister and irrational sources, religion also has a valid and rational source: poetical experience. Religions arise, not because people are gullible, but for a better reason: people have poetical experiences and try to explain these experiences to themselves. This results in myths and legends that reflect the poetical experiences in an artistic, imaginative way. Usually these stories are not literally true, but that does not lessen the truth of the experiences behind them.

Religions are like poems. They can reveal great truths if understood poetically and symbolically - but if we understand them in a literal way, we will arrive at some wrong beliefs. This fact does not detract one bit from the real truth of religion, which is mostly poetical and symbolic.


These ideas are explained more thoroughly in the writings on this website. A good starting point is my blog called Religion: the Next Version. That blog contains the basic ideas of my view of religion, laid out in detail and with links to other materials that explain the ideas further.

Page updated 9/3/2012.


Copyright 2012 Mark F. Sharlow. Legal/privacy.