Secular Religion: Non-Supernatural Spirituality (David Miller)

  (14 February 12)

Secular Religion: Non-Supernatural Spirituality


By David Miller




I have been making an attempt to think through the ways in which humanity has used the concepts of ‘religion’, ‘spirituality’, ‘God’ and ‘the gods’. My terminology might be described as nontheistic. Personally, I prefer to label it ‘non-supernaturalist’ or, more simply, ‘naturalistic’.


In non-supernaturalist terms, spirituality is merely another name for the human spirit. Our ‘greatest principles’, the positive aspect of the human spirit, are symbolised by God and the gods. There has often been discussion on whether we are secular people rather than religious people. The problem, it seems to me, is that we tend to conflate ‘religion’ and the ‘supernatural’. Such confusion is normal within our everyday language. The two words have almost become synonymous. I suggest that we begin the attempt to be more precise. Even if our attempts lead us in different directions, it will at least be illuminating.


Admittedly, historically, the gods have usually been portrayed as possessing supernatural powers. Yet God and the gods are merely symbols for our ‘greatest principles’. These symbols are metaphorical personifications with supernatural powers added on. However, if we remove those powers, there need then be nothing supernatural in this usage. Does that surprise you? Let us take an example. Both theists and atheists occasionally refer to ‘Mother Nature’ as a symbol for nature. Mother Nature is a metaphorical personification of nature. There is no supernaturalism implied in this. She is not treated as a god. Personification is not deification.


How would we go about turning Mother Nature into a god? We would have to give her supernatural powers. For example, we could say that she created nature. That would be sufficient to deify her. However, that would immediately be seen as somewhat erroneous. Mother Nature is merely a symbol for nature. Nature is the reality, Mother Nature the symbol. How can the symbol create the very reality that the symbol symbolizes? It is a category mistake. Yet when we use the generalized symbol ‘God’, our cultural conditioning blinds us to such errors of category confusion as are contained in the commonly heard claim that, “God created everything”.


Religions have been contaminated by this association with the supernatural for thousands of years. Hence the common usage we usually find in our dictionaries. That is, unless you find one, like the Macquarie, that includes within its list of definitions – “the quest for the values of the ideal life”.


I am claiming that religion is, at base, the worship of our ‘greatest principles’. In an attempt to remove the supernaturalist baggage we could, instead, say that religion is the ‘revering’ of our greatest principles. Or - better still – religion is the means we utilize to ‘venerate’ our greatest principles. Put the other way round: if we wish to venerate our greatest principles, we find (or invent) an appropriate religion with which to do so. Science, for example, is utilized by many people as their means of venerating truth.


What ought to constitute a religion? Let us begin to look at some of the requirements: First, as already mentioned, is the reverence and veneration of our greatest principles.


Second is the apprehension and realization of our greatest principles; in simpler words, getting to know and understand them.


Third is the manifestation and actualization of our greatest principles; in simpler words, bringing them into being in our world, both in ourselves as well as in others.


So, if our greatest principles involve no supernatural elements, then our means of venerating them, our religions, need no supernatural methods either. “But what are these greatest principles?” I hear you asking. I will respond by listing the wide-ranging variety of answers humankind has given to that question:


1.    Our highest values - e.g. Goodness, truth, beauty.

2.    Our loftiest ideals – e.g. Love, compassion, mercy, perfection, justice, freedom, creativity, etc.

3.  Our peak experiences – e.g. Wonder, awe, mystery, gratitude, uniqueness, oneness, interconnectedness, etc.

4.    Our areas of ultimate concern – e.g. Self, family, community, nation, humanity, nature, planet, universe, etc.


As you can see, all of the four categories are completely natural. There is nothing supernatural about any of them.


Some people prefer to symbolize their particular set of principles in the form of a metaphorical personification. Unfortunately, most people throughout history have given supernatural powers to these symbols. Nevertheless, it is possible to hold principles without personifying them, as well as holding personifications without deifying them.


So I hope that I have begun to show that there is a sense in which I can refute the claim that we are all secular and not necessarily religious. In my terms, we are both secular and religious. We all find the means to venerate our greatest principles.


The Gods of the ‘Abrahamic’ religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) are merely metaphorical personifications of our greatest principles. Each religion’s God symbolises a slightly different constellation of values, ideals, experiences and concerns. The same applies to the denominations within each of the religions.


If, however, we were to deal with the issue from a polytheistic perspective rather than monotheistic, then each particular principle could be symbolized by its own god. It might then be necessary to construct models (pantheons) within which to explain the relationships between these gods.


However, we must take into account all our values, all our ideals, all our experiences and all our concerns. Even low values, mundane ideals, devastating experiences and base concerns, as well as vile impulses and crass desires, etc.


Within the Abrahamic religions, most of the latter are labelled as ‘Demonic’. These religions use the Demonic as a metaphorical personification of humanity’s negative aspects. Eastern religions, on the other hand, often stress the interconnectedness, rather than the opposition, between humanity’s positive and negative aspects.


Let me introduce you to a more extreme version of this explanatory model, one in which I have labelled the greatest principles themselves as the ‘gods’. In this model the ‘gods’ do not need to be symbolised. Nor do they have supernatural powers. They are natural. They are simply there.


In my view, it is this latter model that St. Paul was utilising when he said (referring to the enemies of the Cross of Christ - Phillipians 3.19), “...their god is the stomach”. Admittedly, we do not know whether St. Paul meant ‘stomach’ as Epicureanism (an ideal), Gluttony (crass desire) or hunger (base concern).


I like this ‘Pauline’ version. It allows me to say such things as, “You are in the grip of the gods. They’ve got you in their grasp. You’ve got ‘gods’, whether you like it or not.”


And this applies to non-believers just as much as it does to believers.


So let us ask, within this latter model, how do I define a ‘god’? For example, how can a value be a ‘god’? How can an abstract entity be a ‘god’?


My answer:- It is when you place the value above and beyond yourself. It is ‘out there’. You give it allegiance. You serve it. You are subservient to it. It is your lord and master. You are its slave. If necessary, you are prepared to die for it. You will even kill for it. In return it gives you meaning and purpose. It gives you something with which to identify. It takes you ‘out of yourself’, ‘beyond yourself’, ‘to a greater purpose’. And, in this naturalistic non-supernatural sense, it is your ‘god’.





Have you found any sources in support of your ideas? I am constantly looking for traditional sources for a non-supernatural spirituality. I call it non-mystical spirituality. I have found great ideas in the works of New England Transcendentalists, Thoreau and Emerson.

Posted by David

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