Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Gems from the Forums: The Benefits of Religion and Spirituality?

I’m reproducing below part of a conversation I had on Lashtal earlier this year. My interlocutor’s words are in italics, and mine appear below. The initial question he put to me was whether I think people are “lesser” simply because they “use religion or spirituality or even metaphysics and praeterhuman entities to better their thinking, to help them improve (even in their own minds), or even just to help them cope.”

As I go on to explain, such people are not “lesser” – in fact, the idea of “lesser” is an incoherent concept, especially in the context of Thelema – but the assumption of the question (that “spirituality,” broadly defined, actually does benefit people) needs to be questioned.

You seem to think that just because people use religion or spirituality or even metaphysics and praeterhuman entities to better their thinking, to help them improve (even in their own minds) , or even just to help them cope, that they are somehow lesser than you.
Is this true?

No, it’s not true. I don’t think any person is inherently better or worse than any other person. Each person is unique, and there’s no way to draw ultimate comparisons between entirely unique things. “Better” and “worse” don’t make sense in this context (and incidentally, “equal” and “unequal” also don’t make sense). Consult Liber AL I:3-4 for a further explication of this idea.
Now, an entirely different question is whether I think “religion or spirituality” is something that actually does improve the thinking of people, improve their lives, and help them cope. Obviously, plenty of people think that religion — and I’m using “religion” very broadly here to encompass all spiritual/metaphysical/supernatural beliefs — has had positive effects on their lives, but I’m awfully skeptical that religion’s got much to do with the benefits in most cases.

Take, for example, someone who finds Jesus and then gets themselves off of drugs (feel free to plug in any other spiritual thing for “Jesus” in this example…let’s say someone starts meditating on Lam and then gets themselves off of drugs). A lot of times, these people draw a causal link: “Jesus got me off drugs,” they say. But is that an accurate assessment? I tend to think not. In examples like these, the person in question got himself off of drugs. Maybe he was helped or motivated by a particular psychological crutch (his idea of “Jesus,” in this case), but that’s not to say that an entirely secular, “mundane” approach to self-improvement (shall we call it?) wouldn’t possibly be more effective and less likely to contain drawbacks.
In other cases, I don’t think the “benefits” supposedly gained from religion are actually benefits at all. Take someone who “copes” with death by deluding themselves into thinking that their loved ones are in an afterlife of some kind and that one day they’ll all be reunited. I don’t begrudge people their little fantasies, and certainly I’m not going to go up to people at funerals and start listing the many reasons to think that consciousness ends with death, but I tend to think that in the long run, such fantasies do more harm to people than good. For one thing, they guard people from having to deal with reality on reality’s terms, which trains the mind to be *less* capable of handling reality in the long run. I also think the afterlife fantasies in particular largely devalue this life — which is the one and only life that we know of — and the delusion that a person will one day be reunited with his loved ones might easily lead someone to take other people for granted and become complacent about relationships that exist now.

Essentially, spiritual beliefs are crutches for dealing with actual problems. Crutches can indeed be handy things when you have a busted leg, but the idea is to heal to the point that you don’t need the crutch any more. If “religion” was nothing more than a few psychological crutches people occasionally leaned on privately and then discarded, that would be one thing, but people often fetishize their particular crutch, and these crutches come with a lot of baggage, including promoting credulity and errors in thinking that can — and do — lead to much more dangerous errors in thinking.
I generally do think the world would be a much more pleasant place to live in if people stopped leaning on and fetishizing these spiritual delusions. Any actual “benefits” that come out of them can be accomplished by entirely secular means, just as effectively (or often more effectively). If you disagree with that, I’d be interested in hearing why.


So basically you are viewing spirituality as a crutch.

It’s a crutch in those situations you specifically asked me about: where people think it’s helping them cope or improving them. But more generally, religion is for a lot of people a tradition that they cling to or a series of assumptions that they don’t think very hard about. In a lot of cases, religion itself discourages its adherents from thinking too hard about it. Martin Luther famously decried reason as the enemy of faith; many religions admire “mystery,” doctrines that cannot be grasped by the rational mind; many alternative forms of spirituality prize intuition and suggest that reason is “insufficient” for truly understanding the universe.
And it’s obvious why religions often vilify reason: because religious/spiritual claims do not stand up to serious, honest inquiry.

So I wouldn’t characterize religion merely as a crutch in all situations. I think that it’s also a series of thinking errors that people don’t spend much time critically evaluating (and which they are encouraged not to evaluate with any rigor).


what of the fact that perfectly healthy, rational, well balanced, emotionally happy people, still are spiritual, because it enriches their lives, it makes them happy and they feel that this life is a preparation for a new life? 

In other words, why would these other-wise functional, happy people, need any kind of ‘crutch’ at all?

Well, as I said above, it’s mainly a crutch in those instances you specifically asked me about. Many people, who are quite functional, are “religious” more like a hobby or like a family tradition than anything else. There are lots of reasons that different people are religious, but there are several common threads to most religious belief: there’s no good reason to think that spiritual beliefs are true, spiritual beliefs don’t seem to provide any actual benefits that cannot be achieved through secular means, in many cases the supposed benefits of spiritual beliefs aren’t actually benefits at all, and there are plenty of drawbacks that come along with a lot of forms of spiritual belief.


I don’t really think it’s about death. Myself, I am not afraid to die at all, I know it is just a changing of my clothes so to speak.

Well, no, you don’t know that at all. You think that’s the case, based on insufficient evidence (if the evidence you’ve discussed publicly on these forums is any indication).
I would submit that fear of death is natural in all living creatures and is part of the way that all normal, healthy minds work. People try to assuage these fears and compensate for them in all sorts of ways. My guess — if I had to guess — is that your reincarnation belief is a kind of shield to guard your mind from having to face up to the likely truth that you will cease to exist entirely someday. And I don’t blame you for wanting to avoid facing that fact. But I think if you seriously are of the opinion that you have no fear of death (*because* you think you “know” that reincarnation is true), then you probably have some deep anxieties that would be painful to contemplate. Your beliefs — like a lot of religious beliefs, in my estimation — would seem to be a kind of defense mechanism against those anxieties. In this context, your beliefs/fantasies are an obstacle to self-knowledge.

Actual enlightenment is not the process of feeding those fantasies. Actual enlightenment is the process of breaking those pleasant fantasies down and seeing through them.


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