Religion vs Spirituality - Spirituality and Intellectual Honesty, part 5/6

By Thomas Metzinger

photo by David Martin Castan

Religion would now consist in the deliberate cultivation of a delusional system, the standpoint of pure belief, the dogmatic or fideist refusal of an ethics of inner action. By contrast, spirituality would be the epistemic stance focused on the attainment of knowledge. Religion maximizes emotional profit— it stabilizes the feeling of self-esteem, is a source of comfort, and provides the individual with the experience of being part of a larger community, with the sense of security and with pleasant feelings. Spiritual practice aims at direct experience. Religion sacrifices one’s own rationality for the emotional coherence of the self-model. Spirituality dissolves the phenomenal self. Religion, owing to its fundamental structure, is dogmatic and hence intellectually dishonest. Spiritual persons will always be open to rational arguments, for they have no reason to seal themselves off from them. Religions organize and evangelize. Spirituality is something radically individual and typically, it is rather quiet. In this sense, it should now be clear what it means to say that religion is the opposite of spirituality. Do you remember the two epistemological concepts that characterize what I have been calling religion? “Dogmatism” is the thesis that it is legitimate to hold on to a belief just because one already has it—pure tradition, without evidence or good reasons. “Fideism” is the standpoint of pure faith alone. In philosophy, “fideism” is the thesis that it is not only completely legitimate to hold on to a belief in the absence of any evidence or good reasons in its favor, but also when any amount of evidence or number of good reasons speak against it. One immediately recognizes how a lot of what today appears under the guise of “spirituality”, of course, is nothing but religion in this – admittedly simplistic – sense of the term. At the same time, one can sometimes see how even in the large and rigidified religious systems, there are sometimes very small niches or rare cases in which one can recognize careful attempts to feel one’s way back into what I have been saying is the opposite of religion: spirituality.

What about the ethical principle of intellectual honesty as a special case of the spiritual stance? Spirituality is an epistemic stance, the unconditional desire for knowledge, for an existential form of self-knowledge beyond all theory and dogma. Similarly, in science, rational methodology systematically maximizes the acquisition of new knowledge. On the one side, there is the search for direct experience, for instance in systematic meditation practice. On the other side, we find data collection, the principle of strictly data-driven procedure. Here, we have the dissolution of the phenomenal self, there, the ideal of continually and repeatedly letting one’s own theories fail through their contact with reality. On the level of spirituality, the ideal of truthfulness is particularly well developed, and in science, there is the “principle of parsimony”—the continued striving to make the ontological background assumptions made in explaining observable phenomena as weak as possible and to minimize structural assumptions. Spirituality is radically individual and does not evangelize, whereas today’s modern science is a globalized, highly professionally organized enterprise, and one that communicates new insights and research results and hence builds on the systematic dissemination of knowledge, for instance through public media. Still, all of those readers who really know serious and respectable scientists will be able to confirm that these are often truly spiritual people, even though they would never describe themselves as such. Many scientists would even outright deny this claim. Nonetheless, the seriousness and sincerity of the scientist, the radical openness to criticism, and the strictly experience-based search for formal elegance and simplicity are, in their core, essentially the same as the earnestness of spiritual practice….

This is another sense in which intellectual honesty is a special case of spirituality. It developed long before science, but after religion; it is a self-critical practice of epistemic action that is not bound to adaptive delusional systems. This practice includes the stance of the philosophical skeptic. After being accused of blasphemy and of corrupting the youths of Athens, Socrates said in his famous apology before the tribunal of 501 Athenians: I neither know nor think that I know. The philosophical virtue of skepticism is the ability to continually question the possibility of a secure, provable knowledge of truth, and to do so in a productive manner— the opposite of dogmatism. Skeptics are dangerous, because they are incorruptible, both towards themselves and towards others.

extract 5 from Spirituality and Intellectual Honesty (see part 1 of the 6 part series)

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