Materialism and Hard and Soft Spiritualities

Christian Smith has done some interesting sociological research on religious beliefs of young adults. His books Souls in Transition and Soul Searching paint a picture of the religious assumptions of youth in American across the religious landscape. It was in Soul Searching that I first came across his term Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism or MTD.  It’s 5 governing beliefs are these:

1. A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over life on earth.
2. God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God is not involved in my life except when I need God to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die. (– Kindle location 267-276).

If find broad consensus among most of the people I know around these, even atheists if you can redact God from this picture.

“Spirituality is about life, religions should be to the side”

Religion is fine. But for most emerging adults, it just doesn’t matter that much. It is not that there is anything bad about religion, in most cases. If it isn’t causing violence or getting too extreme in its beliefs, then religion is probably a pretty good thing. But for very many emerging adults, religion is mostly a matter of indifference. Once one has gotten belief in God figured out, they think, and perhaps feels confident about going to heaven—if there is a heaven— there is really not that much more to think about or pay attention to. In this way, religion has a status on the relevance structures or priority lists of most emerging adults that is similar to, say, the oil refinery industry. Of course, people know it is there, and it is important in some removed or distant way. Most people are glad someone is out there taking care of that business. But you really don’t have to think much about it or personally get involved in it, unless it happens to be an individual interest. Religion for the most part is just something in the background.

Smith, Christian; Snell, Patricia (2009-08-10). Souls in Transition : The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (Kindle Locations 2958-2965). Oxford University Press, USA. Kindle Edition.

Different religions claim to be unique and do in fact emphasize distinctive ideas and rituals. But ultimately, most emerging adults say, all religions actually share the same core principles, at least those that are important. All religions teach belief in God and the need to be a good person. These things are what really matters. At heart, in this way all religions are essentially the same, the majority of emerging adults claim, because all religions share the same basic beliefs and values. Therefore, anybody who follows any particular religion is ultimately just like any other religious person following any other religion. People can choose different faiths for themselves, but underneath the different faiths are about the same things. They only differ in their outward appearances and emphases. So common is this view that it is hard to choose among the host of statements that illustrate it. One respondent said, “I think religions all go to the same path, you know I think it’s all religions are a way of how to live your life and they all kinda lead to the same goal—that’s how I believe in it.”

Smith, Christian; Snell, Patricia (2009-08-10). Souls in Transition : The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (Kindle Locations 2972-2979). Oxford University Press, USA. Kindle Edition.

Specific religious terms, practices, and beliefs then become socially and communally awkward, causing conflict, resentment, and misunderstanding. Keeping things generic “spirituality”, “faith”, acts as a sort of social lubricant to allow people to be “spiritual” or even “religious” without it causing friction.

Secularism Accelerates Movement from Religion To “Spirituality”

Secularism makes all religious assertion into things indifferent.

It can be pretty hard for some emerging adults to believe religious teachings sometimes because there’s no “proof” for them. Science, experiments, research, and people’s own personal observations provide solid evidence, most emerging adults think, that certain things in reality are proven, are positive and reliable. Everyone should believe those things. But religion is not like that. It requires what some emerging adults call “blind faith.” People ultimately either just believe it or don’t. For some emerging adults, that’s fine. Religion does valuable things that science cannot, and so it is okay to trust blind faith. What else does anyone have to rely on when it comes to certain kinds of matters in life? Besides, that is how they were raised, and no other rival belief system is particularly appealing anyway. But for other emerging adults, blind faith just isn’t good enough. For them, if you don’t have real evidence for religion, then it’s far-fetched, there’s no good reason to believe it. Thus, explaining why so many people view religion and science as conflicting, one respondent observed, “I mean there is proven fact and then there is what’s written in the Bible—and they don’t match up. So it’s kind of whatever you wanna believe: there’s fact and there’s a book, and some people just don’t wanna believe the truth.” One atheist explained his disbelief in God on this basis: “I would just say [I believe in] more like a scientific approach, and that’s all the evidence I would believe.” Another skeptical respondent said, “I’m pretty sure there’s no afterlife. I can’t be completely sure, but modern neuroscience and philosophical arguments have made me very skeptical about any sort of afterlife.”

Smith, Christian; Snell, Patricia (2009-08-10). Souls in Transition : The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (Kindle Locations 3255-3267). Oxford University Press, USA. Kindle Edition.

Emerging adults (as well as the rest of the adults) have picked up the cues. We simply assume a number of things.

  • Science is the arbiter of public truth. Religions beliefs are to be tolerated but remain private for the sake of public peace. (Check out Nick Wolterstorff and Miroslav Volf discussing whether or not this really works.) 
  • “Spirituality” is a broader market place where what was formerly considered to be “religious” ideas, practices and values can be exchanged, modified, adapted, embraced. Cosmopolitan relativism and secularism combine lubricate the exchange.

Rising Doubts and Brain Science

Recently a number of social surveys have shown a rapid increase of both doubt in belief in God and religious beliefs as well as outright denial.

“Hard spirituality” I’ll define as a belief that the material universe is derived from an immaterial source. This could include the Abrahamic faiths where there is a personal god and the Hindu family of faiths that view the universe in a more pantheistic way. This can also include moralistic, therapeutic deism and other deistic notions. All of these groups assert that there is a god or some sort of transcendent immaterial power or powers that caused the universe to become and are in some ways still connected to it or even in control of it. This has been the majority position of human beings in human history.

Evolutionary psychology has been attempting to account for human behavior by strictly materialistic means. Discovering material sources for religious behaviors and beliefs have been a priority for this group.

If evolutionary biology could provide a materialistic narrative for the development of our physical bodies and undermine historical origins narratives, will evolutionary psychology in accounting for our mental, emotional and religious beliefs and behaviors similarly undermine religious accounts for our experience of self in every day life? These are the questions being raised.

If materialistic origins for human behavior, including religious behavior are found to be compelling, then all spiritualities will quickly become “soft spirituality”, something explainable, even practical for pursuing goals that we might have. Dumbo’s feather, would be a good example of “soft spirituality”, a trick we try to play on ourselves in order to trick of selves in pursuit of a desired outcome. Dumbo is giving a magical feather by his friend the mouse. We know the feather is a trick but as long as Dumbo believes maybe it will work.

Too Smart for Dumbo’s Feather

Soft Spirituality will likely never be maintainable. Either someone is going to migrate towards a harder spirituality, or will simply give up on the project.

Evolutionary psychology has it’s own challenge with spirituality, however. If hard spirituality emerged to near universal status through a process of evolutionary development there must be a survival advantage to those who actually believe in an immaterial source of the universe. Humans who embrace a hard spirituality out multiply, out live, out perform those who do not over the long haul. This idea is not without foundation in social science as ample studies have demonstrated that religious behavior like prayer, meditation, self-denial, and many other religious practices make people healthier, happier, more stable, and more fruitful than their atheist counterparts.

An evangelist for materialism might assert that these things are no longer needed, like an appendix, and that now humanity can climb higher and further without the baggage of religion or hard spirituality.

That of course is a naked assertion, one that the materialist evangelist could be asked to demonstrate or even suggest evidence for.

In most cases, however, the philosophical arguments don’t matter. People believe what they believe or they don’t. Belief is only marginally subject to direct volition. Doubts are corrosive and if one finds evidence from evolutionary psychology compelling (as I do in many cases) one might can’t simply put the genie back in the bottle.

If evolutionary psychology suggests that people who embrace hard spirituality have a distinct competitive advantage, then those who doubt hard spirituality may also have to embrace the conclusion that their position might go the way of the Neanderthal. As Alvin Plantinga noted in his fine book “Where the Conflict Really Lies” if the entire system is fine tuned to yield the outcome of survival rather than truth, we have to face some ironic implications.

Materialistic evolutionary psychologists may see themselves to be the engineer on the Titanic. His privileged information affords him a perspective on the events that most guests cannot have. He may “know” the materialistic truth to the universe, that our spiritualities and religions are simply the outcome of an evolutionary process, yet he must also know that his position (of doubting hard spirituality) has up until this point proven (if it has existed strongly in the past) to be an evolutionary dead end. He may assume that due to his exceptional perspective and intellect he has been able to see through the evolutionary brain distortions, knowing that in fact all we experience (including our experience of self) is illusory, yet being alone with just a select few who will die with this knowledge unless they can mount an evolutionary exception which allows humanity to evolve past hard spirituality. Good luck. Your own science suggests you’re fighting a losing cause.

The Final Solution Against Hard Spirituality

The man too smart for Dumbo’s feather might suggest that his insight into debunking hard spirituality is itself an evolutionary leap beyond where we have been. This idea in fact lies beneath a good amount of neo-atheistic smugness. Their difficulties are there own, however, because in order to pursue it they are going to have to overcome all of humanity that can’t stop believing in hard spirituality. How in fact shall they overcome when the evolutionary brain wiring derived from hundreds of thousands of years of genetic selection has in its absentee wisdom hard wired us to believe?

Will they have more babies? I doubt it. Religious people regularly out re-produce materialists.

Will they go totalitarian on us? They’ll need to seize control but that usually violates the unaccounted for non-violent ethic that many in the west adhere to.

Will they win in the marketplace of ideas? This is clearly their implicit strategy, and perhaps with the evidence for atheistic grown and theistic doubt they might find themselves having more hope. But again they face the irony afforded by their own position. Perhaps they can enjoy an atheistic spring where conditions are such (usually involving affluence and peace) where their ideas can spread and grow.

Humanity’s track record, however, has shown that these interludes have generally been few and far between. When times get bad hard spiritualists tend to out survive materialists because why live if life sucks? Suicide is the final solution for one when material existence is all one has and material existence isn’t offering much of anything nice in the moment. There are good reasons to believe that hard spirituality IS more hardy than it’s opposite and given the fact that the Darwin principle yields survival rather than truth then the forecast for non-spiritualists is grim.

Part 3: Self as a Plausibility Structure for Hard Spirituality

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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2 Responses to Materialism and Hard and Soft Spiritualities

  1. Pingback: The Word “Spiritual” as a vague marketplace of diverse feelings and ideals |

  2. Pingback: Self as a Plausibility Structure for Hard Spirituality |

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