There is a pretty obvious disparity between being religious and being spiritual. Religion is about following rules; establishing order to an individual and a society. Spirituality is about an experience; about feeling spiritual. Religion says you need to donate to the poor; spirituality causes you to want to do it, and to feel good from it.

Religion has been necessary as a safeguard for society, since spirituality can be difficult to define, learn, experience, and thus near-impossible to ensure with the society otherwise. The difficulty is illustrated in the common ethical/legal idea that while the ideal ethical society wouldn’t need laws like “don’t murder” (because no one would anyways), in the real world we need the law in place because not everyone abides by the same behavioral and social patterns. But spirituality is the paramount purpose of religion, and it has been largely supplanted and suppressed by many religious institutions today.

I don’t see much spirituality in religion anymore, and i think this is fueling the rise in the number of the world’s non-religious. Recently i went to Mecca, the Islamic holy land, and i’ve been amidst the ultra-religious, ultra-Islamic Saudi society, and it has been this experience which brought this subject to mind.

While in Mecca i saw no spirituality.

I will repeat this again, because it bears repetition. I was in the holy center of the world for as many as 1.5 billion human beings, was surrounded by tens of thousands of Muslims on pilgrimage in their most holy place, and i saw no spirituality–I saw only religion. I may not exactly be Muslim by most conservative standards (whether i am or not is up for debate, but through study of the Qur’an i believe that my Omnism and general morality implies that i am), but i am a lover of spiritual experiences and i seek them in all places and times, and i am extremely reverent towards all things sacred.

While circumambulating the Ka’aba there was little sacredness left, highlighted by the absence of love or recognition of others. Everyone cared only of their own pilgrimage, pushing and shoving each other as they walked, many not looking where they were going, many going against the flow of traffic to get up to the Ka’aba or to leave, and always doing so in the rudest of ways. It took every ounce of mental effort to keep track of my aunt, cousin, and grandmother and to not blow up in rage at these people around me. I wasn’t given a chance to sink into a spiritual calm, or to admire the wonder and beauty of the place, or to contemplate the importance and the meaning of the core ideals that Islam embodies. In the bathroom, while washing my feet (only because they were dirty), i was given a stink eye by a guy because i wasn’t doing a full wuDu’, the process of ritual cleansing done by all Muslims before prayer. While i’m very happy to have been given the chance to have gone, i’m very sad not to have seen the loving-kindness that i’ve come to expect from devout Muslims.

Through my time here practicing Islam and studying the Qur’an and learning Arabic and living within this culture, i see such a gaping disparity between the vision of the Qur’an and the common Islam of today. For one example, the Islam of the Qur’an sought peace and brotherhood between it and neighboring religions, and asserts that they will go to heaven too so long as they love God and act righteously (e.g. 2:62). So many Muslims i’ve met here in the Middle East believe that other religions result in hell. For another example, at the end of the group prayer you’re supposed to turn to your right and then to your left, saying As-salaamu-‘alaykum (peace be upon you) each time. While there is a person on either side of you, nobody actually says it to the person sitting next to them; instead they say it quietly while looking at the ground. This practice obviously had the original meaning of establishing brotherhood between Muslims! And at the very least it would have the potential to. But instead it’s treated like a mere rule to follow; in other words: It is religion without spirituality.

The Islam in Saudi and of much of the modern world is the following of rules. I’m sure that many Muslims have profound spiritual experiences today as they used to through the following of these rules, but the spiritual core is lost to the general public. The one branch devoted to spiritual experiences—Sufism—is considered by many Muslims to be a misinterpretation of Islam, if not downright heretical. But the Sufi’s aim is the core lifeblood of the religion as a whole: Constant remembrance and reverence for God in every word, thought, and action you carry out. When you remove the spirituality from the religion, you’re left with a shell of rules and fundamentalist fairy tales. Islam has not lost all of its spirituality, but it’s in a dire state. The peace and calm of prayer has to come out of your head for it to mean anything, and this is what’s most important. Not the number of prostrations i do, the times i pray, the avoidance of pork, or the manner of cleansing myself before i pray.

By now if you’re a Muslim, you’re probably not very happy with what i have to say. If you’re not Muslim you may be saying “I knew it! I knew Islam was false!” Well first of all: No it’s not a false or bad religion. And second, for you Muslims who feel angry at this: I love the Qur’an. I profess that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is a prophet of God.[1] Third, and most importantly:

My experiences with other religions have shown me the same chasm.

Like Gandhi seemed to notice nearly a century ago, i see little of Christ in most Christians today or Christian communities. Chances are, you already are aware of this, reader. Even amongst Christians this is no secret — there are so many sects, factions, and new churches divided over almost every single superficial matter you can imagine — and of course with many sects, the others are considered wrong and un-Christian-like.

In Judaism, the lack of Jewish spirituality is very obvious, and many Jews will be the first to admit that they aren’t religious, or if they are it’s because they want to preserve their ancient culture; and the spiritual ones i’ve met all drew their spirituality from Eastern religions!

And while i choose the label of Buddhist and am most fond of Eastern religion, they too are often in a similar position. So many of the Buddhists i’ve known are more concerned with doing everything in the exact order and exact manner of how it’s written, rather than focusing on the core of the meaning in facilitating spiritual experiences and spiritual-psychological growth and transformation. Many of these fundamentalists will speak highly of dialogue with other religions, but will chastise you as a Buddhist for not adhering to some core Buddhist belief like reincarnation or reliance on the guru—and i say this from personal experience.[2]

So is it really any wonder that people of the modern world are leaving religion in droves?

Atheism, agnosticism, and apathy towards religion is on the up and up across all cultures. Even those who still consider themselves a member of their birth religion very often don’t participate or adhere to it in any significant way. It seems we may not need religion anymore. Do we? To know this we need to examine the role it plays for humans. I’m most fond of Joseph Campbell‘s four functions of mythology as the answer to this: The social (for the organization of society and community and the integration of the individual into it), the cosmic (for explaining the nature and origin of the cosmos and the individual’s place in it), the psychological (helping the individual to grow and overcome obstacles in their psyche), and the transcendent (facilitating spiritual experiences).

The first two are fulfilled by modern global politics, science, and technology, but the last two are lacking. They are what is most needed in the globalizing world, and the chief reason religion is still around at all. But i don’t think we need religion so much anymore, or at least we won’t need it before long. It’s about the spiritual experience now, and that should be approached the way we approach the first two, which is to say, scientifically. We need to compare experiences and practices around those experiences. We need to experiment with spiritual experiences and share them with each other.

I was reading my favorite sacred text recently (which i believe to be the most profound sacred text of any religion or spirituality) called Self-Liberation Through Seeing With Naked Awareness.[3] The point of the text, as i understand it, is to highlight and underscore what the experience of the ultimate Transcendent ideal is at the level of one’s consciousness, and it explains how to go about bringing forth such an experience. It doesn’t make metaphysical claims, and none of its main points are really things that would be considered sacrilege by any religion. The very first thing explained by the text is how there are so many different practices to reach enlightenment, and that each practice holds potential danger to lead one into judging others and falling back into dualism (the transcendence of dualism being the realization of the experience of this Transcendent ideal). The next thing it does is list all the different words that exist naming the Transcendent ideal that we experience, even including that the theists (Tirthikas) call it the “soul” or “Self,” (no small deal for a religion built originally around the denial of the existence of an immortal “Self.”[4]) and then clarifies that they are all pointing to the very same phenomenon.

Why do i bring this up? In my opinion this represents the future of religion and spirituality: The end of the religious institutions involving mere rules and the division between them and the “others” and the flourishing of a subjective, individual-centered recognition of spirituality as one of the human necessities. Spiritual experience is something that is ubiquitous throughout the world. It is experienced in nature as often as it is in temples, and probably in isolation far more often than around others. It comes as an overwhelming peacefulness, clarity, wakefulness, presence, and bliss. It is inarguably positive in-and-of itself, but it is largely ignored by a rapidly globalizing society which doesn’t know how to bring out these experiences in the mind.

The extent of the need for religions is the diversity of needs by humans to raise their consciousness to some kind of a spiritual experience. Some need a congregation, some need a very specific order of actions to do in repetition, many need ritual. The variety of sources for these transcendence “triggers” and “catalysts” will of course be drawn from the diverse, ancient religious traditions that exist today. We already see this happening to some extent with all the completely new sects and religions that keep popping up. But i don’t believe this will save the institutions as they exist in their present form; it will merely preserve the link to the cultural history.

So while institutionalized religion evolved out of spirituality, it is in spirituality that i believe it will meet its death. Modern society has done away with the need for religion, because its needs regarding religions’ functions have changed. We need guidance on the path to spiritual experiences and overcoming our problems as they arrive in life. The latter is aided by the discipline of psychology, but the former has no significant scientific basis as of yet.[5] When the day comes that the spiritual experience at the level of one’s consciousness is approached scientifically and appreciated for what it is, religions as we understand them today will be relegated to mere cultural history.

Jacob Ibrahim Abuhamada

4/24/14

Please share and please comment with your thoughts on the matter!

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  1. These words may mean different things to me than they do to you, but then we’re getting into a discussion of human opinions, and we’ve departed from a discussion of the Word of God.

  2. Granted they are the least, as far as percentages of adherents go, and the fundamentalists are never the monastics or religious leaders, which is very relieving–and of course i’m only speaking in terms of my own personal experience.

  3. It’s actually more considered a chapter or section of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, but it stands alone as a separate entity in both style as well as message in my opinion.

  4. The word used is atman, and the emphasis is obviously leaning towards the Upanishadic tradition. But to me this holds massive import, as the Upanishads are another of my most favorite holy texts, and they are devoted to explaining the union of the atman with Brahman or God. So this one casual line in this text goes on to assert the validity of a theist’s recognition of the Transcendent, or God as another name for the Transcendent as it’s expressed in Buddhism: Emptiness. And of course the core definition of both is that they are transcendent of all possible descriptors. Buddhism does a phenomenal job at analyzing and extrapolating the meaning of this and how it forms the basis for reality itself. For the strongest insight into this, you should read the Mulamadhyamakakarika. But do so with commentary. It’s almost impenetrably complex otherwise.

  5. I’m with B. Alan Wallace when it comes to this. For more on his work on trying to establish a scientific discipline around the exploration of spiritual states of consciousness, click here.