Why Exactly Do We Need Spirituality?

Love Bigger book cover image.

In response to a post about why we would be wise to be wary of spiritual showoffs, a reader, Matthew commented:

“I’ve been asked recently what I do to look after my spiritual needs. My knee-jerk reaction was to flounder around and justify some of my alone time as a form of meditative practice. If I spend time thinking while I’m running, swimming or even riding my bike to work and enjoying the sounds, sights and smells of the world around me, does that not make me whole? I am a good person, really. Aren’t I? Even if I don’t go to church? And it dawned on me, there’s the issue. Why exactly do we need spirituality? I’m not saying it’s good or bad. (Though our cat and our dog seem pretty ok without it.) I’ve no doubt that many of the constructs built around spirituality are very positive. Community. Charity. Taking time to relax. Appreciating nature…But do we need spirituality to be appreciative?”

I thought Matthew’s comment deserved a proper response, so here’s my attempt at an answer. But by all means, I’d love to crowd-source this one and hear what the rest of you have to say!

My short answer would be that no, we absolutely do not need church or a dedicated sitting meditation practice to be whole or to be a good person who is appreciative.

And yes, the constructs of religion and spirituality that revolve around community, charity, taking time to relax, and appreciating nature are virtuous, universally helpful aspects of religion and spirituality.

But let’s dive a little deeper.

It’s true that the reckonings of the pandemic and the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements have thrown shade on the oppressive and abusive aspects of religion and spirituality. As a larger attempt to answer Matthew’s valid question, I’ve written a whole full length unpublished manuscript Love Bigger: An Exploration of Spirituality Without Spiritual Bypassing that I’ll be releasing to those who enroll in the online weekend workshop I’ll be co-teaching with IFS founder Dick Schwartz- Spirituality Without Bypassing (you can enroll here if you wish.)  But until then, let me take a brief stab at making a case for my yes and my no to Matthew’s question here..

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The no is pretty obvious at this point for most people who have been paying attention. As if we didn’t have enough historical evidence that religion was used to justify human brutality, colonization, genocide, enslavement of innocent people, rape, child sacrifice, and other horrific human rights violations, more recent priest sex scandals and other abuses of power demonstrated by yogi gurus and other spiritual leaders may certainly make us question whether humans wouldn’t be better off without religion and spirituality altogether.

Even for those who identify as “spiritual but not religious,” the chaos of the pandemic revealed how “unspiritual” many “spiritual” New Agers actually are. We tend to generalize and think about those who care about religion or spirituality as those who care about compassion, the heart, service, generosity of spirit, unity, equality, charity, morality, integrity, and other noble values. And yet, the pandemic revealed the self-absorption, integrity breaches, immorality, and narcissism of many so called “spiritual” people and those in some natural medicine and wellness circles.

From the beginning of the pandemic, the Conspirituality podcast helped many of us dismantle New Age cults, wellness grifters, and conspiracy-mad yogis, revealing a lot of muddy bathwater in the realm of religion, spirituality and the New Age.

So in that sense, no, we don’t need spirituality to be a good person. In reality, religion and spirituality are often used to indoctrinate otherwise good people into oppressive or even immoral ways of thinking and behaving, especially when any belief system suggests that some people are special and chosen and matter more than others, while others are shunned, scapegoated, or treated as less than. For example, any religion or spiritual belief system that suggests that racism, sexism, homophobia or transphobia, ableism, socioeconomic oppression, environmental degradation, or any.kind of human rights violation or injustice is acceptable would be better thrown on the trash heap.

There are certainly many kind, good-hearted, generous, noble agnostics and atheists out there who don’t believe in any kind of dogma but behave and live with gracious pro-social, pro-community, pro-nature, noble actions. Do they need religion or spirituality to make them behave in moral, ethical ways that contribute to the community and tend to their own hearts? No, I don’t think they do.

But is there anything we gain from engaging with the sacred in some “spiritual” way? I guess it depends on how you define spirituality. My “yes” to Matthew’s question would come as an inquiry in what nourishes the sacred for each of us, free from dogma, free from belief even.

As I write this, I am in Glastonbury, England, and today is Beltane- or May Day. I’m with my partner Jeff, and we arose before sunrise to join the festivities at Glastonbury Tor, where the Morris dancers jingled their bells and we all held hands, sang, and danced together. Jeff and I don’t know anyone here, but we were welcomed into the community for this day of celebrating the arrival of spring and the pagan fertility rituals of this region’s ancient Celtic culture. I am Celtic by heritage, so if there’s any shamanic nature-based religion or spirituality my ancestors would have belonged to, it would have been this tradition. In that way, some primal part of me resonates with today’s festivities in a way that has made today holy for me, enough so that I made a pilgrimage across the Atlantic to come to Glastonbury for Beltane for the first time this year. This kind of pilgrimage feels much more natural and sacred to me than going to Mecca or Jerusalem or somewhere in Asia- because it celebrates the feminine principle and Earth much more than the world’s major religions do- and I’m not appropriating this Beltane tradition. It is the way of my ancestors, in a way that other shamanic cultures like those of Native Americans or Peru or Bali never will be.

Do we need to make a pilgrimage to a far away sacred site on a mountain top at sunrise or participate in a fire ceremony or process with dragons and dance around a May pole to be good people in the world making a contribution to our communities? Absolutely not. But did it fill out hearts and energize us to celebrate this sacred nature ritual practiced by our ancestors? Did it energetically transfuse us with a bonding to our fellow humans and an appreciation for nature’s bounty and Mother Earth to do so? Hell yeah. For millennia, people have come together to tend to human suffering in different ways by different cultures, to celebrate community, nature, the turning of the seasons, and our connection to the best aspects of us- inside and out.

Sure, there are dark sides to religion and spirituality, and it behooves us not to look away from that darkness or bypass it, but to expose it and bring it to the surface for healing, justice, and reform. Because those dark sides are so dark, some might argue that there’s nothing good we can rescue from it. My partner Jeff and I both grew up fundamentalist. I left the church as soon as I turned 18 and moved away from home, and Jeff went to seminary at Princeton to try to see if anything he was taught in his fundamentalist upbringing was worth keeping. We have both nearly concluded that there is nothing good to be retained from fundamentalism. And yet both of us are still seekers and appreciators of the sacred.

Some people that I know- who are very good, kind, loving people- believe there’s no baby in the bathwater of religion or spirituality.

But I am not one of them. Maybe I’m naive or overly idealistic- and I’m willing to be wrong about this. Maybe some day before I leave this earth I will change my mind. But at least right now, I still believe that our lives are better when we have some kind of connection to the sacred- in community- even if it’s just going out in a nature with our fellow humans to sing and dance and laugh and play and share rituals together, to remember what really matters in life- love, connection, relationships, service, purpose, meaning, compassion, creativity, expression, beauty, and joyful celebrating to balance out the pain of our inevitable human suffering.

Sure, we can do those things alone and tend to ourselves spiritually. But I do think we get something deeper and more nourishing when we move beyond the individual ways of connecting to the sacred and commune with one another, as Jeff and I are doing today with this community of practicing Druids in Glastonbury.

But that’s just my two cents. I’d love to hear yours! Please share what you think about whether we do or do not need a spiritual life. And again, if you wish to dive deeper into this question, feel free to join me and Dick Schwartz June 10 & 11 on Zoom for Spirituality Without Bypassing.

Happy Beltane everyone!