Otherworldliness and futile escapism
Posted by robertpriddy on January 7, 2010
In the uncertain world of birth, life, change and death, there are age-long traditions of many kinds that try to prepare those who aspire to it for greater understanding and realization of their own potentialities. In many cultures these traditions have become tied up with the belief in higher beings – whether spirits of the departed and ancestors, deities supposed to control the various vagaries of nature, transcendent gods and universal divinity or imagined supreme consciousness.
It is almost unavoidable that a person – even if not brought up to some religious faith and even well-educated in the relevant sciences – will sooner or later become interested in these so-called spiritual questions and traditions. A large proportion of them will join religious or spiritual communities, possible come to believe in what they promise and so possibly strive to practise their teachings, from prayer to sacrifice, and not least to try to improve others in recruiting them. The unanswered questions which beset all thinking persons seem to be important, especially where they impinge on one’s own sense of well-being and self-trust, that most people are vulnerable to some ‘otherworldly’ beliefs and doctrines. Many seek a sense of existential security in a belief system which answers all troubling aspects of life and promises much… and the there are many forces which work towards them taking for granted the validity of age-old beliefs and practices. For example, prayer – which has never been shown to have any effect one can register by any serious means of investigation, other than giving some (temporary) relief to those who resort to it.
Through a long life (so far) I have become increasingly aware that spiritual advancement has nothing to do with any beliefs in divine figures, let alone in scriptures or other non-worldly ‘spiritual teachings’, whether inherited from parents or arbitrarily imposed by religious worldly ‘authorities’. Spiritual advancement must be, according to my conviction, entirely a product of the natural human spirit – for no help comes from any heavenly being. Nor does miraculous help come from gurus or supposed ‘spiritual masters’. The latter may be able to point out a viable way to what one seeks, but none of them can undertake the journey on ones behalf. First and last, all advancement of one’s understanding depends on oneself and comes about through one’s way of life and one’s actions.
The history of humanity emphasizes how faith in deities, invisible entities and powers or whatever can mislead people into the most bizarre of experiences and not seldom bring about the most severe consequences imaginable in terms of suffering, violence, wars, genocide, torture and debasement of the human spirit. Yet worse the possible consequences of divine retribution, constant rebirth as animals of prey, immersion in eternal hell fires (as the current and misnamed Pope Benedict believe and preaches!) and just about any perversion of goodness the human mind could invent and attribute to the supposed ‘Divine Creator’. Putting ones trust in an unworthy person usually leads to disillusionment, putting one’s faith in religious teachings and spiritual leaders is also a serious gamble where the stakes can be high indeed.
All such speculations depend on some degree of belief in an otherworldly realm, whether heavenly, hellish or both. For the aspirant to some level of imagined holiness, everything depends on other world and invisible spirits whose (often contradictory) demands one must take great heed above all else. No lively young soul can accept the need for ignoring the world they have not even explored? The supposedly ‘spiritual’ teaching that the world is unreal and only God etc. is real is hardly a very promising prospect for healthy young persons with a lifetime before them. It turns existence into becomes a ‘life sentence’, and there remains little else but to hope like hell there will be no rebirth, no ‘next time round’! How can anyone setting out to live and make a living in the competitive and tough world, or to care for fellow human beings and the fate of the earth, possibly ‘understand’ that sort of vision.
It may or may not be true that, in the long run, only goodness will eventually bring rewards. Yet one cannot know since even human goodness is an immeasurable quantity and an untestable hypothesis. let alone assumed invisible ‘divine’ goodness. This does not mean that respect and care for all beings (i.e. ‘love’) will not eventually prevail. It may well do so if humanity succeeds in ensuring a future civilization which embodies fairness and care for all people. But that this can only probably occur because God supposedly ordains it – and can probably only provide it in some doubtful nether world – is a belief that stretches credibility beyond all reasonable limits. Yet there are believers in it! Still, It is just about guaranteed that most youth of this world will be skeptical and will come to reject that such matters are determined by an incorporeal spirit or any such doubtful and totally unproven entity. it. Young people can easily come to appreciate these values, if only ideals are not inculcated as immutable divine truths without any discussion or examination of alternative ways of explaining their human necessity. If they are not misled by the accumulated negative experience of older generations and by too many poor examples around them, they can develop their experience according to ideals which are understandable as precepts in daily life, in the making of laws and the determination of human rights and duties.
Religious conviction: an essential element or a palliative and an escape?
It is often claimed by religionists that modern thinkers do not see how their own worst suffering is spiritual drought or indifference, that they are living without any awareness of divinity and promoting atheism or, at best, agnosticism. Those who are, or who have become, believers in one or another religion or Deity think they have the answer to modern problems. It is neglect of God and divine commandments. Without education that includes religious orientation, they argue, youth will be fascinated by all the baubles and bangles of material life. They need to learn detachment from undue sensuality, materialism and the worldly ambitions related to it. One claims that this denial of religion or divinity is what lies at the root of “modern man’s sense of anxiety, meaninglessness and despair”. However, these ills were never confined to ‘modern man’, they have existed as far back as records go. The underlying idea in speaking of ‘modern man’ here is to imply that the outspoken skepticism about religion which spread at the time of Nietzsche (but not without diverse ancient predecessors) is the chief cause of modern ills… that one became able then publicly to maintain atheism or agnosticism without societal punishment. One is tempted ironically to exclaim ‘Thank God!’
Religions exhort people to change themselves as individuals, as if world peace and prosperity depended on that. However, for many centuries religions have not succeeded in effecting such a change in the world situation. The advance of civilized values embodied in laws and institutions are demonstrably far more effective in solving these and other such problems. The concept of sin as an individual failing being at the root of all evil – which marks most religious doctrines in one way or another – is evidently quite untenable and hence ineffective as a moral preaching. As President Obama said in his Nobel Speech in 2009 in Oslo: “Concretely, we must direct our effort to the task that President Kennedy called for long ago. “Let us focus,” he said, “on a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions.”