Superficial Spirituality In America
by Arman Musaji
As I listened to the recent remarks by Pat Robertson in which he blamed Haiti’s tragic earthquake on their “godlessness” and “pact with the devil” I wondered how this man could be so cold as to use such an event for his own socio-political ends, and how anyone in their right mind could buy into such hateful superstitious nonsense. Soon after that, I read an article on what the “God Hates Fags” people were up to and wondered how many people there could really be in America who are primitive enough to agree with such hateful activities. I have also noticed a sudden increase in “facebook-post preaching” which takes the form of statements such as “Everyone should accept Jesus because it’s the American way”. As something of a trend spotter by trade, I can see correlations coming into focus. On the way home from night school recently I saw a (fairly common) bumper sticker on a drunken man’s swerving truck which thoughtfully warned me, “In case of rapture this vehicle will be unmanned”. Ironically the rapture would have been safer than his drunken driving. I deeply enjoy conversing with people about their spirituality and/or religious affiliations, but I must limit such conversations to close friends, family, and a small group of educated and uncharacteristically open-minded acquaintances. To do otherwise might inadvertently instigate violence. In a recent lunchroom conversation with a coworker who I knew to be an Atheist, I was shocked to discover he sent his kids to church and Sunday school. When I asked him to explain the logic behind this contradiction he said, “I want my kids to have the sense of community I had growing up, and to be around other kids from healthy families. Someday when they’re old enough I will explain to them that it’s all bullshit.” In philosophical discussions with random people the conversation deteriorates faster than an anonymous online debate over abortion. From those civil discussions I do have I can estimate that the average person typically “believes” in the religion their parents pass on to them as a default setting, and that’s the end of it. This means they celebrate a specific gift-holiday, most commonly Christmas, and typically regurgitate the fact that they believe in God, and usually Jesus. If they are really religious they may have a special hatred reserved for some specific demographic, and if they’ve gone the extra mile, they have a single memorized verse from their holy book, which they assume can be applied to any situation they might find themselves in. That is the extent of their “spirituality”, a subconscious statement of us versus them. Aside from that, life is about bringing home a paycheck, buying things, watching TV, drinking beer, and worrying about how to get a better paycheck to buy more things and better TVs and beer. Maybe it’s just a Midwest thing, but I feel like I am witnessing a chain of telling occurrences that confirm long held suspicions that the average “religulous” American has lost touch with what it means to be religious, let alone spiritual. I am not against religious people as a rule, and especially not against spiritual people, but what I see around me cannot be considered either. At best religious affiliation has become a mere cosmetic symbol, a bumper sticker, an aesthetic decision, or a trophy on the shelf. At worst it has become a gang sign.
There was a time in long ago when it was considered to be of paramount importance for an individual to develop a sense of their unique philosophical place in the world. This wasn’t a vague, vestigial concept inherited from parents, it was a true developmental process. This process has seen many renaissances and dark ages, or evolutionary leaps and setbacks as I see it. Spiritual development as it can also be called, has historically been approached in a variety of successful ways. A few such examples are introspection, philosophical debate, meditation, asceticism, shamanism, mind-altering substances, dangerous trials, seeking knowledge, and yes, even organized religion. Unfortunately the spiritual journey is something of a lost art, especially in contemporary American culture. Perhaps this is because it is a difficult process, it can be painful and frightening, it requires types of courage most of us are no longer encouraged or willing to cultivate, and it can’t be summed up in a TV commercial or even a full length infomercial for that matter! Worst of all, true philosophical growth dissolves an individual’s reliance on rigid social structures and institutions for personal answers. Of course, these social structures have counter-evolved to defend against the dangers of such spiritual independence. This is why contemporary pop-spiritual teachers and preachers offer “fast-food, question-free spirituality”, and strategically associate the skeptical and rebellious among us with archetypes such as “Lucifer”, who in the eyes of the dominant Abrahamic perspectives was the first true rebel, and incidentally the creator of rock music.
Real spiritual teachers don’t give you easy answers. They give you hard questions. Spiritual and philosophical truth isn’t given to us in sound bites from camera friendly personalities, or from the chanted slogans of mobs. It isn’t even given to us. It doesn’t physically shield us from the dangers of the world, nor does it guarantee us a palace filled with unicorns and maidens in a magical realm after death. Furthermore, any rational mind can see that to be motivated to do “good” for the gains of protection from “evil”, retribution from God, or for personal gain in an afterlife is nothing but glorified fear and greed. True spiritual growth is earned through earnest questioning of everything, and the relentless pursuit of truth on an individual level. It requires constant personal evolution, and inevitably leads to constant paradigm shifts as opposed to reliance on (or worship of) fixed systems. If a supposed religious or spiritual teacher doesn’t exhibit signs of compassion, peacefulness, mercy, humility, and tolerance towards others, especially those with different beliefs, that should be a giant red flag that they are not what they claim to be.
As you might have already guessed, I am an agnostic (not to be confused with atheist). My personal holy trinity consists of something like logic, philosophy, and the pursuit of truth. I put faith in the principles of science before anything else to supply knowledge, but I am also aware that one can never know ANYTHING for certain. It might surprise you to know that I place great importance on myths and legends, as they give us effective roadmaps of previous human experience, and it may not surprise you to know that I see all religious stories as incredibly widespread myths and legends. I wasn’t born with this belief system, I worked my way towards it by applying reason to the superficially contradictory spiritual messages in the world around me. And I have no doubt my beliefs will continue to evolve until the day I die. I don’t claim to have all the answers, and I don’t believe any human ever has. It is the questioning that leads us to wondrous new places, but never to an end. Beware of those who claim to have the answers, they are either tragically misguided or cunningly manipulative, or both. They are also everywhere nowadays, and more and more Americans are getting suckered in by their fast-food brand of superficial spirituality.