It troubles me when people applaud the decline and fall of the religious sense in humanity. People read how Europe is more secular than ever, Britain is more and more a nation of unbelievers, and that religion in America is in decline. Then, like cheerleaders on the sideline of a football game, they applaud this condition as if it’s something moving humanity toward enlightenment. I’m not bothered by this because I want everyone to worship and pray as I do, I’m bothered because people are taking great joy in the loss of something very near, dear, and important about human living. It isn’t necessarily religion itself that human beings require, but there’s an aspect of it that’s certainly very important for healthy human living. That very core aspect is the fact human beings are transcendent creatures who constantly need to make meaning and find purpose in what they do. Religion is one mechanism that provides this sense of meaning and purpose. There aren’t too many others, at least none that are as explicit.
Anthropologists have noted that every culture they’ve ever encountered has a religion (Or religions) associated with it. It doesn’t matter how remote the location of the culture, people in these cultures have a religion or practice some form of spirituality. This speaks volumes to the human need for transcendence, in particular transcendent values. In a PBS documentary about what is commonly called “The Nones” (i.e. people who don’t have any formal association with organized religion) you can sense this need for transcendence in what many of them say while being interviewed. For example, one of the participants said this about his need to be grateful for what he has:
“Every day my girlfriend and I sit down to dinner. I am insistent that we say a grace, and that grace is not necessarily a religious grace. It’s just a moment that we can both sit there and reflect on how lucky we are.”
Something inside this young man compels him to be thankful for a life that transcends his everyday experiences. He talks about meditating, a higher power, and a multitude of other transcendent needs he has as a human being throughout the interview. Interestingly, a branch of psychology called “Positive Psychology” recognizes how practicing gratefulness, as well as a myriad of other transcendent values such as forgiveness, charity, and the other items he mentioned, helps people flourish and is something people need to function in a healthy well-adjusted way. The scientific findings in positive psychology speak profoundly to the human need for transcendence. It isn’t just people who believe in a spiritual nature that feel this need for transcendence, a number of atheists who call themselves “Spiritual Atheists” believe in some transcendent quality of the universe as well. Take the following quote that comes from “The Center for Spiritual Atheism”:
“For Spiritual Atheists, being “spiritual” means (at the very least) to nurture thoughts, words, and actions that are in harmony with the idea that the entire universe is, in some way, connected; even if only by the mysterious flow of cause and effect at every scale.”
The above statement reflects the human heart crying out to find transcendence in the midst of a completely materialistic worldview. People aren’t comfortable existing in a world where there’s nothing transcendent (or as those of us who are more traditional might say, spiritual) about it. Those who adamantly state there’s nothing more than a material world rarely live that way. After all, do you believe you’re only attracted to your spouse because he or she provides the best genetic makeup for you to propagate a more perfect offspring? Do you believe the only reason you care for your children is because you’ve been biologically determined to help your genetics progress into the next generation? Does love exist in a world like this? Nobody lives like any of this is true, not even the most profound atheist. Without transcendence there’s no sense of justice for the least among us, no reason for helping other people unrelated to us, and there would be no real need for hope, charity, meaning, and purpose. The key point is no one lives like that, we all believe in some level of transcendence which is a key part of what religion and spirituality provide when taught and practiced in a healthy way. The United States of America states in the Declaration of Independence, the document justifying our separation from another sovereign nation, that:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
If we have no sense of transcendence, then none of this is true or even matters. People need transcendence. It’s the stuff meaning and purpose are made from. Victor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist who survived the Nazi Prison Camps came through that experience with the belief that human beings must exercise the transcendent experience of meaning making or else they die in despair. Even in the worst of conditions, those who could transcend the experience and find meaning in their suffering survived; those who couldn’t, died. Frankl sums up this idea in the following way:
“I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system. I have termed this constitutive characteristic “the self transcendence of human existence.” It denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself -be it meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself – by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love – the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.”
I hope we will no longer cheer the loss of religion, spirituality, or faith in our fellow human beings because the sad fact is so few of them are filling that place with anything other than food, drugs, booze, video games, distractions, etc. Virtues that transcend our human experience are what make us human. The spiritual life is that part of being human that allows us to transcend being mere animals. If we are anything less than human beings with transcendent natures we are only evolved animals and that my friends is what allows us to treat one another in the most horrific of ways. You don’t have to be the same religion as me, but please adopt the transcendent values that lift the human condition above the sludge of materialism so we may see the dignity each of us carries within.