Spiritual But Not Religious

The death of ‘spiritual’ killed by reason.

Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said. “One can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

― Lewis Carroll

Kim is an intelligent well-educated young woman who believes there is a direct relationship between one’s birthday and the cosmos. Simon is an intelligent well-educated young man who ‘knows’ we have a spiritual side and there is a ‘life force’ that binds us.

This should sound familiar as by far the majority of people agree with them or at least don’t totally disagree. Many, if not most people sense that we have a ‘spiritual’ side and hold to the idea there is more than ‘just’ a scientific explanation for the world.

In evolutionary terms, our senses provide us with protection against attack so it hardly comes as a surprise that we regard our senses as extremely important. This does not mean our senses are correct every time.

Most people who claim to feel spirituality, cannot describe more than the symptoms as they occur in themselves. Beyond that, in terms of what it is, the definition or description and of course, a rational explanation of its origin, one just gets a blank look or vague examples of mundane decisions for which ‘spiritualism’ is determined as the cause or guiding ‘force’.

The surprising mechanism of how we form opinions

The question is, why do so many people sense there is more than ‘just’ the physical world? (As if that, in all its incredible scope and diversity were not enough.) Equally, why do so many not share this unsubstantiated sense of its existence?

‘Spiritual but not religious’ was first coined in 2000 by Sven Erlandson. It has become a cliché for people who want to admit that religion and the whole deity thing does not make any rational sense, but just can’t eradicate their childhood indoctrination.

Making the task more difficult is not being aware that the claim by religion of being the source of moral rectitude is entirely misleading if not dishonest. To cap it all, it is hard to accept that each of us will cease to exist permanently. We all hope that there really is a god, a future, but there is not one shred of evidence for it and a massive mountain of evidence to the contrary.

One may summarize spiritualism, as the state of being in mid-battle, in the struggle to break free from childhood myths while clinging to the hope there is life after death.

The most likely explanation for belief in spiritualism is a combination of misunderstanding the principals of rational thinking and recycling the abysmal attempt at logic which says ‘science has not yet fully described everything, therefore there must be a supernatural explanation’.

What level thinker are you?

Everyone uses thinking to determine opinions and facts and it comes in four forms or levels.

The first level is childlike, accepting almost all information as fact and is a necessary part of evolution. (Weird as it sounds, ‘you’ that thinking caring person who is conscious of your existence, did not even come into being until quite some time after your birth, so in that sense, ‘you’ don’t have a birthday.) Those children who accepted everything that adults told them did not jump off cliffs or put their heads in fires or play with leopards. These children are our ancestors and we are hard-wired as children to accept everything we hear as ‘true’.

The second level of thinking comes with developing into adults as we sift out obvious incorrect or misleading facts. A degree of skepticism develops to protect the young adult from exploitation, often in the painful form of experience. Unfortunately, much of the incorrect information, myths, ghosts and other fables learned in the first level persists, often for a life-time, being passed on like a defective gene from generation to generation.

In the grey area between level two and three, fundamentalists, racists, misogynists, xenophobes, conspiracy theorists and the poorly educated are over represented. Level one childhood myths persist strongly here too.

The third level has the broadest range as further development of analytical thinking takes place however it is not formalized, it is somewhat unstructured, non-critical, intrinsically biased and unsupported by peer reviewed evidence. The majority of people do not proceed to the upper edge of level three. People at this level, intuitively think (incorrectly) that belief is a switch, either on or off. One either believes or they do not.

At this level, most also think one can choose to ‘believe’ something. (Of course one can easily say they ‘believe’ and often even convince themselves they ‘believe’ something, no matter how fanciful, if they are convinced it is ‘necessary’)

The fourth level is predominately critical thinking based on hard evidence, used by academics, scientists and well educated non-scientists and these are the seven characteristics, the principles of level four, the rational critical thinker.

  1.   The willingness to reject unsubstantiated claims even if they are personally appealing.
  2.   Checking the methods used and sources of facts
  3.   Checking for accidental or deliberate use of misleading data
  4.   Checking for the researcher’s biases, assumptions and alignment of interests
  5.   Checking for conclusions based on the absence of information
  6.   Understanding that the absence of an explanation does not provide a ‘therefore it must be…’ answer that happens to coincide with your desired outcome.
  7.   Being especially wary of one’s own biases and predisposition

The true critical thinker does not accept the absolute truth in anything except possibly mathematics. Unlike level three thinkers who see belief as either ‘yes’ or ‘no’, the critical thinker rates matters across a range from ‘probably untrue’ through ‘not enough data’ all the way up to ‘almost certainly true’.

In the absence of absolute mathematical certainty, statements are derived opinions and level four thinkers know that opinions have value proportional to the quality of the corroborative facts that support them. Essentially, critical thinking is an unemotional systematic process used to judge the efficacy of a claim.

The primary difference between level three and level four thinkers is understanding the following five principals.

  1.   Accumulated public knowledge can and should be challenged to refine accuracy but claims that totally reject current knowledge, must produce extraordinary proof or they are worthless. (There are countless examples of worthless claims, conspiracy theories and just plain ridiculous claims, that cannot produce extraordinary proof, or in most cases, almost any proof whatsoever.)
  1.   It is not sufficient to say a claim cannot be disproved, all claims must be capable of being disproved or they are worthless. (Exceptions for universal ‘truths’ like human values, morality etc) The onus of proof is on the person making the claim, not on the rest of humanity, the scientific community or other group to disprove a claim.
  1.   If there are two possible explanations for a phenomenon the simpler or more likely explanation is the better one. (Occam’s Razor.)
  1.   Claims of research results must be capable of being duplicated by independent researchers using the same testing procedure. (Who is paying for the research?) If a claim cannot be duplicated repeatedly and provide an avenue for a predictive effect in another field, it should be treated with scepticism.
  1.   The fact that two things are associated no matter how closely does not mean that one causes the other or are the same thing. (A fish swims and a dog swims so a dog must be a fish.) For example, two alarm clocks that activate 5 seconds apart does not support the argument that the second alarm is activated by the first alarm.

Critical thinkers have a great advantage over level two and three thinkers because they are not trapped by the divisive ‘ownership’ problem of an opinion. They know that whatever opinion they currently hold on any given subject, it is ripe for change at the first sniff of new information.

Critical thinkers don’t cling to their opinions because they don’t feel they can guarantee absolute accuracy anyway. In fact, most know that whatever the current version they hold, it will be wrong to some degree. As a result, they are easy to convince otherwise. Just produce some hard evidence and they will not only change immediately, they will probably thank you for improving their knowledge base. (It had better be good though.)

While it might sound easy, anyone can elevate their thinking to the fourth level but it requires a good deal of self-discipline and persistence. No wonder that most of us stay on level 3 for most of our lives.

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