As the age of Enlightenment was and religion once again becomes a political weapon, the world faces a moral dilemma about it’s faith and path to truth. The question has been raised; is there an alternative to the traditional religious moral codes that will allow humans to transcend the current challenges. Humanist spirituality claims to be a viable alternative to religion in the twenty first century and this essay will discuss why this is true. ‘Spirituality’, here is defined as a quest to get closer to nature, find the spirit within, reach ones highest potential (Swinburne 2015) and find enlightenment which often involves transcendence (Holmes, Hughes & Julian 2015). By giving meaning to spirituality through an ethical and humanist view we see ‘meaning’ as the relationship between two sorts of things; signs and what they signify. All religions, according to Durkheim (1858-1917) have two basic qualities which define them as a religion; belief and rites, which consist of “states of opinion” and “determined modes of action”. (Durkheim, 1912 p 137) These are further classified into the ‘sacred’ which is venerated and the ‘profane’ which is everything else. He also believed he found the Sociological evidence for religion in totemism (Durkheim, 1912 p 231) when studying the Australian Aboriginal religion. He found that almost everything among the aboriginals is sacred to some degree, yet despite this he refused to consider that many totemists might actually experience the world as inherently sacred. It was actually crucial to Durkheim’s theory that they did not. Durkheim states that from his observation of religion anything can be sacred, a rock, tree, word, plant, animal or idea, however he also states that “neither man nor nature is inherently sacred”. He goes on to define religion as a “society whose members are united by the fact that they think in the same way in regard to the sacred world and it’s relations with the profane world”, this commonality and practices is what’s known as a ‘church’. He says that throughout history we do not find a single religion without a church (Durkheim, 1912 pp140). Despite Durkheim’s explanation of sacred and profane, religion has a number of fundamental flaws which humanist spirituality claims it can resolve.
Throughout history we have seen that art, music, and society was based around religious beliefs. As the beliefs changed or branched off society changed and the creative arts found new form. Modern technology, science and archeological evidence has destroyed much of the old ways with empirical proof that much of what was believed is untrue. When the church was ‘defeated’ per say by this scientific and rational thought, secular humanism was seeded as a fundamental pathway to truth (Swinburne 2015). World views have therefore seen a subtle yet noticeable shift away from the religious institutions to the new form of spiritualism which allows for unrestricted faith, direct connection to source and a blending of beliefs without condemnation from a “Church”. The reasons people are leaving faith based institutions, (which Durkheim states as needing community or a “Church” in which to exist ) in favour of spirituality are five fold. Firstly Religions have an ‘us and them’ mentality, where ‘their’ sacred beliefs and rituals are the correct ones and others are wrong therefore if we are to believe the Torah, Koran and Bible, killing the ‘other’ is ok (Tremblay 2010, p 25). Secondly that Humans are the Masters of the Universe and the earth was created for them. Thus creating a divide between animals, nature, the cosmos and man. (Tremblay 2010, p 25) Thirdly there is a moral dichotomy between the accepted morality of the people and that of the government and leaders, which is one of the main reasons for the number of conflicts on the planet today (Tremblay 2010, pp 25-26). A fourth defect in religious teachings is the concept of hell and the intimidation of non believers by religious authorities. This is immoral as it condemns two-thirds of the population to exclusion, persecution and even genocide. (Tremblay 2010, p 26) The final weakness that spirituality trumps religion, is the religious stance that the human mind and body are separate, and that in order to speak to God we need an intermediary such as a priest or Sharman type person, who themselves have gone through a ritualist process to elevate them into the realm of sacred.
Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955) suggested that “A man’s ethical behaviour should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary” (Tremblay 2010, pp 23). Ethics deals with morality; how moral judgement and moral behaviour are practiced and a code of ethics specifies this in detail. Humans intuitively have a moral code which is separate from any god or supernatural existence (Tremblay 2010, pp 28). The pages of history however, are full of religious tyranny, conflict and wars, with many religions giving salvation in the afterlife to those who suffer the most so they won’t fight the oppression of religious doctrine whilst alive. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, show that todays power hungry elite are operating in a moral vacuum, thus the humanistic alternative becomes ever more enticing (Tremblay 2010, pp 31). Karl Marx(1818 -1883) believed that religion was merely another tool in the capitalist arsenal of weapons against the masses (Holmes, Hughes & Julian, 2015). With this view it is no wonder that Marx was a leading thinker of the humanist ideology. At it’s core a humanistic approach to behaviour and an ethical response to environmental and sociological issues is the answer. By taking away the sacred, placing emphasis on personal responsibility and morals, gives hope to humanity that they can succeed and gain liberty.(Holmes, Hughes & Julian 2015)
In his Introduction to the Contribution to the Critique of Hegel s Philosophy of Law (1844), Marx writes, “Religion is the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet found himself or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being encamped outside the world. Man is the world of man, the state and society. This state, this society, produce religion, an inverted world-consciousness, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of that world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in a popular form, its spiritualistic point d honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, its universal source of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realisation of the human essence because the human essence has no true reality. The struggle against religion is therefore indirectly a fight against the world of which religion is the spiritual aroma” (Gunasekara, V, 2015). The reason this is so poignant is because it is this ideology that has given humanist spirituality its popularity. The population today is driving for happiness and fulfilment, not just for themselves but on a global scale. Religion fails to offer this. Humanistic Spiritually offers connection, love and compassion, with a philosophical world view of humanist code of ethics which affirms the inherent worth of all human beings(Tremblay 2010, p 29). The core beliefs and approach to humanist spirituality is the notion that all sentient beings life purpose is to attain happiness. This is attained through high self esteem, personal fulfilment, spiritual growth, personal accomplishments and connection to source or unity consciousness along with moral character development and release from emotional baggage (Tremblay 2010, p 28). Humanist believe that religion is not needed any more as the framework for moral guidance and that perhaps those who deem to be the most pious have be seen to act in the least moral way. In fact the pursuit of happiness, success and accomplishment is a journey that is far more important to ones growth than the destination. Staying fluid in one’s beliefs and allowing the psyche to develop as is needed seems to be the way of the world these days. With more spiritual centres opening across the world and Australia, giving lessons on mediation, healing techniques and a plethora of spiritual tools it’s not wonder the global population is embracing this new form of living.
The New age movement, which started in the 1980’s and quickly gained popularity, allows for spiritual guidance on connecting with nature, mother earth, human responsibility and social justice. There is a forward projection of a coming golden age where peace reigns and humans unite through love. It focuses on the individual and moves away from the community based beliefs, increasing personality responsibility and decreasing victimisation and blame. (Holmes, Hughes & Julian 2015 p 289) Humanist spirituality is an extension of this movement and provides a solution for those who seek an alternative to religion. Flo Wineriter, President of the Humanist Utah, defines humanism as a progressive philosophy of life, motivated by human hope and compassion, free from superstition but committed to responsible behaviour that will enhance the quality of life on this planet for all. Whilst maintaining “faith in the human capacity to choose good over evil without expectation of reward in another life” (Wineriter, 1996). The values based on what is good for the whole and the depth of resources available based on human stories, on insight and wisdom gained through experience can be understood by all as we share a common biology. Ultimately humanist spirituality teaches that we have the power to resolve life’s problems through rational thought and responsible behaviour; without magic, supernatural beings, sacred totems or dogmatic rules of religious institutions. We see the humanistic tendencies of humans in times of great tragedy when strangers help strangers and everyone pulls together for the greater good. In saying that, at the same time that the humanist spiritual movement developed as a response to the new age movement, so to has fundamentalists. Globalisation, impoverished masses and immigration causing denationalisation has had a destabilising factor on a number of areas. The Fundamentalists have reacted in the opposite way to the Humanists by increasing their faith and placing literal meanings on their specific teachings. (Holmes, Hughes & Julian 2015 pp 293-297) Marx’s view of religion is that of an illusion of the human mind, trying to explain the seemingly unexplainable. The purpose of religion is primarily used by the elite to conceal reality in a veil of delusion and to justify that which is often unjustifiable to the masses (Gunasekara, V, 2015). It is quite clear by the number of contentious situations that have risen, fundamentalism is not a way forward, it is certainly not an alternative to traditional religion and the situation needs to be addressed so it doesn’t erupt into a full blown war.
Although Religion would be difficult to irradiate altogether, this essay has clearly shown that there are viable alternatives for humans to liberate their minds, maintain a belief in something greater than themselves yet not succumb to the oppressive doctrines of religion, and that is humanist spirituality. Durkheim’s manifesto on religion explored one version of how to look at religion in it’s simplest form and that is totemism, focusing on the sacred and profane, with it’s basis surrounding a church like institution. However the key aspect of the new age movement of humanist spiritualism is a movement away from religious institutions to that of a personal fluid expression of spirituality. Ultimately the responsibility for overcoming the current challenges and creating the kind of world in which we wish live rests with us. Clearly this essay has demonstrated that ethical and humanist spirituality is not only a viable alternative to religion, it truly is the way forward if we want to save this planet, live with love, be happy and help humanity.
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