Why Existentialism should Replace Spirituality

“Spiritual” issues are really just existential ones

Image by Patrick Tomasso, from Unsplash

“Spiritual” is probably the most important obsolete word in English. The word ought to mean the most to everyone, but instead it can’t be responsibly applied in any of its main senses.

The Emptiness of Spirituality

For example, “spiritual” means incorporeal, related to the spirit or soul, as distinguished from the physical nature. We now know our identity is based on the brain, not on a ghost or an immaterial pseudo-thing. But even if that weren’t so, quantum mechanics has undermined the Newtonian clockwork view of matter, so the contrast between spiritual-as-ethereal and material-as-solid-and-mechanical is antiquated. Matter is already incorporeal, if we’re assuming that old-fashioned sense of “material.” Thus, “spiritual” is doubly vacuous.

Or take the sense in which “spiritual” means related to sacred things or matters, especially to religious or devotional ones. The problem here is that organized religions are no longer responsibly honoured as having much to do with the sacred, because reason has killed the gods that were once thought to dwell in the religions’ holy places. That is, the religious creeds are objectively empty and retain only superficial relevance to late-modern cultures.

This revolution hasn’t stopped hundreds of millions of people from worshipping those gods and speaking as though their churches and temples were still sacred, but that’s not to say any of this religious behaviour is intellectually or ethically responsible. The real sacred places are now secular, such as banks, movie studios, celebrities’ houses, sports stadiums, military bases, shopping malls, and five-star restaurants.

If you could practice your religion while simultaneously disavowing all of the products of modernity that entail the death of God, including technology, medical advances, and scientific knowledge, you might be spared the charge of being egregiously hypocritical. But in that case, you’d require a time machine for traveling centuries into the past, and that act of time travel would likewise be irresponsible in threatening the timeline.

Another sense of “spiritual” is a curious one, namely that of having a mind or emotions of a high and delicately refined quality. This is a psychological rather than a metaphysical meaning, the idea being that just because there are no spirits and nothing’s sacred in the religious sense, doesn’t stop us from gesturing to how we would want to be acting if the situation were reversed and science rather than religion had taken a pratfall.

We can have a spiritual character, choosing to listen to classical rather than rap music, for example, because the former is more closely associated with religion. This is like pretending you’re James Bond because you bought the same kind of watch the fictional spy once wore in a movie.

The Superiority of Existential Philosophy

The humiliation wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t need the concept of something like the spiritual, because only then could we be deprived of what we need. We have related concepts, such as of morality, but they’re not as powerful as spirituality once was.

Morality might be high-minded, perhaps even sacred, but it’s not grounded in any deeper reality than the mundane kind — not unless morality is taken to be based on the problematic notion of spirituality. We act morally because we’re brought up to be kind to strangers or because we fear breaking the law and going to prison, but neither empathy nor fear lends morality much grandeur.

I propose, then, that we replace “spiritual” with “existential”; indeed, theistic religion as a whole should be swapped for existential philosophy and therapy, since religion and existentialism overlap in all essential ways except that between them, only existentialism isn’t entirely a laughingstock.

To be sure, existentialism isn’t wholly respectable since some of the key philosophical texts are encased in obscure jargon. But at least those texts are about something eminently real, namely what it’s like in general to experience the world as a human being.

Also, existentialism, properly speaking, was a fad that ended half a century ago, but existentialism transcends those academic and artistic movements. Ancient Greek philosophy is existential, as are the core principles of Buddhism. Existentialism is just any fearless rational or literary exploration of what it fundamentally means to be a person, given the natural constraints on reality. Existentialism is philosophy or art that lays bare the real, practical conditions of our existence.

Not all secular literature is existential. Science, for example, helps us understand the natural constraints, but not their practical relevance or their normative significance in a respectable way of life. Some secular thought may also deal more with trivial practicalities than with fundamental, structural ones.

Everything we could want out of spirituality we can get from studying existential philosophy — minus a happy ending. Instead of the fantasy of such an ending, we get sobering knowledge, honour, integrity, courage, compassion, awe, and an appreciation for the tragicomic aspect of all that transpires.

The hallmark of religion is that it makes us foolish. That might seem consistent with the existentialist’s acknowledgment that everything is fundamentally foolish, but that would be a specious inference. Religion makes us fools by enslaving us to sociobiological and political dynamics that count on our gullibility and ignorance. Existentialism explains how the world is absurd and holds out options for rising above that unsettling initial state.

Religion is a game that requires its players to be unaware that they’re only playing; religion works — it keeps the peace — when the mesmeric spell is successfully cast. By contrast, existentialism is all about seeing through the charade, shrugging off the spell, and refusing to be degraded despite the appalling circumstance of being thrown into the world to face death.

Objectively speaking, everything is monstrous, a series of finite, godless, amoral transitions between mindless, pointless physical events. As a result, there’s injustice, bad luck, suffering, and destruction beyond anyone’s imagining.

But subjectively, we can credit ourselves with being potentially aware, rational, curious, creative, and partly liberated from those objective conditions. We can create artificial worlds that are subject to our antinatural ideals instead of just recapitulating animal norms as the theocracies would have us do.

A person is an anomalous kind of object, namely a subject. The discourse of spirituality was once our way of thinking about existential matters. Religions distinguished us from animals and from physical objects by positing immaterial spirits. And the mysteries of consciousness are still spirit-like. But we know that consciousness is dependent on the brain. We’re not just objects but we’re also not essentially free-floating, supernatural subjects or “spirits.” In the twenty-first century, then, existentialism is far more relevant and responsible than the discourse of spirituality.

Knowledge condemns. Art redeems. I learned that as an artistic writer who did a doctorate in philosophy. We should try to see the dark comedy in all things.

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