Thoughts About the New Spiritual Complex

On December 10, 2011, the New York Times ran a column in their Op-Ed section titled Undecided about God in which the author, Eric Weiner, proclaimed with conviction that Americans are a nation of talkers and self-confessors who are terrible when it comes to talking about God. In his opinion, this is because the discourse has been co-opted by the so-called True Believers, on the one hand, and by the Angry Atheists, on the other. But what about the rest of us, he asks?

The rest of us, according to Weiner, constitute the nation’s fastest-growing religious demographic. He calls them “The Nones,” revealing that they represent roughly 12 percent of the population and that they have no religious affiliation at all.

The percentage of Nones is even higher among young people, at least a quarter of whom are the undecided of the religious world, who drift spiritually and dabble in everything from Sufism to Kabbalah, and even to Catholicism and Judaism.

Many have observed over the last several decades that an ever growing number of Americans are abandoning our organized religions in droves, but interestingly, this does not appear to be an atheistic movement. On average, 93 percent of those surveyed say they believe in some sort of higher power or organizing intelligence, and this appears to hold true for most Nones as well, just 7 percent of whom describe themselves as atheists.

So why the rise of the Nones? David Campbell and Robert Putnam, of the University of Notre Dame and the Harvard Kennedy School, respectively, think politics is to blame. We’ve mixed politics and religion so completely that many simply opt out of both. The Nones are reluctant to claim any religious affiliation at all because they simply don’t want the political association that comes along with it.

From Weiner’s perspective, we Americans are more religiously polarized than ever before. In the secular and urbane world, God is rarely spoken of, except in mocking, derisive tones. It is acceptable “to cite the latest academic study on, say, happiness or, even better, whip out a brain scan… but God? He is for suckers, and for Republicans.”

In addition, the Nones don’t seem to get hung up on whether a religion is ‘true’ or not. Instead they subscribe to William James’ maxim that ‘truth is what works.’ If a certain spiritual practice makes us better people — more loving, less angry — then it is necessarily good, and by extension ‘true.’

In Weiner’s opinion, “there is very little ‘good religion’ out there. Put bluntly: God is not a lot of fun these days. All we see is an angry God who is constantly judging and smiting, as are his followers. No wonder so many Americans are enamored of (His Holiness) the Dalai Lama who laughs often and well.

“Precious few of our religious leaders laugh,” Weiner observes. “They shout. God is not an exclamation point, though. He is, at his best, a semicolon, connecting people, and generating what Aldous Huxley called ‘human grace,’ (and yet) somewhere along the way, we’ve lost sight of this.”

In conclusion, Weiner observes that religion and politics, though often spoken about in the same breath, are fundamentally different. Politics is, by definition, a public activity, and though religion contains large public components, it is at core a personal affair. “It is the relationship we have with ourselves or, as the British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said, ‘What the individual does with his solitariness.’ Therein lies the problem: how to talk about the private nature of religion publicly.”

Weiner ends his article with an interesting, yet timely observation: “We need a Steve Jobs of religion…” he proclaims, “someone who can invent not a new religion but, rather, a new way of being religious. Like Mr. Jobs’ creations, this new way would be straightforward and unencumbered (by righteous religious dogma) and absolutely intuitive. Most important, it would be highly interactive.”

Weiner imagines a religious space for personal reflection, a spiritual practice that celebrates doubt, encourages experimentation and growth, and allows one to utter the word God without embarrassment—a religious operating system for all of us.

Now, allow me to observe that it is impossible not to accept that Jobs was a great transformer, a powerful magician in a sense, and a modern wizard who literally changed our world and us along with it by agreeing to be the creative catalyst between “what was” and “what is coming into being.” In considering what is happening at the level of our collective consciousness as well as our personal spirituality in the Western world today, Weiner’s observations deserve our careful consideration. So what part in this do I see myself as playing?

I am not a theologian or religious pilgrim but rather a scientist trained by the academy who has been involved for much of my life with several research expeditions in search of answers to the mystery of human origins in the fossil beds of eastern Africa’s Great Rift Valley. This work has allowed me to spend large blocks of my life working with the super stars of the international paleoanthropological community. I have also been privileged to live in safari camps in remote regions of Ethiopia for extended periods of time among traditional tribal peoples who rarely, if ever, have had contact with the outside world. It was in tribal Africa that I first encountered shamans.

These experiences were pivotal for me, because it was out there in the empty, eroded landscapes of southwestern Ethiopia more than 40 years ago that I began to have spontaneous and unsought visionary experiences… spiritual episodes that would expand my awareness into regions of consciousness largely unexplored by our mainstream religious traditions. And with reference to Weiner’s astute observation, ‘how was I to talk about these experiences with my academic colleagues… or with anyone else for that matter?’

I was aware that my fellow scientists were not ready to consider, let alone discuss, what I had to share, and so I eventually decided to write about it my explorations into the ‘forbidden zones’ that reside outside the carefully-patrolled borders of both organized religion and science. These books became my Spiritwalker Trilogy—Spiritwalker, Medicinemaker, and Visionseeker. They are quite different from my scientific papers and monographs about my research in the field of human evolution to say the least.

And yet now, at more than 70 years of age, as I reconsider the ideas offered by that New York Times column, I feel an inner stirring, a response perhaps from my soul source. Perhaps this is because there is a new spiritual complex coming into being in the Western world, one that I began perceiving long ago in my non-ordinary states of consciousness. This new way of being spiritually engaged is inclusive in the sense that it is intensely democratic and potentially available to everyone, rather than exclusive for some. Jill and I, along with our groups, have discussed this over the years, sharing our observations and insights. This spiritual complex is intuitive and experiential in direct contrast to the unquestionable doctrine trumpeted by the dogmatized priests of our increasingly outdated monotheist religions.

Curiously, right at the core of this new complex can be found a series of deep spiritual truths that were held at one time by all of the world’s indigenous peoples before history happened to them. This will be the subject of a subsequent article.

Thank you for bringing this article to my attention, Hank; and thank you, Jill, for your encouragement too.
I spent many of the early decades of my life in theater, and in the last two years have noticed that, even in the commercial world of New York theatre, there is an interest in wrestling with many of the ideas/sensations that Hank (and Eric Weiner) bring into the light.
Last summer my husband and I were privileged to see a production of Jerusalem (which was imported from London) with an actor of magical skills, Mark Ryance. I had seen Mr. Rylance in other productions and admired him tremendously, but in this production he was transcendent. The play itself touches on so many of the ideas we had discussed in our circles and was presented with so much passion and wit that audiences were moved, even in the cerebral and sophisticated world of New York theater. We went back again, and would have even a third time. (Mr. Rylance, not incidentally, is a spokesperson for Survival International, an organization that helps indigenous peoples maintain their heritage and cultural lives.) Yesterday, we saw a more intimate production called "Freud's Last Session." It was very much a discussion between atheist and believer, although perhaps neither as angry or polarized as our public figures (otherwise it wouldn't have been much of a play!). My husband asked which side I thought the playwright took. I thought, probably, somewhere in the middle (a none?); my husband thought the writer was more on the side of C.S. Lewis (the believer). In the end of the play, the two men part, both changed by having met each other, and still respecting the accomplishments and integrity of the other. Ironically, earlier in the day, I viewed Franklin Graham (Billy Graham's son and heir) stating his absolute belief in every word of the Bible and his complete dismissal of any other spiritual practice. I was spitting nails, to my husband's amusement. I am so glad I saw this play, because it softened my heart to know that even those who cleave to an established church can be open-hearted and have doubts and questions and be seekers.
I didn't mean to go on for so long. Aloha, everyone out there!

I'm a bit dismayed that this new demographic was labeled "The Nones." Alternative spirituality is an improvement, but even here the label is "alternative," as if this perspective were not a legitimate aspect of our cultural heritage. It seems to be assumed that Americans of European decent are by definition of conservative Christian heritage. Before and even in spite of a marriage of convenience between Church and State, the European heritage includes paganism, shamanism, alchemy, mysticism, and Christian spiritualism that included trance and ecstatic states of consciousness. Somehow, our heritage has been cleaved, not unlike the Cartesian split of science and religion, except this split resulted in established religion and "The Nones." There is a growing acceptance of Indigenous spirituality, and this is, of course, a good thing. I think it is time that there be a healing of the split in our own heritage, a recognition that white Americans have a lineage of Earth based and mystical spirituality. In a culture that is embarrassed to use the word God, because of its co-opted associations, I do not know how this would be accomplished.

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