Rescuing spirituality from religion

The Wall Street Journal recently commissioned Karen Armstrong, author of numerous books on religion, and Richard Dawkins, author of numerous books on evolution and atheism, to answer the question: “Where does evolution leave God?”


What I found most interesting about the exchange was an issue that neither discussed explicitly, but which lurked just beneath the surface of their answers: the fact that religion has co-opted the entire realm of the spiritual.


Armstrong begins by conceding that evolution has shaken the traditional notion of a God who keeps his loving eye on the sparrow: “Evolution has indeed dealt a blow to the idea of a benign creator, literally conceived. It tells us that there is no Intelligence controlling the cosmos, and that life itself is the result of a blind process of natural selection. . .” But that’s not essential, she argues:

In the past, many of the most influential Jewish, Christian and Muslim thinkers understood that what we call “God” is merely a symbol that points beyond itself to an indescribable transcendence, whose existence cannot be proved but is only intuited by means of spiritual exercises and a compassionate lifestyle that enable us to cultivate new capacities of mind and heart.

Instead, in her view, the concept of God is needed simply “to grasp the wonder of our existence.”

The best theology is a spiritual exercise, akin to poetry. Religion is not an exact science but a kind of art form that, like music or painting, introduces us to a mode of knowledge that is different from the purely rational and which cannot easily be put into words. At its best, it holds us in an attitude of wonder. . .

Dawkins, for his part, rightly dismisses any attempt to evade the fact that most religious believers hold a far more literal view of God:

If sophisticated theologians or postmodern relativists think they are rescuing God from the redundancy scrap-heap by downplaying the importance of existence, they should think again. Tell the congregation of a church or mosque that existence is too vulgar an attribute to fasten onto their God, and they will brand you an atheist. They’ll be right.

But he misses a crucial additional point: that by laying exclusive claim to the realm of “wonder,” religion has corrupted the concepts needed for secular, scientific man to express his spirituality.


It’s a point that Ayn Rand explored in the introduction to the 25th anniversary edition of The Fountainhead. Religion, she writes, has for centuries had a “near-monopoly” over “the realm of values, man’s code of good and evil, with the emotional connotations of height, uplift, nobility, reverence, grandeur, which pertain to the realm of man’s values, but which religion has arrogated to itself.”

Religion’s monopoly in the field of ethics has made it extremely difficult to communicate the emotional meaning and connotations of a rational view of life. Just as religion has preempted the field of ethics, turning morality against man, so it has usurped the highest moral concepts of our language, placing them outside this earth and beyond man’s reach. “Exaltation” is usually taken to mean an emotional state evoked by contemplating the supernatural. “Worship” means the emotional experience of loyalty and dedication to something higher than man. “Reverence” means the emotion of a sacred respect, to be experienced on one’s knees. “Sacred” means superior to and not-to-be-touched-by any concerns of man or of this earth. Etc.


But such concepts do name actual emotions, even though no supernatural dimension exists; and these emotions are experienced as uplifting or ennobling, without the self-abasement required by religious definitions. What, then, is their source or referent in reality? It is the entire emotional realm of man’s dedication to a moral ideal. Yet apart from the man-degrading aspects introduced by religion, that emotional realm is left unidentified, without concepts, words or recognition.


It is this highest level of man’s emotions that has to be redeemed from the murk of mysticism and redirected at its proper object: man.