Spiritual but not religious - The other side of Atheism
As mainstream religion loses its grip on a more discerning generation, spirituality has taken on a greater existential role.
Many are looking inward for peace and wisdom, realising that dogmas, injunctions and edicts supposedly prescribed by God have led to unfathomable hubris, hatred and tragedies.
Mainstream clerics should be troubled by a recent survey taken by Life Way Christian Resources that tells a thought-provoking narrative. Of 1,200 people between the ages of 18 and 29 questioned, 72 per cent indicated that while they are spiritual they are not religious.
Responding to this new reality, many legitimate spiritual movements have emerged, but none more so than the Spiritualist Naturalist Society headed by Daniel Strain, a Texas resident.
Stern was raised in a Christian environment but today he is widely known as a humanist minister, speaker and prolific writer on ethics, spirituality and ancient philosophy.
His search for truth spanned decades leading to studies in Eastern spirituality and the perennial works of Grecian philosophers.
"Our society is the product of many years of research, and we now enjoy a global membership" said Stern.
Although encouraged by the rapid growth of his non-profit organisation, he remains measured, mindful that growth and maturity cannot be dictated from an outside agency. It is an internal, organic process.
"While we may not appeal to individuals seeking salvation through a messiah, we can still offer guidelines to help them in their day-to-day existence."
His impartiality and unwillingness to judge the paths of others was refreshingly striking.
"We do not make claims on, or reject the supernatural. Our members make up their own mind. We must remain humble in all we say and do." Tongue-in-cheek, he added, "We are not the thought police."
In many ways a spiritual naturalist can be likened to a humanist. They both uphold that ethics and morals do not fall under the purview of religion. In other words, you need not be a Christian to display charity, virtue and compassion. These are natural attributes that if cultivated can transform the world and effect a peace existence.
Spiritualist naturalists, however, are defined by their use of rituals to create a more balanced, creative, and harmonious state.
"Our members use meditation to facilitate inner tranquillity," said Strain. "Our aim is not to experience the transcendental."
He stated that meditation has been long gauged by science as a veritable tool for stress reduction and overall wellness, and that scientific findings can be coterminous with spiritual beliefs. But the former is just one aspect of his organisation's eclectic modality toward self-discovery.
Strain lauded journalling as a developmental tool, citing the study of Greek philosopher Seneca. "This could be used on a daily basis to assess our objectives, successes and failures. It helps us focus and promotes mindfulness," he said.
"There are other useful rituals that we can adopt from religion," added Strain. "If fasting engenders discipline, especially in our highly consumerist society, it should be undertaken in a way that does not compromise our health."
He identified music, art, storytelling, and working with symbols and myths as inherently transformational. "We have to go beyond the intellectual. Listening to poetry or a spiritual lecture is not enough. We have to evoke a sense of feeling."
These artistic exercises engender emotions, empathy and compassion.
Psychology and psychosomatic techniques such as neurolinguistic programming were also said to be useful instruments to facilitate a more meaningful existence. And although Strain is not averse to psychiatry and psychotropic medication because "some cases demand more radical treatments", he opined that many of our problems can be addressed by practical, applied philosophy and psychology..
He later forayed into bioethics as the question of a universal moral code was raised.
"Ethics and morals are not relative," he argued. "There is a right answer to all our conflicts and uncertainties. The right answer brings peace and happiness, and our wrong responses, although we may believe them to be right, will eventually lead to misery."
He was analogous in his explanation. "For example, standing up to tyranny is the right thing to do although it brings untold suffering, but it will bring inner contentment."
Strain continued: "Some might think that engaging in terrorism is justified, but in the end it brings more violence and inner peace is illusory."
He conceded that many situations humans find themselves in are complex, and argued that we should not judge or condemn others.
"Truth has to be experienced," he stated. He argued that our development as selfless, communal individuals must be paramount.
"Helping others, charity, engaging in actions that are compatible with our natural capacity as social beings will produce a more rewarding life."
In fact, spiritual naturalism bears some affinity to the Zen Buddhism where we are urged to experience the here and now, to live in the moment.
According to Strain, religious prophecy, eschatology and messiahship cannot be validated. "We should be more concerned with the present and how we can improve ourselves in a proven way."
Spiritual naturalists use the many principles of applied philosophy to surmount challenges, loss and despair.
In the vein of the Stoics, Guatama Buddha taught that suffering is caused by misplaced values. "We have to accept change and impermanence," Strain advised.
"We have to change our view of life, be less attached. This makes us better prepared to deal with the traumas that we face daily," said Stain as he argued that attachment carries a host of destructive emotions, including anger, jealously, envy, and greed.
With thousands of followers on social media and hundreds of official members, many of whom are atheists and agnostics, the Spiritual Naturalist Society has restructured its operations with a focus on smaller, local groups.
Its online library, educational archives, monthly discourses, and online course ensure that Strain's work will respond to the existential needs of seekers the world over.
- Dr Glenville Ashby is the author of 'Anam Cara: Your Soul Friend' and 'Bridge to Enlightenment and Creativity'. Feedback: glenvilleashby