Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Nones: a Growing Non-tribe

The articles and dogmas of a religion are mind-made things and, if you cling to them and shut yourself up in a code of life made out for you, you do not know and cannot know the truth of the Spirit that lies beyond all codes and dogmas.


The lead article in the 12 March 2012 issue of the Time magazine is ‘10 Ideas That Are Changing Your Life’. One of these ‘ideas’, according to the writer, Amy Sullivan, is ‘The Rise of the Nones’. ‘The nones’ is the name that social scientists give to those who declare that they have no affiliation to any organized religion. The nones are the fastest-growing religious group in the U.S., and are currently estimated to form 16 percent of the American population. The nones have rejected organized religion but believe in God, engage in spiritual conversation and prayer, and participate in humanitarian work. This raises two questions: one, why they have rejected organized religion; and two, why they still feel the need to embrace spirituality.

Why the aversion to religion?

Religion is one of the finest products of the human mind. Its origins are in the yearning of man for knowing the Truth, and organizing his life in light of that Truth. The Truth can be known only by going deep within to a level higher than the mental. The reason is that the Truth is infinite, whereas thoughts and words are finite. Thoughts can deal effectively only with what can be measured, whereas the Truth is immeasurable. The mind trusts only what can be perceived by the senses, whereas senses can perceive only a part of the Reality. But, being mental constructs, religions have a tendency to gravitate to the mental level. That is why, although religions are rooted in spirituality, they settle down for visible symbols, rituals, and dogmas. The highest visible point of a religion is its ethical code. But the ethical code, which was ideal when the religion was founded at the place where it was founded, may lose some of its validity and vitality with change of time and place. That is one reason why the ethical codes of different religions may differ in detail. The result has been that religious conflicts based on ethical codes, and even more on symbols, rituals and dogmas, have created divisions among men instead of the unity that they were intended to foster (re, again; ligare, to connect). That explains the aversion of the modern man to organized religion, which has now led to a growing population of those who openly reject it.

Why spirituality still attracts?

The West initially rejected religion in favour of science. Like religion, science is also one of the finest products of the human mind. Like religion, science also seeks the truth, but only in the physical universe. In this sphere, mind has proven adequate to take man to dizzying heights. The heady feeling generated by the spectacular achievements of modern science in less than 500 years created the impression that science would solve all human problems. But when this expectation was not met, reason, the tool that had helped the growth of science, was pressed into service – the result was rationalistic secular humanism. Humanism did much to promote philanthropy and humanitarian activities, reduced the possibility of wars and created a strong wave against many of the crudities and cruelties that were permitted in the name of traditional religions or conventions. While humanism is an ideal against which there can be no good arguments, being a mental construct, it had to contend with the ego – both the individual egos, and the collective egos such as the national egos. The humanistic ideas might soften the expression of these egos, but true human unity based on love of man for man needs a spiritual base. Secondly, human beings have only incomplete and imperfect control on events and circumstances of life. Therefore, living a life based on rational ethical principles does not guarantee perpetual happiness. Peace can be shattered by completely unforeseen events that are impossible to control. In such situations, surrender to the Divine Will is a formula that is yet to be improved upon, irrational though it is. That is why rational humanism could not end human misery. Many other secular approaches have been tried – education, democracy, dictatorship, communism, socialism, etc. etc. – but each of these has failed to end human misery. The reason is that each of these institutions has been run by people who, at the present stage of human evolution, are primarily ego-driven personalities. Ego-driven personalities, as soon as they have the power to do so, will corner more than their share of resources for themselves, and will also justify it. Hence the way out is nothing short of a basic change in human nature, which is possible only through a change in the level of human consciousness. Raising the level of consciousness is what spirituality is all about. That is why, after so many rational approaches have been tried unsuccessfully that non-rational spirituality has re-surfaced as the last ray of hope. To use Sri Aurobindo’s inimitable terminology, everything that is non-rational is not necessarily infra-rational; it can also be supra-rational. That mankind will go through many failed experiments before working towards a psychological unity based on the divine essence that unites us all is something that Sri Aurobindo had visualized and foreseen in ‘The Ideal of Human Unity’ about a hundred years ago.

In short, what repels in religions are their dogmas and rituals. And what attracts in spirituality is that it does not throw out the baby with the bathwater. It gets rid of the dogmas and rituals, but retains faith in the One Supreme Consciousness that most of us are at least dimly aware of. Life lived in light of that faith is fulfilling, harmonious and peaceful. The One whom we continue to acknowledge remains our ultimate and infallible guide, protector and counselor. Thus, spirituality retains the core of religions but has no need for the shell that repels. The “nones” have rejected organized religion but believe in the Spirit of the Divine that unites all. Hence they cannot be considered an exclusive tribe; they are an all-inclusive non-tribe.

Spirituality is not necessarily exclusive; it can be and in its fullness must be all-inclusive.