Spiritual or Religious?

“Do you consider yourself a spiritual man or a religious man?”

“Well, I don’t like that dichotomy of matter and spirit very much, so you can say I consider myself a religious man.”
[Interview with Wendell Berry by Thomas P. Healy, Counterpunch Apr 15/16, 2006]

A great many atheists lambaste religion as inherently bad, yet have no problem embracing “spirituality,” by which they mean the subjective aspects of bodily existence: thoughts, feelings, emotions, moods, values, the spectrum of experiences which constitute our inner life. But I’m with Wendell Berry.

Berry is no atheist, of course. But traditionally, talk about spirituality hinges on a “two worlds” theory: the “dichotomy of matter and spirit” as Berry puts it. If there is in fact no such dichotomy, then religion belongs as much to matter as spirit—as much, that is to say, to the outer life of the body as the inner life of the mind.

More importantly for the atheist, if there is no inherent dichotomy then there is no role for a divine mind distinct from a physical body. But notice that this applies for someone coming from a religious perspective just as well. They no longer need God. If religion is not based on spirit separate from body or on mind separate from matter, then it is freed from the need for supernaturalism—because suddenly naturalism is self-sufficient.

Perhaps even more fundamental than the theistic question is the matter of afterlife. It is evident to all of us that our bodies die. What should be just as evident is that the two worlds theory exists so we can imagine that some part of us—the most “important” part by necessity—survives the death of the body. The entire point of insisting on an independent spiritual aspect is to entice ourselves with this hope of afterlife.

I want to live forever as much as the next person. But if I can’t have my body, or if my body can’t have the lovely physicality it has here on earth, then afterlife is no good. It is not really life.

To be only a soul, only a spiritual or mental self, strikes me as a kind of half-existence. To spend eternity yearning for completeness, for satisfaction, for a sense of being bodily here and real, to me that sounds like torture.

Atheism rejects that. And so should religion.

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