Well, looks like I’m on a roll this week!
Had the good fortune to stumble upon FIU’s Center for the Study of Spirit and Spirituality. Its a very interesting topic, and I was happy to see that they offer some seminars throughout the semester. I’m particularly looking forward to the one titled, “Does the world need religion?” but in the meantime I was able to attend today’s seminar on spirituality and heath.
The main concept was to relate the importance of spirituality in patient care; a medical professional needs to be aware and concerned with the patient’s spiritual affiliations during treatment. The speaker, Dr. Dollinger (Dean of FIU’s College of Medicine,) catered the talk to a less scientifically-minded audience than I would have preferred, but it was probably wise on his part (the talk was part of a religion class.) I wasn’t surprised to hear more stats and studies regarding how spirituality relates to health; people who have spiritual or religious beliefs can recover more quickly, have better coping skills, and altogether are healthier than their non-spiritual counterparts. I don’t dispute these claims, but there was one big thing bugging me: Dr. Dollinger consistently equated spirituality with religiousity.
Its not really surprising that he took this stance. After all, religion is probably the most common way of expressing any form of spirituality. I suppose I had trouble discerning the exact definition of “spirituality” at all. (Perhaps if I were in the class, it would have already been discussed.) At first, his definition didn’t relate to any mention of a god, but he described spirituality throughout the talk as, “accepting something supernatural,” or “a belief in something bigger than yourself.” I had some trouble accepting these definitions, and as the talk went on I found it even more difficult to accept them because many of the things he described didn’t require any “spirituality” as he described it. For example, he claimed that spirituality could be “improved” by meditation, being surrounded by nature, conversing with wise people, reading, keeping a journal, and reflecting on life and death. I generally try to do all of these things, but it doesn’t mean I need to believe in the supernatural in order to improve from them. (Perhaps I am interpreting their meaning more narrowly than he intended?) He also added prayer to that list, which I felt was more a reflection of the religious method of expressing spirituality.
By and large, I think that most all atheists fit the wise people, journaling/contemplating, reading, and life/death reflecting precepts. But does that make us spiritual? For me, spirituality is more a description of the struggle we each have to make sense of our lives. I hate to sound cliche, but its the journey itself, not the end result, which defines spirituality. In that way, I would say that most atheists are very spiritual: they look explanations and meaning for why they exist. Most religious folks would reject their end conclusion, that there is no god, the Big Bang started everything, and that we are products of evolution doomed to fade into non-existence upon our death. But I think that THIS is the way atheists find meaning in their lives, even if others don’t quite understand it.
Dr. Dollinger said that spirituality involved belief in something “bigger than ourselves.” In my perspective, that something is the entire human race. Can we, as a species, learn about the world around us? Can we harness it? When we make grave errors, can we rise above it? There’s a fundamental hope/support of humanity as a whole that is well described by the term, “secular humanism.” The secular just means we don’t need the supernatural in order to have hope or in order to support the endeavors of our fellow man.
After the talk, I mentinoed to Dr. Dollinger that he hadn’t really mentioned anything about atheists or nonbelievers. Did he see them as spiritual? They followed a lot of the guidelines, but don’t necessarily believe in the supernatural. (I would wager that most of us don’.) He said that he hadn’t really considered the question, but he did seem intrigued by the thought.
I did find his talk interesting, but it was very obvious that he was coming at it from a religious standpoint. It seemed as if he had completely ignored the question of atheism. For example, one of the works he cited was a study by Ken Pargement at Bowling Green State. Patients with migraines were separated into two groups and told to meditate using a mantra. One was given a very spiritual mantra (as Dr. Dollinger described it,) “God id good. God is great. God will help me” or something to that effect. The other group was told to repeat “Grass is green, Sky is blue.” Or something along those lines. The conclusion was that those people with the “spiritual” meditation mantra had fewer migraines, less severe migraines, and had increased pain tolerance than the other group. I guess I felt that was a bit of an unfair test. For example, why not have the other group repeat, “Science is on my side. Science can cure me. I will be cured.” This doesn’t have anything to do with religion or god, but could it be considered spiritual? Not by Dr. Dollinger’s definition; but I would be interested to see the results.
Of course, Dr. Dollinger also mentioned that religious beliefs can sometimes have a negative effect. For example, a person with HIV might think that he is being punished by god, rather than having faith that god will save him. But I wondered if it might be detrimental in another way. Dr. Dolinger mentioned that it was very important to show concern or interest in the patient’s spiritual beliefs, and that this would help the patient feel more comfortable. I wonder if it might have the opposite effect of having an agnostic patient feel upset because they are unsure of what they believe. I speak from experience when I say that a medical professional asking me about my religion actually made me upset in some cases… But perhaps I was an abnormal patient.
By way of example, I asked is Dr. Dollinger thought that Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens might be spiritual. The professor of the course seemed about ready to jump out of seat to answer that! The Dr. politely replied that he wasn;t sure, he’d have to think about it, but it seemed possible. But after that, the professor (adorned with a kippot, no less,) adamantly stated that Hitchens was not REMOTELY spiritual. I was intrigued, but he didn’t offer any more information than that.
If Christopher Hitchens is an example of a man who is not spiritual, I daresay that lack of spirituality is probably not that bad afterall. I think that most of the studies Dr. Dollinger presented were, in actuality, a comparison between weakly spiritual and strongly spiritual people, which is typically expressed in terms of religion or belief in god. I would love to find some studies of avowed atheists, who have seriously considered atheism and all of its implications, in healthcare scenarios. I suspect that their “belief” and “faith” in the scientific method would result in some positive effects, probably more than in the weakly spiritual group. Then again, belief that there is some all powerful big brother out there who has your back could very well be more powerful positive reinforcement than knowledge of science. I guess my conclusion is that we don’t have enough data to make a conclusion!
One of the students mentioned that Buddhism was technically an example of atheism, but Buddhists are very spiritual. I think this misses the point though, since many Buddhists believe in extreme supernatural occurrences such as reincarnation. I am more curious if it is the source of the conviction (religion) or the strength of the conviction (whether it is faith in science or religion) which matters most.
Whew! that was a lot to get out, and I know it was a bit rambling, but I just wanted to get my thoughts down on the blog before they left my mind. This is technically journaling, right? So I suppose that means I’m actively improving my spirituality? lol