Archives for posts with tag: Religion

I have been thinking about this recently.

The reflection was initially precipitated by a report earlier this year, which suggested that ‘spiritual’ people are at a higher risk of mental health problems [http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/9774259/Spiritual-people-at-higher-risk-of-mental-health-problems.html]. I have not read the original paper – from researchers at UCL – but seemingly those who have ‘a spiritual understanding of life’ are more predisposed towards anxiety disorders, phobias and neuroses, eating disorders and drug problems’ than ‘those with an understanding that was neither religious nor spiritual.’

The study was based on a survey of more than 7,000 randomly selected men and women in England. What is unclear from the brief report is how spirituality was defined, and also how the researchers came to separate ‘spirituality’ from ‘conventional religion’ or ‘agnosticism’ and ‘atheism’.

I know many people who claim to be spiritual, but are also religious or atheist. The overlap between what people view as spirituality and some belief system, whether religious or non-religious or anti-religious, seems huge, and the notions are often inextricably bound together.

There is of course a significant problem with how spirituality is defined. As a teenage, when I emphatically renounced Catholicism, and shortly afterwards all religious beliefs, I announced myself (in hindsight arrogantly) as ‘not religious, but spiritual’, as if the label ‘spiritual’ conferred depth, and that I occupied a more-meaningful-areligious-but-holier-than-thou-world.

I abandoned the label some years ago, having become increasingly unsure what it truly meant, both to myself and in a wider context. Today, I remain an atheist, who attempts to live every moment as richly and as appreciatively as I can. Perhaps that equates with ‘spiritual’ for someone else.

Today, out of curiosity I did a mini survey at the office on how my colleagues view spirituality. The religious tended to equate the experience with things God-related. Others, who were no longer religious, viewed it as something outside and beyond themselves, something that connects to a way of being that is intangible, inexplicable, but present within.

I remain unsure of the label, and reluctant to attach it to my own way of being.

I am sure of very little. But the present feels important to me, how I live it, how I appreciate it, and how I can positively interact with those in my immediate life and beyond.

And kindness. I am a huge fan. Perhaps that is my ‘spirituality’, but I will stick with the original word.

CQ

As I mention ‘suffering’ in the title of this blog, and as tomorrow is All Souls’ Day, it feels appropriate to expand a little on this theme in the context of the season…

I have been thinking back to my Irish childhood, where All Saints’ Day (November 1) and All Souls’ Day held much significance. Today, I have been an atheist much longer than I have ever been a Catholic, and the details of the significance of these ‘holy days’ are hazy. And so I looked to Irish literature to refresh my memory.

One of my favourite authors is John McGahern, and his memoir gave me plenty of background. As a very young child, McGahern quickly realised that:

‘Heaven was in the sky. Hell was in the bowels of the earth. There, eternal fire raged. The souls of the damned had to dwell in hell through all eternity, deprived for ever of the face of God…

…Between this hell and heaven, purgatory was placed. Descriptions of it were vague, probably because all of us expected to spend some time there. The saints alone went straight to heaven. In purgatory, we would have to be purified in flame to a whiteness like that of snow before we could join the saints in the blessedness of heaven.’

All Souls’ Day signifies the moment in the eyes of the Catholic Church when the souls of those in purgatory finally ‘ascend’ to heaven. This ascension is seemingly made possible by the prayers of the living that have atoned for the sins of the dead.

In an essay written just before his death (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2006/apr/08/featuresreviews.guardianreview30), McGahern speaks of the theocracy in which he was born:

‘Hell and heaven and purgatory were places real and certain we would go to after death, dependent on the Judgement’, and where, on All Souls’ Night ‘the dead rose and walked as shadows among the living.’

McGahern also reflects that over the years, ‘belief in these sacred stories and mysteries fell away without my noticing.’

Not having lived in Ireland for very many years, I have no idea of the significance of All Souls’ Day in my homeland now.

The history of where we and our traditions and rituals are rooted and originate from is fascinating, as well as just a little bit shocking…

To end, WB Yeats’ words on the season…

from All SoulsNight:

‘Midnight has come, and the great Christ Church Bell

And may a lesser bell sound through the room;

And it is All Souls’ Night,

And two long glasses brimmed with muscatel

Bubble upon the table. A ghost may come;

For it is a ghost’s right,

His element is so fine

Being sharpened by his death…’

CQ

Ahead of tomorrow’s announcement, I am finally getting round to a post I have been planning for some time.
I initially set out to read all the Booker Prize longlist, but had only managed six before the shortlist was announced. Of these six, only one made it to the shortlist, which was Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary.

I had not been tempted to read this particular book from Toibin before, despite the fact that I have read many of his earlier works, and loved them. Perhaps my strong atheistic leaning put me off. I mentioned the book and its underlying theme to my teenage daughter. Her immediate reaction was ‘what a clever idea’.

A slim book, the page length of The Testament of Mary is deceptive. This is not a quick read. There is much to consider in every paragraph, in every sentence of the single chapter story. Mary’s voice and thoughts guide us through the narrative, which is predominantly one of loss and suffering as she mourns the life and death of her son.

“…I have forgotten how to smile. I have no further need for smiling. Just as I have no further need for tears.”

Very much the story of a mother’s loss and unrelenting grief, which is the book is indeed a clever and surprising take on the ‘traditional’ story of Mary, of her son, and of his death on the cross. I have no idea whether Toibin intended the book to have religious undertones or not.

For this atheist, I found it deeply moving as a lingering and insightful narrative about the humanness of suffering.

“It was a strange period during which I tried not to think, or imagine, or dream, or even remember, when the thoughts that came arrived unbidden and were to do with time – time that turns a baby who is so defenceless into a small boy, with a boy’s fears, insecurities and petty cruelties, and then creates a young man, someone with his own mind and thoughts and secret feelings.”

CQ

I was pretty shocked to hear the results of this study, published in The British Journal of Psychiatry recently, on religion, spirituality and mental health (http://bjp.rcpsych.org/content/202/1/68.abstract?sid=8d0ecbb5-0c71-4852-93cb-8babb1525759).

The study analysed data obtained from interviews with 7403 people in England. Overall, 35% had a religious understanding of life, 19% were spiritual but not religious, and 46% were neither religious nor spiritual. The results suggest that those with a spiritual understanding of life without a religious framework are ‘vulnerable to mental illness.’

I have not read the entire paper, so a critical analysis is impossible. I do not know, for example, how spirituality was defined, or what constituted a ‘religious framework’. But over 7000 participants is a pretty impressive number. As a devout atheist and someone who considers herself a spiritual being, the results are certainly interesting, and just a little shocking.

I listened to a Radio 3 Night Waves programme on the topic, and the participants included one of the paper’s authors, Michael King. The study raises the question inevitably whether the possible association between spirituality and mental illness is causal or consequential. King mentioned an ongoing longitudinal study of ‘well’ spiritual people who are not religious, and who appear to demonstrate an increase in mental illness over time.

Spirituality, the discussants suggested, is now big business, lying within the consumerism framework. It’s providers attempt to tackle the most serious of issues, include mental and physical ill health, reflecting perhaps an increasing dissatisfaction with what religion can provide.

There is nothing new about spirituality. Originally embedded within organised religion, it now seems to have evolved into an entity in its own right. A contemporary phenomenon of sorts, current notions of spirituality and leading a spiritual life can feel more reactive than constructive, and as a result, it is perhaps also weighed down by the needs of those who seek alternatives and a new way of being.

Life is challenging, increasingly so, and society’s expectations of entitlement are often hard, if not impossible, to meet. Organised religion has floundered in the midst of this. Spirituality, as one of the discussants suggested, is a potent force, and by definition therefore capable of conferring both harm and good.

I am intrigued by the fact that spirituality always seems to be discussed within an ‘either/or’ religious context. For me, atheism and spirituality feel quite separate, albeit connected, but only in so far as all my beliefs are in some way interwoven, and ultimately define me.

It is good to have such issues openly discussed. Whether a scientific approach can define the norms of religion and spirituality, and where they might lead, I have no idea.

But my (non-defensive) spiritual instinct currently says, probably not…

CQ

I spoke in my last post, on Christopher Hitchen’s posthumous Mortality, of how the diagnosis of cancer abruptly and immediately catapults one from the Kingdom of the well to that of the ill. Hitchen’s widow, Carol Blue, refers to this in the Afterword:

‘We were living in two worlds. The old one, which never seemed more beautiful, had not yet vanished; and the new one, about which we knew little except to fear it, had not yet arrived.’

Dennis Potter came to mind when I read this. In his last interview, with Melvyn Bragg two months before his death from pancreatic cancer in 1994, Potter spoke about the ‘nowness’ of his life. Since the realisation that he had incurable cancer, his ability to see, and live, the present tense had become a celebration, a truly wondrous thing. As a result, he experienced a newly found serenity, and a true appreciation of life’s beauty, whilst at the same time also noting more acutely what is most trivial and most important, although the distinction did not seem so relevant any more.

Hitchen’s widow mentions fear. The writer himself briefly alludes to Philip Larkin and his poem Aubade (Faber, Collected Poems, 2003, ps. 190-191), a piece that overtly addresses the fear of dying:

‘…Arid interrogation: yet the dread

Of dying, and being dead,

Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.’

Referring again to Potter, during the interview the playwright discussed our innate fear of death, despite the fact that only humans, of all the animal species, know with absolute certainty that we will die. Larkin deals with this fear head on in Aubade:

‘…The sure extinction that we travel to

And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,

Not to be anywhere,

And soon; nothing, more terrible, nothing more true.’

In Mortality, Hitchens reveals how he dealt with the fact of being ‘mortally sick’ with both a ‘modicum of stoicism’ and a great interest in the ‘business of survival’, which often necessitated existing in ‘a double frame of mind’. Inevitably, Hitchens discusses religion. Being ‘mortally sick’ did not weaken his atheism. With some irony, he shares the following:

‘What if I pulled through and the pious faction contentedly claimed that their prayers had been answered? That would somehow be irritating.’

And:

‘If I convert it’s because it’s better that a believer dies than an atheist.’

On a more serious note, Hitchens concludes:

‘the religion which treats its flock as a credulous plaything offers one of the cruelest spectacles that can be imagined: a human being in fear and doubt who is openly exploited to believe in the impossible.’

Although not an atheist, Potter had a similar view on religion, that of a phenomenon that too often reflects man’s fear of death. Its very notion held no interest for him, even when faced with imminent mortality.

Although not fearful, Hitchens did feel cheated. He had much more to do, much more to read and to write. That very need, to achieve, at least partly, what had to be done and said, became a driving force for Hitchens, as it had also done for Potter.

For Hitchens, there were times, particularly in the throes of pain and the side-effects of very aggressive treatment, when he wondered whether, with the knowledge of the agony endured, he would go through it again. Possibly not, he concluded.

He chose to ‘do’ death in the active sense, all the time nurturing ‘that little flame of curiosity and defiance’.

As his readers, we benefit from this ‘doing’.

CQ