What Can You Give?

My spiritual life in the last several years has been a very private one, which has been a conscious decision.  I may talk about it in circles like this one where I can generally assume that if you stay to hear me you’re interested in what I have to say.  I have no desire to go around trying to convince people to follow my path.

However, there’s a big difference between proselytizing and contributing.  Surely, if a spiritual path is worth anything at all, it will call on those walking those footsteps to do something positive for others on and off the path.  And, it would follow, that the more solitary the spiritual journey, the more important it would be to contribute of oneself in ways that reach beyond spiritual practice.

In my own spiritual life, I choose to take this as a call to not just strive to improve myself, but to strive to improve what I can of the world around me.  This opens possibilities far beyond the feeding of the hungry and comforting the hurting.  This stretches into a search for opportunities to teach, to assist, to generally make myself useful when I can to efforts which I feel are beneficial to the world.

What does your spiritual path ask you to give to the world around you?

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Should Activism be the Center of Atheist Spirituality?

In a great many organized religions, some kind of community outreach or service is a main tenet.  Whether or not the spirit of such activities are put into actual practice is a completely different subject, but for many people that is the part of religion that they find somewhat essential.  Religions tell you how to treat others.  They present you with a code and a call to action.  Feed the hungry.  Love your neighbor.  Save the souls of the lost.

In most cases, these calls to service are made in the name of a higher power.  The downtrodden and needy are part of a universe made by a larger force and, in some capacity, entrusted to humans to take care of.  Therefore it is part of the job of the faithful to act as the higher power wants them to.  Of course, in some circles the understanding of atheist thinking is that, if there is no higher power to tell them to be good to each other, humans would just go around killing and stealing and certainly not feeding the homeless.

We know this isn’t true.

Still, if the directive to do good in the world on the behalf of a higher power is a major tenet and major draw of organized religion, doesn’t that suggest that humans have a generalized need to be of service?

I’ve not reached a functional definition or system to my version of spirituality without a deity, but over recent months it has occurred to me that activism and philanthropy in and of itself do a fairly good job of standing in for religion.  After all, the survival of our society, our species, doesn’t rely on the will of a bearded man in the sky, but on our actions here and now.  I can imagine no greater impetus for becoming active in something to improve the world for future generations.

The Chain of Manipulation

There are not many religions or spiritual paths active in humanity today which I would say I oppose out of hand.  There are facets of many religions and spiritual paths which strike me as singularly destructive and damaging to people, to humanity as a whole, however.  

Evangelism and mission work is one of those facets.

I wrote a few days ago about how easily the act of helping or accepting help can be twisted into manipulation, and mission work is just about the most blatant example.  I have a really hard time with the idea that any spiritual outcome is so important that it justifies holding a real need in front of another human like bait, luring them to your beliefs.  

It didn’t take much searching to find a blog post by someone committed to missionary work, talking about their experience and drive to engage in it.  The post goes in depth about the motivations for mission work which, clearly stated, boils down to the need to convert others and turn them from their existing spiritual beliefs in order to save their eternal souls.  There is no beating around the bush about it, either.  The fact that the missions experience detailed in the post was to earthquake-devastated Nepal and the idea that we should be called to lift others out of poverty and starvation were only mentioned in passing.  The physical help, the actual work of healing the sick and feeding the hungry and housing the homeless is just a means to an end.

How can we not be troubled by the idea that, when huge disasters happen in the world, groups of people swoop in to tell the victims that the state of their eternal souls is far more important than their physical life?  How is it okay to provide help to those who obviously need it and, in the process, try to undermine the spiritual underpinnings of their lives?

The blog post I linked above had one particularly troubling passage which described how, because the writer felt uncomfortable “darkness” while in a Buddhist chanting room, he decided that his long-held opinion that other world religions were harmless was clearly wrong.  This uncomfortable feeling reinforced a conviction to use the needs of the world to manipulate others into listening to religious propaganda.

Help should be provided when needed, when we are able to provide it, and never as a means to a different end.  Feed people, clothe people, give people shelter, teach people skills not because they might then come to agree with the way you think or because you get a reward out of it, but because they need it.  Simply that.  No strings attached.

Ins and Outs

When the world feels at its most volatile or threatening, like it’s on the wrong path or the forces around us are turning against us, there seem to be two primary spiritual responses.  One is to push back.  Preach the truth and put pressure on those who do not accept it.  Empower the spiritually correct, as in literally hand them as much power as you can help secure for them, and fight to win.  The other is to draw back.  Surround yourself with a tiny world of enlightenment and spread love and truth in your own tiny sphere in your own tiny way, hoping to make ripples that will change the world in some small way.

The first assumes that “winning” either crushes or converts the opposition.  That if your truth is backed with enough power, that truth can be wielded as a tool or weapon to fix what is “wrong”.  And, sure, in terms of government and policy and the creation of systems which underpin the structure of society, yeah, it can work.  That’s why people get involved in politics.  It’s why churches send missionaries around the world.  Spiritual beliefs paint a picture of how the world “ought to be”, and with enough power and influence a group can turn that image into reality.  Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s harmful.  But it never does what it’s intended at the individual level.  The spiritual warfare path doesn’t, on a large scale, do a lot to change the minds of those who now feel they are attacked or oppressed.  No power can be wielded in victory without leaving others feeling oppressed in defeat.  That is an absolute truth.  Victory and defeat rarely change minds, only allegiances and motivations.

The second assumes that the answer to changing the world is to change oneself.  That if we live our personal spirituality, it will show others the way.  And it can absolutely help restore a sense of control and peace and hope in our own lives.  Our acts of compassion and kindness can deeply impact another and inspire individual hope.  But this, also, rarely has the intended impact.  When we withdraw into our own spiritual state, our own peace, we disconnect from the larger forces of negativity.  To those who are active parts of the social forces we seek to combat, we become largely invisible.  Those boosted by our small acts of kindness rarely see our reasoning for it, and while they may feel uplifted, their minds and hearts will only be changed towards us as individuals, not towards the larger force of humanity.

Somehow we have separated our spiritual paths from sensible social activism.  We do the individual self-serving bit, and we do the loud and forceful dissemination of truth bit, and we forget all about the bit in the middle.  The part where we take the large symbolic fight and conduct it one on one, confronting the actions of individuals around us when they are destructive and oppressive and harmful.  The part where we don’t just help people feel better for the moment, but walk with them while showing them the path to real, tangible, actual help.

The real change happens when the people who feel shamed and forgotten and beaten down while forces beyond their control argue about what should be done, the people who may be uplifted in the moment by your individual compassion but must return to their problems when you have walked away feeling better about yourself, when all those people see a chance to seize some power for themselves.

So yes, go protest, get loud and angry, contribute to organizations and join movements and shout the truth.  And yes, turn off the media, do things that make you feel better, pray and hug people and pay for the customer behind you in line.  But realize that none of that does very much to change the world, to change the future.  They change the present.  They change the here and now for a little while.  They allow us to be detached from the reality of the problems, to treat them like faceless forces or metaphorical energies and not like the lived realities of actual humans we walk beside every day.

We know it’s better to teach a man to fish than to give him a fish.  But in the short term some people need to be given fish.  And it doesn’t do any good to teach someone to fish when they’re nowhere near water or if we don’t make sure they have a fishing pole.  And it definitely doesn’t do any good to assure the hungry person that you contribute heavily to the creation of fishing education programs so that someday they might have access to fishing classes.  And above all, it doesn’t do a damn bit of good to sit on your private dock practicing catch and release.