Secular and SpiritualThis column originally appeared as part of The Way of Politics series for the Democracy Cell Project, an IRS-approved 501(c)(3) created by former members of Kerry-Edwards 2004 blog team. The Way of Politics attempted to explore the intersection of religion, spirituality, and politics from a contemporary Deistic or secular and spiritual perspective.
Battles between American freethinkers and religious traditionalists are nothing new in our nation's history. What is new is that we're witnessing the emergence of the next generation of freethinkers on the political scene. And their experience mirrors the journey of the Founders and Framers in several key ways. This group is best described as the "Spiritual Not Religious" or "Secular and Spiritual" bloc in American politics.
As I've tried to demonstrate in previous columns, the Founders and Framers were products of the Enlightenment era. Men like Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine were freethinkers, utterly consumed by the search for truth. They saw the intellectual objectivity required for the study of nature's laws as the perfect antidote to the kind of religious and philosophical subjectivity that had gripped European society in the post-Reformation world and caused it to bleed again and again. The Secular and Spiritual movement reflects that same passion for independent thought. Emerging in an America that exists as an integral part of a modern global village, adherents to this school of thought are confronted with a much wider array of ideas than were the Founding Generation, or any previous generation of Americans. Consequently, they find it impossible to blindly accept the ideology of any school of thought.
Whereas the Religious Right attempts to portray secularists as uniformly agnostic or atheistic, adherents to a Secular and Spiritual paradigm explode this ignorant misrepresentation. They intuitively grasp that there is more to human experience than that which can be currently known using only the intellect, or through empirical studies. They pursue their search for spiritual understanding through a wide variety of approaches. These approaches might include:
- The practice of non-western enlightenment exercises like Yoga, Qi Gong, and Tai Chi;
- The study of comparative religion, mythology, and the theories underlying non-western medicine;
- Participation in twelve step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous;
- A diet of daily meditation or non-denominational prayer;
- Exploration of the insights of Freudian and transpersonal psychology, NLP, and other methodologies that seek to enhance human understanding, promote personal growth, and extend human potential;
- An effort to grasp contemporary scientific theory, and where possible, reconcile it with the insights of mystics and spiritual teachers of the past.
Some adherents might pursue only one or two of these approaches - like participation in a twelve-step group and non-denominational prayer. Others might incorporate a number of these branches in their lives. Still others might not currently take part in any of these characteristic activities, yet profess an authentic interest in God and spirituality - while currently living largely secular lives. Yet, when asked by a pollster for their religious affiliation, they would be given little choice but to answer "secular" or respond with the name of the religious group they were born into. But as anyone who has browsed online dating sites can tell you, when given a wider choice of description (as almost all of these sites allow), many people within this demographic choose the label "spiritual but not religious".
Another area of affinity between the Founders' and Framers' approach and the Secular and Spiritual orientation is both groups' embrace of an ethos of progress, and a firm belief in the ultimate improvability of human existence. Enlightenment era thinkers saw study of the laws of nature as capable of producing positive knowledge that would inevitably lead the species onward. In stark contrast to the dark apocalyptic fantasies of the "Left Behind" wing of Christian thought, many leading thinkers within the Secular and Spiritual worldview postulate the possibility of a radical extension of human consciousness, and a faith that human beings are ultimately capable of meeting any challenge that the Cosmos might lay before it.
Yet another significant link between the Founders and Framers and the Secular and Spiritual constituency is both groups' powerful advocacy of the dual Constitutional imperatives of Freedom of Religion and Separation of Church and State - the very things that the reactionary wings of American Protestantism and Catholicism today seek to erode.
The freedom of conscience and thought that we take for granted in our time is relatively new in human history. For instance, in the eras that preceded the American Revolution (and even in the early years of the Republic, during the period when a few States retained official religions) it was commonplace for independent thinkers to be persecuted for their beliefs. As John Adams related in his 1814 letter to John Taylor:
"And, even since the Reformation, when or where has existed a Protestant or dissenting sect who would tolerate a free inquiry? The blackest billingsgate, the most ungentlemanly insolence, the most yahooish brutality is patiently endured, countenanced, propagated, and applauded. But touch a solemn truth in collision with a dogma of a sect, though capable of the clearest proof, and you will soon find you have disturbed a nest, and the hornets will swarm about your legs and hands, and fly into your face and eyes."
Freedom of conscience and thought are essential elements in the Secular and Spiritual worldview. Without either of these conditions, authentic spirituality inevitably yields to dogmatism and religious or intellectual tyranny - and the quest for truth ends. Thus, in the eyes of this diverse and eclectic group, defense of these two bedrock guarantees is seen as a sacred duty, not a burden.
Finally, seen against the backdrop of 9/11, if religious, intellectual, and political tyranny in Muslim countries is considered a vice, then spiritual and intellectual diversity here in America must be a virtue. The Secular and Spiritual movement is an eloquent expression of that virtue. But it is more than just that. In a very real sense, these are the modern day pioneers who within the laboratory of the self are uncovering the heretofore-buried connections between the world's religious, philosophical, and intellectual traditions. Let me suggest that these are the very same connections that, sooner or later, twenty-first century humanity needs to discover as well.
Matthew Carnicelli, © 2005. All rights reserved.
Originally published on April 3, 2005, as part of The Way of Politics series.