On Spirituality & Politics
In many ways, our efforts in the Spiritual Naturalist Society are part of a quest. That quest is the rebirth of spirituality among naturalists – something which can be said to have died, almost completely, save for a few bits of inspirational and eloquent observations about the natural universe from people like Carl Sagan and his intellectual heirs still writing wonderful contributions in spiritual and religious naturalism. Yet, nothing like a systematized set of practices built upon that naturalistic inspiration exist; one that can help its practitioners achieve equanimity, wisdom, compassion, etc. (our conception of spirituality here).
In the absence of spirituality, what has risen to take its place among noble-minded atheists, Humanists, and freethinkers is politics. Politics is necessary for achieving positive social ends and that can be a healthy part of spirituality – but politics is a poor substitute for spirituality. Yet today the two are often so muddled that it’s hard for people to understand the difference. Many churches and other religious organizations are having similar difficulties.
In a search for meaning, many naturalists dive into politics as a source of fulfillment and purpose. At first glance, this seems like a wonderful idea and is certainly driven by pure intentions. The Humanist Manifesto III states, “Life’s fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals… Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness”.
Yet, it is in the socially active political organizations that some of the most unhappy, heartbroken, or angry people can be found. The stress in many of these organizations is more akin to the front lines of a war than a bastion of personal fulfillment and well-being.
What often happens for many who are active in political and social issues, is a growing set of personal challenges. Over time, the seemingly insurmountable nature of many social ills becomes more apparent. Along the way, political opponents reveal themselves to be much more devious, inflexible, or unreachable than previously suspected. The very groups one works within, which at first seemed composed of brothers and sisters in arms, eventually reveal themselves to be a microcosm of the very problems the group set out to address. The infighting and internal politics can sometimes become as exasperating as the mission. Throughout these experiences hopelessness, hatred, and bitterness eventually arise. When this happens, action groups can sometimes fall apart, their members ‘burn out’, or worse – political or social action groups can lose their way and create more harm than good.
Nowhere in our lofty proclamations on the meaningfulness of political participation can be found what one is to do in the face of these struggles. How do we deal with failure? Why should we try? How do we fight evil without becoming evil? How do we simply get along with others productively? What do we do when hope runs out?
These kinds of things are near universal in such movements, and human beings cannot typically withstand such an onslaught indefinitely. Being smart will not help them; being a nice person will not help them; being well educated will not help them; and having the greatest intentions and commitment will not help them avoid these struggles. The answer is not achievable through brute force of strength, cunning, or confidence.
The reason these things happen is because we naturalists are putting the cart before the horse. To do good in the world over the long haul and still have True Happiness, one must have a solid spiritual foundation. For this reason, we begin by placing the focus of spiritual practice on the individual practitioner – one’s personal development. This is what makes possible the expression of political action as a spiritual practice.
This is not because we view ourselves as more important, but because we recognize that before telling others how they ought to be, we must work on the person in the mirror. We focus on self development because we recognize we ultimately cannot control anything more than we can control ourselves and who we are. We do this because we recognize that we must begin in all our social efforts leading by example. We recognize that, by fortifying ourselves spiritually, we become more capable of action for good in the world, and more capable of doing it for the long-term.
But in seeking a solid spiritual foundation, the pertinent thing to understand is what that entails, and what ways we often misunderstand spirituality.
Many people think of their spirituality, religion, or philosophy as being about beliefs. More centrally, about the things they want to declare to the world, opinions they want to express, and stances they want to defend. What comes next is a list of proclamations on various things, and this is supposed to be their spirituality. This is not what we mean be ‘having spirituality’.
The problem with this approach is that it is highly ego-based. It comes from a need to assert one’s view of “how it is”. Woven throughout this approach is a network of attachments, desires, and fears. Another problem is that having a list of opinions is not going to cultivate our character or move us toward happiness or remove our suffering. Yet enormous time and energy is spent in assertions and debates over conflicting metaphysical cosmologies (or their denial), doing little real good for anyone.
Having a solid spiritual foundation entails highly specific philosophical instruction that involves a re-framing of the world, our lives, and our value system. It includes a disciplined set of habits, practices, and rituals that are effective in deeply internalizing this framing over time. Thus, eventually, both our motivation for action, and our reflexive responses to events in the world are profoundly altered in such a way as to provide sustainable happiness (healthy, flourishing soul) throughout all circumstances. This is the heart of action as a part of our spirituality.
Politics is like any other action, for example, washing the car. We can wash the car with bitterness and distraction and impatience, or we can wash the car with mindfulness and compassion for those who might enjoy its being clean. We can use everything we do as an opportunity for spiritual practice. So, politics is not the same thing as spirituality – they are two different things. But meditation is also different from spirituality, yoga is different, playing music is different, and even conducting ritual is different (which is why ritual done wrong can feel like empty theater). There is no stand-alone spirituality, yet none of these things are, by themselves, spirituality. When we make it so, spirituality exists within and throughout all of these actions – even going to the bathroom. But to mistake the mere doing of them as spirituality, or as sufficient to constitute our spiritual lives, is a big mistake. In the next section I will describe the kinds of spiritual communities needed to prepare individuals for spiritual action in the world, and in the following section, what that kind of spiritual action looks like.
Spiritual Communities: Why they should be apolitical
As a non-profit organization, the Spiritual Naturalist Society is required to refrain from political campaigning; or endorsing or opposing candidates or parties – but we choose to be even less political than required. We intentionally avoid partisan positions in our articles, materials, and activities. Further, I myself, as Executive Director, have chosen to avoid making public politically-oriented personal statements (even if my friends know my politics) and, more importantly, to try to run the organization in a way that makes it welcoming and beneficial regardless of one’s politics. Our community includes people from a variety of political parties and economic philosophies.
Most of the existing naturalist organizations are more political than the SNS. These tend to be Humanist, atheist, secular, and similar groups. They can often be found marching in protests, lobbying, filing Amicus Briefs in court cases, circulating petitions, making political declarations, fighting for or against various legislation, and so on. These are, of course, not their only activities, but they can often seem to be among the most visible of them.
This article is in no way meant as a criticism of these organizations or their work. Nor is it meant to suggest that there is anything wrong with these kinds of activities. Indeed, it is important for people to be politically active in their communities and their nations, and for there to be organizations that help them to do so. In fact, healthy political participation can even be an important part of a spiritual life (see below).
But these kinds of organizations are not what I would call “spiritual communities”. Spiritual communities like the SNS aim to be a promoter and facilitator of sacred values. Through community fellowship, as well as mutual support and learning, we aim to be a source for ethical teaching and wisdom, and a spiritual home for our members and visitors. There are some important reasons why political partisanship can be a hindrance to such goals.
We look to our spiritual communities to be (a) places of refuge from the partisan bickering that we see in the rest of the world, and (b) to have some sense of integrity, respectability, and universiality when it comes to their teachings on ethics and values.
In the first sense, (a), we want a spiritual home and community in which we can be recharged and rejuvenated to face the challenges of life. This kind of emotional and psychological rejuvenation requires an atmosphere of openness, listening, tolerance, love, understanding, and compassion. Here, debating tones and conflict betray that purpose – even when everyone present is on the same ‘side’ and spend the gathering sharing complaints about the ‘other side’. The feel one has leaving that kind of meeting, and leaving a spiritual community event are totally different – and ‘feeling’ matters, in a very practical sense, in spiritual practice.
In the second sense, (b), a spiritual community exists to promote and advance the most important, fundamental, and foundational values: empathy, compassion, humility, wisdom, love, mindfulness, self-discipline, character, and so on. It is easy in the day-to-day temptations and challenges of life to forget about these fundamentals. We get led astray and distracted by our complex goals and activities, and before long we notice the stress and suffering in our lives. Institutions that offer these reminders and reaffirm such basic values are crucial to keeping us on course and increasing happiness in our lives.
But, when a spiritual community takes sides in highly contentious and specific partisan issues, they undermine a sense of their impartiality and their integrity and reputation as a source of fundamental values. This is because people who are embroiled in contentious political squabbles each see their positions as being derivative of those values. When their house of worship or spiritual community takes another side, it brings the wisdom of that tradition or institution into question for half of the people. At best, it can result in segmentation and fracturing for no purpose. At worst, with respect lost for so many advocates of fundamental values, it can result in a diminishment of those values in a society.
But aren’t these political positions important? It is justifiable to ask what good all our talk of fundamental values in the abstract is, if it means nothing when it comes to applying them to real and specific actions, including collective or political actions? We can talk all day about charity, but how then can we not stand up against the election of a politician who wants to abolish an important program that is crucial to the well being of hungry poor children?
Part of the answer to this is something that a Spiritual Naturalist organization, in particular, may be well suited to appreciate. That is, that none of us hold the keys to absolute Truth. We are all flawed and imperfect human beings. So, obviously, if a spiritual community or organization is going to be taking a side in a political fight, it is going to be taking the side the leaders of that organization believe to be the best way to manifest its fundamental values politically. But, in this decision, they are not guaranteed to be right. Even acting by vote, there may be as many in a community who feel deeply that those same values are furthered by the opposite political positions. This imperfection is something we, as individuals, must accept and yet push forward to do what we think is best. But to apply our judgments to what an entire institution will do would be to take advantage of our position, and exert more authority than we really should have.
In short, even when we feel certain, members of our tradition can differ on how they believe the underlying values ‘play out’ when it comes to specific political policies. This line of argument doesn’t apply for political organizations because their members joined specifically because of support for those policies. But it can apply in the case of spiritual communities, whose leaders have no right to speak for them on particular political positions or candidates.
The second part of the answer to how we can refrain from acting politically as an organization, has to do with trust. We have to recognize that every institution cannot do everything – at least, not well. It is good that political organizations exist, precisely because of this question of acting out our general values. But it is also important to have institutions focusing on other parts of life, and each is more effective by keeping the standards suitable to its function in those parts. We, as promoters of justice, truth, love, compassion, etc. must have trust in the people we serve; that – if we have done our part well – they will have these values in their character when tough decisions come up in their own lives and in their political lives. We must trust and respect that the people can use their conscience to consider carefully their political actions in light of the values we promote. We are not supernatural authorities, masters, or controllers of the people – only fellow human beings hoping to help, in what ways we can, to reduce suffering and increase happiness for all by starting within. This is one of the differences between the aim of being a ‘special interest group’ and the aim of being a foundational institution of the community. While we are not a political organization, we happily suggest individuals seeking to express their spirituality politically act in organizations focused on their causes of choice. Below we have provided some links to help brainstorming.
Politics as a Spiritual Practice
Yes, for the individual, politics can absolutely be a part of spirituality. But that does not simply mean meditating in the morning, and then going out to do politics as anyone else does, with the simple caveat that your positions are based on your ‘spiritual values’. The simple fact that your political positions come from your spiritual values does not mean you are engaging in politics as a spiritual practice.
Politics as a spiritual practice is a very different kind of politics. It is different in its approach, in its strategy, and in its tone. But more importantly, spiritual politics is not just about what you say and do – it is centrally about your inner motivation, mindfulness, and compassion as you do every one of these things.
For the practitioner of spiritual politics, every word, vote, sign, march, publication, and rally is an opportunity to reach the hearts of others, to cultivate understanding, to reach out and connect with rivals, to love our enemies, to disarm with sincerity and kindness, to ignite their empathy and capacity for good, to buck the common understanding of ‘political strategy’, to have more in mind than the next election, and more. Spiritual politics requires far more patience, far more strength, and far more endurance than common, profane politics.
This politics does not use fear or anger as an instrument or resource. It does not employ sarcasm or ridicule or hyperbole. It does not involve deception or seek the winning of debates as a value in itself. It is not about boasting but about humble service. It does not look at situations as zero-sum or fall into the illusion of us/them mentalities.
Not only are motivations true, but the focus is also true. That is, a focus away from attachment to outcomes, and toward virtuous action itself. When deeply instilled, this provides an inner wellspring of hope, confidence, and equanimity that comes from wisdom – especially knowing what is in our power and what is not.
Nor is this politics weak, because the true weakness is when we are so weak we cannot even govern ourselves. This is the self-sacrificing politics of Mahatma Gandhi, who stood against an empire; the mindful-compassionate politics of the Dalai Lama who defies the largest nation on earth; and the forgiving-loving politics of Jimmy Carter, who crosses uncrossable borders to join the hands of enemies. You will know this politics when you see it, and you will know when you don’t.
If we are doing politics in this way, then it will be impossible to mistake politics for spirituality and allow politics to consume the whole of our minds. We will not be able to use the line “politics is a part of my spirituality” as an excuse. It will be impossible because such a practice requires a regular rejuvenation and renewal in inward-focused practices and ritual, both alone and in spiritual communities. It requires us to really ‘get’ spiritual transformation and its mechanisms. And these activities require sacred space as described above – space that is not about conflict. Martin Luther King, Jr. is a hero to many far beyond his own race, religion, or years. But there is no Martin Luther King, Jr. without church on Sunday.
Naturalists can achieve this because our natural universe is awesome, reason is our ally, and the power of compassion is real. But it will require of us true freedom from fear, hate, and greed. Let us explore, together, the way out.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.
Further Reading on this:
Naturalist Practice: The Big Picture
Our Vision Statement (esp #7, “What we are not”)
Distractions to Spiritual Practice (esp Part 4, “Fixing the World”)
Links to some political and social action organizations that may be of interest to many Spiritual Naturalists:
Charity Navigator (Checking the legitimacy and performance of charities)
League of Women Voters (For basic information on candidates)
Charter for Compassion (Helping to make compassion more integral all areas of society)
Kiva (For microloans to help the poor build a living)
Foundation Beyond Belief (Non-religious charitable organization)
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) (Supporting equal rights for all)
Sierra Club (Action on climate change and the environment)
Corporate Reform Coalition (Working to get corruption and money out of politics)
National Organization for Women (NOW) (Supporting the rights of women)
NAACP (Supporting the rights of people of color and all minorities)
Coalition of Immokalee Workers (Working for economic justice)
The Humane Society (Supporting animal rights and protection of animals)
Freethought Equality Fund PAC (Political action committee for freethinkers)
Americans United for Separation of Church and State (Church/State separation)
American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) (Promoting science)
Please note: the links provided here are for convenience and to help spark ideas for the reader interested in brainstorming some possible ways of becoming socially and politically active. Organizations listed here are not necessarily formally connected with SNS. Inclusion in this list should not be taken as an SNS endorsement or agreement with every position or action of such organizations or those in them. We expect our members and readers will vary as individuals and may have vastly different opinions of these organizations. There are many other organizations whose missions may be very worthy, and their absence should not be taken to mean otherwise. Readers are advised to use their own good judgment after careful research before getting involved with any organization.