I just got back earlier this week from a week-and-a-half long vacation in Oregon. I had attended a music/art/spiritual festival called Beloved and I also got to see my mother, sister and my eight year old nephew. At Beloved, I got to spend several days camping with thousands of free-spirited hippies, many of whom take their spiritual beliefs very seriously. And I have to say it was a very enlightening experience. I spend my time around mostly secular people who rarely, if ever, show any strong outward signs of religiosity - even those who believe in god. So after speaking and spending time with several thousand people who'd probably self identify as "spiritual," I have gained a new perspective.
I wasn't there to preach to anybody. In fact I kept my atheism in the closet the whole time. I was there to learn. I was there to absorb. I was there to warmly educate myself on a slice of humanity that I rarely encounter. "Beloveds" as the attendees are called, are free-spirited hippie types, who mostly feel very passionately about the earth, the environment, humanity and humankind's connection to the spirit world.
Sunday Assembly didn't quite rub me the right way. I was amazed however at some of the people attending who really seemed deeply and sincerely connected to whatever spirits they believed in.
In a conversation I had with this woman from Portland, I told her I was more philosophical rather than spiritual. The difference I explained to her, after she asked, is that I don't pray, or sacrifice or perform any rituals, but instead I focus on the ideas behind proposed beliefs. The festival was filled with people talking about spiritual "energy" along with magic crystals and rituals that can alter the universe. One of the speakers, Michael Meade, spoke about respecting the "divine" and when he did so he made it a point to say that he didn't mean the traditional god of Christianity, who has a bunch of archaic rules for you. He meant by the "divine" any way that you see the spiritual force out there. This was, I assume, because there was a plurality of beliefs that the beloveds hold to, but the vast majority of them reject traditional theism.
There wasn't any particular version of spirituality at the festival. There seemed to be a mixture of Buddhism, Sihkism, Hinduism, Sufism, and various other forms of spirituality and animism. I'm not sure that a traditional theist would fit in there, although I did met one guy who was walking around, apparently high on drugs, telling people that angels were around them. When asked about the angels, he said it was the angel Gabriel, the same one that supposedly spoke to Mary and Mohammad. I didn't go all militant atheist on his ass because that would have ruined the mood of the festival. I wasn't there to preach, but to listen. I was able to see in this guy a sense of peace and we agreed that the world needs a heavy dose of it. This is something that atheists and theists/spiritualists alike can work together on.
And this brought up another point. There was such camraderie among the attendants, such love and gratitude, that I began to wonder whether belief in some higher power -whatever that is - is a necessary requirement for humans to bond with such high levels of love and mutual respect. Can the same be achieved without a positive belief in something beyond nature? I think human beings are for the most part, evolutionarily designed to be religious in some sense. Religious beliefs help glue the tribal bond and allow us to know who is an insider and an outsider, who is a serious devoted member of the tribe and who isn't. While this helped our ancestors who were living in small tribes thousands of years ago, today it is mostly a handicap. It's easy for a bunch of people who think very similar to get along, the hard part is getting along with those you think radically different with.
There were nudists about, including some nice looking female ones. A conservative Christian, Muslim or Jew would have a real big problem seeing so many young people out and about with no clothes on and no shame. Their god would disapprove. Such activities would even be illegal in many Muslim majority countries. There you have your conflict. I'd certainly side with the free-spirited hippies, but the war of ideas involves much more than just chants of peace. It involves strategy, well formulated ideas and debate.
I ran into two guys who actually held to a conservative view of the world. They were enthusiastic second amendment proponents who thought that a war between armed citizens and the government was immanent. They lit me up on some good weed as we talked about the two basic demographics found in Oregon, "hunters and hippies" they said. They were both living out in the middle of nowhere in areas far away from people and they liked it that way. Then I noticed that they were a couple when I noticed they were holding each other and being affectionate. There is nothing wrong with being gay and conservative on guns, but it took me as a surprise that the two most prominent gay males at a liberal hippie festival were probably the two most conservative attendants there.
My sister is deeply spiritual. She prays over every meal, she blesses her water, she believes in magic crystals, faith healing, astrology, numerology and that prayer affects the universe. She thinks the trees tell her things and she gets very upset over almost all expressions of anger or negativity. This as you can imagine makes it very difficult for me to communicate with her being that I'm a very polemic atheist and all. But since she invited me to the festival, I wasn't there to preach to her. I instead listened. And so I let her preach to me about many of her beliefs. We didn't debate, as I feel that would have ruined the mood of the vacation. My sister is also the kind of person who doesn't like confrontation. I found it very hard to communicate with her because of this. It seemed impossible for me to even have a basic conversation because our worldviews are so different and I feel that it would inevitably become a conflict. And so I regretfully spent a lot of time simply avoiding conversation with her. There's no convincing my sister that her spiritual beliefs are false. She goes by personal experience, just like a lot of religious people do. To her, she knows the spirit world is real because some of her prayers have came true. The ones that didn't I suppose were because she was praying for the wrong things. Either way, you'll get a confirmation bias that always keeps you in belief. So I let her preach to me and what I got was pretty much in line with the new-age spiritual movement, that there are conscious forces out there that can affect nature and that you can tune into them by performing the right rituals, sacrifices and prayers.
Her spirituality seems to be where many religious people are evolving to who are moving away from traditional monotheism. Personally, I'd rather deal with a new-age spiritual type than a traditional religious fundamentalist, but it's also possible to be a spiritual fundamentalist, and my sister pretty much is one. A non-religious theist is in some ways easier for me to get along with than a spiritual fundamentalist. So I have mixed views on these kinds of issues.
So what have I learned from Beloved? Well, I share many of the same values as the Beloveds. I care about the environment, I care about where we get our energy, how we treat animals; I want peace and acceptance, I want an end to our current economy and global financial system that is based off of greed with little regard for its negative impact on the environment, animals and people. I want humankind to live in mutual respect with nature and not to destroy it. The difference is that I don't see nature as having any sort of consciousness to it that can respond in any way to my thoughts or desires. And that's why I consider myself philosophical, and not spiritual. There are some forms of spirituality that are benign that wouldn't necessarily bother me. And I could live with spiritual types who agree with my politics and motivations just as I can live with non-religious theists and deists.
I did leave with a certain respect for those who feel deeply connected with the earth and nature. I was amazed when I saw people praying and sacrificing to what they strongly believe exists out there. Even though I disagree with their ontology, I can respect a symbolic propitiation to nature to show your gratitude. I don't want to let myself go unaffected by the experience, so I may be incorporating some of the things I learned, along with one of my favorite philosophers, Alan Watts, in the future.