“I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual.”
This phrase is uttered a lot these days, and tends to mean “I have spiritual beliefs and / or practices but I do not adhere to any codified religion or belong to any religious institution.” The lack of those professing any religious adherence (such as those checking “none” in the religious category on a census form) is also held up as indicative of a movement towards a-religiosity among those in the modern West. However this position is not inherently a movement towards atheism, which is held by many in the New Atheist movement to be the default human spiritual position before the teaching of religion occurs. Many opposed to religion often argue that if human civilizations were wiped out and we started from scratch that Christianity / Judaism / Hinduism / Buddhism (etc) would not develop again. This is generally held up to be proof that revealed religion is total bunk and a human invention.
Well, bra-fuckin’-vo. Of course religions are invented! This does not, however, negate their importance or do away with the basic truths that religions attempt to teach—truths based on human nature, which itself doesn’t change. Spirituality, however, is an entirely different matter, and is rooted right in those truths.
Take, for example, one particular god prevalent in the West—the god of childhood innocence and safety. You know him. We all do. His name is Teddy, and he’s usually depicted in the form of a bear. He’s also been invoked in the Church of the Velveteen Rabbit, and through the Sacred Hymns of Raggedy Ann. As adults we have read of his importance, and remembered our childhood, when he appeared as a tiger to the young prophet Calvin (not John Calvin, who was a dick). If you don’t know him in one of his forms, you’re a heartless bastard and your childhood was probably dull.
If you’ve ever raised a child, or spent time around the very young you’ll find (very quickly, actually) that Teddy is a god to children. To a child, a beloved teddy bear is not a stitched-together piece of fabric and stuffing. He’s alive. Children speak to, and react to, a teddy bear (or any other beloved toy, be it ursomorphic or not) as if it’s a living thing. They invoke his protection when they curl up to sleep, and clutch close this fuzzy little god to defend them from the great devils of innocent childhood—the Monster Beneath the Bed, or He Who Lurks in the Closet.
Now, no one teaches a child that Teddy is a living thing! This is a natural, inherent belief at which children arrive all on their own. They know, as if by instinct, the Sacred Ritual of Furry Protection, in which one clutches Teddy close and he banishes evil, and blocks the frightening thunder of a storm. Children often make propitiatory sacrifices to him—they share an imaginary cup of tea with him, and offer their time, attention and, above all, love.
When I was four years old I needed to have my tonsils removed. Being so young I was frightened of the hospital and it’s strange smells, terrifyingly clad adults, and alien noises. Honestly, this was in Alberta, so you could really say the same thing about Calgary or Edmonton as an adult, but I digress. My nurses, angelic as they were, did everything to my teddy bear first. If I was getting a shot, Teddy got one first, complete with a cotton swab and band-aid. In the OR my last memory before drifting off was watching Teddy breathe through a mask, just as I was doing. And by God, didn’t Teddy get his share of ice cream afterwards! More than the kindness of nurses or their gentleness, Teddy was my stalwart defender, who showed me I had nothing to fear. If he could take the needle, then by Teddy, so could I! Fear is a powerful emotion. But 36 years later I remember the strength of the bear more than I remember the fear. Teddy was a guardian angelic spirit, and this I knew without being told. He would be there, no matter what, and keep me safe (Rooooose….bud….)
Now my point with the above is that spirituality is inherent to the human condition. We build religions on spiritual experiences; religions that, like any art, reflect individual takes on collective truths. Those religions wouldn’t arise again after an apocalypse, but the truths would remain. Some kind of spiritual path would arise again, and it’s rooted deep in who and what we are. Children all recognize the shining knight Teddy as surely as they know the floor is lava (and it is, so don’t step on it while you cross the living room unless you can banish the South effectively). But this essential, at-our-core spirituality is not limited to human beings.
Look at the animal kingdom. Elephants are well known for their funeral rites, sometimes travelling for miles to mourn the loss of one of their own. Sometimes they even gather to mourn a human, as they did in recent years when Lawrence Anthony passed away. There is no evolutionary advantage to this. Rather, gathering for days in one place, as they did for Anthony, could well be a disadvantage. Yet they understand that death has happened. Writing in 2007, Caitlin O’Connell discussed how elephants will gather in silence at the bones of another elephant—even one to whom they have no relation. Even other species are mourned, and gifts of food and other items laid out with the dead animal. Psychologist R.K. Siegel wrote about this in 1980, when my teddy and I were preparing to have our tonsils out:
“…one cannot ignore the elaborate burying behaviour of elephants as a similar sign of ritualistic or even religious behaviour in that species. When encountering dead animals, elephants will often bury them with mud, earth and leaves. Animals known to have been buried by elephants include rhinos, buffalos, cows, calves, and even humans, in addition to elephants themselves. Elephants have [been] observed burying their dead with large quantities of food fruit, flowers and colourful foliage.”
I suppose one could argue that the burials are meant to avoid attracting scavengers, like hyenas. Why, then, the burial offerings?
Jane Goodall has noted a type of swaying dance performed by chimpanzees related to water (there is also a primate swaying dance related to fire water and mating rituals that you can see in pubs on Friday and Saturday nights, but that’s a different matter altogether). She has seen it performed at waterfalls, during thunderstorms, and heavy rains. In 2005 she wrote, in The Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, a passage work quoting in full:
“As he gets closer, and the roar of the falling water gets louder, his pace quickens, his hair becomes fully erect, and upon reaching the stream he may perform a magnificent display close to the foot of the falls. Standing upright, he sways rhythmically from foot to foot, stamping in the shallow, rushing water, picking up and hurling great rocks. Sometimes he climbs up the slender vines that hang down from the trees high above and swings out into the spray of the falling water. This ‘waterfall dance’ may last ten or fifteen minutes….Is it not possible that these performances are stimulated by feelings akin to wonder and awe? After a waterfall display the performer may sit on a rock, his eyes following the falling water. What is it, this water?…If the chimpanzee could share his feelings and questions with others, might these wild elemental displays become ritualized into some form of animistic religion? Would they worship the falls, the deluge from the sky, the thunder and lightning — the gods of the elements? So all-powerful; so incomprehensible.” It is worth watching the short she narrates here. Go watch it; you’ll be glad you did. It’s touching.
Now, I’ve been called a dumb ape by some of my exes, complete with accusations of being fixated on my own banana, but after reading Goodall I’m not so sure it was an insult. And Goodall is not alone in noting this behavior among our close kin.
Laura Kehoe has examined ritualized behavior and even potential shrine-building among chimps. James B. Herrod’s 2014 paper The Case for Chimpanzee Religion makes for fascinating reading, and Marc Bekoff is completely convinced that animals have spiritual experiences, just like humans. Even dumb apes like me!
It seems, then, that spirituality is not unique to us as human beings. For those animals developed enough, wonder at life and sadness at its end, and contemplation of the vast and glorious natural world also exists. And this is the heart and beginning of personal gnosis, itself the very point of Mystery religions like modern Wicca. It’s no secret that Wicca developed at a time when the Industrial Revolution and subsequent urbanization had moved us away from the natural world, and doubtless this loss of a feeling of connection was part of the impetus behind its rapid growth. We need the teddy bear of the wide and magical world around us.
So I am forced to shake my head at the mad Inquisition of the New Atheist movement, which spends its time lambasting religion but never coming to grips with, or trying to understand, the spiritual impetus that underpins it. The spiritual sense of awe and wonder when faced with the natural world and our place within it. A movement which itself acts like a religion, complete with attempts at conversion; sacred, prophetic figures; gatherings; and a quest for answers.
When a child clutches close his teddy bear s/he isn’t just seeking solace in a lack of understanding. S/he is reaching out in an expression of spiritual connection and awe at something else beyond his or her own self. And we find that chimps themselves display the same behavior—seeking the awesome, the wonder and the majesty at a world bigger than themselves. We find elephants understanding the finality of death.
Spirituality is a part of the living condition, it seems, among those who have developed a certain level of cognition. It’s inherent, finding natural expression not just in animals but in ourselves from our youngest days. There is a deep and abiding beauty in it, and in our connection to the world that spins around us; a world that is sometimes scary, sometimes confusing and sometimes terrifying. And that’s the world in which Teddy is needed most, whether we find his as a bear crafted by human hands, or in the fruit laid in a grave by a wise old elephant.