Religious, not Spiritual and the Cult of the Teddy God

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 teddystuffing. 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. 

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Magical Computers, or Why You Don’t Eat Clam Ice Cream

One of the things that often frustrates me about some modern Pagans, or practitioners of various spiritual disciplines of witchever (yeah, intentional) kind is the move towards thoughtless hodge-podgery. Now, I don’t mean eclecticism–there’s nothing wrong with drawing on elements of different but related traditions. What I’m talking about is the thoughtless blending of anything that catches one’s eye.

Let’s use cooking as an example. I love a good steak. I also love my sister’s homemade strawberry freezer jam. But ewwwthe two just don’t go together very well. And neither one has any business being paired with avocado paste (I’m sure someone will argue, so let’s just agree that you’re completely wrong and what the hell were your parents thinking and I’ll buy you that missing chromosome for your birthday and leave it there). Of course each is great on its own, and works well when combined with a plethora of other foodstuffs. But a little sense goes a long way towards pleasing one’s palate. Luckily, when it comes to food, we’ve all had enough trial and error throughout our lives to get a sense of what works and what doesn’t. It’s not often that we all apply such sense to spiritual practices.

Even within spiritual traditions that, to the outsider, seem intrinsically related, this sort of thoughtless eclecticism can cause profound and far-reaching issues. In his article That’s the Way Indians Do It, Mi’kmaw author Daniel Crowfeather writes,

“Now, as these Nations try to reclaim their heritage, many are adopting ceremonies and practices that rightfully belong elsewhere. This can lead to further loss of their own culture, and to a great deal of confusion caused by potentially conflicting beliefs. As an example, there is a growing circle of Mi’kmaw people who have adopted the Sundance from the plains Nations. The Sundance was originally intended to honour the buffalo, which we have never had here in the Maritimes. Because the Sundance tradition is not strongly rooted in the Mi’kmaw culture, it is also being changed by the adoption: I have heard a Mi’kmaw Sundancer claim that nobody can become a Medicine Person for the Mi’kmaq unless they have completed a full commitment to the Sundance. Apparently the Mi’kmaq have been doing it wrong for over ten thousand years…In this case, the adoption of someone else’s tradition has created confusion and, worse yet, has created rifts between different segments of a Nation.”

To Crowfeather, and to the Mi’kmaw people, the introduction of a Plains First Nation ceremony has been incredibly problematic. Someone has tried to combine strawberry jam with couscous and the result has been stomach-turning. Rather than promote community, friendship, and togetherness, the Sundance has accomplished the opposite when introduced to another system; a system which does not possess the enabling conditions and internalized belief structure that make the ceremony so powerful and vital to the people from whom it originated.

It’s been said that one should master one spiritual system before one begins to learn another, and in my own experience this is true, which brings us to the idea I’m going to call the Magical Computer.

computerWe might think of the human being as a computer (no quips about deus ex machina, please…it’s not as original as you think). And different computers have different internal architecture and different operating systems. Some operate on Windows while others use the iOS. Still, others operate on Android, Linux, Chrome, Blackberry, and so on. Each system has its merits and flaws, and each can accomplish similar things according to its own operational parameters. Spiritual systems are like this. For example, let us assume that Sufism is Windows (after all, Rumi wrote, “close the language door, and open Love’s window…” ha) and Wicca is iOS (because you can cut an Apple to find a pentacle). Both spiritual traditions can create ritual, just as both operating systems can create written documents. The end product (spiritual development) may be the same, but the underlying code and the way each functions is quite different, and they are frequently incompatible.

If we liken a spiritual practice to a program, not all practices work within the operative framework of all religious paths, just as a program designed for Windows won’t work on an Apple computer.  Crowfeather’s comments, quoted above, demonstrate this. Praying, in Arabic, towards Mecca has meaning for a Muslim–an internalized, powerful significance–but what would be the point in, say, a Wiccan doing the same? And what good would it do a Muslim to pray to the Moon? It’s no different than hitting ctrl+alt+del on an iMac; those keystrokes have meaning to someone using a Windows computer (usually ‘goddammit, Gates, you prick!), but not to someone using iOS.

And therein lies the risk in spiritual hodge-podgery. Many modern books on spiritual development, magical systems and mysticism reference the subconscious mind, and it’s use of symbol systems to communicate with us (always, of course, important for those who are Jung at heart). We spend our lives programming imagery into our subconscious–we fill a symbol with a meaning that we internalize; these symbols can be (sub)cultural in origin, or spiritual, or come from a number of other sources. Once again, symbols mean different things to different operating systems; their meaning is not intrinsic. A crescent moon means one thing to a Wiccan and something different to a Muslim. Neither interpretation is wrong. Each is right within the context of its own underlying conceptual framework. If we’re constantly confusing the issue–which we do when we thoughtlessly cobble together Frankenstein spiritual systems (sort of a monster mash…no?), we, at best, stunt our own progress. After all, a dream about a snake has a very different meaning for an ophidiophobe than it does a person who absolutely adores all things serpentine, and cognitive dissonance is only valuable when it forces us to examine what’s causing it. A third degree with whom I’m acquainted works with an Afro-Caribbean goddess as well. He didn’t begin this practice until he had ‘mastered’ the Wiccan system, and even so, he wisely keeps the two practices separate.

In the end, a little thought and a little consideration regarding why we do something can go a long way, just as it does when we expand from why and ask should we? In the end, just as a computer of any type needs electricity, spiritual systems do all tend to agree with the motto of the Greek Mysteries–γνῶθι σεαυτόν. Know Thyself. The road to self-knowledge is the one we all walk when we wholeheartedly practice a spiritual system, and in the end that’s the goal we all seek, regardless of which type of computer we choose to frustrate us.

And if we’re not devoted to self-knowledge, well, really…why are we wasting our time?