Is "Spirituality" Any Different Than Religion?

I had a heated debate with my more intelligent other this weekend about our respective beliefs. She's about as non-religious as anyone I know, but declines to believe that death is the beginning of one's non-existence. "If so, then what purpose does life have if this is all there is?" she asks. 

I, for one, believe that because life is indeed so short, we need to take responsibility for it and try to leave the world a little better than it was when you got here. But for her, the notion that consciousness--that something that makes you who you are--could somehow end, is unacceptable.

I suggested that consciousness is not a separate thing, but simply the brain's interpretation of neurons firing in response to stimuli, but my unartful (and uninformed) clinical description didn't convince her. 

She argued that there's still lots we don't know and that, possibly the universe or us all, are somehow connected in some way that preserves our essence once dead. She likened it more to a spiritual thing, but tried to play by my rules and argued for it as a physical process.

She's certainly not the New Age type who's into crystals, the power of pyramids or other bunk; she simply declines to conclude that the end is the end. But I'm also not talking about a more naturalistic appreciation of the universe. Perhaps it's an agnostic approach; without putting words in her mouth, I think she believes there's some kind of afterlife, albeit not the religious type that requires judgement for deeds in this one.

So here's my question: Is this sort of thinking harmful? It seems innocuous enough. But where does one draw the line, if such a line can be drawn? Or does it really matter, since nothing we do now will have any impact on the outcome?

Thoughts on how to approach this is greatly appreciated.

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Comment by Heather Spoonheim on January 10, 2012 at 9:11pm

I think that choosing to disregard facts in order to maintain a belief for emotional reasons is unhealthy.  The only evidence I've seen in terms of mind/brain duality seems to indicate that there is no mind/brain duality.  It is impossible to state that conclusively, so there is some room for agnosticism, but I really think the only rational evaluation is that it is incredibly unlikely.

Past evidence, a philosophical evaluation of mind/brain duality leads to many more unpleasant issues than does the end of existence itself.  The idea of losing any single form of perception (sight, hearing, olfactory, etc) is rather disturbing, but losing all of them is downright horrifying.  Even if we, as our selves, can exist in another plane, what then?  It's the exact same thing over again.  What is the point of infinite lives?  What is the point of an infinite life?

Anyway, perhaps she just has some serious issues with dealing with her own mortality.  I wouldn't tend to push the issue too much, but would try to explore it, gently, I think.

Comment by Skepticlese on January 10, 2012 at 9:35pm

Heather--thanks. I think you're right that it's an emotional response to mortality. Perhaps pointing that out (gently, as you recommend) is a good way to go. We all like to think we're rational beings (there's certainly a time/place for emotions, just not in this debate) and if we point out we are letting them get in the way of rational thought, it's not productive. I suspect this same basic emotional response is what drove much of religious thought early in its evolution, which is why I tend to respond to it with equal disdain, sometimes to my detriment.

Comment by Heather Spoonheim on January 10, 2012 at 9:46pm

Yes, well I really hate magical thinking and generally will not tolerate it being expressed, unopposed, in my presence.  That being said, I know some people have a lot riding on the idea of an afterlife, and I usually try to ask them what it is that detracts so much from the value of this life for them.

Comment by Suzanne Olson-Hyde on January 11, 2012 at 12:38am

People find it really hard to think once they are dead - that's it. All the knowledge, experiences, feelings of love for people, no more sunrises or sunsets - all finito, never to be felt again.

I believe once you are dead, you are dead - no spirit, nothing. I personally don't find it horrifying, just the way it is. I have no fear of dying, only the process is crap.

Thinking otherwise I think is a tad arrogant, are they so special that the world can't lose them forever. And Skepticlese is right, this is one of the driving forces among religions of all persuasions, there is a better life - somewhere else. No point in getting scientific about it. She is twisting what you are saying to fit her paradigm. This is a belief she wants to hang onto.It is an emotional response, and if I were having these discussions with someone I loved and had respect, I would let them have the dream.

If she is non-religious or Atheist, that is a really good start.

In the scheme of things, it is a small thing, and if it makes her happy - whatever. In the end, she may see it your way - she may not.

Pick your battles.

Comment by Stutz on January 11, 2012 at 1:32am

I like what Heather hinted at in her initial response: if you can't imagine what the point of this life is, what, then, do you suppose the point of an afterlife would be?

Clearly it's an emotionally driven belief. The obvious thing that needs to be pointed out is, it doesn't matter what we want to be true, it matters what's actually true. I always wonder to myself, when I hear claims like these (the afterlife, the "law of attraction", etc.), by what possible mechanism such a thing could happen. We could posit some strange hypothesis involving alternate dimensions or quantum physics, but there's precious little to suggest that a mind existing independent of a body is even remotely possible.

Comment by Heather Spoonheim on January 11, 2012 at 1:44am

Yes, Stutz, and there is a LOT suggesting that the mind is nothing more than the result of the brain.  Virtually every aspect of human personality, cognition, and behavior can, and has been observed to, change upon injury to some particular part of the brain.  Nice people can become assholes, and vice versa, mathematical or musical aptitudes can be obliterated, memories wiped out, or the aggressive can become passive and vice versa.

Everything that makes me who I am is stored in my brain, and there isn't a piece of it that can't be destroyed by zapping just the right spot in my brain.  How then, could complete obliteration of the brain, suddenly result in zero deletion of my consciousness?  The only reasonable answer that I can see is that it can't.

Even if my 'energy' continues to linger on through some other medium, without any of my memories or the wetware of my personality, what part of that energy could possibly be considered 'me' as I currently identify 'me'?  It just seems non-sequitur.


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