Approaches to a New Religious Sensibility
Adam Blatner

January 30, 2009

In the course of preparing a series of lectures on the history of medicine, and more specifically, the lecture on the evolution of germ theory, I was struck by the degree of groping towards the truth based on different kinds of circumstantial evidence, before the technology came available (in the form of better microscopes, staining techniques, culturing techniques) to offer somewhat more direct evidence. There were a jumble of theories and new ideas vying for acceptance. In another part of my mind, I have been pondering themes relating to the evolution of religion.

Continuing today is a widespread practice of acceptance of tradition, what has been written by people who lived not just hundreds, but thousands of years ago! That these writers in the past knew nothing of the horizons that have opened up because of science seems to not damage their credibility.

Recently, I’ve been impressed with a dynamic whereby people actually feel more virtuous, more courageous, noble, and righteous because they have worked out a way of suppressing their rational capacities in the service of believing that which would ordinarily offend their intellectual sensibilities. (The occasion for this realization has been a report in a recent Newsweek Magazine about both Jewish and Christian fundamentalist scholars who claim that one is not truly spiritually aligned unless one fully accepts God’s promise of literal physical resurrection.) This is a kind of mental anorexia nervosa, a suppression of natural functions in the service of pride and an illusion of surrendering to something greater or more powerful. It is a strange sort of solipsism, because believing in the impossible is one of the not-uncommon traditions in established religions in the West. Some teachers seem to actually be asking for their followers to do just this—to believe in the face of doubt!

This act of mental self-castration is paired with another more plausible ideal, using a similar word, “faith,” which involves turning towards one’s ideals and away from temptations to more unworthy patterns of thinking. In other words, noble intention acts to strengthen magical thinking, lending it a veneer of goodness.

This was one of many phenomena that has continued to deepen my doubts about the validity of the general religious tradition, yet I have also found certain elements in this tradition that strike me as profoundly healthy. Part of my life journey has been teasing out and identifying more clearly what to keep and what I think we need to relinquish.

To keep: A general sense of what it’s about. Yet this meta-model, while serving as a general uplifting guide, must remain flexible and open to ongoing revision in light of new discoveries.

More important is the key point that having a general sense of what the goal is about should not be imagined to do more than a little bit in helping us to moving toward that goal. As an analogy, having a more accurate map of the United States and knowing geographically where our destination might be—say, we lived in Los Angeles and wanted to travel to New York City—would help, but also needed would be a very extensive infrastructure that included a mode of transportation, mode of re-fueling, ways to create that fuel, modes of accessing safe places to eat and rest, some protection from the extremes of weather, and so forth. If we had perfect maps but lived two hundred years ago, the trip might still be as difficult—if not nearly impossible.

Similarly, we need a spirituality that will not deceive us into relying on short-cuts that will weaken our will to create the full infrastructure of ways to advance spiritually.

Another element that needs to shift: It becomes less tenable to maintain the idea that I—or even more generously, “we”—can be “saved” and go to heaven while the rest of the world, if not going to hell, nevertheless wallows in its own many forms of suffering and folly. As we have become aware of the inter-dependence of not only all people (in a global economy), the impossibility of true isolationism, and the interdependence also of all life on a planet that is in danger of ecological pollution and resource exhaustion, old alliances and modes of belief become no longer adaptive. Us-versus-them just doesn’t work the way it did in centuries past.

Beyond the challenge of inter-faith spirituality, there is also the seeming divide between science and religion, and the forces of secularism continue to grow. Why, it might be asked, do we need many of the elements of religion—and in particular, the hierarchy of clergy, their authority and the foundations of that authority in writings, the mythology and creed, and the nature of belief that is implied—really believing—, the denial that this is a political force, and so forth? One answer is that religion is a source of morality, but it requires little study to realize that high levels of ethical sensibility and morality have been achieved by thoughtful people throughout history, often arising within and not infrequently without the frameworks of any specific religion.

Of those who have evolved their ideals within a religion, many of those ideals by no means require a belief in the underlying dogma; rather, they reflect a desire to capture the ethical essence beyond the ritual and tradition. One could imagine that Jesus or St. Francis of Assisi or other revolutionaries might have been born into other cultures, in China or India, and their words may have been roughly the same: I don’t care what is officially and technically the rules, let’s look at the real nature of people, let’s consider what it means to become more sharply conscious.

Psychology as an Expanded Kind of Science and also Spirituality

In addition to the horizons of astronomy and biology, sub-atomic physics and other “hard” sciences, there has emerged another group of sciences that are less clear-cut, but no less valid: In the realms of human mind, the fields that explore child development and imagination development, art and music, aesthetics and ethics, communications and history, philosophy and sociology, maturing theories of psychopathology and healing, parapsychology and dream work, and on and on—I put all these within the general meta-field of psychology-writ-large. I also put into this category the essential insights of Siddartha Guatama, known as the Buddha.

Though many people have made a kind of religion out of Buddhism, in its essence, the doctrine is much closer to a kind of depth psychology. It examines the nature of illusion and speaks to the activity of dissolving illusion.

Shamanism and other ventures into altered states of consciousness also needs to be included in that vast field of inquiry that I associate with psychology.

In short, I would suggest that our view of reality extend beyond the materialistic—i.e., explorations into matter and its interactions in and with time, space, and energy—and include as an equal dimension that of mind, psyche, and all its permutations. Now if you can re-cognize this as another frontier of reality, as real as the frontiers of space, the nature of energy, the nature of the micro-micro realms (size), or of the extremely fast or extremely slow frontiers of understanding, then it leads to if nothing else a pondering of the reality that people have imagined God. As Jung noted, this may reveal nothing at all about God other than something about the ways God is imagined by humanity.

We might dare to even imagine how God is imagined by non-humans. (Well, I’ve imagined this!) That this is science fiction is irrelevant—what’s at stake here is the idea that the expansion of our capacity to imagine may be as valid a frontier or mental technology as the advances made in microscopy—and there were many of these—over the last five hundred years.
      So, to pause and restate:

I want to propose that, in rough alignment with the suggestion of Ken Wilber in his recent book, Integral Spirituality, that the religious impulse, the spiritual intelligence, should and ultimately will continue to evolve. This is also in line with a book, Religion in the Making, written by Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), another philosopher I like. In this paper, I’m exploring some of the ways this evolutionary process may proceed.

What has struck me this morning is that very little of the mythology of the major religions is either relevant or necessary today, and indeed, most operates to hinder fresh thinking. This idea was stimulated into greater clarity by reading about how there had been hundreds of traditional but totally erroneous and speculatively vacuous theories about the nature of sickness and what would facilitate healing before more scientific discoveries began to clear the air. Nor was this process smooth. One pioneer, self-named “Paracelsus,” in the 16th century, dared to defy and even burn the teachings of the established authorities in medicines. His own theories had a few grains of good sense, but themselves were laced—no, more than laced, filled!—with weird speculations that were as bizarre as the doctrines he rejected. In many other historical episodes, pioneers and discoverers really had insights that were definitely progress, but also mixed with some error and some partial truth—and their work also needed to be revised, superseded, and the creative process continues even today. Nothing is settled, because each discovery always has edges that invite further investigation.

My interest in religion, on reflection, resonated with the psychological effects of faith, the enthusiasm, the conviction, the meaning-giving, the community-generating elements. Religion as a socio-psychological phenomenon has validity in its functions, which is not the same as saying that the doctrines on which traditional religion rests is therefore valid. Rather, it’s the process of building a system of meaning that can be shared in a group. It seems to me that we’re at the brink of being able to distill out a number of elements—the functions, certain ideals or archetypes, common denominators, and the like, and begin to generate new, more flexible, up-to-date models.

Of course this process has begun in many ways, from the emergence of the new religions of Bahai and Unitarianism in the early 19th century to Religious Science and New Thought near the end of that century. Secular religions such as Ethical Culture emerged in the 20th century. My hunch is that a bit of mysticism is needed, to account for and include the deeper, less easily articulated experiences of people who, well, have those experiences! (There are those whose mysticism is flagrant, and I think a hundred or hundred thousand times as many whose mystical sense of connectedness, experience of something greater, inclusive, and very powerfully present is an active element in their minds. We need to note that the word, “illusion,” can serve too easily to discount or dismiss what perhaps needs to be drawn forward, cultivated, and understood.

What isn’t needed—and this is crucial!—is the necessity that any clear doctrine or widespread agreement has to happen. This is new, too! I would suggest that what can be put into words is generally a small fraction of what is intuited, sensed, and more often than not, what associations are evoked to a given word—words like reality, truth, goodness, faith, God, Goddess, spirit, soul, eternity, meaning, and so forth—are themselves so varied and full of nuance, permutation, memories, tastes, semi-conscious and unconscious memories, and so forth that for all practical purposes it is impossible to truly generate any commonality of belief or orthodoxy. This is okay!

That’s part of the new paradigm! Left-brain-driven language may not be the only criterion or necessary mediator of the emerging spiritual sensibility. I would suggest, though, a few fairly obvious criteria: It needs to be, well, nice. Words like love, faith, caring, inclusiveness, dialogue, and the like need to be more associated with it than their opposites. Yet these words need not be either-or, nor pure, because the mind itself is immature, as is the culture and the species.

A healthy measure of humility is also needed for a contemporary spiritual sensibility. I think it needs to include an awareness of the limitations of human consciousness, the provisional and intermediary level of our collective understanding—that is, we are not by any measure at the peak of our human potential, and therefore cannot presume to make definitive declarations!

Playfulness can and should be included in this process, as it makes more gentle and less tragic the inevitable process of groping towards ever-more-“truth.” A mixture of innocence, wonder, imaginativeness, humor, gentleness, the arts—i.e., poetry, singing, drama, dancing, sculpture, architecture, etc.—, reverence, curiosity, exuberance, and other qualities associated with young-childhood—but that should be recognized as qualities that deserve to be cultivated throughout life!—should also be included in a new vision of religious sensibility.

Of course, the crazy compartmentalization between religion and science needs to be dissolved. Speaking mythically, I envision God saying, “You like me, yes? Then begin to get to know me. Start on the outside: Examine my clothes, my gown. Notice the different parts—and instead of shirt, pants, dress, slippers, consider that my clothes are the different domains of nature: physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, history, agriculture, medicine, etc.—in every sphere, you can learn more about how complicated, many-faceted, many-leveled, continuously mysterious I am. This is part of my glory. A perfectly good prayer would simply be the phrase, ‘Wow!!’”

And God says, “You like me, yes? You want to worship me? Then get that I’m not into being worshiped via praise—I’m not as egocentric as you! Instead, serve my goals: Make the world a better place. Make more music, make more happy togetherness, make peace, not war, stuff like that.”

And in this imagined axiodramatic encounter, you might say, “But will I go to heaven?”

And God says, “Sure, in a manner of speaking. But to do that, you will need to dissolve your illusions about who “you” are, and that’s not easy. Buddha had a pretty good idea, and Jesus, if you read the (Gnostic) Gospel of Thomas, also had a vision of higher consciousness, which is, paradoxically, self-less consciousness.

Part of the paradox is that on one level, you are supposed to be self-centered: Your job is to find out your individual talents, your peculiar imagery, that blending of temperament and strengths that are quite unique—your individuality. Your job is to use that to help make the world a better place. It’s also to heal your own wounds, limitations, weaknesses, temptations, and in learning to heal yourself, perhaps you’ll also learn some lessons about how and why you were sick or lame and use that knowledge or insight to help others with similar problems. So in many ways, I want you to relish and dwell in and with your you-ness.

Now, another part of the paradox is to learn that all of the aforementioned is quite valid, quite real, and yet there is also—also, not instead of—yet other levels of reality. Your you-ness is a temporary aggregation of soul-qualities, but there’s also a domain of you-ness that is not that connected with all of these individual qualities. This is essential consciousness, what is touched by a certain tiny percentage of mystics, but lies within the ultimate potential of everyone to realize. This is what some of the Yogis mean by “self-realization,” and some contemplatives in the mainstream Western tradition also touch into this connection. What this latter group sometimes—usually, but not necessarily—doesn’t understand is that it is not necessary to cling to or believe in the mythology or dogma of their religion in order to touch this essential consciousness. The religion has functioned only as a kind of framework upon which they have been able to climb in their own meditations. (Some kind of framework is needed, however illusory! The mind will generate a framework, and what is being written on these pages is a constructed framework, an act of creative mythmaking, no more ultimately true than any other, except that it may be more in line with contemporary science, rationality, and the needs of today’s cultural changes.)

So psychology needs to be recognized as expanding to include certain aspects of what used to be compartmentalized off as spirituality. They are in fact overlapping—there is no clear boundary. I would suggest that some sense of what life is about, some mythmaking or religious sensibility, acts as a grid for optimal personal development, child-rearing, marriage-making, work, eldering, healing; and in turn, advances in the psychology and techniques for optimizing these component elements are absolutely necessary—not only as delivered by “experts,” but as adapted to personal life by everyone!—in order to implement religious sensibility.

Religious sensibility, in other words, is the same as consciousness raising in all ways. Consciousness and religion in the long run can and should come together, but to do this, what is thought of in association with the word, “religion,” must deeply, fundamentally shift away from (1) a close association with what has dominated religion for the last several thousand years; (2) any sense that a particular belief in any particular supernatural “being(s)” is a requirement; (3) any association with the tradition of un-thinking acceptance; (4) a withdrawal from the general challenge of making the world a better place in every way, and a focus on the building of church-like places, and holding “worship” services.  Other types of communal celebrations are possible, in many settings. The artificial division between sacred and profane needs to be questioned, and creativity itself becomes a fundamental value. Heresy is in, is fun, is science fiction. What is taken seriously is playing nice, but the content need not be terribly serious. There is room for provisional exploration, for trying out ideas and activities, and sharing them.

Rational discourse, dialogue, even friendly argumentation is encouraged. However, it’s also recognized that lots of folks aren’t into too much left-brain work, and non-rational activities can also be honored—poetry, paradox, comedy, music, and so forth. Indeed, both modes complement each other. (Somehow in here I don’t want to overlook the power of cooking, tastes, smells, rituals, songs, closeness, family-feeling, spectacle, impressive productions, awe, and other elements that so impress children with the majesty of opening to mysteries, depth, and bigness.) Yet I believe that all this is potentially possible without recourse to a demand for submission to the authority of a clergy or the recitation of a creed.

A contemporary religious sensibility partakes in the cultural trend towards transcending ethnicity, with President Obama’s multi-racialism being a symbol for being multi-all-sorts-of-stuff. This is tricky, because I have residues of ethnic allegiance that tug at my subconscious, so conditioned was I—and I was far less conditioned than many others of my mid-20th century generation. But I think this period is passing, and should pass. Increasingly, young people are falling in love with others whose background is different—different races, religions, national heritage, types of all sorts. This reality needs to be recognized as being of as great a significance as Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses or some other tipping point in history.


I’m coming ‘round to some new mental Gestalts, a way of resolving my perplexity about religion. I’m beginning to discern what is essential and valid, thanks to many people’s help, and also the synchronicity of comparing the evolution of religion to the evolution of thinking in medicine! (I hadn’t expected that!) I hope the aforementioned pages will stimulate discussion and your feedback can then help me continue in the evolution of my understanding.  Email me at