Spiritual Species in a Secular Age

For the last several years, I have served at a small, midwestern church that is nearly 140 years old. By American standards, that’s a fairly old church. There are some families here that have four generations that worship and serve the community together. The space where generations have worshiped and prayed together has also been the very same place where generations have consecrated their newly born, blessed their wedded, and grieved their dead. 

Not too long ago I visited a congregant who is in the late stages of dementia. His wife, who he met at the church decades ago, was throwing him an 80th birthday party. Childhood friends who grew up with him at the church shared stories of youthful Sunday school hijinks and sweet memories of meaningful “mission trips” to build homes and shelters for those in need around the world. Though my friend could not remember these stories himself anymore, I, a man in my late thirties, was gaining wisdom from them as they shared from their collective experiences. We sang a few old hymns (songs that people will almost certainly still sing another eighty years from now) and as I looked up, the memory care nurses who looked on from the back of the room were weeping. This was not the typical birthday experience for most patients in their care. As I drove home that evening, I thought to myself, “Where else in society could I develop such meaningful relationships with people in their 70’s, 80’s, and even 90’s other than church?” 

The spaces where diverse, intergenerational communities that seek the good of their neighbor, encourage charity and virtue, and pursue human flourishing appear to be in decline in America. For even the most secular of Americans, the decline of traditional religion and its replacement by the substitution religions of our secular age should be of concern for all those who share a common interest in human flourishing. 

Recent findings in behavioral and cognitive science suggest that there may be a fundamental religious impulse wired into the human species. When the neuroscientist Andrew Newberg was asked if there was a specific place in the brain responsible for religious experience, he quipped, “If there’s a spiritual part, it’s the whole brain.” If this is true, then perhaps we should disabuse ourselves of this notion bound up in the myth of secularity that we will one day arrive at some religion-free utopia. John Lennon’s secular utopian anthem “Imagine” was as fantastical as any ancient religious myth. Maynard James Keenan’s dark dystopian cover of the song, recorded over 30 years later, feels much more appropriate these days.  The real question isn’t about whether a religious society or a religion-free society is best, but what kind of religions would we prefer to serve as the guiding stories of our society? Perhaps it is time to re-examine what religion actually is and if there are positive insights to be gained from traditional religion that we dismiss at our peril.

When I was a graduate student studying the intersection of religion, philosophy, and human culture, I became enamored with not just the what of religious theological content, but the how of religious practice and its function in human civilization. One of the more fascinating concepts emerging in the discipline of cultural theology at the time was a phrase coined by the philosopher James K.A. Smith called cultural liturgy. Smith’s Cultural Liturgies anthology drew upon the acclaimed work of Charles Taylor to explore how many of the domains we commonly label as “secular” employ liturgical practices that bear striking resemblance to traditional religious liturgies and effectively shape what humans love and see as of ultimate value. 

In our secular age, as traditional religious participation is in decline, we are offered a myriad of secular substitute religions practiced by those who may genuinely, but mistakenly, see themselves as non-religious. From an NFL football game to a political rally or even a comic convention, many who reject traditional religions turn to these experiences with their deeply formational liturgies to fill a religious void in their quest for existential meaning. Understanding how these substitute religions do not ultimately satiate human longings for deep meaning or function to sustain institutions and communities that contribute to long-term human flourishing will be essential if we are to address our present meaning-crisis in the West.

An inability to see something like a pro football game, political rally, or even a comic convention as a religious experience is largely the result of a failure in the modern Western imagination to properly conceptualize and define what religion is. Part of Taylor’s argument in his seminal work A Secular Age is that through a categorical division of the spiritual and physical, the sacred and the secular, the transcendent and the immanent, we have bifurcated our conscious experiences of reality into two boxes. Over the course of the last several centuries, Western culture slowly shrank the spiritual box and increasingly made whatever contents that were squeezed into this shrinking domain more personal and private, while the secular box ever-expanded. What was secular, i.e. the physical and immanent, became what we now deemed as real and what we can share together publicly as true.

In the private spiritual box went all that we deemed as supernatural – a word conspicuously absent from the sacred texts of any of the great monotheistic traditions. This labeling included all of the traditional religions birthed in a pre-modern world with their archaic beliefs in gods, spirits, angels, demons, and anything else that could not fit within the framework of reductive naturalism. The secular box laid exclusive claim to the domains of science, math, politics, economics, education, sports, and even the arts. 

By accepting these categorical distinctions between sacred and secular, we are fundamentally misunderstanding a more holistic view of what religion is and its centrality to the human experience. This is where the work of cognitive and behavioral scientists like Robert Kegan, Clay Routledge, Michael Steger, John Vervaeke, and many others on the psychology of meaning becomes central to properly redefining what religion is. Properly understood, religion is simply a word we can use to define the chief guiding story, interpretive lens, and ecology of practices that sit atop the hierarchy of one’s meaning-making endeavor. For some, their religion may be expressed in a more traditional guiding story and community of practice such as what one could find in Jewish or Christian communities, but for others, their religion may be sports, politics, activism, scientism, or DIY (do-it-yourself) spirituality. These secular substitutes function as religions insofar as they function as the chief guiding story and locus of meaning for one’s life. 

I first became familiar with this concept of meaning-making as a grad student when I encountered the work of Robert Kegan and a paper he wrote in 1980 entitled Making Meaning: The Constructive-Developmental Approach to Persons and Practice along with a subsequent book he authored two years later called The Evolving Self. At the core of Kegan’s work was the argument that humans are fundamentally wired to be meaning-hunters and meaning-interpreters, and that this hunt to find and make meaning out of our experiences of the world is an inescapable part of the developmental process, beginning in infancy and continuing onward throughout life. Put more simply, we are not born into this world with answers as to why we exist at all or what our purposes or aims in life should be beyond our evolutionary instincts to survive and reproduce, nor do we inherently possess answers to any of the full range of questions that can haunt the minds of professional philosophers and curious children alike.

As we experience the world and search for meaning in these experiences, we do not merely collect points of data to plug into some dispassionate existential spreadsheet. We see ourselves and the world we inhabit within a narrative framework. We see ourselves in a story. From prehistoric cave paintings to the latest box-office superhero fantasy epic, we are enamored with stories and look to stories to find our place in it all. Unlike any other species we are aware of on the planet, humans are storied creatures. When we are young, our primary caretakers are the first to give us a guiding story. From Aesop’s Fables and nursery rhymes to Sunday school Bible stories, these stories supply the initial answers to our meaning-making endeavor shaping our values and ethical imagination.

But what are we fundamentally searching for in these guiding stories? As Michael Steger, along with co-author Frank Martela wrote in a 2016 paper in The Journal of Positive Psychology, our experience of meaning is undergirded by three pillars: coherence, purpose, and significance. So even in the foundational guiding stories told to us in our childhood, we are searching for answers to three questions: 

  1. Does reality have a repeatable, discernible pattern? (the question of coherence)
  2.  Is there an overarching goal to life? (the question of purpose)
  3. Do I play any specific role as an individual in life’s overarching purpose? (the question of significance)

We deeply long for guiding stories that positively answer those three questions. Sometimes in our quest we begin to realize how many guiding stories are nestled within larger and deeper guiding stories, deriving their answers to the questions of coherence, purpose, and significance from that deeper guiding story. As a practical illustration, take the box office sensation of 2021, Spider-Man: No Way Home. As superhero films go, it had a unique ethical vision in which the heroes defeat the villains, not by simply beating them to a bloody pulp or even by sacrificing their own life to stop them, as seen in countless superhero stories, but by helping to exorcize the villains’ demons and forgiving them. For those who, whether consciously or subconsciously, come to these movies on their meaning-making endeavor longing for an ethical vision from these modern myths of what a heroic life looks like, what they find in this film is a guiding story that draws upon another deeper, older guiding story. A hero that exorcizes demons and forgives sins instead of killing his enemies resonates with us, not because it is an original story with incontrovertible, self-evident truths about morality, but because it draws upon a much deeper archetype that has been of undeniable importance to our culture in the gospel stories of Jesus of Nazareth. If you were to try and make a religion out of this Spider-Man movie, you would have to, whether you were conscious of it or not, borrow from Christianity.

So how do these guiding stories relate to religion? Religion is about the pursuit of the deepest, truest, highest, and most beautiful guiding story. It is the quest to find the ultimate True Story that all other true stories derive their trueness from. It is the quest to find the deepest level of coherence, purpose, and significance. One of the great deficiencies of secular substitute religions is that any truth, goodness, or beauty we experience within them are wholly dependent on deeper, more robust guiding stories. Substitute religions are contingent stories. They draw upon, often unconsciously, the truth, goodness, and beauty of those deeper traditional religious stories.

Still, many who have been disenchanted by the secular age may struggle with using the word religion in this way because they conceive of religion as necessarily being about beliefs about “supernatural” entities and beings. A la Richard Dawkins, they think religion is about magic spells and fairies. This too is an unhelpful mischaracterization that can limit productive dialogue between those who explicitly profess to be secular and those who profess some traditional religious adherence. 

The 20th-century theologian Paul Tillich argued that the word God should be understood as a word that refers to that which is of “ultimate concern.” Again, when we conceive of words like “religion” or “God” trapped within the frame of the secular age, we miss what was obvious to every pre-modern person on the planet. Everyone has a concern that they prioritize as their ultimate concern. Everyone has an ultimate guiding story. Everyone has an idea or value that’s enthroned over all their other values as their chief pursuit and aim. In the existential mode of Tillich, or Kierkegaard before him, whatever it is that is of ultimate concern to us is functionally God to us.  The modern person embedded in the secular West has simply decided to rule out the possibility of transcendent concerns serving as our ultimate concern because, in the wake of the Nietzschean death of God, reductive materialism became our ultimate guiding story.

Historically, what the traditional major religions of the world attempted to do was to offer a transcendent ultimate guiding story, a community around that story, and an ecology of practices focused on helping people in this quest for meaning to orient their lives around the transcendent ultimate concern and ultimate reality we call God. If we give up that transcendent pursuit, even while acknowledging that people will inevitably come to differing conclusions on that Ultimate Reality, we too quickly find ourselves descending into a nihilistic abyss – a dark and empty story that denies the coherence of reality, purpose in life, and the significance of the individual. 

The substitute religions of our secular age often present themselves as a life vest that can save us from sinking into that nihilistic abyss, but these substitute religions are woefully deficient in their ability to provide us with a highest good to aim for… and searching for a higher good beyond ourselves appears to be an inescapable part of the human experience! Counter to secularity’s utopian myth that humans, enlightened by the powers of reason, would one day throw off all religious shackles and march in an unfettered parade onwards into a secular paradise, we know now through the work of scientists such as Clay Routledge that the religious impulse to seek the highest good and pursue transcendence beyond the confines of a reductive materialist frame may be an inescapable part of the human experience. Humans may be what Routledge calls a “spiritual species” by nature not by nurture. Nurture and culture merely provide the contextual arena for that fundamental spiritual appetite to find a specific shape and form. 

The question the West must wrestle with now is if this is true and we are a fundamentally spiritual species, then do we really want any of the secular substitute religions to function as the chief guiding story of our civilization? Or are we better served by older and deeper stories that are also committed to semper reformanda (a Latin phrase coined by the Dutch Reformed theologian, Jodocus van Lodenstien meaning always reforming) and can holistically celebrate the meaning to be found in both the immanent and the transcendent?

For those that would treat something as relatively innocuous as pro football as their religion, it should be obvious that it’s a pretty pitiful religion. It does not attempt to answer questions of coherence, purpose, and significance for life outside of the gridiron. Though it has its own internal rules and code of conduct, pro football is not a deep enough guiding story to offer ethical norms for how one should treat the poor or disabled. It does not offer instructions on marriage or child-rearing. Though the money generated by pro football could build hospitals and universities, it cannot internally generate any reason why anyone should build a hospital or university as traditional religion does. We laud and praise athletes who do charitable work in the community, because, whether we are consciously aware of it or not, we are deriving that sense of morality from some older, deeper, and higher guiding story. 

In a quest for some touch of transcendence, Western culture is increasingly replete with a nearly endless buffet of DIY spiritual practices that typically fall under the fashionable category of self-care. There can be little doubt as to the scientifically-informed health benefits of a “spiritual” regiment of meditation, mindfulness, or breathwork, as just a few examples. Psychedelics also seem to be an increasingly en vogue option for those longing for a taste of transcendence. Talk to just about anyone who has tried psychedelics like psilocybin or DMT and you’ll find that very few of them walk away as reductive materialists. Research at Johns Hopkins University confirms the anecdotes. More than half of 2,500 participants who took DMT and  “ had previously self-identified as atheists described some type of belief in a higher power or God after taking DMT.” So why not build for yourself a DIY, Joe Rogan-esque religious regiment of fitness, meditation, and the occasional psychedelic trip to scratch that transcendence itch? Could this be a satisfactory enough substitute religion to satisfy our quest for meaning and produce human flourishing?

Whatever potential good these practices may produce, DIY spirituality is still deficient in several key areas compared to traditional religion, especially the traditional expressions of Christianity that are most relevant to our particular context here in the West. First, similar to sports as religion or politics as religion, DIY spirituality as religion is a contingent story dependent on a deeper guiding story to define what is true, good, and beautiful at all. Arguably the most common form of meditation practiced in the West is not done by those who have a fundamental commitment to the Buddhist guiding story but is done under the umbrella of “self-care” or mental health. But why should we care for ourselves at all? What is the goal or telos of this practice? Are there any immoral forms of self-care? Again, there are deeper answers here that we too easily assume to be true, good, or beautiful without realizing that we are often importing values from the deeper guiding stories of traditional religion. 

In their pursuit of the Transcendent, traditional religious communities often uncover timeless social and ethical wisdom that they then disseminate through the collective efforts of networked communities and multi-generational, stable institutions. The power of these networked communities and stable institutions are frequently turned outward, deriving their sense of meaning from the guiding stories that call them to a life of virtue and service in the world. The YMCA, Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity, St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital and countless other faith-based charities have played vital roles in decreasing human suffering and increasing the sense of purpose and individual significance of those who donate, volunteer, work in or have been helped by these organizations. Nebulous consumeristic spirituality doesn’t build hospitals, religious institutions do.

In healthy traditional religious communities, where the community pursues an ever-reforming alignment of their lives with the noblest virtues and the highest vision of the Good that centuries, if not millennia, of theological reflection can produce, there are more timeless ultimate concerns and values at the center of the community that bind people together who would otherwise be divided by other concerns set in the center. Over the last couple of years during the pandemic, I heard many stories from pastors who were navigating the tensions in their community surrounding masks, vaccinations, and a contentious political election season. As odd as it may sound, I told several of these pastors that debates happening in their churches about these issues could actually be a sign of health. If their communities could stay together and not be torn asunder by the culture war, it would be a sign that something deeper than partisan politics was at the center holding them together. While many news headlines grabbed onto stories of churches who marched lock-step with the ideological talking points of Fox News or MSNBC, there were many more religious communities underneath the radar of national attention who were not functioning as partisan curated echo chambers. If you want to get out of a political echo chamber, join a healthy church community.

As culture war-fueled politics increasingly becomes the substitute religion with the largest and most zealous congregation, the remnant of traditional religious communities that can hold in tension the values of both inherited wisdom and semper reformanda will remain as one of the few places left in society where people can disagree on politics and still remain in loving community together. If you see political polarization as a threat to a virtuous and flourishing society, then you should cheer for the stability and well-being of healthy religious communities. One significant contributing factor to intense political polarization is “inaccurate stereotypes individuals hold about those from the other side of the political aisle.” How does one dispel the inaccurate caricatures of others who hold to different political opinions? By actually getting to know the real flesh and blood persons who hold to those perspectives, not the strawman portrayed by for-profit, political talking heads or the social media trolls who accumulate their influence by mastering the outrage algorithm. If you’re going to truly get to know people different from you you will need a guiding story higher than partisan politics to bring you together. You need a transcendent story. As a friend of mine likes to say, “Politics is about the now. Religion is about the forever.”

Finding a religious community where meaningful relationships exist between red-state and blue-state people is not just some idyllic theory, mind you. I have seen this in practice countless times. I know families that are left-leaning and families that are right-leaning that have raised their children in the same church community together and ended up having a child from each family get married when they became adults. Neither family demonizes the other as being the villains. They recognize that they each have some different opinions on the best political applications of their faith, but a bigger story unites them. It’s quite the antidote to the perpetual echo chamber outrage cycle many of us subject ourselves to day and night.

Perhaps politics became our biggest guiding story because the deeper guiding story of our secular age told us that the universe is a story of mindless, chaotic, and random statistical chance and that there is no transcendence to pursue. 

“In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at  bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”- Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (p. 133)

Do we really want to dismiss the guiding stories of traditional religion that offer us a sense of coherence, purpose, and significance and can unite human communities in shared ventures to love their neighbors, and maybe even their enemies, for a guiding story that would tell us that behind it all is “blind, pitiless indifference”? Is Dawkins’ story a story that humans can even inhabit? We are storied creatures who cannot help but search for meaning. Is it any wonder that inhabiting a story where the blind and pitilessly indifferent god we have dubbed as “the Universe” has produced in us an unprecedented meaning-crisis? The absence of meaning in that story is unbearable.

We are spiritual species, and the longing for transcendence can only be walled off for so long before the levees break. We chaotically deconstruct and demolish our traditional religious communities and institutions at our own peril. Can all of them be correct on every point of belief? Obviously not. Are reforms needed? Perpetually. But when you reach the twilight of your life, when body and mind slowly begin to fail, your favorite professional athletes, movie stars, political talking heads, or Tik Tok spirituality gurus won’t be there to surround you with love. In those moments, you’ll be glad you had a church to share your meaningful life with together.

Paul Anleitner
Paul Anleitner
Paul Anleitner writes, teaches, and facilitates public dialogues on the intersection of theology & culture, philosophy, and science. He has degrees in history from the University of Michigan and a Master’s in Christian Thought from Bethel Seminary (St. Paul, MN) where he graduated with highest honors. He is the host of Deep Talks:Exploring Theology & Meaning-Making - a podcast dedicated to nuanced, non-combative dialogue & educational lectures about historic Christian theology & our crisis of meaning in the West. Paul currently resides near St. Paul, Minnesota with his wife and children where he also is a pastor serving the state’s oldest free church community.
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