Does materialism exclude spirituality?
- Published on 24 October 2011
- Written by Nicholas C. DiDonato
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All too often people simply assume that while religion and science may conflict, spirituality and science exist in harmony. Thus, they can be “spiritual but not religious” and stay within the bounds of science. Against this assumption, Paul Voelker (Loyola University of Chicago) argues that many tenets of spirituality conflict with naturalism, though he does not think this precludes a fruitful dialogue between science and spirituality or religion in general.
Voelker outlines three points of contention: dualism, morality, and the interaction between science and spirituality (or religion). By “spirituality,” Voelker avoids a direct definition, and simply notes that it “typically involves beliefs concerning God, gods, spirits, souls, or consciousness capable of existing without any material or physical substrate.”
First, concerning dualism, Voelker argues that spirituality (as well as Christianity and Buddhism) depend on mind-body dualism and thus contravene modern neuroscience. Neuroscience, as interpreted by naturalists, equates the mind with the brain—the physical realm can fully explain the mental. Given that many spiritualities assert a mind or spirit independent of the body, conflict with science seems inevitable. Put more strongly, naturalistic neuroscience explicitly excludes the idea of a spiritual self outside of the material.
Furthermore, Voelker cites research indicating that biology hardwires people to believe in mind-body dualism. In this way, such research undermines the intuitive belief of the independence of the mind from the body by suggesting that default beliefs do not necessarily pan out to be true beliefs (e.g., intuitively, the sun orbits the earth). Voelker points out the dilemma: either (a) spiritual belief conflicts with science over the duality of the mind or spirit, or (b) the idea of a body-independent soul becomes superfluous and thus can be discarded.
Secondly, on morality, Voelker refutes the argument that naturalism or materialism leads to a morally impoverished worldview. He challenges those who think that religion secures moral objectivity: religion offers a morality no more objective than naturalism because religious people do not agree on morality. In other words, religions leads to moral relativism as much as naturalism—it merely moves the relativism back a step (selecting a religion).
Not only does religion fail to provide an objective framework for morality, but naturalism can actually do the job better. If morality means “human flourishing,” then science (more specifically ecology) can pave the way for morality by empirically demonstrating the necessary ingredients for an environment in which its inhabitants flourish. For Voelker, the descriptive sciences can have normative implications for morality.
Finally, regarding religion, Voelker makes adamantly clear that simply because naturalists and spiritual people disagree over the issue of dualism does not entail that they cannot engage in productive dialogue or that the naturalist cannot appreciate spirituality or religion. Naturalists need not call the spiritual “deluded,” and the spiritual need not call the naturalists “fundamentalists.” Instead, both parties can and should dialogue out of mutual respect.
Of course, one can concede all of Voelker’s points and remain a religious or spiritual person. Voelker, in fact, acknowledges that many Christian thinkers have already abandoned dualistic conceptions of the soul. Additionally, Voelker mentions in passing, but does not exposit, a materialist spirituality. Thus, by Voelker’s own admission, religion and spirituality, when appropriately modified to take science into account, are compatible with science. Are religious and spiritual people ready to let go of mind-body dualism and their monopoly on morality? Only if they are ready to dialogue with science.
For more, see “Materialist Spirituality?” in Zygon.