Why we need a socialist spirituality
To succeed against the rise of nationalism we need something that is as emotionally powerful
by Graham Jones
I have always been secretly spiritual. Growing up, it was difficult to avoid. Catholic ornaments scattered around the house by my mum. Sat on the pews of countless dusty, empty churches, listening to my dad as he repaired their organs. Playing the piano at Christmas: O Little Town of Bethlehem, Away in a Manger, Silent Night. The nativity scene under the tree. At school the Children’s Bible was my favorite book, my link to a magical past. I sat in assemblies, singing hymns with back straight and falsetto soaring over the other bored, slouching bodies around me. I would apologize silently to God for my impure thoughts.
And then I grew away from it. Hymns turned to pop songs. Bibles turned to novels. Thoughts of God turned to thoughts of the atom. Psychological submission turned to rebellion. Jesus stopped being real at about the same time as Santa.
I welcomed it. It felt like maturity, a release from authority and fantasy. Yet I never lost the yearning for … something. A greater purpose, a feeling of wonder. I felt snatches of it from time to time, but always fleeting—in a song, a film, or a moment of love. So I buried myself in rapturous, ethereal music. In quiet contemplative arthouse cinema. In romantic obsessions. In hindsight, I was longing for a secular divinity.
Atheists talk about replacing love of God with love of science – but where are the churches where we worship the infinite? Where are the hymns we sing to the glory of the electron? Where are the accepting scientific communities we can turn to for ethical guidance (that don’t require a PhD to engage in)? Just as the individual seeker of truth replaces the community of faith, our support systems have been increasingly privatized and individualized – to therapists, doctors, job centers, the nuclear family. And to ‘self-care’, which many have noted can play both a liberatory or an oppressive role. Freedom from religious dogma had its drawbacks: atomization, which in turn was integral to the success of neoliberalism.
Many people know, rationally, that global warming is bad. But it doesn’t hit them in the chest. The information they receive is divorced from a wider understanding of place in the universe, divorced from their bodies.
Our understanding of the universe has become divorced from our bodies. Far from increasing our awareness, the dominance of atheist rationalism has stripped people of their systems of explanation. Speculation and creativity in understanding the world is patronized and attacked. ‘No, you’re wrong. Trust the experts’. Yet as long as that expert knowledge is so safely guarded behind paywalls, university walls, cultural and language barriers, there is not and cannot be a public understanding of science. Capitalism fuels not just economic inequality, but educational inequality too.
Many people know, rationally, that global warming is bad. But it doesn’t hit them in the chest. The information they receive is divorced from a wider understanding of place in the universe, divorced from their bodies. You would scream at those who tried to burn down your house. Many have forgotten how to scream.
The socialist left, at least in the West, tends to avoid spirituality, often seeing it as directly contradicting the materialist philosophy associated with communism. And yet those on the left most attracted to spirituality and its embodied practices – such as in the peace movement – tend to move away from what socialists would think of as a materialist analysis of society (sometimes even veering into pseudoscience and orientalism). This ambivalence toward spirituality has implications for how the left organizes in communities. Given that the vast majority of global workers are in some way religious, to lack a spiritual practice (or a proper appreciation of it) is a barrier to creating trust and solidarity, and hinders movement building.
Given that the vast majority of global workers are in some way religious, to lack a spiritual practice is a barrier to creating trust and solidarity, and hinders movement building.
So how do we move beyond this division and create a synthesis of socialism, science and spirituality? Can atheists reclaim spirituality without necessitating a return to religion (and without patronizing those who do)? It’s not enough to simply appeal to people to learn more about religions – we have to actually construct spaces in which people can come together to collectively explore these questions, to develop emotional bonds with one another. Rational inquiry alone is not enough; people need to see the relevance to their own lives and feelings. They need to experience spirituality and recognize it as such.
To begin with then, we need to define ‘spiritual’ more precisely. This will help us to show how religious and non-religious people share certain rapturous bodily experiences, regardless of the system they have for explaining it.
Rather than merely being a synonym for ‘religious’, I take spirituality to be something distinct: the bodily experience associated with religiousness. In the eyes of theoretical physicist Fritjof Capra, spirituality conceived in this way is fully consistent with complex systems science, and particularly the theory of embodied cognition:
Spiritual experience is an experience of aliveness of mind and body as a unity. Moreover, this experience of unity transcends not only the separation of mind and body but also the separation of self and world. The central awareness in these spiritual moments is a profound sense of oneness with all, a sense of belonging to the universe as a whole.
With this in mind, I take spirituality to mean:
- exploring the metaphysics of the infinite
- which becomes expressed in ecstatic embodied experiences
- and which informs our ethics at both the individual, collective and wider social scales
To put it simply, it involves asking three questions: What exists beyond my immediate perception? How does this make me feel? And what therefore does acting justly entail? This includes religious belief in the traditional sense, but also goes beyond it. The feeling of being humbled by the scale of the universe when staring into the night sky. The feeling of the weight of history and your debt to it when walking through an old building. The feeling of infinite power and possibility on a protest march, surrounded by your friends and community in joyful union. All of these are comparable to a ‘religious experience’.
Whilst this definition allows us to identify spirituality in secular experiences, it does not imply that all of these experiences are good. For example, nationalism might also fall within this understanding:
- a metaphysics based on racial and cultural essentialism
- becomes expressed in the embodied practices of singing anthems, pride in the flag, and love for the monarchy
- and it informs the ethics and organizational principles of hierarchy, fear of difference, and violence seen as legitimate for protecting racial or cultural homogeneity
As a response to the rise of nationalism in Western countries today, some on the left have urged for nationalism with a progressive flavor. However, I would reject any suggestion that the left adopt elements of nationalism in order to be successful. Ash Sarkar from Novara Media details why English nationalism can never be disentangled from racism and imperialism. Nevertheless, it is instructive for us to ask why nationalism is so successful in the West, where the left currently is not.
It is instructive for us to ask why nationalism is so successful in the West, where the left currently is not. To actually succeed against nationalism we need to have something as emotionally powerful.
To actually succeed against nationalism we need to have something as emotionally powerful. And to do that we need shared practices for creating communal, embodied emotional connections, based around a shared ethics and metaphysics. A socialist spirituality, but one which is internationalist and intersectional.
What would a socialist spirituality look like? In my view, it would need to meet some key criteria. We firstly need a metaphysics which bridges the divide of spirituality, science and socialism. In my view, this requires acknowledging the constant motion and interconnectedness of everything.
Secondly, we need to take this framework and apply it to the body: how do we position ourselves in this world? What does it suggest about power and oppression? And what practices can help us to feel this knowledge? I call this radical mindfulness.
Lastly, we need look at the ethical and organizational principles and strategies that emerge from these practices. Let’s call this the care ethic, to contrast it with the work ethic.
Crucially, we need to keep socialist spirituality simple. For one thing, this will allow it to be more easily understood by non-academics – something which the theory-focused left often fails to do. It also gives space for the framework to adapt as our knowledge expands and changes. And also, most importantly for me, this allows for it to remain relatively consistent with differing beliefs as to whether any deity or supernatural force is involved. This can help form the basis of shared spaces – perhaps even organizations – that allow socialist collaboration across faith, without requiring people to divorce their spirituality from their organizing.
Because whatever your position on the ultimate nature of the universe, we need to be able to work together on earthly matters like capitalism and climate change – while we still have an Earth left to fight for.
This is the second article in a series on Spirituality, Science and Socialism, a version of which was originally published on Graham Jones’ blog, Life Glug. You can read the other parts here: 1, 2, 3, and (forthcoming) 4, 5.