I grew up in a churchgoing family. Between middle school and leaving for college, I went to church (United Church of Christ) most Sundays, and was a member of the youth choir. Despite that, I have never been a religious person and don’t believe in the Christian concept of “God”.
I do, however, believe in some aspect of interconnectedness between people that I can only describe as spiritual or godlike. This spirituality is largely based on the philosophy of Ken Wilber, as described in Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality (a book that is nearly impossible to read, but is worth the effort). But I was more receptive to the ideas in Wilber’s book because of a guest sermon that my dad gave at our church a long time ago, the content of which has been the basis of my spirituality since then.
My dad chose spirituality as the topic for his guest sermon. After this many years, I’m a little sketchy on the details, but the overarching message was this: what if Jesus, instead of being the Son of God, was simply an improbably spiritual person?
This idea is based on the idea that there is a spectrum of spirituality. The population as a whole is represented on this spectrum according to some distribution (for the sake of simplicity, let’s assume a normal distribution), and there exists some way to identify a position along this spectrum for each individual.* Under this formulation, there’s no reason that Jesus would have had to be a divine being. Instead, he may have simply been a statistical outlier; an Usain Bolt of spirituality, if you will, multiple standard deviations above the mean. The kind of spiritual being that is almost inconceivably improbable. Accepting this idea, you could extend it to Muhammad, Ghandi, Moses, Mother Teresa, etc: all (possibly) real people who were improbably in touch with the spiritual.
This formulation appeals to me because it shifts the concept of religion from one which requires belief in something I think impossible (an omniscient being) to one which allows me to discount the mysticism of religion while still recognizing the validity of some of its teachings (across denominations and across religions). It allows me to pick and choose spiritual role models according to my opinion of their teachings rather than whether we have the same conception of a “higher power”. And it allows me to focus on the qualities that religions share rather than those that make them different.
For me, spirituality is not something given to us by some external force, but rather something that flows upward from the individual and binds us all into a larger whole (see the Wikipedia entry for “Holon” for more background on this concept). Institutionalized religions, in my view, are all somewhat corrupted expressions of this. At their roots, I view all religions as attempts to codify moral behavior, injected with some mythology to “put the fear of God” in people. The major religions are organized along common themes, most of which focus on promoting harmony among that religion’s adherents. So much of the disagreement is in the specifics: whether Jesus or Muhammad was the Messiah, or maybe the Messiah hasn’t come yet, or maybe there is no Messiah; whether power in religious institutions should be centralized or given to the congregations; whether there’s one God, many gods, or no gods at all.
So why did these religions all splinter apart, rather than recognizing their similarities and reconciling their differences? I think the answer to that lies in the politics of today, and the extent to which politicians rely on fear to win people to their cause. If you’re trying to build a religion up from nothing, it’s going to be a much harder sell if you focus on the similarities between your religion and another, just as politicians are constantly trying to highlight the differences between themselves and their opponents. Like the political parties of today, leaders of religious movements would rely on creating tension between their followers and some group of “others” in order to keep the masses mollified and themselves in power.
If any of the ideas in this post appealed to you, I would highly recommend the movie The Man From Earth. Less about the spirituality, but revolves around a statistical outlier analogous to what I talk about here.
(Though this idea originated with something my father said, my views do not necessarily represent his thoughts on this.)
* This reduces spirituality to a two-dimensional metric that can somehow be quantified, which is clearly an oversimplification. But assuming that it is possible to quantify “spirituality”, expanding this to a multi-dimensional distribution wouldn’t change the idea.