Spiritual IQ in a Secular Age

Spiritual IQ in a Secular Age
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Beginning in the early 1970s, academic reviews began to acknowledge that religious belief is not antithetical to emotional wellbeing, challenging assumptions that had dominated the social sciences in previous decades. Later research moved beyond tepid acknowledgement when respected scientists, sociologists, and psychologists came to the consensus that church-goers and the devout tend to be less suicidal, more physically and mentally resilient, avoid at-risk behaviors, and have stronger protective relationships buffering them from the vicissitudes of life.

Now, in an attempt to bridge research on spirituality with public awareness, Lisa Miller, professor and director of clinical psychology at Columbia University and director of the Spirituality Mind Body Institute, travels the country telling parents they owe it to their kids to nurture their innate spiritual abilities. Religiously aware adolescents who feel connected to a higher power are 40 percent less likely to abuse substances, 60 percent less likely to battle depression, and 80 percent less likely to engage in at-risk sexual behaviors.

Miller finds scientifically plausible the notion that human beings, particularly teenagers and young adults, are wired for transcendence and possess inborn spirituality that must be used—or lost. While growing up, she benefitted from her mother’s vocal prayers and her father’s quiet sharing of spiritual moments, like the time his deceased mother appeared to him in a dream and assured him she would always be his mother. Calling spiritual connection a buffer not only against substance abuse, but also against “cortical thinness” of the brain associated with Alzheimer’s and depression, Miller recommends that secular adults overcome their reluctance about religious practices so that their children avoid finding pseudo-transcendence through drugs, alcohol, and sex. But ambivalence runs deep, she finds, and doubtful parents, often wary of hypocrisy, tend to ignore children’s spiritual-awakening experiences and questions.

Miller’s mission fills an interesting niche in our increasingly secular age, which is often ambivalent about, and at times outright hostile, to religion. In this context, Miller’s work represents a Religion 101 course for those wanting to opt into spiritual life. She attempts to correct a skewed bell curve of spiritual IQ, driven down by a cultural discourse which can be pervasively clueless about the experiential nature of religious belief. Self-identified religious people are seen by many as clinging to outdated religious mores destined for extinction. And in the wings, a more radical anti-theist strain of New Atheism—represented by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett—further polarize the dialogue with their mission to save naive children from superstitious indoctrination and pave the way for "enlightened" discourse.  

Miller’s approach, however, mirrors that of the true sages of spiritual belief. Pascal, C.S. Lewis, William James, and others understood that while conversion experiences involve the mind—as Francis Bacon wrote, “A little philosophy inclineth man's mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men's minds about to religion.”—they also require a great deal of the heart, soul, and body. Connecting spiritual dots, recognizing divine prompts, and undergoing transcendent experiences take precedence over sheer empiricism, something secularists have a hard time understanding with their emphasis on proof, but all of which William James called essential to the Varieties of Religious Experience, in which, writes James, “There lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different” from our rational consciousness.

Teaching those forms of spiritual consciousness benefits not just our children, Miller observes, but a family’s posterity at large. Spirituality passed from one generation to the next is 80 percent protective again depression, Miller claims. But when parents’ spirituality combines with that of grandparents, an even greater buffer exists. Offering “spiritual treasure” to our posterity, says Miller, can become their greatest inheritance.

These calls to divine connection recall famous religious journeys that illustrate not only the high spiritual IQs of the pilgrims involved, but also the insight, nonconformity, and experiential phenomenon that mark spiritual paths. Augustine goes from philosophy to philosophy while enmeshed in debauchery, but begins listening to sermons and, while hearing a child sing “Pick it up and read it,” feels directed to the Book of Romans telling him that “Not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual excess and lust” will he find true joy. C.S. Lewis emerges from atheism not just through metaphysical discussions with Tolkien, but through being surprised by the joy that starts infusing his existence as he moves closer to belief. Nobel Prize winning novelist Sigrid Unset risks the ridicule of the Scandinavian intelligentsia in embracing Christianity, but her experiential pilgrimage brings her to this conclusion: “If you desire to know the truth about anything, you always run the risk of finding it.”  

Gerda Weissman Klein’s journey particularly exemplifies Miller’s idea that spirituality affects generations—in this care her deeply religious Jewish family whose ancestral stories of faith gave her hope in the concentration camps of World War Two. Early on, when the Nazi threat loomed, Klein contemplated suicide until her father put his hand on the back of her neck and told her, “Whatever you are thinking now is wrong…Promise me that no matter what happens you will never do it.”  Later driven to despair by starvation and work camp conditions that became unbearable, Klein felt an inescapable urge to throw herself in front of an oncoming train, but a strange sensation on the back of her neck reminded her of the promise. Her father’s spiritual insight also led him, on the hot summer day Klein left for the camps, to look up from his scriptures and tell her to wear the ski boots that later saved her life on a thousand-mile winter march that saw only two hundred slave girls survive out of four thousand.

Perhaps Miller is right, though, to emphasize less dramatic examples of spiritual power for a culture increasingly wary of the miraculous and skeptical of the divine.  She recommends that cautious parents open up to religious practices with simple family exercises that invite a sense of transcendence as well as create an awareness of angels, in flesh or spirit, who seem sent to help and enlighten us. The ultimate goal is to help teenagers and young adults recognize divine messages and follow the prompts throughout their lives. Reading about and hearing others’ faith journeys definitely aids and abets the spiritual learning curve—whether it be Anne Lamott sensing the presence of Jesus in a moment of despair, much as one senses the presence of a cat in a dark room, or, from my own faith tradition, alcoholic rock star Arthur “Killer” Kane undergoing a transcendent experience after reading the Book of Mormon that he compared to an LSD high without drugs—a high that ultimately led to sobriety.

 “Let them at least learn what this religion is which they are attacking before attacking it,” Pascal wrote in his Pensées, explaining that God proclaims himself the hidden God in the Bible to all but “those who genuinely seek him…with all their heart.” The challenge Miller and others face in the twenty-first century is to motivate seekers to involve their hearts as well as their minds, and to recognize what they ultimately find.

Betsy VanDenBerghe is a writer based in Salt Lake City.

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