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Spirit In Society

The role of religion and spirituality in the modern era

Where would you go if you wanted to share a spiritual connection with another? In the global West religion and spirituality, as a traditional element of society, has given way to the ‘illumination’ brought forth by the enlightenment and the secularism which followed. But it is not exactly the same in most of the rest of the world. Although the negative sides of spirituality and religion are often emphasized in the West, think of the innate prejudice we are often shown towards the Muslim faith, there are many benefits in preserving traditions and cultures which enable people to share deep meaningful experiences with one another.

In Japan one never feels far from the realm of the spirit. Despite the techno-centric image many Westerners share of Japan the country has a rich and diverse spiritual background. At the base of every skyscraper in Tokyo, one will surely find a humble family shrine, or an inconspicuous Tori gate (found in picture 1) marking where the kami (local gods) once walked. The subtle nature of these traditions mirrors the value spirituality can have in creating a common foundation for people to share.

Despite the praise for secular society which many Westerners hold so dear, thousands if not hundreds of thousands of so-called atheists flock to sacred sites worldwide under the disguise of tourists. Why is this? Could it be that the hundreds of years of worship at these sites have somehow transformed the local atmosphere? It certainly feels like that in some locations. At times it even feels like stepping into another world, not just back through time but, into a different kind of space.

(Picture 1: Tori gate and mountain shrine – author’s own work)

The value of traditions in promoting shared experiences

Spirituality of some kind is found at the root of most civilizations, be it the Greek pantheons, the founders of our own modern civilization, or the array of Hindu deities that still hold sway over many peoples. These traditions, understood not as idiotic misinterpretations by primitive people, but rather as a rich cultural foundation upon which shared, meaning and fellowship could thrive seem to be one of the things missing from contemporary Western societies. Perhaps these traditions should not be taken so literally, but rather understood as a basis on which deep meaningful human interaction can flourish. Everything has its shadow, and the shadows of gods are by no means small. Terrible things have been done in the name of religion and spirituality, this is true, yet terrible things have been done for many other reasons too. The renowned historian of religion Mircea Eliade once said: “The crises of modern man are to a large extent religious ones, insofar as they are an awakening of his awareness to an absence of meaning”.

The dialectical nature of the search for our spirit can be seen in the modern resurgence of spirituality in the younger generations of many Western societies. As can be seen in the abandonment of religious traditions in the youth of many traditionally religious societies in search of freer ways to live. Few places are better to see this dialectic than in the contemporary history of Iran. Real or not the spirits walk with us, as a metaphor alluding to the debt we owe the people who came before us, or, sometimes, more literally when we walk through a forest near sundown and a fog rolls in.

(Picture 2: forest trail through the mountains of Kyoto, Japan – author’s own work)


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