In places like Ann Arbor, I often hear that religion is on the way out. Scientific advances have rendered superstition obsolete — one doesn’t need to believe in God to know where the sun goes at night.

I agree. I disagree, though, with the idea that religion will therefore disappear.

People raised outside of religious traditions tend to think that religious beliefs are predicated on well-known, obsolete ideas about nature, like the idea that a specific deity created the earth in exactly six 24-hour periods. That way of thinking obscures the primary motivation of those who are religiously observant. People pray, meditate and go to church to satisfy spiritual urges.

We ought to think of religion and spirituality as different things. Spirituality, in broad terms, is a class of feelings and accompanying actions. The feelings people call “spiritual” tend to come in moments of wonder, hope or longing. Beautiful music, the sight of candles at a vigil, and the thrill of standing atop a mountain are all things that people identify as spiritual. The sensation that ties these experiences together is a sense of unity — the feeling of being part of something greater than oneself, be it nature, the sublime, or a human community. The variety of things recognized as spiritual — prayer, meditation, ecstatic outbursts, singing — speaks to the breadth of experiences that generate the sensation of oneness.

Religions are communities built around guidelines for how best to experience and draw meaning from spiritual feelings. Some religions are dogmatic, providing comprehensive rules of ethical and spiritual conduct. Other religions are anti-dogmatic, emphasizing that the many varieties of spiritual experience — and the ways of achieving these experiences — are similarly worthwhile. Just as the experience of spirituality is infinitely varied, so too are the ways in which people have organized and interpreted their spiritual experiences.

The varieties of religious practice reflect the many ways in which humans experience spiritual sensations. Thus there are religious traditions that say the best life is solitary, and time is best spent in the continuous contemplation of the divine. Other religious traditions proscribe the solitary life, declaring that unity is best felt in the presence of others.

Science speaks to our understanding of natural phenomena. Where religion attempts to provide answers to questions about nature, it is vulnerable to challenges from science. Scientific inquiry has little to offer in the field of ethics, and less still on questions about extracting meaning from life. A randomized controlled trial is unlikely to shed light on why we are here.

Naturalistic philosophy, which is often informed by science, might reject the question, “Why are we here?” on the grounds that it presupposes narrative reasoning to be an underlying part of nature. This is a reasonable position, but for many people it is deeply unsatisfying. It is in our nature to build narratives and extract meaning. We aren’t going to stop asking “Why?” anytime soon.

It’s important that those who think about religion’s role in society recognize that natural phenomena are only one aspect of what religion discusses. It is in our nature to seek answers. It is also in our nature — more in some of us than in others — to experience spiritual feelings. Spiritual practice organized as religion provides answers to questions and explanations of sensations that touch the deepest levels of the human psyche. The choice to join a religious community is often emotional and deeply personal.

Religion has always been a manifestation of the human desire to understand — and derive meaning from — the world in which we live. That desire led to both scientific and religious inquiry. So long as humans desire to give meaning to their lives, some will turn to religion and spirituality for answers. The level of attendance at specific religious denominations will change over time, and some religions will disappear while others flourish. In the distant future there may be as many Muslims or Christians as there are sun-worshipers today. We should not mistake the end of religion as we know it for the end of religion — ways of organizing spirituality have always changed with the times. Churches come and go. Spirituality — and its counterpart, religion — will endure.

Seth Soderborg can be reached at sethns@umich.edu. Follow him on twitter at @thedailyseth.

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