By Christian Hayden
Humanist Service Corps Volunteer
“There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground”- Rumi
To some extent I envy religious people. A careful reading of a Braver American and that envy might come through. To be more specific, I envy the role of prayer in a religious person’s life. The most intimate public act I have witnessed is the performance of prostration, the kissing of the ground during Muslim salat, or prayer. The exercise of constant reflection, the routine, and its communal function all stir a sense of wonder in me. I envy the use of prayer simply as a way to enhance spiritual growth.
This article by The Atlantic seems to vindicate my (and many other atheist/humanist thinkers) hunch- that there is something necessary, human, life giving about cultivating the spiritual, and yes, even for nonbelievers and skeptics. At last this article cites research that suffers from the same problem many other people do- an inability or unwillingness to consider the spirituality available to a non theistic person and how they might go along cultivating it.
Robert C. Solomon wrote a book called Spirituality for the Skeptic: The Thoughtful Love of Life that attempts to answer what spirituality can look like for the skeptic. I like a lot of his ideas, namely the interplay to the self, soul, and the spirit. His idea of the soul, the manifestation of the self as it shaped by community and relationships resonates with me – “One’s identity is a social construct. An identity crisis is a social crisis.” On the other end, the physical needs attention because it, like the self, communicates with the world. A healthy body can help bring the healthiest us that acts and shapes the community that shapes us.
So what do we do with this is akin to asking how does a humanist pray, or feed his spirituality- what would it look like? The act of praying from any religious perspective does not appeal to me in its totality. I do not know the English meaning of the five Muslim prayers, I do not fully understand certain aspects of the ritual and further, I respectfully question the real world relevance of some of the rules around prayer. Most importantly, what that relevance is to world we should be trying to achieve, namely where men and women have equal rights. Like when it comes to menstruation (women, depending on the region or brand of Islam, can be discouraged from participating in salat during menstruation), women being relegated to praying behind men, so they do not distract men (!), or women not being able to lead the prayer. Conservative strains of Islam and Judaism share similar issues with women when it comes to communal spiritual experiences.
But that is the win and loss of ritual, part of what gives it power is its standardization, the stability of its rules. For almost fifteen hundred years, Muslims have been doing some version of salat, five times every day, worldwide. That is amazing to me. The rhythm of its interruption in the daily life of a Muslim is astonishing. Lest we forget that we have not even entered the holy month of Ramadan, which even more upends the normal routine of life, in the name of spiritual searching.
So for the last weeks I tried something, I kept a log of spiritual activities. Aiming for the magic number of five times a day, to mirror or give a nod to my mostly Muslim community. I essentially broke down my approach to three aspects- body, spirit, and relationships. Physically would be satisfied by exercising in this case weightlifting. I sought to cultivate the mental with meditation and writing letters. Relationships would be fostered by reaching out by telephone or honoring the greeting culture of Ghana more closely like going to visit friends and neighbors and being fully present in their space.
The cool thing became the overlap I noticed in certain activities – weightlifting improves the way I feel mentally. There is something intrinsically meditative about lifting; especially full body exercises like squats and deadlifts; the focus on breathing, the attention to your core, the ultimate goal of challenging your body to align in order to do something difficult and amazing. Putting your body through controlled stress awakens something in you. Letter writing made me reflect on my relationships and community, while using my battered English language skills. Through this exercise I began intentionally trying to connect with friends and family after nine months away. The same with journaling- I was stretching my mind, by reflecting on and therefore deepening my ties to community.
The other cool thing was reflecting on the day and finding activities that I had not originally intend to fill the log with but ended up there anyway like writing a poem. Creating might have to have its own category; it combines the mental and connecting aspects, and could also satisfy the physical. For instance dance is a mental, connective, and physical exercise. It is creative also. Reflecting made me notice the more complex, harder to quantify activities I should do more–child praise and elder learning. Fostering the potential of children is investing in the future. Learning from elders should inform how I invest and cultivate that future. What makes this spiritual is that it heightens connection to one’s community, and also one’s self. There is richness in seeking in others what rhymes with and also informs us.
I have not quite reached the point of routine, where I interrupted a work or social function to do an action I would call spiritual, or, perhaps more accurately, to perform a humanist prayer. During the bus stops on a long journey, I still marvel at Muslims who take the time to pray at some random masjid on the side of the road. Writing this, I feel the cringe of some skeptics through the computer screen but I want to open up to the conversation to this community. Though I identified some interesting activities that I would deem spiritual, I still need a larger quiver of arrows. Of course there are some I did not even consider, like talking a nature walk or doing yoga. What I was not able to accomplish with this particular spiritual quest taught me as much as what I did: that at some point we reach a moment when we need the help of others, not only for inspiration, but accountability and support. I, for one, think we could learn a lot from traditional religions concerning how to build community around our nurturing our spiritual health.
So folks, does prayer have a role in a humanist’s, skeptic’s, or atheist’s life? How would you do it? What activities might you find spiritually fulfilling and uplifting?
After all, I would love to see that peer reviewed research that includes humanists, skeptics and non believers as people on spiritual journeys as legitimate as believers’ journeys. Maybe our prayers will one day shape theirs.
Christian Hayden is an Ethical Humanist living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania but born in Brooklyn, New York. He is an educator and avid Hip Hop fan, and considers relationship-building and encouraging the pursuits of the human soul to be holy endeavors. Christian’s journey to the Humanist Service Corps originated in his desire explore humanism, as well as pan-africanism, and a six-year-strong personal commitment to pursue justice. When describing HSC, Christian likes to use the term ‘humanist pilgrimage;’ such a description resonates with Christian because it explicitly ties the depth of doing service to a greater, intentional spirituality, which is given further meaning in the context of forming a global community.