One of the most interesting, and profound, secular writings on spirituality is by Jonathan Haidt in his book The Happiness Hypothesis. Haidt begins by summarising the lessons from an oft quoted book published in 1884 - Flatland by Edwin Abbot. Flatland is a two dimensional world but one of the characters, the square, is introduced to a sphere and the idea of a three dimensional world. He is awestruck and tries to preach the "Gospel of Three Dimensions' to his fellow creatures but they are stuck in a two dimensional world and reject his teachings.
Haidt argues that human society has two main dimensions - a horizontal axis which connects us with others such as family and friends and a vertical axis which is about hierarchy and superiority. However, Haidt says that we often have feelings which 'lift' us up but that this is about a third dimension - it is not about the hierarchy of the second dimension.
Haidt calls this third dimension 'divinity' - it is about morality and the divine and, depending on your religious beliefs, it may, or may not be about God. (Haidt is an atheist.) He writes: "my research on the moral emotions has led me to conclude that the human mind simply does perceive divinity and sacredness, whether or not God exists. (p. 183/4) So he says what he is writing about is 'the ancient truth that devoutly religious people grasp, and that secular thinkers often do not: that by our actions and our thoughts, we move up and down on the vertical dimension.' (p. 184)
Haidt's study of morality made him realise how important 'disgust' is to the concept of divinity - this is why many religions have taboos about food, sex, corpses etc. Haidt argues that disgust is an important human emotion as it would have protected our ancestors from eating contaminated food. Disgust then expanded from the mouth to the body.. Haidt writes "Disgust makes us careful about contact." (p.186) Disgust is then the basis of many religious beliefs and rituals that help mark us out as being different from animals. Haidt writes:
... if you live in a three-dimensional world, ten disgust is like Jacob's ladder. It is rooted in the earth, in our biological necessities, but it leads or guides people toward heaven - or, at least, toward something felt to be, somehow 'up'. (p.187)
So disgust/pollution and divinity/purity are at opposite ends of the third diimension.
Haidt points out that in America, like many western countries, a strong notion of pollution and moral purity survived until the late 19th century but was undermined and society 'desacralized' by the rise of science and technology. Quoting the classic text by Mircea Eliade (The Sacred and the Profane) Haidt points out that all religions have 'places (temples, shrines, holy trees) times (holy days, sunrise, solstices), and activities (prayer, special dancing) that allow for contact or communication with something otherworldly and pure.' (p. 192) Eliade asserts that the modern western world is the first in human history to remove the distinctionn between the sacred and the profane and 'to produce a fully practical, efficient and profane world'. However, Eliade argues that the sacred is such a fundamental aspect of the human spirit that people then have to invent their own 'crypto-religious' behaviour. Thus as individuals we create our own special places or occasions. We also see it in the reverence that we often have for history or the beliefs and relics of other cultures.
Haidt is particularly good too on helping us to see why 'the self is a problem for the ethic of divinity'. Drawing on the social psychologist Mark Leary's book The Curse of the Self, he explains that there are three ways that the self blocks spiritual advancement. First, one of the barriers to the perceptionn of the sacred is the trivial and materal concerns which emanate from our egocentric thoughts. Second, to become spiritual we often have 'to prune back the self' through acts of generosity and forgiveness, for example. Third, spiritual practice is hard and requires dedication and time - this often means the foregoing of pleasure or other egotistical goals.
'The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom', Haidt, J., 2005, Basic Books.
'The Curse of the Self: Self-Awareness, Egotism, and the Quality of Human Life', Leary, M. R., 2007, Oxford University Press.
'The Sacred and the Profane', Eliade, M. E., 1987, Hardcourt Brace Jovanovich.
'Flatland', Abbot, E.A.,2008, Bibliolife.