Does spirituality make you a better person?
Does spirituality lead to altruism?
Historically, western society has relied on organized religion to take care of the less fortunate.But organized religion is in decline and critics don’t think spirituality can fill the gap. They say spiritual but not religious people are too busy focusing on themselves to care about the poor, imprisoned, sick, lonely and hurting. As such, they think we will end up living in a less humane world with everyone only looking out for themselves.
Does self-awareness come at the price of caring about others?
Traditionally-minded religious people are often suspicious of self-help. They strain to see the connection between self-improvement and selfless service. A common attitude is that self-help—too much of it anyway—promotes individualism. The danger of spending too much time looking within, they think, is that you can get stuck there. This issue was famously introduced by Christopher Lasch in his book The Culture of Narcissism (1979). He didn’t have many nice things to say about spirituality outside religion, I can tell you. The idea hit a nerve and people have since worried that seeker spirituality is hazardous to the health of society.
But wouldn’t society collapse if people didn’t care about anyone else? I think we are mixing up subjectivity (self-awareness) with narcissism (a personality disorder). Yes, some people are highly self-absorbed, but many who seek self-understanding do so to create happy, more loving relationships. This doesn’t end with lovers and family, but extends to everyone whose lives they touch. As the renowned spiritual teachers Dr. David Hawkins says, you save the world by being as loving as you can possibly be. Most spiritual-but-not-religious folks I have spoken to say their spirituality and self-improvement complements their desire to help others.
If you think God is separate from humans and that humans have to win God’s love by being good, and doing charitable acts to prove it, then self-improvement does not enter the picture. If however, you think that a life force energy animates all people and things, and that they are essentially one giant organism called Life, then healing one part can heal the whole. In theory, self-healing translates into caring acts for others.
Some research on spirituality and altruism
Consider two important studies in the United States that found the most individualistic states showed higher rates of civic engagement than ‘collectivist’ ones. The individualistic states were also where people spend the greatest time with friends and believed that most people are honest and can be trusted (Allik and Realo 2004). These findings were extended by a later study that found individualism was related to higher levels of giving and volunteering across the United States (Kemmelmeier, Jambor & Letner 2006).
The issue here is where the self begins and ends. If we equate the self with our lower nature, then self-improvement offers a path of overcoming it. If we equate the self with our higher aspirations, then self improvement becomes a holy undertaking. Either way it seems to me there is something to be gained by it.