There is a fascinating trend in western societies that I refer to as "functional spirituality": using techniques from religions and spiritual traditions to achieve specific psychological results in the absence of religious faith.
Functional spirituality has become possible due to advances in neuroscience and accumulating research on mental, physical, and emotional well-being. Today there is an increasing number of exercises one can perform to improve one's well-being in specific ways that have been proven to work:
- calm anxiety through meditation, visualization exercises such as "responsibility transfer," and body language manipulation
- feel connectedness to other people through visualization exercises that activate oxytocin production
- improve outlook and mood through gratitude and other mental exercises and through manipulation of facial expressions and body language
- recover from illnesses by applying proven placebo methods
Thanks to science, it is now possible to isolate the specific benefits and techniques of various spiritual practices and reduce them to their essential components. Pareto's Law can now be applied to obtain 80% of the benefits from 20% of the effort. This was possible in the past to a degree, before anyone knew anything about neurochemicals and brain waves, but it required a great degree of experience and intuition.
Furthermore, it was very difficult to test different approaches and determine which was better. Few people went from religion to religion to test the efficacy of different prayer and meditation techniques. There was so much "other stuff" that came along with religions that one could not easily isolate the techniques from the dogmas and the social conventions.
Today, with more and more knowledge of the effects of different practices on human well-being, one can theoretically put together an effective, individualized spiritual practice based on one's personal needs and life situation. For those with a degree of conscious control over their lives, it would seem we are entering a golden age of personal spirituality.
Today it is conceivable to establish social groups that perform certain rituals together for the express purpose of obtaining the psychological benefits associated with religious activity — without any religious subtext. However, if the group espoused a particular ideology that they discussed in the context of their practice — such as "we follow the best practices offered by science" — then over time it could certainly develop into a quasi-religious organization.
But one does not have to believe in anything supernatural to do any of this. If science demonstrates that belief in the supernatural is psychologically beneficial due to "responsibility transfer," then one can simply engage in "benevolent Universe" or "benevolent supernatural Being" visualizations to obtain those benefits. One might even say, "I practice belief in order to lower my anxiety levels." The triumph of Reason over Faith is now so complete that virtually all the advantages of faith can be incorporated into a reason-based existence.