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Good Without God: Why "Non-Religious" Is the Fastest-Growing Preference in America

Authors Phil Goldberg and Greg Epstein share their provocative views on why a quarter of Americans now call themselves agnostic, atheist or nonreligious.

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McNally: But the key lesson is…

Goldberg: It’s individual.

There is also an emphasis on individual inner experience of the sacred or the divine -- as opposed to belief systems. What you believe is less important than what you experience within yourself. That is the fulcrum of Vedic spiritual teachings. Beliefs are good and important, faith is good and important, but what matters is individual spiritual development.

In seeing forms of yoga as a developmental process, Indian philosophy and yogic and Buddhist teachings have expanded psychologists’ view of human development.

McNally: Maslow with the hierarchy of needs and so on?

Goldberg: -- who was affected very strongly by the Indian mystical texts.

McNally: Your book is not about Hinduism per se, is it?

Goldberg: I use the term sparingly in the book because there’s a lot of confusion about what Hinduism is, and because many associate it with the everyday normative practice of religion in India.

The kernel of Vedic teachings that made it to the US was formulated by people who understood the West, spoke English, had been educated, and were compatible with science. They extracted the essence of Vedic teachings without necessarily retaining the nuances of Indian culture that we associate with Hinduism.

McNally: These things that you’ve pointed out: pluralism, many paths; individuated, different for different people; and inner experience being crucial. These are helpful in our current time, and they seem to be in distinction to the broad sweep of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. What was it about India that allowed this to emerge?

Goldberg: Whatever allowed it to emerge in the consciousness of ancient sages got preserved as an oral and a written tradition. There were people smart enough to preserve it in the midst of colonization and all the rest of the craziness and tragedies that befell India. In the 19th century, people associated with the Hindu renaissance or the Bengal renaissance formulated ancient teachings into modern form, so they could be compatible with science and with a Western perspective on social progress.

McNally: But we don’t know what it was that allowed this open consciousness to emerge as an organized religion.

Goldberg: In the West, ancient mystical teachings somehow got lost and buried in monasteries. We got to the point where the great Christian mystics and Jewish mysticism or Kabalah were seen as esoteric experiences that lay people and even ordinary clergy did not pay any attention to.

McNally: As I was encountering similar teachings and experiences in my own life, I never made a distinction between Buddhist and Vedic teachings. I thought of them together as an Eastern perspective. Reading your book, I was troubled a bit. You seemed to be saying they could be separated or even that one was more important than the other.

Goldberg: I point out in the introduction that the Buddhist thread that came to America is just as important as what I focused on in the book. But it would have made the book twice as long and twice as complicated. Histories of Buddhism in America have been written and written very well. This had not.

I focused on teachings that came via Hindu texts, but you’re absolutely right, they overlap. People like you and me, and I would venture to say most of the “spiritual but not religious” have drawn from both traditions -- and from Sufism, and others. We’re a pragmatic people who do what works.

McNally: So it’s not enough simply to believe in pluralism, best to actually practice pluralism.

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