One of the tenets of a religious life is the acknowledgement of the fact that we are not in control; we surrender to the belief that there are bigger forces at work. This is construed by some people to be defeatist. It could be argued that this line of thinking is not only not defeatist but is also borne out by a rational/scientific outlook.
People come to think that they are in control of their lives. But perhaps this is an illusion. There are way too many confounding variables. In fact, in the legion of factors and variables that affect our lives, we are, at most, in control of a very few. The rest impinge on our lives regardless of our best efforts to negate their effects. Think of physical appearance, country of birth, aging, death, natural disasters, intellectual prowess, disease, etc, etc, and etc!
Not only is the vast magnitude of the set of variables an intransigent feature of our daily lives, it can also be a nightmare to optimally control the few variables that we can control. Apart from other arguments that one could think of, one novel argument could be borrowed from complexity science. Complexity science tells us that even a slight difference in the initial conditions, can, in some processes, lead to wildly different results. This is also called the butterfly effect. (Such themes have been explored in films like Sliding Doors). Putting it dramatically, a small delay in leaving home might mean the difference between an accident or a nice day at the office.
One of the most famous ‘materialists’ Karl Marx understood the rationale of spiritualism and hence he uttered his famous–much misunderstood and much misused–words about religion: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people!”
Marx did feel that religion should be abolished, but not in the manner of most modern, superficial, downright annoying, new-atheists (or nonotheists* as a friend calls them). Marx went on to say: “The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo. Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower“
In saying the above, it is clear that Marx feels that by properly controlling the variables that we are in control of (in his case, means of production, consumption and allocation) we can reach our true happiness and attain a world which has a heart and a soul. And then we would not need religion as the heart of a heartless, and the soul of a soulless, world. Life would come alive if the majority of the world’s population was not spending most of its time painfully figuring out how to put food on the table for the next day. People would then not need the solace of heaven and afterlife and other such beliefs.
Indeed, this could be true. But what is not true is that one would not need spiritualism at all, once the material well-being of humankind is attained. There would still be sorrows and sighs; pains and crushed dreams; hopelessness and defeats; confusion and anxiety. In short, even where everyone has enough to eat and we have economic democracy (something that is indeed worth fighting for), such a world would still be heartless and soulless. We would still need spiritualism as the heart and soul of such a world. How such needs manifest in the form of outlooks and actions, obviously varies from person to person. Minimally, one could imagine a certain degree of humility, and an acknowledgement of ignorance in face of the great mystery that is life (as opposed to the smug and happy dogmatism of nonotheism).
*Nonotheism derived from monotheism, refers to the ‘religion’ of atheists, who go around preaching their ‘religion’:-)