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CCHU 9014 Spirituality, Religion and Social Change – Lecture 1: Spirituality and Religion

CCHU9014 Spirituality, Religion and Social Change

The University of Hong Kong
David A. Palmer


Objectives for week 1:

1. To acquire a preliminary understanding of the concepts of “spirituality,” “religion”
and “social change” and the relationship between them;
2. To distinguish between seeing religion as tradition, as doctrine, and as a process of
3. To reflect on the attitude of mutual learning and consultation that we will adopt in
this course;
4. To reflect on your reasons for taking this course, and to connect this course to your
personal questions, past experiences and trajectory in life.


If you think that life is not just about money and power – if you want to have a
meaningful and purposeful life -- then you have a spiritual orientation to life, you have

As you pursue meaning and purpose, you will encounter the worldviews, the symbols,
the teachings and practices of religion. And there, you will find sublime beauty and hideous
ugliness; you will find truth and ignorance; you will find both clarity and confusion.

In this course, you will learn how to navigate the ocean of spirituality and religion -- by
personally experiencing religious concepts and practices; by bringing religion into dialogue
with natural and social science; by bringing different religious traditions into dialogue with
each other; by bringing religion into dialogue with contemporary social reality and
processes of social transformation. And the first stage in this journey, is to put aside our
preconceived notions, and to explore and understand the beliefs and disbelief of others.

No matter whether we are young or old, from the East or from the West, we all have
our own questions, experiences, memories, imagination, doubts, beliefs and ideals when
thinking about the spiritual dimension of life, how it connects to religion, and how it
connects to the direction we will take in our life. In the first week of this course, we'll take
stock of where we are and what brings us to this course. I'll share the story of my own
trajectory: my own journey took me through a heritage of religious conflict, militant
atheism, encounters with Christianity and Islam, doubts on materialism, questions on
CCHU 9014 Spirituality, Religion and Social Change – Lecture 1: Spirituality and Religion

self-transformation and social activism, experimentation with Buddhism and Daoism, and
commitment to the Bahá’í faith. My journey also led me to academic investigation and field
research on the anthropology and sociology of religion, and exploration of how spirituality
and religion aren't simply personal beliefs, but deeply connected with social and cultural
change. In this course, I'll try to share some of the things I've learned along the way --
different ways of perceiving and experiencing the world and who we are as humans; how
religion has evolved in human history; the interplay between spirituality, religion and
modernity; different ways of putting spiritual values into practice in today's world; and the
ways in which religion can be either a destructive or a constructive force in social
transformation. And I’ll invite you to develop your own understanding of these issues, by
drawing on your own reflections and experience, on your discussions with your classmates,
and on the course readings, films and fieldtrips.

Key concepts: spirituality and religion

Two key concepts in this course are spirituality and religion. What do these terms
exactly mean, and what is the connection between them? There is no clear consensus on
the definition of these two terms -- but it's important, for the sake of clarity, to explain how
I understand and use them for the purpose of this course.


Spirituality starts with the feeling we may occasionally have that somehow there is
more to life than daily things like studying, working, making money, buying things,
grasping for power, or seeking the approval or admiration of others. What should I do with
my life? How should I live my life? Somehow, we feel that there is some deeper purpose
and significance to life. Somehow, we feel that we have a deeper connection with all of
humanity and even the whole universe. There is “something.” But what is that thing?
Spirituality starts with the feeling inside us that there is “something” – some kind of
meaning and purpose, and with it a feeling that this “something” is not just an abstract idea
-- that “who I am” is connected to that “something”. If I want to know who I truly am, or to
fully develop, grow, or transform myself as a person, it is connected to that “something”.
So, spirituality involves a sense of having a spiritual nature, and a spiritual orientation to
life. What does that mean?

A spiritual orientation to life is based on the assumption that life is not just about
making money, acquiring reputation, asserting power over others, or indulging in sensual
pleasures -- that there is "something else" that matters more, that our life has a higher
purpose or significance, one which involves a deeper connection with others, with the
universe, and with something we might call divine. For some, such a "spiritual orientation"
may be an illusion, a mere fantasy. For some, it may be a vague feeling that arises from
time to time; for others, it might be a strong conviction; and for others, it might be
something so natural that they never even think about it. But what is that higher purpose or
significance, that connection, that "something"? It's hard to say for sure. It refers to

CCHU 9014 Spirituality, Religion and Social Change – Lecture 1: Spirituality and Religion

something invisible and intangible, something about our inner being, something
transcendent, something that connects us to something bigger -- all of these "somethings"
is what we call "spiritual".

The word “spiritual” has many meanings and can be understood in many ways. The
English word is derived from the Latin word spirare, meaning “to breathe”, and came to
carry the meaning of “breath of life”. This is the root of the word “spirit” which was
associated with the notion of the “soul”. There are several Chinese terms that have some
connection to the term “spirit”, including shen (神), ling (靈), qi (氣), or the modern term of
jingshen (精神). “Spiritual” is nowadays often translated as lingxing (靈性). These terms
have different connotations in different contexts, which can lead to confusion. In this
course, based on my research on most of the world’s religious traditions, I will use the term
of “spiritual” to refer to a notion of a dimension of reality or an invisible order that
transcends the material realm and human comprehension, that is life-giving, that is a
source of consciousness, that has intention or purpose, that connects all beings, and that is
an aspect of our deepest essence.

Having a spiritual orientation to life, leads to specific ways of understanding and

nurturing yourself. In academic jargon, this involves constituting yourself as a spiritual
subject -- as a conscious and reflexive person in realms perceived as transcending the
immediately visible and material world. Another way of putting it is to say that this involves
seeing yourself as having a spiritual nature, and nurturing that spiritual nature – that the
dimension of reality that I called “spiritual” in the previous section, is part of your own
essence. People nurture their spirituality through certain practices, experiences, disciplines,
learning, conversations, and participation in social communities and institutions. These are
processes in which we construct our self, nurturing our spirituality in a specific way – as
someone who is engaged in self-transformation, discovering or attaining our essence as
being more than mortal flesh, and living in, interacting with, and aligning ourselves to a
meaningful cosmos that extends deeper or beyond the immediate materiality of the world
as it appears to the senses.

The ancient Greeks called this orientation and concern the “care of the self.”1 What
are the forms of knowledge, practice, and social relations through which people care for
themselves and nurture their spirituality? The French philosopher and social theorist Michel
Foucault called these forms of knowledge and practice, “technologies of the self”. They are
“intentional and voluntary actions,”2 “which permit individuals to effect by their own
means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and
souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain
a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality.”3 For the scholar

Foucault, The Care of the Self.
Foucault, The Use of Pleasure, 10–11.
Foucault, “Technologies of the Self,” 18.
CCHU 9014 Spirituality, Religion and Social Change – Lecture 1: Spirituality and Religion

of Daoism Louis Komjathy, they are “techniques of transformation” that “aim to facilitate
and initiate a shift in ontological condition”4 from the self constituted by the unreflexive
habits of daily life, to a self that strives to become conscious of, to experience, or to
encounter a spiritual, sacred or ultimate reality. Regimens of techniques, rituals, practices
and social activities lead people to orient themselves in the world in terms of their
relationship with a non-human, divine or spiritual reality.


These spiritual practices have, throughout history, constituted regimens for the
“cultivation of the self”, which Foucault defined as “an attitude, a mode of behaviour; it
became instilled in ways of living; it evolved into procedures, practices, and formulas that
people reflected on, developed, perfected, and taught. It thus came to constitute a social
practice, giving rise to relationships between individuals, to exchanges and
communications, and at times even to institutions. And it gave rise, finally, to a certain
mode of knowledge and to the elaboration of a science”5 (science here referring to an
organized system of knowledge). No matter how intimate and personal such paths of
self-cultivation may be, they are socially constructed, elaborated and enacted, emanating
from and giving rise to traditions, lineages, institutions and organized systems of

These traditions, lineages, institutions and organized systems of knowledge are called
“religion”. Religion is defined in many different ways, and there is no consensus on the
definition of the term. But one way of looking at it is to say that religion tells us what that
spiritual "something" is and what we should do about it. Different religious traditions give
very different names and descriptions of that "something" -- they say that, for example,
that it is “God”, “Dao”, “Dharma”, “Qi”, “soul”, or many gods and spirits, or whatever.
Religion gives words and concepts to say what that “something” is.

Whatever it is called, religion assumes that there is order to it. The idea is that beyond
the visible and material order of the world, there is another invisible order. This invisible
order has meaning, intention and consciousness, and there are invisible forces associated
with it. This invisible order is what we will call “spiritual reality”. It operates deep within us;
it communicates with us; and we can somehow connect and communicate with its forces,
at the personal level – not just at the abstract level, but also in very personal ways through
prayer, through meditation, or through our own bodies. Not just alone, but collectively, in
rituals and communities. Religion says that we are part of that spiritual reality – and that we
need to know about it. It says that our connection to this reality can be strengthened or
weakened, and that there are specific ways and methods to strengthen this connection.

Komjathy, Cultivating Perfection, 25.
Foucault, The Use of Pleasure, 44–45.
CCHU 9014 Spirituality, Religion and Social Change – Lecture 1: Spirituality and Religion

Religion says that this is a very practical matter – if you are conscious of spiritual reality, live
your life in alignment with its laws and principles, communicate with its forces, connect
with them, become a part of them, you will have a better life.

To connect and communicate with spiritual reality means that our life will somehow be
different. It affects our life as an individual, as well as our collective life. Some religious
traditions say you will avoid illness, misfortune and bad luck; you will enjoy peace, harmony
and prosperity. Others say you will enjoy health, longevity, even immortality. Others say
you will enjoy tranquillity, serenity and enlightenment. Others say you will be saved from
suffering and sin. And others say you will find yourself in heaven, or in a heavenly state,
whether in the next life or even in this one. Religions also say that, if people align
themselves with spiritual reality, societies will be more moral, people will be less selfish,
they will care for each other, and communities will be more united. Are all of these claims
true? You’ll be able to consider it in this class.

So, to sum up, religion refers to systems of communication, knowledge, practice and
social organisation that aim to make and reinforce our connection to spiritual
reality. Religion seeks to understand what that "something" is and what we should do
about it. Different religious traditions give very different names and descriptions of that
"something", and also tell us to do different things about it. But religion is based on the
following assumptions:

 there is a spiritual reality;

 we are deeply connected to this spiritual reality through our own spiritual nature;
 we can strengthen or weaken our connection with this spiritual reality and our
spiritual nature;
 there are specific ways to strengthen this connection;
 doing so involves changing the way we live our lives.;
 doing so leads to positive individual transformation including increased
consciousness, sense of meaning and purpose in life, morality, equanimity,
discipline, peace of mind, compassion and altruism;
 doing so leads to positive social transformation including greater social solidarity
and trust, common values and ideals, community organizations and institutions,
philanthropy and norms of social justice, systems of knowledge, and the cultural
and aesthetic expressions of civilisation.

Spirituality is more personal and religion is more social, but the two are organically
connected -- religion provides systems of communication, knowledge, practices and social
organization which aim to nurture and reinforce the personal meaning, connection and
self-transformation that spirituality seeks for. Spirituality arises from a personal
questioning, and orientation to life, seeking for a life that transcends purely material and
self-centred concerns. Religion is a collective, cultural process, a system of communication,
knowledge and action which aims to nurture, deepen and channel spirituality. In a sense,

CCHU 9014 Spirituality, Religion and Social Change – Lecture 1: Spirituality and Religion

then, spirituality starts in a more subjective way, whilst religion is a more external, cultural
system of communication, knowledge and practice. But the two are always interconnected.

Social change

In modern times, religion is often perceived as dogmatic or overly concerned with

material, political or sectarian concerns. Many people thus see a tension between
"spirituality" and "religion". In the past, or in traditional societies, there often was little or
no tension between spirituality and religion: everyone in a given community was
embedded into the same religious system or "sacred canopy", within which they found and
expressed spiritual meaning. It was practically impossible to imagine anything else. But in
the modern societies of today's East Asia and the West, most people are not fully
integrated into a religious system, and might be exposed to many different religious
systems. A fully non-religious, and even non-spiritual life is not only an option, but has
become the cultural mainstream. Spirituality and religion have become contested notions
-- but they are far from disappearing. Many people today say that they are "spiritual, but
not religious" -- even though they may be open to learning and experimenting with ideas
and practices from different religious traditions. Or, they may prefer a spirituality that has
no reference to anything religious. Other people accept and assert strong religious
identities, and learn to do so in a diverse and pluralistic society where they live and work
side by side with people of no religion or different religious identities. The forms of
spirituality and religion change with the times, together with changes in culture and
society. But these types of changes are not only passive adaptations, with spiritual and
religious traditions adopting modern forms. Spiritual values and religious teachings can
also generate the impetus and motivation for acting to transform society itself. We’ll
explore the relationship between spirituality and social change in the second half of this

The world has changed so much, and so have religion and spirituality. New forms of
religion and spirituality are rising all the time – the old forms are either dying away or
changing. In the past century or so, the world seemed to be becoming much less religious.
We were in a process of secularisation. Yet, in recent years, more and more people are
becoming religious again. Society is undergoing a resurgence of religious beliefs and
practices. Many of us are personally committed to spiritual or religious beliefs, are engaged
in what could be “truth seeking”, or at the very least have many questions of a spiritual
nature. As faith in secular ideologies declines, there is a growing tendency to turn to
religious traditions as conceptual and social resources for personal growth and social
engagement. But is this appropriate, or even right? In the past few decades the world has
witnessed a dramatic resurgence of spiritual seeking and religious engagement in society,
in ways that may be either constructive or destructive. Given the historical record, is it
realistic to expect religion to provide answers to personal and social problems?

CCHU 9014 Spirituality, Religion and Social Change – Lecture 1: Spirituality and Religion

What is going on? What is the relevance of religion to society and culture today? Is it
good or is it bad? Or, which parts of it are good, and which parts are harmful?

Religion as tradition, dogma or learning

Religion as a system of communication, knowledge and practice can be conceptualised

and experienced in different ways, each of which leads to focusing on different aspects, and
to different conclusions concerning the relationship between religion and social change.
For example, religion can be seen as tradition, as doctrine, or as a path or process of
learning. If we take religion as tradition, for example, we focus on certain beliefs and
practices that people have learned through their socialisation as children and in their
community, often without much conscious awareness of its meaning or significance. In
fact, as is the case with many Chinese people who worship ancestors and deities at
temples, they might not even be aware that they are engaging in what anthropologists
would call religious practices.

If we focus on religion as tradition, we might take the perspective of an anthropologist

or a sociologist, describing the customs and practices, and the communities in which they
take place, and try to explain and interpret the meanings of the traditions and their
symbols, and show how they are related to the social structure – aspects which are often
unknown to the practitioners themselves. The question of tradition in relation to social
change is, does tradition survive or disappear in the face of the profound social and cultural
changes of modernity? How does tradition adapt? How is tradition reinvented, repackaged
or transformed? The limitation of this approach to religion is that it focuses on a type of
knowledge that is passively transmitted, often not consciously understood, and that can
only adapt or react to social change.

If we take religion as doctrine, we focus on sets of unchanging core beliefs that have
been formulated by clerics and theologians within religious institutions – such as, for
example, in Christianity, the Holy Trinity, Salvation by Faith or by Works, etc; or, in Shi’a
Islam, the Return of the Hidden Imam. Acceptance or rejection of doctrine forms the
yardstick for inclusion to or exclusion from a religious community and religious identity. If
we focus on religion as doctrine, we might take the perspective of a theologian who would
develop a system of ideas around the dogmatic core, pay special attention to whether any
other idea or practice is acceptable or not according to the dogmatic core, and compare
one set of dogma with another.

The question of doctrine in relation to social change is that doctrine is typically

formulated as fixed, unchanging, and exclusive. Change is only possible by challenging the
old doctrine; innovation is only possible through division – either by weakening the
doctrinal foundations (“liberalism”), or by establishing a new doctrine under the guide of
returning to the original one (“fundamentalism”). Seeing religion as doctrine, one might
focus on dogmatic purity and consistency, and on the sectarian divisions that arise from
different dogmatic formulations. The limitation of this approach to religion is that while

CCHU 9014 Spirituality, Religion and Social Change – Lecture 1: Spirituality and Religion

some traditions such as Buddhism, Christianity and Islam have very elaborate doctrinal
systems, most other traditions do not have a unified or explicit doctrine -- including Chinese
religions, Daoism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Judaism, etc. Furthermore, although doctrinal
disputes may be of great interest to religious leaders, theologians and scholars, they are
usually not the main concern of most religious practitioners or seekers.

If we take religion as a path of learning, the focus is on understanding spiritual and

religious concepts and their implications, both intellectually and practically. What does it
mean to say that there is a spiritual reality and that humans have a spiritual nature? What
would be the implications if these assumptions were true? How would you live your life?
How would you engage in society? Religion as a path of learning is a process in which you
deepen your understanding of reality and of yourself, apply this understanding in your life,
learn lessons from experience, find inspiration and guidance from words of wisdom in
sacred writings, share questions and insights with others, put what you have learned into
practice, and learn again from the experience.

Religion as a process of learning is not concerned only with abstract knowledge about
the spiritual realities of the universe, but about applying this knowledge of spiritual reality
to learn how to deal with friendship and love; how to organize family relationships; how to
raise children; how to cultivate virtue; how to maintain moral principles at work and in
business; how to maintain physical and emotional health; how to care for the sick, the
elderly and the needy; how to remember the dead; how to cope with life’s difficulties; how
to interact with nature; how to solve conflicts; how to build social solidarity, how to
struggle for justice in society; how to express beauty; how to build civilization — these are
only a few of the things that people try to learn through religion. Religion as a process of
learning involves correlating religious teachings, knowledge of social and physical reality,
one’s own reflexions and experience, and consultations with others. It is an open-ended
process that is not limited to experts or members of a specific religious community:
sceptical investigators of religious claims, and those who are firmly committed to a
religious identity, are all engaged in this process of learning, to the extent that they do so
with the sincere desire to seek for truth.

In this class, we will gradually learn more about the interplay between religious as
tradition, as doctrine, and as learning. But the main approach we will take in this class, is
religion as a process of learning.

A humble learning attitude

Indeed, I hope this class will be part of your spiritual and intellectual journey of
learning. Whatever the form or shape, as we grow and advance in life, we ask ourselves
questions about these topics. Along this path, we may end up becoming less religious, or
more religious. Maybe you grew up in a deeply religious family, but have started asking
questions or doubting, and are starting to consider that your family’s beliefs and customs

CCHU 9014 Spirituality, Religion and Social Change – Lecture 1: Spirituality and Religion

are ridiculous. Or maybe on your path, it will be the other way around. Maybe you grew up
in a secular family with no religion at all, but now, you are starting to ask yourself questions
and exploring different spiritual values and religious traditions. Or maybe you are neutral,
and will simply acquire more knowledge and concepts to analyse spirituality and religion in
this world. No matter where you are going, this class is about spiritual and religious
exploration and learning.

This is not a conventional introductory course on religion. The course combines

approaches from philosophy, psychology, anthropology, sociology and theology, and
discusses issues related to consciousness and perception, the construction of the self, the
environment, ethics and social justice. It will give you completely new perspectives on
spirituality, on religion, and on yourself. This is not a course to preach a religious dogma,
nor does it treat religious people and traditions as strange or exotic objects of study.
Religion is often conceived of in terms of divisions -- between insiders and outsiders,
between believers and non-believers, between this religion and that religion, between
religion and science, between tradition and modernity, and so on. But in this course, these
divisions will be questioned and undermined, and you will be asked to step out of the
comfort zone of your current "belief," "unbelief" or "uncertainty". You will explore and
experience new ways of imagining spiritual reality, coming into contact with it, and
bringing it into the practice of your life. You will do so in a manner which is personally
meaningful, intellectually critical, and relevant to your engagement in the processes of
social change.

Open to believers, agnostics, sceptics, atheists and seekers, this course will give you
exposure to, and an opportunity to engage with, the spiritual heritage of humanity: you will
discuss passages from the scriptures of the world’s major religious traditions, as well as
spiritual themes contained in popular feature films. Film, like religion, mythology and ritual,
imagines, constructs and draws us into alternative mindscapes, into imaginary worlds.
Indeed, the cinema can be considered as a widespread quasi-religious activity and
experience in contemporary popular culture. More than that, film is one of the main ways
through which our culture works through spiritual conflicts, dilemmas and dramas. In this
course, we will examine the spiritual dimensions and themes underlying a selection of films.
Most will be feature films, while some will be documentaries.

You will critically consider the contemporary social implications of spiritual principles
when applied to questions of truth and knowledge, power and authority, conflict and
cooperation, and sacrifice and service. You will reflect on whether these approaches to
human spiritual life are part of the cause or part of the solution for global social problems. Is
there a god? Do we have a soul? Does our life have a spiritual purpose? How can I judge the
claims of different religions? Is there a difference between being “spiritual” and “religious”?
What is a spiritual life? Each of you will find your own answers to these questions, and our
questions and answers are always evolving. This course will not provide you with definitive
answers. But it will help you to clarify the questions, the concepts, and the knowledge you
need to seek answers.
CCHU 9014 Spirituality, Religion and Social Change – Lecture 1: Spirituality and Religion

Why are there so many conflicts between religions? What is the connection between
religion, politics and violence? Is it progressive, or is it opposed to social change? Is religion
a constructive or destructive force in society? By the end of this course, you should be able
to identify the factors which lead to religion having a positive or negative impact on
individuals and society.

How can I judge, evaluate or appreciate the spiritual and religious dimensions of my
own cultural heritage? We live in an increasingly globalised world; there are more and more
chances that our friends, family members, fellow students and co-workers may come from
different cultural and religious backgrounds. How can I better understand and appreciate
their beliefs and values? Cultural diversity is far too vast to be adequately covered in a
single course, but this course will give you basic exposure to the world’s main systems of
religious belief and practice.

In this class, I will share some of my personal stories and perspectives. Maybe you
won’t agree with the conclusions I come to, and that’s fine. In this class, you can be
whatever you want to be. If you want to be an absolute, diehard atheist and materialist, it's
absolutely fine. If you want to be a deeply fundamentalist religious zealot, and think that
I’m the voice of Satan, that's absolutely fine. It's also fine if you are totally agnostic, or
confused. But our purpose is not to get into arguments with each other, but to learn with
humility, and learning how to communicate about these topics with each other.
Spirituality and religion are topics that are fraught with controversy. For some people,
it's a question of a purely private or emotional belief that can't be discussed rationally.
Others have very clear ideas, theories and doctrines, and they are absolutely convinced that
they are right and others are wrong, even stupid. They might even devote themselves to
trashing others' beliefs. They might be adherents of one religious sect with no tolerance for
other religions or non-religious people, or they might be militant atheists insulting religious

Is it possible to explore these questions in a calm, rational and respectful manner?

Perhaps this journey of learning should begin with the virtue of humility -- to seek for
knowledge with patience and an open mind. The implications of a humble posture of
learning are twofold. At one level, it leads us to the realization that no matter how much
training and education we have received, what we do not know will always far outweigh
what we know. However, when we realise our limitations, we are not discouraged from a
life long journey of investigation of truth. On the contrary, our faith in truth-seeking is
strengthened and our capacity for learning is increased. Humility protects us from
intellectual pride and arrogance, and from jumping to hasty conclusions.

The investigation of spirituality and religion touches on the deepest questions of who
we are as human beings, the meaning and purpose of life, and the ultimate nature of
reality. With a humble attitude of learning, we can progress in our understanding of these
questions, but we always know that we can never acquire anything close to complete

CCHU 9014 Spirituality, Religion and Social Change – Lecture 1: Spirituality and Religion

knowledge. Such awareness comes when we are willing to step out of our perspective and
to consider the value of others' experiences. In isolation from others, we may think that our
own perspective is complete and correct. But, when viewed from a broader perspective, we
will realize that each of our perspectives has its value, but is also incomplete and flawed in
some respects. On another level, regardless of our values and beliefs, a humble attitude of
learning protects us from falling into the traps of prejudice and preconceived notions. In
exploring various expressions of spirituality and religion, we thus need to avoid ideological
and religious prejudice of all kinds: the prejudice of “believers” toward “non-believers”, the
prejudice of “non-believers” toward “believers”, and the prejudice of “believers” of different
religious identities toward each other.

Investigating through consultation

The complexity of reality calls for a collective effort of investigation of truth through a
process of consultation. Consultation here refers to a non-adversarial approach to
investigating a question, gathering different experiences and viewpoints, and advancing
toward a common understanding. In this type of consultation, each participant contributes
ideas and thoughts to the discussion, as an offering to the whole group. Ideas do not
belong to individuals. The clash and combination of different ideas leads to new insights.
To approve or to question an idea, is not to praise or to criticise the person who mentioned
the idea. This process of consultation creates a safe and encouraging environment that is
conducive to draw out the gems of knowledge and wisdom even from individuals who
usually feel shy to speak out their ideas in groups. It seeks to build consensus that unites
people of different backgrounds instead of dividing them. Through this method, diversity
of opinions is shared; what were once isolated individual thoughts become collective
knowledge. Thus, consultation is an effective instrument in both personal and collective
matters. Through consultation, we can jointly contribute to creating our collective reality.

No simple right or wrong answers

In this course, we will explore the spiritual dimension of life, and reflect on its
implications for individual and social transformation. These questions touch on the depth of
our inner life as an individual, and on the complexity of our life in society. We will refer to
the teachings, writings and practices of different religious traditions.

There are no simple solutions or “right” or “wrong” answers to discussion questions.

We all have different experiences and understandings in life and of religious teachings.
They all have their value, while none is complete. In a spirit of consultation and with a
humble posture of learning, we will share and learn together. Through this process, we will
gradually gain a higher level of understanding and judgment.

CCHU 9014 Spirituality, Religion and Social Change – Lecture 1: Spirituality and Religion

Appendix: My spiritual journey

I am David Palmer. My Chinese name is Zong Shuren (宗樹人). I was born and grew up
in Toronto, Canada; I am half English and half French. My father is from Canada, and his
parents were from England. My mother is from southern France. My wife is Chinese, from
Sichuan. I have two daughters. I have lived in Hong Kong for 12 years. Before that, I lived in
London, in Paris, and in Chengdu, China.

A few hundred years ago, in the 16th Century, there were bloody massacres in France
that were committed in the name of Christianity.

Here is the massacre of St. Bartholomew, which took place in 1572, a time of the late
16 Century. At that time, there was a war between Christians in France – a war between
Protestants and Catholics. All these people believed in Jesus Christ. They loved Jesus. But
they had different ideas about how you should love him. And they started to kill and
slaughter each other.

My ancestors in France were Protestants, who were the minority in France. Most
French were Catholics. During this war of religion in the 16th Century, Protestants and
Catholics were killing each other. Many Protestants were captured. My ancestors were
arrested, and became slaves to row the King’s ships. Just like in the film Les Miserables – if
you see the film, at the beginning, Jean Valjean is one of the prisoners rowing the ship.

CCHU 9014 Spirituality, Religion and Social Change – Lecture 1: Spirituality and Religion

When I was a child, I was very puzzled by this. I just couldn’t understand. Why? Why
were they doing this in the name of a loving heavenly Father? So I became a hard core
atheist. I became very interested in these questions. I couldn’t understand these people –
killing people in the name of God, knowing nothing but prejudice. So I started reading

I liked reading French philosophers. One of them was Denis Diderot (1713-1784). He
always made fun of religion. He wrote, “There is no good father who would want to
resemble our heavenly Father.”6 I totally agreed. I wanted to get into debates with people
about God, about the existence of God, to prove that they were wrong, that they were
stupid, and that there is no God. It is foolish, I would say: How can you believe in a thing
that you cannot even touch, that you cannot even see?

When I was 17 years old, I went to work on a farm, as part of a youth exchange between
Canada and Pakistan. The farm was in rural Canada. I had to spend three months in the
small town of Tweed, Ontario. At the farm, I had to take care of the cows. My job was to
clean up all the cow poop in the barn. All 90 cows, pooping all day long, and I had to clean it
up before they would lie down and sleep in it. That was a lot of fun.

I lived in a host family, who were Christians. Their house was full of Bibles, crosses, and
tacky flowery plastic religious decorations. Their house was seeping with that kind of

Diderot, A Philosophical Conversation, 36.
CCHU 9014 Spirituality, Religion and Social Change – Lecture 1: Spirituality and Religion

I grew up in a big city – Toronto. For us youth in Toronto, small town people were
conservative, narrow-minded, stupid, and religious. That was our prejudice. But I lived with
them for three months. My host family deeply touched me. They were so loving, absolutely
full of love. There was something about them that touched my heart. I couldn’t understand.
There was a warmth about them, a patience. Regardless of anything I did and said, they
were always forgiving. And they brought me and my exchange partner, who was from
Pakistan, into their family. So, it started to make me wonder. I had this prejudice against
religious believers being narrow-minded, foolish and so on. But that was not what I
experienced. I experienced powerful love. I was puzzled. Why does religion make them so
loving? What is the connection between their love and their faith?

The second part of this youth exchange was in a village in Pakistan. It was in what used
to be called the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan, near the border with
Afghanistan and China. It is now called Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Everybody in the village was
Muslim. During the three months that I lived in the village, I did not see a single woman’s
face. Everybody was wearing a burka, from head to toe. Only little girls and old ladies had
uncovered faces. It is a deeply conservative religious culture. And yet, when I did some
research on this phenomenon, I discovered that many well-educated modern Muslim
women, even in Western societies, have voluntarily chosen to wear such headscarves, veils
or burkas.

CCHU 9014 Spirituality, Religion and Social Change – Lecture 1: Spirituality and Religion

Every day I went to the mosque, because the only place with running water was the
mosque, where the Muslims prayed. That was where I washed myself every morning.

Again, I was very deeply moved by the people there, their warmth and hospitality.
There were two very devoted brothers -- the most pious Muslims in the entire village. Every
evening, they would come to visit me, always so full of friendship and love. Actually, to be
honest, in Canada, we didn’t know much about Muslims. But then when I went to Pakistan,
I realised that just like those Christians in the small town in Canada, these people also had
something in their faith, which made them different from others. So again, I wondered.

I was also puzzled, because although there are many prejudices between Christians and
Muslims, somehow, I did feel there was something in common between the two religions.
This started to make me think.

The village I lived in was in the district of Abbottabad, the hideaway where Osama bin
Laden, the founder of Al-Qaeda and the mastermind of the 9-11 terrorist attacks of 2001,
CCHU 9014 Spirituality, Religion and Social Change – Lecture 1: Spirituality and Religion

was shot by the US Navy SEALs in 2012. Before moving to Abbottabad, bin Laden spent
two years in the town of Haripur, which was within walking distance of the village where I
lived. When I lived there in 1987, bin Laden was in Afghanistan, starting his Holy War
against the Soviet Russians who had invaded the country in 1979, and laying the
foundations of Al Qaeda. But in those days, we never heard of terrorists, because bin Laden
was fighting on behalf of the Americans. The CIA was providing money and weapons to
radical Muslims, so that they could fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Those extremists
were allies of the Americans, and the CIA was using bin Laden and other Islamist rebels,
encouraging them to radicalise, to strengthen the anti-Soviet resistance by turning it into a
religious Jihad. In those days, Pakistan was peaceful. The war was going on in neighbouring
Afghanistan. Now, the violence has spread. Bin Laden turned against those who nurtured
him. Terrorism has spread to Pakistan, to America, to Europe and China. By nurturing Holy
Warriors, the CIA played with fire. But what is this fire?

When I went to university, I learned about Mohandas Gandhi, whom I knew about
through the film Gandhi, which we are going to watch later in this class. There was
something that moved me about Gandhi. Gandhi led the movement for the independence
of India from British colonialism. I saw that when Gandhi fought against British domination
and oppression, he persisted in his path of non-violence. When the British would strike or
fire their guns at his followers, they would never fight back, but they would not capitulate.
Gandhi had no hatred in his heart, and would respond to violence with love. Somehow, no
matter what his opponents did to him, and to the people who were inspired by him, Gandhi
and his followers had this inner strength, or inner power – something inside them – that
gave them a power to resist without violence and without hatred. That deeply moved me.
And again, I started to wonder what gave them that power. Gandhi was a deeply spiritual
man. He was deeply influenced by his Hindu tradition, as well as Christianity and Islam. So,
something again made me wonder what it was about religion.

And yet, Gandhi was assassinated by a religious fanatic. I wondered. I saw that religion
could be a force for either peace, or a force of violence and war. What makes it go either

CCHU 9014 Spirituality, Religion and Social Change – Lecture 1: Spirituality and Religion

But I was still an atheist, a very strong one indeed. I used to go to religious people, and
tell them that I was a materialist. “I am a materialist, and I only believe in the existence of
matter. The only thing that exists in the world is what we can see and touch. That’s it. There
is nothing else.”

But I started to ponder about something. I got confused. I was thinking about Adolf
Hitler and the Nazis; about how Hitler killed six million Jews in World War II, how he tried to
completely exterminate this entire people. This is perhaps one of the most evil acts in the
history of the world. How could one person deliberately want to exterminate an entire
population, just because he doesn’t like who they are? Or if you think of the Nanjing
Massacre in China, when two or three hundred thousand people were slaughtered in 1927.
So, there is something truly evil in this world.

I started to think. If there is only matter in the world, if I kill somebody, all I have done is
to change that person’s material structure. When you were alive, the molecules moved
around in your body in one way. Then I killed you – now your molecules simply move in a
different way. How can you say that one way of molecules moving around is better than
another? It is just a different kind of material structure. Therefore, if you kill somebody, you
only change its material structure. That’s it. Then why do you say it is bad to kill? What’s
wrong with killing? The universe is always full of mass explosions – the stars and the
galaxies are exploding all the time, destroying everything inside them. I started to wonder,
where is good and evil? How do we know what is good or evil? What is right? What is
wrong? How could we possibly know? Can matter tell us? Can we know the answer from
the earth that we are walking on? I didn’t know. But I started to wonder about that. I started
to think, “Well, maybe there is something else, something beyond the material world, that
can somehow show us the standard or principle that tells us what is right or wrong.” That’s
when I started to reconsider my views about religion.

When I was a university student at McGill University, I was involved in social

movements. The Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong reminded me of those days. In
Montreal, I was one of the leaders of a student organisation that organised student
referendums, recycling projects, rights awareness campaigns, protests, and that sort of
thing. I care about how to build a better world for people. I could not bear the sight of
injustice, and the sight of suffering. I wanted to do something about it. I was out there,
acting against injustice. Once I was on the front lines of a protest against police violence. I
knocked on doors to educate tenants about their rights against landlords. But at one point,
I started to question what I was doing. I was always criticising the bad politicians and
interest groups, and all the injustices in society. But could I say that I was a better person
than these policemen, politicians and businessmen? I saw that I, and my fellow activists,
had the same human faults and failings as the people we considered to be our enemies.
Would the world really be a better place if we defeated them, if we became the leaders of
society? How could I be sure I wouldn’t do the same as them? I looked in history, and I saw
that many revolutionaries, who set out to struggle for a better world, ended up as corrupt
and evil as the oppressors they devoted their lives to overthrow. So, I realized that I should
CCHU 9014 Spirituality, Religion and Social Change – Lecture 1: Spirituality and Religion

also look into myself. Although I should strive to make the world a better place, I should
also try to be a better person. But what is there inside myself? Is there only a body, flesh
and organs, or is there something else?

And I wondered why it mattered that we should have a better and just world. Why did I
believe in this? My life was fine. Why I should care about other human beings that I didn’t
even know, who had nothing to do with my life? Why should I be concerned about their
suffering and the injustices they had to bear? I realised that, in my heart, I had a certain
faith. I didn’t know what it was exactly, but I believed in something, in an ideal.

So, I started to ponder so many questions. Why I am here? What on earth am I here for?
What am I doing all of this for?

The Mao Statue in Chengdu. Where there is now a flowerbed,

there used to be steps on which it was pleasant to sit and chat with people, and watch the
world go by.

With these questions in my mind, I graduated and went to China. In 1993, I took a job as
an English teacher in the city of Chengdu, Sichuan Province. One day I was sitting at the
bottom of the statue of Chairman Mao in the centre of the city. While I was sitting there
and watching the crowds, an old man approached me. I didn't know who he was, but he
started talking with me. I happened to have a box of chocolates. I gave it to him as a gift,
and we became friends. He was a Daoist master. He started to teach me the Daode jing (道
德經) The Book of the Way and Its Virtues), said to be the words of the philosopher Laozi,
which is the main scripture of Daoism. He also taught me a form of meditation, which he
called laozi tai xuan gong (老子太玄功, “The Method of Laozi’s Supreme Mystery”).

CCHU 9014 Spirituality, Religion and Social Change – Lecture 1: Spirituality and Religion


I started to study Daoism. I was meditating and practising breathing exercises, that are
called qigong (pronounced “tchi-gong”). In those days, people everywhere were practising
qigong, far more than now. In the morning, in the parks, on the streets and on the squares,
there were people doing this kind of exercise. One of my students was a qigong teacher,
and I took some of his courses. As I was doing these qigong movements, I started to feel
something moving and tingling in me. It was strange. After a while, I was able to use my
mind to direct the feeling up or down, to make it hot or cold, to make it stronger or weaker,
and so on with my mind. Not only that, I felt full of energy after doing this. I felt powerful.
Frankly, I had never felt so energetic and powerful.

In one of the lessons, as we were all standing in rows, the qigong master walked among
us and sent qi to us. When he was walking past me, suddenly, I felt a wave of something
come through me. The other participants felt great, but I felt nauseous. Nevertheless, I felt
CCHU 9014 Spirituality, Religion and Social Change – Lecture 1: Spirituality and Religion

something, which they called qi. I didn’t know what this was, but it convinced me that there
was something beyond the material world I had learned about at school.

I ended up doing my doctoral study in Paris on the qigong movement in China, and I
wrote a book about it.7 After that, I started to do a study on Daoism on Huashan, a holy
Daoist mountain near Xi’an, in Shaanxi Province. Although there are many Daoist temples
on many mountains in China, Huashan is one of the most important mountains in Daoism.
It is known to the Chinese as xiyue Huashan (西嶽華山), as the Western Holy Mountain of
China. It is the most famous mountain for Inner Alchemy (neidan 內丹), the most mystical
part of Daoist practice. There are lots of caves on the mountain, where Daoist monks and
hermits have been meditating since centuries ago. These monks sit and meditate inside
those caves for years in order to communicate with qi, dao, or the Immortals (shenxian 神
仙). When I was there, I stepped into a cave. Suddenly, as I was sitting there, it became easy
for me to imagine those “Immortals”. Many “Immortals” started to appear to my mind. It
seemed as if luminous spiritual beings were coming down into me, and then that I was
drawn up to marvellous heavens.


I won’t get into the details. I have no idea what happened, frankly. Some images
appeared to my consciousness – in the terms I will use in this course, they entered my
mindscape – at a certain place at a certain time. Was it me who was consciously trying to
paint these images in my mind at that time? Did it happen unconsciously in the same way
as a dream? When we dream, we don’t consciously imagine these things. Something
happened. People ask me what the explanation is. There are many theories based on
different philosophies, ontologies and theologies. For example, there are Daoist theories
and Buddhist theories that would explain the phenomenon. There are also scientific
explanations, and psychological ones. I just don’t know what it was. Depending on your
understanding of the nature of reality, you will have a different explanation, which you will

Palmer, Qigong Fever.
CCHU 9014 Spirituality, Religion and Social Change – Lecture 1: Spirituality and Religion

use to reinforce the understanding of reality that you already had. It’s interesting to explore
different theories and explanations. But Master Hao, the Daoist hermit who lived near that
cave said, “just let it happen, and don’t make a big deal out of it. Don’t become attached to

Life becomes wonderful when you realise that there are things that you can’t explain.
It’s great to learn all kinds of explanations, analytical frameworks, concepts and theories –
and that is what we will do in this class. Meanwhile, we should also be aware that none of
these can explain everything. There is always something else that we will never really know.
And then there’s my daughter’s theory: that I’m just crazy. Maybe she’s right!

At the time that I was studying the daode jing, my neighbour in Chengdu, an old
Chinese man who was teaching English, gave me a Bible. As I read the Bible, although it is
so different from the daode jing, I felt that, at a deep level, both scriptures were trying to
say the same thing. When I lived in Chengdu, I also met a Canadian, Shahram. He was a
Bahá’í. For those of you who know Khalil Fong – Fang Datong (方大同) , a popular Hong
Kong singer – his religion is Bahá’í. Datong in Chinese means the “Great Harmony”, and it’s
the core principle of the Bahá’í faith.

Khalil Fong

Shahram’s major in university was physics, but he was very religious too. This intrigued
me, and we had many discussions on science and religion. He told me that although all
these religions look so different, there is something in common between them all. “The
Bahá’í Faith teaches us”, he said, “that all religions have the same origin. They have
different social forms, but a common spiritual essence. Religion should be a source of unity,
rather than a source of disunity or conflict. All ethnic, national and religious prejudice and
violence should be abolished. Religion should not only be about becoming a good person
for your own sake, but also about how to make the world a better place, how to build a new
society, how to advance our civilization. Also, religion should be in harmony with science,
rather than something in contradiction to science. Religion needs to be based on the free
and independent search for truth, and not on blind dogma. The Bahá’í Faith teaches that
the ultimate goal of religion is to bring peace and unity to the world.” Shahram told me all
these teachings of the Bahá’í Faith. I watched him for a year. I wanted to see if he would live
up to those noble ideals. Actually, I often made fun of him. My saying was, “when in Rome,
do as the Romans”. Whatever the Chinese did, I would learn. They gave me cigarettes, so I
CCHU 9014 Spirituality, Religion and Social Change – Lecture 1: Spirituality and Religion

would smoke with them. I became a smoker. They gave me toasts of liquor at their
banquets, and I drank with them, until I got completely drunk and stripped naked at my
school president’s birthday banquet. And there were other things.

But Shahram wouldn’t do such things. I asked him why. He followed the principles of
the Bahá’í Faith. I said, “too bad for you: that’s their way of showing friendship to you. If
you insist on those principles, you won’t have any friends.” But later, my Chinese friends
told me, “David, you are learning all of our bad habits.” And I saw that they had more
respect for Shahram. He was a man of integrity, who could truly be trusted. And one day, in
my heart, I accepted the Bahá’í faith. I devoted myself to putting the Bahá’í ideals into
practice. I also started praying every day. After some time, prayer gave me a strong sense
of inner strength and confidence. I pray to become a better person, to align my life with
moral and spiritual principles, to act with wisdom and justice, to build a family and a
community that are loving and united, and to serve humanity in everything that I do. It’s
not easy, and I am still far from attaining those ideals!

Meanwhile, I continued my academic research and my field studies in the anthropology

and sociology of religion, mainly concentrating on Chinese religion, especially Daoism, but
also Buddhism, Confucianism and folk religion. For example, I have done research on
Daoist ritual in the countryside in northern Guangdong Province. You might consider some
of these traditions to be very primitive.

On the other hand, I have also been conducting research on the modernization and
globalisation of religion, and on how religious groups and faith-based NGOs, try to
contribute to social justice and transformation. I’ve worked with several Buddhist and
Christian-inspired social enterprises and NGOs in Hong Kong, trying to learn from them
how they nurture and release spiritual capacities to act for the betterment of society.

CCHU 9014 Spirituality, Religion and Social Change – Lecture 1: Spirituality and Religion

It’s been a fascinating journey, during which I have learned so much, both personally
and academically. I look forward to sharing some of those things with you during this

CCHU 9014 Spirituality, Religion and Social Change – Lecture 1: Spirituality and Religion


Diderot, Denis. A Philosophical Conversation (Translated from the French of Diderot).

London: Thomas Scott, 1875.
Foucault, Michel. “Technologies of the Self.” In Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with
Michel Foucault, edited by Martin Luther H., Patrick H. Hutton, and Huck Gutman,
16–49. Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1988.
———. The Care of the Self: Vol. 3 of the History of Sexuality. Translated by Robert Hurley.
New York: Vintage Books, 1990.
———. The Use of Pleasure: Vol. 2: Of the History of Sexuality. Translated by Robert Hurley.
New York: Vintage Books, 1990.
Komjathy, Louis. Cultivating Perfection: Mysticism and Self-Transformation in Early
Quanzhen Daoism. Brill, 2007.
Palmer, David A. Qigong Fever: Body, Science, and Utopia in China. New York: Columbia
University Press, 2007.

Suggested further reading

On religion as a system of communication:

Luhmann, Niklas. A Systems Theory of Religion. Stanford University Press, 2013.

On the "sacred canopy": Berger, Peter L. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological
Theory of Religion. 1967. Reprint, New York: Anchor, 1990.

See also Durkheim, E. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. 1915. Reprint, New York:
Free Press, 1995.

On how religion has become problematized in the modern, pluralistic, secular society:
Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Harvard University Press, 2007.

On the idea of “spiritual, but not religious”: Fuller, Robert C. Spiritual, But Not Religious:
Understanding Unchurched America. Oxford University Press, 2001.