Sunday, September 28, 2008


I've been ruminating on a recent post on The Atheist's Way that repeatedly referred, in what seemed to be a generic, non-denominational way, to things "spiritual." I've decided I don't know what that means.

I've always disliked articles that start by referring to a dictionary definition, but in this case such a procedure seemed apropos. Of the seven brief definitions of "spiritual" on, six refer to things that are definitely religious or supernatural. Things like "incorporeal" and "of or relating to sacred matters." None of these has any meaning to me.

The seventh meaning relates to things like "team spirit" or "in a spirit of fairness." This is a nicely secular usage of the word, but seems not to relate to what people mean when they talk about spiritual experiences.

People who are "spiritual, but not religious" sometimes talk about the "spiritual" experience of looking at a beautiful sunset, or walking in a forest, or sitting at the edge of the ocean. Searching for a term that I might use to describe these experiences that isn't tainted by reference to the supernatural, I decided they're restorative.

We all need restorative experiences. I should seek them out a lot more often! The nice thing about this term is that it can be explained in physiological terms, though we needn't get reductive about it if we don't want to.

If we meet someone and are tempted to say "she's a very spiritual person," the term "restorative" won't quite substitute. Perhaps "well grounded," "present," "very aware," or "calm and accepting" would serve.

For myself, I can see no reason to use the term "spiritual." It has too many negative connotations, and seems to convey nothing that can't be more accurately described using some other term.


Anonymous said...

I feel you, dude. There can be an atheist version of spirituality, I think.

I've thought about this is terms of the difference between spirituality and religion. Spirituality being the paradigm I use to organize my perceptions, religion happening when I expect you to adopt my paradigm.

But that seems like an oversimplification. The journey continues.

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

To me the term spiritual, when used positively, invokes visions of one who is at peace with her surroundings. I like the term restorative, to me it goes hand in hand with inspirational, another term that has negative connotations. I find nature to be very restorative and inspirational to me. Sometimes a walk in the woods can invoke more emotion in me than all the church services I've ever been to.

Jason said...

I feel as though the word "spirituality" has been stolen by the religious. Spirit, to quote Carl Sagan, "comes from the Latin word ‘to breathe’. What we breathe is air, which is certainly matter, however thin. Despite usage to the contrary, there is no necessary implication in the word ’spirituality’ that we are talking about anything other than matter (including the realm of matter of which the brain is made) or anything outside the realm of science…Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality…The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a profound disservice to both."

Before I read these words I really had no idea what was meant by "spirituality". Now it is that sense of awe and, yes, restoration when we feel a connection to the world and to people around us. It is a moment of peace and tranquility where we can just exist and be a part of the rest of existence. Some people find that connection and wonder in faith or religion, others in art or music, still others in reflection or meditation. I find it all over the place, often when I least expect it.

writerdd said...

I don't think the word "spiritual" has any negative connotations except in some skeptic/atheist circles. I would like to come up with another word, but until I can think of something that conveys as much meaning and that is understood by the general public, I'll keep using the word.

Jim Aikin said...

I can't help feeling that Sagan was indulging in sentimental claptrap in that quote. I wish I understood what he meant by "spirituality," but he never defines it, he only asserts that he's entitled to use the word without having to buy into its religious connotations.

To which I would respond, "Why do you feel that you need the word? Religious people use it, and they mean something by it (or at least they think they do). Why not let them have it?"

That's what I mean when I say Sagan was being sentimental. He seems to have an emotional attachment to the word. Why is that? What exactly is the sentiment, and why do we need to use that word when talking about it?

The main negative connotation that the word "spiritual" has for me is that I'm tired of hearing people say, "AA isn't a religious program, it's a spiritual program." This may not be the forum in which to discuss that very common assertion, but for me it is very definitely a negative connotation. For one thing, it's intellectually dishonest. It's a dodge. For another, it leaves the word conveniently undefined.

I'll stick with Webster: The word "spirituality" refers primarily to supposed incorporeal essences. Latin root to the contrary notwithstanding, it has little or no connection in modern usage to the idea of breathing.

Jason said...

Is "spirit" doesn't refer to a concept like an emotion (awe, peace, connectedness) or to matter or energy then what could it possible refer to? If theists want to use the word to describe the feeling they get when they think about their gods then they mean an emotional response to a situation.

I am quite happy to concede that this response is genuine, why wouldn't it be? I do expect the same courtesy when I claim to have a spiritual experience when I look at the night sky or a sun rise. I'm not going to concede the word and allow theists to point at atheists and claim that we aren't spiritual. We have the same matter, energy and emotional structure and I'm not going to allow for any denial of that. Not unless they are claiming inferiority. That I could allow.

writerdd said...

I think spirit (and/or soul) refers to human consciousness and experience, a combination of mental activity, hormonal influences, and emotion. Just because our "spirit" or "soul" is physical, doesn't mean it is meaningless or nonexistent. I'm working on a post on this topic that I'll try to get up soon.

Bruce said...

In my book, "An Atheist Defends Religion" (Penguin, July 2009), I make a distinction between what it means to be "spiritual" and what it means to be "religious":

Many observers use the terms spirituality and religion interchangeably, but there is a clear distinction. To be "spiritual" is to question our identity, purpose and destiny – What is the meaning of existence? What happens when we die? Is life worth living? These spiritual questions rise up because of our unique self-consciousness, especially our awareness of our physical and temporal limitations, which necessarily lead to seeking ways to overcome our personal finitude. Thus to be spiritual is an existential state of mind that begins within each individual; it is questing for that which connects the self with humanity, nature and the cosmos. It is the search for what makes life meaningful, valuable and worth living – for unity, transcendence and the highest human potential.

To be "religious" is to have found the answer to that spiritual quest in a supreme reality that transcends the material world. Thus, while we are certainly not all religious people, we are definitely all spiritual beings. Everyone, it seems, asks questions of ultimate concern; everyone inquires about what it means to be human. But it is noteworthy that the vast majority of the world’s population arrives at a religious and not a secular (i.e., naturalistic, materialistic or scientific) answer to that spiritual journey. We should always acknowledge that it is in our nature to pursue the most powerful existential questions that confront us. But it is in the answers to those questions that distinguish the believer from the atheist.

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

Bruce, your book sounds very interesting. I'll definitely check it out when it's released.