Last week Senior Editor Maggie Ardiente wrote about the increasing number of Americans who call themselves “spiritual” but consider themselves religiously unaffiliated. What does this mean for the humanist movement? Is “spiritual” an appropriate word to use when explaining a secular sense of awe or wonder? Or does using the word mean something supernatural? Readers had a lot of passionate responses to these questions! We’ve included some of them below; due to the volume of responses, we regret that we could not include them all.
If “spiritual” can be said to incorporate wonder, gratitude to the world, and the creative forces of all life, then that word expresses my existential position. However, I currently need many words to describe my sense of being and of being alive. A shorter expression would be most useful!
The definitions of “spirit” and “spiritual” in my dictionary are many and varied, so individuals might object to some of these definitions and not others. Often, though, the speakers I have heard reference their awe and wonder at nature as “spiritual experiences.” For example, I had a friend who said, “Spiritual to me is experiences like viewing the redwoods in California.” Others may experience it like the Force in Star Wars. It seems to be the experience of losing one’s social identity and feeling a oneness with the universe which is very emotionally rewarding. I personally don’t think any arguments for a single, clear definition will prevail any time soon, and likely those who use it are not ready to be labelled an atheist or agnostic, even though they don’t believe in the God of revealed religious texts.
“Spiritual but not religious” describes that large and growing cohort of humanists and other thoughtful people who reject the old religious explanations but sense that something is missing, some home port or anchor point that provides them direction and purpose. I’d call it a yearning for a faith they can believe in, except that the very word “faith” is unacceptable to many nonbelievers because of the historical baggage it carries. Is it possible, then, to define a modern belief system that can get us past this contradiction?
If we seek a more specific foundational principle on which to construct a humanist worldview, why not start with humanity itself? We are a species, defined as such by science, not some scripture. We know enough about human origins to construct a plausible narrative for all our species. It is, of course, a tale that is still unfolding, but what a story! No wonder recent discoveries about prehistoric humans excite such popular interest: they respond to an atavistic need. And if you are looking for a principle or a process, there is the nature of evolution, bound up in the nature of life itself, and we have the study of biological evolution to start with, with its offshoot, cultural evolution. Here we have fodder that should keep the philosophically inclined occupied for a long time to come. In the meantime, we can all derive a solid sense of direction and purpose from the fact that evolution does itself operate directionally, leading life to better fits with a changing environment.
For many years I used “spiritual” to describe myself, while also making it clear that I was not a religious person. I no longer refer to myself this way but do not have a problem with it either, since so many people who have no belief in a god continue to say they are “spiritual.” I understand the need to describe what we feel with some word. “Spiritual” seems to be the most popular. For most of us, I think, the use of “spirit” indicates an acknowledgment that there is much we are missing out on, are completely unaware of, or are unable to fully comprehend. For example, entanglement, at least six other dimensions, the multiverse, string theory—the science goes on and on and is very intriguing, but most of us are not scientists. I myself am an artist and teacher.
I do think we humanists should relax and not get so hung up on the word “spirit.” Our five senses no longer suffice; there is way too much going on that we human beings cannot directly perceive and barely understand. On the other hand, I do have “spiritual” friends who believe in a violet flame and ascended masters, life after death, interdimensional beings, and while I cringe inwardly, these friends would never want to join the humanists anyway because they also believe in a god/goddess/pantheon of gods.
I am getting tired of the “spiritual but not religious” crowd. Seems to be a weak-willed excuse, similar to the idea that agnostics are atheists without the strength of their convictions. Your suggestion of replacing “spiritual” with wonder, awe, or peacefulness is on target. As for myself, I am the opposite: religious but not spiritual. I am an atheist and member of a religion that makes no claims beyond the human condition: Unitarian Universalism. It provides a community of liberal people, concerned about human causes, with all that that implies. It works for me but isn’t necessarily for everyone.
All variations of the word “spirituality” are woo-woo terms, Deepak-ian blather that obfuscate and beat around the proverbial bush of supernaturalism, from standard god-talk to New Age mysticism. If inclined to favor reason, science and life as “a narrow vale between the cold and barren peaks of two eternities” as described by Robert Green Ingersoll, meaningless in a cosmic sense but as meaningful while it lasts as you choose to make it, eschew spirituality. Proclaim yourself a humanist, secularist, freethinker, or other such label associated with reality as you see it.
Donald B. Ardell
St. Petersburg, FL
I like the word “harmony” to replace “spiritual.” The feeling of harmony is to have a feeling of oneness with the universe and is a sensation of fascination, awe, and peacefulness. I am having a most harmonious moment.
I agree with you that it would be more honest and less ambiguous to use “wonder” or “serene” instead of “spiritual,” but it may be a safer half-step for those not ready to come out of the humanist/atheist closet.
Erdman Palmore, Humanist Celebrant
Chapel Hill, NC