Are atheism & spirituality mutually exclusive?

The word spiritual can make some people bristle. I’m one of those people. I don’t consider myself spiritual, and I often feel like those who do imply they’re in possession of greater love, deeper wisdom, and a wider perspective than poor spiritless me. (I do consider myself spirited, but that’s another semantic story.) In fact, when discussing worldviews, I’ve found myself asserting that I don’t have a spiritual bone in my body; the sense of “something bigger” or a collective energy or universal spirit just aren’t concepts that come naturally. But I always feel the need to qualify that my sense of empathy is very active and strong, very “real.” Others like to say they’re spiritual but not religious—I guess my line is “humanist, but not spiritual.”

Because spirituality suggests a depth within the self, and an awareness of—and appreciation for—a connection to what’s beyond, spiritual fitness is often gauged by the ability to be awestruck, overcome, or “at one” with the universe. (What’s the difference between being awed and just really, really impressed? Is it the experience of God or the experience of being God? a skeptic might ask.)

In this issue’s cover story, Ryan T. Cragun explores whether atheists experience feelings of awe and wonder in the absence of supernatural belief. The question was prompted by elite swimmer Diana Nyad’s appearance on Super Soul Sunday, where Oprah Winfrey told Nyad she wasn’t an atheist because the swimmer says she’s moved to tears by the universe and sees God as the “love of humanity.” Combining survey data and the fact that people can, and do, call themselves whatever they damned well please, the answer Cragun arrives at is that spiritual atheists exist.

But if you’re spiritual—defined here as guided by an inner voice, cognizant of ethereal connections, and focused primarily on what’s important to you emotionally—can you call yourself a humanist?

Michael Werner, in a succinct response titled “The Church of the Greater Solipsism,” says no. We must be “checked by reason and open-minded critical thinking,” he warns, rather than retreat to the safety of spirituality, which is “vague enough not to offend others while providing an image of moral piousness.” Given our knack for self-delusion, Werner contends, we must pursue truth in a progressive, collective manner. And this is where humanism comes in.

Part of my beef with spirituality is that it seems exclusively positive. There’s no force of opposition when, really, we humans have all kinds of things working against us, namely each other. Consider Hemley Gonzalez, the subject of this issue’s interview. He traveled to India to seek meaning through charity, witnessed deplorable practices by the organization he was working with, and so started his own above-board group helping the poor. That’s not a spiritual act. He’s a humanist so it’s not a religious act. It’s a humanist act.

Some see spirituality as religion-lite. Spirituality isn’t directly associated with morality the way theology is, but it does imply goodness. (If you say you’re spiritual but not religious people don’t gasp and wonder why you aren’t out raping and pillaging the way they do when you say you’re an atheist.) Others see it as vastly different. In my interview with 2012 Humanist of the Year Gloria Steinem, she defined spirituality as “the opposite of religion. It’s the belief that all living things share some value.” With the addition of flora and especially fauna, Steinem’s spirituality is more humanism-heavy than religion-lite.

Such is the issue at hand. Dive in. Go deep. But don’t forget to come up for air, and rock the boat when you do.

—Jennifer Bardi