What’s Wrong with the Term “Spiritual”?

Here is a letter we received recently from a viewer asking why we don’t use the term “spiritual” over at AETV, along with my response beneath:

Original Letter
I am a big fan of the show and I myself am an atheist. I agree with probably 99% of what you guys talk about, but there is a minor thing that erks me that I just wanted to share. Let me just say that i am not the best writer but I will try to formulate my words the best I can to convey my ideas to you.

I don’t understand what is so wrong with the word “spiritual”. I know that most of you, if not all of you don’t believe in the existence of a soul or a spirit (neither do I), but the way I feel, many interpret the word having to do with the mind and body in a connection with nature or the universe (maybe sort of a high), not necessarily a soul or a spirit.


For example, having a lucid dream or an
out of body experience could be described as spiritual. Also, I think the word can have to do with nature, and a feeling of the mind and body, or a profound oneness with nature. A work of art or a piece of music could be said to be spiritual for giving you some heightened sense, nothing to do with any spirits at all. This is an emotive word. I guess what I am trying to say is the English language is full of these sort of context particular words, and I think you guys DO understand what the person MEANS in a given context, as speakers of English. Why give people a hard time about this word? I think it makes sense? I think it is just the morphology of the word that bugs you, but words themselves take on extensions of meaning and language changes all the time. It a lot of times is to do with a mind-body-nature thing. Does this make sense?


Also, one more thing. I find it very ironic that you guys have no problem with the word “supernatural”. I hear you guys use this word all the time. What does THAT mean? In my opinion, there is no such thing as supernatural (literally speaking). Sure all words have linguistic application, like the word spiritual, but think about the word supernatural for just a second. In reality, there is no such thing; NOTHING is supernatural. Let’s say for example, just hypothetically, that ghosts really did exist. Even if ghosts do really exist, then they would be part of the natural world (just not part of what we understand). Even though we can’t prove them or study them or explain them scientifically, a scientific explanation exist, even if we never find it. Just like if there was a God and the whole nine yards of any religious claim were in fact true, a scientific explanation exist whether or not we are capable of ever finding it. So I honestly don’t understand what you guys mean when you say “supernatural”. Do you mean “fiction” or “unproven”? Perhaps “mythological”? Just wanted to point out that supernatural is also a blurry word. The word supernatural is a paradox..The dictionary says “existing outside the natural world” but NOTHING EXISTS OUTSIDE THE NATURAL WORLD, OR IT WOULD NOT EXIST AT ALL. That was all I wanted to get off my chest. Keep up the good work with the show; I wish we had more people like you guys out there on TV to encourage critical thinking


My Reply

Yes, we are aware some people use “spiritual” to describe secular functions. But the word has a very powerful religious meaning as well. We can’t force anyone to use or not use any words, but when atheists or skeptics use this word, it’s an invitation for theists to misapply. We see this all the time whenever a scientist who is also an atheist so much as mentions “god” in the most off-hand or metaphorical way. There are no end of theists who try and assert that people like Einstein or Hawking were not atheists, because of some metaphorical language they may have used. Recently, as an example, I saw an old Dawkins lecture online. He mentioned that between biologists, they refer to the results of natural selection as “design”–but they don’t dare use that term publicly, due to the reality that religious people will jump all over it and distort it to death and try to use it as a means to claim even biologists recognize the work of god.


Whether or not you personally see that as any compelling reason to check your language is up to you. But I don’t want to provide theists any more ridiculous ammo than they already think they have, so I avoid borrowing their terminology whenever possible–when I’m aware and thoughtful enough to understand “There are theists who are going to misappropriate this term.” Why use language that has clear supernatural definitions if there are other terms I can use that do not invite unwanted, but very legitimate misunderstandings?


On your other point regarding “supernatural,” can you point me to a video where anyone on our program–host/cohost–claims to believe it exists? We use the term because it has a meaning “that which is outside of or beyond nature.” Even though no atheist is compelled to not believe in the supernatural, I can assure you that nobody working on the program currently accepts that “supernature” exists. Additionally, we use the term “god” as well–but we don’t believe it exists. You talk about how easy it is for people to grasp what you mean by “spiritual” from your context; but, here you’ve just demonstrated how simple it is to distort what someone means when they use a term. We use supernature because it is a label for something we do not accept exists, and this appears to have been misconstrued by you–despite myriad conversations on the program, where we clearly use the term as something we reject.


I hope this helps you understand the position better; but I get you, or anyone, does not have to personally adopt it.

###