Am I spiritual?


Having thought and written about atheism and science and religion quite a bit, there are few questions that I encounter about these topics for which I do not have at least a partial answer ready to hand.

The one question that used to flummox me until quite recently was when people asked me whether I am spiritual.

This question usually arises after they discover that I am an atheist. I think it is driven by the common misperception that atheists are emotionless rationalists who cannot accept anything that is not accessible via the senses. People cannot seem to quite come to terms that a person who seems otherwise ‘normal’ does not believe in some sort of transcendent element in their lives.

This question about my spirituality used to baffle me because I was not sure what people meant by the word. I often refer to the ‘human spirit’ but when I do I am using it as an umbrella label that encompasses such things as hope, courage, will, and perseverance, the qualities that enable people to struggle against great odds to achieve some worthwhile goal. But it is clear that this is not what is meant by the word ‘spirit’ when people ask me if I am spiritual, since then everyone would be spiritual.

So now when people ask me if I am spiritual, I reply by asking what they mean by the word. This usually surprises them and leaves them initially at a loss because the word is used so freely that they clearly thought its meaning was self-evident, even if they had not given much thought to it and cannot easily articulate what they themselves mean by it. My question has elicited a wide range of responses, suggesting that the word spiritual has become almost individualized, with each person assigning their preferred meaning to it.

Some people use the word spirit as almost synonymous with the word soul, to represent some sort of non-material supernatural entity that exists as part of them but also independently of them. My answer to whether I am spiritual in this sense is no. I do not believe I have such a soul-like entity.

Other people use the word to signify belief in a non-sectarian god that gives them some sense of cosmic meaning and purpose. This belief in god is not accompanied by a religious doctrine or ritual or even a shared community of believers. Such people have their own definition of god, unfettered by any official dogma. It is not uncommon to find such people saying things like “I am not religious but I am spiritual.” I am not spiritual in that sense either. I find no reason to believe in the existence of any type of god or metaphysical entity.

But other people use the word spiritual to imply that life and the universe has some sort of meaning and purpose independent of what we assign to it. Such people do not talk of god but of some vague ‘life force’, some underlying organizing principle that gives our life some direction. I am not spiritual in that sense either. I believe that the universe has no external purpose and meaning. The universe just is. We have to give our lives meaning.

Some people use the word spiritual as a descriptor of certain kinds of attitudes and behavior. People who have a dreamy approach to life and like to speak in mystical terms of life’s great mysteries are often referred to as being spiritual people. Such people tend to resist scientific explanations of mind, consciousness, will, and the origins of life and the universe, preferring to think of these things as deep, insoluble mysteries, defying any attempt at further elucidation. I am not one of them. I think that all these things are all amenable to scientific investigation and that there is nothing intrinsic in the nature of these things that prevents us from learning about them, though the answers may be difficult to obtain.

Sometimes the word spiritual is used as a measure of whether one has an appreciation of the finer, non-material things in life, like art and music and poetry. Such things can arouse emotions and feelings that are perhaps ineffable. People who like to contemplate the metaphysical, who can watch a sunset and be so mesmerized by the beauty of the sight that they are speechless, are thought to be ‘spiritual’ and said to have a ‘soul’. Conversely those who look at the same sunset and the only thought it arouses is to remind them that “Hey, it’s time for dinner!” are believed to be crass, soul-less, and unspiritual.

Used in this sense, the words spiritual and soul are again merely umbrella labels, this time for a complex mix of emotions that are thought to be deep and profound. In that sense I think we all are spiritual and ‘have a soul’, varying in just the kinds of things we are spiritual about. For example, the sense of awe that I feel when I think about the vastness, beauty, and complexity of the universe, and of our ability to understand so much of it, is a spiritual experience of this kind. So everyone can probably answer ‘yes’ as to the question of whether they have this kind of spirituality.

It is clear that the word ‘spiritual’ is used with such widely varying meanings that it has ceased to be useful unless its meaning is narrowed down, which may explain why I used to have such a lot of trouble answering the question about my own spirituality.

POST SCRIPT: Calling a lie a lie

Jon Stewart refuses to let Scott McClennan get away with euphemisms about ‘the culture of Washington’ and pins him down on the fact that they all lied.

Meanwhile, Stephen Colbert accurately nails the media performance

Once again, we have to look for the comedy shows to get any worthwhile analysis.

Comments

  1. dave says

    Thanks for the previous series. It was an excellent discussion on nearly all of the arguments for the existence of God.

    With regards to the current post, I think that often times the issue of a ‘soul’ or being spiritual is discussed as a way of elevating mankind over other beasts. So my question to you would be, do you think that mankind is fundamentally different than say an elephant or a gorilla? And if so, what is that fundamental difference? Is it tangible?

  2. says

    Dave,

    I think that on a basic level we are made of the same stuff (cells, DNA, etc.) as animals and that stuff obeys the same laws as the animals.

    Where we differ dramatically and tangibly is in our ability to speak and use language. That is what has created a vast gulf between humans and animals. The knowledge that animals have is limited to what they are born with and what they learn in their own lifetimes. So each animal starts almost from little more than scratch.

    Because of language, humans have the ability to access the knowledge from previous generations, share it with others, and build on it. This is a huge advantage.

  3. STEPHEN I.K DIMONYEJI says

    what i understand from your reasoning is absolutly what any ordinary human being with ordinary human insincts can accept,but situations and events don’t accept or revolve around that type of reasoning, the truth is that people must first consider their own linage and dependants before any other species even Almighty GOD considers only those who obeys his commandments even though he created everyone on earth, too much education cannot change what has been odained by the creator of life, as for my likeness to you, live atheism and accept JESUS CHRIST NOW and accept realities of live.

  4. Savannah says

    Mano,

    Thank you for the interesting posts. I would suggest to you that even though “spirituality” is not well defined by society, it is certainly a socially desirable trait. As religiousness ebbs and flows in popularity, especially with younger people, “spirituality” becomes the trait that signifies to others that you’re a good person. If you deny even being “spiritual” (whatever that means) and own up to something as shocking as atheism people begin to wonder about your moral fiber. I’m sure some people use the term “spirituality” as a way to avoid owning up to their lack of religious beliefs while some use it avoid seriously considering whether or not they believe in God.

  5. says

    Savannah,

    I suspect you are right. Even I find it a bit weird to tell people that I have no soul. It makes me sound like I am some kind of machine!

  6. says

    Wow it was in depth post about the term “spiritual” very interesting read.
    I really don’t understand atheists, I think we all should believe in something.
    I believe in God my way, I have my private line with him :)
    I want to tell you that in many cases in my life he helped me, and there is no other way to explain it, I feel inside of me the path I go and I always feel him testing me, when I have obstacles in my life I take them as a new challenge God sets for me in the future. I understand that he prepares me to something big in future.
    It may sound silly, but I truly believe that I am here (this world) for a reason, I believe that some day I will be the most influencing person in the world and change the world, change people.
    I feel it since I was a child, I always am better in things when I know that I am in number one position.
    Honestly looking at it now, the life I leave now and the things I do, there is absolutely no way for me to see how I will become a billionaire, but I know I will, I just know it.
    Why money? Because I feel that only with a lot of money you can have a real influence in this world.
    It’s funny, the path I had writing this :), all the way from spiritual to money and I haven’ even planned it.

    Now, i have a question, how did you become atheist and why it is so important for you?
    I think that atheist are very powerful people.
    I just want to know how it begins, the process of becoming atheist, is this something bad that happened, is this a logic?

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