The value of the ‘spiritual’

I have a few close friends who describe themselves as ‘spiritual’. In fact, for the intervening period between leaving religious dogma and rejecting god-concepts altogether, I described myself along similar lines. When I said it, and I suppose when my friends say it, it meant that while I did not adhere to a particular religious tradition but still recognized that there was a non-intellectual part of the human experience that made up a non-trivial portion of my life. While my particular ‘spirituality’ did not encompass things like ghosts or angels or other non-corporeal forms of life, it did recognize that there is more in the world than limited human understanding can fully encompass.

In elementary school and throughout my life as a churchie, I was told that in addition to physical, social, emotional and mental health it was important to maintain one’s “spiritual health”. Googling the term gives you a whole flood of holistic sites that make the same claim. The interesting and telling part of both the religious and secular concepts of the spirit is that neither one bothers to actually define it, except in the most vague terms:

Spirituality is having meaning & direction in life. It involves development of positive morals, ethics & values. Being healthy spiritually helps us to demonstrate love, hope & a sense of caring for yourself and others.

The above is the most specific definition I could find, and even it doesn’t really bother to define what the spirit is, merely asserting the effect that having ‘healthy spirituality’ has. Apparently, according to this particular site, morals and values are the domain of the spirit – so much for philosophy and psychology I guess.

The galling part of the ‘spirituality’ issue is that, almost without question, it is describing subjective states of the brain. At least the religious definition posits the existence of a soul, although it is clear from explorations in neuroscience that the ‘soul’ is just another trick of the mind. However, the idea of ‘spirituality’ is inherently flawed in this way – it confuses an illusion with reality, and then back-fills its assumptions to fit the conclusion. First, the ‘spirit’ is created out of thin air; next, characteristics and qualities are ascribed to this figment; finally, a complicated system of diagnostic and treatment techniques are prescribed to maintain the health of the spirit:

  • Create art work and/or writing centered on hope of peace, then have an art show
  • Create cards to send to individuals who are alone, sick or just having a difficult time
  • Draw or write about what you would like to do for a job or career when you get older
  • Participate in mentoring i.e. reading a story to a younger child, either at home or within the school day
  • Participate in random acts of kindness
  • Have a ceremony celebrating Canadian Citizenship (lolwut?)
  • Recognize others special gifts or individuality – e.g. Identify a strength of each person in your class/family
  • Identify/draw a picture of or write about two community resources that help children/youth

It’s not a minor issue – major health care providers offer ‘spiritual health services’, seminars teach courses about how to heal your spirit, books are written that advertise the secrets of ‘boosting your spiritual health’. Millions of dollars are being made every year by people who claim to hold the secret to fixing a part of you that doesn’t exist. What’s more, belief in this non-existent vestigial and ephemeral organ is seen as a virtue – watch as people nod sagely and knowingly as someone repeats the canard “I’m not religious; I’m spiritual.” Contrast that to the reaction to someone who says “I don’t ride horses; I only like unicorns“.

Once we unpack the embedded implication of ‘spirituality’ – that there is something called a ‘spirit’ or a ‘soul’ that exists separately from the body – we are left to explain the pseudo-phenomenon of spirituality. We certainly experience life as though we are a spirit encased in a body, as though there is a living energy (as Orson Scott Card would call it, an aiùa) that comprises our ‘self’, our unique essence. It’s impossible to discuss this phenomenon without leaning heavily on the psycho-babble that makes up the language of spirituality. Anyone who has meditated, been inspired by a beautiful sight or song, felt connected to the planet, or allowed her/his mind to wander cannot deny that there is at least the illusion of a ‘self’ that exists beyond the wet and fleshy bits that make up our body.

What is this a picture of?

If you said ‘a pretty butterfly’, you’re wrong (if you said anything else, you might have a psychological problem). This is a picture of a bunch of coloured dots, arranged in a pattern that resembles a butterfly. The image of the butterfly is the product of your brain interpreting a number of individual stimuli and synthesizing them into one coherent expression. In the same way, your brain takes a variety of sensory information and builds a subjective experience that creates the illusion of a ‘spirit’ or soul:

All this is in no way meant to diminish the power of subjective experiences. I’ve been sublimely moved by works of music or literature (particularly the latter) that have changed the way I look at the world. I have, while looking at the night sky, felt a super-real connection to the universe. I have, on occasion, been knocked completely sideways by a stray thought that altered my perspective. I have, in years past, felt the Lord Jesus Christ in my heart, and had the Holy Spirit speak through me. These kinds of experiences are part of what defines our human experience. However, it is important to remember that while these things may have deep, powerful personal meaning, they do not correspond in any way to objective reality.

Tl/DR: There can be great value in those things we call ‘spiritual’, but the word itself props up a flawed view of the world.

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  1. Daniel Schealler says


    Spiffy site redesign.

    Just goes to show how long its been since I actually came to the site. Mostly I read your posts from Google Reader.


    Over time, I’ve come to a (perhaps) strange position on the term ‘spirituality’.

    It doesn’t mean anything. It’s not a term that communicates information or ideas.

    To the contrary; ‘spirituality’ is entirely phatic. It belongs to the same class of words as ‘um’ or ‘but’ or ‘damn’ or ‘fuck’ (common usage). It plays on the emotions of both speaker and audience – summoning up one set of emotions and suppressing others. And it does this without communicating any information at all.

    It can be used as an appeal, an assault, or a defense. It’s a very versatile term with too many potential usages to list.

    It just happens to also be a meaningless term.

    Yet nearly everyone who uses the term ‘spirituality’ will claim that, whatever it is, it gives life meaning.

    I wonder what it’s like for people who can so freely use language in a way that is entirely detached from information or ideas.

  2. says

    That’s an interesting perspective. I wonder, though, if not being able to articulate exactly what you mean when you use a word is the same as the word being meaningless. I’d be hard-pressed, for example, to explain exactly what I mean by the word “explain” without it becoming a stuttering exercise in circular definitions and hastily-assembled examples. I think generally that people have some vague sense of what they mean by the word ‘spiritual’, but maybe (as you say) they don’t really, they just know the word and have a non-specific idea of what it means generally.

    The site design, incidentally, is 2 days old so it’s going to be new to most people who didn’t read over the weekend.

  3. Daniel Schealler says

    Explaining something means providing enough information for the other party to understand a new concept that I am trying to convey. Surely?


    But I shouldn’t nit-pick examples – I take your point.

    I think one of the differences between a word like ‘spirituality’ and a hard-to-define word like ‘the’ is the contrast in consistency.

    When people use a term like ‘the’ or ‘explain’ that may be hard to define, there will still be some agreed consistency in the usage (or sets of usages) of these terms.

    I’ve found that ‘spirituality’ doesn’t fit in that role.

    For example, one person I know refers to herself as ‘spiritual’. Her background is Buddhist but she doesn’t by into religious metaphysics. But she keeps a lot of the philosophy and ethics. To her, to be ‘spiritual’ is to live in keeping with a tradition that concerns itself with the ethics of good living. To her, my commitment to Enlightenment values is a valid form of spirituality.

    But as another example, I once met someone when I (briefly) attempted to take up Aikido. It was a very brief attempt – it turns out I’m nowhere near flexible enough to fall safely, which is kind of important in that particular sport.

    Anyway, one of the guys I met in the class was trying to recruit for his ‘master’ at a different martial arts club/dojo/whatever. The claim was that his instructor at the other class had ‘mastered spiritual martial arts’ and was able to manifest ‘spiritual powers’ such as lighting paper on fire with the power of his mind.

    Another woman I used to know thought spirituality was all about living consistently with the knowledge that human beings have spirits, and that there was a cycle of reincarnation of which we were all a part. So ‘spirituality’ to her meant living in such a way as to benefit her eternal spirit in its future lives. Also: Apparently I have an old soul. O_o

    So it seems to me that the term ‘spiritual’ doesn’t have a common usage. Every time someone uses the term they mean something uniquely different to every other person’s usage of the term.

    So when someone tells me they are ‘spiritual’ – I learn nothing about that person.

    More to the point, if each person in my examples above were to say to the other two: ‘I am a spiritual person’ or ‘I think spirituality is very important’ they would also have failed to communicate anything. Because each person doing the listening would apply their own interpretation on the word – and thus fail to grasp the concept(s) that the speaker was attempting to convey.

    Words like ‘explain’ or ‘the’ or ‘alive’ or ‘mind’ aren’t open to these kinds of vast chasms in mutual understanding when it comes to common usage.

    To me, that lack of consistency is key. If a word is vague enough to mean anything then it means nothing.

    Then again – perhaps I’m talking rot. Again. ^_^

    Anyway, that’s enough of a digression for now. Back to work.

  4. says

    No, that’s an excellent point. If the word has no objective meaning, but one that depends entirely on the person using it, it is rather useless as a word. There is a similar argument to be made about “Christian” – no two people mean the same thing when they describe themselves as “Christian”. There are people who don’t believe in the divinity of Christ that call themselves “Christian”. Does the word really have any meaning?

    Nobody, for example, uses the word “spiritual” to mean that they are good at pinball. It has some meaning that seems to draw a distinction between physical/emotional/social stuff, but the definition is shifty.

    There can never be too many digressions 😛

  5. Autumn says

    Daniel Schealler: “Apparently I have an old soul. O_o”

    You know, I’ve wondered about that- the “old soul” comments- for a long time. Have you ever met anyone who claimed to have a “young soul”? Why is an old soul more of a compliment than a young soul?

    I get told, constantly, that I’m a “natural ground.”

  6. Janet says

    I read this with interest because I’ve struggled with this idea of what is spirituality and does it mean anything to me. You say it is valuable, i.e., “there can be great value in those things we call ‘spiritual,” but I don’t really understand why believing in a delusion is valuable. Also, where you say, “First, the ‘spirit’ is created out of thin air; next, characteristics and qualities are ascribed to this figment.” can you give examples? I’m just trying to make sure I fully understand what you’re saying. Thanks.

  7. says

    I guess what I was trying to say is that there can be value in the subjective experiences to which we attribute the label of ‘spiritual’, but not the concept itself. For example, meditation can give you a feeling of connection and deep communion with the rest of the cosmos – while that should not be mistaken for ACTUAL cosmic connection, it can give you a sense of perspective that transcends the momentary feeling. That can be valuable.

    The bit about thin air is simply referring to the fact that we have conjured up this idea of a ‘spirit’, and then once it’s established as an idea in our minds, we start giving it properties. The whole process is smoke and mirrors.

  8. Nathair says

    This is a picture of a bunch of coloured dots, arranged in a pattern that resembles a butterfly. The image of the butterfly is the product of your brain interpreting a number of individual stimuli and synthesizing them into one coherent expression.

    That’s what “a picture” is. This is a picture composed of a bunch of coloured dots, yes, but it is a picture of a butterfly. I get your point but you’re completely redefining the word “picture” to make it. However grainy it may be this is very clearly “a visual representation of” a butterfly.


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