June 04, 2008
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.