“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” – Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
A few weeks ago there was a bit of a dust-up among New York City Atheists over the use of the word ‘spiritual.’ There were differences of opinion as to whether non-believers can use the word in a meaningful way. For years I have heard people say, “I’m not religious at all, but I am a spiritual person,” and this has always puzzled me. What is the difference? Am I missing something? I’m always suspicious when supposedly non-religious folks claim to be spiritual. To me this is a symptom of fuzzy thinking. Maybe they’re trying to distance themselves from organized religion while saying that issues of deep meaning shouldn’t be thrown out with the bath water: They’re saying God, no; spiritual feeling, yes.
But I don’t buy it. I come down firmly on the side of those who argue that we should abandon the word ‘spiritual.’ Those who like ‘spiritual’ may argue that they know what it means to them—and, like Humpty Dumpty—they feel that “it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.”
However, they really can’t get away with this because the word “spsiritual” has so much baggage—just as much baggage as the word ‘religious.’ Albert Einstein found it very irritating that religious people claimed that he was in their camp, because they stretched the meaning of the word. In a 1954 letter he wrote: “It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal god and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.” Religious advocates could even use this sentence to insist that Einstein had religious sensibilities, because he could refer to ‘something’ in him that was ‘religious.’ Thus we have to choose our words carefully. We need to work hard to say things that don’t muddy the waters, and the word ‘spiritual’ is a very muddy one. It reeks of religion and all of its trappings.
After all, the word ‘spiritual’ inevitably carries the implication that there is a spiritual realm. Historically this has been its implication, and there is no getting around that. Atheists should stand our ground: there is no evidential basis whatever for a ‘realm of spirits’ that lurks—undetectable and unverifiable—beyond the natural world. The word ‘spiritual’ is a slippery slope, because not too far behind is ‘spiritualism,’ which evokes the weird world of séances and ‘getting in touch with the spirits,’ which was a popular pastime in the days of the credulous Arthur Conan Doyle.
No doubt, the claim to be ‘spiritual’ has a lot to do with personal feelings, and personal feelings contribute mightily to fuzzy thinking. But mammalian feelings, generated by and residing in the mammalian brains on one isolated planet, cannot be taken as evidence for a spiritual realm that is built into the working of the Cosmos. This would be as arrogant—no matter how humbly felt—as the claim that prayers are heard. Of course, there is the impulse to hang on to words that have been so entrenched in Western thought. Perhaps it’s analogous to Atheists putting up Christmas decorations. But when we’re engaged in public discourse on such important matters, we should avoid the baggage-laden words.
One of the best attempts I’ve ever seen to salvage the word ‘spiritual’ comes from planetary scientist and astro-physicist David Grinspoon, in his clever book, Lonely Planets: A Natural Philosophy of Alien Life. One of his childhood buddies was Carl Sagan’s son Dorion, so he knew the great Carl; no wonder he ended up becoming a planetary scientist. In this book he confesses that “monotheism is not his cup of tea,” and asks:
“What is spirituality, anyway? How should I know? Do I look like the Dalai Lama? But what I mean by spirituality is the religious impulse stripped of religion. Spirituality is what’s left when you peel away all of the inconsistencies in the lessons and the stories.”
To which he adds:
“I see spirituality as an intuitive awareness of the internal and external forces impelling us to realize our place within this complexifying, unfolding, self-seeking, beauty-reeking cosmos of ours.” (both quotes, page 412 of his book)
That’s great, but dammit, if people hear atheists talking about being spiritual, they won’t appreciate the qualifiers and subtleties involved here. We should not use the word ‘spiritual,’ but instead take a few more words to get it right. We could talk about our “unbounded admiration for the structure of the world” (Einstein) and our “intuitive awareness of our place within this beauty-reeking cosmos of ours (Grinspoon).
Unless you want people to think you believe that old Scottish prayer…
From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!
…I suggest you give wide berth to all things spiritual.