Spirituality without religion – Sam Harris book

75


Discussion by: steve_h51

 

I've just had an email notifation from the Sam Harris website that a book, 'A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion' is due out this Setember.

I suppose that since the word 'spirit' has long had supernatural or at least non-material connotations, the title may seem self-contradictory. However, I'm not aware of any other single English word that might encapsulate the idea of personal value, integrity and purpose. Personally, I am not troubled, in that I think I have moved on enough from religion (in my case Christianity) to take Harris's idea on. So in my view this book is very welcome.

But what do others think? Is religion-free spirituality possible? Or should atheists just get on with their lives and look to advances in understanding from the already existing sciences or creative arts? Is there any need to recreate something even remotely connected to any religious practice?

75 COMMENTS

    • In reply to #2 by Nash33:

      I can’t separate spirituality from religion. I don’t think I will read the book.

      I think we need to think beyond the superficial meaning of “spirituality” and consider this (idea of spirituality) as a way of getting a new prescription for out-dated eyeglasses.

      The unexamined life is not worth living.
      - Plato

      Whether you are an atheist, theist, deist wouldn’t you want to experience life more fully and authentically? If we can start to peel away the layers of illusions that lead us to living a better life, isn’t that worthy of pursuit?

  1. You can believe in spirits, the afterlife, and all that jive without being religious, or member of a religious organisation or movement. For example, the Hippy movement, Bill Hicks, all kinds of people. The meaning is quite broad, and the beliefs in spiritual / supernatural stuff diverse. I don’t really know the basis of SH thesis, but I’m pretty sure it’s not aimed at us. I’ll probably read it out of curiosity.

  2. Hi steve_h51,

    ‘Is religion-free spirituality possible?’

    The more comfortable an atheist is with being an atheist, the less they will be troubled by such questions. I’ll explain…

    The term ‘atheist’ means ‘without theism’, analogous to the term used in plant biology ‘asexual’, which means ‘without sex’. The prefix ‘a’ simply means ‘without’. So what does this have to do with your question? Well, as atheists, we reject notions of supernatural spirit creatures, god’s, demons, angles, or whatever flavour of supernatural agency suggested. Atheists DO NOT reject their humanity. This is the crucial point to remember.

    Humanity is a wonderful thing, it encompasses all that we are as human beings. There are countless examples of great human achievement, from space exploration to ground breaking medical discoveries. All have one thing in common – they have a driving force that is naturally derived, we call this the ‘spirit of man’. It is not supernatural. It is more than that, much more. It is a real and wonderful part of who we are. We have the profound ability to be consciously aware of ourselves and our deepest emotions, we also have a profound connection to others around us. At a time before reasoned enquiry led us to understand the true nature of this phenomena, we called it our spirituality. The belief being that we are a spirit creature (our soul) in a flesh and blood body. We now know it is called our consciousness.

    It pains me when atheists feel they cant use the word ‘spirit’ for fear they’ll be seen as weak minded and not ‘fighting for the cause’. When an atheist is a true atheist, they will not be troubled by any of this. From the dawn of civilisation we recognised that we special in our abilities, naturally, being creatures of exceptional intelligence, we created ideas of supernatural beings in an attempt to answer and explain our deepest questions, thoughts and feelings. Today we are sufficiently advanced in reason to know the truth, that we need not create such supernatural agencies as a source of explanation.

    You say, in reference to the word ‘spirit’, that you are, quote: ‘not aware of any other single English word that might encapsulate the idea of personal value, integrity and purpose…’ Well, there is such a word. That word is humanity.

    As Bertrand Russell once said: ‘Remember your humanity and forget the rest…’

  3. In reply to #4 by iHuman:

    Hi steve_h51,

    ‘Is religion-free spirituality possible?’

    The more comfortable an atheist is with being an atheist, the less they will be troubled by such questions. I’ll explain…

    I hope you have data to back up that statement. I doubt it’s true. I don’t blame any atheist for being wary of the word “spiritual”. If you are comfortable with that word that’s your choice but don’t blame the rest of us who back away from it. Many of us have had religion and spiritual woo shoved down our throats for too many years and we’re tired of being vilified for our rational, skeptical or Naturalism world views. I don’t respect spiritualism and I don’t feel one bit troubled about it.

    • In reply to #5 by LaurieB:

      In reply to #4 by iHuman:

      Hi steve_h51,

      ‘Is religion-free spirituality possible?’

      The more comfortable an atheist is with being an atheist, the less they will be troubled by such questions. I’ll explain…

      I hope you have data to back up that statement. I doubt it’s true. I don’t blame any athei…

      Hello LaurieB,

      Thank you for your refutation. I admire your passion.

      With the greatest respect, your response seems premature. I can only assume you simply chose to read only the first line of my comment, without the explanation that followed.

      It is precisely because of our rational, skeptical and naturalistic views that we see questions like ‘is religion-free spirituality possible’ as being, at best, innocently ignorant, or at worst, intentionally delusional. I have clearly explained this in the comment I posted. There is no part of my comment that apportions ‘blame’ on anyone.

      Should you still feel unhappy with my comment, in the main, then in the interest of selfless civility I apologise for any offence caused.

      Yours sincerely,

      iHuman.

  4. I remember Dawkins has talked about spirituality. My guess is that his ideas have influenced Harris. Here is a quote:

    “spirituality can mean something that I’m very sympathetic to, which is, a sort of sense of wonder at the beauty of the universe, the complexity of life, the magnitude of space, the magnitude of geological time. All those things create a sort of frisson in the breast, which you could call spirituality” Spirituality can bridge science-religion divide

    When threads like this are posted I always want to ask everyone to read The Blank Slate or some other book where Pinker explains some basic facts (and some very well supported theories) about language. Because inevitably people will have long pointless discussions about what “spirituality” really means as if the “real meaning” of words is something that can be scientifically determined. It can’t. Word meanings are context dependent and there is no right or wrong answer to what they really mean, what we need to do is clarify what we mean in any specific case by some words and then proceed from there.

    Where I live in San Francisco I don’t think about religion at all when I hear the word “spiritual”. A lot of people I know would describe themselves as spiritual but are not religious and some of them are essentially atheists. In this context spiritual just means what Dawkins says in the quote above.

    In another article I remember Dawkins saying that atheists should “reclaim the word spiritual” from the New Age and religious people and I agree with him on that. BTW, he is also careful in the article where the quote is from to be clear that (of course) in his (and my) sense of spiritual no sense of otherworldliness, superstition, etc. is implied.

    • In reply to #6 by Red Dog:

      Word meanings are context dependent and there is no right or wrong answer to what they really mean, what we need to do is clarify what we mean in any specific case by some words and then proceed from there.

      I agree with you. Which is why I tend to avoid the word spiritual unless I know that people around me know what I’m talking about. But, I also find the term quite sloppy in general. If a person says he/she is spiritual I really feel I have learned nothing new about that person. My first response is almost always “what do you mean?”. Yes, I think most of us have experiences and emotions that are hard to describe with words. I don’t really know how to explain the very intense feeling of meeting a very attractive and nice woman. I could say that I’m in love, but that just feels too generic and boring. It’s just as hard to describe the feeling of having a really fruitful discussion. You feel that you have perhaps had a life-changing experience, but you can’t really pinpoint exactly in what way. We could talk about intellectual satisfaction, but I don’t think it would make the experience justice.

      My point is that many of our most beloved experiences can’t really be portrayed by using one generic term, like spiritual. That’s why we humans write novels and poems or makes music and paint pictures. That seems to be the only way we can truly express these experiences. In my opinion words like spiritual degrade these experiences, in that sense that when we use it we don’t really convey something of importance even though we might think we do. I might say that I had a spiritual experience, and expect others to realize what this experience was. Others might even think they understand what I’m talking about even though they are just projecting their own interpretation of the words onto me. This can create situations when two people with completely different views of what spirituality is might think they understand the other person because they are using the same word. Although I can imagine certain situations when a word like spiritual can come in handy, I think most of the times such a word will create more barriers than it breaks.

  5. The meaning of the word spiritual is a bit fuzzy. Religious and the secular people likely have quite different ideas about what it means.

    If you define spiritually to mean that sense of wonder you get when pondering how amazing and beautiful the real universe is then I guess it can be a secular thing.

    I’m not reading Harris’s book on spiritually simply because I’m not interested in studying or practising spirituality, but I would not hold it against anyone as it can be a secular and rational practise.

  6. I applaud Harris for taking the atheist/rationalist argument further than many others in the “movement.” After all, there are only so many reasons atheists can give for not believing in magic. Books like “The God Delusion” were an absolute breath of fresh air at the time and filled a definite need, but once those early “New Atheist” books said what needed to be said, most of what followed were variations on the same. Harris, however, has moved to fresh ground and is not only engaging fellow secularists, but is also pulling the carpet from under religious beliefs that often go unchallenged. First, he took on morality, then free-will (of course, he wasn’t alone in that), and now, he is taking “spirituality” and divorcing it from religious and superstitious mumbo-jumbo.

    Now, there are certain conscious contemplative experiences that don’t have a good word to describe them other than the one that has been used for centuries, “spiritual.” Of course, there are religious connotations, but given that the term already exists for this particular experience and has found permanence in our language, it’s reasonable to use it (and new terminology would be even more confusing; be slow to catch on, if at all; and be less affective in challenging the believers on their home turf).

    Language literalists would do well to remember that many of our words and phrases have religious and superstitious origins, but that doesn’t mean that we always use them that way, or that language, in general, is always literal. If you hate the Irish or the Mexicans, you are a racist, even though those are ethnicities, and not races. And will some people insist that dialing is specific to rotary phones because that’s how the word was first used in their lifetime? If someone offers you spirits to drink, do you turn them down because you don’t believe in spirits as souls? And when people say “Holy shit,” does that mean they think shit is holy? Now, it’s true that often when people tell you they’re “spiritual,” they are using the term in a wishy-washy way, which implies that they’re religious in their own way, but that they don’t identify with specific religions or their dogmas. Many of them find solace in contemplative practices, which, of course, often come with silly beliefs of their own. Sam’s book should therefore land on fertile soil and could stop people from getting lost in sanctimonious vagueness of pseudo-spirituality while at the same time not dismissing people’s legitimate experiences.

  7. ‘m not aware of any other single English word that might encapsulate the idea of personal value, integrity and purpose.

    I would use “personal value, integrity and purpose.”

    I cringe at the term spirituality. While Harris and Dawkins may, as part of a secular campaign want to claim “spirituality” from the religious, it’s a bridge too far for me. It’s just another term for believing in the irrational. I will keep an open mind until I get some extracts and crits about the book, but I would probably pass.

  8. In reply to #7 by iHuman:

    I can only assume you simply chose to read only the first line of my comment, without the explanation that followed.

    I read the whole thing. I realize I was reading an explanation.

    I apologise for any offence caused.

    I am not offended. If I was easily offended I wouldn’t have stuck around this website all these years.

    I was reacting to your claim that “The more comfortable an atheist is with being an atheist, the less they will be troubled by such questions.” What does comfort have to do with it? I’m not spiritual. I don’t appreciate the wooist implications of that word and want distance from it. I reject phrases like:

    “spirit of man”

    “humanity is a wonderful thing”

    “we also have a profound connection to others around us. “

    These are your own feelings and you are certainly welcome to them. What has me worried is that you’ve taken certain liberties with extending these feelings onto the rest of us without asking first!

    I see that you are new here just this month. Welcome to the site. LB

    • In reply to #11 by LaurieB:

      In reply to #7 by iHuman:

      I can only assume you simply chose to read only the first line of my comment, without the explanation that followed.

      I read the whole thing. I realize I was reading an explanation.

      I apologise for any offence caused.

      I am not offended. If I was easily offended I wouldn’…

      As you state you have read my first comment in its entirety, perhaps then you have misunderstood it. Not once have I made a direct claim supporting ‘spiritualism’ or inferred my support of ‘spirituality’. I will expand, perhaps more than I need to, on my statement of ‘The more comfortable an atheist is with being an atheist, the less they will be troubled by such questions.’

      I have found being an atheist in a religiously dominated world can be very hard indeed. It is a stance for which you will face the threat of execution in some countries. I have had more debates with hardline religious followers than i can remember – and every single time I have been outnumbered several to one. It can be daunting task accepting an invitation to debate the virtues of science and reason over religion, especially when you are the only atheist in large congregation of religiously polarised people, all baying for your failure. I live in Northern Ireland, hardline Christianity is ever present. As a child and through my teens I had suffered years of religious oppression, so much so, that by the age of ten I was taken into hospital suffering from stress related mental illness. This was a result of my Stepfathers twisted psychological methods of explaining in graphic detail what would happen to me if I ever questioned my ‘faith’ in God. He was a respected Elder in his congregation.

      When I first became atheist I was, what I would call, an aggressive atheist. I wanted revenge for my wasted years, I wanted to belittle and make fools of those who followed a religious/spiritual path. As years went by, I became settled, more wiser and more importantly, more ‘comfortable’ being an atheist in a vast sea of religion. I got back in touch with my humanity, the inner me. I became ‘comfortable’ hearing the word ‘spirituality’ because I knew, through scientific study, that what people were trying to describe, but failing to, was the power of their own consciousness, their psyche. My aggression gave way to the understanding that what I was up against was a system of infantile ignorance, a superstitious throwback of several millennia. I now hope this has made my opening statement clear.

      You reject my statement that being human is a wonderful thing (‘Humanity is a wonderful thing’). Do you have any idea of the mathematical odds stacked against you that you should not be here? They are immense, but here you are! I’m sorry you feel the way you do. I have learnt through what has been revealed to me through science to embrace, treasure and enjoy this one life I do have and not the spiritual one I don’t. I accept though not all may share my viewpoint, and so I retract this statement.

      You reject the phrase ‘the spirit of man’. My comment read, quote: ‘we call this the ‘spirit of man’. It is not supernatural.’ Unquote. I do not see how I can make this statement more black and white. What part of it do you not agree with? You may find reading the comment left by secularjew in this thread (comment 9) of interest. It should help clarify the semantics of the phrase.

      You reject that, as humans, we have a profound connection to members of own species. (‘we have a profound connection to others around us’). I’m astonished by your rejection of this. Are you suggesting the connective bond between family members, lovers or lifelong friends is mystical ‘wooism’ also..?

      You say I have taken liberties with these statements, I will admit to that. I just wonder what the true ratio of those who disagree with what I have said is to those who agree…

      Finally, I thank you for your courtesy in welcoming me to the forum.

      • In reply to #16 by iHuman:

        First of all, I want to say that I’m so sorry for your troubles with the church and all of the oppression that you suffered from their deluded minions. It’s upsetting to hear about the stress you suffered, especially as a child, and I think you must be a very resilient person to throw off such substantial psychological assault such as what you describe. I hope you find support here from others who have suffered to break away from religious indoctrination as I have myself.

        My aggression gave way to the understanding that what I was up against was a system of infantile ignorance, a superstitious throwback of several millennia. I now hope this has made my opening statement clear.

        Yes, and I feel that I’m in a similar frame of mind but I think I’ve retained quite a substantial wariness around fundamentalist religious people and I see no need to forgive and forget the people who took advantage of me and others when we were helpless children. I’m pretty sure that what’s going on here is that the word and all of mystical woo that is attached to that word sets off my defenses and this is what other commenters are saying too. But it’s interesting that others here seem to have no problem with the word and its associations.

        And now I think I should reassure you that I’m not a complete misanthrope. Really! :-) Maybe just a wary introvert at this point. 8-/ But when you say that humanity is a wonderful thing, I have to say in all honesty that I would only agree with you if I would be allowed to attach several amendments that would probably depress you in the end. Does that mean that I can’t appreciate the particular unique features of our species? I do! There are a few masterpiece works of art that when I have the opportunity to experience them, always leave me in the state that is described as “spiritual” but I don’t call it that because there’s nothing magical about that feeling. Similarly, when I take in a beautiful view of nature I feel overwhelmed by its immensity and this is enhanced by everything I know about the natural sciences.

        These feelings are something that is produced by my brain as a response to certain stimuli. That’s it. No spirits and no magic either. The fact that science explains all of this process does not subtract anything from it, even if there are elements of the bad and the ugly included in it. I think your statement that humanity is wonderful is unrealistic. There are some aspects of humanity that are really despicable. I can’t turn a blind eye to this. It’s not honest. Still, I never forget how lucky I am to be alive given those long mathematical odds that you mentioned.

        “spirit of man” and “profound connection” are still going nowhere with me right now. I can’t relate to either one of them. They seem so vague as to be completely useless.

        I don’t think we have much to disagree about here but I think you caught me off guard with the word “spiritual”. I don’t think this bodes well for the use of this word in our community.

        • In reply to #21 by LaurieB:

          In reply to #16 by iHuman:

          First of all, I want to say that I’m so sorry for your troubles with the church and all of the oppression that you suffered from their deluded minions. It’s upsetting to hear about the stress you suffered, especially as a child, and I think you must be a very resilient pe…

          Thank you for your kind words of support, they mean a lot to me. It’s clear you have also suffered oppression yourself, and as I truly can relate, I am deeply sorry your experiences in return.

          Thank you for taking the time to respond in the manner in which you did. It was very clear and concise and has removed any grey areas of uncertainty. It is quite clear that, as you have already said, we have little to disagree about. Yes, we have our differences, but that’s because we are self autonomous individuals and not robotic-like sheep. This is good thing, as the philosopher Spinoza once said: El sueño de la razón produce monstruos (The sleep of reason produces monsters). I’m glad we have science and reason – it’s what we fight the monsters with…

          To address ‘the white elephant in the room’, it is blindingly obvious that our core values and views are one in the same. We have dragged ourselves out the putrid quagmire that is oppressive religion and we seek to put things right. I’ve always held that the object of debate is progression. I think we have succeeded. I have much respect for you and you certainly have an ally in me :)

          Take care LaurieB, I look forward talking with you in the future.

          iHuman

  9. For a time I was “seeing” a woman who specifically described herself as “Spiritual.” She was Spiritual, all right: afterlife, pixies, poltergeists, you name it. It bugged her no end that although I was a nice person and all, I wasn’t Spiritual. After a time she broke off the relationship.

  10. Not sure about this one. I’ve read all his work to date, and even receive emails of his blog, but I’m not certain that I’m still on the same page, despite the fact that I admire his writing style a great deal. In general, I don’t refuse to read books or articles because I find the content confronting , but my reading time is limited. The very term ‘spiritual’ tends to put me on the defensive.

    Despite being given countless examples of different definitions, I wouldn’t use the word ‘spiritual’ in a sentence. I don’t know if we can categorise individuals as being ‘spiritual’ or ‘non-spiritual’ as I think most people feel the sense of ‘awe’ at one time or another.

    No…I think I’ll stick to the Sam Harris I know and admire and wait to read reviews of his latest work before jumping in.

    • In reply to #17 by Bob Springsteen:

      Sam Harris? There is nothing more worrying than a gun lover talking about his spirituality.

      Hi Bob. I think your depiction of Sam Harris as a ‘gun lover’ is well off target, since he owns & is well-trained with hand guns because of his rational study of & acceptance of the realities of the gun-drenched American society he lives in…. Mac.

      http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-riddle-of-the-gun

      • In reply to #18 by CdnMacAtheist:

        In reply to #17 by Bob Springsteen:

        Sam Harris? There is nothing more worrying than a gun lover talking about his spirituality.

        Hi Bob. I think your depiction of Sam Harris as a ‘gun lover’ is well off target, since he owns & is well-trained with hand guns because of his rational study of & accept…

        From the article you linked to:

        I own several guns and train with them regularly… I have always wanted to be able to protect myself and my family, and I have never had any illusions about how quickly the police… Suffice it to say, if a person enters your home for the purpose of harming you, you cannot reasonably expect the police to arrive in time to stop him.

        This argument is bullshit. All statistics will tell you that having a gun in your house makes you and your family less not more safe. A gun in the home is far more likely to be used against another person in the family as a result of accident or emotions. Even when someone breaks in (an extremely unlikely event) your best options aren’t to try and kill them they are to call the cops and get away.

        Just to be clear, I agree people have the right to defend themselves. I’m talking about what a rational analysis will tell you about how to make your family safer. Of course Harris will say that he and his family are exceptions. That is a classic example of self delusion as described by Trivers in his book The Folly of Fools. Everyone thinks that they are better than the norm when it comes to things like rationality, intelligence, ability to shoot straight, etc.

        But even if Harris is one of the exceptions it’s irrational and immoral to present such an argument without at least talking about the actual data on how guns are used in homes. Perhaps Yosemite Sam and his kin are safer with pa protecting the women and young ‘uns with his guns but the vast majority of us are more likely to be shot in anger or by accident if we have a gun in our home.

        • In reply to #20 by Red Dog:

          In reply to #18 by CdnMacAtheist:
          All statistics will tell you that having a gun in your house makes you and your family less not more safe.

          Hi Red Dog. Please don’t misread my comment about Harris being described as a ‘gun lover’, which I don’t think he is. He feels that owning handguns & being competent with them is a part of his life in the USA, especially with all the threats he gets from various nutcases.

          I agree with your comment since I’m very much against guns in general, although as a teen in Scotland I fished & used air rifles to hunt rabbits to feed the family, from necessity. I didn’t actually see a real gun until my 30′s in Canada.

          I think that ‘needing’ or being skilled with firearms doesn’t necessarily mean you ‘love them’ as many folk do, like those who hunt for pleasure – or guns used in murders, for which I advocate euthanasia …. Mac.

          • In reply to #46 by CdnMacAtheist:

            Hi Red Dog. Please don’t misread my comment about Harris being described as a ‘gun lover’, which I don’t think he is. He feels that owning handguns & being competent with them is a part of his life in the USA, especially with all the threats he gets from various nutcases.

            I don’t care what label you use, I try to avoid name calling like “gun lover” or “gun nut” anyway (although for some reason I can’t resist calling him Yosemite Sam) But what I was specifically objecting to in your previous comment was this statement:

            “Hi Bob. I think your depiction of Sam Harris as a ‘gun lover’ is well off target, since he owns & is well-trained with hand guns because of his rational study of & acceptance of the realities of the gun-drenched American society he lives in.”

            I think it’s wrong to say that Harris’s arguments for guns can be considered a “rational study”. They aren’t. They are just fear mongering and machismo. I actually find it ironic how the people who support guns so often are the macho tough guys but when you look at their arguments so many of them are based on fear. I assume Harris lives in or near Palo Alto or some other nice low crime community. What the fuck is he so afraid of? My guess is that in the history of wherever he lives the number of home invasions are zero, not to mention I’m sure he can afford an alarm system, an armed response service, etc. And as I said the data on gun violence is overwhelmingly clear on this topic, a gun in the home is far more likely to be used by accident or in anger against a family member rather than to defend them.

            That is what I was objecting to. In this case I think Harris is clearly a hypocrite. He talks about reason and critical thinking but he just completely ignores the actual data that shows conclusively that for the average person a gun in your home makes you more likely to be a victim of violence not less and he makes appeals based on the basest emotions: fear and macho posturing.

          • In reply to #47 by Red Dog:

            In reply to #46 by CdnMacAtheist:

            I think it’s wrong to say that Harris’s arguments for guns can be considered a “rational study”.

            I completely agree. It was a delight to see the creeping oil of evidence and reason loosen up Michael Shermer’s thinking on guns and libertarianism recently and it was just wonderful of him to post an article about it.

            I think Sam is genuinely scared though. His articles on and concern with self defence point to an odd interest. It doesn’t need to be rational fear either. I have had to cope with substantial irrational fears in others and seen how much a life can be distorted by it. But, Sam has said things that others here, even, have insisted were directly provocative towards various fascistic groups (perhaps irrationally fearful themselves). I think it not unreasonable for him to suspect he may be seen as a threat. If a novelist was in need of a fatwa, he could be easily taken as a far greater threat, needing not to be warned in advance.

  11. Spirituality has long had associations with religiosity and the supernatural, eg. ‘the holy spirit’ or evil spirits, (ie. poltergeists etc.) But there are non-religious or perfectly natural interpretations of the word. The root of the word is spirit, which simply refers to an emotional or feeling state.

    An actor may give a spirited performance – the performance has characteristics which give rise to a feeling of admiration in us as audience members. An athlete may do likewise, in his/her field of expertise. Someone who tries when in times of trouble is showing good spirit. Being happy is being in good spirits. There is no need to attach religiosity or the supernatural to these kinds of “spirituality”.

    Carl Sagan used to talk of the spiritual experience of gazing at the stars out in the universe. It can be a feeling of amazement, awe and even joy. Maybe those latter types of spiritual experience are a good substitute for the religious and supernatural kinds, which may help some people to detach from their religious or supernatural beliefs, and become content – even joyous – about living in a purely material universe.

  12. I guess spirit is a perfectly good word. Its Latin root, to breathe, and early use to be the animating principle of humans and animals distinguishes it from a separately viable “soul”.

    “Spiritual”, however, seems to be used in an entirely inappropriate way by most, quite the reverse of spirited. It is taken to be a disembodied state invoking ideas of the numinous. If I felt this at all ever, I don’t feel it now.

    Periods of awe, so…er…awesome that I lose power over my own body, happen with pleasing regularity to me. It is my very physicality, my feeble but fortunate existence at the particular time and place that can be overwhelming for me. A privilege bequeathed me by my ancestors.

  13. Perhaps I am unusual here, but I have never thought of spirituality as being only religious. The feeling of being a part of the natural world, the universe and having relationships with others (human and animal) has always seem “spiritual” to me. It is the feeling of being connected without superstition or “magic” or “belief” of any kind. Just as “love” does not need to be “religious” neither does spirituality… at least for me. I look forward to Mr. Harris’ new book!

  14. I personally prefer this concept of ‘sense of wonder” — or another variation: “sense of the profound.” In a sense what it encapsulates, I think, is an emotional and/or intellectual response to contact with something one is finding profound, insightful, beautiful, etc. It is what I might experience looking at an image of a galaxy, listening to certain music, standing before certain pieces of art, or witnessing a condensed presentation of evolutionary development.

    Instead of talking about being “moved in spirit” I might personally use a more philosophical term like “moved in being.”

    All that said, I can I understand why some might try to use a catch-word like “spiritual”, “spirit” etc. It is a commonly understood term and it also hits a place where many people find themselves at. Beyond that, there is the perception on the part of many people that if they allow themselves to become atheists and materialists, this becomes an utter void to them and that scares them.

    I believe it is a wise hook to try to engage those people who are teetering and flirting with their doubts about the supernatural but who are fearful about losing this other aspect entirely. From that hook we can probably expect that Sam Harris will get into these nuanced distinctions about what that does or doesn’t mean. What being a humanist, atheist, materialst, etc. doesn’t mean is losing one’s sense of wonder, one’s appreciation of beauty; it doesn’t mean existing in the vacuum of a sterile lab. Instead, it means having those experiences and emotions of wonder and appreciations of beauty, but without the clutter and white noise of superstition or supernaturalism.

  15. I welcome this book and will definitely read it. Frequently, atheists talk about ending religion or imagining what will happen if religion went away overnight. My answer is that many people will become like drug addicts in withdrawal and that would not be a desirable situation. We have all heard stories of individuals and former ministers go into a deep depression when they came to realize an existence of life without God. An existential crisis is quite common. I can personally attest to this dark reality.

    If A-theism is a movement, an antithesis to religion and theism, we certainly need to stand FOR something. Some might answer we should stand for “nothing’ or “science” “truth” or “everything the way it is now without religion”. How could that be when an understanding of science is not a prerequisite to being an atheist? Science cannot address the experiential quality of our lives. Many would argue that we cannot lump a personal truth into an intellectual pursuit. (A case in which personal experience and reaction to the world around us is an actual legitimate consideration and not stemming from cognitive dissonance or perceptual flaw.) Redefining “spiritual” is an area in which I hope Sam will cover. What form of enlightenment can atheism bring to world without God? Focusing on what’s next after religion dies out seems to be a good next step. I can see the brink of light and that is a direction worthy of pursuit for those daring to be on the cutting edge of social change.

    My transition into atheism was gradual; certain stages of doubt and redefining my place in the world entered through my mind and emotions. As a reflective introvert, contemplation is important to me. Life encompasses our experiences, our relationships, our feeling of purpose and relevance in society and with our family and peers. It has to do with our appreciation and gratitude of all life. These qualitative experience are what makes life an incredible journey and worthy of pursuit. Yet so much has been bogged down through the hijacking of religion and anesthetizing of our emotions towards sexuality, deep, direct, meaningful connections with others in which we truly share ourselves, and other ways in which we guilt ourselves when experiencing our true humanity. With religion and even without religion, we experience life through heavily filtered glasses and do not have a clear vision and perception of the world in which we are briefly experiencing. We respond and react to illusory events. I have seen life through Christian Catholic lenses, Former Catholic atheist lenses, New Thought lenses, and former spiritual atheist lenses. Each time has been a different experience that has influenced my perception and reaction to the world. I feel as if I’m progressively getting closer to reality. Perhaps one day the idea of “spiritual” will be replaced with more specific wording. Until then I think it is wise to take steps that lead us to rebuilding a world for those whose religion has collapsed and prepare for those living without God. This is the way of the future and something that atheists can stand FOR – people living a better life without religion.

    • In reply to #27 by QuestioningKat:

      I welcome this book and will definitely read it. Frequently, atheists talk about ending religion or imagining what will happen if religion went away overnight. My answer is that many people will become like drug addicts in withdrawal and that would not be a desirable situation. We have all heard sto…

      Hello QuestioningKat,

      Your quote: ‘…An existential crisis is quite common. I can personally attest to this dark reality.’

      I have seen this myself, both atheists and agnostics, caught in an existential angst. I have a suspicion it may be more common than we may think.

      Your quote: ‘Science cannot address the experiential quality of our lives.’

      As a direct statement I’m sure few would disagree. However, I would add that science is not just about physical number crunching, and measurement. Science is also a way of thinking. By that I mean we can rationalise our experiences without detracting from there emotive qualities, which give essence to our lives.

      Your quote: ‘Until then I think it is wise to take steps that lead us to rebuilding a world for those whose religion has collapsed and prepare for those living without God. This is the way of the future and something that atheists can stand FOR – people living a better life without religion.’

      Well said. Hear,hear.

      • In reply to #30 by iHuman:

        In reply to #27 by QuestioningKat:

        I think you and QKat might be on to something here that I have completely overlooked. I never had to suffer through a deconversion process like other atheists have. I just never bought into the whole gruesome story in the first place and so I never needed a transition phase at all. Maybe the hard core materialists just can’t relate to this spiritual thing at all and never will. I’m not sure if there is a pattern here that would apply across the entire community.

        Based on the last two comments by you both I think you may be saying that some degree of spirituality, however that would be defined, could serve as a transition phase for atheists who are coping with the loss of their previous theistic worldview. I think I can make some peace with that idea.

        • In reply to #31 by LaurieB:

          In reply to #30 by iHuman:

          In reply to #27 by QuestioningKat:

          I think you and QKat might be on to something here that I have completely overlooked. I never had to suffer through a deconversion process like other atheists have. I just never bought into the whole gruesome story in the first place an…

          Hi LaurieB.

          Ultimately, we all have to accept that none of us possess the single answer that gives us the monopoly of understanding on this subject. All of our points are equally valid and add equally to the discussion. Little by little we gain more insight in the subject matter, by listening to personal experience and evaluating what the science may suggest. Again, there is no final word due the very dynamic nature of opinion on this. I think though, it may be possible that a general consensus could be reached by empirical methods if given enough time.

          I have certainly learned from this thread.

  16. Harris, however, has moved to fresh ground and is not only engaging fellow secularists, but is also pulling the carpet from under religious beliefs that often go unchallenged. First, he took on morality, then free-will (of course, he wasn’t alone in that), and now, he is taking “spirituality” and divorcing it from religious and superstitious mumbo-jumbo.

    I agree, I hope he is “pulling the carpet from under religious beliefs” The human experience is not synonymous with the idea of God nor our imaginary Oneness with an invisible (non-existent) part of us, otherwise I will be writing a very very long letter and start thinking of ways of taking this into my own hands.

  17. It feels like the use of the word is unnecessary to me. It also feels like the word is being hijacked from its religious origins and altered for use by otherwise totally rational people. The word has become too diluted between its religious and nonreligious meanings.

    I wouldn’t say: “wow every time I contemplate the universe it feels so spiritual.” or ” I feel spiritually connected to nature when I think about my existence”. It doesn’t feel right to say those things.

    I might use a few more words to describe my actual feelings, like: “wow every time I contemplate the universe I am so amazed, I tingle at the sense of awe and wonder I feel”. or “when I think of my existence I am humbled and amazed that everything is made out of the same stuff, stardust”. I had to use more words to describe my thoughts, but it feels right in comparison.

  18. It feels like the use of the word is unnecessary to me. It also feels like the word is being hijacked from its religious origins and altered for use by otherwise totally rational people.

    I somewhat agree with this view, but feel that it is a symptom of humanity not really taking full responsibility with our emotional, interpersonal and intrapersonal lives. The word spirituality isn’t fuzzy only because it has unclear roots from religion, it’s because we as a species are uncomfortable and unskilled dealing with the nitty gritty details of us moving through a world in which we feel either somehow isolated, threatened, fearful, imperfect, better than/less than others. We are pulled back to base emotions in challenging situations and rise up to a higher level of greater good in other situations and don’t know how to adequately deal with all that goes on in our life experiences. We thank God when something fortunate happens or (in a secular sense) we attribute a change in circumstances to other reality based causes rather than risk being vulnerable really vulnerable and directly facing other people who are at the core of the situation. Approaching someone and saying, “I am so truly, deeply grateful for all that you have done. You have touched my life in a meaningful and important way…” Then embracing the person and being fully present in the moment of the encounter. We blame others, we make excuses, we stick to the status quo, we waste time and resources, we live in denial, are swayed by prestige and prejudice… We also help when others are in need, we think in expansive and useful ways, we search for improvement, we care, we love, we feel joy and deep emotions, we have the ability to make a difference… We might think it’s simply a reaction of gratitude, but I think “spirituality” really is about the ENTIRETY of the human experience. It’s all encompassing embracing all the good and bad parts of our experience and living fully our best life. We ourselves are likely not even in the same arena. To dismiss “spirituality” is focusing on a tree and missing the forest.

    Fully embracing and understanding the human experience (spirituality) is more than a transitional state. It’s examining our lives in a multitude of ways. It’s understanding our psychological nature and finding ways to bring out the best in us. It’s an ongoing process that shifts and changes and the years and stages of our lives pass by.

    We as people need to reclaim our experiences and put them in the proper light and see them for what they truly are. This goes beyond the idea of attributing cause to a God.There is a gap between modern psychology and certain religious views, the tip-toeing around certain issues needs to end. This is honestly and opening seeing your stuff for the BS and games that they really are. This goes beyond religion and everyone knows it. It’s time to take these matter from under the veil of religion and seeing them for what they are. We need to examine, revise and remold our view of spirituality. This act would then be a START and not the final destination, we have far to go. I’m not sure if we would even understand what true “spirituality” would look like at this stage in humanity.

    For those who say “I’m a hard core materialist and spirituality and reflection plays no role in my life.” OK fine, but if I come into your life and take an inventory of your relationships, career, health, personal pursuits, will you be living your fullest life are you embracing the entirety of your human experience? Are you living a fully self-actualized life? (or maybe this is not a consideration to you.) If so, I step aside and wave you through, perhaps ask your advice, but can I talk with other people in your life and hear what they have to say?

    • *In reply to #33 by QuestioningKat:

      if I come into your life and take an inventory of your relationships, career, health, personal pursuits, will you be living your fullest life are you embracing the entirety of your human experience? Are you living a fully self-actualized life?

      But Kat, how can we judge this except in an absolutely subjective way? My academic background is experimental psych and when I read these lines I had a moment of panic at the thought of designing a survey that would investigate these questions. The murky ideas of “self-actualized” and “fullest life” and “entirety of human experience”, are they definable in any useful way to us? Will the people close to us have any real answer to this? I’m sure my Tea Party Republican Methodist/Baptist family members would love to have a talk with you about my own “self actualization” and “fullest life” :-D

    • In reply to #33 by QuestioningKat:

      Fully embracing and understanding the human experience (spirituality) is more than a transitional state. It’s examining our lives in a multitude of ways. It’s understanding our psychological nature and finding ways to bring out the best in us. It’s an ongoing process that shifts and changes and the years and stages of our lives pass by.

      You call all that stuff (spirituality). I don’t. Nor do I see a reason why anyone would. Its unnecessary in my view.

      • But Kat, how can we judge this except in an absolutely subjective way? My academic background is experimental psych and when I read these lines I had a moment of panic at the thought of designing a survey that would investigate these questions. The murky ideas of “self-actualized” and “fullest life” and “entirety of human experience”, are they definable in any useful way to us?

        I don’t actually mean this literally. Sorry. My intentions are that most people do not really realize their current psychological state/dynamics in their life. Sometimes situations need to be viewed taking a step back. I was referring to times when only an outsider can clearly see what’s going on because of the lack of attachment to the situation. I should have said – If you were able to view your life objectively, what would it really look like. No, no one should be able to design a survey because the dynamics surrounding your views/opinions regard the QUALITY of your life; it is your experience—–to a point. On the other hand, we can objectively look at situations that impact people through psychological/sociological/neurological studies. We have evidence how poverty creates an environment of struggle, hardship, lack of education…all of which can directly limit a person’s life, livelihood, and well-being. Our environment, parental upbringing, education, looks, health, etc. make up who we are and ultimately effect our thoughts, feelings, ideas and even the quality of our life. (Perhaps Sam Harris’ book will discuss how there is no such thing as free will, therefore, there really is no choice in reflection and “spirituality.”) If we are to ever define or destroy the idea of spirituality we need to look to the social sciences as well.

        In reply to [#38] . nt-box-38′) by JuJu:
        In reply to #33 by QuestioningKat:
        You call all that stuff (spirituality). I don’t. Nor do I see a reason why anyone would. Its unnecessary in my view.

        …and this is your “choice” (perhaps ruled by your lack of free will.) Clearly, I have a different view of spirituality which is ultimately tied to our psychological nature. Which brings up the fact that none of us really knows what is “spiritual” and cannot until the religious aspect is removed from our experience. I personally think when this is removed we are left with various psychological dynamics which may or may not be under our control depending on whether it is intrinsic to our nature or the result of nurture. If it is part of our nurture, then we can find a better way to eliminate strife from our life.

        If our free will is limited by us as a species and free will is limited by our psychology, sociology, socioeconomic factors, etc etc. it would make sense that our “spirituality” is also limited by these factors (or perhaps does not exist. It certainly does not exist in a manner described by religionists.) We are who we are and at times we feel a profound sense of awe, a connection, well-being or even dissatisfaction; this is our reality and we may as well explore it and expand upon it.

  19. I do not believe that I need a replacement for spirituality as an atheist. For me, science and logic are enough. Being spiritual without a religion would be so different than how religious people think of it that I do not think the word “spiritual” should even be used. I guess the closest thing we have is wonder or awe.

  20. Spirituality and Myth are the Parents of Religion. Hope and Belief are Children of our Selfish Genes. Perception and Awareness are How we Survive and Thrive in the Present. Recreation is an Oxymoron Lost in Nihilism..

  21. Yes it is possible. I call it the personal god idea. Many agnostics embrace this because it allows them to believe in something yet it does not need to be a god. Just some kind of power that surrounds you.

    Faith in it of itself is something that happens in your mind. So it is easy to maintain a level of “spirituality” without a god.

    I dislike the word spirituality because of the obvious. I think it should be called self and world awareness/connection. It is a feeling of belonging and understanding and clarity. A feeling of being connected to the earth at cellular level. It is a grounded feeling.

    This sort of thing has been hijacked as well by religion and used in it’s benefit to indoctrinate people. Then the experience was attached to religious ideas.

    You do not need gods or religions to connect as I described above. You just need to use your senses and let them show you what it feels to be grounded and have clarity of thought. It is a state of mind.

  22. I can see it being losely the despriction of being Athiest and finding harmony and balance in that life. I do this practice everyday, I do not think that it has to do with spirits or any such forms of ” rapin onset schitzo nature.” Just a idea.

    • Rapid not rapin, sorry it is the middle of the night here in the states.
      In reply to #42 by K L Schurter:

      I can see it being losely the despriction of being Athiest and finding harmony and balance in that life. I do this practice everyday, I do not think that it has to do with spirits or any such forms of ” rapin onset schitzo nature.” Just a idea.

  23. Sam Harris has been building towards this book for some time – ever since The End of Faith.

    His argument doesn’t just run along semantic lines (i.e. if we can wrest the word ‘spirituality’ from its association with ‘idolatry’) but that many human insights that we take to be spiritual can in fact be explained by science. Not only that, but they can be taught; we can actually beome more compassionate, accepting, and in touch with our moment to moment experience of the world.

    I think it will be a positive contribution to the general debate, and I will probably buy the book at some stage.

  24. Hi all,

    Looks like we’re going off on a slight tangent. Sam Harris’s ownership of gun is as equally irrelevant to him owning a nice pair cowboy boots or a stetson to go with them. As engrossing and compelling these arguments may be may be, none of it really relates to the OP’s opening question…

    • In reply to #48 by iHuman:

      Hi all,

      Looks like we’re going off on a slight tangent. Sam Harris’s ownership of gun is as equally irrelevant to him owning a nice pair cowboy boots or a stetson to go with them. As engrossing and compelling these arguments may be may be, none of it really relates to the OP’s opening question…

      I’m not trying to derail the thread to Harris and guns — and if people would stop bringing it up I won’t continue commenting on it on this discussion — but I don’t agree that Harris’s other views are completely irrelevant. His whole message is supposedly that he wants to encourage reason and critical thinking. I’m assuming whatever he says about spirituality will be based on that foundation “I represent the people who believe in reason and critical thinking and here is what I think about spirituality” So if there are examples where he uses emotional irrational arguments I think it’s relevant. It damages his overall credibility quite a bit IMO.

      • In reply to #49 by Red Dog:

        In reply to #48 by iHuman:

        Hi all,

        Looks like we’re going off on a slight tangent. Sam Harris’s ownership of gun is as equally irrelevant to him owning a nice pair cowboy boots or a stetson to go with them. As engrossing and compelling these arguments may be may be, none of it really relates to th…

        Hello Red Dog,

        Someone once said: ‘Is it enough that I dislike a person that makes them wrong…’ or words similar (Bertrand Russell perhaps??)

        I see where you’re coming from on this. Your views are agreeable to me.

        My point is, extrapolating from the above passage, that while Harris may have parts of his life that we may not agree with, is it enough that it makes his core argument wrong..? I Googled Sam Harris as I’d never heard of the name until now, I see the man is a Neuroscientist. Something tells me he will not set himself up to be immediately shot down in flames…

        I’m a secretly a closet Dialectical Materialist myself so I’ll reserve judgment on it until read.. ;-)

        Maybe his book needs a dedicated post to debate it?

        • In reply to #53 by iHuman:

          In reply to #49 by Red Dog:

          In reply to #48 by iHuman:
          Someone once said: ‘Is it enough that I dislike a person that makes them wrong…’ or words similar (Bertrand Russell perhaps??)

          I don’t think that was Russell but I could be wrong. I actually at least try to not let personal feelings influence my opinion of someone’s work. I’ll be honest, I have a feeling if I were to meet Harris I wouldn’t like him very much. And I have the opposite feeling about people like Dawkins or Hitchens when he was still with us. But I try to keep personal feelings out of it as much as I can and stick to the issues, to me that is a goal people who believe in reason should strive for. And btw, it’s one of the things I don’t like about Harris, he goes into personal attacks and personal stories far too much. There was an interchange between him and Glen Greenwald a while ago and after it was over I couldn’t figure out which one I hated more. They both descended into such whiny personal insults of each other. BTW, I would contrast that with the best intellectuals, people like Dawkins or Noam Chomsky who never get personal even though they are often attacked that way.

          I see where you’re coming from on this. Your views are agreeable to me.

          Damn, I hate it when people agree with me, it’s so much more fun to argue. ;-)

          My point is, extrapolating from the above passage, that while Harris may have parts of his life that we may not agree with, is it enough that it makes his core argument wrong..?

          I don’t care how Harris lives his life, that is his business. If he wants to have 100 guns at home I don’t care. What I care about are the public statements he makes because people think of him as someone who represents a rational scientific point of view so when he makes statements that reflect on public policy (e.g., “I own a gun to protect my family”) then I think it’s perfectly reasonable to comment. And I also think it’s reasonable to bring up such examples in general discussions of his ideas on other subjects, to show that he doesn’t always follow reason in spite of what he claims.

          I Googled Sam Harris as I’d never heard of the name until now, I see the man is a Neuroscientist.

          I’m surprised you haven’t heard of Harris before. He is very well known in the atheist community. I loved his first book and I looked forward very much to his book on morality. It was reading that book on morals that started making me question how serious he was. I know he has a degree in neuroscience but you would never know it by anything I’ve seen him write. Unlike people such as Pinker who writes about neuroscience and other actual science quite a bit, Harris’s writing on topics such as free will for example is incredibly shallow. He never goes into any depth on neuroscience at all. I’ve never learned anything about psychology or really any topic reading one of Harris’s books. I’ve seen a lot of argumentation, some of which I agree with.

          Something tells me he will not set himself up to be immediately shot down in flames…

          Just because a guy has some degrees and has written books doesn’t mean they are right or that they can’t be “shot down in flames”. Depak Chopra has written books and I think he has an MD and or a PhD in something. And there are plenty of people who were good physicists or psychologists in one field but then went off into new age woo territory after. There is a guy Robert Lanza who made some important discoveries in some medical field, I think on stem cells or something, I forget but it was significant but he writes the most ridiculous rubbish these days. Stuff that I think is not anywhere as good as Harris, just total crap. So anyone can be “shot down in flames” as far as I’m concerned.

          • In reply to #57 by Red Dog:

            In reply to #53 by iHuman:

            In reply to #49 by Red Dog:

            In reply to #48 by iHuman:
            Someone once said: ‘Is it enough that I dislike a person that makes them wrong…’ or words similar (Bertrand Russell perhaps??)

            I don’t think that was Russell but I could be wrong. I actually at least try to not le…

            It’s obvious you have more intel on the guy than my quick Google search revealed…

            Your quote: ‘Just because a guy has some degrees and has written books doesn’t mean they are right or that they can’t be “shot down in flames”.’ – I completely agree. Intelligence isn’t an order of merit, it’s a measure of brightness. I speculated though that, as he is a Neuroscientist, he would be aware of the ‘scientific method’ and have the sense not come out with gibberish nonsense without testing it before applying it…

            Your quote: ‘I’m surprised you haven’t heard of Harris before. He is very well known in the atheist community.’ – I’m sure he won’t be the last person I haven’t heard of. I guess I spent too much time solidifying my own atheist views, and not much time on who the celebs’ of the atheist community where…;-)

          • In reply to #61 by iHuman:

            It’s obvious you have more intel on the guy than my quick Google search revealed..

            Just to be clear, I didn’t mean that as a put down or anything, just was genuinely surprised you hadn’t heard of him. If you hang out at this site much you will hear about Harris a lot and usually in far more glowing terms than what I have to say, most people here love him.

            Speaking of which here is an interesting little article I just found by someone I consider much more interesting than Harris although not nearly as well known, anthropologist Scott Atran:

            Here He Goes Again: Sam Harris’s Falsehoods

            That article is also Off Topic so let’s not discuss it more, I just thought you might find it an interesting data point for another view on Harris that is different from most of what you will see here.

          • In reply to #62 by Red Dog:

            In reply to #61 by iHuman:

            It’s obvious you have more intel on the guy than my quick Google search revealed..

            Just to be clear, I didn’t mean that as a put down or anything, just was genuinely surprised you hadn’t heard of him. If you hang out at this site much you will hear about Harris a lot and…

            Don’t worry, I never took it as a putdown. Anyway, I’m a big boy now, I can take it..:)

            Thanks for article link. It has quite a few reference links through it. I’ll get a full read of it later. It’ll help me get up to speed on who he his and an insight into his public nature.

    • In reply to #48 by iHuman:

      Hi all,

      Looks like we’re going off on a slight tangent.

      Going positively radial, please, please, lets not police topicality too assiduously. This place would once make discoveries, invent new stuff, surprise and delight, because it did not demand that a single topic were simply ground down to a fine dust. The psychopathology of silo thinking impoverishes thought. I’m suffocating here…

      • In reply to #51 by phil rimmer:

        In reply to #48 by iHuman:

        Hi all,

        Looks like we’re going off on a slight tangent.

        Going positively radial, please, please, lets not police topicality too assiduously. This place would once make discoveries, invent new stuff, surprise and delight, because it did not demand that a single topic we…

        Hi Phil,

        With such a passionate plea, how could I fail to honour it… I’m a stickler for details at times. Of course, you’re absolutely right :)

        iHuman.

  25. I think if “spirituality” was renamed and put in a better context, people wouldn’t think that it is irrelevant or stupid. It’s part of who you are whether you like it or not. To see it as foreign or a matter of choice is to not understand anything about the topic.

    • In reply to #54 by QuestioningKat:

      I think if “spirituality” was renamed and put in a better context, people wouldn’t think that it is irrelevant or stupid. It’s part of who you are whether you like it or not. To see it as foreign or a matter of choice is to not understand anything about the topic.

      That was the point I was trying to make earlier when I mentioned Pinker’s explanation of some basic linguistic concepts, that it’s wrong to haggle over specific words. I do think one interesting aspect of this particular discussion though is how really different our understanding of this word in particular tends to be. I’m so used to hearing people say “spiritual but not religious” to me hearing “spiritual” the first thing I think of is someone who is not religious but still has some concept of awe and wonder at the universe. (Which I’m all for) I think in other communities like the UK, and here I’m just guessing but I think the first association there seems to be with psychics, mediums, etc. (Which I have as much disdain for as most people on this site)

  26. I think in other communities like the UK, and here I’m just guessing but I think the first association there seems to be with psychics, mediums, etc.

    Here in the UK “spiritual” is found most often in the column’s of women’s magazines. Never in “lads” magazines. It has an an implication of sensitive/poetic, particularly a non-corporeal sensitivity. It is an attribute of Storm’s but not Tim’s.

    This is the good version and well worth taking out every now and again.

  27. Spirituality isn’t that just the sensory perceptions of instinct and emotions in the human nature which aren’t as quantifiable as thoughts, knowledge and matters of the mind…..are people afraid to say they can ‘feel’ it when something is wrong but they cant place what is wrong they just sense it……that’s the sensory perception I’m talking about…To sense, feel or detect ‘information’ that you may not even be aware of…..There’s nothing remotely religious about that its a human trait in play long before religion and long after…..

  28. But what do others think? Is religion-free spirituality possible? Or should atheists just get on with their lives and look to advances in understanding from the already existing sciences or creative arts? Is there any need to recreate something even remotely connected to any religious practice?

    The best treatment I’ve seen of the issue is the one given by Haidt in The Happiness Hypothesis, specifically chapter nine. There, he breaks down the subject of divine or spiritual feelings people have into different experiences, such as elevation (the feelings of warmth we have when we witness morally beautiful acts), awe and transcendence (overwhelming feelings when confronted with the vastness and majesty of, say, nature), and the ethic of divinity, which was developed in his later contribution to Science. Pinker included it in Better Angels, in the chapter of the same name, as one of the schemes for moral and relational models, (it’s called purity/sanctity there).

    Haidt also notes that elevation seems to be more about bonding than inciting action. In his studies comparing moral admiration with non-moral admiration (like we feel when we see a really skilled basketball player), he points out that the participants in the former felt strong bonding emotions to the ones performing morally but didn’t behave any more altruistically themselves, while those in the latter felt pumped up and ready to try it themselves. It’s a fascinating read, and well worth seeking out the original passages for.

    As far as I’m concerned, these “spiritual” experiences of elevation and awe are undeniably secular and, contrary to mainstream opinion, merit no more association with religious belief or faith than modern physics does. Religious belief, and faith, merely exploit them, just like they have done everything else (cosmology, biology, anthropology, etc).

    On the other hand, once you get that some people are brought up so that they can’t tell the difference, it’s not hard to appreciate where the atheist stereotypes come from. If you can’t tell the difference between a god and a positive but secular human emotion, someone who denies the former will sound like a profane, loveless dullard with no heart, as though ignorant of or denying the latter.

    If spirituality simply meant enjoying elevation and awe, then I’d be right behind it – no, scratch that, I’d be practically in it. It’s when it asks for suspension of disbelief that I have to raise an eyebrow.

    • In reply to #60 by Zeuglodon:

      It’s when it asks for suspension of disbelief that I have to raise an eyebrow.

      It kinda does anyway by the use of the word Spirit. That is why I prefer other terms like grounded, which is the opposite of spirit in my view.

      When people see my art work or my lyrics sometimes they say to me that I seem like a very spiritual person. It makes me cringe. On one side because I really don’t understand what spiritual means because it is an idea not an actual emotion or state of mind. On the other because I tend to relate it to religion and gods and mystics and shamans.

      Most people see it like that or they really have no idea what it means because it is not real. In it of it self there is no concrete description of what it is. It can be many things or nothing. like the gods…

  29. If spirituality simply meant enjoying elevation and awe, then I’d be right behind it – no, scratch that, I’d be practically in it.

    If spirituality simply meant enjoying elevation and awe, it would be overlooking the dark, depressing side of human nature. Why do we think feeling good is somehow “spiritual” rather than acknowledging our feelings of grief, hopelessness, upset.? Why is spirituality is cherry picked by religionists and non-religious alike. Unless the idea of spirituality embraces ourselves as a whole, we need to ask ourselves why we are ignore entire aspects of our humanity. Do they remind us of being animals and not higher thought? If feelings considered spiritual originate in our brain are they ultimately automatic responses not of our free will?

    • In reply to #64 by QuestioningKat:

      If spirituality simply meant enjoying elevation and awe, it would be overlooking the dark, depressing side of human nature. Why do we think feeling good is somehow “spiritual” rather than acknowledging our feelings of grief, hopelessness, upset? Why is spirituality is cherry picked by religionists and non-religious alike. Unless the idea of spirituality embraces ourselves as a whole, we need to ask ourselves why we are ignore entire aspects of our humanity. Do they remind us of being animals and not higher thought? If feelings considered spiritual originate in our brain are they ultimately automatic responses not of our free will?

      I might have missed the point in your response, but I’m not saying ignore unpleasant feelings. My point wasn’t to encourage self-indulgence at the expense of others, but to separate the unobjectionable stuff (awe and elevation) from the dubious attachments (like believing in chi lines and other mumbo-jumbo). Nevertheless, I can acknowledge that there’s pain and death in the world – and do something to either eliminate or alleviate it – while also enjoying the finer things in life. If you want to call that spirituality, then so be it. I’ll accommodate it.

    • In reply to #64 by QuestioningKat:

      If spirituality simply meant enjoying elevation and awe, then I’d be right behind it – no, scratch that, I’d be practically in it.

      If spirituality simply meant enjoying elevation and awe, it would be overlooking the dark, depressing side of human nature. Why do we think feeling good is somehow “spi…

      Hello QuestioningKat,

      Your quote: ‘Do they remind us of being animals and not higher thought?’

      I do not think that it is a case of being reminded of our ‘lesser’ brethren so to speak, but rather it still, for many, harks back to a time when religious oppression was the order of the day. A time when even the rumour of discussions such as this one would be punishable by execution. The word spiritual referred to an actual supernatural element, no one even considered it, or dared to consider it to be otherwise. Thankfully times have changed, but for many, the legacy of the word leaves an unpleasant feeling when requested to speak of it. And rightly so given the magnitude of suffering such teachings have caused. Conversely, it is true that many find the concept of atheism difficult, they perceive it as cold and devoid of emotion, but this is simply not the case. Our minds are immense places with so many real, amazing, tangible and most importantly, naturally occurring experiences to contemplate. We have no need to invent supernatural ones. I do recognised and agree with your earlier comment, that a program of re education is essential for those making the transition from a life of supernatural superstitions to a life of considered rationality. It can a difficult transition for many and we have a duty to support those who make the change.

      Your quote: ‘If feelings considered spiritual originate in our brain are they ultimately automatic responses not of our free will?’

      All feelings originate in the brain. Investigation into FMRI studies will conclusively prove this. Be cautious using the word ‘free will’. Everything we do, at all levels is the result of a response stimuli. We like to believe it is ‘free will’, but in reality such a thing is nothing more than a philosophical term. In fact our belief in free will can used against us. Advertising companies employ psychologists to manipulate ‘free will association’ fooling us into thinking that, by our own ‘free will’ we have chosen to purchase a specific product. A popular television magician/illusionist here in the UK called Derren Brown uses this very psychological manipulation in his shows. So to recap, our feelings are the direct responses to an external stimuli – not free will. The truth can be a bitter pill to swallow, but then all good medicine is…

  30. I use the phrase “free will” because I find “free will” to be an illusion. I’m starting to think that choice of “spirituality” is not possible either. I will need to read Harris’ book and see if there is inconsistency between his views.

  31. It seems like Harris is further working on his project to present atheism as somesort of ‘light’ religion. All the usual fun, just without God. First moral authority, now spirituality. I guess he will give us more details of his (spiritual) LSD trips. I am curious what will be next: A guide to worship without religion?

  32. It seems useful to distinguish ” spirituality without religion” from “spirituality without God” .
    Conte Sponville , wrote an interesting treatise in 2006 . The spirit of Atheism : Introduction to spirituality without God (which official translation : The Book of Atheist Spirituality, Bantam (2009) ISBN 978-0-553-81990-8, which has led to much controversy, as no doubt SH’s book will. Conte Sponville is an staunch atheist, but, among other things, argues in favor of “fidelity” ( to past traditions, including religious ones) , rather than “faith”. I think this may be somewhat related to Dawkins saying he is a “cultural anglican” , or people like Martin Rees ( who claims to be an “unbelieving Anglican” who goes to church “out of loyalty to the tribe”. I expect SH to say positive things about meditation- a spiritual exercise. A sample of the discussion in English of Conte Sponville’s book is here: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2136481.L_esprit_de_l_ath_isme_

  33. I’m not aware of any other single English word that might encapsulate the idea of personal value, integrity and purpose.

    Hitchens promoted the word “numinous”, for the transcendent experience one may have viewing a sunset or contemplating the cosmos. A quick googling shows me the word is not entirely removed from its archaic ghostly sentiments, but I’ve heard it used by science popularizers in the last few years.

    It’s just a delicious word to say, and I’m thankful to the Hitch for it.

  34. Of course religion-free spirituality is possible. The notion that such is in any way “to recreate” anything religious is bizarre.

    So any feelings of inexplicable awe or emotion in day to day life cannot be biologically inherent? Religions made them? I find this both species-elitist and a crude oversight of mammalian behaviours we inherit.

    Perhaps mentioning “instinct” is relevent here. As I see it instinct is, for our species at least, synonymous with spirituality. Those atheists of us acknowledging “spirituality” have many definitions for it. The species-specific “feelings” encountered, not based on facts or figures. The “numinous” as mentioned in the post above (causing recollection of Hitchens’ delicious pronunciation). What heights do we believe our species has attained that it can have the realm of ‘instincts’ and ‘feelings’ stricken from the record? Be mindful that the aforementioned is the SOLE content of the word “spirituality” for many. The very occurrence of people linking these traits of humanity, to structured religion, further empowers the atheism of many. Ensuing bewilderment at the cheer-squad mentality of others is also understandable.

    Why do images and places interact with our senses such that they do. etc. Those railing against the mere title of the brilliant horseman Harris’ book are sounding starved of perspective. Now for my usual hyperbole… “Huh, what, he said spirit, SPIRIT, that’s somethin’ them religious say. Beat him with words and win points for my newfound team that I love! Gimme an A…..”

  35. I understand that atheists might want to appropriate the use of the word to describe feelings of wonder, numinousness or awe.

    In my experience however, I rarely hear it in anything other than the context of someone attempting to assert something exists they cannot demonstrate and using that word because they think saying something is spiritual gives them a free pass from scepticism or ridicule.

    Because communication works best when all parties understand the meaning the other gives to a word I avoid using the word spirituality like the plague.

  36. Many thanks for all the responses so far. Clearly I’m not alone in having some qualms about the ’S’ word!

    My assertion in the OP, that there does not seem to be a substitute (in English) is debatable but I’m still not sure it’s wrong. ‘Numinous’ is a good candidate, but (to me at least) that seems to more or less cover the experience of awe and wonder, but not to reach into moral / purpose of life areas that ‘spirituality’ might. But I find it very hard to get away from the ‘spirit’ i.e. supernatural connotations and – in my case (as for many) unwelcome echoes of my religious past.

    Maybe we shouldn’t expect one word to do all that work – there are plenty of single words in one language which do not translate into a single word in another. There is though something about having a single word that makes for more impact. Yet, if the word ‘spirituality’ has such a wide range of meanings, perhaps it is more help than a hindrance.

    ‘Reclaiming’ words is often controversial – discriminated minorities recruiting words of abuse in their cause. ‘Queer’ is a well known example – but those who are not gay can find using the term difficult. But then there are I think racial examples of reclaiming that I’m uncomfortable to use. ‘Spirituality’ is not generally seen as abusive, so there is not the parallel of ‘queer’. However, spirituality is a word that many atheists (including myself) feel uncomfortable to use, so if I did use it (and for Harris to use it) is a kind of local ‘reclaiming’.
    But maybe then the ‘queer’ questionable parallel is relevant. ‘Queer’ was (is) deliberately adopted as a shock tactic in the LGBT rights campaigns. I doubt very much that atheists referring to ‘spirituality’ in public / published arenas will have that impact, expect perhaps amongst atheists. For the majority of the public, ‘spirituality’ has no shock effect at all, indeed to might seem quite nice. Maybe there is a risk for Harris that causal glances at his book might make some think his is one those ‘spirituality’ books thatvgive a vaguely pleasant warm glow without ever actually saying anything. Even Harris’s worst critics wouldn’t accuse him of being vaguely pleasant!

  37. I think spirituality refers to a lack of dogmatism about the possibilities of human experience and consciousness. It in some cases leads to nonsense, like magic and fairies and angels, etc., but a secular spirituality would be focused on practices that alter our conscious experience of the world. Concentration practices train the brain to consciously ignore stimuli it isn’t interested in, compassion practices train the brain to experience stronger feelings of love and trust for acquaintances and insight practices train the brain to be more aware of unconscious processing that goes on and exert greater executive control over such processes. Sounds more scientific when you put it like that, right?

Leave a Reply