Spirituality Without Superstition
There are many sources of spirituality; religion may be the most common, but it is by no means the only. Anything that generates a sense of awe may be a source of spirituality. Science does this in spades. — Michael Shermer, The Soul of Science
I am an atheist, a person with a naturalistic world view, free of supernatural, metaphysical, and paranormal forces. Can I understand what it means to be spiritual? Can I write about spirituality? Can I claim to be a spiritual person? I was recently challenged to think about these questions.
For many people, the word spiritual is closely tied to the concept of religion and the belief in a personified God, a father figure looking out for his children as he reigns in heaven. For others, the word spiritual brings up images of the New Age movement, séances, auras, Tarot cards, and crystal energy. Still others think of Zen Buddhism, meditation, yoga, the Tao Te Ching, and other Eastern traditions. Yes, people following these paths do consider themselves to be spiritual. But that does not mean that those of us who are skeptics and brights cannot dip into the well of spirituality to quench our own thirst for mystery and meaning.
Spirituality is not a result of belief in the supernatural. It arises naturally out of human consciousness. Three and a half billion years of evolution has built the need for meaning and purpose into human beings. It is as real as our need to breathe. The word spirit comes from the Latin word spiritus, meaning breath. When the Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic words for breath, translated as soul and spirit in the Bible, were first used, people thought that the physical breath going in and out of our bodies through our noses and mouths was the source of life. Over time, the definition of spirit changed from literal breath to the idea of a non-physical life force. Although many of us no longer believe that ethereal spirits animate our bodies or that ghostly souls inhabit our brains, every breath we take reminds us of the wonder of life and gives rise to the to the feeling that we have a purpose to fulfill.
“Spirituality is a way of being in the world, a sense of one’s place in the cosmos, a relationship to that which extends beyond ourselves,” Michael Shermer writes in The Soul of Science. A friend of mine, author Jane Kirkpatrick, says, “Spirituality is a clarity of life framed by the awareness of death.” Both of these definitions speak about our humanity, about our place in the universe, and about how we can live with dignity and intention. Both sides of spirituality—experiencing transcendence through the beauty of the universe and finding purpose in our short lives here on earth—can be practiced by skeptics and believers alike.
However, in writing about spirituality, I find myself wondering if I am unintentionally empowering religious extremists by embracing their words. I’m not sure if those of us who do not believe in a personified deity should use the words that religions use at all. When I use the terms “spiritual,” “transcendence,” and “miracle,” as metaphors, am I causing confusion? Can spirituality be explained without using the terms of religious experience?
I have no answer to these questions, but neither do I have other words to explain the feeling of a fiery sunset, the satisfaction of living a purposeful life, or the amazing fact that I exist to think about these things.
The path may not be easy, and the goal may sometimes seem impossible to reach, but regardless of what we call it, mystery and meaning are available to all who seek to live a spiritual life.
The Soul of Science by Michael Shermer. The Skeptics Society, Altadena, CA. 2006.
The Van Gogh Blues by Eric Maisel, PhD. Rodale, New York, NY. 2002.
A New Christianity for a New World by John Shelby Spong. Harper Collins, San Francisco, CA. 2001.