Spirituality Re-Defined

November 29, 2008 at 7:25 pm 21 comments

Christian Commentary

I would like to take a quick moment to say hello to everyone. It has been a while since I have posted on the blog as I have been quite busy over the past few months. I hope that the regulars that come here are doing well…if you’re a first timer, then welcome and enjoy the great posts written by some very intelligent people – that being said, let’s continue with the post.

I got the urge to write on this after remember something I read on this blog many months ago. It wasn’t necessarily a post, but a comment by a visitor stating that he (or she, I can’t really remember), was not spiritual and that it was impossible to be so (spiritual that is). I am here to shed some light for the open-minded: Yes, even an atheist can be spiritual.

Take a moment and forget everything you think spirituality is… whatever connotations you have with the word, rise above them for the time being. The thing about spirituality is that it takes practice, but it isn’t necessarily hard. Many atheists are just lacking practice, but don’t worry, I have a few suggestions.

You see, spirituality isn’t that complicated, and for many people, it doesn’t involve a big white light or booming voice from above. No instead, it is an elevation of human thought; a supreme awareness that every human on this earth has the ability to tap. Like our physical bodies, our spiritual muscle can become stronger the more we work it out.

But you think spirituality is too vague? It really isn’t. Spirituality is without material existence but existing in contemplation. It is powerful simplicity.

I have likely elicited a couple responses to what I have written thus far. Some of you may be thinking, “man this guy is delusional, what kind of hippie crap is he talking about?!” … well, in my opinion, those of you with this thought pattern are actually just intellectually weak. You have unfortunately came to the decision to not fully utilize the most powerful aspect of humanity.

Some of you may be intrigued and want to know more… or at the very least, I have said something that you neither agree nor disagree with (or just don’t care). If this is you, then I applaud your willingness to move beyond stereotypes and predispositions… quite a rarity today it seems. But you may be thinking, “how is it that I become spiritual… or at least try it?”

Well here is a good way to exercise your spiritual muscle. I enjoy this little exercise because it doesn’t take much effort… The next time you finish a run (and if you don’t run, it’s about time you start working your physical body too), sit down in the grass, close your eyes and become aware of your body at work. As you catch your breath, you will be able to feel the blood being pumped through your veins, your heart will echo within your ears, and you will become very aware of the sound of your breathing. Take deep breaths (eyes still closed) and let them out slowly. You will be surprised at what you “feel” as you sit quietly extending your mind.

By just doing this little exercise, you have elevated your awareness. Sure, it’s not by much (you’re still only focussed on yourself) but it is a great starting place to continue and build your spirituality. In no time, you will begin to experience an elevated conscienceness that is overwhelmingly powerful, and undoubtedly full of love – because it’s once you experience love that you have experienced God… no matter how you define it.

Until next time.

Justin

Entry filed under: Justin. Tags: , .

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21 Comments Add your own

  • 1. David  |  November 29, 2008 at 8:00 pm

    I agree that spirituality needs to be re-defined. Also that logic can be involved without detracting from the spirituality. I have found the following phenomenological analogy useful:

    Simplistically speaking, you can approach this question from one of two perspectives:

    1. we are mere human beings attempting, and generally failing, to have a spiritual experience, especially when we try to do this through organized religion. Or,

    2. we are spiritual beings having a human experience, one of the main challenges of which is having to deal with the mind and ego psychology.

    The first approach lends itself to concepts such as original sin, good versus evil, monotheistic exclusivism, etc. It is the approach taken by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

    The second approach focuses on clearing the mental garbage (maya) out, so that you aren’t ruled by all that nonsense.

    Of course, I prefer the second approach, and I find that it permits me to engage in spiritual actions and practices without worrying about someone’s system. It also allows me to use my mind for what the minds is good for without allowing it to be my master.

    I hope this isn’t too far off your topic.

  • 2. orDover  |  November 29, 2008 at 10:03 pm

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that the unstated major premise here is that one needs to feel spiritual or have a sense of spirituality. I believe that is false.

  • 3. The Apostate  |  November 30, 2008 at 2:52 pm

    Justin, could you clarify the difference between your spirituality and that which the Buddhists and others call “awareness”? If your spirituality is no difference than awareness, than why do we need such a synonym, meanwhile dropping a word that seems to encapsulate so much. The reason that we have the word “spiritual” or “spirituality” is that it relates in some way to the spirit.

    Re-defining spirituality requires that we re-define spirit. Some atheists have done this and equated it to something a little more than a high school pep rally. Needless to say, any true re-definition of the spirit will likely not find reconciliation among theists and other religionists, nor should it. The spirit is traditionally the non physical part of an individual, the place in which our emotions and character rests – our soul, if you will.

    Naturally, this is where naturalists and supernaturalists are going to disagree. A pragmatic re-definition appears hollow because it focuses only on the emotional and sensational. It is what appears to us. To atheists, the closest thing to a “spirit” or being “spiritual” is being aware of our place among the vast expense of time and space. This is the human spirit, but it is far from “nonphysical,” in fact, it is entirely physical, which hence displaces the traditional definition of spirit or spirituality. Our emotions and character can be explained by neurobiology and evolutionary psychology – not an out of body presence.

    If you want to re-define spirituality, that is fine, but finding reconciliation between the theist and atheist on this term will be merely a facade, disregarding the deeper issues with the concept.

  • 4. ubi dubium  |  November 30, 2008 at 3:17 pm

    Sam Harris spent quite a bit of his book, The End of Faith, on this subject. I found that pretty annoying, since I felt it was off-topic, and really belonged in a different book.

    I’ve heard many people say “Well, I’m not actually religious, but I am a spiritual person”, as if this were something really important to be. I’m not convinced.

    I’d love to see some serious discussion about whether spiritual experiences are a positive thing, overall. Many claim that their lives have been enriched by them, but on the other hand, they seem to leave a person much more open to blind acceptance of superstitious woo. I, personnally, have been much happier leaving any attempt at “spirituality” behind. I had always been told that it was soooo important to be “spiritual”, but I have come to discard that idea, right along with all those other manufactured notions – “sin” and “salvation” and the like.

  • 5. DSimon  |  November 30, 2008 at 4:43 pm

    Justin, I run and exercise regularly, and afterwards I do the relaxation exercise you’re talking about, and it is very interesting and enjoyable… but it’s big stretch to say such things mean the existence of a non-materialistic universe. I used to, but I don’t any longer; the idea just doesn’t hold water.

    I wanted very badly to find any kind of trustworthy evidence to support that explanation, and I looked very hard, but there wasn’t anything to be found. The only explanation that even began to withstand critical scrutiny was that the sensations existed only within my mind. Every other explanation falls apart the moment you start holding them to the same standards you’d use to test anything else in everyday life.

    This is why I no longer tell people that I’m spiritual, or that I believe in a “greater power’.

    Before using only vague personal experiences as the basis of an apologetic (and, by saying that they confirm the existence of God, you certainly were), find some more supporting evidence. Until then, I don’t think that it’s me who deserves to be called “intellectually weak”.

  • 6. amanda  |  December 1, 2008 at 1:02 am

    Well I think it’s unfortunate how our society currently prizes things like “spirituality” as such an important virtue. I feel like it’s imposed even more on women … I can’t prove that, just a hunch.

    That said, as an atheist, I am not a dry, dark, unhappy person! And I defy anyone to look out over the skyline of New York or the peaks of the Rockies and not feel “spiritual” about what they are seeing. :-)

  • 7. fffearlesss  |  December 1, 2008 at 3:50 pm

    This is actually a really interesting idea. Now that we’re not shackled to the rules of Christianity which defined certain practices as “evil” how cool would it be to try out some of these other spiritual practices like yoga or meditation or whatever. Knowing that it has nothing to do with God or anythign like that, why not just give it a try and see what new experiences you can gain by “looking inward” to whatever it is those other people attempt to achieve. I know I’m tempted to try and experience some of that transcendentalness that buddhists seem to experience all the time, if only to feel really damn cool for a few minutes.

  • 8. orDover  |  December 1, 2008 at 3:53 pm

    And while we’re at it, let’s all do peyote like native American mystics.

  • 9. TitforTat  |  December 1, 2008 at 3:59 pm

    And while we’re at it, let’s all do peyote like native American mystics.(orDover)

    Do mushrooms count? Come to think of it, I think I saw God that night. ;)

    And for the science people the other alternative is Acid lol.

  • 10. fffearlesss  |  December 1, 2008 at 4:12 pm

    peyote…. hey why not! :-)

  • 11. SnugglyBuffalo  |  December 1, 2008 at 7:03 pm

    Reminds me of something I read once that mentioned some forms of meditation shutting down the part of the brain that controls your sense of self, thus giving you a feeling of “one-ness” with the universe.

    On the topic at hand, though, I’ve never really felt a desire for spirituality, but I recognize that this doesn’t seem to be typical. Even when I had “spiritual” moments, I didn’t really think much of them. I sought spirituality because I believed in Christianity which made spirituality seem rather important, not because I actually desired spiritual fulfillment.

    And given that I’ve abandoned all belief in the supernatural, I don’t really think any realistic definition of spirituality actually exists, since I don’t believe any sort of spirit exists. At best, I’d say there is emotions/feelings which people frequently ascribe to spirituality.

  • 12. VorJack  |  December 1, 2008 at 7:38 pm

    “Reminds me of something I read once that mentioned some forms of meditation shutting down the part of the brain that controls your sense of self, thus giving you a feeling of “one-ness” with the universe.”

    Yes, there have been a couple of studies that point to that. Here’s an interview at Salon from one of the scientists:

    http://www.salon.com/books/int/2006/09/20/newberg/print.html

    Some quotes-“We found that the Franciscan nuns activated several important parts of the brain during prayer. One part was the frontal lobe. I’ve been particularly interested in the frontal lobe because it tends to be activated whenever we focus our mind on something. This can be very mundane, like focusing on a problem we’re trying to solve at work. Or it can be focusing on a phrase from the Bible, which was happening with the Franciscan nuns. [...] We’ve hypothesized that when people meditate or pray — if they block the sensory information that gets into that area — they no longer get a sense of who they are in relation to the world. They may lose their sense of self, and they feel they become one with something greater — ultimate reality or God. ”

    I don’t want to make too much of this, but it does point to a problem with the post. Justin says, “Spirituality is without material existence but existing in contemplation.” But whatever feelings we have during contemplation takes place in our brains. Whatever sensations we experience come about through chemical processes in our heads. As The Apostate pointed out, that means that there is not separation between material and spiritual. So I’m afraid this redefinition doesn’t work

  • 13. Justin  |  December 1, 2008 at 8:22 pm

    Hi all,

    i’ve enjoyed the perspectives shared in the comments. one thing i will address briefly. I think there have been a couple misrepresentations of my views on spirituality. I by no means see spirituality as a “magical” phenomenon. I noticed that VorJack distinguishes between chemical process and spirituality. After re-reading my post, I understand that one can read “existing in contemplation” two different ways. I am referring to it as living (or existing) in contemplation, and without question chemical process happen at this level.

    Here’s is my slight issue with what VorJack’s comment. In my experience, I have come across atheists who use the physical chemical reactions of brain activity to discount the broader message being conveyed. Yes, a chemical reaction, or process, does occur when we are thinking/becoming spiritual (meditating perhaps)… but I don’t see that as evidence to the contrary, but merely a reinforcement of the great power of our minds.

    I appreciate the feedback, and I really do enjoy reading all of your views.

    all the best,

    Justin

  • 14. VorJack  |  December 1, 2008 at 9:25 pm

    “I noticed that VorJack distinguishes between chemical process and spirituality.”

    No, I myself do not make that distinction. This is the separation I perceive you to be making. By defining spirituality as, “without material existence,” you seem to be making the classic division between material and spiritual.

    But since our minds are material things, and our thoughts are patterns of chemical reactions and electrical impulses, nothing we think or feel can be considered non-material. These sensations described in the Salon article are not some higher state that exists above and beyond our brains. They are physical changes happening within our brains as a result of outside stimuli. In this way, intense prayer and meditation are not that much different from taking a drug to induce an altered state.

    If you want to say that some of these sensations are meaningful, that’s one thing. I don’t see it myself, but whatever floats your boat. But to suggest that they exist outside of the material world is nonsense. So we cannot define spirituality as, “without material existence.” But then, how do we define it?

  • 15. Kristopia  |  December 4, 2008 at 2:14 pm

    DSimon said:

    I couldn’t agree more. It was the thought, Justin, that those of us who do not agree with your stance as being “intellectually weak” which caught my eye, and my slight annoyance. If your argument has merit, you don’t need to resort to calling people weak when they disagree.

    I have been a runner – I love the endorphin rush from exercise. And I have experienced those “spiritual” moments. But to me, they have nothing to do with the spiritual, nor is there any proof that they ARE spiritual in nature. The human brain is a massively complex machine, capable of all kinds of meditative and “transendental” feelings. That doesn’t make any of it spiritual.

    When I sing, and hear applause, or when I get compliments on a piece of artwork I do, I feel a release of chemicals very similar to those I felt when I meditated, or when I ministered way back when in a church. There is no proof that any of these feelings you describe are to be attributed to anything at all spiritual.

  • 16. Kristopia  |  December 4, 2008 at 2:15 pm

    I tried to quote dsimon’s post – didn’t work – oops – my comments above are in reference to the original post and DSimon’s response

  • 17. James Bennett  |  December 7, 2008 at 9:56 pm

    I would have to say that I have yet to see compelling evidence in support of anything beyond the natural world. Labeling a feeling of self awareness as spiritual and hinting at a supernatural source for this feeling is really no different than any other new age bullshit. As the person making the claim that there is a supernatural sense of spirituality the burden of proof is on you to prove that there is something beyond the natural world. Without evidence, you are speaking about faith and are no different from any Christian I have ever met, just using a different label.

  • 18. drdave  |  January 7, 2009 at 1:27 am

    As a modern dancer for 25 years and now a practitioner of tai chi, I have had several experiences which I merely describe as “interesting”. At certain moments, the portion of the brain responsible for “me” seems to defocus, riding along with the rest that is doing the movement, breathing, feeling the moment by moment work of the body. Then, conscious focus returns, and I note the event. It is a teachable experience. The eastern traditions seem to be better at it than the western religious traditions, as some of them are less weighed down by burdensome dogma. But there doesn’t seem to be anything supernatural about the experience.

  • 19. atheistyogi  |  January 10, 2009 at 4:55 pm

    Why the assumtion that the word “spiritual” has to have something to do with the supernatural? Just because it has the word “spirit” in it does not mean it has anything to do with ghosts or other supernatural woo woo. I think the word spiritual is fine and appropriate word to describe that certain emotional and mental state of oneness with the world, or the numinous.

    Quite a nice article. I’m glad I stumbed upon it.

  • 20. Spirituality? « The Atheist Yogi  |  January 10, 2009 at 5:10 pm

    [...] Spirituality Re-Defined [...]

  • 21. Jeff W  |  December 1, 2009 at 4:16 pm

    VoeJack wrote:
    “Reminds me of something I read once that mentioned some forms of meditation shutting down the part of the brain that controls your sense of self, thus giving you a feeling of “one-ness” with the universe.”

    The post that is listed points to comments made by Dr. Andrew Newberg, author of several books on what is being called “neurotheology” or the study of spiritual experiences from a neurological perspective. Newberg is co-author of “Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief” (he also wrote “Mystical Minds” which is basically a more academical version of the same; and he also co-wrote at least two other related books as well). In his book, Newberg states that certain forms of religious practices such as meditation can cause certain areas of the brain, specifically the area that defined ones “self,” to pause (or whatever) such that the subject feels a loss of self-identity and feels a sense of unity with everything. Newberg doesn’t claim that this establishes contact with “God” but that it might offer a “spiritual window” to “God” and the spiritual realm if there are such things (which I do not believe).

    Personally, I would define “spirit” as being equal to “mind.” The mind (along with the “self” or “person”) is the natural results of the physical (chemical/electrical) operations of the brain. We do not understand how it happens, but neurology has shown that the brain is responsible for the existence of the mind. Take the brain away and there is no mind. Someday, science may discover exactly how the brain causes the mind to be created; until then, the best we can say is that the mind is an emergent property of the brain/central nervous system — and maybe, so is the spirit.

    Respectfully,
    Jeff

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Whether or not you believe in God, you should live your life with love, kindness, compassion, mercy and tolerance while trying to make the world a better place. If there is no God, you have lost nothing and will have made a positive impact on those around you. If there is a benevolent God reviewing your life, you will be judged on your actions and not just on your ability to blindly believe in creeds- when there is a significant lack of evidence on how to define God or if he/she even exists.

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