Is It A Waste Of Time For Atheists To Care About Spirituality?

Badger3K objects to my suggestion that rationalists should “take back” spirituality from the peddlers of woo and faith:

Spirituality has always been associated with religion, superstition, and woo (including the new age bs). There has never been anything to “take back” – it was always their word to begin with. If you feel awe, say it was “awesome”, or any of a hundred other words. Why bother with a vacuous word such as that?
If someone (anyone) could get the word to mean something concrete, perhaps then we might have a starting point, but throwing more irons into the fire into a turf fight over such a gobbledygook word…don’t we have better things to do?

My point is that the things people talk about as “spiritual” are durable and cross-culturally present parts of the human psyche. It is not a waste of time for serious ethically interested people to consider ways to help people fulfill those basic longings in ways that are rational.

Just because for a long time in human history people have bound up their attempts to fulfill these parts of their nature with a lot with a lot of woo, superstition, authoritarianism, dogma, and gobbledygook does not mean that’s the only way to take seriously all the potentially valuable longings, practices, and value judgments associated with spirituality in people’s minds.  Spirituality is a broad category for organizing all these desirable things.  It is a big enough concept, one people are emotionally committed to because it has absorbed so many good things they long for, that it is worth fighting over as a general concept and rubric for understanding all these feelings and practices that they are not likely to abandon.    To relate to them we should indeed fight for the basic concept that what they are calling “spiritual” is a set of real experiences that can be affirmed but that there is nothing supernatural or superstitious that needs to be involved for them to be explained or to be meaningful.

These are significant parts of human nature. They can have excellent, richly rewarding expressions. They can also connect us to certain kinds of (non-supernatural, non-superstitious, non-woo, non-faith-based) actual truths and actual means to happiness.  And when the vast majority of human beings crave some kind of spiritual experience, truth, meaning, and connection to each other and to things larger than themselves, if atheists ignore> this and say we “have better things to do” we are essentially consigning the majority of people to only irrationalistic, faith-based, woo-prone, superstitious, authoritarian institutions and scam artists as their only recourses to meet needs they feel deeply.

Too many people I talk to balk at atheism because they reflexively assume and have been told that in atheism precludes holding onto the parts of themselves that long for meaning, connectedness, passion, awe, wonder, gratitude, transcendence, sacredness, ritual, and the numinous. The atheists and the rationalists give them no practices for unifying and harnessing all these feelings and related value judgments about the world.

And so they judge that if these desires are natural, good, healthy, life-enhancing, and in some way truth-conducive (and those feelings and some practices based on them, in fact, are) and if atheism has no place to acknowledge any of this but only to ignorantly and contemptuously dismiss it all crassly as gobbledygook, then they conclude (falsely) that atheism is not really more truthful overall than more purportedly spiritual outlooks on things.

And they are more inclined to give credit to the faith and woo peddlers who at least seem to understand that they have spiritual needs and longings.  (And this is even worse when they come across morally relativist or morally anti-realist atheists who make them conclude that they need faith for morality too and judge that the trade off of a few implausible beliefs is a small price for all these practical gains!)  Of course, some people just turn to Buddhism, where atheism and spiritual practices have long shown themselves to be compatible.

Not everything true and valuable can be quantified. Atheists should not succumb to scientism. We should not expect human beings to embrace rationalism if it means cutting off all recognition of truly valuable “spiritual” aspects of themselves and precludes them from adopting deliberate practices which help them cultivate this side of them.

If we want Christianity, Islam, Oprah, and all the other charlatans selling bullshit as spirituality to lose their influence, we need rationalistic accounts of the true causes and value of spiritual experiences and practices and ideologies consistent with good philosophy and science for cultivating that spirituality. We need this almost as much as we need to promulgate the vast and rich amount of insight we already have into secular means for appreciating moral truths and practicing effective ethics.

No valuable part of human nature should be ceded to irrationalism, faith, dogma, woo, authoritarianism, or superstition. I don’t care how long these things have dominated a part of the human spirit, they do not deserve any part of it.

Now, maybe the only point you are driving at Badger3K is that we “have too many irons in the fire already to start another turf war,” as you put it.  But as far as I am concerned, we should be on offense everywhere we can, we should be building constructive atheist accounts of all the parts of people’s lives that they care about and presently feel dependent on religion for.  I say ceding any turf only means losing that part of the struggle.  And to cede as large a part of human experience as “spirituality” to faith and to woo is to just surrender in one of the primary battles.

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • godlizard

    I’m with Badger3K on this one (as covered in my comment on this yesterday). I like to pick my battles, and I think a better battle would be to replace spiritual references with words that refer to emotions, or other vivid and expressive means of describing the experience.

    Spirituality is one of those slippery slope words that dilutes an atheist’s debating position (and if you’re an avowed atheist, you have a debating position, that’s the nature of atheism) and gives theists the opportunity to decide that we’re all just in denial about their god.

    Let the woo-meisters have spirituality, I don’t want it.

  • Ash

    Very well said, Daniel. Ceding experiences that we call “spiritual” to theism is the same as ceding morality or charity work. Adopting spirituality into atheism has and will happen. One form of it is called Religious Naturalism. There is also “poetic atheism”. It is likely that the terms will change over time, but theism will thrive as long as it holds a monopoly on what we call spirituality.

  • James Gray

    I still don’t know what “spiritual” means. Of course atheists can feel awe and love and so forth. Is that all you’re saying?

    Also, “scientism” isn’t well defined. It might not be so bad as long as it allows for some phenomenology and so forth.

  • Laurance

    I’m with the Badger here. I also get the feeling that not everyone gets what the Badger is saying.

    I’m hearing the Camel with the Hammer saying that we atheists have spiritual experiences too, and that these spiritual feelings are not the sole property of the god believers.

    I hear the Badger saying that s/he has a problem with the word. The *word*. The WORD “spirituality”. I have a problem with it, too. It’s the *word*, not the experiences this word is being attached to.

    I know we do have these wonderful experiences, I’ve had ‘em myself, and they are the best experiences of my life – but I do not wish to call them “spiritual”. “Spirituality” is not only a slippery weasel word which means so much it conveys no real information, it is also a cult buzz-word. There are people out there who cringe and grit their teeth and get bad flashbacks when they hear that smarmy word.

    Sam Harris uses that word a lot. I e-mailed him and told him I wish he’d find a better word. I didn’t get an answer. Maybe Sam misunderstood and thought I was disagreeing with the experiences, and missed that it was specifically the *word* I objected to. I see people here not getting it that Badger is talking about a word, not about an experience.

    In “The End of Faith”, Sam Harris (gotta love Sam) said that he uses “spiritual” for want of a better word.

    Want of a better word??? Then let’s put our heads together and find one or more!! Let’s create a word, if needs be!!

    For my money, “spirituality” is just too clogged with religious meanings and woo. Every time I hear the word I have to stop and unpack it and tell myself that Sam (or whoever) doesn’t believe all that slurpy religious stuph and that’s not what he means. The religious woo-woo meanings keep popping up, and I have to deal with them.

    Ann Druyan (Carl Sagan’s widow) and another blogger want to “reclaim” the word.

    Baloney! Atheists are *not* “reclaiming” the word. They’re colonizing it, co-opting it, appropriating it. If these “spiritual atheists” succeed in this endeavor, it will be the christians and woo-meisters who will have to “reclaim” it from the atheists.

    I understand that Sam Harris is writing another book, this time about “spirituality”. Already he’s being misunderstood. Already there are those who think he’s found god because he uses that word.

    I wish there were some way to get Sam’s ear before he writes much more. I would want to say to him that I do want to read what he writes, that I think he has a lot of value to say about the inner lives of humans, and these superb states of consciousness.

    But please, please, please, Sam, find a different word! I don’t want to wince and shake my head as I read the book because the language evokes the worst new-age woo and cult jargon flashbacks.

    • SAJohnson

      Considering that I write a blog entitled “The Spiritual Life of An Atheist,” I clearly don’t think it is a waste of time for atheists to care about spirituality. I agree completely with Daniel that “the things people talk about as ‘spiritual’ are durable and cross-culturally present parts of the human psyche.” For atheists who don’t care for the word “spirituality,” I would suggest you not use it to describe your own experiences. Other atheists feel that we can use the word to effectively communicate a shared experience with others, even theists, so we use it. I don’t think either my use of the word “spirituality” or my position on its usefulness are “baloney.” I want to make clear that I use the word “spiritual” to describe a central experience of my life not as some purposeful political statement to “reclaim” the word but because “spiritual” is the word that best describes this essential practice and commitment in my life. I see spiritual shysters all around, certainly. The hucksterism in car salesmanship does not prevent me from selecting and buying a car to drive. Neither do hucksters of spirituality prevent me from finding and practicing a real and authentic non-theistic spirituality. Also, I am not traumatized, or even offended really, by the woo-woo of New Age spirituality, so the word “spirituality” does not cause me “flashbacks.” Each of us has our own life to lead. If people aren’t actually harming someone else with their woo-woo beliefs, my attitude is live and let live.

  • Laurance

    SA Johnson and I went around about this on her blog.

    Okay. Live and let live. I will let you live, and I’m sorry you felt as if I weren’t letting you live. By all means, live all you want.

    “I want to make clear that I use the word “spiritual” to describe a central experience of my life not as some purposeful political statement to “reclaim” the word but because “spiritual” is the word that best describes this essential practice and commitment in my life.”

    Okay, you really like the word and can use it to label your experiences. It’s a nice word that you and many others apply to your own subjective experiences. But don’t be surprised if a number of people get a wrong impression. Don’t believe you’ve actually communicated anything truely informative. Others can’t read your mind or know what you mean by that word. You’re not actually telling me anything beyond the fact that you and some other people can talk to each other using this particular word. It sounds like insider jargon, but please don’t assume that people who aren’t part of the group that uses that word will have a clue what you’re talking about.

    “Neither do hucksters of spirituality prevent me from finding and practicing a real and authentic non-theistic spirituality.”

    Who says they prevent you from anything? Not me. But you are in danger of sounding like them and failing to communicate accurately if you don’t pay attention to your choice of words.

    Not that it matters in a blog. People can support each other on a blog, and everyone is happy. Everyone is practicing their spirituality non-theistically and sharing with each other about their spiritual experiences.

    I’ve been there. Done that. I’ve “practiced my spirituality” and shared with others what “spirituality” means to me. Please don’t imagine that I’m some cold, hard person who hasn’t had “spirituality” infusing my life. And please don’t imagine that people didn’t get all confused when I used “spirituality” to indicate my inner experiences. (I did it on purpose. I knew what I was doing when I used that word.)

    But along comes Sam Harris now, and he has something of genuine value to say. He is, if I understand correctly, about to tackle this humongous and vital topic. There’s a LOT to be explored here, and I hope he won’t descend into muddy and careless language. I hope he won’t use subjective feel-good jargon to that conveys nothing beyond comfortable and uplifing emotion.

  • ColdDimSum

    I took a crack at this topic the other day on my blog:

    Feelings, or why my bio says Geek☯spiritual

    I will add a tiny bit more info here that isn’t in the blog (yet) but basically I have had some really amazing experiences (several from meditation alone, and one not). I value them, they were personally insightful and meaningful. But I do believe they were the product of my brain and not some external mystical reality.

    I challenge anyone to take a ‘heroic dose’ ala Terence McKenna and tell me afterwards that they still think of their brain as the same mundane place they did before. Until you have been there you honestly have absolutely NO idea what your brain is capable of (and it isn’t always pretty or easy).

    That said, I disagree with you that not everything is subject to science — everything should be subject to evidence and an application of reason. Including this idea. There are limits TODAY, but those limits will get pushed further and further. We should never be afraid to ask “how can science help inform us on this subject”.

    I do agree that we have to be VERY VERY careful about how we use that information. For example, Eugenics is a complete misapplication of science — it is just categorically wrong. NO amount of science is going to tell you the future so you CANNOT know what the ‘best’ genetic population is.

    But Science CAN inform us on subjects like morality, love, emotional health, and how we OUGHT to behave towards each other if we wish to maximize the qualities we value in society. Can you name a subject that science has to keep out of?

    For example: Why can’t science study reason? Doesn’t reasoning take place in your brain? How does that work? Do you have flaws in your reasoning that brain scans could help you identify?

  • gmcevoy

    my non denominational Christian friend defined spirituality the other night as ‘truth seeking’, which he feels the BuyBull addresses, or any ancient myths really

    of course I disagreed

    Like the blog

  • John

    Here is a blog I did on this topic of how spirituality has been co-opted by the superstitious:

    Spiritual but not religious

    Even less god-focused than the “higher power” mindset is a new set of “spiritual but not religious” belief systems. These are just as generic and non-specific, but differ in that they don’t have a god-centered basis. As such, they don’t even qualify as “conceptions of god”, which is what this paper is about. They can range from vaguely deistic to completely atheistic. They carry the belief that something divine or sacred is out there, but it’s difficult to say exactly what that is. This type of belief breaks downs along several lines:

    Mystical variety

    The mystical version is frequently associated with reports of out of body and near death experiences, visitation by angels, ghost encounters, ESP, precognition, astral projection, non-traditional healing modalities, homeopathy, synchronicity, UFOs, vague notions of karma and reincarnation, and ancient but forgotten wisdom. This “un-doctrine” may be gaining popularity as an anti-clerical response to the unsavory reputations that many Christian religious denominations have earned in recent years resulting from sex scandals, child molestation, rape of nuns, financial fraud, blatant pandering, crazy rituals, laughable televised faith healing, crooked or perverted pastors, revelations of shocking inner circle practices, transparent scams, unbelievable claims, and outright crimes. A large number in this growing “un-churched” demographic are former members of traditional Christian denominations (Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans, Catholics, Evangelicals, generic Christians, etc) who no longer identify themselves as belonging to those denominations, but still want to retain a sense of the mystical and basic spirituality without the burden of heavy tradition, out-of-fashion concepts, quaint gender mores, and hidebound orthodoxy. Polls in the US during the last few decades show a growing number of people in the “no religion” camp who still are uncomfortable adopting atheism. They have an aversion to the religious establishment and “organized religion”. The “spiritual but not religious” individual wants to have contact with the mystical and spiritual, but without committing to any specific beliefs or actual doctrines. “Spiritual but not religious” is a philosophical destination for some, and for others it is a mid-way point on the transition from the religiousness of their youth to agnosticism or unabashed atheism.

    Naturalistic variety

    The naturalistic type of spirituality is very much like “Einstein’s God”, described earlier. People who adopt this world view substitute awe and wonder for religiosity. They value individual human encounters with the world, and the experiences and emotions those can inspire. All humans share the capacity to experience awe, wonder, inspiration, reverence, and a deeply moving sense of the “transcendent”. This kind of spirituality requires no belief in a specific divinity figure or doctrine. What is valued here is the personal experience of a subjective emotion elicited by interactions with nature, contemplation of the wonders of life, personal relationships, and the magnificence of the universe. Einstein described himself as “a deeply religious nonbeliever”. This may capture this kind of secular spirituality. Unfortunately, the word, “spiritual” carries such weighty baggage that it has practically been ruined for describing this phenomena – maybe a better way to describe it is a feeling of awe or wonder at the wonderful scheme that is manifested in unfolding of the physical universe. The modern usage of “spiritual” may be gradually transforming into a less religious form, a form that involves no deities or supernatural entities, but instead emphasizes the personal, possibly mystical, experience. Those who have these experiences (and there is no doubt that many do) are, of course, free to interpret them however they want. Some people will respond to these experiences with a strengthened belief in a deity, and others will see them as natural, wonderful, emergent artifacts of our human cognitive apparatus. Nature, science, loving relationships, images of deep space, meditative contemplation, what might be called “deep environmentalism”, or even mind altering drugs can call up the more profound aspects of human experience, which in this context we would call “spiritual”.

    Every generation does creative myth interpretation, and redefines them in the context of current personal and cultural experiences they are having. As a modern 21st century society, we are trying to find an appropriate language to speak to the new meanings that we find in the experiences we are having. We are trying to recover and build a new language for the evolving understanding that is generated through advances in science and technology of the last century. The unarguable diminution of god as the author of nature (he no longer “makes the sun to rise and ascend in the skies”) has left a spiritual void that needs to be filled. The new sense of “spiritual” in this language is not necessarily supernatural, but instead connotes the immaterial, indefinable, non-rational aspect of being human. Instead of referring to immaterial spirits or souls, it refers instead to the ineffable, more fundamental aspects of human experience. In our new society it is losing its overt religious meaning and is becoming secularized.

    Traditional religion is declining, while “spirituality” is on the rise in the millennial culture of young people in the 21st century. Since the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century, we were being told by intellects like Rousseau, Emerson, Thoreau, Ingersoll and others that we were moving towards a new secular society. But instead what has happened is an increase in both secularism and fundamentalism both in the US and abroad. A middle ground has emerged, which is a deity-free spirituality that will probably be end up being more effective than either in dealing with the new set of environmental, ecological, and social challenges we are facing in our high-tech society. It has the logical power of secularism, and the motivational, emotional force of belief.

    Personal Power variety

    This branch focuses on accessing personal power and untapped inner resources. It utilizes Westernized versions of meditation and a Buddhist-like reduction in focus on desire, on the self, and on “ego” (as Eckhart Tolle conceives it). It distills some elements of Hinduism, Zen, Taoism, and Buddhism into a form palatable to Western tastes by, among other things, jettisoning the mind-numbing pantheons of unpronounceable Asian deities, avatars, gurus, and other characters. With a steady avoidance of issues surrounding god and ethereal concepts, it emphasizes personal growth and achievement of inner peace by helping people attend to elements of life that are less superficial and more meaningful. Except for the generous helpings of psycho-babble, pseudo-science, unfounded conclusions, flawed logic, unsupportable factual claims, appeals to alternative medicine, broken history, and false analogies there is actually some useful stuff here. Especially in the West, I think most of us can admit to being too wrapped up in the temporal, acquisitive, and neurotic obsessions inherent in living in a fast paced materialistic, high-tech, post-industrial world. A way of being that helps you break free from surface perceptions and what used to be called the rat-race, to take time to smell the roses, without resorting to navel-gazing has got to be an overall positive thing.