So this Pew poll has been making the rounds lately. The takeaway message people are getting is that atheism is on the rise. Well, yes, atheism is on the rise. But this study doesn’t really show that. What it deals with are the “nones”–people who do not identify with a religion. I’m not saying that this news isn’t good, but it says more about the failure of religious organizations than it does about our movement’s success. Of this unaffiliated group, 37% identify as “spiritual, but not religious.” What does that mean? When I hear someone identify as such, my gut reaction is that this person will be nicer than your standard fundamentalist Christian, but I tend to be suspicious about their perception of reality.
The reason why is because spiritual is poorly defined. This allows it to be a catch-all term for new agey metaphysics, belief in “only the new testament,” a fuzzy deification of the universe, The Secret, various forms of neopaganism, and a way to portray a sense of balance between the dogmas of Christianity and reality.
In the early 2000s, I thought that while there wasn’t a god, there probably was something to spirituality. This problem of definition was apparent even then, but I thought I could come up with a better definition. After careful thought, I decided that the definition for spiritual should be “A feeling of awe connected to something larger than oneself.” There aren’t any gods or demons, but I certainly felt…compelled when I saw pictures from the Hubble Telescope, or contemplated the full scale of evolution or my place in the universe. These thoughts humbled me and filled me with emotion. If anything was “spiritual,” it had to be what we’ve discovered through science.
Looking back however, I see I was mistaken. My definition of spirituality was just as meaningless as Sylvia Browne’s. A word doesn’t really have meaning unless a plurality of people can agree on the definition. I could say that “chair” means “a large species of monitor lizard which resides on Komodo Island near Indonesia.” But if I do that, I shouldn’t then expect people to know what I mean when I describe being terrified of being eaten by chairs.
Just as the religious are obligated to provide evidence of the supernatural, the spiritual are obligated to define their term better. So if you absolutely must use this term, define it before jumping in with the assumption that people know what you are talking about. And if you would be so kind, provide good reasons for why you believe such a thing.
Unlike my unique definition of chair, spirituality is given a great amount of respect and reverence. I’ve had Christians admonish me and my atheist peers because while we have read the Bible, we don’t read it “spiritually.” When I then ask for a definition of spiritual, I am told that I must read the book with faith. So the only conclusion I can arrive at is that we have to read our ancient holy books as though we already believe them, or we’re doing it wrong. I’ve not yet met a Christian interested in reading the Bhagavad Gita spiritually using that definition.
All we can really determine about the term “spiritual” is that it either means the same thing as religion, or it is defined as what it is not–dogmatic, mean religion. Who knows, maybe they just don’t like the baggage that comes with the word “Christian.” It means something different to everyone who uses the term, so if someone insists on using it, have them to define it. Hold their feet to the fire and you’ll soon learn that either spiritual is indistinguishable from religious or it is even more meaningless than religion. And something more vapid than religion is quite hard to imagine.
The fiercest objections I received regarding this were from other atheists who had come up with their own versions of “spiritual.” We can find many palatable definitions that match reality, and could be labeled as atheist spirituality. That said, every definition I’ve run across could be better served with a different adjective. The alternate definition of my own making could be replaced with awe or wonder and would make more sense. Additionally love, compassion, understanding and reverence have all been offered up as possible defining traits of “spiritual.” And I have to wonder, why didn’t’ they just use that word instead of spiritual?
This isn’t to say that the word can’t someday be redefined or appropriated to have some useful meaning. Let me know when that happens.
I write a lot of jokes. Some of them are in this book.
I also host the podcast of the Skepchick events team, Some Assembly Required, and cohost the WWJTD Podcast.
You can also follow me on Facebook or that bird thing.