I’m spiritual, not coherent

Steven here…

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.

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About geekysteven
  • http://www.atheistnomads.com Wesley Da’Nomad

    I continue to come up with the definition: Spiritual – Another form quackery… just more nebulous.

  • Gordon

    I do feel that “Spiritual but not Religious” should be included as a box on Census forms. I suspect it would be the majority anwer here in the UK and likely in the US aswell. At the very least it’d do away with this “christian country” nonsense.

  • http://polyskeptic.com Wes

    Unlike my unique definition of chair, spirituality is given a great amount of respect and reverence.

    That’s why people use the term “spiritual” instead of a different adjective. It’s the same reason people use the word “God” to describe things that bear no resemblance to any god found in any holy book. They want to be part of the club. People don’t like feeling like outsiders. To be an atheist or to disavow spirituality is to be part of a tiny minority. That’s uncomfortable for a lot of people, so they try to reclassify themselves to be part of the majority, or at least part of a less marginalized & hated group.

    This is the biggest reason why I support the Out Campaign. If more people were visible disavowing spirituality and god-belief, other people would feel more comfortable being part of that group. More people are out as atheists –> atheists becoming less marginalized and hated –> people who already have atheistic beliefs would feel more comfortable identifying as atheists –> more people are out as atheist –> etc. It’s the most virtuous of cycles.

  • smrnda

    The problem with ‘spiritual’ is that it’s too vague and meaningless. If you ask someone if they are “punk” or “goth” these are arbitrary labels without really precise definitions, but you can at least find someone and go ‘that kid is totally punk.’

    A reason why people like spirituality probably has to do with the belief that there’s meaning behind the mumbo jumbo, but I can’t see why people can’t dig deeper and realize ‘hey, there is no precise meaning behind these claims. They just sound profound but really aren’t meaningful at all.” I think there must be some resistance to the task of breaking down statements into the plainest, most precise language possible. Do this with political language and you find that much of what is said by politicians is just meaningless mumbo-jumbo except with patriotic buzzwords. Inflated language is a kind of junk food we’ve been conditioned to eat as a society.

  • Baal

    I have experiences and feelings now and again that match the descriptions that folks use to describe ‘spiritual’. They pretty much happen when I meditate, listen to music I like or similar situations; i.e. they are repeatable brain states based on input. The fact that they are inducible doesn’t diminish my personal experience of them. It does, however, mean that the spiritualists (xtians too) don’t need to look for a supernatural explanation. Further, certain drugs (legal, excessive amounts of tea, ibuprofen, migraine meds) make it easier or harder for me to bliss out, be calm or raise my personal energy levels (different brain hacks / stupid human tricks).

  • http://www.SecularCensus.US/ American Secular Census

    The American Secular Census offers a “spiritual not religious” choice of secular self-identity, and then asks those who choose it what they mean by the phrase. As of this moment, respondents are tied between “I don’t believe in a higher power, but I do think there are realities that can’t be addressed by reason and science” (what many people would describe as a New Age posture) and “I am a nonbeliever with a principled, caring approach to my life” (essentially, Humanism). The next most popular definition is “I believe there is higher power or cosmic plan that does not intersect with concepts of religion or a god.” (How would you categorize that one?) Respondents who self-identify as “spiritual not religious,” however, are a very small minority of the Census, which is overwhelmingly atheist. At registration users must affirm that they are skeptical of supernatural claims including those normally associated with religion — unlike Pew, we start with belief, not affiliation.

    • John Horstman

      The next most popular definition is “I believe there is higher power or cosmic plan that does not intersect with concepts of religion or a god.” (How would you categorize that one?)

      Hard to say. Arguably, that describes the physical laws of the universe. Make deism too vague, and its indistinguishable from naturalism. It could also be something like this: if consciousness is an emergent phenomenon of certain types of patterned energy/matter, and the entire universe consists of matter and energy that are organized into patterns by physical laws, then presumably it’s at least possible that the entirety of the universe possesses some form of consciousness. I think this is probably not the case, given how different the organization of a galaxy is than of our brains, but I do have to at least acknowledge the possibility that my framing of consciousness as based necessarily in the sort of brain that evolved on Earth is biasing my evaluation (if we ever found other sentient life that we could identify as such, we’d have a larger data set from which to attempt to construct models of consciousness), and since we’re still not entirely certain how consciousness emerges, I can’t entirely dismiss the concept in the same way as I can Yahweh. I’d place the idea as slightly more likely than the Invisible Pink Unicorn. Of course, thinking that is IS DEFINITELY TRUE without any sort of evidence is still silly.

      Mostly, my guess is that this response is an artifact of normative religiosity – these people have ditched/resisted religion, but have still been swayed by the entirely-undefined concept of “a higher power”. It’s like the people who sling the word “Communist” around without knowing in the slightest what it means other than that it’s supposed to be Bad.

  • http://boldquestions.wordpress.com Ubi Dubium

    I want a better word than “spiritual”! We need a word that encompasses “love, compassion, understanding” and “deep thoughtfulness about hard questions” and also “being emotionally moved by the wonderfulness of the world” but that does not have any overtones of belief in anything supernatural or woo-ish. The word “spiritual” just has too much baggage attached. “Mindful” also gets used by the woo-pushers, and “thoughtful” doesn’t really do it. I want a new word, one that does not come with a lot of pre-conceptions attached to it, and I have not found the right one yet.

    • John Horstman


    • pjmaertz

      Humanist encompasses most of those ideas.

  • Azkyroth

    I prefer to assume it’s an alternative form of “spirituous.”

    Though that may not do much for coherence…

  • http://researchtobedone.wordpress.com ResearchToBeDone

    I’ll protect you from the chairs with this astronaut! And by astronaut, I of course mean this board with a nail through it.

    • http://csdphumor.com geekysteven

      You win one Internet.

    • Rob

      You expect an astronaut to work on a chair with those cushions?

      And by cushions I mean venom and bacteria laden really pointy teeth.

  • John Horstman

    I very much agree, and I have the exact problem with “natural”, which basically boils down to “anything I think is good that is also real” if you press people on a definition (they’ll often start with something like “not man-made”, so then I ask if urine is natural). It has to do with the silly but near-universal idea that humans are somehow separate from (and specifically ‘above’) their environments, unlike other creatures or plants or whatever. Anthropic exceptionalism in this sense is just as absurd as ‘spirituality’ (though we are obviously exceptional in some ways – we’ve been able to adapt the largest range of environments to be suitable for our habitation, for example, and as far as I know, we’re the only life form of which members born on earth have traveled to another celestial body and then returned).

  • RuQu

    I disagree, and think the word serves its purpose well.

    Are there often better words to describe what individuals mean by “spiritual?” Sure. Does that mean they know that word? Nope. Some people might mean something akin to Deism, other Humanism, others something New Age but unhappy with the association.

    All of the above can meet the standard definition (no 2 at Miriam Webster) “of or relating to sacred matters.” They may or may not know any more than that, but they believe in something sacred, something beyond mere humanity.

    Why do they owe anyone a more definitive answer than that? And is anything gained by more fragmented labels? Atheist activists are the evangelicals of the secular world, and we often expect everyone to be as informed and interested in religious matters as we are. Many people are not, and they don’t care to be. Leave them be, even if their beliefs are fuzzy.

    • Azkyroth


  • Mark

    Spot. On.

  • EmuSam

    Spiritual is immaterial.

  • hyrax

    Oh wow. I could have written this almost verbatim! I, too, identified as “spiritual agnostic” for years, before I really thought about what those words actually mean. On my good days, in the best moments, I always feel so connected to everything, you see! Especially when playing music; performing with an orchestra just gives me this overwhelming feeling that I persistently misidentified as “spirituality.” When I really looked hard at those terms and what they mean, though, I realised a much more fitting word is “joy.” Joy is something overwhelmingly wonderful… and it has the benefit of being completely human. Attributing great happiness to some vague nebulous “spirit” is really selling humanity short.