Divorcing Spirituality

Divorcing Spirituality March 28, 2016

Editor’s Note: Clergy Project member Chris Highland suggests that his encounters with nature in his beloved San Francisco Bay area can be viewed as a vestige of the “spirituality” that he willingly relinquished. This essay is adapted from his book, Nature is Enough:  The End of Spirituality and Other Essays  (2013).


By Chris Highland

When it comes to trail encounters with newts and bees and slugs and just about anything that won’t fang my finger, I’m a toucher. I sense there is a need to make contact, if only for a brushing moment.  Yes, I understand that the oils and bacterias on the human skin can cause harm to some creatures.  I’m aware and try to be careful.  I acknowledge that this is my need and my curiosity and maybe it’s more play than I admit. But I don’t think so.  I think it is the contact and even a fleeting sense of “relation” and maybe “inter-dependence.”

toad - highland

Is this a vestige of my “spirituality?”  Exactly.  But this is so much better and fulfilling and, I say without hesitation, more wise and respectful and present, with so much more potential for learning just about anything I’ve had to learn.

Identifying and, in some sense, calling for a conclusion to what we’ve always referred to as “spirituality,” is asking for a divorce because there is no relationship remaining.  There is no life left, no health, no energy and no delight.  There is no real connection, no electric touch, no commitment and no will to love and learn and journey on together.  Honesty calls for an admission:  the wonder is gone.

The same goes for faith and god and religion and spirituality and supernatural hocus-pocus.  The otherworldly realm of “spirituality” offers, when you bend right down and touch it, nothing: no wonder, no joy, no hope, no actual touch at all. It leaves many of us disappointed, feeling jilted or depressed.  Then, the good part: liberation to move on and live on.

Recovering wonder can be like recovering sanity and stability after the trauma of addiction or a failure or loss of any kind.

It’s an audacious claim to announce “the end of spirituality.” But shouldn’t we at least “prayerfully” (for lack of a better word) consider it?  This claim isn’t really about some “Atheist agenda” or “Secular takeover” of the “Christian World” or “Christian Nation.”  Those are hot-button ways to agitate the masses and split us all up even more than we are.  The disturbing point is that the voice of reason is now going to be heard on a regular basis. The bells are ringing from someplace other than cross-crowned towers and the more those voices and those bells are heard, the more religious and spiritual claims to divine authority are going to be challenged and dragged into what John Burroughs called “the light of day.”  It’s not always pretty or fun, only essential, and so freeing.

It’s time–it’s always time–to touch the wildness of Nature, of our own nature, of what it means to be a wondering, wonder-full human being.  I will continue to touch because I would rather touch and feel more human, more alive, when I touch the snake and the bee and the newt and the spider, as well as another fellow homo sapiens.  They mean more than an imagined heaven above and beyond where the disconnect and the divorce are enthroned for eternity.  Here, we are gladly in the greatest garden of Eden imaginable where snakes are not feared, and can be touched, fruited and fed, shaded and sheltered by the ever-growing, ever-evolving tree of knowledge and life.  And it is a forest of trees.  It is good, isn’t it?  It’s so good.  It’s really very good.

**Editor’s Questions:  What do you think people mean by “Spiritual or “Spirituality” and how do YOU define those terms?


Chris Highland 2008Chris Highland served as an Interfaith Chaplain for 25 years. In 2001 he left his Christian ordination and “came out” as a non-theist freethinker.  He is a teacher, writer, housing manager and a member of the Speakers’ Bureau of the Secular Student Alliance. Chris is the author of ten books and host of Secular Chaplain.  Originally from Seattle, he lives in the SF Bay Area with his wife Carol, director of the Marin Interfaith Council.

>>>>>Photo credits – Chris Highland

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  • Rex Jamesson

    Beautiful post – thank you! To the editor’s question, I frame “spiritual” and “spirituality” rather narrowly, and agree that what the author is describing to be something else entirely, maybe for which we need a new word. The very etymology of the world implies a false dichotomy: a “spiritual”, incorporeal world, that is superimposed or somehow interacting (and worthy of worship within) the natural world. In my opinion the word carries too much of this ancient baggage, and despite its usage in a number of absolutely beautiful texts past and contemporary, it makes more sense to jettison it for something more telling, more rational, more awe-inspiring, than “spiritual” implies. Just one opinion…!

    • Appreciate the comment, Rex. In my classes on “Nature as Secular Sanctuary” we toss these heavy words around until they become as light as balloons. Humor and common sense seem to crumble the boulders in the stream these concepts have been for too long. Worthy of new thought, and new semantics!

    • mason


  • carolyntclark

    ahhh Linda., A rabbit hole topic. Sam Harris’s book “Spirituality Without Religion” caused quite a recent stir.
    Basically it’s that which moves us emotionally.
    For me, it’s in the awareness of the grandness of the cosmos, my very brief place in it, the chemical/physical response that humans experience in admiration of the natural beauty of the universe, or the emotional reaction which touches us in appreciating the beauty of the arts.

    • Yes, Carolyn, it seems that, as Muir experienced, Beauty (eliciting wonder) seems the common ground to connect us to Nature. . .if we “land” from all our heavenly-minded dreams.

      • carolyntclark

        Beautiful writing, Chris. Yes, without the supernatural heavenly hocus-pocus, the connection is more wise, respectful and present.
        “It’s really very good”.

  • Roland Leblanc

    Hi, very interesting indeed; as for spirituality, please make the effort to read this wonderful book written by an american fellow:

    Joseph Jenkins . The book title is

    Balance Point , searching for a spiritual link…

    Can be read free on the author site at:


    Good reading!
    Have a nice day!

  • mason

    Spirituality? I prefer something real like awe, wonder, emotion, thrilling, inspiring, exciting, even cool. The actual meaning implies the supernatural/soul stuff so some are trying to redefine the word but…, Spiritual: relating to, or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things. It’s not a word I really use or want to try and rehab, it just reeks of theistic bullcrap to me. 🙂

  • Linda_LaScola

    I used to use the word “spiritual” to describe the sudden feelings of — whatever — awe, wonder, you name it — that came over me when listening to beautiful music or finding myself in beautiful nature scene, or any sudden, unexpected loveliness.

    I haven’t used that word for years, because it’s vague and can mislead people. Even when I was a believer, I didn’t think God sent the feelings. They just happened and I was grateful for them.

    • mason

      “can mislead” is a big factor with me. Spiritual is more popular in use than declaring a religion and that’s IMO a good trend in evolution.

  • Uzza

    Walked outside and there was my friend, looking up at the sky, just staring.
    “What are you doing?”
    “I’m revering.”

    We’re not religious, and she wasn’t praying y’unnerstand. That answer was so perfect, and I joined her in “revering” the stars and the cosmos.
    Maybe if we don’t like the word ‘spiritual’ we could say “reverent”.

  • Karen the rock whisperer

    The most “spiritual” experience I’ve ever had was a nearly 7-year course of study and research (I was a part-time student) to get an MS degree in geology. It was 7 years of experience after experience of awe, wonder, and “OMFSM, so THAT’S the mechanism for [ those rocks, those mountains, those minerals, those volcanoes, those earthquakes] happening!” Nothing involved but science. Earth processes awe me, and make me ponder, Starry skies awe me, and make me ponder. Many things awe me, and make me ponder. If someone wants to label this “spirituality”, that’s fine, I really don’t care. If someone says this isn’t truly spirituality, that’s fine too. Excuse me, there’s a lovely roadcut that needs looking at.

  • I’m glad other like-minded people are dealing with these issues. As a speaker and faithkeeper in a Longhouse tradition we tend to leave such definitions to individuals because everyones experiences are unique, even if they are similar. It seems the writer is using the term spiritual to describe “an uplifting experience”,which makes me wonder. I wonder because at times nature can be a bitch. If one had a tornado destroy the home above them, would the word spiritual experience still come to mind? So if we use the term spiritual to ONLY refer to positive experiences, then that needs to be explained. One CAN feel Awe in the presence of a powerful storm, but unless one is safe the awe is present maybe with a bit of terror? In our traditions, We use myth continually. We speak of the sun rising, and in our tradition, brother sun is returning(its why we have a spring time ceremony to welcome “him” back) but though we dance these ceremonial dances I don’t think there are many who actually think of the sun as a “person”. We anthropomorphize , but we do it as poetry, as color, as description that links us to our ancestors who we are reminded of during these ceremonies and when we pick up an ancient artifact in the field.

    • You’re right of course, sometimes the snake bites. This is only a small portion of my essay, by the way.

  • You’re right of course, sometimes the snake bites. This was only a portion of my essay, by the way.

  • Janine

    Thanks for the great conversation. I work for a non-profit non-religious cancer hospital as the Spiritual Care Coordinator (deliberate intention to distance my department from any religious connotation e.g. chaplain or pastoral care as we have “no religious agenda – and willing/able to offer inclusive non-judgmental support, and a safe space to talk about the cancer journey etc. I too, would love to divorce from the word “Spiritual” as it comes with its own set of connotations – but thus far cannot think of another name for the service we offer. I have considered ‘Humanist Chaplain’ but that would be just as much a red flag to a bull, as the word chaplain is to an atheist. All suggestions welcomed for alternate names of non-religious chaplains who visit all patients.