Spirituality and the Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax

Spirituality and the Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax October 29, 2020

Editor’s Note: While this is a very descriptive title for this blog post, it could also be called “What the Hell is Spirituality?” I am very grateful to the Clergy Project member who chose to address this complex subject here on the Rational Doubt blog, even though he now has his own Patheos blog, called Thinkadelics.  Check it out. /Linda LaScola, Editor


By Scott Stahlecker

Tis the season for hoaxes. They seem to be popping up everywhere, especially in conversations about politics. So, have you heard the rumor about the “Great Eskimo vocabulary hoax?” It centers on the cliché that Eskimos have over 50 words to describe the meaning of snow.

While you are pondering this mystery of linguistics, turn your attention to this familiar word:


Similar to the way in which we are inclined to use only one word to describe snow, we also tend to use the word “spiritual” to describe the overall feeling of being religious.

Yet, defining what it means to be spiritual can be challenging, in part because it consists of emotions and feelings, which can vary with intensity depending upon what a religious person is thinking about.

What’s even more difficult and abstract when trying to define spirituality? Well, try thinking about a way to describe what being spiritual means to an atheist or freethinker.

This is a tough proposition.

Think about it. What is the best, commonly known word that an atheist or non-believer can use to describe how wonderful it feels to be free from religion – but just not spiritual? Well, there isn’t one. There is not a single word or a phrase in the English language to describe what some refer to as “spiritual atheism.”

This is really quite tragic, because I can’t begin to count the number of times when, as a freethinking atheist, I needed a word to describe how wonderful my “non-beliefs” made me feel. It’s a bit inexcusable too, since people who speak the English language are inventing new words all the time such as:

Badassery (n): Behavior, characteristics, or actions regarded as formidably impressive.

Droolworthy (adj): Extremely attractive or desirable.

Frankenfood (n): Genetically modified food.

Mankini (n): A brief one-piece bathing garment for men, with a T-back.

The great Eskimo vocabulary hoax explained

From 2006 – 2016, I lived in a small town in Alaska located 5-miles from the mouth of the great Kenai River. While there, temperatures ranged from 70F degrees above to -27 degrees below zero, and I trudged through every type of snow imaginable. Even so, I can confirm that there is no reason for the English language to have 50 words for snow. At best, five words will suffice, and these can be further condensed.

For example, if you are standing in a cabin in the middle of winter next to a warm fireplace, and you are gazing through a window towards miles of spruce pines capped with a layer of fresh snow, you need only say,

“It’s a winter wonderland out there.”

However, if you step outside before sunrise to brush 14 inches of snow off the hood of your jeep with a kitchen broom, then you use other words for snow — sometimes a four-letter word, or words spelled out using the symbols above the numbers on your keyboard like #&^#!

As it turns out, Eskimos don’t really have 50 words for snow. Rather, Eskimos speak a variety of languages known as polysynthetic languages. Explaining polysynthesis gets complicated, but Laura Kelly summarizes it beautifully in this article in Readable:

“Polysynthesis means that there is a base word attached to many different suffixes which change the meaning [of words]. So, where in the English language we might have a sentence describing snow, fusional languages such as the Eskimo-Aleut family will have long, complex words. Because of this, they likely don’t only have 50 words for snow – they’ll have hundreds of ways to describe it.”

Rating the quality of a spiritual experience

As atheists, we may not have invented a single word or expression which encapsulates what it means to be spiritual, but we should not be too disheartened about it. Despite the profusion of religion and its alternatives, spirituality remains a vague concept. While religionists may have appropriated it and made it their own, most of the time atheists would not want to experience the religious forms of spirituality anyway.

For example, consider the following typical spiritual practices. Each one of these experiences is unique in that they are only felt by members of a particular religion performing a specific ritual:

  • the spiritual experience felt by Catholics manipulating rosary beads
  • the spiritual experience felt by Pentecostals speaking in tongues
  • the spiritual experience of Hindus honoring the sacredness of a Sahiwal cow
  • the spiritual experience of a Buddhist monk spinning prayer wheels
  • the spiritual experience of the Jihadist killing infidels in the name of God

Obviously, there are thousands of other unique spiritual experiences people can “feel” when they are adhering to the tenets of their faith or performing certain rituals. But how do we even begin to gauge the quality and substantive benefits of these spiritual experiences?

Curiously, an atheist will get no emotional or spiritual satisfaction by performing any number of these religious activities. Running rosary beads through one’s fingers seems pointless. Watching a person speak in tongues makes me wonder about their sanity. And what precisely, is the spiritual feeling of a Jihadist about to detonate a suicide bomb?

More fascinating, though, is that there are instances in which atheists and believers do experience certain feelings which both groups might consider to be “spiritual.” Take a walk in the woods. It’s a simple act, but one that can leave a person feeling refreshed to having sensations of euphoria. And while a Christian might easily equate a walk in the woods as a spiritual experience, the naturalist might not, despite the way in which the outing in nature probably affects similar components in each of their brains. There are many other areas, of course, where atheists and believers share similar “spiritual” feelings.

How would you define being free of religion?

 It’s really no surprise then that atheists haven’t come up with a word that’s synonymous with what spirituality means to them.

For one thing, many religious rituals are merely offered to spark feelings that the religious deem to be spiritual. For an atheist, however, these rituals serve no beneficial purpose, nor do they generate a spiritual experience.

For another thing, many religions require converts to engage in activities and beliefs with questionable moral value. Such is the case of the jihadist suicide bomber or, a Jehovah’s Witness who refuses to take blood transfusions even if it might save her life. These kinds of religious actions all generate specific thoughts and mental states that a religious person would consider to be spiritual in nature. But an atheist would not consider these religious experiences; much less have any desire to engage in these kinds of activities.

I personally think freethinkers, atheists, and other non-believers should try and come up with an antonym for spirituality. I for one, am still having a difficult time describing how wonderful it is living free of religious servitude. And many of my joyful experiences and satisfying insights seem to be rather the polar opposite of my Christian experiences. About the best antonym I’ve come up with is that I liken my mental state as a free thinker to be a life filled with aesthetic wonder and soulful wellbeing.

**How would you describe the feeling?** 


Bio: Scott Stahlecker a Clergy Project member, is a former associate pastor for the Seventh-day Adventist Church, but parted ways with religion in 1990. He is the author of the novel “Blind Guides and “Picking Wings Off Butterflies,” and the editor of the Thinkadelics Blog here on Patheos.

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