We need a new word for “spirituality”

June 16, 2011 • 2:08 pm

Although the word “faitheist,” of which I’m very fond, was coined in a contest on this website, I have no hopes that we can find neologisms to replace the words “spiritual” or “spirituality.”  They seem too ingrained in our discourse. But you know the problem: the words have a smell of religion about them—almost a scent of incense, both the Hindu and Eastern Orthodox variety.

Yet many diehard atheists would claim that they have “spiritual” experiences. Mine come when I’m in some awesome place, like at the foot of Mount Everest, or when I find out some amazing way that natural selection has operated, like making parasites take over the brains of their hosts, making the hosts behave in a way that promotes the parasites’ reproduction.

You know the problem.  Accommodationist and religious people (the prime example is the sociologist Elaine Ecklund), take advantage of the “religious” angle of spirituality, making it seem that, after all, there’s not much difference between religious people and atheists who claim “spiritual” experiences.  We have common ground, even though that commonality is pretty much bunk.  After all, you can have an “out of self” or “I’m-just-a-speck-of-dust-in-the-universe” experiences without having to believe in any supernatural beings. I used to have them all the time in college, prompted by the ingestion of organic substances.

In a short new post, “On spiritual truths,” Sam Harris discusses this issue.  Having spent years in meditation, he seems to imply, at least in his title, that there are spiritual truths, although he’s not explicit about what they are.  What is clear is that Harris has repeatedly experienced feelings of transcendence. But he clearly distinguishes these from any experience that would enable the faithful:

 Perhaps I should just speak for myself on this point: It seems to me that I spend much of my waking life in a neurotic trance. My experiences in meditation suggest that there is an alternative to this, however. It is possible to stand free of the juggernaut of self, if only for a moment.

Yeah, I know about the neurotic trance part.  Anybody who goes to a faculty meeting knows the feeling well.

But the fact that human consciousness allows for remarkable experiences does not make the worldview of Sayed Qutb, or of Islam, or of revealed religion generally, any less divisive or ridiculous. The intellectual and moral stains of the world’s religions—the misogyny, otherworldliness, narcissism, and illogic—are so ugly and indelible as to render all religious language suspect. And I share the concern, expressed by many atheists, that terms like “spiritual” and “mystical” are often used to make claims, not merely about the quality of certain experiences, but about the nature of the cosmos. The fact that one can lose one’s sense of self in an ocean of tranquility does not mean that one’s consciousness is immaterial or that it presided over the birth of the universe. This is the spurious linkage between contemplative experience and metaphysics that pseudo-scientists like Deepak Chopra find irresistible.

I was going to suggest, before I read Sam’s post, that we replace “spirituality” with “transcendence,” but that won’t do, either.  It’s too close to religion, implying that there is some realm that transcends the earthly.  So should we keep the word “spiritual,” knowing that it’s highly likely to be misunderstood when used by atheists, should we simply explain what we mean when we use it, which will make us seem pompously verbose, or should we use a different term?  I have no suggestions.  All I know is that unless we give the proper caveats at length when we use it, people like Ecklund and Chris Mooney will try to bundle us together with the faithful.

248 thoughts on “We need a new word for “spirituality”

  1. Not a child of the 60s myself, although conceived in that decade, perhaps there are words that were used to describe the experiences brought about by the use of psychoactives that might be appropriated to replace ‘spirituality’?

    I can’t think of any right now. I’m tired and suffering from a mild overdose of a widely-used liquid depressant.

    1. A word specially built for the occasion:


      def: a self generated feeling of transcendence.

  2. When it comes down to brass tacks, I use the phrase ‘altered state of consciousness’ or just ‘altered consciousness’.

    Daniel Dennett may well gently correct me for that terminology (it assumes there is this thing ‘consciousness’ that can be in a distinct ‘state’) but otherwise I think it’s functional… Just dry, and has all the emotional appeal of eating sawdust.

    We definitely need a new word.

    It seems to me that terms like ‘spirituality’ and ‘transcendence’ don’t actually mean anything. Or to put it another way, they mean something different depending on who is using them and in what context. They’re nearly infinitely plastic, nebulous terms. They carry an emotional appeal, but not a lot of actual information.


    Everything I can think of is a combination of two or more words.

    “Flourishing consciousness” is another one that just occurred to me that might do… But still needs to be shorter.

  3. That’s what I would call a peak moment; the defining thing is it’s force in your memory: it’s not that it is beyond you as transcendent suggests, but that you are totally with it.

  4. There SHOULD be a suitable word for those feelings of awe, overwhelming love, stillness, or peace we experience that excludes the supernatural. I am unable to think of one and it irks me. I often feel that in order to validate these very real feelings – I have to resort to words that suggest, if not demand, a supernatural definition. This should be an interesting thread.

    1. And those words are, among others, “awe”, “love”, “stillness”, “peace”, “wonder”.

      “I was in awe of the beauty, experiencing it provided me with a stillness and peace that nearly had me gasping with the wonder of it all.”

        1. I agree that we human beings need another word, and I agree that the word is needed to label the sense of awe, joy, wonder, and connectedness to the rest of the natural “order.” But there are no obvious, suitable choices in English that have not already acquired connotations implying a religious or superstitious belief (“Transcendence”/”transcendent” is one of those, I think). Perhaps “numinous” doesn’t have the religious connections, but it’s also not a very familiar word.

          Maybe we could borrow a word, such as the German Stimmung? Or maybe we could take a concept from Douglas Adams, the Total Perspective Vortex, add a P for “positive” at the front, and turn it into an acronym, PTPV, which could eventually become a word, “peeteepeevee.”

          When I am asked, I deny being “spiritual” or “mystical.” On the one hand, I dislike “spiritual” as akin to a mildewed, shabby curtain that is frequently used to make silly or incoherent nonsense seem profound. But on the other hand, “spiritual” is still the most familiar and most easily recognized label that we have for that feeling of awe, wonder, and peaceful, losing-one’s-self connectedness.

          1. Perhaps “numinous” doesn’t have the religious connections

            To reiterate a vital point, possibly ad nauseum:

            OED: numinous; a. Of or relating to a numen; revealing or indicating the presence of a divinity; divine, spiritual

  5. I love the word “numinous”. I suppose it too would require some reclaiming, but it fits the bill wonderfully and it has a feeling of high beauty to it that makes it one of my most beloved words in the english language.

    1. Numinous could be tricky.

      It’s rooted in ‘numen’ – which is a term that is interwoven with implications of supernatural divinity.

      Still, not a bad start.

      Looking it up a bit online, there’s the notion of a guiding principle woven in there… Which I like.

      Something more themed around the notion of guiding principles could be interesting.

    2. It is a lovely word but ‘numen’ specifically means something divine
      OED: numinous – Of or relating to a numen; revealing or indicating the presence of a divinity; divine, spiritual

      1. Pretty much every dictionary I’ve ever consulted has had an entirely religious / supernatural definition of the term.

        It’s the word that Sagan tried to appropriate from the religious for Jerry’s challenge.

        I have mixed feelings about it. Thanks in part to Sagan, we may be able to wrestle it from the religious. On the other hand, it may well lead into the all-too-familiar dictionary-based language battles we’re trying to avoid.

        For now, I think it’s best to skirt around the language. Instead of an all-encompassing term, just come out and specifically identify what you feel: awe at the majesty of the skies; reinvigorated by the beauty of a sunset; inspired by the new-to-you discovery of how something works.

        A new word will eventually emerge, but I don’t know that we’ll have much luck forcing things.


  6. Would there be a need for a word if not for the religious traditions?

    I like these feelings that occur now and then, but they vary and perhaps shouldn’t be grouped.

    “Fuzzy warm feelings” seem to cover most of it. This whole Buddhist stuff I think is highly overrated. You’re still being and feeling, accept it. Live and die.

    1. Actually, when I find myself experiencing the sorts of feelings most people refer to with the “spiritual” label, the last thing I’m doing is concentrating on my thought processes. Often, I’m at the diametric opposite end of the spectrum — closer to Sam’s Buddhist meditative state of not consciously thinking at all.



        1. Now that we’re off-topic: I always wondered how, in the cartoon, Megatron could be the same size as (or even bigger than) Starscream in ‘bot form, but in weapon form was small enough to fit into Starscream’s hand. It would have made way more sense for Megatron to transform into a big mounted weapon like a Howitzer.

          Little wonder I was was pro-Autobot – they didn’t monkey around with physics like the Decepticons.

          1. Also, I recall Megatron transformed into a sodding Walther P38 (the pistol favoured by James Bond). While that also didn’t make sense (what was Megatron going to do – transform into “tiny outdated pistol mode” and hide in some British agent’s holster?) the toy was a pretty realistic Walther, iirc.

  7. I think the best word for this is “revere” and its related words like “reverence”. So, in a more fair survey, you might drill down from the “spirituality” response by asking:

    Which best describes your sense of spirituality:

    1) A mystical appreciation for supernatural or otherworldly nature of existence;
    2) A deep reverence for the material nature of existence.

    1. Reverence is good.

      Only quibble is that reverence carries an overtone of subordination… Which to me isn’t exactly what I think we should be going for.

      That’s only a small quibble though.

      Looking online, I see that ‘awe’ is included in most definitions of ‘revere’.

      It’s a damn shame that ‘awesome’ has been so badly over-abused. In the classic sense, I think ‘awesome’ would have actually done the job we’re looking for.


      Looking at the definitions of ‘awe’ led me to ‘wonder’.

      There’s some potential in ‘wonder’.

      It has some of the more positive connotations of ‘awe’ without the whole dread part… But in another form it also carries connotations of doubt and curiosity.

      ‘Wonder’ has some potential.

      1. Hmmm, that’s a good point. In fact, I suspect a lot of atheists do nevertheless feel subordinate to the awesomeness of nature. And clearly many don’t. So, there might be a divide even within people that feel “spiritual in a material way”. Food for thought.

        1. I don’t mind feeling ‘subordinate to awesomeness of nature’. After all, we ARE subordinate to nature, and perhaps more recognition of that fact would lead to better care for the environment.

      2. I like “the sense of awe and wonder”, though that whole phrase can be somewhat clunky. (It’s too bad that the adjective forms “awesome” and “awful” have both taken on entirely inappropriate connotations.)

        I have to say, though, that I’ve been known to use the term “spiritual” as shorthand. It’s not the best, but I think an atheist can use it if they’re sufficiently careful.

      3. I like wonder, and I’d like to name our term for spirituality a sense of wonder.
        Like: I’m not spiritual, but I do have a sense of wonder.

  8. A few ideas (some from the thesaurus):


  9. Amen, brother! What does it mean, anyway? Immaterial? Well then how the heck can it be the subject of language?

    Operationally it seems it means “warm fuzzy hyper-subjective feelings of the moment which can’t be articulated — so it must be magic! Of course.

    Now a buncha folks get together and say “Yeah, me too — warm fuzzies?. Let’s start a Baptist church!”

  10. Yes, we need a word – any word- to avoid the horrible “spiritual.” Trouble is, it’s impossible to consciously force a neologism into the language. It doesn’t matter who clever we might be in coming up with good words, it simply will not take.

    1. Josh, there’s some *truthiness* to that *meme*, but actually us *gnu atheists* know better than to rely on truthiness alone.

      I have two suggestions. I have not heard a better alternative to either of them, and I’ve been looking around for several years now.

      The first, to directly answer Jerry’s post, is the word ‘inspiritual’ (a neologism).

      Inspiritual – adj.
      1a. (From inspiration) Of, relating to, consisting of, or affecting one’s feelings of inspiration. “As an atheist, I’ve had many inspiritual experiences, such as when meditating, contemplating the universe, having a good time with friends and family, or just appreciating nature.”
      1b. (From original/archaic meaning of ‘spirit’, meaning literally ‘breath’) Of, relating to, or consisting of breathing, especially in relation to acheiving improvements in mood, mental health, and feelings of well-being. “When I notice I’m feeling over-anxious, I use inspiritual techniques of deep and rhythmic breathing to relax my body and calm my mind.”
      2. (From the verb ‘inspirit’ meaning ‘to instill courage, vigour, or inspiration’) Of, or relating to the instillation of courage, vigour, or inspiration. “Sam Harris’ book The End of Faith had a strong inspiritual effect on many atheists.”
      3. (From in-, meaning ‘within’) Of, or relating to *embodied* spirit, as opposed to *disembodied* spirit; Of, or relating to the philosophical stance that whatever so-called ‘spirit’ might exist, it exists *within* a physical body or structure, and not in a supernatural realm. “When I said that ‘they’ve got a lot of team spirit’, I meant it in the inspiritual sense that they are able to acheive high levels of cooperation because they feel a great deal of camaraderie with their fellow team-mates, not that there’s literally a spooky ghost within their team.”
      4. (From in-, meaning ‘not’, and ‘spiritual’) As distinct from the meaning of ‘spiritual’; spiritual without the spirits. “I like meditation and feelings of wonder and awe, but I don’t go for any of that spiritual crap. I’m not superstitious, I’m inspiritual.”

      The second, as some might easily have guessed, is the word ‘wonderism’, to refer to a philosophy which strongly values the experiences and feelings of wonder and curiosity, which Socrates identified as ‘the beginning of philsophy’. Specifically, I use this word to refer to a modern philosophy which values the discoveries and investigations of science and reason, over dogma and superstition. Many scientists would fit within this broad category in practice, if not necessarily in self-applied name. The best current exemplars of such a philosophy that I can think of would be Carl Sagain, Richard Dawkins, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Richard Feynmann, Einstein, and the like.

      Importantly, wonderism provides a direct counter-argument to the so-called Argument from Religious Experience, which claims that a person’s ‘religious’ experiences prove their religious beliefs.

      To counter, the Argument from Wondrous Experience claims that all humans, regardless of beliefs (religious or not), can experience the exact same sensations and feelings of wonder, awe, and other related states. These experiences are NOT the exclusive domain of ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ people, and it does not require believing in *anything* supernatural, superstitious, or unreasonable, to have these feelings and experiences. Furthermore, the understandings and discoveries of modern science reveal a history and a universe that is vastly more wondrous and fulfilling than the stale and shallow reflections of religious myths.

      So, if you want to respond to someone who implies that you are inferior for not being ‘spiritual’, or not understanding ‘religious experiences’, I offer the retort that you can have everything that is of any value from so-called ‘spiritual practice’, without burdening yourself with any nonsense, and that not only can you experience the same wondrous experiences as religious people, you can actually have richer and more profound such experiences, not least for the fact that the scientific worldview benefits from being–at least to some measurable degree–true!

      (Which reminds me…)

      “I maintain there is much more wonder in science than in pseudoscience. And in addition, to whatever measure this term has any meaning, science has the additional virtue, and it is not an inconsiderable one, of being true.” — Sagan

        1. Inspirational wasn’t coined specifically to sound almost exactly like ‘spiritual’, but with a tiny little prefix. 😉

          Besides, “I’m an inspirational person,” just sounds conceited.

  11. Being both an English major and a Unitarian Universalist (the people who gather every Sunday to agree that there’s something bigger than ourselves out there but it’s too undefinable to conform to creed), I feel compelled to weigh in. I see three options here:

    1: appropriate the least offensive theistic term and hope it eventually gains a new meaning

    2. create a new word and hope it catches on among a diverse and notoriously cantankerous community

    3. use one or more primarily non-theistic terms, e.g. deep, moving, profound, inspiring, powerful, awesome, overwhelming, incredible, fantastic, enthralling, orgasmic, ecstatic

    For now, I prefer 3

    1. I wonder what you mean by “bigger than ourselves”. I presume you don’t mean physically bigger. The question isn’t whether you can define it but whether you can say anything about beyond that it is big. It sure seems like a theistic believe to me.

      1. I propose that we borrow an existing word from another culture, that of Japan. That word is “Yûgen”. It can be roughly translated as something like “profound grace,” but occurs specifically in the context of the sort of experience that is being discussed here. Importantly, it explicitly does NOT refer to the supernatural.

        “Yûgen does not, as has sometimes been supposed, have to do with some other world beyond this one, but rather with the depth of the world we live in, as experienced through cultivated imagination.” See the entry on this concept here: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/japanese-aesthetics/

        One of the advantages of borrowing a word from a mother language is that it averts confusion with pre-existing meanings and associations in English.

        1. Or perhaps ‘shibui’? “beauty that makes an artist of the viewer . . . the sesame to open the infinite doors of beauty” (Soetsu Yanagi)

      2. “Bigger” can refer to size, power, numbers, knowledge, authority, wisdom or, for theists, supernatural potency. For me, “bigger” is that which is good but often undefinable about groups of people. I find for example humanity’s ability to adopt increasing levels of institutionalized compassion through the last five centuries a profoundly good thing, and representative of something “bigger” than me.

    2. What about “non-sexual orgasm”? Abbreviated “NOSOR” and adapted as “NOSORIAL”. So, you can say: I have had a “nosorial” experience listening Kiri Te Kanawa in Don Giovanni.

      1. I was thinking of the word “Mindgasm”, I’ve heard it somewhere else for other kind of stuff, but it seems to express what I feel when I wonder about life or the Universe.

    3. I’m with you in going for No. 3. I never use the word “spiritual,” and I’ve never felt the need. There are plenty of ways of expressing the concept without using that word.

  12. My first thought was “emotional”. It comes with too much variety for which it is applied:

    > A traffic accident, and you become emotional toward the other driver. It could be anger, sadness, fury, pity, etc.

    > You see an explosion of light in the sky: if you know it’s fireworks, you feel awe, happiness, excitement. If it’s an airplane that just left the airport, it may look the same, but your reaction is much different.

    > You gauze upon a magnificent sunset of clouds, land, and sea, with stars rising behind you, and you feel for a moment the thought that this had occurred for millions of years. You enter a beta state of the mind, and you seem to be intensely aware of your physical self yet the scene your eyes take it is affects you even more intensely. Maybe “zess” = ‘zonal emotional subjective state’ or “bwess” = beta wave emotional state’…

  13. How about “quotunality” and “quotunal”? Like, short for “quote-unquote spirituality” and “quote-unquote spiritual.” :p

  14. Awe, wonder, humility, awareness, mindfulness.

    I agree with Kevin [13]. These are universal experiences, and should be described with universal words. Religions use religious terms for these experiences in order to coopt them for religion. The best counter is to use non-religious words instead, reclaiming the experiences for everybody.

    1. I second mindfulness. It is a skill. Sometimes it just happens like how one can compose a great poem but without being able to consistently compose great poems. Mindfulness is supported by scientific research. You got to work at it, but it is worth it.

  15. In my opinion the term “spirituality” has been high-jacked by the religious people. What would you call the faculty that allows us to experience a symphony–to a my dog it just is noise–while to us a symphony is a rich, mental experience. I think this is just a faculty we evolved, just like speech, abstract reasoning, and what we call “free will.” Montesquieu’s “L’esprit des Lois” has nothing to do with religion. “Un homme d’esprit” means somebody intelligent, sharp, witty. This is the original meaning of the term, and we should not equate it with “superstitious.”

    1. I was of a different mind. I thought it was Sam Harris who was hijacking the word “spiritual” for his own purpose of propping up Buddhist meditation as something really good. I think the word “spiritual” is overtly religious. It is what theists and deists called themselves when they didn’t belong to religious organizations, and it is what most people in organized religions use to describe their most intense religious experiences and to describe their most beloved leaders.

  16. We reject:
    – Labels, we are individuals not a class of people
    – Any reference to “theism” — it just doesn’t mean anything other than a pop social ideology which we aren’t interested in, much.
    – Letting out opponents frame or label us. That’s a manipulative rhetorical trick which everyone falls for — why it’s used.

    1. Rejecting labels is just plain silly. If you need to take a minute every time you want to describe what you think about some subject you will really slow down conversation.

      And I wonder who “we” is.

      1. Sure anything that goes against breain short-cuts and heuristics is, by definition, silly and dumb. For a brain evolved 1,2,3 mm yrs ago. For a pluralistic society of 7B++, not so much.

        It’s just a way to dehumanize, objectify and demonize, usually. We have no objection to any of that on moral grounds, it just doesn’t seem to smooth social networks.

        “We” are a (small) group of sentient bacteria who think this hole social media thing is also dum.

  17. Here’s an attempt at a neologism for “spirituality.” It’s based on the word “awe” or “awed.”

    You may be an awedual (spiritual) person. You may have a feeling of aweduality (spirituality). The biggest problem with neologism is that odds are good it will pronounced incorrectly, with the letter “e” being voiced rather than silent. And the “dual” part will probably be no help either.

    Maybe I should go back to the ol’ drawing board.

  18. Mine come when I’m in some awesome place, like at the foot of Mount Everest, or when I find out some amazing way that natural

    Isn’t this like a dopamine hit or something?

    1. Probably oxytocin, dopamine, we think of as the driving “seeking” hormone — not “warm fuzzies.” OT also makes us wanna bond, unless abused as kind — then it’s run away — fast!

  19. We should distinguish between “spirtual” as an adjective in “spirtual experience”, and the use to describe a person as in the phrase “spiritual person” or just the noun in the plain “I am spiritual”. For this latter use I suggest “Spritian” (pronoounced sper=i-zion”) in analogy to “Christian”.

    And just to be clear, I have no idea what it means. It ought to mean someone who believes in spirits, but the connection between “spiritual” and spirits was lost sometime ago so

      1. My mind leapt to petrol, and then to French, suggesting something linked to “essence”… 

        Hmm… this is something we sense, yes?

        Essensuasness (n.) / essensuous (adj.)


    1. Yea, is there anything that references “spiritual” that isn’t about warm fuzzy feelings — of the moment?

      That why we like the satanic version of spirituyality. ‘Course guess that is warm fuzzies for Satan.

  20. I don’t think we need a new word for “spirituality.” I think we need to stop lumping together a bunch of unrelated peak psychological experiences and treating them as though they were different manifestations of a single phenomenon.

    It’s like saying “We need a new word for the group that includes pterosaurs, flying birds, and bats, and excludes all other tetrapods.” That’s not a word we really need.

  21. Spiritual – you [atheists] keep using that word. I don think it means what you think it means. 😉

    I guess the “spirit” part would be a give away that it expressly refers to something that does not exist.

    I dunno what to replace it with. Heck the term “scientist” is only about 200 years old, and we have been doing science for a bit longer than that. How about getting the neural chemicals that give rise to the feeling and make an acronym out of them?

    1. Ding ding ding! Harris is about as wrong on this one as he was when he said he didn’t want to be called an “atheist” in my mind.

  22. Every time I hear the word “spiritual” I reach for my gun.

    It’s a Trojan horse: if you agree to use it in the secular sense of wonder, awe, and deep appreciation next thing you know you’re included among those who believe that consciousness has a prime place in the universe and “everything happens for a reason.”

    I’d love to say we need to take the word “back” — but I’m afraid it had the supernatural meaning to begin with. I tried it for a long time, but have come to the conclusion that trying to talk about atheism being “spiritual” is as ultimately misguided as agreeing that humanism is a “religion.” You have to explain that you’re using a word in a non-traditional way each time — and people won’t listen because they’re hugging themselves over the thought that you’re now supporting what they’ve been saying all along and buying an entire package deal …

    I agree with the tactic Kevin Meredith talked about at #13: use words that are already common, but don’t have the baggage. Deep, moving, profound, inspiring, powerful, awesome, overwhelming, incredible, fantastic, enthralling, orgasmic, ecstatic … important, significant, expressive, impressive — or just say it was “meaningful.”

    They’re still going to get into that silly “our meaning is more cosmic than yours” argument, but at least they’re not appropriating us to their side by semantic fiat.

    1. Every time I hear the word “spiritual” I reach for my gun.

      😀 Excellent opening line–one that I must steal because it is just how I feel about it at this moment. (Really, how can Harris dismiss “freewill” but cling to “spirituality”? Something isn’t right about that.) Spirituality is best left to the people who believe in invisible dragons, auras, and space fairies.

      1. “How can Harris dismiss “freewill” but cling to “spirituality”?

        I disagree with Harris’ use of the terms ‘spirituality’ and ‘mysticism’ – but I think I can understand them.

        First, we have to assume that certain practices of religion may actually be interesting or useful despite the scaffolding of supernatural metaphysical bullshit that surrounds it.

        That assumption is easy for me – I accept it. You might disagree, I’m not sure… But just accept that for the point of argument.

        If we can accept that long-term, dedicated meditative practice that leads to significant changes in the brain (and therefore mind), then we might need terms to describe these states.

        Common usage is the use of ‘spiritual’ and ‘mystical’ – and these may even be appropriate terms if defined carefully.

        The reason I disagree with Harris is precisely because the words in common usage are so incredibly vague that they’re practically granting license to any listener to misinterpret any reading they possibly want.

        I know someone in Harris’ position has to be prepared to be misinterpreted anyway… But there’s wandering into a paddock full of bulls, and then there’s wandering into a paddock full of bulls while waving a red flag around.

        Using the terms ‘spiritual’ and ‘mystical’ definitely falls into the latter camp.

        1. If we can accept that long-term, dedicated meditative practice that leads to significant changes in the brain (and therefore mind), then we might need terms to describe these states.

          Common usage is the use of ‘spiritual’ and ‘mystical’ – and these may even be appropriate terms if defined carefully.

          Well I didn’t think Harris was willing to grant the same leniency to the word “freewill” as he is to “spiritual” despite the fact that we can obviously make uncoerced choices in most situations given time to deliberate. Seems a tad hypocritical of Harris to publish a dismissal of freewill one day and the next day or two later publish a suck-up piece to spirituality. But more than that, I don’t really accept that meditative practices lead to significant changes. Even if there was evidence of brain changes, I doubt it would be very meaningful in any relevant way. To me, that sounds no different than someone defending prayer.

          The reason I disagree with Harris is precisely because the words in common usage are so incredibly vague that they’re practically granting license to any listener to misinterpret any reading they possibly want.

          Yes, that is a great concern. I recently tried to explain that as an atheist I was still just as capable of being spiritual as any theist and was met with disbelief since I couldn’t be both spiritual and an atheist. I wouldn’t doubt if Deepak Chopra uses Harris’s article soon to support some of Chopra’s quantum woo.

          1. Sure you’ll be met with disbelief, but surely if you define what you mean with a single sentence like: “By spirituality I mean a sense of awe, wonder, or self-transcendence, not anything to do with the supernatural” they couldn’t really object?

            1. That is true. It shouldn’t be too difficult to let the person know what I mean as long as they are trying to understand me in good faith (which is often not the case for theists who are confronted by atheism).

              1. Well, and that’s it in a nutshell. Whatever we end up saying, it’s incumbent on us to be sure our audience, whomever it/they are, understands us; and it’s also incumbent on them not to wilfully misunderstand us. And to call them out if they do so!

  23. The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, whom I admire, says somewhere that music, far from being the most spiritual art, is in fact the most ‘corporeal’ – rightly, I think. (His remark is similar to Milton’s assertion that poetry is more ‘simple, sensuous and passionate’ than rhetoric and philosophy.) I suggest that a good substitute for ‘spiritual’ would be ‘deeply corporeal’.

  24. I don’t think any neologism will have quite the same emotional or meaningful impact we want.

    I also think that no matter what we call it, people like Mooney are going to say we have that thing in common with the religious. This reaction won’t just be confined to the word ‘spirituality’.

    So I think, just go with ‘spirituality’. Everybody already knows what it signifies, and in my experience, being able to say “I don’t believe in God but I do value spiritual experience” could serve as quite a consciousness-raiser for those who think that being an atheist automatically means to be without this kind of profundity in life. Now THAT is what we really need, and no neologism will do that.

    1. Also, I don’t think ‘transcendence’ needs to signify a ‘transcendent realm’. What you’re transcending, in the case of Sam’s meditation practice, is the sense of a self that is independent of nature. Therefore you don’t transcend the natural world, you feel MORE engaged with the natural world.

      1. I know in my personal dialogue, I always think of it as transcendence. And to me it does not seem religious.

        However, having grown up in a fundamentalist home, the word “spiritual” just simply never works for me, because the root of it “spirit” implies an experience of some outside spirit working on me. At least that is my first reaction every time I hear someone say they had a spiritual experience.

        1. Yes, but then, ‘spirit’ originally meant ‘breath’. Poetically it could mean ‘breath of life’ or some such natural thing. I know ‘spirituality’ has supernatural connotations for many, but I still think it’s worth taking back.

    2. The word ‘inspiritual’, which I proposed above, actually fits all the gaps you seem to want to fill. Let’s take a look:

      “I don’t think any neologism will have quite the same emotional or meaningful impact we want.”

      I think ‘inspiritual’ does have just the *right* impact. It is so close to ‘spiritual’ that the connection cannot be missed. However it is just different enough that anyone hearing it will think, “Hey what? Did I just hear that? ‘In’-spiritual? What the heck does *that* mean?” … And the conversation begins. Much like Gnu Atheist in that regard.

      “I also think that no matter what we call it, people like Mooney are going to say we have that thing in common with the religious.”

      Let him! That’s actually a major part of the point! We *do* actually have the same emotional and experiential capacities as the religious, and they have the same as us. Where we differ is in that pesky little ‘in-‘ prefix, which makes as much of a difference as the ‘a-‘ does between ‘theist’ and ‘atheist’.

      “being able to say “I don’t believe in God but I do value spiritual experience” could serve as quite a consciousness-raiser for those who think that being an atheist automatically means to be without this kind of profundity in life. Now THAT is what we really need, and no neologism will do that.”

      Except that ‘inspiritual’ does precisely that. The moment you use the word, ears will prick up. “What?! I’ve never heard of *that*! What could he mean? It sounds like ‘spiritual’, but obviously it’s supposed to be different.”

      And so they ask, and so you explain, “Well, of course you don’t need to believe in God to have all the benefits of feelings of inspiration and wondrous experiences. That’s the point. Everybody can have these experiences and superstition doesn’t have any monopoly on them. In fact, science yields more wonder than any religious myth, yadda yadda yadda….”

      1. You might have a point. We’ll see if ‘inspiritual’ catches on, and if it does do all you say, I’ll bite my tongue. All I’ll say is, good luck.

  25. I seem to recall that meditation and other experiences like you’re talking about “feel” different because they trigger different alpha-wave patterns in the brain or something (will the neurobiologists in the audience please correct me?). And we’re mostly all mechnanically-oriented, “how does it work?” people here. So maybe an “Alpha Experience” (or more appropriate neurological term) would be better than a “Spiritual” one?

  26. So we are not talking about “sense of wonder” or “awesomeness”.

    What about wowsomeness/wowity?

  27. Such a shame that so many atheists are being gullible enough to be taken in by Harris’s Buddhist agenda.

    Feelings of awe and wonder don’t belong in science, any more than laughing out loud or having sex or being a jackass. Science is boring old objectivity and logical conceptualization, you know, the methods that get rid of all that human bias.

    Sorry, but if you want to accommodate feeling groovy or becoming one with your pizza, then you may as well allow in astrology, creationism homeopathy and all those other very human dumb shit into science.

    1. “feelings of awe and wonder don’t belong in science, any more than laughing out loud or having sex”

      Attitudes like that have mean that scientists studying human sex and sexuality have found it really difficult to be taken seriously for decades.

      Spiritual is fine by me. I get lumped into religious pigeon holes by ignorant folks all the time, on account of my nation, my upbringing, my degree. “spiritual” is the term I use in my internal monologue, and frankly anyone who tells me I shouldn’t is just an ass.

    2. “Feelings of awe and wonder don’t belong in science”

      Who are you to tell people what they should and should not feel during moments of discovery? Strong emotions “belong” to whoever is experiencing them at the time.

      “Science is boring old objectivity and logical conceptualization, you know, the methods that get rid of all that human bias.”

      Eliminating human bias can only enhance the joy one can experience upon making a discovery or confirming a hypothesis; it means you’ve arrived at a closer approximation of the truth than you otherwise would have.

      Awe & wonder at our universe is often what propels people toward science in the first place; it inspires them to learn more about the underpinnings of our existence.

      Noone’s actually talking about embracing any of the New Age pseudoreligious garbage you presented in your final paragraph. It is simply a fact that people often have profound emotional experiences that they feel unable to adequately relate. Some people want a word that gets close that but without the obvious religious baggage of “spiritual”.

      Words (or combinations thereof) like profound, ecstatic, eye-opening, dramatic, exhilirating, I think all have sufficient emotional content to convey an amazing experience. Ditch “spiritual” and use one or more of the words we already have to describe the same thing.

      “Such a shame that so many atheists are being gullible enough to be taken in by Harris’s Buddhist agenda.”

      This is what you take from this discussion? Harris has a “Buddhist Agenda”?

      Please tell me your post is a Poe; otherwise it’s clear you’ve missed the point and read into the discussion something that plainly isn’t there.

    3. Feelings of awe and wonder don’t belong in science…

      Tell that to Sagan & Dawkins…to mention only a few…

      1. Dawkins and Sagan are/were popularisers and educators. Of course they’re going to ‘humanise’ science in order to make it interesting and motivate their audience.

        Scientists do other things too, like get angry or go mad, do those things also belong in science too?

        Science is also largely boring and tedious both for scientists and non-scientists, but that is somewhat of an inconvenient truth.

        The point of my polemic is to wake atheists up, and to not blindly accept everything written or spoken by popular atheists, even if they are smart, knowledgeable and scientists. Harris has some good arguments and criticisms when it comes to attacking Islam or Christianity, but he is woeful when it comes to explaining his own ideas about morality. And don’t even pretend to accommodate his spirituality nonsense to me.

        1. 1. Atheism =/= science.

          2. I did not know this was a thread about Harris-agreement. I thought it was about the use of words with iffy meanings…

          I disagree with all of the “4 Horsemen” about some things; with Harris most of all, probably. Seems to me you’re making a lot of unwarranted assumptions.

  28. How about




    It totally bungles the latin, but seems to fit my transcendent mood when I’m on top of a mountain.

  29. I think we already have the word: mindgasm/mindgasmic – defined as
    “the feeling of complete happiness/understanding one gets from any number of things”.

  30. I agree that we need a new word. I’m not a native English speaker and so I don’t know what connotations ‘euphoria’ and ‘euphoric experience’ would have to most people. To me, at least, they seem like perfectly good words.

    But if those are no good then we could go all ancient Greek on their asses with the philosophical term ‘Eudaimonia’ and the semi-neologism of ‘Eudaimonic experience’. I know that they run the risk of seeming elitist and verbose to many people. They do, however, have the benefit of being older than Christianity and Islam which will imply that these religions cannot take credit for the experiences.

    And a final suggestion: Though the psychologist Abraham Maslow was generally a shoddy scientist he may, nonetheless, have the right word for us: ‘Peak Experience’. The term is even used these days by many so-called positive psychologists who study happiness and human growth. They are increasingly influential within academic psychology and may soon (re?)popularise the term. This may be the strategically wisest choice for us. And my guess is that most people would, already, intuitively understand what it means. Any takers?

  31. Spirituality is to feel a sense of awe and wonder for something greater than the self. The Universe, galaxies, stars, planets, moons, and the diversity of biological life are all realms that deserve such appreciation.

    Realizing that we are the Universe personified; that all animals are built upon the same DNA ingredients; that the atoms composing our bodies were born in the cores of high-mass stars; etc., all reveal the fundamental interconnection of material reality.

    To recognize and appreciate these interconnections IS spirituality: a natural spirituality, entirely divorced from the myths of men.

    1. Then why not ‘materiality’, as in ‘I had a profoundly material experience the other day’?

      1. “I had a profoundly material experience the other day” brings to mind banging one’s shin into a table, or Johnson’s “refutation” of Berkeley with the kicked rock.

      2. Because ‘material’ covers everything that exists (if we’re materialists), and so to put ‘material’ on the front of ‘experience’ would be redundant.

  32. ‘Awe’, ‘awesomeness’, ‘sublime’, ‘wonder’, ‘majesty’, ‘majestic’ all can carry a lot of water here.

    Coining ‘sublimity’ for a sublime experience might be handy.

    The etymology for ‘ecstacy’ would suggest being thrown out of oneself – a professor of mine once put forward that usage – but I am not confident of being able to use it that way without too much bother and misunderstanding.

    I think we’ve got enough to use for various and distinct experiences in the general area without having to reclaim or replace ‘spiritual’. The very word shouldn’t be one encouraging to good materialists.

    “Feeling like a tiny, tiny part of a vast, complex, unimaginably vast and beautiful universe, with my mere individual concerns put into such minor perspective”… deserves better than shorthand.

  33. We are OK with the label anti-theist. Anti-theist terrorist for evidence-based knowledge is catchy! If neologism is s dirty word — we’re also for that.

    Here seems to be the fact o’ the matter — as we understand it:
    – Peak experiences
    – Anything conscious…

    …has about as much relevance/meaning/influence to behavior, let alone others or the planet or the universe, as dyspepsia in an ungulate. Actually, less since ungulate stomach aches produce methane.

  34. Maybe I’m missing something, but it’s not clear to me what this elusive new word is supposed to do, what gap in our language it’s meant to fill. If we want to talk about feelings of being amazed, awestruck, inspired, humbled, exalted, exhilarated, or whatever by the wonders of nature, well, there’s half-a-dozen perfectly serviceable words off the top of my head that already describe those feelings.

    It might be interesting to count up the number of different words deployed on this thread in defense of the idea that there aren’t enough words.

    1. None of those words alone capture the actual experience. That’s why we have to use a good half dozen to describe this one thing. Better to have just one, wouldn’t you say?

      1. I’m not convinced it’s one thing we’re describing. The words people are using for it on this thread are all over the map, which makes me think that a whole spectrum of feelings is being conflated here as “one thing”. Surely it would not be better to have (for instance) just one word for “good”, with at most handful of permissible modifiers such as “double plus good”.

      2. “None of those words alone capture the actual experience.”

        Neither does ‘spiritual’, actually. I’ve never been able to get anyone who talks about ‘spiritual’ to pin down *just what* they’re talking about. Words alone can’t do it. It really is an internal experience. Until we have enough resolution on brain scanning, we won’t be able to quantify it any more than a vague word or twenty.

        ‘Spiritual’ does not actually describe any sort of experience at all. It derives from ‘breath’, and morphed into ‘life’, ‘soul’, ‘mind’, ‘personhood’, and all sorts of other words. None of these origins point to any kind of experience.

        It’s very much like ‘god’ in that way.

        Phantasmagus (thinking of pleasant dreamy things): “Hey Creddy, you know that feeling you get when you feel really good?”

        Credulus (thinking of hot, sweaty things): “Yeah!”

        P: “Since I’m usually breathing deeply when I experience that, let’s call that ‘spiritual’.”

        C: “Me too! (Panting, more like it.) You’re on. Let’s go to town and see if we can find some people to have spiritual experiences with.”

        P: “Great idea! I never even thought of that.”

        And so they go on to each have completely different ‘spiritual’ experiences later that evening.

        The word ‘woojafrabbadabba’ is just as good as any other word for something so notoriously difficult to pin down. It just so happens that some sub-cultures have developed a kind of mutually-agreed-upon meaning for their particular kind of ‘spiritual’, but they do not necessarily agree with the religious nut jobs in the next church over, who think it *requires* blabbering like an idiot.

  35. Posted June 16, 2011 at 4:46 pm | Permalink
    I propose that we borrow an existing word from another culture, that of Japan. That word is “Yûgen”. It can be roughly translated as something like “profound grace,” but occurs specifically in the context of the sort of experience that is being discussed here. Importantly, it explicitly does NOT refer to the supernatural.

    “Yûgen does not, as has sometimes been supposed, have to do with some other world beyond this one, but rather with the depth of the world we live in, as experienced through cultivated imagination.” See the entry on this concept here: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/japanese-aesthetics/

    One of the advantages of borrowing a word from another language is that it averts confusion with pre-existing meanings and associations in English.

  36. Spiritual works for me. We use the term “spirit” in the english language to denote the intangible aspects of any given thing, person, place, or action. An example would be “the spirit of the law” (the philosophical interpretation of the wording of laws), “school spirit” (appreciation or promotion of one’s alma mater), and so on.

    I use “spiritual” to describe the part of my mind, my consciousness, that is fulfilled and enlightened and intrigued by existence itself. My consciousness is kind of the intangible part of me. No gods or revealed religion is really neccessary to apppreciate the “spirit” of existence, and of one’s own life.

  37. The real problem, as I see it, is that there are times when people have feelings that cannot be described in terms of normal experience or ordinary emotional language. Many of those words have been mentioned here, including awe, reverence, numinousness and transcendence itself – all of which do not quite serve to describe experiences that DO transcend ordinary day-to-day life.

    I know that I have had transcendent (for lack of a better word [like Kevin in message #13, I am a onetime English major, linguistics graduate and spent most of my life writing for a living, but there are still times when I struggle for the right term]) feelings and experiences which, for lack of anything better, I simply chalk up to the long list of things that are, in fact, part of the real world but not yet subject to practical explanations. These go with the “unreachable truths” that Douglas Hofstadter illustrated so succinctly on page 71 of his book “Gödel Escher Bach”.

    There will always be those things that defy explanation (maybe Rumsfeld was on to something when he spoke of “known unknowns”), and some of us will simply accept that they are just currently without an adequate explanation. Others will look to invisible entities in hopes of living in a world wherein everything can be explained.

    Rather than fret about it, I’ll just continue to use the word “spiritual” to myself, knowing what I mean, and be careful with whom I share it.

  38. …making parasites take over the brains of their hosts, making the hosts behave in a way that promotes the parasites’ reproduction.

    So, when you hear Rush Limbaugh bellowing out of the radio as blue collar workers go about their jobs, it’s a spiritual thing…

  39. Hmmm, when I experience a sense of wonder or awe about a scientific fact or discovery; or a simple thought/idea or musical listening experience that totally captivates me, I sometimes describe that as being mesmerized. I really like that word and its sound cause it also occurs in the lyrics of a song I really dig.

    I’m a non-native speaker, afaik mesmerize is not that common, it can mean hypnotize too, though.

  40. Endorphinised.

    High on life.

    Or as someone mentioned above, I’m partial to wonderment: [i]The feeling aroused by something strange and surprising.[/i]

  41. For me, I don’t mind the word spiritual if it is understood properly. Why get rid of a perfectly good word because of the goddists and new agers. To me spiritual refers to what is awe inspiring or transcendent. Just like soul can be understood as a metaphor for our highest aspirations and best qualities. Clearly our origins and existence are awe inspiring and the cosmos is transcendent since it far exceeds the pale blue dot we call earth, even when and perhaps even more so when understood naturally. For that matter I don’t even mind the “g” word if it is understood the way Spinoza or Einstein did – the laws of nature or the Cosmos itself. The only problem with that is that it creates confusion with the goddists and new agers (of course this can occur with “spirituality” as well).

  42. ‘Awe’ is the root word for ‘Awful’ (in the original sense) & of course ‘Awesome’. ‘Awe’ first appeared in the Old English form in the 9th century. It meant ‘immediate fear, dread, terror’ which was typically inspired by God

    Anyway ‘Awe’ & it’s derivations are unacceptable – they have been driven into poverty by (mostly) American hyperbole. As Eddie Izzard explains here (video)

    There is NO NEED to conjure a lone word to describe an emotion – Sagan tried to do that all the time & it’s tiresome. It devalues expression. Give up the search & try stringing a series of words together instead, but easy on the adjectives please. Hitchens uses his adjectives like guided missiles –



    1. Hitchens often uses numinous, but with a quiet disclaimer beforehand. It would be nice if The Hitch would chime in here. He could probably invent something for us. Or, maybe his good buddies, Martin or Ian, the fiction guys could come up with something.

  43. What’s wrong with the usual term for this, i.e. “peak experience”? If we want to be more specific, we can speak of experiences of the sublime or the majestic, or whatever else the character of the experience may be. I don’t see any need to talk about “spirituality” and its cognates.

    1. To my ear, ‘majestic’ is not even close to what we’re talking about, as it sounds more akin to simply being hugely impressed with something. ‘Sublime’ is closer, but personally I think ‘spirituality’ or ‘transcendence’ are useful because (as I’ve said earlier) being able to say that atheists can have spiritual experiences is a great consciousness-raiser for those who think that being an atheist means to have a life without meaning or profundity.

      1. Basically, by taking those words usually associated with religion, we show that we can have as intensely profound experiences as any religious person.

        1. I agree with your sentiment, but you are most likely to only undermine communication when you use *exactly* the same word as the religious word.

          Hey, if we were to try to adopt religious words, why not try to adopt the biggest one of all, ‘god’?

          Oh no, I know what you’re thinking. When I say ‘god’, I don’t mean a person who exists outside the universe and created the universe, or any of that silly nonsense. No, I mean ‘the universe’ or ‘love’ or ‘hope’ or this really cool deepity I ran across the other day, ‘the ground of all being’. Isn’t that great?

          No, I do NOT worship the universe! No, I don’t think I’m god! Well, yes, I’m part of the universe, so I’m part of *my* god, but not the kind of god you’re thinking of!

          See? It just sends the conversation into an endless loop. And then repeat that loop for ever person you meet. A lot of wasted time and effort for very little benefit.

          This is why I no longer use the word ‘materialist’. I am, technically, a scientific materialist. But I got so pissed off at having to explain, “No, I don’t think all that matters is material wealth and possessions. No, I don’t believe matter is literally the only thing that exists. Blah blah blah….” Repeat loop.

          Now I just say, “Sorry dude, you have me confused with naive materialists (not that I actually know of any). I’m not a materialist, I’m a physicalist.” And then they say, “What’s that?” And I say, “Well, I only believe in physical things, you know, like the kind of stuff they talk about in physics and the other sciences.” And the conversation proceeds. No loop time wasted.

          My best guess is that attempts to ‘regain’ spirituality will face the exact same endless loop problem as attempts to regain ‘materialism’ (in the public sphere, outside of philosophy departments).

        2. Well, each to their own – but I must say that I’m never even remotely temptef to use words like “spiritual” or “spirituality”. As I say we have a rich vocabulary available for all these different kinds of experiences. But if you want to reach for those words – which I find pretty much meaningless outside of a religious context; they convey almnost nothing to me – you’re of course welcome to.

    2. I’d never heard of “peak experience” before this thread — does it describe the feeling of elation you get when you reach the summit?


  44. One thing I think that would be necessary in this context would be familiarity and applicability. So, words that are either newly coined or very rare have a low chance of catching on. Also, the use must be somewhat obvious. Even though “bright” is common, it doesn’t obviously apply to skeptics or atheists. (There are other reasons it didn’t catch on of course.)

    In this sense, I think we could should consider “wonder”, “awe”, “reverence”, and the like.

  45. Echoing Sam (30) and eggnogs (47), we can legitimately and usefully talk about naturalistic spirituality and religious naturalism, that is, naturalize terms that have traditionally been associated with the supernatural. It isn’t difficult: simply explain that you’re referring to experiences and practices that relate to ultimate concerns: meaning, self-transcendence, primal connection – all the stuff religion is about but minus the supernatural component. If people want to invent new words to refer to all this, that’s fine, but the old ones, suitably naturalized, do just fine, http://www.naturalism.org/spiritua.htm

    “Although naturalism may at first seem an unlikely basis for spirituality, a naturalistic vision of ourselves and the world can inspire and inform spiritual experience. Naturalism understands such experience as psychological states constituted by the activity of our brains, but this doesn’t lessen the appeal of such experience, or render it less profound. Appreciating the fact of our complete inclusion in nature can generate feelings of connection and meaning that rival those offered by traditional religions, and those feelings reflect the empirical reality of our being at home in the cosmos.”

          1. I like it because it can combine “wonder” in
            the sense of both “awe” and “curiosity”, so it can have an active and a passive sense, but
            the “ism” makes it sound like an ideology, and I’m not sure that’s what we’re looking for.

            1. It’s a philosophical position, like determinism, existentialism, and all the other isms in philosophy. Not all isms are ideologies. Is atheism an ideology? How about non-conformism? You can make an ism out of just about anything. Doesn’t automatically make it an ideology.

              But, in terms of ‘spiritual’ and ‘religious’ experiences, rather than philosophy, I’ve already proposed inspiritual and wondrous experiences.

  46. Now we’re getting down to it! This is a marketing problem.

    The goal is ideological and rhetorical = attract as many people as possible to our side, set a clear boundary for the “others” and make it “sexy.”,i.e., trigger dopamine which drives get up out of the chair and fire up the iPad seeking behavior.

    But it can’t reference be anything physical/material because that’s expensive to deliver. Hmmm?

  47. I’ve experienced that state, whatever we care to call it.

    It hasn’t happened since I was a child, and it was rare but happened several times. It was always at night, in bed, staring out the window and thinking existential thoughts. I would kind of… loose myself… and, yes, per the stereotype, feel “at one” with the universe. The idea that I was a single entity became ludicrous and the events would end with me repeating my name and simple biographical details, almost to “anchor” myself back to existence.

    Actually, the “coming down” is the part I most remember. Can’t say much about the rest of the experience, it’s been so long. No knowledge was gained (obviously) and not being raised religiously, I never interpreted the events that way. I easily could have.

    I’m pretty sure this is just some weird brain-glitch, and that it sits at the heart of most “religious experiences”. I can’t imagine what we should call it, but we should probably recognize it as a mental phenomena of some sort.

    1. Actually, I find such states pretty common when practicing martial arts or meditation. I just don’t think there’s anything to them that can’t be explained in terms of neuroscience.

      1. All of us here are confident it’s all to be explained by neuroscience, ultimately. It’s just a challenge to find the language for this stuff that’s (1) way cool, (2) natural, and (3) does not invite confusion with supernatural hogwash.

        1. There are terms in Taoism and Buddhism for these mental states, but these can bring in the associated woo. It’s better to find something from our culture and that’s compatible with naturalism.

  48. “peak emotional experience” or “serene contentedness” when speaking of transcendent feeling, and “helpful” or “caring” when talking about “spiritual” behavior

  49. Euphorishit.

    Like bullshit spiritual claims are made without much care for whether they are true or not, thus they do not deign to submit themselves to the standard rules of evidence and argument with which we treat everything else.

    Like Euphoria, this is supposed to feel all good and uplifting.

    Thus Euphorishit.

  50. According to Wikipedia: “Spirituality can refer to an ultimate or an alleged immaterial reality;[1] an inner path enabling a person to discover the essence of their being; or the “deepest values and meanings by which people live.”[2] Spiritual practices, including meditation, prayer and contemplation, are intended to develop an individual’s inner life; spiritual experience includes that of connectedness with a larger reality, yielding a more comprehensive self; with other individuals or the human community; with nature or the cosmos; or with the divine realm.[3] Spirituality is often experienced as a source of inspiration or orientation in life.[4] It can encompass belief in immaterial realities or experiences of the immanent or transcendent nature of the world.”
    I like some of those definitions and hate others. Particularly appropriate, I think, is: “an inner path enabling a person to discover the essence of their being; or the “deepest values and meanings by which people live.” That last one really resonates with me. But it doesn’t give us an alternative word to use. We’re probably stuck defining the term whenever we find ourselves in a position that seems to all but demand the use of the S word.

  51. Quite a while ago Tom Flynn, I think it was, had an article in Free Inquiry demanding we stop using words with any religious connotation and come up with new ones. The list was surprisingly long…spirit, spiritual, soul, soulful, believe, belief, faith, trancendence, martyr, absolution, salvation, etc.

    As someone above said, language change has to be desired–it can’t be forced. I agree with Sam, eggnogs, Tom Clark, and others that the best course is simply to use the words we prefer in the senses we mean and not get hung up on other possible meanings. Once known atheists stake their claim to our common language (esp. those words with a long history of being used in both religious and non-religious contexts, and with the dictionary definitions to match), the semantic game-players can be put in their place.

    That said, there have been some wonderful suggestions here and I would encourage anyone to start using their favorites. Who knows, perhaps something will catch on? I’d just hate to have others of us left tongue-tied for fear of offending the atheist language police.

    1. I agree DG – particularly with your final paragraph

      A community containing Atheist Language Police would look like The Brights forum


      1. I agree with Diane’s final paragraph too. While I advocate certain words/phrases, they are only intended as suggestions/options. My defences of them are only my own opinion. I’m open to any better alternatives from anyone. (For example, I’ve recently picked up Hamilton Jacobi’s ‘gnu atheist’, and I love it.)

      2. It’s nice to be agreed with. :- )

        Ah, sorry to hear the Brights Forum went down that road! I’ve only visited it a couple of times and had not picked up on that.

    2. And we should not forget ‘professor’, originally someone who professes their faith, once thought a necessary step in teaching the young.

      1. Methinks that your definition is artificially restrictive to the point of positively throttling the term.
        From the OED:

        Etymology: < Anglo-Norman proffessur and Middle French professeur (French professeur) person who professes (c1275 in Anglo-Norman), academic teacher of an art or science, or of the law (1337 in proffesseur en loys), person who openly professes the Christian faith (15th cent.) and its etymon classical Latin professor person who declares, person who claims to be expert in some art or science, teacher, in post-classical Latin also person who professes a faith (early 3rd cent. in Tertullian), person who takes religious vows (13th cent. in British sources), university academic (frequently 1304–1583 in British sources) < profess-, past participial stem of profitērīprofess v. + -or-or suffix. Compare Old Occitan professor (Occitan professor), Catalan professor (early 15th cent.), Spanish profesor (1359 as professor), Portuguese professor (15th cent.), Italian professore (1389)

        As you may note, the first exclusive meaning of “faith” is far older than the first mention of “science” as a meaning.

      2. I wouldn’t be surprised if that hadn’t been on Flynn’s list! Really, so much of (at least Western) human cultural history is so inextriably bound up with religious/church history that the language just has to reflect that. Then new connotations inevitably, uh, evolve…

  52. Why don’t we go back to using the phrase “a wondrous experience”? What’s wrong with “wonderment”?

    I have to disagree about using words to mean just what we want them to mean and attempting to co-opt words like “spiritual”. Think about it – if you wrote that you had a spiritual experience, what is anyone to think of that other than you think you might have seen a god or something?

    1. One online dictionary’s defs for “spirit:”

      World English Dictionary
      spirit 1 (ˈspɪrɪt)

      — n
      1. the force or principle of life that animates the body of living things
      2. temperament or disposition: truculent in spirit
      3. liveliness; mettle: they set to it with spirit
      4. the fundamental, emotional, and activating principle of a person; will: the experience broke his spirit
      5. a sense of loyalty or dedication: team spirit
      6. the prevailing element; feeling: a spirit of joy pervaded the atmosphere
      7. state of mind or mood; attitude: he did it in the wrong spirit
      8. ( plural ) an emotional state, esp with regard to exaltation or dejection: in high spirits
      9. a person characterized by some activity, quality, or disposition: a leading spirit of the movement
      10. the deeper more significant meaning as opposed to a pedantic interpretation: the spirit of the law
      11. that which constitutes a person’s intangible being as contrasted with his physical presence: I shall be with you in spirit
      12. a. an incorporeal being, esp the soul of a dead person
      b. ( as modifier ): spirit world

          1. Except that the “spirit” (from the Latin “spirtius” & related to the Greek “pneuma”) refers to intaking or expelling a putatively tangible entity through the LUNGS.
            I prefer whiskey to go down my throat, rather than my œsophagus thankyou!

            1. Animula, vagula, blandula,
              Hospes comeque corporis
              Quae nunc abibis in loca
              Pallidula, rigida, nudula,
              Nec ut soles dabis jocos.

  53. I have had similar thoughts myself over the past few months, and have come to the conclusion that the word base we should employ is simply ’emotion.’ This would lead, where applicable, onto ’emotional’, ’emotionable’, ’emotionally’. Let’s keep it biologically simple…! Maybe one day ‘transcendent’ can be reclaimed…but not yet.

    1. Not sure what gender you identify with, but women might have reason to want to avoid self-describing as “emotional.” Though maybe a unified cross-sex (pan-sex?) embrace of it would help us reclaim the word!

    2. My best moments of experience as an improvising musician involve emotion, but more than emotion alone — I also experience an aspect of mastery, plus an aspect of awareness of things I’m working or manipulating. And the things I can be aware of manipulating include maybe 30 to 50 aspects of my body, plus how we lay things out in the passing of time, plus musical elements — I can see an improvisation as an excuse to work pitches (autopilot on rhythms and timbres), or an excuse to work rhythms (autopilot on pitches and timbres), or an excuse to work timbres (autopilot on pitches and rhythms). And I can move my awareness of those elements from moment-to-moment like someone can arrange flowers. So I used to get frustrated if a listener would say, “I like music, it’s so emotional,” because that doesn’t describe the experience for me, or why I keep doing it. Scott near Berkeley mentioned “zonal” which describes my target better for me. But I also suppose my “zone” is not what other people want to experience.

  54. Why not ghost? The Holy Ghost… ghostliness for spirituality. Or ghastliness.
    “like making parasites take over the brains of their hosts, making the hosts behave in a way that promotes the parasites’ reproduction.” That sounds like religion alright…

  55. When standing in awe of a beauty of Nature, I use the word ‘awesome’. If music moves me to tears I use the word ‘harmonious’ as in harmony of the spheres. A lot of religious music can do this but is often spoilt by dreadful degrading words; Amazing grace is such an example (that saved a ‘wretch’ like me). Our love for or from another without any religious overlay (blessed)is simply ‘amazing’. A new word for spirit? Alcohol? Alchemy transcending the normal, ‘Rebalancing’ I don’t know. I will give it more thought, but forget ‘spirituality. YUK

  56. Again, I have to recommend John Horgan’s book, Rational Mysticism. He does a very thorough job investigating this topic. On page 6, he defines a mystical experience as having four criteria: it’s ineffable, can’t really convey it in ordinary language; it’s “noetic”, meaning that it seems to reveal deep, profound truth; it’s transient, rarely lasting for more than an hour or so; and it’s a passive state, in which you feel gripped by a force much greater than yourself.

    Also keep in mind that not all mystical experiences induce feelings of warm and fuzzy, they can be quite terrorizing to the illusory ‘self’. An experience of emptiness or ‘real-izing’ that you are going to die, and that it is final, well that kind of sucks.

    In a way, I think anyone who searches for insight and comes away with: the universe is ultimately indifferent to humanity, then that person is an “existentalist”.

  57. Why has no one already suggested the word “transconscious”?

    “I was looking at the stars when I experienced a moment of transconsciousness”.

    It is fairly self-explanatory, meaning consciousness shifted. It think it works.

  58. I think people are giving spirituality (and experiences commonly described as spiritual) too much credit. Those spiritual experiences don’t really deserve a special name for them. Doing brain gymnastics to “stand free of the juggernaut of self” is just a way to deceive one part of the brain. You can achieve the same by chewing certain plant leaves.

    Feeling disembodied for a moment isn’t different from feeling tired or thirsty or blind. We think it’s different because of our dualistic tradition that make us think about a soul external to the body, but none of that exists. You’re just playing with yourself in all cases.

    As for achieving something difficult like the mount everest example, I’d say that what you feel is mainly satisfaction.

  59. I suggest the new term ‘Kwoktastic’ – meaning the transcendent feeling that you in another place and want to convey this feeling to others.

    Unfortunately the particular “other place” is currently limited to Frank McCourts english class in Bedford-Stuyvesant High School, or the World Science Festival but, what the hell, you can’t have everything (for instance a Leica rangefinder.)

    On a more serious note I vote for “wonderment” as suggested earlier.

    1. I disagree with his conclusion. The suggestion of using a different term for “spirituality” is due to it being inadequate for the purposes of communicating feelings of awe about nature that are not connected with the supernatural. The reason why it is inadequate is that the word has very different meanings to different people. Using it in a mixed population (religious and non religious) will inevitably result in miscommunication.

  60. Realschmerz.

    I.e., the almost-painful feeling of the experiencing of reality. Pronounced ray-awl-shmertz.

  61. Why would we want to claim “spiritual experiences”? I’ve had joyous experiences. I’ve had personally meaningful experiences. But I’ve never had a “spiritual experience” in my life. I’m sure that people who are primed to believe such things, have experiences as of Jesus, ghosts, etc… all the time, but that doesn’t make them veridical or laudable.

    One of the problems with Sam Harris is that he is a little bit of a kook. There, I said it. There’s nothing wrong with meditation as a mental exercise, but Eastern Religion gives it an importance that it doesn’t merit as a part of practical wisdom. Religions promote withdrawal from the world and thus see meditation of greater importance than just a mental exercise.


      Talking about “spirituality” is a waste of time like talking about “religious experiences”

      It is a shame that serious scientists still entertain such words as worthy of using in their lexicon.

      And yoo said it well about Sam Harris – he is a kook.

      I did not find even a slightest bit of PURE SCIENCE in his Moral Landscape – all of it is “dancing around” and “word games”

      And his fascination of meditation and promotion of it as something worthy of scientific method is pathetic.

      As a mental excersise for decreasing the sensory load onto processing brain it may or may not work for a particular individual but as solution for “human condition” (withdrowal from “ego”) it is very weak and dangerous because promotes inaction at the time when scientists need to get together to properly begin INSTITUTIONALIZATION OF PURE SCIENCE – an inevitable outcome but if we get there earlier the more we will have in terms of the planet when things stabilize (i know it is highly unlikely and statistical probity suggests that it will not even begin before catastrophic breakdown but still – any day counts)

    2. but Eastern Religion gives it an importance that it doesn’t merit as a part of practical wisdom

      I’ve read all of Sam Harris’s books and most of his articles, IMO, he only promotes meditation as a way of shedding the mental chatter we all labor under 99.9% of the time. I have found that hard rock-climbing, mountaineering, white-water kayaking, and sex similarly focus the mind in the here and now and provide a wonderful mental state.

      And his fascination of meditation and promotion of it as something worthy of scientific method is pathetic.

      I also can’t agree with this. Having experienced similar states to what Harris describes, I think they are well worth serious study (using FMRI, whatever) if for no other reason to disperse the religious fog that hangs around them.

      You may or may not agree with his thoughts as expressed in The Moral Landscape but I think you are unfairly indicting him on meditation.

    3. But I’ve never had a “spiritual experience” in my life.

      You’ve never had one, therefore there is not such thing. Not very scientific, that.

      1. I only raise that to point out that people can lead perfectly healthy, happy lives without “spiritual experiences”. I’m no worse for it, and I imagine that most of the world’s population who hasn’t had a theogasm are just as well off. That’s the bit I dislike, the suggestion that there is anything particularly valuable about these experiences or that ordinary experiences are “degraded” (Sam’s words not mine). As I said above, it’s also a value-system that values withdrawal over engagement. Variety is good, but there is no reason that non-mystical states are “degraged”.

        1. (Apologies for my typo…)

          I actually fall into your camp. I’ve had experiences that were emotional & ineffable, ones that were in a sense overwhelming in their beauty or poignancy, but nothing I’d be tempted to use the word “spiritual” for. (Tho I might have, lazily, at some point; memory’s the first to go…).

          Still, I’ve read enough atheists/humanists/freethinkers who do wax on about such things to make me occasionally want to try to be a little less cynical. (It’s a battle!) And I agree that there can be an air of superiority involved–(tho perhaps from both sides at times?).

          Overall, I’ve decided that for me, life is too short to worry too much about others’ semantic fetishes. 😉

          (I could do without Harris’s insistence on talking about his ‘spiritual’ experiences, tho.)

    1. The site isn’t dedicated to anything in particular, though the theme is science and its relationship to “other ways of knowing.” Given that, it’s not so odd that people want to say something when scientists are tarred with the quasi-religious brush of “spirituality.”

      1. au contraire, there are infinite sites dedicated to all thing soopernatural and ideological — very few to evidence-based ideas and conversations.

        But hey, people are clearly voting wid their feets for spiritual..ho hum.

    2. Come. On. Theists harp on this stupid trope all the time. “Why do ATHEISTS spend all their time talking about RELIGION?!”

      If we didn’t spend so much time thinking about the world and how it works — including what religion has to “say” about it — we wouldn’t have been atheists in the first place. Being an atheist REQUIRES thinking about religion and spirituality — otherwise, you simply wouldn’t describe yourself as an “atheist.”

      Proper application of the scientific method requires eliminating competing hypotheses — and eliminating them requires understanding them enough to see why they wouldn’t apply. If you think of “spirituality” as a hypothesis in competition with some naturalistic theory of mind it becomes pretty obvious why atheists would spend a lot of time talking about spirituality.

      We talk about religion and spirituality because we actually CARE whether these things are real domains of inquiry, and because we care what the specific claims are even if only so we can try to refute them.

  62. Isn’t, spiritual, a reference to the warning given by the stomach that one way or the other an immediate opportunity will be given to reexamine the chemical content of the mash that it has received? Such as; the e. coli in the spinach caused the stomach to have a spiritual moment or I felt better after spiritually expressing the content of my stomach.

    As for describing uncommonly euphoric experiences, (and the christian should be able to embrace this as well) how about describing the experiences as crackerual or crackerality. The christian shouldn’t be offended as there is some jesus under it.

  63. Why should we replace fictional concepts with something other than the truth? The experiences mentioned by Harris, together with LSD and peyote trips, can be simply described as “out of the ordinary brain states”.

    Even ordinary brain states, like dreaming, are quite baffling. That doesn’t mean that we need to elaborate a spurious narrative around them (something very common not too long ago).

    I don’t understand Harris’ point. He should know enough neurobiology to offer a reasonable scientific explanation for these so called “spiritual” experiences. Apparently he’d rather keep the fiction alive because of the positive transformative power it has on people. That sounds a lot like belief in belief.

  64. Bliss, defined as complete happiness

    I think bliss can be complete happiness in response to an exogenous experience, such as being exposed to an unexpected amazing view of a natural landscape; or complete happiness experienced endogenously, such as when one feels at peace, or calm, or completely connected with self, or the arrival of understanding something not comorehended before.

  65. Bliss, defined as complete happiness

    I think bliss can be complete happiness in response to an exogenous experience, such as being exposed to an unexpected amazing view of a natural landscape; or complete happiness experienced endogenously, such as when one feels at peace, or calm, or completely connected with self, or the arrival of understanding something not comorehended before.

    Sorry, second post is because I goofed when entering my email address the first time.

  66. Warm Fuzzies Protect Religious and Spiritual Nonsense

    This thread triggered the thought that one of the way religious/magical beliefs get a pass is precisely because they are labeled as accompanying the hyper-subjective warm fuzzy/peak experience/”loving”/bonding/peak experience (look at the blog comments) brain experiences.

    So any question of supernatural belief systems is felt as an immediate attack on an individual most soothing/stress reduction and often pleasant feeling states. Our brains then are not really defending silly belief systems but the most warm fuzzy moods/feelings.

    That makes sense. The equation seems to be:
    Weakness or impairment in self-soothing (homeostasis) + more sensitive to experiential stimuli + coding more stimuli as a threat > adopt soothing internal strategies to maintain homeostasis > project to cheap and easy to understand external, socially accepted cultural belief systems, symbols, etc = easily available emotional “first-aid” > any questioning of belief system = risk of triggering original anxious/fear emotions.

    This helps explain the almost hysterical and high energy but illogical set of actions in defense. All that repressed emotional energy is immediately mobilized, e.g., fear of death.

  67. Just wanted to point out that “psychedelic” literally means “soul-expressing.” It would be perfect if it didn’t already have…connotations.

  68. The reason anti-theists take on spiritual/religious/magical beliefs is:
    – They dominate human decision making — especially in the US
    – They can be very dangerous when applied to politics and inter-group behavior
    – Science is increasingly undermining them, explaining and offering much more productive approaches – for everyone

    However, everyone hates science and evidence-based knowledge and behaviors — because they challenge pretty much all ideologies and hyper-subjective beliefs/feelings > warm fuzzies.

  69. I have never felt that there was any loss of meaning in replacing the word “spiritual” with the word “imaginary”

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