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.