43 thoughts on “Jesus ‘n’ Mo ‘n’ Elaine Ecklund

  1. I think it’s entirely possible to be ‘spiritual’ without being religious or holding any belief in the supernatural. I think it’s a natural emotional state.

    To me, it’s the spellbinding awe I feel when looking through a telescope at my nearest celestial neighbors. It’s the exhilaration and freedom I feel while skydiving. It’s the intense smallness I feel when contemplating my place in the universe, and the feeling of clockwork perfection I feel when I learn something new about physics or mathematics. These feelings uplift me in a way very few other feelings can, and other labels simply don’t work.

    There are no words that capture these feelings more succinctly than ‘spiritual.’ It’s a damned shame the word has such religious connotations. Unless and until someone suggests a word that better represents these feelings, I don’t have much other choice than to describe myself as a spiritual atheist.

    I know I don’t have a soul or a spirit, but I can appreciate the metaphor while denying that it has any reality to it, and I’m not going to be ashamed of it, or those feelings, either.

    1. Yes ‘spiritual’ can mean different things to different people. However in the context of discussions of atheism vs. theism, the term is often used by the religious as a tu quoque.

      I’m not going to be ashamed of it, or those feelings, either.

      That’s a tactical or personal choice. Some nonbelievers prefer to try to own the term rather than let the religious “have” it. Others prefer to avoid using it because they know if they do, their opponents will jump at the opportunity to misinterpret your statement.

      I tend to avoid it, even in discussions with theists who I think are intellectually honest. Because even if the person is sincerely trying to understand the point I’m trying to communicate (and not merely playing gotcha games), I find it leads inevitably to the tangent/digression of “what do you mean by ‘spiritual'”, distracting from the actual point I’m trying to make.

      1. I avoided it for that same reason, for a long time, but I’ve come to see questions like “what do you mean by spiritual?” as a teaching moment. Once religious people begin to realize that their spiritual feelings aren’t tied to their religious or supernatural beliefs, maybe they’ll be less reluctant to give up those beliefs. I find it’s those feelings that drive them, in absence of other recognizable sources, to religion in the first place.

      2. I tend to avoid it, even in discussions with theists who I think are intellectually honest.

        How many rocks did you have to turn over to find some of them?

    2. “To me, it’s the spellbinding awe I feel when looking through a telescope at my nearest celestial neighbors. It’s the exhilaration and freedom I feel while skydiving. It’s the intense smallness I feel when contemplating my place in the universe…….”

      Sorry BrightUmbra, what you are experiencing is in the opinion of Sam Harris only “Einsteinian spirituality” and is seriously inferior to that which can be obtained by practised meditative exercises (or else by taking certain drugs). I would suggest that you read his book “Waking Up” if you REALLY want to set out in becoming spiritual yourself. Harris does allow you to remain rational and an atheist still if you follow his methods, so don’t have any concerns about that.

      Best of Luck…..

      1. I have read Waking Up, actually. Sam’s got his opinions, I’ve got mine. His meditation practices haven’t worked out so well for me, and neither really have the drugs. =P

        I don’t really feel the need to have Sam Harris’s ‘blessing’ – or yours – to consider myself spiritual. Thanks though. =)

        1. Sorry BrightUmbra, you took my post the wrong way. I was being ironic, sarcastic and generally hacked off with Sam’s prescriptive preaching on the subject of the atheist’s “path to true spirituality” he lays before the rest of the atheist community in “Waking Up”.
          As for me I get my own spiritual and transcendent feelings from exactly the same things that you do, except for “skydiving” substitute “scuba diving”. I could go on to argue that scuba diving was spiritually much better than skydiving but I think I’ll refrain from taking up Sam Harris’ “mine is bigger than yours” approach to the subject.

          1. Oh, my bad – I completely missed the sarcasm. =)

            I wasn’t really offended by Sam’s book, or his opinions on spirituality. I don’t really see it as preaching – he wrote a book describing his experiences. I agree with most of what he says, in fact – but for reasons I won’t go into here, the meditation stuff just doesn’t work for me.

            And having tried psychedelic drugs, I find them to be very interesting, fascinating even – especially for their insights into the different forms that conscious awareness can take – but I don’t get anywhere near what I’d call a spiritual experience when I take them.

            Maybe I’m just trying the wrong drugs. =P

      2. I think Eric hit it just about on center. Rather than trying to explain it as an Atheist, just avoid avoid the term. Use other words to explain you enthusiasm.

          1. Bright, you yourself offered a number of words. Spellbinding awe; exhilaration and freedom; intense smallness; clockwork perfection.

            For a guy who thinks the ‘spiritual’ is an indescribable, you did a pretty good job of describing your feelings without the word ‘spiritual.’

            1. Okay, fair point, I should have been clearer with my request. =P

              I’m looking for a word that describes *me* as someone who values those experiences and emotions, and ‘spiritual’ fits, albeit imperfectly, what with all the religious connotation. I didn’t mean to imply that the feelings themselves were indescribable. =)

              1. I’m looking for a word that describes *me* as someone who values those experiences and emotions

                “Human.” Is that word not good enough?

                I’m also left wondering why there should be a single word that should suffice to describe a broad spectrum of indescribably intense subjective experiences — let alone why the first choice for such a word should be something so drenched with soundly debunked superstitious idiocy.

                I mean, you do know, do you not, that “spirits” are right up there with everything else that goes bump in the night, no? Should fortunate wealth be described as having been touched by a Leprechaun? Is a seatbelt just as well described as throwing a pinch of salt over the shoulder? Are the severe weather alerts on my phone storm horoscopes?


              2. You do know, do you not, that words often come from roots that have little to do with their modern usage, no? Of course I’m aware that ‘spirits’ are nonsense. Did you read my earlier comments?

                No, ‘Human’ is not a good enough word. Not every human values those feelings and emotions I’m talking about.

              3. Not every human values those feelings and emotions I’m talking about.

                I think you’d be damned hard pressed to find somebody who doesn’t, and even harder pressed to find somebody willing to admit they don’t. Many would even say that that’s literally what it means to be human.

                Indeed, the mere suggestion that you might be an unfeeling robot not even swayed by the beauty of a sunset or some great work of art or a lover’s caress or something of equal profundity…why, it’s just about the worst insult there is. (And, not coincidentally, one of the most common insults lobbed at scientists, despite the fact that their appreciation and sense of awe runs deeper than most.)

                So, yes. “Human” is the word you’re looking for, unless you wish to offer dire insult 99 44/100% of humanity.


              4. No, it’s not the word I’m looking for.

                Look, if I were in dire need of food, would it be useful to describe my current state as “human”? Every human has felt the pain of hunger at one point or another in their life, so why not?

                The reason why not is because using the word ‘human’ as a description is not sufficient to differentiate between different emotional states that humans experience.

                So sorry if you feel insulted, Ben, but no – ‘human’ is not a sufficient, and it’s not the word I’m looking for.

              5. I’d say “transcendent” is better than “spiritual” and of somewhat lesser religious context.
                “Spirit” is a BAD sub-phrase to be used in any part of any scientific vocabulary.

              6. I’m more wary of using that word than I am of using ‘spiritual’ because of how the likes of Deepak Chopra and his ilk have turned it into some new-age crystal magic BS. =\ Maybe it’s the same thing – religiosity vs quantum woo.

                Plus it sounds kind of… I don’t know, egotistical? To call myself a transcendent atheist. Somehow it sounds like I think I’m somehow better than other atheists, or something. Bleh. Maybe I’m over-thinking this.

              7. Fits .and. throws off religionists in .one. word = happy.

                When challenged (which is often, actually), “O, but I am!”

                “Wull, you’re what? Yer not religious, Blue, soooo’s what’re ya’?!”

                “I am happy!”

                The response / the taken – aback looks are ‘ust, well, precious. Church Lady’d nasal them as spay – shell. “Idn’t that spay – shell?!” she would sally.


              8. ‘Happy’ is… not quite right. First, it doesn’t convey the weight of the feelings I’m talking about – these experiences are often very intense. Second, they aren’t always a cause for celebration, in the sense that happy things are. In fact, sometimes they’re down-right scary.

                I remember the first time I really, truly understood scale in a cosmic sense. I was in bed after a night of astronomy – Jupiter was my target that night – and I was contemplating what I saw through the scope. I imagined the distance between me and the planet, and I had a mental image of myself, in my room – and without my intention, I saw this mental image zoom waaaay out. I shrank dramatically, along with the Earth, until I saw the globe as nothing more than a small dot in the center of my view – similar to how I’d seen the moons surrounding Jupiter that night.

                The sudden expansive view – wholly manufactured in my mind, I know – nonetheless startled me and, honestly, frightened me. I fully realized, for the first time, just exactly how small I am, how small our world is, in this universe, how miniscule, how precarious our situation, how tenuous our hold on life really is.

                That is something I would call a spiritual experience, and it left me shaken and disturbed for days afterward. Not exactly happy – although this perspective has impacted my life in decidedly positive ways.

              9. Adjectives that could be used to describe a “spiritual” person:
                pensive, reflective, contemplative, musing, meditative, introspective, philosophical, considerate, caring, attentive, understanding, sympathetic, solicitous, concerned, helpful, obliging, neighborly, unselfish, kind, compassionate, charitable.
                These are all synonyms for ‘thoughtful’.

              10. The problem with our trying to find a better word for “spiritual” or “transcendent” because we don’t want to use a word with “religious baggage” is that our discussions are ofter with, or read by, religious people. They then have the comeback “oh you atheists, you may be “thoughtful” but that isn’t the same as being SPIRITUAL. You don’t know what your missing”. (substitute for “thoughtful” any other alternative suggestions made here) We really do need to explain that our feelings have absolutely the same depth as theirs, so we MUST use the same vocabulary.
                Words with religious baggage are locked into our vocabulary, and there’s no use avoiding them. The same thing applies to “free will” where it seems some atheists reject the entire concept JUST because it has religious connections. We shouldn’t be afraid of words.

    3. Spirituality without spirits, the mystical without mysticism, the numinous absent any numen — I don’t think anyone here disputes the existence (or value) of such experiences; I certainly wouldn’t.

      I also don’t think Author is disputing it in this strip. Seems to me his criticism is instead directed at the namby-pamby, lukewarm copout often given by those who, while disavowing the gods of religion, still maintain that there’s something — some supernatural force or power or entity — out there.

  2. Moe (not Mo- Mohammed, but Moe- Moses),

    If you’re !*secure*! (a Dawkins 1 on his theism scale?) that there is “something else” you’re still sortof a believer even if you are not a slave to dogma.

    This cartoon was inspired by an article by Greta Christina (link at site of cartoon). One of her chief points was that folks who are spiritual but not religious, often look down on the “mundane” or “material” world as unimportant, to which Greta retorts that in many ways the material world is wonderful. As GC puts it herself in her column

    “If being “spiritual but not religious” really does mean thinking of yourself as being in touch with the special sacred things beyond this mundane physical world… then I think that shows a piss- poor attitude towards the mundane physical world.
    The physical world is anything but mundane.”

    She also points out that SBNR folks often engage in lazy thinking and/or fall into the vice of smugness.

    I’ve had several pleasant personal chats with Greta C. Not surprisingly, when we spoke at Freethought Day in Sacramento last October, she said that she largely adored Sam Harris, but took issue with the terminology in his most recent book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, although she certainly liked its contents. (Both Greta Christina and Sam Harris are avid practitioners of meditation. She has several columns on “secular meditation”.) Unfortunately, we were interrupted by a customer at her booth who wanted to buy a copy of her book Why Are Atheists So Angry.

    IMO the greatest damage to the word spiritual has been done by Deepak Chopra, the most blatantly pseudo-scientific of all the New Agers (who gets a spot on PBS). He’s selling mere superstition and wishful thinking under the label “spirituality”! Sam Harris associates “spirituality” with waking up but DC will drug you into torpor. (I also understand the phrase SBNR took a nosedive in popularity with the general public when Monica Lewinsky described herself as such in a Barbara Walters interview.)

    For some, the notion of “spiritual atheism” refers to the relatively robust thinking of Percy Shelley. (Maybe also The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality by André Comte-Sponville but I have not read it.) But these days the word “spirituality” often refers to much fuzzier things. I like the way Victor Stenger (in response to Elaine Ecklund) sorts it out here.

    1. Moe (not Mo- Mohammed, but Moe- Moses),

      I’m now mantally goggling trying to square Moses (either the BuyBull version or the Jesus’n’Mo version) with Mmoe the Simpson’s bar tender.
      Cognitive dissonance outbreak.

      1. The Little Vagabond

        Dear Mother, dear Mother, the Church is cold,
        But the Ale-house is healthy & pleasant & warm;
        Besides I can tell where I am use’d well,
        Such usage in heaven will never do well.

        But if at the Church they would give us some Ale.
        And a pleasant fire, our souls to regale;
        We’d sing and we’d pray, all the live-long day;
        Nor ever once wish from the Church to stray,

        Then the Parson might preach & drink & sing.
        And we’d be as happy as birds in the spring:
        And modest dame Lurch, who is always at Church,
        Would not have bandy children nor fasting nor birch.

        And God like a father rejoicing to see,
        His children as pleasant and happy as he:
        Would have no more quarrel with the Devil or the Barrel
        But kiss him & give him both drink and apparel.

        (The poem was removed from an 1839 edition of Songs of Innocence & Experience for being too subsersive)

    1. On Slashdot, that would be phrased as

      “Oblig XKCD.”

      It’t remarkable that with only about 1500 XKCDs published so far, there is almost always an appropriate one.
      Why is it popular with people of a certain mindset? Perhaps it’s tag line?

      Warning: this comic occasionally contains strong language (which may be unsuitable for children), unusual humor (which may be unsuitable for adults), and advanced mathematics (which may be unsuitable for liberal-arts majors).

  3. Following this website for over a year now has made me much more aware of how or why people might refer to themselves as spiritual. I think an “innocent” use of the term may have nothing to do with belief in spirits or the supernatural, but may be a way of saying one feels and thinks deeply without needing religion as a mental framework.

    1. Perhaps “feels” more than “thinks” deeply when connecting to “spiritual”. Those words don’t really apply to the same kinds of things.

      I have trouble imagining what “think spiritually” might even mean except “doesn’t think clearly”.

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