March 27, 2016 • 11:00 am

A question I’m often asked is this: “What do you think about ‘spirituality’?” My response is this: the term is so elastic that it can stretch to cover everything from traditional religious belief to simple awe before the beauty of landscapes, music, or great art. Since the word has been so often co-opted—most notoriously by the Rice University sociologist Elaine Ecklund—to pretend that those who see themselves as “spiritual” can be lumped in with religionists, I prefer to avoid the term completely. “Emotionality before ______” (fill in item here) covers it pretty well.  If you must use the term, or say that you’re “spiritual,” define what you mean immediately and precisely.

So here, from College Humor, is The Church for People Who are Spiritual but Not Religious.

50 thoughts on ““Spirituality”

  1. A similar argument can be made for the word “belief” since it can mean anything from religious belief to hypothesis or hunch.

    My favorite replacement for secular spirituality is existential contentment. That feeling that everything is in the right place in the world.

    1. I regularly tell people that I avoid the term “belief” in discussions, because it’s meaning ranges from “I believe there’s still cheese in the fridge, because I checked a few moments ago” to “I believe the universe was created by an eternal being outside of the observable universe that is not bound by any laws of nature we know of.”

      It’s just too wide-ranging to be of any use in a discussion.

  2. You might want to check out “The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality” by Andre Comte-Sponville. To no one’s surprise, awe is central to his definition of spirituality.

  3. Spirituality is whatever makes one feel “deep” without requiring them to put any effort in acquiring any concrete knowledge.

    1. Yes, as strongforce comments, excellent. Reminds me of the meme-like comment I read somewhere, “religion is more popular than science, because it’s easier to read one book that a whole bunch of hard ones.”

      1. Not only is it easier to read one book, you are not even required to read that one book very carefully or thoroughly.

    2. In the same way that prayer makes one feel they’ve done something, without actually having to do anything.

  4. As problematic as it is, if the word “spirituality” is to have any meaning, then it should partake of a sense of awe and wonder, and convey a sense of the interconnectedness of our existence and the existence of the universe.

    Of course ALL of these qualities can be appreciated on a purely materialisic level. Who has not looked out on a clear night sky and had a moment of awe? And we ARE connected to the universe. (It’s religion that tells us we’re strangers here.)

    I’m not married to the word but to me spirituality would simply be the mode of consciousness associated with these ideas.

    Unfortunately it drags along with it a whole host of unnecessary associations that wind up giving cover to religionists who want to have their cake and eat it to.

    I can take it or leave it.

    1. Yes. I will flip over to using the word “spirituality” in a secular sense when the majority of people stop flip-flopping back and forth between supernatural and secular, hoping to sneak in crap during the confusion.

      When we can all go to the book store, look in the “Spirituality” section, and find books on art, nature, and science instead of prayer, astrology, and quantum consciousness, then and only then should we adopt the word for ourselves. I’m not going to hold my breath.

  5. My best guess is that ‘spirituality’ is a bodily sensation that some people feel in differing situations. Religion has built an industry on providing an explanation for that feeling.

    Here’s a report https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/12/131231094353.htm Quote: “Researchers found that the most common emotions trigger strong bodily sensations, and the bodily maps of these sensations were topographically different for different emotions. The sensation patterns were, however, consistent across different West European and East Asian cultures, highlighting that emotions and their corresponding bodily sensation patterns have a biological basis.”

    I wonder what the researchers might have found if they had added ‘awe’ or ‘spirituality’ to the list of emotions?

  6. Lisa Miller, a psychologist, claims to research the science of spirituality: http://www.macleans.ca/society/science/god-is-the-answer/

    “There I was, on a Sunday—quite invested in this question, wasn’t I, going up to the lab on a Sunday,” recalls Miller in an interview. She was in a subway car crowded at one end and almost empty at the other, because that end was occupied by a “dirty, dishevelled man” brandishing a piece of chicken at everyone who boarded while yelling, “Hey, do you want to sit with me? You want some of this chicken?” The awkward scene continued for a few stops until an older woman and a girl of about eight—grandmother and granddaughter, Miller guessed—got on. The man bellowed his questions, and the pair nodded at one another and said, “Thank you,” in unison, and sat beside him. It astonished everyone in the car, including Miller and the man with the chicken, who grew quieter and more relaxed.

    The child’s evident character traits—compassion, acceptance, fearlessness—at so young an age prompted Miller’s eureka moment. What struck her was the nod and all it implied: “It was clear as day that the grandchild fully understood how one lives out spiritual values in her family.”

    Where to begin? 🙁

    (I use mindful instead of spiritual)

    1. Did the article say if they partook of the chicken?

      Also, the child’s behaviour could get her taken out of the gene pool.

  7. Spiritual but no religious can mean anything, most of which is harmless. I generally leave people be who define themselves as such, as their ‘spiritual beliefs’ are more about feeling good than influencing their actions in any way.

    It’s still something very woo-ey, a lot of the time, but I’m not going to harsh someones mellow (not a phrase I normally use, but it seemed appropriate) unprovoked.

    1. Ouch. ‘Harsh’ and ‘mellow’ are adjectives and here you’ve used them as a verb and a noun. My mellow has definitely been harshed. Or possibly just microharshed. 🙁

      P.S. I agree with your general sentiments, though.

  8. Bertrand Russell summed it up best. “Science is what you know. Spirituality is what you don’t know.”

    Oh wait, sorry, that was philosophy he was talking about not spirituality. WTF is spirituality then?

    Maybe it’s what you don’t know but pretend to know. No wait, that’s God and religion. WTF is spirituality then? Whatever. Namaste, mofos.

  9. That video is hilarious. Though I know others are, shall I say, more lexically ecumenical, I categorically refuse to use the word “spiritual” with respect to anything I think or feel or experience that is beyond the ordinary and hints of some sort of numinous experience, precisely because it has to do with the otherworldly and supernatural causation, and trying to parse it any other way is futile. In my experience, to use the word spiritual to describe some non-supernatural feeling or event, simply provides ammunition to those who do believe in the supernatural because they regard that concession as a tacit admission of belief in the supernatural because that’s the way they define and experience the word, and that meaning is fundamental. Granting them their conceit just out of politesse (since one doesn’t always want to get into a futile argument with smug spiritual people) only becomes a case of the camel’s nose under the tent flap because I’ve found that these folks will do anything to try to gull me into copping to a belief in the supernatural because that’s what it’s “really” all about. The only thing that puts their importuning to rest is to point out that, as with so many religious/spiritual “proofs,” their assumption beg the question – in the logical sense of that term; i.e., assuming the conclusion in the premises. It doesn’t convince them of anything because such considerations are to them a priori beyond the domain of logic, but it does shut them up.
    However, I’ve learned simply to say straightaway that I give no credence to such notions. I’m not going to use that word simply because I can’t come up with another. As others have observed, it’s difficult to find with a word or phrase that could accommodate those feelings and experiences without getting caught in the briar patch of the supernatural, but I haven’t (yet) found an acceptable alternative. Alas, even the wonderful word ‘numinous’ has deep roots in the supernatural. “Awe” works sometimes, but for me doesn’t cover every sense of that state of being. Some of the previous comments provide food for productive thought; but for those who believe in the spiritual, its connotation also carries over into one’s entire world-view and behavior, and I think that’s inextricable from the concept, so it can’t just be reduced to some phenomenological event.

    1. I never use the word spiritual for similar reasons. The connotation that there’s something supernatural involved in feelings such as awe is one that irritates me, and I don’t want to be associated with it.

      1. Me too! Even though Sam Harris makes completely reasonable arguments for using said word, I just don’t like using it.

    2. Trouble is I don’t think there is a single word that has the scope of spirituality.

      You can fined alternative words for being impressed by a sunset, the Grand Canyon, a vaulted ceiling – awe, wonder, elevated etc. But I can’t think of a neutral word for being a person who is inclined towards being awed, being struck by wonder, often feeling elevated.

      I think this is because religion has made the assumption of a god the ‘hidden layer’ joining how you feel to what you are or do. Once you accept that it is unlikely that god exists then that linkage is broken.

      1. « But I can’t think of a neutral word for being a person who is inclined towards being awed, being struck by wonder, often feeling elevated. »


        “We have a need for what I would call ‘the transcendent’ or ‘the numinous’ or even ‘the ecstatic,’ which comes out in love and music, poetry, and landscape. I wouldn’t trust anyone who didn’t respond to things of that sort.” — Christopher Hitchens


        1. I see what you’ve done there, good one. But… as some people are more inclined to feel ‘spiritual’ than others that would make them more or less ‘human’ than others. Perhaps not the best choice.

      2. I wouldn’t worry about it too much. The word “spiritual” can be considered lost to proper usage in certain regions of the country. In some localities the word “good” or “will” or “bread” or “sun” (pronounced son), or “cheese maker” or “finger NAIL clipper”, make people gush. Almost anything can imply a magical world of angels and fathers and burning in hell, for ever and ever, amen. It’s going to take generations before we have a chance to get the word back. In the mean time, just keep it amongst us friends.

  10. Spirituality in many cases is what nonreligious people call themselves when they want to sound profound and deep. Those people think words like atheist and materialist have a bad ring to them. They’re rather like the folks who prefer calling themselves agnostics, even though they don’t believe in God, because they think it sounds better.

  11. I loved that video. How nice of the Unitarian Universalists to allow College Humor to film one of their services!

    (I used to attend UU, and even gave some talks, but never joined. Nice people, but there’s no form of supernatural or paranormal form of woo they will condemn… or even allow anyone to argue against. It’s all about being open, non-judgemental, and nonconformist. If they were meeting only for social or political purposes, then fine. But they’re supposed to be ‘seekers’ who are exploring and learning through dialogue. When deep discussions cannot include debate, they amount only to a sort of narcissistic show-and-tell.)

    1. I was in UU for a while. The fellowship never took that position as far as I saw. It was a small group – probably less than 50 souls – and they never seemed to deem any topic undebatable. They were accepting of all comers though. They were X-Jews, X-Protestants, and X-Catholics, all trying to rid themselves of the nightmare of their earlier spirituality.

      1. Sounds like they were on their way to being us. Maybe UU is a half-way house for Atheist coming from the bad stuff?

        1. My parents are members of a congregation, and the reason I didn’t get along with them (other than the cooperative games which got old after a while) was exactly what Sastra said: some were so open minded their brains fell out. (I don’t know how my father, a chemist, puts up with that, but he does …)

  12. “Open up your twi**er feeds to app. Deepak Chopra. ‘Our innermost awareness is a portal to divinity.’ That is so vague, but I know exactly what he means. ”


  13. I worked in the office of a body-mind yoga chakra meditation thing school for 5 years. This video just about killed me. Spot on.

  14. Spirits=alcohol containing beverage. I feel very spiritual after a couple of glasses of Cabernet or Merlot, especially if I am with someone or alone.

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