Sam Harris, author of books like The End of Faith and one of the so-called “Four Horsemen of New Atheism,” has just announced his next book—ressurecting a long-running debate among atheists.

Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, set to be published in September, will explore nonreligious spirituality. In 2012 Harris wrote that his goal for this book was “to write a ‘spiritual’ book for smart, skeptical people — dealing with issues like the illusion of the self, the efficacy of practices like meditation, the cultivation of positive mental states, etc.”

With Waking Up‘s impending publication, many in the atheist community will debate whether it makes sense for atheists to use the word spirituality. But this isn’t the first time this question has come up in recent years.

Last year Oprah Winfrey ignited a firestorm among atheists when, during an interview, she challenged distance swimmer Diana Nyad’s claim that she is an atheist. But Nyad defended her perspective, arguing that she is both an atheist and a spiritual person.

“I think you can be an atheist who doesn’t believe in an overarching being who created all of this and sees over it,” Nyad said to Winfrey. “But there’s spirituality because we human beings, and we animals, and maybe even we plants, but certainly the ocean and the moon and the stars, we all live with something that is cherished and we feel the treasure of it.”

Nyad is one of a number of nontheists to argue for atheist spirituality. In 2008 philosopher André Comte-Sponville published the well-recieved The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality. And in The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, agnostic astronomer Carl Sagan offered this defense of naturalistic spirituality:

Despite usage to the contrary, there is no necessary implication in the word “spiritual” that we are talking of anything other than matter (including the matter of which the brain is made), or anything outside the realm of science. On occasion, I will feel free to use the word. Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual.

Adam Lee, atheist activist and author of the 2012 book Daylight Atheism, published an essay in 2005 defending atheist spirituality—and he continues to argue for its merit.

“Spirituality is just another term for the human feelings of awe and wonder, which are common to atheists and the religious alike,” Lee said in a recent interview. “Historically, religion claimed to be the sole source of these feelings, but atheists know we can also feel them from simply contemplating the mystery and vastness of the cosmos and the strange beauty of the world in which we find ourselves. The natural world is at least as good a source of transcendent bliss as any religious belief.”

A number of nontheists disagree. At About.com, Austin Cline addresses some of the atheist arguments for and against the use of the word, raising the issue that many see the word as being problematically vague or too associated with religion. David Silverman, president of American Atheists, agrees that is misleading.

“Spirituality is one of those double-meaning words… It’s no better than calling yourself ‘religious,’ because that’s what religious people hear,” said Silverman. “I choose to convey the truth. I am compassionate. I am empathetic. I am good. But I am not ‘spiritual’ in any way that a theist would interpret.”

David Webster, University of Gloucestershire professor and author of the 2012 book Dispirited: How Contemporary Spirituality Makes Us Stupid, Selfish and Unhappy, also thinks nontheists should avoid the word.

“The term is too muddled—caught up with assertions of ‘spirit,’ weighed down by metaphysical baggage, and open to both innocent and willful misinterpretation,” Webster said in a recent interview. “Atheistic spirituality seems to offer a way to assert an appreciation of nature, of interconnectedness and wonder… [But] do we need the ‘spiritual’ tag to do that? Aren’t these appreciations, realizations, and connections just part of what, for an atheist, it means to be a human being? Let’s leave ‘spirituality’ to those that believe in the spirit.”

Webster suggests that, in some cases, atheists using the language of spirituality may be trying to express commonality with theists. But he proposes another way.

“There is something, I feel, more bold and heartening about resisting the temptation of [claiming 'spirituality' as] shared ground with faith-traditions when we don’t mean the same things they do by the term. If we are to share things between atheism and faith-traditions, let’s do so not on some confused, muddled shared wonder at sunsets, but on real issues where we genuinely share concerns—like social justice, wealth inequity, poverty, and the environment.”

What do you think, readers? Are you a nontheist who uses the term “spiritual”? Are you a nontheist who doesn’t? Why or why not?

28 Comments

  1. Dean (@TheDudeInSF)

    What would we call that interconnectedness that we feel with other humans (current and past) and the collective consciousnesses we share with nature and the universe as a whole?

  2. I’m right in the middle, for the reasons this article elucidates. On the one hand, “spirit” comes from “breath,” a very biological concept, the whole awe/wonder/compassion thing can use a name, and it’s great to have something this big in common with the religious. On the other hand, most people assume the word to have a supernatural meaning, making its use by us atheists misleading.

  3. Not believing in a god doesn’t mean you have no sense of interconnectedness or of belonging to something bigger than yourself. If and when they come up with a better word with less baggage than “spiritual,” I might use it — but for now I’m not sure how else I would describe myself! Plus, it just seems a bit silly to focus on arguing semantics when we could invest our energy in more important things.

    • Calling oneself “spiritual” is as empty as calling oneself “artistic” or being “a people person.”

      As long as it neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg it is okay by me for people to use any stupid terms they want.

      Just don’t try to shove it in front of my kids while they are in school and force feed it to them or tell them they are less ‘informed’ if they aren’t spiritual.

  4. Theism is specifically the belief in a personal god, an entity outside of and separate from us. That leaves lots of room for varieties of spirituality that focus on personal growth, transcendence and awe. I’ve noticed that militant atheists tend to assume that anyone who isn’t just like them is some kind of theist, and that is not true at all. Sometimes you have to dig deeper to find out what people believe.

    • Earold Gunter

      Wes, When you refer to “militant atheists”, aren’t you lumping all who you refer to as “militant” into a bucket, just like you are accusing them of doing to those who aren’t just like them?

      Also, I take umbrage to your use of the term “Militant atheists”. I don’t know what your definition of militant atheists is, but I haven’t heard of any atheist blowing up a church, or strapping a bomb to their body killing anyone because they didn’t think their was enough evidence to conclude a god exists.

      If you meant merely those who are willing to voice their positions about religious belief even though they clearly understand the social stigma that goes along with this, I would consider the term utter hyperbole.

      Also, if you are also a non-theist, then I would submit to you that the use of the term does our side no favors and only supports the position of believers who apply this term to anyone who disagrees with their fantastical beliefs, and publicly says so. Which I will also point out is no more than those believers do when they proselytize to those who they want to convert to their beliefs, but do so without any negative social implications, like being referred to as “militant”.

      All that being said, although I really appreciate what Sam Harris has done not only for my personal “deprogramming”, but for the cause of the elimination of false beliefs, I disagree with the use of spirituality as a term to describe the awe and wonder of not only this world, but life. I don’t believe I’ve seen any evidence that a spirit exists, and it muddies the waters of what believers say they experience with their make-believe gods, and what non-believers experience without them.

      Religion is poison!!

  5. I wrote about atheist spirituality on Huffington Post awhile ago. Here is my article:
    Atheists Can Be Spiritual Too! – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/staks-rosch/atheists-can-be-spiritual_b_1316619.html

  6. TheGreatGodPan

    As far as I have been able to tell, the word “spiritual” doesn’t really mean anything in particular. It’s a vague buzzword intended to denote the speaker as a “deep” and “thoughtful” person, without the speaker having to actually say or commit to anything concrete. The most specific anyone seems to be able to get is, “I feel an interconnectedness with other people and/or the universe,” which still sounds pretty vague to me.

    Atheists should be as entitled as anyone else to indulge in a bit of fatuous self-puffery, so I see no reason why we cannot be “spiritual.” If it will earn me brownie points with people who put a lot of stake in nebulous jargon and self-important posing, I’ll be “spiritual” too! Conveniently, it doesn’t involve a lot of homework: Just declare, “I’m a very spiritual person” and bask in the glow of fellowship with the other very spiritual people. Interconnectedness!

  7. I agree with everything Dave Webster says there, and yet I find it hard to resist the temptation to use the word ‘spiritual’ to describe the sense of connectedness I feel when I interact with nature and my fellow humans. Ontologically, I don’t have any faith in anything other than physical reality, but in some conversations, it seems expedient to use the term, especially when trying to highlight the common agreement I find with some of the statements made by the more liberal sort of theists.

  8. I don’t particularly care to use the term spiritual when describing myself, but I did finally come to an appreciation for the concept, with regard to interconnectedness, through the work of Brene Brown and Pema Chodron. The idea is that what connects us all to one another is the common experience of our shared human condition.

    To me, this makes great sense with what I understand about evolutionary biology and neuroscience. It might not always seem like it, but we all basically work the same way, go through the same emotional challenges, and have the same intrinsic motivations. What makes it seem otherwise is mostly the immense variation in our individual experience that influences how adaptive or maladaptive our strategies are for acting on those motivations.

    • STEPHANIE WELCH,

      Awesome.
      Seems you have nailed it. I would call it a feeling of kinship with others and other creatures – a sense that we are all on this natural journey together. And lucky as hell to be on it!!

      Very beautiful.

  9. UU Minister Richard Trudeau in his book entitled Universalism 101 asks: Why is Unitarian Universalism to weird for most people? Answer: Because the language UU’s use is mostly non-Biblical language and most people just cannot relate to it in a worship setting such as a church. In this regard, use of the word “spiritual” has a lot of utility in communicating with Americans with average vocabularies. If we used the word “intuitive” instead of spiritual, many cannot relate – no connection. What troubles me is that the word “atheists” simply affirms a negative thus providing little information other than the Tower of Babel still stands.

  10. Hey, welcome to the club. Glad you figured out that we are spiritual beings after all and that it is a valid part of our existence. Wonder how all that really came into being anyway? Probably just evolved from a pile of goo that combined with some proteins that all just spontaneously created themselves, but aren’t we glad it did?

  11. A lot of confused, superficial “Christians” also sometimes claim they are “spiritual, but not religious.” This is usually an attempt to criticize and attack the Christian faith and its attendant rules (doctrines). They seem to believe this enables them to live their lives however they choose without any restraints or prohibitions, except those they voluntarily place on themselves. No wonder being spiritual is so popular.

  12. In one of his soliloquies (essays), “The British Hegelians,” (1923), George Santayana contrasted Hegelian “spirituality” as expressed by “T. H. Green, in the early days of transcendentalism, talking about his spiritual principle in nature. By spiritual, he meant mind-made; he thought the world, remaining just as it is, could suddenly prove to be spiritual if you could show that a mental synthesis was requisite to hold it together. But what possible advantage is it to the world to be held together by a mental synthesis, rather than by space or time or the truth of its constitution? A synthesis of worthless facts does not render them severally better, nor itself a good. A spirit whose essential function was to create relations would be merely a generative principle, as the spider is to its web; it would be no better than its work, unless perhaps it was spiritual enough to grow weary of that vain labor. Spiritual, for those who retain the language of Christendom, signifies free from the world and from the flesh, and addressed to the eternal and to the beautiful.”

  13. In the long run, this is an argument over the evolution of language, and the “genetic drift” of word meanings. I’m an atheist, and “neo-pagan wild coast primordial fisherman”, or I was once, and will be again someday.

  14. Chris Webster

    I am persuaded by David Webster’s views, there are plenty of words to use to express how we feel without using spirituality in contexts where it may be misunderstood.

  15. Jeremy Rodell

    Over here in the UK there is no pressure to claim to be “spiritual” in order to be socially acceptable. But the same question comes up from time to time with much the same arguments. We had a debate on the question “Can humanists be spiritual?” in South West London Humanists in 2009 – you can read the arguments here: http://tinyurl.com/canhumanistsbespiritual

    In practice the key issue turned out to be more about semantics than experience: both pro and anti agreed that humanists, like anyone else, can have the experience a sense of transcendence/being part of something greater than ourselves/inter-connectedness… whether it’s a result of listening to a great piece of music, or seeing the stars, or a more profound “spiritual experience” (I’ve had a couple of those).
    Of course, we think these experiences are simply subjective and have physical explanations, but that doesn’t make them any less powerful.

    But the “anti” side thinks the term spiritual is “slippery” and doesn’t like the religious associations.
    The “pro” side (where I am personally) thinks we shouldn’t be afraid of/banned from using a word that is the best available to communicate what we mean.

    And, yes, it does mean we have some common ground with religious people. The difference is that they ascribe such experience/sensations to an external, supernatural agency, and we know they’re simply subjective experiences resulting from a combination of external stimuli and the operation of our brains (including our beliefs and inclinations).

    For that reason, religious people almost certainly have more “spiritual experiences” than humanists simply because they want and expect to have them and they use techniques (prayer, uplifting architecture, music…) that will help them along.

  16. As a hUUmanist chaplain, I relate to the definition of spirituality as presented by the American Association of Medical Colleges. It reads: “Spirituality is the dimension of a person that seeks to find meaning in his or her life. It is also the quality that supports connection to and relationship with the sacred, as well as each other… The concept of spirituality is found in all cultures and societies. it is expressed in a person’s search for ultimate meaning through participation in religion and/or belief in God, family, naturalism, rationalism, humanism, and the arts.”

  17. Jim Farmelant

    My friend Tom Clark has been writing about naturalistic spirituality for the longest time. For example, see:
    http://www.naturalism.org/spiritua1.htm

    And a few years back, I wrote a review of philosopher Ronald Aronson’s unjustly neglected book, Living Without God.
    http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2009/farmelant010509.htm

  18. Justin Fountain

    words have the power that you yourself alone let them hold over you. Atheists get caught up in semantics . you sound like teenagers having an identity crisis. ” i define myself by THIS term .” who is sadder , the person who lets religion consume their life and claims to be the wiser or a person who lets religion consume their life ? i dont hold any theist views myself so it’s not my problem. everyone walks their own path. quit letting -isms run your life .
    everyone thinks and is taught to think i within the confines of ” we against them”, of separateness .

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