Of Humanist Spirituality


A Jewish historian and a Chinese historian are arguing over whose culture is the oldest.  The Chinese historian says, “Our great culture goes back 4000 years.”  The Jewish historian smiles and says, “That’s nothing, our civilization is 5000 years old.”  The Chinese historian pauses for a minute.  Then he says, “Amazing.  What did you people eat for 1000 years?”

That’s my joke, now for something that sounds like a joke:

A guy walks into a bar.  He sees an attractive young woman sitting there and offers to buy her a drink.  They begin to talk.  The conversation turns to religion.  Finally he says to her, “So, are you religious?”  She says without a moment of hesitation, “I’m not religious but I am kind of, you know– spiritual.”  And he says, “Yeah, me too.”  Fade.

My guess is that this is a very common conversation for Gen X and Gen Y spiritual-seekers and the multifaithed and unfaithed and partly secularized masses of North America and Europe. The question we’re left with is what does it mean to be spiritual—how is it that these two people seem to know what they’re talking about, and do they mean the same thing when they use the word?

For example does spiritual mean

  1. Not religious
  2. Not dogmatic
  3. Not too fussy about details
  4. Not a member of a church
  5. Not judgmental
  6. Not a believer
  7. Not interested in abiding by the moral rules of a denomination. (I guess if we locate this conversation in a bar, the answer is 7—they’re saying they are open to whatever happens as the conversation unfolds; if the conversation is between two people feeding pigeons in the park, it may mean simply, “I believe there’s something beyond this life, but I can’t be bothered  worrying about it.”)

One of the things secularists and humanists tend to care about is language.  Words need to mean what they say, they need to refer to something.  Humanists love dictionaries. I’m convinced that the compiler of the first dictionary was a humanist.

Many humanists have trouble with the word “God” because–even though a lot has been written about him (including a whole book called the Bible, and a  supplement called the Quran, which claims to contain his words) only very religious people actually believe that a being named God or Yahweh or Allah actually said any of it or did any of the things attributed to him.

God means something in the same way that Santa or Reynard the talking fox or “dragon” or “unicorn” mean something: an idea based on stories made up of images, some of which come from our experience of similar things: Giants are overgrown men; so were gods; unicorns are malformed horses; some of the gods were composites of men/women and birds or crocodiles. We should celebrate the imagination that gives us stories—humanists will say—but we should not lead our lives as believers in stories.

When we come to a word like “religion,” we’re on safer ground—because we know what religion is, even if no one is quite sure about what God is.  You can define religion as believing in and conducting your life in accordance with some form of faith. It doesn’t matter whether the objects of faith are real or imaginary, unprovable or unproven.  The specifics are going to be different between faiths, between denominations, and between people.  It might mean reading the Bible, going to mass or temple or Friday prayers, it might mean venerating saints or ancestors or speaking in tongues, or lobbying to get scripture reading back into the schools. It might even mean murdering the infidel as a fanatical advocate of your cause.  I don’t want to equate all of these activities and behaviors—but I do want to say such behavior is characteristic of religions in historical terms.

We also have a social context for religion. We can look at religion anthropologically, as a feature of human cultures; we can explore it historically in terms of where it developed, how beliefs arose, changed, or died.  Most of the gods who ever lived as objects of belief are dead gods.  And dead gods are a consistent feature of vanquished nations and extinct cultures. Anyone who doubts this fact of religious history doesn’t really know very much about religion.

Religion can be explored geographically and comparatively, culture to culture–linguistically, and more recently, in terms of brain science and studies of cognition.  In other words, while it’s very tough to do much more than argue about God, religion can be studied.  Words like liturgy, prayer, sacrament, vision, inspiration, ecstasy, martyr, sin, etc.–the ingredients and gradients of religion–can be defined.

The problem with a word like “spirituality” whether you use it in a bar or on a park bench is that it is very hard to pin down.  Before his alleged conversion to deism, the philosopher Antony Flew in a famous essay called “What is Spirituality” called it hogwash. A less famous atheist Chris Dykema was more direct  “The most charitable interpretation of  being spiritual but not religious”  he said, “is that it means the speaker feels a disposition towards masochistic submission of the sort that used to find expression in systematic religious faith, but that he or she doesn’t really believe in what you have to accept to be religious.”

So the problem is this:  if you can’t define something, how can you practice it, and why bother using the word?  People who have stopped believing in god and heaven and the afterlife have obviously stopped believing in an immortal soul—so why should we bother about spirituality?  Especially when, at the other end of a very wide spectrum of uses, we find this kind of language.   This comes from something called a spiritual sharing group in Colorado:

The MISSION of our Spiritual Sharing group will include learning about the spiritual part of our lives, seeking peace within, centering ourselves, gaining clarity in the vision of spirituality, and learning about ourselves as we listen to others, gaining philosophic knowledge, and changing attitudes.

I don’t know about you, but this kind of language makes me nervous.  I imagine a room full of people with perpetual smiles on their faces doing centering activities and offering me green tea as we join hands in the quest for “philosophic knowledge” and exercises in attitude modification.  Frankly I’m perfectly fine with where my attitudes are centered, I don’t like green tea, and I got my philosophic knowledge in the classroom, not in a circle of friends.

But to be fair, the term is everywhere.  And because humanists do care about meaning with a small m—how words mean and what words refer to, and also meaning with a capital M, sort of, the meaning of life as its lived and affirmed, and not supplied by books and dogmas–we probably should try to figure out what someone means when she says, I’m spiritual but not religious.  So, let me make the following points:

First:   What it doesn’t mean. I think we have to accept that the normal laws of semantic change are at work in the case of a word like spirituality.  The word knave used to mean boy, not a villain; the word nice used to mean foolish; the word fast still exists in two contradictory forms in English—it means standing totally still, as standing fast, and it means moving quickly.  In jive, hot used to be cool and cool became hot—an attractive person no longer looks good, she’s bad.  So let’s move slightly beyond the arrogance of linguistics and philosophy, where words are supposed to behave themselves like good children, and accept the fact that language transforms itself in unpredictable ways.

The word spiritual used to mean mystical—holy–men and women from various religious traditions who developed a more intense or extreme pattern in their religious life than others following the same religious regimen.  When we think of certain religious orders like the Carthusians in the Catholic tradition, or the Hesychasts in the east, or the Tarika or Sufi sect in Islam, we’re speaking about people who in very particular ways also felt that the normal forms of religion tied you down.  The formality of text and doctrine for such individuals was suffocating rather than liberating. True, in some of these traditions there was a kind of communal mysticism, or spirituality.  But basically the spirituality of the mystics was an individual thing.  A good modern example is the Catholic monk Thomas Merton who by the end of his life had departed so measurably from his Catholic roots that in all but name he was a Buddhist, living in the corner of his monastery away from his fellow monks.

But can “secularly inclined” people hope to learn from people who seem to have been even more religious than the very religious people around them.  No, not if we fail to recognize the process at work in the rejection of literalism.  The “spiritual” impulse among the mystics and quietists often connoted people who weren’t very fond of dogma, or authority, or following the pack, or even of the conventions of their religion.  That’s why mysticism and spirituality have always been a problem for religious bureaucracies. After all, if you have monks and nuns and farmgirls speaking directly to God while the bishops and pope can only talk to each other, you have a problem.

The second thing I’d ask us to consider is a piece of history.  When I tell my students that the idea of the soul isn’t a Jewish idea, even my Jewish students get agitated.  But it isn’t:  “dualism”—the fancy term for what we normally call the body-soul arrangement is a Greek derivative, and was an old idea when the Greeks received it.  In Hebrew, Adam’s name meant mud—or earth.  He’s a purely physical entity.  The nephesh, the word that’s used for what Adam becomes when God breathes life into him, just means animal or living being– not a soul—it was the breath of life, because the only distinction in Hebrew is between a living thing and a dead one—based on whether it’s breathing or not.  But it’s not a soul.  And when you die, you die. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, to quote the book of Job.

It took until the 4th century bce before certain Jewish writers began to speculate about souls, and by the time the Christians came along souls were all the rage: everybody had to have one.  Even the unborn.

Both religions had been transfused with—dare I say it—the spirit of Greek speculation, especially Platonism.  But don’t blame the idea of the soul or even of an afterlife on religion.  Even in Greek religion, the gods are immortal, people aren’t.  And even after souls were all the rage, we find certain writers, like the author of the Hebrew book called Q’holeth by Jews and Ecclesiastes by Christians wondering out loud, “Who knows whether the spirit of man rises up or like the beasts goes down to the earth”.  (He guesses, it goes down.)

In fact, the single biggest boost to the idea of souls in Christianity wasn’t even the idea of the resurrection of Jesus.  That was meant to be a bodily resurrection (and why the very thought was so repugnant to certain classical observers of the new religion).  It was a later theological doctrine that exalted the idea of the soul: the belief that Jesus had two natures—human and divine, and that baptism as it were “activated” the divine nature in humans, made it like Christ, and thus made resurrection possible.  You can thank an over imaginative theologian named Paul for the early phases of such thinking and church doctrine for the rest of it.  I might just add that in the classical period, Islam too suffered from overindulgence in Greek philosophy, so that the doctrine of the nafs or soul became prominent in the work of the great Islamic thinkers of the 11th and 12th century.

So does this little piece of history shed any light on the word “spiritual” as it’s being used today by all of these people who are saying they’re not religious.

Maybe to this extent:

First of all,  the word has its roots in an antiestablishment and nonconformist tendency to resist being governed and controlled by the regimen of religion, church and mosque.  The spirituals ranging from the mystics of the middle ages to the 18th century Quakers were religious dissenters.  In fact, the church even learned to control the mystics, or in the case of Islam, to expel them as heretics.  In any case, take one dimension of the meaning as dissenting from the norm.

Second, spirituality can be perfectly naturalistic.  You don’t need a theory of a soul or an afterlife or heaven or a theology that divides the person into more parts than a butcher’s beef cut chart.  You don’t even need to solve the body mind or mind brain problem before you can start using the term.  The 1st century poet-philosopher Lucretius ridiculed certain ideas in his own day—which happens to be the same century Christianity was born—by poking fun at a banquet of unattached souls in heaven that had sloughed off their bodies,  fighting over which one got to dive into a marriage bed and leap into a fetus about to be born.

“For surely it is utter madness to combine
A mortal thing with an eternal, and opine
That both can feel and act as one, what more detached
Can we imagine, more repugnant, more ill-matched,
Than an immortal and a mortal thing together
Trying to stay united through the fiercest weather?

Like Lucretius, most humanists have a low tolerance for dualism.  I tend to agree with Lucretius and the author of Ecclesiastes that this life is the life we have and we are what we make of it.

But in another poem, Lucretius talks about the meaning of our lives:

“Our lives we borrow from each other; and like runners, we pass along the torch of life.”

We are what we are because we inherit culture, shape it, inevitably change it through the product of any particular time, and pass it on.  Unlike Al Gore, I didn’t invent the internet, but I can remember life before it, just as educated men and women in 1440 could remember never seeing a printed page.  At a basic level, these adaptations and adjustments are evolutionary and at one level might be reducible to genes and memes. But the torch of cultural life is unique to humans. There are no equivalent non-biological adaptations among other species, none at least that the species brings about through will, knowledge, learning, reflection and experiment. So if we resort to a phrase like the human spirit to represent those evolved capacities and achievements that mark us off from the other animals–all the humanly created aspects of life that we pass along to the next generation, we can be forgiven for wanting a word to express it.

Among these achievements the evolution of language and the evolution of the way in which we communicate ideas symbolically has to be primary. Knowledge depends on it.  No outside force or entity placed it there. God neither wrote the Bible nor inspired Einstein. When we speak of spirituality in terms of the human spirit—the passing of the torch– we are—as the Canadian sociologist Pat Duffy Hutcheon has said, “referring to all the wonders that followed from the emergence of a distinctively human consciousness: that awareness of the boundaries and singularity of oneself–that extends beyond mere animal sentience –a consciousness gradually brought into being by one particular species of upright primates, as they learned to manipulate symbols.”  Symbolic language made possible, for the first time in evolution, the sharing of experience: experience removed in space and time from the current moment.

If we see it in this way, spirituality includes certain activities that come to us through language and thinking—the way we value knowledge over ignorance, the use of language and technology to create beauty, the understanding of responsibility for our actions, ethical principles and ideals, virtues, even the obligation to test, experiment and revise our conclusions against our experience.

Spirituality so defined is not grounded in the idea that we need to find the source of what is distinctive about humanity in some unseen power, some super-natural order.  But it does offer us a way of speaking about those aspects of the human condition that take us beyond creaturely feeling, everydayness, and the ordinary to that other, largely symbolic level of existence that is not satisfied by being thin, rich and successful.  The level that still holds out for good, true, and beautiful.

One thought on “Of Humanist Spirituality

  1. Lovely piece: Spirituality – one for the little lexicon where definition is not just about usage but usage sort of depends on definition. And happily put back in my vocabulary of vital self defining words. To be without Plato would be bad, wrong and ugly and to be without poetry also. To be without imagination would be flat and unimaginative and frankly inhuman and without spirit: unspiritual. So embrace our ‘spirituality’ – and whoever said they’ve ‘never had a spiritual bone’ in their body? They were kerfuddled obviously, without adequate definition, and put off by Gen X and Y conversations. I think she really meant her bones never needed no religion to be enspirited.

    The first dictionary, apparently, according to the unreliable Wikithicky, which in this case might be wrong, was by a Buddhist philosopher and poet, in Sanskrit, in the 4th century. Most plausibly a humanist Buddhist poet, and philosophising logosophist. Although somebody else comes to mind who compiled a Sumerian to Akkadian wordlist around 2300 bce … But as he was quite possibly was a lion fighting Marduk worshipper who wouldn’t have been a humanist, it probably doesn’t count as a proper dictionary anyway…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s