Giving Up on Spirituality

Ah, remorse. If I believed in its sanctifying effects, I would be a saint.

My Picture Here

Not for anything downright wicked, exactly, but for an article I wrote a few years ago called “The Soul of Spirituality.” In it I argued that the term is spacious enough–or fluffy enough–to accommodate all kinds of people who just can’t make up their minds about religion. Talk about wrong.

Now I think that my defense of the word was a little like asking for a bigger ballroom for bad dancers.

It isn’t that I don’t “believe” in spirituality. It’s that people who are advocating spirituality as a meeting place for religious and non-religious people are digging semantic holes while seriously confused people are filling them up with goo.

That was the late, great Tony (Antony) Flew’s point before he was seduced into a kind of vague, sentimental, tentative religiosity by some intelligent design advocates.

Flew believed in complexity, order, Newton, and Hume in that order. When he was confronted with the ID arguments of physicist Gerald Schroeder (misrepresented of course) he succumbed to his eighteenth century instinct and became (he said, somewhat confusedly) a deist. Something as grand as this world may as well have had intelligence behind it because it takes a very great deal of intelligence to comprehend it. The emerging headline was: Flew is a Christian.

Antony Flew

But I knew him pretty well, and at his sharpest, and he never was a believer, after adolescence (his father was a Methodist minister). His withering attack on “spirituality,” which he delivered at a conference at Oxford in 1994–the remains published under the title “What is Spirituality?” (Modern Spiritualities: An Inquiry, 1997) will always be an adequate summary, for me, of what he did believe. The strange case of his conversion will always be a reason for me why informed unbelief is preferable to the belief of the people who went after him for a trophy.

I highly recommend this book, even though I was one of the editors, and I strongly recommend Flew’s along with one other essay in the same collection by the renowned Gandhi scholar, Margaret Chatterjee: “The Smorgasbord Syndrome,” in which she asserts that westerners are especially prone to make a Swedish salad bar of Hindu, Buddhist, Kabbalah, Sufi and assorted esoteric traditions–as though spirituality is something you pick up at the supermarket, not something that comes to you through a specific religious tradition. I can’t imagine what she would make of adding the current frontrunners to the shelf: Mayan, gnostic, shamanistic-magical, and Microcosmic Orbit. (Whee: here I come again).

"Gathering the Light" Taoist yoga Chi energy cultivation technique.

My gripe about the seekers–well, one anyway–is that as they don’t know what they’re looking for, any dream will do. The modern idea of spirituality is that it’s disconnected from religious tradition–neither grounded in it nor corrective of it but an alternative to it. If that weren’t the idea, it wouldn’t be half so attractive to the shoppers. Rule number one: it has to be easy. Rule two: it has to be available. Rule three: it has to be blendable. The mix and match approach means you can remain a Presbyterian while having a Zen master on the weekend, or believing into existence the syzygy between Yeshua and Buddha, perhaps even thinking that a completely useless text like the Gospel of Judas can teach you secret wisdom that was erased by the villainous, earth-bound writers of the synoptic gospels.

Religions have always been syncretistic of course; but this hefty word simply means that, like language and political systems, as they encounter their others–other practices, other doctrines–they both accommodate and assimilate features orginally foreign to themselves. Even religions that have an obsessional worry about such evolutionary developments and overlays, like Judaism, have not been spared its effects. And religions that did not scruple to accommodate the stories and practices of its neighborer-faiths–Christianity and Buddhism come to mind–represent a pattern that is common from antiquity to the Reformation period and beyond. Sociologists sometimes call the process in its constructive mode “adaptation” and in its corrective or adversarial mode “fissipiration.” Spirituality and mysticism can be a case of either, but both are dependent on often well-defined religious traditions, both textual and liturgical. At a minimal level of popular spirituality, for example, the Catholic rosary is a borrowing from the Japa Mala(s) beads of Mahayana Buddhism, which also influenced the prayer life of Islam through the use of the Tesbih or Tasbih beads, and all of which derive from the Japa traditions of ancient Hinduism. In all cases you get about 100 repetitions (but often many fewer beads) of prayers special to the individual traditions. The official version is that the rosary came to St Dominic in a vision in the year 1216. The truth is, it probably didn’t.

18th century rosary

The “spiritualities” of an Eckhart, a Luria, a Rengetsu or a Jallaluddin Rumi were evoked by particular historical situations. They were attempts to reform or restructure what the spiritual writers regarded as morbid or threatening to the religious life of their own traditions. They derived their meaning and sometimes their success as regenerating movements from contingency, not from independence of tradition. Usually this meant moving beyond the textual level. In fact, the real opposite of the word spiritual is not religious at all, but literal from the Latin word for letter (litera).

The church, synagogue and mosque have always worried about mystical movements and spiritual revivals because the mystic is a borderline heretic when it comes to ideas like canon, authority, scholarly interpretation, exclusivity, and the finality of what was written in the sacred text. The fates of the Spiritual Franciscans (Fraticelli, declared heretical in 1285 by Pope Boniface VIII) and groups like the Ismailis, the Hurufiya, the Alawis, the Bektashi and even the Sufis, often regarded as heretics by the Islamic mainstream, tell the same story: suspicion and mistrust of groups pretending to deeper insight and a more direct channel to salvation than the unredeemed of the main body of believers or the hierarchy of authority.

A massacre of Anabaptist antinomians

We have to confront the possibility that someone who says “I’m spiritual, not religious,” is really just saying, “I’m not religious.” Or that they don’t know what “being spiritual” means. But that is obviously very different from what the term has meant throughout history, where it has implied either “I am very much more religious than you book-reading louts,” or “I am gifted with special wisdom and knowledge of the truth that you don’t possess.”

Putting history to one side, however, we can choose to side with Flew: “Spirituality doesn’t mean anything in particular because we don’t believe in spirits anymore.” Or we can go with Chatterjee’s view that the perpetual sloppiness of the western pick and choose culture robs the term of any meaning at all. Either way, we are left with a word that is gradually losing its power to describe a commitment of any significance or any particular valence with regard to belief. At no time has spirituality meant “I just don’t know what I believe.” But it has often meant believing too much.

Perhaps it’s owing to the malleability of the word that the self-anointed shamans of Los Angeles and Amsterdam and Munich, where spirituality-training centers thrive, can draw hundreds of lost, confused, religiously dysfunctional souls [sic] into their courses, retreats and workshops. Like “new religions” (with which they share a number of unfortunate characteristics), modern spiritualities are appealing to spiritual libertarians who aren’t too choosy but do like variety in their life. Example: you are standing behind a seventeen year-old at your favorite fast-food emporium, waiting to dispense a cup of yummy diet Minutemaid lemonade, when into her cup, in measured squirts, she releases Coke, Fanta, Mr Pibb, Hawaiian Punch and lemonade. That kind of variety.

There are hundreds of examples of how this spiritual smorgasbord works, but my favorite find is Sunflower Health, which promises registrants spiritual light, happiness, and the means to become “one with all creation.” They link their teaching to “lightworkers, ascension, harmonic convergence, and the end of the Mayan calendar.” The Midas Muffler of spiritual garages, Sunflower offers Chakra Clearing (“the energetic fabric of ourselves and our universe”) and the opening of the “third (Visionary) eye to psychic visions.” For a few bucks more (Tuesday special: free psychic alignment included), Kundalini and microcosmic orbit chi cultivation practices are yours.

If you like your spirituality with a Christian flavour, Mystic Web offers instruction in the “true” meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Gnostic Gospels, Pati’s spiritual path, and the Gospel of Judas. Says one satisfied customer in praise of the “Gnostic Web-Master” –

I may not understand every single line of the document, but the Gospel of Judas speaks to me as a whole. I read it, re-read it, understand bits and pieces, understand things here and there and see parallels between this lost Gospel and the teachings of modern Gnosis. More important than the understanding, however, is the strength it gives me, how good it makes me feel to see that mankind has searched for the truth, for liberation, for thousands of years, and that the findings have been the same as those Master Belzebuub teaches us today; the only difference is that he teaches in a way that everyone can understand, making the path to liberation attainable for all of humanity.

I just want to say this about the vast majority of modern mystics, spirituality-seekers, and spirituality vendors: This is crazy stuff, taught for the most part by desperately unknowledgeable fakers who make old fashioned theosophy look like biochemistry by comparison. You are wasting your money, your time, and the language. I apologize for throwing you out of alignment, but somebody had to tell you.

But you have performed a service: You have convinced me that the term “spirituality” is unusable. And that the next time the woman next to me at the bar volunteers that she is “not religious but, you know, spiritual” it is time to pay my tab and walk away before another word is spoken. Hoping Master Belzebuub doesn’t follow me.

22 thoughts on “Giving Up on Spirituality

  1. I’d say the biggest discouragement from belief systems these days is my feeling that a general dedication to critical thinking is not a modern priority. If you can’t be guaranteed that the adopters of a belief stance have thought about it, it’s really hard to agree with them.

    • Agreed, and that some people who are looking for “something” are running away from dogmatism but away from thinking too deeply at the same time. Maybe they will meet themselves around the corner.

  2. For us more pedestrian folk, here are a few quotes to consider:

    “Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.”
    – Carl Sagan


    “Religion is for those who don’t want to go to Hell. Spirituality is for those of us who have already been through it.”
    – Anonymous

    and my favorite;

    “Zen does not confuse spirituality with thinking about God while one is peeling potatoes. Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes.”
    – Alan Watts

    (With all due respect to members of the Universal Church of Hermeneutical Suspicion, please enjoy the “spirit” of messages and try not to shoot the messenger. Thanks.)

  3. This is laughaholic, you at your best. And you are a pillar as always of fresh honesty and self criticism who has the courage to change your mind and admit self error – if only we all did, because we do change our minds as we progress, it would benefit scholarship and knowledge so much – but many don’t.

    I think spirituality is over used, misinterpreted and agree that it is something that seems to be available packaged neatly on supermarket shelves. I know lots who when we discuss religions, they say they are spiritual which seems to say nothing except make me cringe. It should be deleted. I still believe ‘spirit’ however, is a useful metaphor, as is ‘soul’ perhaps to express that powerful part of us otherwise called ‘feeling’ or human ’emotion’. And it’s pretty in poetry. The sort of thing that expires when we die (poetry is eternal).

    On Gnostics, a friend of mine, Deane down in Otago, scrawled across the whiteboard at their department Christmas bash, ‘Gnostics are those who miss the joke of Christianity.’

  4. Mr. Hoffman, I respectfully suggest that your previous error was in thinking of “spirituality” only as a spacious – I would say amorphous – concept. Spirituality is a human experience. Flew’s error, and the most common error in the use of this term, was in using it to say something about the universe. Spirituality is a perfectly good term when it is clearly understood to refer to a human experience. That experience usually is described as “connectedness.” As a scientific naturalist, I emphasize that this is a feeling, a sense of things. It is the same sense that Einstein expressed repeatedly and his thinking was perfectly sound. In addition to the recognition that we are part of nature – an unassailable point if ever there was one – I add that spirituality includes a sense of self-integration, or wholeness, and a sense of intense vitality. Seen that way, the word is a perfectly good one; the mere fact that many people misuse it is merely another reason for those of us grounded in fact and reason to use it properly.

  5. Pingback: Giving Up on Spirituality (via The New Oxonian) « The New Oxonian

  6. I think that Paul LaClair has captured the essence of what I understand spirituality to include. It’s not anything to do with anything ‘out there’. It has everything to do with living a life in the reality that we do know, the reality we experience. Not just the bare facts of life but the appreciation of life and the acknowledgement that life itself holds a mystery way beyond the face of it. It’s not connectedness to some unknown ‘god’ that sustains the human soul – it’s the connectedness to living a life among other souls, other humans. That is what organized religions offers people – hands to hold and hearts to care. It’s not intellectual premises, not that theistic god in the sky, that fills the pews on a Sunday morning: It’s the prospect of validation, of being seen by ones fellow man. The power of the collective, if you will. One for all and all for one. An atheist intellectual movement can have no counter for a collectivist culture. By denying the ‘glue’, the spirituality, it is nothing more than a flash flood – unable to provide a sustainable and flourishing alternative culture. It’s higher ground that holds out some safety from the ravages of natural disasters.

    Spirituality, a sense of life, an experience of life that knows that beyond all of the disappointments that might come ones way – one has lived life, one has seen it’s potential as well as it’s challenges. And in the end, is that all that one can realistically wish for – a sense of contentment, a smile on ones face at life’s close. Sure, intellectual adventurism, that “never ending road to ‘Calvary”, (apologies to Les Mis) is a big part of what excites us all. ‘Truth’ as the ‘heartbeat’ of the mind that propels us forward – but such journeys need two feet firmly placed upon terra firma. And it is here that a spirituality, founded upon the experience of living, offers some protection from those intellectual flights of pure fantasy

    (Now I suppose all that is a somewhat modern take on the New Jerusalem coming down to earth from heaven 🙂 but you know what – what needs redeeming is the whole spirituality concept – redeemed from being ‘out there’ to being down here….)

    Paul LaClair: “Spirituality is a perfectly good term when it is clearly understood to refer to a human experience. That experience usually is described as “connectedness.” As a scientific naturalist, I emphasize that this is a feeling, a sense of things. It is the same sense that Einstein expressed repeatedly and his thinking was perfectly sound. In addition to the recognition that we are part of nature – an unassailable point if ever there was one – I add that spirituality includes a sense of self-integration, or wholeness, and a sense of intense vitality. Seen that way, the word is a perfectly good one; the mere fact that many people misuse it is merely another reason for those of us grounded in fact and reason to use it properly.”

    • maryhelena, one day soon, you’re going to turn around and see that the atheists have been working on their connective glues already. I wouldn’t mind a spirituality which had no explicit magic associated with it. But I agree with what I think Hoffman intended which is that using the word spirituality without invoking gods or something requires a lot of explanation and so the word saves very little time or communicates very much.

      My opinion differs in regards to your statement about atheists not having the glue of spirituality. We do actually have such a glue. More and more atheist groups are popping up and we’ve been looking out for each other as much as we can the whole time. In your sense of the word, you can say we never lost our spirituality.

  7. There are several things wrong with Seth’s approach. Just because we don’t use the term doesn’t mean that others won’t use it. Our opting out will not reduce supernatural ideation or the use of this word; it will merely put us on the periphery of the conversation.

    Second, we can explain by context, as Seth has just done. Secularists can use a word like this to create cognitive dissonance and invite people to think, which is what we want.

    Where’s the harm? If people don’t understand, it will only be because they haven’t taken the time to consider our views; in which case, so what? What harm is done if they think we mean what they mean? Eventually, if they pay attention to us, they’ll see the disconnect, and that might get them thinking. If they don’t pay attention to us, then what they think about us isn’t affected by this language.

    In short, there is no down-side to using the “s” words (soul and spirit) or the “f” word (faith). There is only an opportunity to get people to see these ideas in a different way.

  8. Seth: I love that – “…you can say we never lost our spirituality”. Though seems to me that some atheists are hell bent on trying….

  9. This subject is a bit like an onion. On one hand, we’ve got Hoffman’s opinion for himself (at the time of writing, even) and then the prescriptive idea that we should all embrace that view point. Then we’ve got our viewpoints mixed in with whether or not we think our viewpoints should be adopted by other people.

    I personally wouldn’t use the word spirituality because I wouldn’t want the other people in my conversations thinking I thought I had a soul or spirit and so forth. That doesn’t mean I know for certain but it’s my approach and I still like it. I’m even willing to suggest that this is my approach and it might not work for everybody. So I’m not suggesting anyone act like I do, but I am suggesting I act as a subtype of American Atheists.

    I might use spirit, spirituality and so forth in any place in which I felt awe. But it’s also one of those words that I’ve flagged to make sure I think about my use before I use it because in my environment (2 hours south of D.C) there are large populations of certain types of believers who will predictably be confused.

    In a conversation with people who like dissecting positions and concepts, I’m more likely to risk more with my metaphors because they will be better understood. But for me, I would never use “spirituality” in a conversation that people might overhear with the attention span of a driver reading bumper stickers in traffic because selfishly, I don’t want people interpreting my meaning of spirituality their way.

    I would stand with the atheists maryhelena mentioned are hellbent on trying to remove spirituality until the point is reached that spirituality is a concept that needs to be defined by the speaker before the audience can truly understand what they are saying. After that point has been reached, I might differ with some of my fellow atheists and say such poetic language isn’t all that troublesome.

    My issue is with people who use beliefs instead of their own thoughts and you see those types in religions but also in politics or on activism campaigns. Those people irritate me with their use of spiritualism. And those people are in high concentrations in my area.

    In short, if you’re here reading and commenting, it’s probably not going to bother me when you refer to spirituality.

  10. The difficulty is, regardless of what Flew said, that it does not self-evidently refer to a human experience except to the extent that all experiences do, including mysticism according to William James, the point is, “spirituality” doesn’t mean a vague sense of wellbeing to the many religious traditions that promote the idea: check the catalogue of any seminary and divinity school and you will find it treated as an esoteric subject, not as a weasel way of not saying “religious.” Mind you I’d like to use it. I used to use it. But I think we need a new word.

  11. It doesn’t work that way, Joseph. You can try to invent new words but they rarely take hold. Since you’re referring to a common need, that means that there are strategies that we should be thinking about as a group, so the comfort level of any of us is secondary. No words self-evidently mean anything. The point is that we have an opportunity to use this word to refer to a human experience. If we’re misunderstood, where’s the harm? If we’re understood, that will represent a step away from supernaturalistic thinking.

  12. Well, to be Flewish: tell me what it means in 25 words or less that we can get full assent from all affected parties on. Then what do you do about ambiguity, which is something humanists and atheists tend to dislike. Are you happy with the idea of Benedictine spirituality, orthodox spirituality. Me too. When we add humanist spirituality we may be inviting disaster. –Though I want be be accepting. I just need a definition.

  13. Spirituality: a sense of being part of things, usually expressed as a sense of integration, external and internal, and an intense sense of being alive. I believe that’s 24 words.

    And I ask again, where’s the disaster even if we’re wrong? I’ve heard people say that we would “open the door” to this word. Are they kidding?

    • Paul, I think that’s a great definition. I would even say, a part of being something greater than oneself, grounded in a common humanity and purpose. I call that humanism. But in fairness your other question is poignant: what is the harm even if we’re wrong? I don’t think there is any actual harm. Though I do not want to be identified with the spirituality mongers I’ve described. If we have a humanist spirituality then we need to define it carefully and not risk being misunderstood. Surely it can’t be “anything that isn’t dogmatically religious.”

      • “Spirituality: part of being something greater than oneself, grounded in a common humanity and purpose”. Absolutely, sewn up perfectly. That’s what it is, should be, when it’s not adopted by the religious sects. It is ‘humanist spirituality’ and we all have it, don’t we?

  14. Fair enough. How about this: “A vibrant sense of being part of something greater than oneself and of being whole within, grounded always in our common humanity.” That shaves off two words and I like it better than mine.

    Not to continue an argument where there isn’t one but I am not willing to foreclose my choices because of what others are doing. If we don’t use words because people we don’t agree with are using them, we won’t have many words left to use. That will only feed the perception that non-theists are cranky old . . .

  15. “A vibrant sense of being part of something greater than oneself and of being whole within, grounded always in our common humanity”

    that’s not a ‘slogan’ either. It’s a vision.


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