That Soaring Feeling: What Does An Atheist Do With the Word 'Spiritual'?

Image: Christopher Campbell
It's been just five years since I declared myself an agnostic atheist. I spent two years before that as a member of the "spiritual but not religious" camp, 10 years before that searching for a home within Christianity (I still put "Christian" on census surveys and questionnaires), and 13 or 14 years before that as a devout evangelical Protestant.

I've noticed that a lot of atheists have a big problem with the word "spiritual". Some reject the term outright, saying that it is a meaningless and unnecessary remnant left over from religion. Others believe it refers to a sense of awe in nature, or of beauty or humanity itself. Still others conceive of it as referring to emotional depth or a rich inner life. What is certain is that every atheist will have a slightly different take on "spirituality" and whether or not they consider themselves to be "spiritual".

I have found myself using the term "spiritual" from time to time, usually for lack of a better term. "Spiritual" makes sense, is shorthand for that sense of wonder and connectedness that humans are capable of feeling, and so it continues to be a useful term for me. I think it has even become a stronger and more important concept for me as an atheist.

Here's what one of my science heroes, Carl Sagan, has to say about "spiritual":

"Spirit" comes from the Latin word "to breathe." What we breathe is air, which is certainly matter, however thin. 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. [...] 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. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or of acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both. -from The Demon-Haunted World: Science As a Candle in the Dark (emphasis mine)

In short, "spirituality" does not have to refer to some immaterial, supernatural, metaphysical realm or any apparent entities that may reside therein.

I tend to reject a worldview that strongly divides material and immaterial, earthly and divine, body and mind or body and soul, and so on. I think these dichotomies are superficial and illusory. The notion of immateriality first came about when humans tried to give explanations for things they didn't yet have explanations for.

We can't perceive what makes these particular phenomena occur, or we don't yet have the tools to do so, so we'll create this idea that there is a world that supports these phenomena, one that is beyond our senses, beyond our reality, that is separate from us--a realm of pure transcendent spirit, of non-matter.

Lovely idea, but again--illusory. Reality is not lacking when spirituality is grounded in the material. In fact, the real and the spiritual are one and the same. And they have always been.