‘Spirituality’: Marilyn Mason finds it a word to send Humanists heading for the hills.
Marilyn Mason and Jeremy Rodell recently led a debate asking “Can humanists be spiritual?” at a South West London Humanists meeting. Here they present their arguments again. You can see the outcome of the original debate at the end of Jeremy’s contribution. But what do you think think?
In Alice Munro’s story, Silence, Juliet, looking for her lost daughter Penelope in a Canadian island retreat, is told:
“Wherever she has gone, whatever she has decided, it will be the right thing for her. It will be the right thing for her spirituality and growth.”
Juliet decides to let this pass. She gags on the word spirituality, which seems to take in – as she often says – everything from prayer wheels to high Mass. She never expected that Penelope, with her intelligence, would be mixed up in anything like this.
Later, the leader of this retreat says:
“The spiritual dimension – I have to say this – was it not altogether lacking in Penelope’s life? I take it she did not grow up in a faith-based home?”
Whether humanists can be “spiritual” or not, depends entirely on what you mean by “spiritual”. In the example above, it patently means “religious”, so we’d have to say No to that usage. On the other hand, I’m sure humanists can be many of the other things that this vague, baggy, pretentious and overused word encompasses – but why would they want to describe themselves as “spiritual” when countless other adjectives would be so much clearer and have fewer unacceptable connotations? I’d never describe myself or anyone else as “spiritual”: “She’s so spiritual” – what would that mean exactly? (I tend to imagine a sweet but unworldly and superstitious old hippy.)
So I’m going to argue that humanist can’t be “spiritual” per se, and don’t need to be. And that’s for three overlapping reasons:
1. It’s an ambiguous word. The only proper response to anyone using it is to ask what they mean by it, at which point one has to wonder why they hadn’t used one of the many more precise alternatives in the first place. And the alternatives are many and varied, including many secular ones – it can be used to mean: good, moral, kind, nice, psychological, emotional, inspiring, beautiful, life-enhancing, joyful, thoughtful, reflective, abstract, artistic, sensitive, mysterious, weird, exciting, at one with nature … Or it’s often associated with art, music, ritual, love, motherhood and apple pie…. And some of these concepts and emotions humanists share, of course – but if in order to explain which of these concepts or emotions you mean, you have to use another word, why not use that word in the first place? One good reason why no one, let alone humanists, should use it!
2. It often, as in the example I began with, means religious, as in “spiritual leader” or “Buddhist spirituality”, or as in a recent discussion about “Thought for the Day” on the Today programme in which the C of E spokesperson arguing for the status quo spoke of the need for a “spiritual” moment in the programme, using the word as a touchy-feely, more acceptable, synonym for religious. Similarly, in a hospital recently I was asked if I had “any spiritual needs” – I refrained from a discussion about what exactly that meant and assumed (safely as it turned out) that it was a question about my religious needs. The Barbican is currently advertising “A three-part spiritual journey from Teatr ZAR: a three-part ritualistic lamentation on birth, death, pleasure and pain”, with strongly religious overtones. Newspapers write about Madonna’s “spiritual journey” (Independent, 6 August 2009) when they mean her dabblings in Jewish Kabbalah; people talk about having powerful “spiritual experiences” on Alpha courses or at evangelical Christian festivals. So this common enough usage would preclude humanists from being spiritual.
3. “Spiritual” and “spirituality” have associations with all kinds of other things I wouldn’t, as a sceptical rational humanist, want to be associated with. And I have good support:
David Mitchell in The Observer (5 June 2009), while mocking the atheist summer camp for children also took a pop at “Spirituality Camp”:
For children of parents who believe in being open to everything, including what is self-evidently bullshit. Join us for a week of exploration in the New Forest! As well as seeking out crystal skulls and listening for flower spirits, we’ll be discussing and enthusing about hundreds of sincerely held sets of belief. From reflexology to astrology, from ghosts to homeopathy, from wheat intolerance to ‘having a bad feeling about this’, we’ll be celebrating all the wild and wonderful sets of conclusions to which people the world over are jumping to fill the gap left by the retreat of organised religion.
Jonathan Miller on his production of King Lear, when asked “Would you say it has a spiritual dimension?” replied “No. That’s modern, New Age drivel.”
Let me give you some specific examples of the various meanings that cluster under “spirituality” and “spiritual”, which are often used to give a spurious respectability to all kinds of mumbo-jumbo, and/or status and mystery to quite ordinary ideas or emotions – they are pretentious words and that’s why I dislike them so much.
Mumbo-jumbo: pseudo-religious “new age spirituality”
- An article on “spirituality at work” in The Independent (17 October 1999) suggested that the third eye, feng shui, healing herbs, God and crystals all have a role in the work place
- My local FE / sixth form college, under the guise of Agenda 21 courses in sustainable lifestyles and work practices, offered one on “Spirituality … ancient and modern spiritual traditions, spiritual traditions of indigenous people of the world, healing, soul & spirit, reincarnation, Shamanism, healing [sic], experimental phenomena [?], ancestral beings, comparative religions, discussions with visiting speakers etc.”
- A sixth former once asked me whether I, as humanist, “believed in spirituality”. When I responded by asking her what she meant, she replied, “Ghosts – that kind of thing.”
- The “New Spirit” book club has resources for “mind, spirit and body”: topics include nature, meditation, creativity, Christianity, Sufism, relationships, psychology, spiritual journeys, yoga, native wisdom, the afterlife, new philosophy, mindfulness…
In the arts and the media it’s usually pure pretension, a way of making something quite ordinary seem more than it is:
- An advert on the side of a bus urging us to have “a spiritual adventure” – it was for a couple of books about snowboarding and surfing.
- A travel feature in The Guardian praises Montana for its “alpine meadows, ancient forests and spiritual space”.
- The American writer Rebecca Wells claims, “My work is the result of my imagination dancing a psycho-spiritual tango.”
- The group of artists who call themselves the Stuckists are “in favour of a more emotional and spiritual integrity in art via figurative painting.”
- In the Tate Modern, the text beside a Joseph Beuys tell us that “he often used unusual materials for his sculptures, investing them with personal or spiritual significance”.
As an educator I was prepared to use the word “spiritual” pragmatically, because “spiritual development” is a requirement of the National Curriculum – in a list that also includes social, moral, and cultural development, so it’s obviously not identical with those. But what spiritual development is remains elusive – and teachers often wonder what exactly they are supposed to be developing and inspectors scratch around, sometimes quite imaginatively, for evidence of it. Parents and other non-specialists don’t understand it at all – when working at the BHA I received an email from a parent protesting vigorously at Ofsted’s comment that her children’s school was not fulfilling its obligation to promote spiritual development in all subjects, and wondering if this meant that Maths lessons were now supposed to begin with a prayer.
There is a vast range of views and advice about what spiritual development in schools might be, much of it (including Ofsted guidance) quite secular and acceptable to humanists. But it remains an ambiguous word as some of these examples from the world of education show:
- “Any teaching is ‘spiritual’ which opens a child’s eyes to the position he as a human being occupies in the universe,” writes the philosopher Mary Warnock, “…a lesson in palaeontology or geology, in biology, ecology or chemistry may be spiritual…”
- A description of “the spiritually aware child” in a TES Primary supplement (26 November 1999) included: self knowledge, reflective awareness, sensitivity, striving, and, “central to all this”, love.
- The International Journal of Children’s Spirituality has a very inclusive policy, publishing articles on subjects as diverse as religion and RE, emotional literacy, bereavement and death education, Father Christmas, and relationships, in recent issues.
- “Awe and wonder” are often seen as being at the heart of spiritual development: But inspectors looking for awe and wonder in Kingston schools sometimes find it in strange places: “a pupil was in awe of a classmate’s ability in a PE lesson”; as well as in more predictable ones: “a nursery pupil was in wonder [sic] at the hatching and growing of chicks”, and in school assemblies and displays and science lessons.
So how should Humanists regard “spirituality”?
Humanists of course are divided on its meaning and use, not just here but in Europe and the USA too. Some want to “claim” it and demystify it, others to abandon it to the religious sphere, and often humanists, like everyone else, are talking at cross-purposes. We are not always clear, for example, what we are complaining about when we say that religious people have hijacked “spirituality”. Are we saying that religious people deny that we can have rich, fulfilled aesthetic and emotional lives, or that they deny that we are religious – or is it something else we resent: the implication that we are all materialistic, in the worst sense of the word?
Many humanists feel uneasy about using words carrying so much religious and pseudo-religious baggage: “I do not think that the word ‘spirituality’ can be used at all without the implication of a supernatural spirit”, wrote one humanist, and some American humanists in their magazine Free Mind thought it “meaningless” or “laughable nonsense”, best shunned to “avoid repetitive, cumbersome explanations.” A Dutch humanist expressed scepticism about our tendency to label the “unknowable as spiritual”.
To sum up, “spiritual” and “spirituality” almost always require explanation if they are to communicate clearly, and so I think that it would be better to abandon them altogether, and leave them to the religious. If we are really talking about emotions or emotional development or emotional literacy, or aesthetic awareness or experiences, or love of nature or humanity, or love and goodness, or hope, why just not say so?