Losing my religion – how my ‘faith’ school nurtured an atheist

Children are naturally curious.

Children are naturally curious. But they’re also susceptible and impressionable. Emma C Williams shares her experience of education in a ‘faith’ school – but does it match up to yours?

My school was proudly old-fashioned. Questions were viewed with suspicion and contempt, especially in the context of religion. We were not allowed to study RE as a subject, since exposure to a variety of religious views would have ‘confused’ us. Instead, we had Divinity with the School Chaplain: we read passages from the Bible and he explained them.

My parents were deliberately neutral in their stance, and so I came to my religious schooling with a completely open mind – in many ways, an easy convert. I was profoundly respectful of what I assumed were the sincerely-held beliefs of those around me and I would bow my head during prayers. I was utterly fascinated by the ritual of Chapel, and knew all the traditional hymns; I can still sing most of them all the way through, much to my husband’s consternation, and can recite the Creed, some of the Psalms, the Lord’s Prayer and several others.

While I would listen with interest during the Sermon, it took me a long time to realise that I was pretty much the only one doing so. On an increasing number of occasions I would find myself enraged by the message that we had been given in Chapel, or puzzled by the hypocrisy of our situation. If Jesus said to ‘sell all thou hast and give to the poor,’ what were we doing in an expensive boarding school? Did God honestly care how I performed in my exams – didn’t He have something more important to worry about? And why on earth did I have to pray for the Queen? Ignored by the staff and ridiculed by my peers, it became clear to me that most people neither listened to nor cared about the lessons that we were taught by the Reverend. Even he didn’t seem to care that much. Yet when I questioned the charade, I was bullied for it – by students and some of the staff.

Atheists are often accused of being ‘angry’ and I guess it’s hard for believers to comprehend the unpleasant mix of condescension, prejudice and paranoia that some of us have faced, growing up in a society that tends to equate faith with morality. Soon after I started attending school, I went to a meeting that was announced for ‘all students who are not Christians.’ In my innocence, I failed to realize that this was a euphemistic way of gathering our tiny handful of Muslim students so that their non-attendance at Chapel could be agreed. The Housemistress nearly fainted when I showed up, the only girl in the room without a headscarf. She asked me what on earth I was doing there, so I explained that I didn’t believe in God and was therefore not a Christian. She told me not to be so ridiculous, said that my views ‘didn’t count’ and sent me away. That was probably the first time that I felt really angry.

Despite the pressure (or perhaps because of it – I was a rebellious child at heart), I became more and more convinced during my childhood that an unswerving acceptance of a bundle of ancient writings made very little sense. In addition, a school rife with bullying was a fine place to observe that religious beliefs have no effect on a person’s humanity. Over the years I watched some of the worst bullies in the school pass through their Confirmation ceremony, in which they agreed to ‘turn away from everything which was evil or sinful.’ Some of them became servers in Chapel. My distaste for the whole sham increased, and by the time I reached University I was thoroughly relieved to be away from it.

Yet given that we’re all a product of our experiences, I sometimes wonder what kind of person I would be had I not attended such an old-fashioned ‘faith’ school. I fully support the BHA’s campaign against them, as in principle I believe that every child should have an education that is free in every sense – not least free from indoctrination and prejudice. Yet for me, my experiences shaped my convictions – and not in the way that the school had intended. Maybe I’m unusual, but if my story is anything to go by and you want to nurture an atheist, then I guess you proceed as follows: send them to a ‘faith’ school, ladle on plenty of hypocrisy and tell them not to ask questions. The result may surprise you.


A Humanism without the word ‘spirituality’

Todd Battistelli makes the case for humanists turning to words other than ‘spirituality’ to describe feelings of wonder and awe.

We all feel wonder from time to time. But should we be mindful not to use language with religious connotations? Photo: Trey Ratcliff

We all feel wonder from time to time. But should we be mindful not to use language with religious connotations? Photo: Trey Ratcliff

I enjoyed reading Saif Rahman and Jeremy Rodell’s essays on spirituality. Even though I don’t use the term spirituality myself, I share their appreciation of our deepest experiences. Non-humanists can stereotype our worldview as coldly rational, but humanism has long embraced the insight that reason and emotion depend on each other.

The IHEU Amsterdam Declaration describes this interdependence in ‘a lifestance aiming at the maximum possible fulfillment through the cultivation of ethical and creative living and offers an ethical and rational means of addressing the challenges of our time.’ Humanism can movingly describe profundities. While some humanists may choose the word spirituality to do so, others do not, and their choice is informed not by negative associations between spirituality and religion but by the positive associations of alternative words.

There is more to be said about spirituality than I can discuss here. Rodell raises several questions worth exploring: Can humanists be spiritual and/or use the term spiritual? Should humanists use the term? Is spirituality ‘the best word’ to describe our sense of deepest meaning? I will focus on the question of why I do not use the word, but I also want to state up front that humanists can use the term spirituality if they find it appropriate. I do not use it for two reasons. First, using other words helps me clearly communicate my humanism to non-humanists. Second, I find other words more moving.

I approach language from a descriptivist perspective where the most common usage of a word defines its meaning. This isn’t to say that meaning doesn’t change or that people can’t intentionally and successfully work to change a word’s meaning. However, if a word carries one set of connotations for most who hear it, then using the word to mean something different poses a challenge.

When religious people call deep feeling spiritual, they connect it to supernatural or transcendent meaning. I could try to change that meaning, describing a purely naturalist usage for spirituality (after all its root traces back to the word for breath), but such usage conflicts with the way most understand the word.

Instead of departing from this widespread connotation of spirituality, I turn to other words more commonly understood to have secular connotations. Looking to other words also helps head off confusion when spirituality is used to refer to multiple distinct ideas that can be discussed separately (e.g. aspiration, respite, wonder, awe, a sense of connection to the universe and others, etc.).

To give one example, I could speak of the frisson that accompanies Carl Sagan’s ‘we are made of star-stuff’ no matter how many times I think of it. Sagan’s idea speaks to humanity’s primal connection to nature. It is a deeply moving idea, but not, I would say, a spiritual one.

Others would disagree. For them the word spirituality does describe that frisson, and yet others would find the idea of an entirely natural existence abhorrent instead of moving. Such disagreements are part of the challenge of talking across worldviews and traditions. We can see this challenge even within a group such as humanists and our different reactions to the word spirituality. Certain words hold powerful meaning for some while ringing hollow for others.

When my audience attaches supernatural connotations to the word spirituality or uses it to ambiguously refer to multiple ideas, I will use alternatives to explore in detail where we agree and disagree. For instance, by the word mystery do we mean some unknown but potentially knowable element of the cosmos or some supernatural aspect to existence that surpasses any possible understanding?

It’s been my experience that many have trouble accepting that I or any humanist could be authentically satisfied with a wholly naturalist understanding of existence (and satisfied with always having more questions than answers about that existence), but we are. Trying to revise the dominant understanding of spirituality adds another layer of potential misunderstanding.

As for whether using the word spirituality would decrease anti-atheist stigma, I suspect that the prejudice of those like Christina Rees will last for some time no matter the words we use. What will decrease stigma, according to social science research, is more personal interaction with people who identify as atheists.

Sociologist Penny Edgell and her colleagues have found that people reflect more on atheists as an abstract group than on their experience with actual atheists, and that the atheist identity is seen to reject a common morality that has been (incorrectly) linked to belief in deity. Psychologist Will M. Gervais discusses [pdf] how stigma for non-obvious characteristics, like atheism, declines when people believe the stigmatized are more common in society.

This research suggests that the more atheists freely identify as such to their fellow citizens, while at the same time demonstrating their commitment to common values, the more they will help lessen stigma. This should hold true whether or not atheists use the term spiritual. Indeed, a greater diversity of atheist and humanist identities could help even more, conveying how similar we are to our religious neighbors in our own disagreements.

Just as using spirituality isn’t a term used by all atheists, it also doesn’t describe how everyone makes meaning. Rodell quotes the NHS language on ‘spiritual care’ where ‘spirituality’ is ‘looking for meaning in your life.’ The Department of Defense in the United States uses similar language, and, yes, nontheists have asked that that language be changed. A term that has religious connotations for many should not be used by government to describe the meaning making of all.

It is certainly possible to qualify the use of the term and to try to revise its definition, but doing so appeals less to me than using alternatives to spirituality that I find much more compelling. This approach is not solely or even primarily a matter of pragmatic communication. As I have developed as a humanist, the language of explicitly naturalist thinkers has moved me more deeply than those who talk of spirituality. These voices include Sagan and early twentieth century Unitarian humanists such as Arthur Wakefield Slaten and Earl F. Cook and others recorded in the 1927 book Humanist Sermons.

My humanism is neither spiritual nor transcendent. My avoiding the term spirituality comes not from pride or distaste for anything that smacks of religion. My motive is something else altogether: a delight in secular language and ideas. I too have had profound experiences of grandeur, of feeling my small place in the seemingly infinite gulf of space, of fellowship with other people of Earth, and of art that speaks to the core of my being.

These emotions spring from my recognition of the deep interconnectedness of all elements of the universe. From my perspective, there is simply nothing to be transcended. Existence is of one piece counterbalanced only by nonexistence. We live for a short time in a place we know little about, a place indifferent to us and where we alone make our lives meaningful. As Cook puts it more poetically:

‘Although the universe cares not particularly about our morality and our ideals, we must care for them. Upon our shoulders is being carried the ark of life through the wilderness. All the virtues, all there is of goodness, kindliness, courtesy is of our own creation and we must sustain them, otherwise they will go out of existence into darkness, as a star goes out.’

This aspiration to virtue, the promise of helping to build a better world for ourselves and those who come after, urges me forward. It is an aspiration I gladly share as common ground with those who, religious or not, describe it as spiritual so long as they allow me to describe it otherwise as Slaten does:

‘Humanism sets before us a great World-Hope…. Humanism may take away some of the old consolations, but it offers others more convincing…. Our sojourn here becomes a wonder-awakening romance, a pilgrimage through mysteries and marvels, and as we walk together our hearts burn within us.’

However we describe the flame of our burning hearts, it lights the way on our brief journey between oblivions, revealing moments of profound feeling and understanding.

Todd Battistelli is an independent scholar in rhetoric and a freelance writer. He runs the blog Humanism Speaks.

Humanists for a Better World three years on

worldmap h4bw

by Marilyn Mason

It’s now more than three years since the BHA decided to join the Stop Climate Chaos coalition (now The Climate Coalition or TCC) and asked me to be their volunteer representative. This inspired the creation of a new humanist interest group, Humanists for Better World (H4BW), with the broad aim of ‘putting humanist values into action - because the whole world is in our hands.’ Since then, the BHA has also joined the Jubilee Debt Campaign and Anti-Slavery International, and my fellow organiser and volunteer Richard Norman and I have attended the meetings and conferences of TCC, JDC and Anti-Slavery, as well as the occasional demonstration where we have been joined by the occasional humanist.

We set up the H4BW website, which passes on actions and news from these and other campaigns on global issues such as poverty, justice, human rights, the environment – and later moved it to become more accessible as a section of the BHA website alongside other humanist interest groups. And very recently we set up a Twitter account, @humanists4bw as a quick way for humanists who tweet to keep in touch with our news and campaigns. We have grown in numbers and hope to continue that growth, as we know that many, perhaps most, humanists are interested in the global issues that we cover, and that humanists probably think longer term than the average politician or businessman and see only too well the many connections between the various issues. It has been interesting to observe, alongside our expansion, the expansion of The Climate Coalition which now includes organisations as diverse as the RSPB, Population Matters, Greenpeace, CAFOD, Frack Off, the Woodland Trust, Oxfam, WWF, the WI, and many more groups large and small, national and local, that accept the scientific consensus on climate change and understand the potential negative impacts on their causes. (Humanists who support any of these organisations are thus already part of TCC.)

H4BW’s basic principles, interests and aims and have not changed much in the three years we have existed. The world is no more peaceful than it was then (rather the contrary); human rights are still under threat in many places; poverty, hunger, and exploitation of the poor still exist; and, despite our ‘greenest government ever,’ climate change and environmental sustainability remain low priorities for most UK politicians. The articles that Richard Norman and I wrote then explaining H4BW for HumanistLife, which disappeared when the website was hacked into and vanished, still represent our perspectives and have just been republished here. We know that all the causes that H4BW promotes don’t all appeal to all humanists, and there was hostility from a few members to the BHA getting involved with causes that are not central to its remit. But we firmly believe that humanists should not stand aside from  the big moral issues of the day, letting the religious take all the credit for being ethical, and that we shouldn’t talk a lot about being good without religion while ignoring opportunities to act for the common good. (One of the names we considered for our group was “Humanist Action” –  still my favourite – but we were told it was already taken.) And in any case, to borrow and adapt a Muslim tenet, “There is no compulsion in Humanism”. Right from the start we have seen it as our task to pass the requests for action on global causes that come our way, but to leave it to individual humanists to sign up via the website to receive these requests and then to choose which ones to support.

As Lord Deben (formerly Conservative MP John Gummer) reminded those of us at the recent Climate Coalition AGM, anyone can write a letter or email – and letters have a disproportionate effect. The BBC responds when they receive just 25 letters of complaint on the same theme (as they did recently to well over 25 complaints about the inclusion of climate change deniers like Nigel Lawson to ‘balance’ discussions on global warming). MPs assume that for every letter they receive, there are 40 or 50 voters who think the same but didn’t bother to write. Lord Deben’s extra insight and advice was that it is worth getting to know your MP and what makes him or her tick, and to use that knowledge in your correspondence, be it protecting the countryside, energy or food security, jobs, concerns about refugees and immigration…  He also reminded us that ‘Puritans never win!’ – it’s useless urging everyone to give up all the things they value and enjoy, even if that could lead to a better world. Somehow we have to move towards a better, fairer, more sustainable world without making the journey seem too painful – a challenge for humanists and everyone else.


Good without god – a letter to the faithful

washing up

Must everything we do have some cosmic significance? Photo: Crishna Simmons

How do you sleep at night? Or get up in the morning? Doesn’t life seem pointless?

The religious conviction that a life without God is somehow one devoid of meaning has always baffled me. Personally, I see the situation in reverse, for I struggle to understand how the faithful deal with the following.

Life is mundane – it’s inevitable. There are forms to fill in, dishes to be washed and toenails to be cut. I do struggle to grasp how someone of faith gets through the unavoidable tedium of an average day whilst maintaining a conviction that life resonates with cosmic meaning. Demonstrably, much of the time, it doesn’t. Furthermore, and unless you live in the Bible Belt of America, the majority of your days must be spent mixing with people of different faiths or indeed no faith at all (hello!) However worthwhile your job might seem, I wonder how you motivate yourself to care about it when you believe that most of your colleagues and clients are destined for hell – whether for you that means oblivion, the absence of God, or the fiery furnace.

Life is cruel – or it can be. Whilst religious people claim that their faith is a comfort, this is another train of thought that I cannot get my head round. If your baby is sick and you pray fervently to God to save him, how can you still trust your God when your baby dies? Was God not listening? Then He abandoned you. Could He not help? Then He is impotent and prayer is pointless. Was He testing you? Then He’s one sick-minded ruler. For those of us without faith, a devastating loss such as the death of a child is not something that we somehow have to reconcile with the paradoxical belief that an all-powerful and all-loving God still cares about us. It just …. happens. It’s terrible, it’s heart-breaking and it’s unfair. And it happens.

Life is insignificant – in the span of the universe. I never thought I’d say this, but I’m starting to come to the conclusion that the convictions held by Creationists, as barking mad and as scientifically untenable as they are, make more sense than those held by the majority of moderate Christians. Why? Well, let’s just take a couple of points that we know to be the facts (unless you’re a Creationist, of course). The earth is around 5 or 6 billion years old. Dinosaurs roamed upon it for c. 65 million years. By comparison, homo sapiens has only been knocking around for roughly 200,000 years. Why on earth do we think we’re so important as to be made in the Creator’s image? From a Christian point of view, we then have to accept the bizarre notion that humans had to wait 198,000 years for the Messiah to pop up in a spectacularly unpromising part of the world. For an all-powerful being, God does make things difficult, doesn’t He?

For me, religion does not bring meaning, for it fails to explain anything even remotely to my satisfaction. As Dawkins said in his letter to his daughter, tradition, authority and revelation are three very poor reasons for accepting something to be true. For me, inventing a supernatural significance in order to give myself a sense of purpose is an empty and pointless exercise.

So where do we find meaning in our lives? Well, it will be different for everyone. An older lady once said to me that life is a series of moments, and increasingly I think she is right. It is hugely important to me to be present in the here and now as much as I can. To feel filled with awe and wonder as I look straight into the eyes of an urban fox. To watch a pond-skater as it whisks across the surface of the water, and to be in a position to realise that the pond is their universe. To gaze at the stars and remind myself that some of them may not be there any more. To stroke a purring cat. To stand on a limestone pavement and be told by a more knowledgeable friend that it was formed over tens of thousands of years.

This world and this life – with its inevitable tedium, its inescapable pain and its relative insignificance – is astonishing. For me, that is more than enough.

Taking Humanism to school

Aniela Bylinski discusses her experience of sending her daughter to a ‘faith’ school

Children aren't just educated at schools, but socialised there. Isn't it a parent's right to know just how that is being done?

Children aren’t just educated at schools, but socialised there. Isn’t it a parent’s right to know just how that is being done?

After a lot of anxiety and against my wishes, my daughter was assigned a religious school by the county. It was the best school academically, receiving ‘Outstanding’ from Ofsted, but it was not the education that I was concerned about. I had heard differing accounts concerning the religious education from parents whose children already attended the school, other parents were mostly indifferent, but I was becoming more and more uncomfortable with the idea. My daughter was born in a very high birth year and although I appealed to send her to a county primary school, my efforts were disregarded by the authority.

Before my daughter started the school, I met with the headteacher on more than one occasion to express my concerns about what my daughter may be taught.  The head assured me that my daughter would be instilled with Christian values such as tolerance, forgiveness, and love for one another. To me, these were simply human values. I was not satisfied with her explanations and was left wondering if she thought only Christians held these values, and if so, where she thought I got my values from?

We disagreed on the definition of indoctrination. For me, it meant to instil a set of values, one’s own set of values, usually a set based in scripture. So by definition, this is what was going to happen to my daughter, as they were teaching only Christian values.  I asked the headteacher, ‘If my daughter was to ask you whether god was a male or female what would you say?’ She said she would say that she doesn’t know. I asked her then ‘Why do you have signs around the school referring to god as a he?’ and mentioned that the signs should probably alternate between him and her, otherwise the message would be patriarchal. As half of the school is made up of girls, I was concerned by how girls and women would be represented (or not) in Bible stories and how this would affect my daughter, as well as about the impact of these sort of lessons on wider society.

The teachers assured me that they would always talk to the children by confirming that ‘this is what I believe’.  I still had my reservations, but in the end it was out of my control. There was nothing I could do. My daughter started school in September 2013 into what was a moderately religious school, funded by the taxpayer with no financial contribution made by the Church since it was first established in the 1960s.  However, the school was still governed by the Church.

Within the first few weeks my daughter came home to tell me that ‘our god is the Christian god’, ‘god lives in the sky’ and that ‘my soul is in my stomach’. She sang songs like ‘Our god is a great big god’ and ‘Love the lord your god’ all with hand actions and great enthusiasm. I realised that she probably didn’t understand half of it, even asking me what a soul was, but my fears had been realised.  She was too young to think critically, to ask the Reverend ‘How do you know my soul is in my stomach?’ and ‘How do you know god lives in the sky?’ I was starting to wonder why they would tell children this. How would this information benefit my child? Despite their best intentions there was no evidence for these teachings.  I knew I was unlikely to receive a satisfactory answer. However, I felt a duty to at least raise these concerns with the school, though I did not want my daughter to become singled out. Just because I had a lack of religious belief, did that mean they could impress their beliefs on my vulnerable daughter (anyone under the age of 18 in law)?

I wrote to the school stating that the values which they teach could be taught in an inclusive setting, outside of Christianity, so that the Muslims, Jews and non-believers alike could all reflect together.  There was no need to separate children based on their parent’s beliefs and surely this is what is creating division in the world.  I informed them that I was bringing my daughter up to take responsibility for her own life, that her failures, successes and achievements were her own and that she is good because it makes her andpeople around her feel good. In 2014, schools should be teaching children how to think, not what to think, surely. For me, taking Humanism to school literally means applying logic and reason to school, something which I found very difficult to reconcile here.

Spirituality and Humanism

by Jeremy Rodell

This article is an updated version of talks given to West London Humanists & Secularists and to Westminster Cathedral Interfaith Group, based on an earlier debate on ‘Can humanists be spiritual?’ held by South West London Humanists.

The stunning sight of Mont Blanc, which inspired feelings of the 'sublime' in great writers such as Shelley. Photo: Jean-Raphaël Guillaumin

The stunning sight of Mont Blanc, which inspired feelings of the ‘sublime’ in great writers such as Shelley. Photo: Jean-Raphaël Guillaumin

Many humanists avoid anything to do with spirituality or the spiritual. ‘It’s an ill-defined term’, they say, ‘laden with religious baggage. Not for us.’ I think that’s a mistake. Yes, it is an ambiguous term, and some of the ground it covers is anathema to most humanists. But, whether or not we choose to use these words, they refer to essential elements of our humanity which  should be as much home territory for humanists as for anyone else, including the religious.

Religious spirituality

Here’s an illustration of what humanists don’t like. It’s from St.Paul’s letter to the Romans (8:6-11)[1]:

The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. 10 But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. 11 And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.

In this Christian view, there are two intertwined realms, the physical and the spiritual. And if you buy the theology, you can overcome death. Islam features a similar idea. It’s an attractive proposition, but one we would say is simply made up. Eastern religions – even Buddhism as actually practiced in many places – often feature a spiritual realm in which gods and other spiritual forces operate. Almost all religions feature miracles, in which the laws of nature are somehow suspended, adjusted or overturned.

Similarly, there’s a huge array of non-religious New Age spirituality, from Reiki to Astrology, which has similar characteristics but without the associated structures and scriptures: a belief in a spiritual realm, or at least the existence of supernatural powers and miraculous or paranormal events – including mini-miracles such as a Reiki massage that does more than a placebo – not governed by the laws of nature. More myth and wishful thinking, we would say.

I’ll call this type of religious and New Age thinking ‘religious spirituality’. It really is ‘not for us’.


Experiential spirituality

On the other hand, here’s Andre Comte-Sponville, former Professor of Philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris, from his Book of Atheist Spirituality :

‘The first time it happened I was in the forest in the north of France. I must have been twenty five or twenty six. I had just been hired to teach high-school philosophy in a school on the edge of a canal, up in the fields near the Belgian border. That particular evening, some friends and I had gone for a walk in the forest we liked so much. Night had fallen. We were walking. Gradually our laughter faded, and the conversation died down. Nothing remained but our friendship, our mutual trust and shared presence, the mildness of the night air and of everything around us…My mind empty of thought, I was simply registering the world around me – the darkness of the undergrowth, the incredible luminosity of the sky, the faint sounds of the forest…only making the silence more palpable. And then, all of a sudden…What? Nothing: everything! No words, no meanings, no questions, only – a surprise. Only – this. A seemingly infinite happiness. A seemingly eternal sense of peace. Above me, the starry sky was immense, luminous and unfathomable, and within me there was nothing but the sky, of which I was a part, and the silence, and the light, like a warm hum, and a sense of joy with neither subject nor object …Yes, in the darkness of that night, I contained only the dazzling presence of the All…. 

…’This is what Spinoza meant by eternity’, I said to myself – and naturally, that put an end to it.’

What he’s talking about is an intense human experience. I recognise it because I’ve had one too.  Most religious people, as well as Comte-Sponville himself, as an Atheist, would call this a ‘spiritual experience’. In this example, it’s particularly powerful. But it’s on the same spectrum as the experience created by great art, whether it’s the shiver down the spine from a Beethoven slow movement, or the instant of human connectedness from a great painting, novel, film or play, or the sense of wonder from seeing the stars on a dark night.

Albert Einstein put it in a cosmological context:

‘A human being is part of a whole, called by us the Universe – a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as separate from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to the affection for those nearest us.’


‘There are moments when one feels free from one’s own identification with human limitations and inadequacies. At such moments one imagines that one stands on some spot of a small planet, gazing in amazement at the cold yet profoundly moving beauty of the eternal, the unfathomable; life and death flow into one, and there is neither evolution nor destiny, only being.’

This is non-religious ‘spirituality’ in Comte-Sponville’s sense. Einstein isn’t suggesting there’s a spiritual realm or nature-defying miracles. He’s talking about enhanced human experience, in this case triggered by the natural world. Many artists try to do the same thing. As the painter Mark Rothko said: ‘A painting is not about an experience. It is an experience.’

There are a few things that these artistic and natural examples of ‘experiential spirituality’ have in common:

  • For a start, they are non-intellectual. As Comte-Sponville found, as soon as you try to analyse what’s happening – in his case by thinking about Spinoza – it disappears. Beethoven didn’t want you to think about the structure of his music, he wanted you to be transported by it. (OK, that’s a guess, but it seems likely.)
  • Secondly, the core of the experience is a sense of transcendence or connectedness. That may mean other people, wider humanity, the rest of the universe, or simply ‘something greater’. The experience carries with it a diminishment of the ego, sometimes to the point where there is no self-awareness, or separation between subject and object. Rather than ‘you’ looking at ‘it’, there is simply ‘looking’.
  • The feeling that goes with it is powerful and positive – elation, joy, compassion. Sadly, for most people, especially those of us who tend to over-intellectualise, it’s often short-lived. We quickly come back to normality as we start to think about it.
  • The final characteristic is that the experience is individual. As far as we know, the others in Comte-Sponville’s party just had a nice walk. Even sharing art with others in a concert hall, or a gallery, our experience is entirely subjective and individual.

The big difference between a religious person and a humanist in considering any type of spiritual experience is that the religious person may see it as a religious experience, a manifestation of the spiritual realm, perhaps of the divine. The humanist would say it is a subjective human experience, available to anyone, taking place in a human brain, triggered by a complex combination of external sensory inputs and internal memories and processes, and nothing to do with a spiritual realm or deity, both of which she thinks are imaginary. Spiritual experiences can even be created in the laboratory or by taking the right drugs.

But knowing all that does little or nothing to diminish the power of the experience. Our ability to have a sense of transcendence and connectedness with others is arguably one of the defining features of our humanity. There is nothing magic here, just the still-mysterious characteristics of human consciousness.

Many religions give spiritual experience a higher priority in life than Humanism does, because they equate it with getting closer to god. So they deliberately set up the conditions in which it is likely to occur: awe-inspiring architecture, emotionally-powerful music, practices of contemplation and meditation which make people slow down and provide the sort of pause in daily life offered by Comte-Sponville’s silent walk in the forest. We don’t need the accompanying religious baggage, and I’m sure Richard Dawkins doesn’t aspire to the Dalai Lama’s spirituality, but – given that spiritual experiences are almost always positive and life-affirming – maybe we should be have the humility to accept that there are things we can learn here.

Some humanists find all this difficult to swallow. One reason is simply a dislike, even a phobia, of anything that smells of religion. Those who have had to break free from a strong faith background, or suffered from faith-based persecution, may understandably feel that way though, personally, I don’t have any concern that my Humanism will somehow be contaminated by religiosity.

Another, less understandable, reason seems to be a reluctance to accept the fundamental difference between our growing ability to observe and understand how the human brain works, and the subjective experience of being a human with a brain.

Almost all humanists would agree that the scientific method is by far the best way to understand objective truths about the world, including brains. But subjective experience is not, by definition, open to direct observation by anyone other than the person experiencing it, though it is undeniably both ‘real’ to that person and, as far as we know, unique, as we can’t get into the minds of others other than through their descriptions, or their artistic expression. If I say I can see the face of Jesus in a cloud, no-one can deny that’s what I’m seeing. They can, of course, demonstrate that it’s an illusion brought on by our brilliant facial recognition software, but that’s a different point. The emotional, maybe ‘spiritual’, experience of hearing Schubert’s string quintet is not the same as explaining and observing what’s happing in my brain while I’m listening to it, just as the (definitely non-spiritual) pain of shutting my fingers in a drawer is not the same as describing the responses of my nervous and hormonal systems – they don’t hurt.

You might think this is blindingly obvious. Sadly, there are people who really do resist the idea – the fact – that subjective experience is real to the subject. Maybe personality differences come into play, in the same way as we don’t all have the same appreciation of the arts.

What we’re talking about here is part of the experience of being a human being. Without ‘experiential spirituality’ there can be no gasp at an unexpected beautiful view, no ‘Comte-Sponville moments’, and a huge diminishment of great art.

But even accepting all of that, should humanists actually use the word ‘spiritual’ in this experiential sense? Other terms might do just as well to convey what we mean without confusing the two. ‘Sense of the transcendent’ maybe?

The problem with avoiding the S word altogether is illustrated by this quote from Christina Rees, a spokesperson for the Church of England’s General Synod, talking a few years ago on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme about why humanists and other atheists should continue to be banned from its Thought for the Day slot (as they still are):

‘Most people, more than 80 percent, understand life as having a spiritual dimension…’  whereas atheists are ‘…coming from a position that denies the spiritual dimension… a partial and diminished perspective…There is more to life than you can see, touch and measure.’

In her view, atheists are lesser beings because they lack a spiritual dimension. Like Mr Spock, they may appear to be human but have the essence of humanity missing. I don’t think humanists should accept that.

Another problem with saying that humanists should disapprove of the S word is that fellow atheists and other non-religious people often choose to use it because they think it’s the best word for the job.

This is from an article by Joe Cornish, the respected British landscape photographer:

‘For some landscape photographers, Nature’s beauty is all the evidence they need of a Divine Creator. For others, scientific curiosity reveals an alternative explanation, where over unimaginable aeons our plant has evolved into the unique wonder that is our home today. This is a form of ‘terrestrial theology’, a belief in the fundamental, non-negotiable laws of physics. It’s not by any means depressing, reductionist scientific thinking based on the inevitability of nature’s immutable laws, but a broad church which encourages compassion and wonder in the beauty that we find in landscape, and humility in the face of what the world has to teach us. There is little doubt that for many of us, landscape photography is a spiritual journey.’

Is anyone going to say to him ‘Sorry Joe, you’re obviously an atheist, so you’re not allowed to use that word’?

And here again is the painter, Mark Rothko, whose work is often referred to as ‘spiritual’:

‘Art to me is an anecdote of the spirit, and the only means of making concrete the purpose of its varied quickness and stillness.’

Both Cornish and Rothko are using these words because, as artists – one inspired by nature, the other by introspection – they are the best words they know to convey what they mean. And they don’t seem to care whether they have religious baggage. In fact an article in the Telegraph about the Rothko exhibition in London in 2008 was headed ‘Rothko exhibition: art replaces religious faith‘.

There may be humanists who would be happy to dismiss the entire world of art as contaminated by the same ‘irrationality virus’ as religion, but I’ve never met one.

Inner spirituality

Philip Sheldrake’s Brief History of Spirituality defines it as the ‘deepest values and meanings by which people live.’ Like all definitions, that’s far from perfect, but it highlights the other sense in which we use the term, to mean the profound interior life that we all have, and which, to varying degrees, we know and examine, but can rarely fully control.

It’s in this sense that the NHS uses the term in its advice to carers on ‘spiritual care’:

Difficult or traumatic events in your life might lead you to ask questions about why something is happening to you or why something happens at all. Similarly, when a person is ill or dying they might think about what their life means or what will happen after they die.

Spirituality, or looking for meaning in your life, is a personal thing. For some people it means religious belief, but many believe that spirituality doesn’t have to be religious. Listening to beautiful music or appreciating nature may be spiritual experiences for some.

For some people, awareness of their own or someone else’s mortality brings questions about life’s meaning and purpose. For others, spirituality might already play an important and guiding role in their life. Religious faith may help some people to make sense of their situation, but others might find that they begin to question the beliefs that they have built their lives on.

Having the opportunity to talk about spiritual issues can help carers and the people they care for to feel more at peace and better able to deal with what the future might bring.

That’s precisely the type of need that humanist Pastoral Support teams aim to provide to non-religious people in hospitals and prisons. This type of spirituality may be ill-defined from a philosophical perspective, but we all know what it means. It’s about human beings in difficult circumstances thinking seriously about their lives and needing to share their thoughts and emotions with other human beings.  Are we really going to ask the NHS to change the term they use? If so, to what? Or is it more sensible to accept that humanists and other non-religious people have – in this sense – spiritual needs and we want to help meet them?

While the NHS has ‘spiritual care’, education has ‘spiritual development’, a component of ‘Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural’ (SMSC)  development on which Ofsted inspects all state schools[2]. Unfortunately, their definition of the ‘spiritual’ component is an example of the muddle and ambiguity that those who dislike the S word complain about:

  • beliefs, religious or otherwise, which inform their perspective on life and their interest in and respect for different people’s feelings and values
  • sense of enjoyment and fascination in learning about themselves, others and the world around them, including the intangible
  • use of imagination and creativity in their learning
  • willingness to reflect on their experiences.

But buried within this hotpotch is development of the element of children’s inner life that touches on the ‘deepest values and meanings by which people live’.

Setting aside the religious component –which is there, but certainly not dominant, in either the NHS or Ofsted examples – this is all about the ongoing subjective experience of being a human being, and about understanding that, in this profound sense, others have inner lives too. Unlike Experiential Spirituality, which is about finite experiences, this is the part of us which has the experiences, the essential part of our humanity that exists all the time – whether we are consciously aware of it or not – and which we can examine and talk about to others. I’ll call it ‘inner spirituality’.

Pulling all this together…

‘Spirituality’ is an ambiguous term. But so are other terms we’re happy to use, including ‘Humanism’ and ‘religion’. The ambiguity lies is its breadth of meaning, which has extended beyond the original sense of ‘spirit’ (meaning the ‘animating or vital principle in man and animals’) to cover:

  • Inner spirituality: our profound inner life, relating to the ‘deepest values and meanings’ by which we live; the ongoing part of us that can be subject to self-examination, care and development; and the part that can be impacted by spiritual experiences.
  • Experiential spirituality: a wide spectrum of experiences ranging from the experience of art to a full-blown, unexpected Comte-Sponville type experience, but sharing the common characteristics of being non-intellectual -  feeling not thinking; involving a sense of transcendence or connectedness with something larger; being associated with emotions of elation, joy and compassion; and being specific to the individual.
  • Religious spirituality: the realm of god(s), miracles and the paranormal to which spiritual experiences may be attributed by religious people.

Humanists may prefer not to use the S word if there’s another way of conveying what we mean, maybe aesthetic awareness, sense of transcendence, love of nature, or simply love. On the other hand, we shouldn’t let the baggage of religious spirituality put us off if it’s the best word available, or if we need to reclaim it from those who seek to use it to exclude the non-religious.

Whatever terms we use, spiritual experience, and awareness of our own and others’ profound inner lives, are important parts of what it means to be human – and a humanist. And while this will remain an area of difference between humanists and the religious, we can also recognise it as an important area of common ground.



[1] Thanks to John Woodhouse for highlighting this quote.

[2] Thanks to Marilyn Mason for pointing out the ambiguities in the educational sphere.

My spirituality as a humanist

This article by Saif Rahman is cross-posted from the New Humanist magazine

Dedicated to the late Robin Williams, based on a conversation between Hughman and Warner

Is there any value in spirituality? As a non-believer you might expect me to say no, but the sentimental part in me would like to say yes. Of course when I talk about the human spirit, I’m not talking about some ghostly ethereal entity living inside my body. I’m talking about the non-material essence of being ‘human’. My colleagues might prefer the term ‘humanity,’ but for me this doesn’t capture our inter-relationship with the universe. There aren’t many words in our language that do, so I use the words spirit or spirituality in the same way I loosely use the phrase ‘Bless You’ when you sneeze. I can only describe it as an acute sense of the sublime, to feel its awe and succumbing to its wonder.

Some religious groups of course attempt to usurp its grandeur by pointing behind the sky’s celestial curtain. But whilst bottling our universe’s mystique may control her essence, it also strips her from a majesty of her very own.

I recall a moment standing on a cliff’s edge looking down towards the sea, watching the waves below beating at its sides, the mountains above cutting through the clouds… and I could feel the presence of something much greater than myself, I knew it was all around me.

country view

I remember lying on the grass underneath a clear night sky, gazing up and seeing more stars than I could imagine; from a billion miles away I could see their intense beams still radiating a billion years after their death.I felt humbled to be a part of them, honoured to still be their witness.

And there are simple, everyday moments too: being with good friends, the magic of a frolicking kitten, a quenching sip of freshly-squeezed juice on a sunny day, that game of tennis which goes to tie-break, or the soft embrace which stops space and time. At times I can be so overwhelmed by the sensation of being alive that I melt; sometimes I just smile and breathe deeply with a sigh.

I no longer imagine any of this belonging to a supernatural. But I do believe the thing which built those mountains has a name. It’s called plate tectonics. The thing causing those stars to twinkle is called nuclear fusion.  I understand that my body naturally craves specific foods for nutritional value, sometimes just for psychological reasons. Humility is simply recognizing our muted relevance in an infinite universe, and being grateful for it doesn’t require a someone or a something to be thankful towards.  I recognise that being happy in a comfortable social setting is an evolutionary trait of my species. And the intoxication of romance is most likely driven by the need to procreate.

Understanding provides me with the depth of perception to view the world as profoundly and with as much empathy and compassion as humanly possible. I am one with the universe, not metaphysically, but physically. So whilst I may be that bungling imperfect gene, I made it against all odds to be here.  I am as much the universe as a supernova. Made of the same particles; governed by the same forces.

I treasure its magnificence and to think that out of all the things in the universe, I am lucky enough to be one of the only things that can. I love learning, hitting that perfect serve, and hearing the sound of uncontrollable laughter. What a beautiful time to be alive and to explore ourselves, our time and our place in this universe. And that’s simply wonderful.

Saif Rahman is a strategic consultant, author of The Islamist Delusion, and founder of HCMA (the Humanist and Cultural Muslim Association).

Today’s tweeting at Congress (Sunday)

Parallel sessions

09.00 – 10.30

‘Giving the gift of offence’

Twitter: #WHCoffence

Account:  @humanism2014

‘Should humanism matter in national and local politics?’

Twitter: #WHCpolitics

Account: @EU_Humanists

‘Threatened but not silenced’ No.2

Twitter: #WHCtbns

Account: @IHEU

‘Building humanist communities and 21st century Enlightenment’ No.2

Twitter: #WHCcommunity

Account: @DHumanists

‘Manifestations of Hate’

Twitter: #WHChate

Account: @theBHAblog

Plenary session five

11.15 – 12.30

Richard Dawkins interviewed by Samira Ahmed

Twitter: #WHC2014

Accounts: @BHAhumanists and @humanism2014

Parallel sessions

13.45 – 15.15

‘Enlightenment thinking and the religious legacy’

Twitter: #WHClegacy


‘Opportunities for freedom of expression in the digital age’

Twitter: #WHCdigital

Account: @DHumanists

‘The difficult case of incitement to hatred’

Twitter: #WHChate

Account: @humanism2014

‘Humanists in international politics’

Twitter: #WHCpolitics

Account: @EU_Humanists

Plenary session six

16.00 – 17.30

Taslima Nasreen speaks about her career

Twitter: #WHC2014

Accounts: @BHAhumanists and @humanism2014

Today’s tweeting at Congress (Saturday)

Plenary session three

09.00 – 10.30

‘Against the odds’

With Gulalai Ismail, Asif Mohiuddin, Agnes Ojera, Nick Ross

Twitter: #WHC2014

Accounts: @BHAhumanists and @humanism2014

Parallel sessions

11.15 – 12.45

‘Religion-inspired censorship’

Twitter: #WHCcensor

Account: @BHAhumanists

‘Threatened but not silenced’ No. 1

Twitter: #WHCtbns

Account: @IHEU

‘Threats to freedom of expression in the digital age’

Twitter: #WHCdigital

Account: @theBHAblog

‘Let’s talk about sex’

Twitter hashtag: #WHCsex

Account: @LGBTHumanistUK

‘Key challenges to freedom of religion or belief’

Twitter: #WHCbelief

Account: @EU_Humanists

‘Some case studies in free speech’

Twitter: #WHCcases

Account: @_CFIUK

Parallel sessions

13.45 – 15.15

‘A life dedicated to human rights’

Twitter: #WHCrights


‘Getting the message out: challenges to news and opinion journalism’


Account: @_CFIUK

‘The war for children’s minds’

Twitter: #WHCchildren

Account: @theBHAblog

‘Is there something about Islam?’

Twitter: #WHCislam

Account: @humanism2014

Plenary session four

16.00 – 17.30

‘Two talks on free speech’

With Philip Pullman, Taslima Nasreen

Twitter: #WHC2014

Accounts: @BHAhumanists and @humanism2014

Today’s tweeting at Congress (Friday)

Plenary session one

10.30 – 12.15

‘Freedom of speech and freedom as such’ 

With A.C Grayling

Twitter: #WHC2014

Accounts: @BHAhumanists and @humanism2014

Parallel sessions

13.45 – 15.15

‘Science or philosophy: which is the best model of free enquiry?’

Twitter : #WHCarmchair

Account: @_CFIUK

‘Drowning in noise: how accommodating nonsense poisons out discourse’

Twitter: #WHCnonsense


‘Thinking and speaking freely about religion’

Twitter: #WHCtaboo


‘Building humanist communities and a 21st Century Enlightenment’

Twitter: #WHCcommunity


‘Manifestations of hate’

Twitter: #WHClimits


 Plenary session two

16.00 – 17.30

‘A 21st century Enlightenment: Threats and Promises’

With Heiner Bielefeldt, Jo Glanville, Francesca Stavrakopoulou, Andrew Copson, Samira Ahmed

Twitter: #WHC2014

Accounts: @BHAhumanists and @humanism2014