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.
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.
Here’s an illustration of what humanists don’t like. It’s from St.Paul’s letter to the Romans (8:6-11):
6 The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. 7 The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. 8 Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.9 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’.
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.
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. 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.
 Thanks to John Woodhouse for highlighting this quote.
 Thanks to Marilyn Mason for pointing out the ambiguities in the educational sphere.