‘Spirituality’: Jeremy Rodell argues that it’s an important facet of our humanity.
As Marilyn says in her piece, there are fewer differences in our views than you might expect. My main concern is that we should not feel so insecure in our own position – that you can lead a good life without belief in the supernatural – nor feel so hostile to religion, that we should be afraid to recognise experiences and use language that are also used by religious people if the experiences are real and important, and the language is useful in communicating what we mean.
In the same discussion on Radio 4’s Today programme that Marilyn referred to, on the well-worn topic of whether atheists should be allowed to contribute to the “Thought for the Day” slot, Christina Rees, a member of the Church of England’s General Synod, argued that:
“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”.
I was insulted. Here was a member of the General Synod telling me that, as an atheist, I’m a sort of Mr Spock – superficially like other people but missing a core part of what it means to be human. And, by implication, telling me that “spiritual” is not a word I’m allowed to use.
Unfortunately, as we’ve heard from Marilyn, many Humanists go along with this point of view, fearing they will somehow get contaminated by religion if they use the word, or admit to having a spiritual dimension in their lives. I think it’s time we moved beyond that.
What is “spirituality”?
It isn’t hard to define a Humanist spirituality that doesn’t imply any supernatural beliefs, yet accepts the reality of a spiritual dimension to being human.
The key is to recognise the reality of personal “spiritual” experience. Some people have this type of experience a lot in their lives, others only rarely. When a religious person has it they attribute it to an external supernatural cause – a deity, saint, or whatever fits with their beliefs. Of course, we think that’s a mistake. But the experience itself is a fact. Neuroscience can now show us what is going on in someone’s brain at the time, and it’s even possible to create the experience artificially in the laboratory. But that doesn’t diminish the power of the experience itself.
Of course, there’s actually a spectrum of experiences here, ranging in intensity from those stimulated by great art or, in particular, great music, to the more profound and unexpected, as described by the former Sorbonne Professor of Philosophy, Andre Compte-Sponville in this extract 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.”
Personally, I’ve had a couple of similar experiences, neither of which were in any sense “religious”.
If none of this is meaning anything to you, these two quotes from Albert Einstein may help:
“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.”
There are plenty of other examples where people from a wide range of backgrounds and beliefs report similar perspectives and experiences. Whether we’re talking about something as intense as Compte-Sponville describes, or a few seconds of “otherness” brought on by a Beethoven slow movement, spiritual experiences seem to have some common characteristics:
- They are non-intellectual. As Compte-Sponville found, as soon as you start trying to analyse the experience, it disappears.
- There’s a sense of connectedness with a greater whole, other people, wider humanity, the rest of the universe, or simply “something greater” (easy for a deity or two to slip into the religious imagination here!).
- They involve a diminishment of the ego, sometimes to the point where there is no sense of separation between subject and object (not “you” looking at “it”, but simply “looking”).
- They are very individual – others in Compte-Sponville’s party just had a nice walk.
- They are associated with a sense of elation, joy and – often – compassion; they are powerful and positive for the person involved. (And anything that diminishes the ego and increases compassion for humanity is surely a good thing for society.)
- Knowing that they purely subjective does nothing to diminish their power.
And, for most people, intense spiritual experiences are pretty rare.
Whose language it is anyway?
Even if we accept that Humanists have a “spiritual dimension”, it can still be argued that we shouldn’t use the word “spiritual” because of its religious connotations and lack of clear definition.
The snag is that no other word will do as well if we want to communicate what we mean. Terms such as emotion, aesthetic awareness, love of nature, or simply love, goodness or hope simply don’t do the job. Just because it’s used for everything from the experiences of Catholic nuns to New Age gurus, doesn’t mean it’s off-limits to us. In fact atheists are uniquely positioned to understand that all of these people are really talking about the same thing, but they interpret it through the filter of their (to us irrational) beliefs. We shouldn’t allow the religious to ban a useful word from our vocabulary.
Here’s an illustration: that well-known organ of Humanist thought, Photography Monthly magazine, recently carried an article by Joe Cornish – one of the most respected landscape photographers working in the UK today. In it he said:
“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.”
What should we say to him? “Sorry Joe, you’re obviously an atheist, so you’re not allowed to use that word”? I’d rather thank him for explaining that you don’t have to be religious to have a spiritual perspective.
The Humanist response
Because many Humanists put so much energy into being against religion, the important and enriching potential of the spiritual part of our lives has been under-developed. Yet, for many people, spiritual experience is a profound part of being human, even if they rarely experience it in their daily lives.
Christina Rees’s opponent in the Today programme discussion was the humanist philosopher A.C.Grayling. Unfortunately, he didn’t pick up the point about spirituality – perhaps because it’s the type of concept philosophers feel uncomfortable with, or more likely, because there was limited time and he had his own points to make about non-religious philosophers. But what he could have said is something like:
“It’s simply untrue to say that humanists are not spiritual, and rather insulting. Spiritual experiences are pretty much universal across cultures and beliefs, and can be shown to be a feature of the way the human brain works. Many Humanists have as profound a spiritual awareness and understanding as you have. The difference is that they know the cause is not any sort of supernatural agent. But the experience is profound and important in helping us understand our place in the world. If humanists have a fault, it’s that we’ve failed to do enough to acknowledge and develop this aspect of our humanity.”