Personally, the word “spiritual” makes me cringe. Although I understand its completely secular etymology from the Latin noun, spiritus, “breath”, when I hear it, various images enter my mind uninvited: unicorns, Deepak Chopra and those annoying Jesus messages religious relatives post on Facebook on Sundays.
However, with Sam Harris’s new book, Waking Up due out later this year, atheists are again contemplating the meaning of “spiritual” and if we can rightly apply it to ourselves. Judging from the publisher’s description of Waking Up, it appears Harris thinks that we can:
Waking Up is part seeker’s memoir and part exploration of the scientific underpinnings of spirituality. No other book marries contemplative wisdom and modern science in this way.
As a “seeker’s memoir”, Waking Up, is sure to be of interest to many non religious Americans; a 2012 Pew Research Centre survey reveals that 37% of the American public, who are unaffiliated with any religion, identify as “spiritual but not religious” (see image below where I’ve drawn a rectangle around the relevant section).
Some prominent atheists (note that the unaffiliated aren’t all atheists) also apply the word to themselves; Lawrence Krauss advocates for the atheist reclamation of spiritual in his tweet but if you look at the replies, you can see the majority of atheists, just like I do, feel uncomfortable with using “spiritual” to describe awe and wonder. This compels Krauss to reply with a definition that we find, intellectually at least, more palatable. It’s a perfectly fine definition, but unless you consistently remind yourself and others about the type of “spiritual” you are talking about, using the word seems contrived.
Richard Dawkins, also feels “spiritual” is a perfectly good word that the religious have hijacked and he is probably right because I see spirituality linked with religion throughout popular culture; it’s especially apparent in how book stores categorize their books. Amazon’s religious and new age books reside together in their Religion & Spirituality section and Canada’s very own Chapters-Indigo does the same.
However, as Krauss did in his tweets, here in this excellent TVO interview about The Unbelievers documentary, Dawkins must resort to an alternate explanation of “spiritual” to explain why he is a spiritual person; this momentarily confuses the host even though he intellectually knows that Dawkins’s secular definition is a good one. Again, the word “spiritual” just does not quite fit.
But why do we cringe? Why is it such a struggle to reclaim this word? American Atheists president, David Silverman hits on why many of us feel awkward defining ourselves as “spiritual”:
Atheists sometimes use this word “Spiritual” to mean “compassionate” or “full of awe”, and this is dishonest, because that is NOT how it is interpreted AND WE KNOW IT. When atheists use muddy words like this, we are trying to soften the blow of our atheism, for the benefit of the theist. The problem is we end up giving the wrong impression, AND WE KNOW IT, and this only makes us look smaller, less committed, and fundamentally religious “deep down”.
I think he has a point. When we aren’t trying to make our disbelief more palatable to believers, we are probably trying to say, “hey, I’m like you too” as if we are somehow less than human if we don’t share a “spiritual” bond. Unfortunately, it doesn’t make us feel more connected to our fellow humans, but instead feels forced, hypocritical and ultimately distasteful.
Let’s stop using this word. There are so many other words for us to use and Dawkins lists them: wonder, awe, moved. These words don’t require a lengthy explanation for why they apply to us as atheists.
What do you think? Should we abandon the word, “spiritual” or reclaim and redefine it for ourselves?