Can Atheists Be Spiritual? Spoiler: No!

by | February 1, 2014

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).

Spiritual but Not Religious

37% of Religiously Unaffiliated Americans Identify as “Spiritual but not Religious”

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?

13 thoughts on “Can Atheists Be Spiritual? Spoiler: No!

  1. Veronica Abbass

    I am “moved” to agree with you and with Silverman: “I’m not spiritual – I’m an atheist.”

  2. Acitta

    This interesting talk was given at CFI Ontario a few years ago. Dr. John Vervaeke: Is a Secular Spirituality Possible? Basically, Dr. Vervaeke says that there are several profound types of psychological experiences that are commonly interpreted in religious terms but can be interpreted without religion and can be experienced by non-believers.

  3. Jason

    I tend to agree with you here. Spiritual always make raise a Spockian eyebrow when I hear it because it far too often refers to a supernatural type of spiritualism, not the type of “awe at how amazing the natural world is” kind if spiritualism.
    Having said that I’m huge Sam Harris fan and really looking forward to this book to see if he can change my mind.

    1. billybob

      Sam Harris a bit to religious for me. Sounds like an Indian swami sometimes.

      Dawkins also dabbles in the spirituality nonsense.

  4. Ultra

    The labels people apply to themselves are about personal identity. The fact that you or someone else doesn’t think the label communicates that identity properly is irrelevant. People choose labels often for very personal reasons.

    If a label confuses you, you should ask about it. Whining about the labels others choose is just childish pedantry. Would you tell someone who identifies as ‘queer’ that they should not use that word, because some ignorant asshole might misunderstand?

    1. Diana MacPherson Post author

      “Would you tell someone who identifies as ‘queer’ that they should not use that word, because some ignorant asshole might misunderstand?”

      I might, if the term “queer” were predominantly associated with its opposite meaning and by applying it suggested the person was the opposite of who they were i.e.: heterosexual. The same with “spiritual” – a term predominantly associated with people who are religious or subscribe to various forms of mysticism, which is the opposite of a person who is an atheist and does not believe in gods, abrahamic, mystical or ancient.

        1. Diana MacPherson Post author

          ….because that limited definition you provided is the opposite of “queer”….right.

          I see you are trolling. I don’t engage trolls.

  5. Nigel Cook

    I am in complete agreement with Diane. Spiritual is synonimous with spiritualism, sceances, mystics, fortunetellers, and other such nonsense. There are lots of words that convey wonder at the natural world, and others that discribe internalised psycological states. Athiests who use the word ‘spiritual” in these contexts are doing a diservice to those of us who have a narrower perspective on the meaning of the word.
    Ultra may be correct in saying that you can label yourself as you see fit, but that does not mean that others will see you in the same way that you see yourself. If you think that is irrelevant then you are sadly deluded. Inaccurate discriptions are simply inaccurate no matter what you label yourself. Striving for accuracy in defintion is hardly pedantic.

  6. William R. Dickson

    The word “spiritual” doesn’t really mean anything to me. It’s one of those gibberish words with a definition comprised of other gibberish words that ultimately turns into gibberish all the way down. Discussing spirituality is no more useful than discussing fairies and jackalopes, I think.

  7. Corwin

    I’m on the side of reclaiming, actually. I think “spiritual” has a resonance that words like “emotional” and “uplifting” don’t quite capture, in that it taps into the idea of basic and long-term mental and emotional health, stability and openness. I can certainly see how using “spiritual” might come across as overly conciliatory to religion and superstition, but being clear about the sense in which one is using the word should be sufficient to overcome those concerns.

    In any case, welcome to Canadian Atheist! It’s great to have you on board, and I look forward to reading more of your posts in the future.

  8. Wayne

    I don’t use the word “Spiritual” myself, simply because it has been seen to refer to an exclusively religious context (which it does not), and I agree with Dawkins that the word has been hijacked by the religious!
    As long as the religious don’t start using “Awe” and Wonder” to describe supernatural occurrences, then I am OK.
    After all, “Don we now our gay apparel, Fa la la, la la la” no longer means what it did when the song was written.
    Times they are a changing!

  9. Pingback: Chapter One of Sam Harris’s Waking Up Available | Canadian Atheist

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.