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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Saturday, June 18, 2011

"Spirituality" - a word that we don't need

Jerry has an interesting post on whether we need a new word to replace "spirituality" - and this has led to a long thread on the subject, to which I made a couple of brief contributions.

I've got to say that I find all this bemusing. Maybe it's one of those specifically American things that I just don't "get". But the word "spirituality" conveys almost nothing to me. It's not a word that I ever use from day to day or that I ever even hear from day to day.

That doesn't mean I literally never use it - I just checked the manuscript of my forthcoming book, Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, and I found that the word appears twice. Still, let's look at those two appearances. The first is: "Though otherworldly powers and agents were invoked, it [the invocation of these powers in Roman religion] was for communal purposes, rather than to enhance the spirituality of the individual." Here I am elaborating the views of Jonathan Kirsch, and I at least (I can't be quite so sure about Kirsch) am talking about individual religious experience, not some other kind of experience involving a sense of the sublime, or of joy, or ecstasy, or tranquility, or unselfconscious absorption in beauty - or anything of the sort.

The second is, "The case concerned Santeria, a syncretic religion that contains elements of Roman Catholicism mixed with traditional African spirituality." So here I am talking about traditional beliefs and practices that we would normally regard as religious.

I do use the word "spiritual" a lot throughout the book, but to mean something more like "otherworldly" - as in the phrase "spiritual salvation"; I do not use it to mean anything like "involving the peaks and depths of human psychological experience" or "pertaining to values that contrast with those of material wealth" (if this is what the word "spiritual" connotes for some people). I suppose I have sometimes encountered such usages in everyday life, and I can get the point. 

But usually we want to talk about much more specific things, and we have a rich vocabulary with which to do so. Even my most "spiritual" friends - those who may be deeply involved in the non-literary arts, or in love of nature, or who are sympathetic to New Age thinking - don't throw around the word "spirituality", at least not in my presence. Nor do hear them describe themselves as "spiritual" (which sounds kind of weird and pretentious).

We can get along just fine without these words as far as I can see - except when we are talking about what purport to be experiences of some kind of "otherworld" or supernatural realm, or about associated beliefs and practices.

There is usually something more specific to be said, and, as I mentioned, a rich vocabulary to employ. We can, for example, talk about the glory, or sublimity, or majesty, or just the beauty of nature ... and we can go on to elaborate. We can discuss having extraordinary experiences of ecstasy or awe or flow or numinosity (a word that seems to me to have lost any specifically religious meaning in common parlance, but we can avoid that word, too, if it bothers anyone). And we can employ the well-known phrase bequeathed to us by Maslow, "peak experiences", for those moments when we seem to transcend or escape or set aside or feel lifted above - not this world, but, rather, our everyday doubts, hesitations, anxieties, inner conflicts, and cares - becoming absorbed in the sheer beauty or joy (or whatever it may be) that we are experiencing, or simply in our own task or activity.

I could go on with this ... the English language is quite capable of conveying many detailed and varied ideas that come within this ballpark. So why on earth is there supposed to be a problem?


Svlad Cjelli said...

Ah, so it's not just odd to swedish eyes and ears.

Normally only assorted hippies describe themselves as "spirituella".

Russell Blackford said...

Maybe some of our American friends will turn up and explain it. Or maybe some of my Australian friends will turn up and say that they have a different experience here. Well, when I say "here" I mean Australia, not where I physically am at the moment, which is still beautiful Vanuatu.

Charles Sullivan said...

Have you ever been to California?

Russell Blackford said...

Yeah, lots of times. Well, hmmm, not "lots". But a few times.

I don't doubt that the word gets thrown around a fair bit there, but isn't that more a hippie thing? And in my experience here, even hippies seems to be able to use other words.

Christian Munthe said...

This post echoes my own stance to this word exactly, Russell. Nevertheless, I've taken some interest in it, since it has started to infiltrate both public debate and research – in religion of course, but also medicine. Just the other month, I stumbled upon these items, for instance:


http://www.facit.org/FACITOrg/Questionnaires (scroll down to the FACIT-Sp items)

Sean (quantheory) said...

There's a popular conception of well-being (at least in America) that involves "spiritual health" or "wellness" or something like that. I've lost track of the number of times that I've encountered some group, otherwise not committing to any particular religious framework, that emphasizes different types of well-being, in a sort of litany "physical, emotional, mental, social, spiritual" (or something similar; the military had a fitness framework that replaced "mental" with "family", but kept the rest). Spirituality is always the last and most vague of these, but often included in a "holistic" version of health. As I recall, even my alma mater's counselors once set up a booth where they talked about these five attributes of "wellness", with a cute little diagram of five fingers on a hand.

Many Catholic hospitals and alt medicine practitioners have materials to this effect, but it reaches all kinds of institutions that provide mental health or crisis counseling services of one sort or another.

The assumption in play is obviously that spirituality is part of the normal human experience. The classic view of the spiritually deficient person is not so much an atheist, but someone who desperately struggles to believe, but emotionally feels unable to do so because of doubt instilled by some kind of trauma or deprivation. Lacking spirituality is being at best lost or adrift, and at worst antisocial, cynical, and in denial about one's emotional problems.

This is at its most ham-handed in low-budget evangelical Christian films, where any atheists are either token bit characters, psychopaths, or people who would believe except that they've had some bad experience that turned them against Christians (or against the God that deep down they still believe in).

But you also see it in the cheap, Oprah-meets-condescending-post-colonial-New-Age culture here, which is frankly a far more common and virulent strain of "spirituality" than the remnants of the original hippie culture. As in "Eat, Pray, Love" and similar tripe, the woman who is caught up in her unfulfilling, routine, shallow (first world) life seeks some sort of spiritual journey to renew her sense of purpose and negate her sense of "I'm wasting my life lost in a sea of things that I don't remember why I'm doing." Then she goes through some combination of taking up a hobby (painting, cooking, doing yoga...), falling in love, and seeking spiritual guidance. (This comes from a guru or a priest or anyone else who claims to be wise; no specific religion or credentials are needed, just a good set of trite sayings.) After a brief period of conflict due to the woman's insecurities and lingering pessimism, presto, these different new developments all shore each other up and her life is brilliant and full of rainbows.

Bonus points if her problem is solved using insights from a part of the world where many people live in crippling poverty. You don't have to feel bad for those people though, because all that native spirituality keeps them happy despite their material deficiencies, whereas our blindly materialistic culture is what destroys our spirituality and makes us unhappy, in a sort of twisted parody of poetic justice.

Sean (quantheory) said...

So one reason that people go through the motions of saying "I'm spiritual, but not religious", or other lip service to spirituality, is that not being spiritual is associated with lacking any feeling of awe, having a depressive feeling that nothing in one's life matters enough to continue with, a listless sense of being lost and without meaningful goals, and sometimes with having a sort of sour-grapes cynicism that sneers at and yet envies those who feel no such emptiness. The only fleeting and insufficient pleasures left are moments of shallow hedonism and of latching on to others to fill the holes in one's life, which never quite suffice to grant lasting fulfillment.

But being spiritual means that you're content, and that you have the feeling that the universe is just a great place to be, and that you're connected to something bigger than yourself that makes you feel both special and small at the same time. And you know what you want (or at least what you like) and you really don't feel the need to be hostile towards anyone at all because life is just great and why bother. Even when it's not going great, you have some equanimity, some psychological mechanism that makes you feel like it's OK (whether that's simple calming meditation or praying to a god that reassures you or remembering that everything will be fine when you die and go to heaven anyway).

So those are the stakes when one is talking about spirituality. Not being spiritual is seen as being emotionally crippled or stunted, in a wide variety of circles (though obviously not nearly all).

Of course, the religious-y parts aren't necessary for the equanimity. Nor are the equanimity, the optimism, the sense of social conscience, the lack of anger, and the feelings of awe necessarily interdependent. But "spirituality", as a term and fictionally universal experience, is supposed to cover all of those.

When you talk to someone, knowing (or at least vaguely sensing) that this is what being spiritual means to them, it becomes a bit difficult to explain oneself. Saying "spiritual" conjures up the idea of spirits. Saying "spiritual, but..." (followed by a lengthy explanation) may seem boring, idiosyncratic, pretentious, or simply to be protesting too much. Saying "I'm not spiritual." gives the impression that one is emotionally a clod with no "big picture" view of anything, and no interest in the world outside one's most immediate selfish concerns and personal obsessions. Or else a tragic case of a sensitive but downtrodden person who must be rescued from their increasingly disappointing life. Which is then something that you might have to explain that you aren't, except that if you were one of those, maybe you'd just be in denial, and now this is complicated.

A lot of this doesn't matter to a great number of atheists, because a lot of people never really think about spirituality anyway (and many atheists have social groups composed mostly of irreligious and non-spiritual people). But a lot of atheists here can't entirely avoid the issue, either because of their social position, or their family, or because they are public figures who end up in frustrating conversations about this word with far too many barely-related meanings and connotations and cliched narratives attached.

Anyway, I think I've grappled with the word to the point of burnout now. I hope some of this helps.

Svlad Cjelli said...


Though "spirits" (plural) for me conjure up images of vengeful haunts, moods, forest fey and inebriating beverage.

axxyaan said...

First of all, I'm biased. I'm a member of the SMB in Belgium. The "Stuurgroep voor Morele Bijstand" (The Steering Group for Moral Support). I volenteer to visit people in hospitals and homes for the elderly in the hope I can provide some (non-religious) moral support.

And yes we emphathise different types of well-being: physical, psychological, social and spiritual although we also use "existential" for the latter. What we mean with the spiritual/existential is the fact that people tend to find their lives meaningful. Sometimes people's lives take a turn which makes them no longer experience life as meaningful. That is what we talk about when we say someone is in spiritual or existential need. It can happen to religious and non-religious alike.

We don't mean the feeling of awe. We don't mean a feeling of general contendness or a feeling of being connected to the universe. People can lack any and all of those and still experience their lifes as meaningful.

Dan L. said...

Americans belonging to generation X and younger often use the phrase "I'm spiritual but not religious" to indicate that they care about big questions and mysterious things, but don't necessarily approach them the same way as do other parties to the conversation. Imagine a young man introducing his hippy fiancee to his traditionalist Catholic grandmother. "Where do you go to church, young lady?"

My impression is that a lot of atheists would like to use this particular trope to challenge the notion that the internal lives of atheists are somehow incomplete or impoverished as compared to those who would describe themselves as "religious."

To that end, getting into specifics is counterproductive. Atheists want to get across the idea that we also get the warm fuzzies sometimes and it doesn't necessarily have anything to do with gods. Categorizing those fuzzies would just make us sound like Science Officer Spock again, and the conversation is about how to avoid doing that.