Religion and Spirituality

Atheist spirituality: does it exist?

I’ve always heard people say, “I’m not religious, but I am spiritual.” For years I puzzled over what this meant. In some instances, “spirituality” seemed full of woo–and I associated it with Reiki, homeopathy, Tarot readings, and people who take yoga way too seriously. In other cases, the people who claimed to be spiritual seemed perfectly reasonable. But I just never understood what spirituality was, if it did not involve a god, a church, or a religion. (Things I do not believe in, if that was not clear.) Due to a confusing and often painful series of events in my life, I recently started attending a Unitarian Universalist church–and I suddenly get it. Now I can begin to see where the divide lies. There is a confusion about the word itself. Spirituality need not imply the supernatural, though it often does.

Inherent to the word spirituality is the word spirit. A spirit can be something that lives on after a physical body has decayed–they manifest as ghosts, Ouija board movers, chills in the air, blurry lights, and other such unimpressive things. All evidence points to the scientific conclusion that spirits do not exist. As skeptics, we’d have to agree that this definition of the word spirit is not anything we believe in.

The word spirit is also often synonymous with the word soul. That also implies the supernatural. But others have defined it apart from the properties of immortality and immateriality to mean “the essence of a person.” What can an essence be, if not some dualistic super-property of your normal self? The mind? Most realists and skeptics would equate the mind to the brain, which is physical, dies, and should hold no special significance to a person. So what else could it be?

Massimo Pigliucci can provide a bit of direction, as he discussed this same topic on  his blog. He gives a few different definitions of a spiritual person, including this one:

Which brings me to the third interpretation of the word spiritual: someone who takes care of cultivating and reflecting on his ethics, of behaving justly and compassionately toward his fellow human beings, and of nurturing his aesthetic sense through arts and letters. Okay, by that definition, I am spiritual but not religious. But so is any human being who is not a psychopath.

I’d say he was exaggerating slightly. Perhaps I am more cynical than he, but it seems to me that many people like to believe they are good, ethical people–but do not “take care” to cultivate and reflect upon their ethical decisions. They still aren’t psychopaths.

I do think he has hit upon something, though–the idea that being spiritual requires a consistent reflection upon one’s true values, and attempts to apply these to everyday life in order to feel fulfilled and give meaning to one’s life. People agree that compassion is good, but not everyone would find it rewarding to sacrifice their whole lives to community service, and not everyone wants to form nonprofit organizations and attend protests all day. Spirituality is highly individual. And some people are inclined towards a consistent and structured practice, and some people are not. I do not believe that everyone is spiritual if they are simply a non-psychopathic human being, nor that everyone should be, or ought to try.

I think this is where the definition of spirit or soul as “the essence of a person” comes into play. To be spiritual is to explore how our individual selves find fulfillment, whether it is through compassionate service, aesthetic engagement, social activism, mindful meditation, or, yes, through some commune with a god. Sometimes simply  learning about the universe and thinking about how we are all star stuff gives us meaning, too.

Although spirituality can be at odds with atheism, it is not fundamentally at odds with it. You can almost certainly practice some form of structured meditation on your values and believe in evolution, science, and reality at the same time. There needs to be a better word for spirituality that is firmly reality-based, and has nothing to do with spirits at all.


Featured image: A nebula in the Orion constellation, NASA.

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Vy is a recent graduate working in a neuroscience lab with children and monkeys. She likes sewing, knitting, lifting weights, and reading in her free time. Especially reading about science!


  1. May 22, 2012 at 10:30 am —

    This is possibly the best description of a good meaning of Spirituality I have seen.

    I think the word itself is poisoned, since it is very difficult to separate it from its supernatural connotations. You have done an excellent job doing precisely that.

    This is a topic that often comes up in conversations, and I find myself in trouble trying to explain how a Skeptic and an Atheist can be just as “spiritual” as anyone else, by their own definition of spirituality.

    You have mentioned “star stuff”, a phrase coined by Carl Sagan if I am not mistaken. There is someone who was as much an atheist as anyone can be, and as spiritual as you can get. His works awaken in me the same “spiritual” feelings others can get from prayer and worship, contemplation, meditation… and they do not require you to sacrifice your critical thinking in their altar.

    If being spiritual means you feel deeply and contemplate the world around you with awe and admiration, I am deeply spiritual. If it means you try to be good to other living beings, and make yourself a better person, I am spiritual. If it means you appreciate the beauty in the world around you, and try to be aware of the universe you are a part of, I am spiritual.

    None of those things require me to sacrifice my mind and my ability to think to experience them. They, in fact, broaden my mind and allow me to have a better understanding of the world.

    Anyone who tries to sell Spirituality at the cost of your critical thinking is charging an unreasonable price for it. Anyone who demands the price of your very self, your independence and your intelligence, for the feeling I call Spirituality, is trying to rip you off.

    I am not willing to pay such a price for something I can get for free.

    • May 28, 2012 at 7:45 pm —

      I completely agree with that. One of the things that made me realize I was an atheist was my love for music- when I realized I could experience emotions as forceful and beautiful from something as simple as listening to a song, it seemed like going along with a bunch of stuff I knew didn’t seem very true was a steep price to pay for that feeling.

  2. May 28, 2012 at 1:42 pm —

    Yes! We need a new word.

    This post reminded me of Dennett’s take of spirituality.

    “What these people have realized is one of the best secrets of life: let your self go. If you can approach the world’s complexities, both its glories and its horrors, with an attitude of humble curiosity, acknowledging that however deeply you have seen, you have only just scratched the surface, you will find worlds within worlds, beauties you could not heretofore imagine, and your own mundane preoccupations will shrink to the proper size, not all that important in the greater scheme of things. Keeping that awestruck vision of the world ready at hand while dealing with the demands of daily living is no easy exercise, but it is definitely worth the effort, for if you can stay centered, and engaged, you will find the hard choices easier, the right words will come to you when you need them, and you will indeed be a better person.” (“Breaking the Spell” by Daniel Dennett, p.303)

  3. May 28, 2012 at 7:42 pm —

    I think another definition of the word might be a certain emotion we’ve all experienced but don’t necessarily have a better word for. That time we listened to a song that made us cry, or were struck by the beauty of nature on a hike, or felt good about ourselves after community service, or suddenly thought about the vastness of the universe, or even took a drug that triggered the feeling artificially. I think there is a very specific feeling that goes with a certain kind of experience like that. Some people use “spiritual experience” to identify it, and while I prefer saying “mindblowing” or “life altering” or whatever, I think we mean the same thing. That could explain why people think atheists have no meaning in their lives- they’re imagining what life would be like without those amazing moments.

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