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Why I Am Not Spiritual

Spirituality as the Alienation of Humanity

By David Eller

If there is one thing that Atheists agree on (and there may only be one thing), it is that there is no good reason to believe in god(s). It is not impossible, however, that one can be an Atheist and still believe in other 'spiritual' things. In fact, we know that there are people who call themselves 'spiritual atheists.' Indeed, it is possible that, even if there is no such thing as god(s), there might still be other lesser spiritual beings or forces - angels, souls, nymphs, fairies, and genies, or karma, mana, auras, and so on. Atheism, in the strict interpretation, refers only to 'no god(s),' not to 'no spiritual/non-material things.' So, when Atheists or other humanists talk about spirit and spiritual experiences, they might literally mean that they believe in and experience non-god spiritual beings or forces.

I certainly think and hope that this is not so. Atheism is not identical to thorough materialism and rationalism, but rationalism is definitely the firmest philosophical underpinning for Atheism, and materialism is surely the most compatible view of the universe. There is no more evidence for other non-material and 'spiritual' beings or forces than there is for god(s), so there is no more reason to accept their existence than that of god(s). But likelier than this interpretation is the chance that 'spiritual' Atheists and humanists mean something different when they use the word 'spirit' or 'spiritual.' In this article I will explore what they probably mean with such talk, show why it is still false talk, and argue that, even more than false, it is anti-human talk - the kind of talk that degrades and diminishes humans and the natural world.

What is Spirit?

Obviously enough, spiritual is 'of or pertaining to spirit.' When one is having a spiritual experience, one is experiencing spirit in some way. Ordinarily, we use spirit in two different senses. The first is as a general name for a class of allegedly real beings that have specific qualities unique to the class; in particular, they are usually invisible, immaterial, and often powerful. Gods are spirits, as are lower (but 'higher-than-human') beings like angels and cherubs and ascended masters, etc. The second is a name for a disposition or feeling or essence, such as 'the spirit of '76' or 'the spirit of the law.' Whether these latter spirits exist independently of 1776 or the law is dubious and probably not even claimed; we can have the spirit of '76 in us today, but we do not (I think) believe that this spirit resides in some spirit-world waiting to possess us.

But, at a deeper level, both of these usages of spirit share a common root. The derivation of the word is from the Latin spiritus, which literally means breath, and further from spirare for to blow or to breathe. We can see this in other familiar English words that share the same root as spirit:

Expire (ex- 'out' + -spire 'breathe') - to breathe out, sometimes for the last time;

Conspire (con- 'with' + -spire 'breathe') - to breathe with or close to (as in secrecy);

Perspire (per- 'through' + -spire 'breathe') - to breathe through, as when your body breathes through your pores;

Inspire (in- 'in' + -spire 'breathe') - to breathe in or take in more breath;

Aspire (ad- 'at' or 'upon' + -spire 'breathe') - to breathe at or upon, to focus your breath on;

Respire/respiration (re- 'again' + -spire 'breathe') - to breathe again, to repeatedly breathe in and out;

Dispirit (dis- 'from' or 'apart' + -spire 'breathe') - to deprive of breath;

Spirited - full of breath.

All of these words have something to do with breath, quite obviously, but breath not in the literal sense: when we 'aspire' toward something or are 'inspired' by something, we are not literally breathing toward it or being breathed into by it. Rather, breath here is metaphorical, an image or representation of something other than our actual breathing process. Webster's in fact defines spirit, as the first entry, as "an animating or vital principle held to give life to physical organisms." Let us look at the same words again, in their metaphorical and everyday meanings.

Expire - to lose or end one's energy or vitality, sometimes even to die.

Conspire - to ally one's energy or vitality with another, as in a conspiracy.

Perspire - to give off one's energy or vitality through the skin.

Inspire - to take in more energy or vitality from some external source.

Aspire - to focus or direct one's energy or vitality on some goal.

Respire/respiration - to continue to get and lose energy or vitality, in other words, to stay alive.

Dispirit - to take away the energy or vitality of another.

Spirited - full of energy or vitality.

Breath in all of these words is a metaphor or analogy for energy, vitality, or what we might call life-force or even life itself; having a lot of it means lots of energy and vitality, and having little of it means being relatively - or absolutely - lifeless.

Breath, in many languages and cultures, is the manifestation or the representation of the force that animates (literally, makes us move) and gives us life. After all, when a body is alive, you can see it breathing, and when it dies, it stops breathing. Breath is motion and life. In ancient Greek, pneuma is the word for air or breath, from pnein for 'to breathe'; it gives us words like pneumatic (full of air) and pneumonia (a disease of our air/lung organs). In ancient Hebrew ruah also means both breath and spirit, and it is commonly used in the Old Testament to refer to the power of its god that brings life out of matter and order out of chaos. Recall that, in Judeo-Christian theology, the universe was created by the speech of a god (the out-rush of air in verbal form) and that Adam was created by Yahweh breathing into earth.

Most if not all religious traditions recognize some life-force like this, whether or not they represent it as breath. Blood is another possible and potent metaphor for life; when we get agitated our 'blood boils,' and when we have no feeling we are 'bloodless.' Heart is still another common metaphor; someone with 'a lot of heart' has great courage and strength, and someone who is 'heartless' lacks either fortitude or compassion. Finally, movement itself is a sign and metaphor of life and life-force; if something packs a lot of emotion punch we call it 'moving,' but if it does not change our life we are 'unmoved.' Most if not all traditions also distinguish between the life-force and the substrate that carries it, at least for a time. When or while a body 'has' this life-force it is active, vibrant, alive. When that force departs, a body is dead.

This can and almost necessarily does lead to a profound dualism: live force or spirit versus non-live matter. Philosophers from Socrates and Plato to Descartes to modern-day mind-body dualists repeat the same distinction, and Christianity and Judaism certainly depend on it as well. Matter is inert, passive, dead on its own; only when it is infused with spirit is it mobile, active, and most importantly alive. But then, in a way, it never is alive, since it is only the 'ghost in the machine' that makes the machine - dead matter - jump and dance for a time. Matter, including the human body, is only (and this attitude is quite explicit in many traditions) a shell, a suit of clothing that the 'living' aspect wears for a time. There is no natural or necessary connection between life and its clothing; reincarnation or soul-immortality equally attest to this fact.

What is Spiritual?

What do people mean when they say they are 'spiritual'? What kinds of things do people, including some Atheists, point to when they describe a 'spiritual' experience? More critically, what do these experiences have in common? Most often, people describe a sunset, a work of art, a great love, or some similar experience as an instance of the spiritual. Scholars too have studied the spiritual and (as many lay people have learned and say themselves) related it to feelings of awe and wonder. It is the majestic things (like mountains and sunsets), the immense things (distant galaxies or the universe itself), the exquisite things (like music), the precious things (like love and babies) that present us with the spiritual. These are the things that give us that feeling of rapture (a term that Christianity has hijacked), of being rapt, from the Latin rapere, 'to seize' or 'to sweep away.' We are literally seized by the power of the experience or the view.

"It is funny, though, how it is nature and humanity that give us most of our 'supernatural experiences'."

And therein lies the clue. What 'spiritual' experiences - whether they are religious or artistic or whatever - have in common is their power, their capacity to grab us and sweep us away emotionally in ways that ordinary life cannot or does not. They are vibrant (from the Latin vibrare 'to shake'), vital (from the Latin vita 'life'), lively (from the Old English lif 'life'), vivacious (from the Latin vivere 'to live'). These are the moments of ecstasy, from the Greek ex-histanai, 'to cause to stand out of itself or oneself.' They feel like more than life, like extra life - more energetic, vibrant, and alive than normal life - and they feel like they come from outside of us.

Spiritual experiences are those that seem to have more of that animating or vital stuff or force than mundane experiences do. They are a 'higher dose' of life-force - one that we do not routinely encounter and one that we could not perhaps sustain for long without damaging ourselves. They speed up our breath, make it more rapid (also from the Latin root rapere), and that is one overt sign of the enhancement of our life-force.

The problem is that, within the dualistic view, this life-force is 'other' than us, outside of us, foreign to us. Where then could such a spiritual experience, such spiritual power, originate from? It cannot be from us, because we are just inert matter. It must be from wherever that first spirit originated, the one that gave us life in the first place. It must be from heaven, from the spirits, from god(s).

That is the great mistake. It is the confusion of 'more life' with 'other life.' It is the attribution of life itself to another reality, another dimension, than the one in which we live every day - and, even more crucially, to a reality or dimension to which we do not have access. These profound, rapturous experiences depend on some other force coming and carrying us away. We are passive in the process. It is funny, though, how it is nature and humanity that give us most of our 'supernatural experiences.'

Spirituality as Alienation

Spiritual experiences are those that make us feel 'more alive.' It is like we tap into an additional fountain of life or energy, one that could only arise from the source of all life or energy - outside of ourselves. It is a 'gift' in the true sense of the word: something given, something not truly our own.

"The spiritual is experienced as getting 'extra life' from somewhere outside of ourselves; in reality, it is discovering deeper or better levels inside of ourselves. It is encountering humanness at its fullest."

Yet it is we - weak puny material beings that we are - who have these experiences. They are merely experiences that are livelier, more forceful, more animated and animating than our run-of-the-mill experiences. It is our emotions that are moved, our awe and wonder that are peaked, our life that is enhanced. It might be an external object - a mountain or a Mozart - that 'inspires' us to this feeling, but it is our feeling. What is usually described as spiritual is really life, really human.

This talk of spiritual and spirituality perpetuates a profound mistake and constitutes a profound betrayal - perhaps the most profound that humans have ever committed against themselves. The mistake is the prejudice or belief or 'faith' that life and its finer aspects, and our ability to appreciate those aspects, are not 'natural' but must be supernatural - that beauty, awe, wonder, love are not things 'of this world.' No, they must belong to a better world, a higher world, and they are only 'revealed' to us for a brief time. These finer, more powerful aspects of life are seen as separate from us, other than us, better than us, outside of us. Surely we - weak puny material beings - could not be capable of them on our own.

But the things that we call spiritual are precisely of this world. They are natural, and they are social. They are not 'other life' but simply 'more life.' They are not 'other than human,' they are 'more human.' They are the best of human. The spiritual is experienced as getting 'extra life' from somewhere outside of ourselves; in reality, it is discovering deeper or better levels inside of ourselves. It is encountering humanness at its fullest.

Hence, spirituality is the greatest possible betrayal of humanity. Talk of spirit and the spiritual alienates the very best part of humanness - literally, in the sense of making it alien to or other than our own selves. It says, "This is the very best, the very most, that I can feel and be - and it is not me." Therefore, it minimizes or denigrates the human or the natural (as all dualism does) and gives away the greatest things of which we are capable to some other realm or reality. It deprives us not only of part of our humanity but the best part of our humanity and ascribes it to some supernatural - and therefore non-natural - world. In the process, we are lessened. We are alienated from ourselves and made to believe that no mere human could be the source of such wonder.

But we are the source. 'Spiritual' experiences are in fact human experiences - the best, the strongest, the most profound human experiences, but human nonetheless. They are not a kind of non-humanness but a kind of ultra-humanness. We are richer by and for them, but we impoverish ourselves when we deny - or allow ourselves to be denied - our own finest nature and assign those feelings and capacities to the non-human, the unknown, and almost certainly the imaginary and unreal. There are, of course, religious traditions that do not want humans to feel that good, that powerful, that wonderful. Some, like Christianity, depend on the worthlessness of humanity; why else would we need salvation and a religious structure to provide it? The biggest fear of such traditions is the possibility that we will discover that we are just fine - not perfect, but pretty good - and that all of the best things in life are human. Thus, by rejecting spirit and the spiritual, we reclaim the wholeness of human experience and human being.

Conclusion: A Positive Message for Atheism

Critics often condemn Atheism for having nothing positive to offer. Sometimes they are correct, in terms of how Atheists represent Atheism. It is the rejection of god(s) - and I would add, the rejection of all non-material beings and forces for which there is no evidence - and that is a negative message. But it is a negative message that makes way for a positive message. Sometimes, as Nietzsche stated, one must say no before one can say yes.

Over one hundred and fifty years ago, Ludwig Feuerbach described Christianity in roughly the terms that I am suggesting here. He argued that the 'essence of Christianity' is humanity's awareness of our own traits and our own greatness. This is not hubris, not sheer pride and arrogance. As he said:

Religion is the consciousness of the infinite; hence it is, and cannot be anything other than, man's consciousness of his own essential nature, understood not as a finite or limited, but as an infinite nature. A really finite being has not even the slightest inkling, let alone consciousness, of what an infinite being is, for the mode of consciousness is limited by the mode of being. In keeping with this, if you think the infinite, you think and confirm the infinity of the power of thought; if you feel the infinite, you feel and confirm the infinity of the power of feeling. The object of reason is reason as its own object; the object of feeling is feeling as its own object.

In other words, humans could not know or feel anything as great as what we ordinarily call 'the spiritual' unless humanity was itself equally great. In fact, as I have tried to express above, what we ordinarily call the spiritual is nothing more than a misnamed part of ourselves, and the best part at that.

"What we once called spiritual we should now call human. Spirituality is the human expressed in terms of the non-human. That is unacceptable and self-deprecating."

So the positive message of Atheism - after the air is cleared of god(s) and spirits and the spiritual - becomes a message of anthropology. By this I do not mean the academic discipline of anthropology but rather, as its roots suggest, the 'study or knowledge of humanity.' Spirituality is the opposite of humanity, but it is at once the same thing. It is humanity objectified and alienated, and as such perhaps more easily knowable. However, now we know something else - that what we once called spiritual we should now call human. Spirituality is the human expressed in terms of the non-human. That is unacceptable and self-deprecating. I urgently recommend, therefore, that we stop using the term spiritual altogether and replace it with the term that means what we really mean. Atheists are not spiritual and do not have spiritual experiences. Never again should we say, "I had a spiritual experience." Instead, the next time you see a particularly beautiful sunset or cute baby, simply say, "I had a life experience" - or better yet, "I had a human experience" - and encourage others to do the same.


Author: Dr. David Eller is an anthropologist who serves as the American Atheists director for the state of Colorado.


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