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
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
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
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.
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.
"It is funny, though, how it is nature and humanity
that give us most of our 'supernatural experiences'."
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
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.
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.
"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."
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.
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.
"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
Author: Dr. David Eller is an anthropologist who
serves as the American Atheists director for
the state of Colorado.
© 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 by American Atheists.