Part 1: Defining Spirituality in Non-Religious Ways

It’s obvious that if the notion of a “humanist spirituality” is to take hold, it needs to be defined in a manner that vividly distinguishes it from spirituality as portrayed by organized religion. For any spirituality descriptive of humanism cannot include any belief in the supernatural or divine intervention. In fact, communicating accurately about what humanism is—and what it’s not—requires “languaging” its concepts with great care.

It also must be kept in mind that different forms of a word carry significantly different connotations. Consider, for instance, spirituality and spiritualism. Virtually everyone would agree that the word spiritualism sounds a good deal more ethereal, mythic, or “woo” than spirituality. Doubtless, if asked which term would more likely conjure up images of a medium, crystal ball reader, or voodoo doctor, we’d immediately opt for the term spiritualism.

Moreover, we need to consider that over the centuries the core idea of spirituality has evolved, so it’s not simply that the word is hopelessly abstract or obscure. Rather, it’s that its meaning has expanded—especially as humans generally have become less religious and more secular. And there’s no question but that more and more the word spiritual is being employed in a non-theological sense.

To provide another instance of needing to be aware of different connotations for related terms, we might also consider the word materialism. There’s philosophical materialism, which humanism is closely aligned with, for they both involve looking at (and living in) the physical world of matter and energy, with no illusions and without imposing on it any superstitious beliefs. Then there’s economic materialism—something else altogether—and which humanism isn’t readily identified with. (And this is probably a good thing since this latter dimension of materialism is weighed down with negative connotations missing from the former.)

So, where does the word spiritual come from anyway?—which, for several reasons, is a crucial question to ask here.

In a 1999 article on spirituality in Psychology Today, David Elkins—author of the book: Beyond Religion: A Personal Program for Building a Spiritual Life Outside the Walls of Traditional Religion— remarks that “the word spirituality derives from the Latin root spiritus, which means ‘breath’—referring to the breath of life.” To Elkins, spirituality involves “opening our hearts and cultivating our capacity to experience awe, reverence, and gratitude. It is the ability to see the sacred in the ordinary, to feel the poignancy of life, to know the passion of existence and to give ourselves over to that which is greater than ourselves.”

There’s really nothing in this definition incompatible with contemporary humanism—outside, that is, of the religion-linked words sacred and reverence, both of which also seem to me to cry out for a more subjective, secular definition). So, for instance, we might understand what’s sacred for an individual as simply that which they cherish, or hold dear.

I might add here that to be inspired means (if we de-construct the word) “in-spirited”—which is probably something all of us (however aware of it we may be) are searching for. In fact, the word inspire is employed twice in the latest version of the Humanist Manifesto (III).The religious seek inspiration from the supernatural and the Church, Synagogue, or Mosque; the non-religious look for it in mortal love, which is to say, the love of humans for other humans—not the holy love of God, Christ, or Allah (or any other divine, worshipful being). The non-religious quest for spirituality also includes identifying oneself as part of a larger community, as well as developing a vital, enthusiastic involvement with nature, the arts, and science. Here spiritual fulfillment equates with feeling fully, vibrantly alive and connected to others, as well as to our broader environment.


I’d also add that art and nature, “spiritualized” as I’ve described them, offer secular individuals a transcendent experience—just as does great music, art, drama, and literature. Relating to a work of art not as a passive observer but as an active participant, in the sense of somehow getting inside the work, is a secularly (if not singularly) transcendent experience in going considerably beyond our ordinary, everyday experience. And immersing ourselves in nature—whether it be up in the mountains, down in the valleys, or by a brook, river, or ocean—offers us a similar experience of “oneness,” of becoming part of something far beyond ourselves. It can, I think, legitimately be seen as an expansion of self, a liberation of our spirit.

Note also how close the word “inspire” is to “aspire”—which, again, takes us directly to the Humanist Manifesto, actually subtitled “Humanism and Its Aspirations.” For humanism is very much about having lofty goals that we strive to achieve because they’re so closely related to optimal fulfillment and our greatest happiness. At its core, humanism is hardly about accumulating worldly things or living a self-centered, hedonistic life. It’s about fully “owning” our life and taking responsibility for creating richly meaningful goals for ourselves. And subjectively, these ideals are much more accurately defined as spiritual than materialistic, naturalistic, or secular.

Spirituality may best be seen as depicting the exalted or elated feelings that humans aspire to and, at least potentially, are capable of realizing. Such as the deeply satisfying feelings that come with acting honorably, generously, or altruistically—showing caring and concern for others, or toward the whole human community.

Here are some other descriptions that writers have offered to describe what they have in mind when—non-theistically—they employ the term:

Starting with the online, ever-updating, encyclopedia Wikipedia (which, personally, I’ve found unusually trustworthy in the area of humanism and spirituality), this comprehensive research tool defines spirituality—which, significantly, it equates to “the human spirit”—as having always been about the essence of humanity, adding that what it means to be human—and thereby spiritual—“depend[s] upon the world view prevailing at any particular cultural or historical time.” Emphasizing that the use of the term has changed through the ages, it notes that in modern times it’s often distinguished from religion and concludes that there really exists no definitive definition for it. Which undeniably suggests that, semantically, one has as much right to employ it secularly as does institutional religion to use it theistically.

More or less echoing Wikipedia’s position is Rabbi Sherwin Wine, the author of many books on humanistic Judaism. As quoted by Bonnie Cousens, Wine affirms that rationality is the key to “staying sane in a crazy world.” Still, he’s not willing, as he puts it, “to relinquish spirituality to the religious [believing that] we live in a world where spirituality has been redefined. No longer is its focus merely knowledge of God and the pursuit of salvation in the next world. Instead, [it can be seen] as the pursuit of happiness in this world.”

Stephen Batchelor, in an article subtitled “Digging into the Humanist Heart of Buddhism” (The New Humanist, 2010), takes us in another direction. In this piece he stresses that from its earliest beginnings spiritual life has been at once a search for meaning and for answers to the two key existential questions: “‘Who am I?’ and ‘Why am I?’ A search for truth, personal authenticity and reality, a search for ‘what is,’ a search for purpose: these are the foundations of the spiritual world.”

The Humanist Manifesto is essentially talking about the same thing, although it uses a determinedly secular vocabulary to avoid defining such a search as spiritual—which, I think, it definitely is. And it’s a pursuit that’s necessarily both personal and subjective, beyond the province of science. There’s just no single answer for that which is ultimate, or existential. And humanism is, after all, closely related to atheistic existentialism, which doesn’t mandate that we believe in anything but, rather, that we take full ownership for creating what’s personally meaningful to us—and then, pro-actively, strive to make it our reality.

In a piece called “The American Experience,” Nancy Frankenberry quotes the famous Spanish philosopher George Santayana as stating, idealistically, that “spirituality . . . direct[s] one toward goals . . . and that “spiritual individuals [are] disposed to a vision of excellence, loveliness, or preeminent goodness, and they [order] their conduct to realize that vision.” And this noble characterization of spirituality is also consonant with the Humanist Manifesto, descriptive of its most venerable humanist ideals?

One of my favorite definitions of spirituality is from Robert C. Fuller’s Spiritual But Not Religious (New York, 2001)—one of new fewer than six books by that name (!). Note how the following quotation is free of any Christian assumptions about faith or the supernatural: “Spirituality exists wherever we struggle with the issues of how our lives fit into the greater scheme of things. . . . We encounter spiritual issues every time we wonder where the universe comes from, why we are here, or what happens when we die. We also become spiritual when we become moved by values such as beauty, love, or creativity that seem to reveal a meaning or power beyond our visible world. An idea or practice is ‘spiritual’ when it reveals our personal desire to establish a felt-relationship with the deepest meanings or powers governing life.”


Larry Culliford, an English psychiatrist and author of the book The Psychology of Spirituality, is also a blogger for Psychology Today, his blog pointedly titled “Spiritual Wisdom for Secular Times.” In 2011 he published a post attempting to distinguish worldly values from spiritual ones, making the point that the latter set of values can be seen as combining the qualities of compassion, on the one hand, with wisdom, on the other. And inspecting the Humanist Manifesto clearly indicates that the values humanism extols are those that this writer (and many others) identify as spiritual.

Observe that we’ve got a fairly serious semantic problem here, for various authors actually define the professed values of humanism as spiritual, not secular. In fact, the main issue with the word secular is that even though it rightfully identifies a humanist perspective as non-theistic, because the designation is so world-centered—rather than virtue-centered, or wisdom-centered—it implies that humanists focus almost exclusively on earthly things. And not simply temporal pleasures, but also the common, ordinary—even the banal—versus, that is, the values most humanists aspire to live by.

One of the most inclusive characterizations of spirituality is the “all-embracing” one proposed by the late Robert C. Solomon, a philosophy professor and self-proclaimed existentialist, whose book Spirituality for the Skeptic (2002) is well worth quoting:

“At the very minimum, spirituality is the subtle and not easily specifiable awareness that surrounds virtually everything and anything that transcends our petty self-interest. Thus there is spirituality in nature, in art, in the bonds of love and fellow-feeling that hold a community together, in the reverence for life (and not only human life) that is the key to a great many philosophies as well as religions. . . . Spirituality . . . is an expanded form of the self, which is emphatically not to say that it is an expanded form of selfishness. Rather, as many Buddhists have long argued, and Hegel more recently, it is that passionate sense of self-awareness in which the very distinction between selfishness and selflessness disappears.”

NOTE 1: Each segment in this series seeks to answer a different question: namely, Part 1: How can spirituality be defined in non-religious ways? Part 2: How does humanist spirituality overlap with other secular life orientations? Part 3: How can the term spirituality be humanistically secularized? Part 4: Why do humanists fight over using the term spiritual to describe themselves? and Part 5: Why should humanists rethink calling themselves “spiritual” to non-humanists?

 

NOTE 2: If you know of anyone who might be interested in this subject, please consider sending them the link(s). Additionally, if you found my approach to be interesting, you might want to check out other posts on my Psychology Today blogpage, “Evolution of the Self.”

© 2013 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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