Secular Spirituality

6 approaches that may particularly appeal to atheists and agnostics.

Posted Jul 11, 2020

No author list, pxhere, public domain
Source: No author list, pxhere, public domain

People have long sought the spiritual. And although the Pew Center for the Study of Religion finds "no-religion" to be the fastest-growing religion, many people, including some atheists and agnostics, still want spirituality to be incorporated into their lives.

That urge may feel more pressing today amid COVID-19 stresses and racial roiling atop modern-day’s normal challenges.

Here, I present six ways in which even an atheist or agnostic can build spirituality into their lives. There’s no need to adopt all six. You might pick just one or more you resonate with. Most of these take a different form if you come at them from a liberal or a conservative foundational perspective.

Universal decision-making. Rather than making decisions based on what’s good for you, the family, society, or even the planet, it may feel most spiritual to make decisions based on universal values. For example, a liberal might believe that fundamental to decision-making should be making people’s lives more equal. That redounds to everything from feeling good about paying taxes to volunteering your time to help what the New Testament calls, “the least among us." A conservative might believe that rewarding merit as s/he defines it is cosmically just. That might express itself in choosing, for example, to create products that mainly serve middle or upper-income people, for example, developing white-picket-fence homes, marketing iPhones, or being a counselor of middle-class people.

Planetary decision-making. For example, a liberal might believe that it’s wise to greatly restrict materialism and car driving because they contribute to global warming. A conservative might believe that the benefits that humankind reaps from the material and from driving outweigh the liabilities.

A particular balance of justice and mercy. A liberal’s application of this form of secular spirituality might be that poor behavior needs to be treated with mercy because that behavior is, at least in part, a function of externalities: whom the person was born to, their race or gender, where they grew up, etc. A conservative’s interpretation of this form of secular spirituality might be that humankind overall is better served by strict justice.

Vocation. This is a Christian notion: that God bestowed certain gifts on a person, which should be manifested in a particular career. Of course, vocation has a secular analogue: that you’ll make the biggest difference and perhaps good money by choosing a career that incorporates one’s natural and acquired strengths and preferences and that skirts their weaknesses.

Charity. The previous components of secular spirituality also apply to how one donates time and money. Again, the liberal will tend to prioritize “the least among us” while the conservative may prioritize what will yield the greatest net good. So, the liberal is more likely to donate to a charity that provides scholarships for the poor, the conservative to scholarships that reward the highest achievers.

Sacredness of relationship. A secular-spiritual approach to relationships tempers frustration with relationships' inevitable strains by recognizing that by deciding to spend a major portion of life with a person is a nearly sacred choice. Of course, that's true whether the relationship is with a romantic partner, child, parent, or even a close friend.

Practicing your secular spirituality

Like any new habit, suffusing secular spirituality through your life may require practice. So, from the aforementioned six approaches, write those that resonate with you. Put one copy next to each of a few places you frequently look at; for example, a Post-it next to your computer monitor, on a mirror, and on your refrigerator. Until it becomes habit, read, or better yet, paraphrase it aloud a few times a day. It might additionally help, for a day or two, to log each time you felt you did or didn’t act in accordance with your chosen secular-spiritual principles.

Life can feel at least a bit more elevated if buoyed by spiritual principles, whether attached to religion or to the aforementioned six secular-spiritual ones.

I extemporize on this topic on YouTube.