Contemporary Humanism and Spirituality, Part 5

Should humanists reconsider how they identify themselves to non-believers?

Posted Jul 15, 2013

Part 5: Why Humanists Would Be Wise to Use the Term Spiritual in Promoting Humanism to the Undecided

I think it’s useful to note that the Humanist Manifesto III doesn’t only omit the words spirit, spiritual, and spirituality. It also leaves out all forms of the words emotion and passion. It may be that in the effort to stress that humanism doesn’t represent some kind of star-gazing, New Age, airy-fairy movement—and that its philosophical tenets are solidly grounded in rationality and science—they may inadvertently have created a false dichotomy between reason and emotion. In their idealism, they may inadvertently have portrayed humanism as overly cerebral—a little too detached from what, I think, most people would agree constitutes the most vital, joyful aspects of being alive.

Rick Heller, in an article called “More Than Logical: A Place for the Emotions in Humanism” (The New Humanism, 2009) reflects that “feelings are essential to human flourishing and optimal decision-making.” I’d add that though humanist principles must always stand up to critical scrutiny, if their current movement is to proliferate, AHA probably needs to assign a more prominent role to feelings and emotions. And that, I think, would substantially increase its appeal to those who, disenchanted with their religion, are either in the process of leaving it or have already left it.

Let me quote a few passages from Robert Solomon’s Spirituality for the Skeptic (2002) that should further clarify where I stand on the interrelationship between reason, emotions, and spirituality. As Solomon puts it: “Spirituality . . . embraces both emotion and rationality, both philosophy and religion. While religions . . . seem to me to be overly parochial and exclusive . . . spirituality, while admitting of any number of local variations, remains truly nonsectarian. . . . ”

And further expanding on this idea, Solomon adds: “Spirituality means to me the grand and thoughtful passions of life, and a life lived in accordance with those grand thoughts and passions. Spirituality embraces love, trust, reverence, and wisdom, as well as the most terrifying aspects of life, tragedy, and death.” Attempting to elucidate his terms more specifically, Solomon later adds that “what I am calling the passionate life is . . . a life defined by emotions, by impassioned engagements, and quests, by embracing affections”—emphasizing that “a life without passion would be a life barely worth living, the life of a zombie, an automaton . . . .”

To Solomon, although “spirituality is first of all a matter of emotion, we . . . need to develop a conception of spirituality that is rational as well,” going on to suggest (perhaps somewhat hyperbolically) "that reason and the passions are not only complementary but ultimately one and the same. In fact, for Solomon, “not only do our passions and emotions provide us with reasons but . . . the passionate life may itself be the rational way to live.”

And further, “One of the themes . . . in this book is the idea that spirituality is neither rational nor emotional but both at once, both Apollonian and Dionysian, as Nietzsche would say. . . . What opposes spirituality is not naturalism, or secularism, or even materialism, but petty egoism, vanity, and vulgarity”—a conclusion I’m obviously happy to quote because what I’ve emphasized all along is that spirituality needn’t be seen as contrary to these philosophies or lifestyles, but as depicting a dimension of existence complementing these related approaches.

My own take on all of this is that when individuals declare themselves “spiritual but not religious,” what most of them have in mind is that they’re trying to live their lives by principles that are basically humanistic. So I think a lot of people out there who aren’t self-proclaimed humanists are de facto humanists.

By now, many writers have tried to suggest just what these seekers are looking to find. And I’ll offer just a small sampling of their views.

In an excerpt from Greg Epstein’s book Good Without God published in The Humanist (2009), the author cites The Nation’s columnist Katha Pollitt as making the point that “atheism alone, as the rejection of gods and the supernatural, cannot meet our deepest human needs for connection and inspiration. . . ” adding that “even atheists have intimations of sacredness, particularly when in love or in nature. [They] just don't infer that God caused those feelings.”

Beyond pleasure-seeking, I think we all need to feel part of something bigger than ourselves, need to transcend the trivialities of daily life and get in touch with something that will inspire, or “in-spirit,” us. And I don’t think that any of this is inextricably tied to religion. Rather, it’s biologically embedded in us—in our “human spirit.” And this desire to go beyond the ordinary, or commonplace, is about experiencing a certain “immortality” in our mortality—as though we’re embarked on a dynamic venture that can, at least symbolically, liberate us from inevitable lifespan limitations.

William Wordsworth revealed an intimation of this in one of his most famous poems, observing that “The world is too much with us; late and soon, / Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers: / Little we see in Nature that is ours; . . .” And this passage is complemented, I think, by Andre Comte-Sponville who, in The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality, remarks: “Sensing nature in all its immensity is a spiritual experience—because it helps the spirit break free, at least partially, of the tiny prison of the self.”

And elsewhere in this book Comte-Sponville ponders that “people can do w/out religion . . . but they cannot do without . . . spirituality. . . . It is our noblest part, or rather our highest function. . . . ‘Man is a metaphysical animal,’ said Schopenhauer—and therefore, I would add, a spiritual animal as well . . . What could be better, loftier or more fascinating than the spirit? Not believing in God is no reason to amputate a part of our humanity, especially not that part! Renouncing religion by no means implies renouncing spiritual life.”

I’d like to note here that Comte-Sponville, similar to Robert Solomon, doesn’t denigrate rationality but views it as secondary to that which he deems spiritual. Ironically, though the Humanist Manifesto appears to imply that rationality is our best and highest faculty, a closer reading shows it to be almost completely in accord with the spiritual dimension of life both Solomon and Comte-Sponville so warmly commend.

David Elkins, in a post published in Psychology Today (1999), comments that “studies show that Americans want spirituality, but perhaps not in religious form.” Alluding specifically to a study done at the University of California, Santa Barbara, he notes that researchers found that in the 60’s and 70’s “baby boomers dropped out of organized religion in large numbers: 84% of Jews, 69% of mainline Protestants, 61% of conservative Protestants and 67% of Catholics.” And in general many of these members left because their churches or synagogues weren’t sufficiently meeting their spiritual needs.

In another piece, appearing in Newsweek in 1994 and entitled “In Search of the Sacred,” Barbara Kantrowitz writes that “millions of Americans are embarking on a search for the sacred in their lives” and that “no matter what path they take, [they’re] united by a sincere desire to find answers to profound questions, to understand their place in the cosmos." As Kantrowitz sees it, “Now it's suddenly OK, even chic, to use the S words—soul, sacred, spiritual, [and] sin—though, as a psychologist, I think this last word we could well do without. And in a Newsweek Poll, 58 percent of Americans professed that “they [felt] the need to experience spiritual growth.”

To give one final example of this eternal longing, I’ll mention an article aptly subtitled “The Spiritual Perspective and Social Work Practice” (Social Work 1994) in which the author, Patricia Sermabeikian, talks about the spiritual dimension of life as expounded by such humanistic and existential theorists as Viktor Frankl, Eric Fromm, and Abraham Maslow. Her quotation from Maslow is particularly instructive: “The human being needs a framework of values, a philosophy of life, a religion or religion-surrogate to live by and understand by, in about the same sense he needs sunlight, calcium, or love.”

So, how is AHA doing in reaching out to all those searching for something spiritual that they can’t find through conventional religion? I can’t speak with any great authority here—but given the relatively modest size of AHA’s membership and the large number of people presumably looking to affiliate themselves with something both secular and spiritual, I’ve pretty much concluded not nearly as well as, potentially, they might. And there are many writers who seem to agree with this assessment.

Once again, I suspect that what may well be the sticking point is AHA’s felt need to distance itself from whatever might give others the impression of our believing in something spiritual. Bonnie Cousens, in a piece called “Secular Spirituality,” notes that “for many, the idea that secular humanists can be spiritual is inconceivable. . . .Yet people living very secular lives, driven by rational thought, logic, and science, say that they are seeking spirituality. . . .”

Chaplain Binyamin Biber, whose article “Spiritual But Not Religious” (2012) was cited earlier, observes that despite our frustrations with “the vagueness and confusion” relating to the term spiritual, it would be beneficial to reach out to those searching for community, connection, purpose, and meaning by letting them know they might well find a suitable place for themselves among us—if, that is, “we are gracious enough to be inviting and welcoming, rather than judgmental and dismissive.”

In his essay “Humanism and Spirituality” (Humanism Today, 1992), Joseph Chuman reasons that although “the very nature of humanism is committed to honoring the dictates of rational consciousness . . . at some point that mode . . . must run interference with the part of us which yearns for wholeness and which the symbolic and imaginative faculties push ahead.” Which is why Chuman doubts that humanism will ever have the broad appeal carried by traditional religion, and even New Age thought and practices. Still, he contends that we can do a better job of reaching out to those many people who are “put together as we are, but whom we have not yet reached.”

In brief, contemporary humanism—or better, what’s referred to as “secular humanism”—may have an image problem. Supporting this notion is Lisa Miller, who in 2008 wrote an article for Newsweek titled “In Defense of Secularism.” Talking about how the term has become “code in conservative Christian circles for ‘atheist’ or even ‘God hating,’” she gives examples of how such right-wing political pundits as Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter, Newt Gingrich, and John Bolton have sought to link the word to everything that would vilify it—also noting that the Republican party routinely employs the word in efforts to unite their base against what they now see as a common enemy.

That many humanists themselves disparage the term spiritual as, well, mumbo-jumbo—as little more than outdated pre-scientific superstition—doesn’t much help the matter either. For it inflicts the word with negative meanings similar to what Christian conservatives have done to the tag “secular.” Politically, strategically—and ethically—I think humanists would want to claim all the positive, non-supernatural aspects of spirituality, and to leave the heavily biased, parochial derision of the term secular to those too narrow-minded, or prejudiced, to appreciate how they’re using it.

But, however unwittingly, to be playing “tit for tat” with conservatives in no way assists them in gaining the widespread acceptance and respect I believe their ideals and practices warrant. Conservatives demean the designation secular; and (by their general distaste for it) humanists demean the term spiritual. Not a very good idea—or a fight they can win. But if humanists are willing to embrace the whole concept of spirituality—even as they take pains to secularly redefine it—I think they’re likely to gain the ethical high ground in this debate.

Lisa Miller, too, argues that so-named secularists have hardly been helping their case. For aware that, as she puts it, “no group is more reviled in America than atheists”—and, of course, a great many humanists do so identify themselves—they’ve chosen secularist as a safer label. But, unfortunately, to theists that word (as Greg Epstein is quoted as putting it) is “red meat for the pundits,” for it also labels them as non-believers.

As Doug Muder reflects: “Regrettably, for many laypeople, the term secular implies hostility to both organized religion and God, [regrettable because] a core humanist tenet is to be tolerant and accepting of other beliefs systems as [not objectively] but subjectively valid for those that adhere to them.” And this, to me, “live-and-let-live” tolerance is something that positively distinguishes humanists from most other ideologies—and that I (and Muder) think warrants being seen as spiritual. Which is one reason I believe that generally humanists would do well to drop the prefix secular altogether, even as they reconsider their reluctance (in describing their philosophy and practices) to employ the word spiritual.

Jeff Nall is another writer who sees us as having an “image problem.” In a piece subtitled: “Overcoming Antagonistic Atheism to Recast the Image of Humanism” (The Humanist, 2006), he stresses the importance of humanists not defining themselves as totally opposed to theists, thereby making believers feel disparaged and prompting them to react to humanists more negatively than otherwise. To Nall, if we’re to get more more favorable attention from the American public, we need to communicate “a positive, uplifting message” and develop “the highest quality of public relations” we can afford—adding that “the last thing the movement needs is more bad publicity, which it unfortunately never ceases to elicit.”

And yet again, current-day voices of atheism have frequently revealed an almost aggressively hostile attitude that has served to turn off people who potentially might end up in their camp. Nall himself reasons that “many outsiders—both nonbelievers and believers—who might otherwise find a naturalistic, secular perspective or philosophy of life worth exploring, see the fanciful crusade of many atheists to ‘save’ humanity from the ‘scourge’ of religion in the same light [as] they view religious fanatics who zealously seek converts.”

Which brings us back to the point of how many of those individuals self-identifying as “spiritual but not religious” might in fact recognize themselves as humanists and affiliate with humanists if they could be shown that core humanist values—essentially spiritual in nature (despite how humanists have explicitly depicted them)—dovetail with what they’ve been looking for.

To this point, I haven’t said much about the pragmatic aspects of spirituality. But John T. Chirban, in a Psychology Today post (“What is the Spirit?” 2013), writes about how a person’s active involvement with institutional religion, or with non-religious spirituality, has been demonstrated to contribute to enhanced health in a variety of areas. Citing eight studies to support his argument, the areas of improved health include substance abuse, heart disease, and clinical depression—as well as generally reduced physical and psychological illness. As a result of such outcome studies, he reports that more and more medical schools are beginning to incorporate the topics of spirituality and religion in their curriculum. And this, I should add, is also true of graduate programs in mental health.

The challenge, then, for AHA (and some additional humanist organizations as well) is whether, regardless of its many historically religious connotations, humanists can get over their longstanding impatience or irritation with the term spirituality. Up till now, I believe, many humanists have been guilty of “throwing out the baby with the bathwater.” For their efforts to eliminate all theistic language from their lexicon has also led them to avoid using such terms as, say, sacred and transcendent—which in many ways do characterize their deepest values, as well as carry the most respected of meanings. And I think it’s also safe to make the claim that for many people today having what they’d call “a spiritual experience” is not generally related to connecting with some heavenly deity.

As humanist psychologist Judith Goren puts it in "Humanism and Spirituality: A Spiritual Perspective": “Humanism, to be a viable movement [in] the 21st century, needs to expand its parameters to explore, address and include [the spiritual] dimension of human experience.” And returning one last time to the Humanist Manifesto, I think that according to all the secular definitions of spirituality I’ve reviewed—its ideology, its code of ethics, and its principles and practices—humanism is a spiritual movement. And one to be reckoned with. So I hope that in the near future humanists in general can come to recognize their essential identity and reclaim a word that actually reflects the very heart of what they’re all about. Which is to say their aspiration to lead virtuous, morally responsible lives that are at once rational and—emotionally—rich, passionate, exciting . . . and deeply fulfilling.

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. 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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