Are you feeling more “spiritual” these days—overcome by a deep sense of spiritual peace and well-being and wonder about the universe? Apparently while Americans are getting less religious, spirituality is on the rise. The latest report from the Pew Research Center indicates that “spiritual” feelings are increasing--even among atheists, agnostics and the unaffiliated--along with everyone else. What should we make of this?
First off, definitions are important. “Spirituality” has become a pretty amorphous term these days. After dutifully reviewing several definitions from a variety of dictionaries, I found this opening statement from Wikipedia the most helpful: “There is no single, widely agreed definition of spirituality; surveys of the definition of the term, as used in scholarly research, show a broad range of definitions, with very limited similitude.” (The article is an interesting read, actually, and I would recommend it to anyone wanting a general survey on the history and scope of the term across religions.) Then offering some much-needed insight, the entry went on to say: “In modern times the emphasis is on subjective experience.It may denote almost any kind of meaningful activity or blissful experience.”
Whoa. With such a broad meaning it’s no wonder researchers can document an increase in “spiritual” feelings among any demographic. Of course, the definition of “spiritual” from the Oxford dictionary stillcarries some weight for many of us: “of, relating to, or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.” The term “soul” is going to deter many a non-believer from identifying with the word “spiritual.”
Even so, let’s be honest about the human experience. Humanists, agnostics and atheists—all have subjective experiences of meaning and bliss—not unlike the rest of our human companions. Whether it be a sense of contentment through meditation, intimate bonding with another person, awe at the sight of a spectacular sunset, wonder at the cosmos through the night sky, ecstasy from accomplishing a physical feat or moved by a piece of music. It’s not always easy to find the appropriate way to talk about such experiences with others. Our language fails us—especially when we want to go for the short description—or are not eloquent or poetic enough to do justice to the experience. What’s a non-religious person to say?
Well, remaining silent is definitely the wrong approach. Those of us in the freethought movement are still suffering from a bad image because for too long we have neglected to express our full humanity to others—especially to those outside our community. We are often characterized as merely intellectual, objective and unfeeling people. No room for awe and wonder, poetry and music, emotion and vulnerability.
That image was brought home to me recently when I spoke to a group of retired University professors, spouses and staff at a local humanities club about secular humanism. My presentation seemed to defy some of their stereotypes. A few of the comments and questions bordered on veiled accusations that I have often heard lobbed at our clan: cerebral and smug. Secular humanists and atheists think they have it all figured out and everyone else is in la-la-land. Alas, we need to communicate more effectively. Don’t we want to convey quite the opposite--that we don’t have everything figured out? We don’t have all the answers—and don’t claim to? We live by the best knowledge to date. And the more we know, the more we know we don’t know. That leaves a lot of room for further inquiry, curiosity, a sense of mystery, and . . . humility.
No doubt, part our image problem stems from our association with the Progressive Era of the early 20th century just as Humanism was coming into its own as a modern world-view. Humanists generally shared with their contemporaries the belief in science, technology, expertise, education and, perhaps most importantly, in human agency to improve the environment and conditions of life. But by mid-century, especially after WWI and WWII, this confidence in humanity’s ability to save itself seemed not merely over-rated but full of unwarranted hubris.
We need to take our cue from the likes of Carl Sagan. If you haven’t in a while, revisit Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot.” Full of awe, wonder, humility and…and ... a “transcendent” experience? It makes me feel a part of something larger than myself. Overcome by a deep sense of spiritual peace and well-being and wonder about the universe? Maybe.
I’m not comfortable with the term “spiritual.” And personally, the word “transcendent” works better for me. But I don’t use either of them very often. I don’t want to convey to anyone that I believe in anything supernatural. But we can speak of our values, share what brings us bliss. Express our awe and wonder. Whatever we say, let’s try our best to communicate our sentiments about this amazing world and the opportunity to be a part of this great adventure!