An Atheist and Spirituality

Posted by on August 9, 2011 in Thoughts | 10 comments

I’ve been thinking lately about spirituality. No, I’m not suggesting I am about to join a cult, take up tantric meditation or go on a vision quest. What I have been wondering is, is there any basis or evidence for a spiritual or metaphysical part of human existence?

Firstly, I think we need to define what it is we mean by “spirituality”. If it means we are all inhabited by everlasting souls, that our existence on earth is a stepping-stone to the afterlife, or that our personalities and memories live on as ghosts or spirits after death, then I think we can discount “spirituality” right away. There is no evidence for such a state of being, only anecdotal stories from mystics, shamans and holy-men. If, however, we talk of spirituality as a connectedness we feel for other humans, other animals and the physical world in a way we can’t explain (yet), then maybe there is room for such a description. I’ll come back to this idea later, but first let’s look at the semantics of the idea of “spiritual”.

Sam Harris suggests that “spirituality” is a natural part of humanity, that somehow humans have evolved to have transcendent thoughts. He sees the spiritual part of life as just another facet of being human, as almost a necessary part of life. But far from it being a religious state, he can see it as a way to end religion. In his book The End Of Faith from 2004 he writes:

“Clearly, it must be possible to bring reason, spirituality, and ethics together in our thinking about the world. This would be the beginning of a rational approach to our deepest personal concerns. It would also be the end of faith.”

It’s a nice thought, but I’m not sure I agree with the idea of “spirituality” as such.

My friend and author of the blog Near Earth Object, Paul Fidalgo surmised the use of the term thus:

“(The term ‘spirituality’ is) a shorthand for brain-based experiences that we have yet to fully explore scientifically, so I’m okay with it.”

This is more along the lines of what I’m talking about.

There are two things here I think should be noted. Firstly, the use of the word “spiritual” is a misleading premise, because the word is fraught with connotations from religion, magic and “crystal-gazing” hippy talk, and by its wishy-washy and intangible nature, it makes the term “spiritual” such a subjective term that it ceases to have any real value in this context, except as an admission of being stumped for a better word. Secondly, I have only used the term “spiritual” here because I can’t think of a better term, but over the course of this blog I hope to be able to devise a better descriptor. For me using the word “spirituality” is uncomfortable, and for the reasons I’ve stated above, I’ve come to think that it is indeed the wrong word for what I am talking about here. What makes me particularly uncomfortable is the idea that “spirituality” implies “higher states of consciousness”, a statement which I think is a little too far on the hippy side of the fence.

So what is it I am talking about here?

Well let’s clear away the detritus of the priests and the muddiness of magic, and see what facts are available. What do we know about humanity that can help us to come up with an answer to the question of “spirituality”?

  • Humans are a product of evolution, and all the evidence suggests that our bodies and brains have evolved over millions of years for us to be what we are. Human culture has developed alongside mental and social processes, an as a result we experience feelings and emotions such as empathy. Mirror-neurons in the brain make us feel the pain and joys of others, allowing for better social bonding. Bonding with others makes for a stronger community, which is definitely beneficial to the whole group. Societies, cultures and countries are merely larger applications of the group empathy advantage.
  • As far as I can discern, everything that we see, feel, touch, taste, think etc. is a product of the thinking brain. The way we react to situations comes from the brain and it’s processes, so spirituality, if it exists, does so inside the human brain also.
  • While altered states of consciousness have been recorded and tested under scientific scrutiny under the influence of mind-altering drugs, during mediation, trance-like states and hypnosis, there is nothing to suggest that these states are “higher” than normal thought, merely different. There are many ways this altered state has helped people to make realisations that have led to advances in maths and science, but to use the word “higher” implies that what is actually an impaired or rewired brain as working in an advanced or better mode than normal brain function. The question is, are these so-called “higher” processes actually “higher” or simply the way our brains react to chemical and physical changes?

The other question is, what is metaphysical? By definition it means “beyond physical”, but is this even possible? Again, things we once thought of as unknowable and explained as spiritual have turned out to be explainable, so what are the chances that “spirituality” will turn out to be “beyond the physical?

I’d like to venture that “spirituality” is a way to describe a natural process in the brain that we don’t yet understand, rather than something metaphysical. What makes me say this? Well, evidence does. All signs point to the brain being our connection to the world, translator, interpreter and decoder of our lives and the physical world around us. The fact that we don’t yet understand it is the reason we hold it in a place of reverence and fear, and as the source of “woo”. Just as we once believed epileptic fits to be possession by the devil, we will one day look back on our notions of “spirituality” with a truer understanding of what makes the human brain, therefore humanity, tick. Rather than labelling the so-called spiritual “higher” we will one day call it what I think it really is, something that is different from our current ability to understand.

Where, then, does that leave us? If it’s not metaphysics I’m talking about, then what is it, and what label shall we give it? Could we instead use a less heavily laden term?

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10 Comments

  1. Spirituality is another mode of consciousneess that can be elicited with magnetic fields.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/God_helmet

    When believers start talking about spirituality I not only bring up the brain based viewpoint, but also argue that I find deep meaning in life from my children, work, and friends.

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  2. I can’t really speak for Dr. Harris, but I’d wager that he’d agree 100% with your description of “spirituality.” We simply have few sufficient words for this kind of feeling/experience. I can’t think of many — perhaps some amalgam of peace of mind, wonder, and bonhomie? Harris also freely uses the word “mystical” in much the same way: states of mind that are *different* from day to day consciousness (not higher, as you note) that, while not in any way supernatural, may or may not have value, and are worthy of *scientific* exploration.

    Excellent post – irrespective of your pimping of my blog. :)

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  3. When I went to hear Greta christina speak a couple of months ago she said that we should use the word transcendence in place of spirituality (because spirituality has been hijacked). awesome buddy.

    Kriss

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    • I’d buy that I think – it’s not perfect, but neither is spirituality.

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  4. I like “transcendence,” but “connectedness” and “oneness could work. Here are my favorite articles about the science of transcendence.
    Are we hard-wired for religion? Did epilepsy cause Paul’s religious experience? http://health.howstuffworks.com/mental-health/human-nature/behavior/brain-religion.htm
    Monks and nuns have religious experience have heightened activity of the frontal lobe used for concentration and less activity in the parietal lobe which enables spacial orientation. Thus, the monk and nun don’t know where they are and feel one with the universe. http://health.howstuffworks.com/mental-health/human-nature/behavior/brain-religion1.htm
    Frontal lobe epilepsy causes hallucinations. The temporal lobe controls emotion and memory, so seizures often distort these two things. People with temporal lobe epilepsy describe foreign emotions, a deluge of old memories flooding back or hallucinations. http://health.howstuffworks.com/mental-health/neurological-conditions/epilepsy2.htm

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  5. Born and raised catholic. Actually chatted with god always….escaped,unharmed into universal thought…….lifetimes into buddha thoughts…..lifetimes into myownthoughts. Fully entering the third trimester of my life, watching my 89 yr old mom, ,ive alone and sad”……i am on a mission of what it all means…..need no labels….thank you

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  6. In my own speech, I’ve been known to use ‘spiritual’ and ‘spirituality’ as a placeholder for a certain view of the world and life as interconnected and meaningful, which can be derived from science or mysticism.

    I think it’s also a good placeholder for altered states of consciousness.

    I’m reminded often of the worldviews of Carl Sagan and Dick Feynman, both of them outspoken non-believers in anything supernatural.

    And I distinguish that from ‘spiritism’ or ‘spiritualism’ which are much more metaphysical in both use and implication, both of them involving something contra-material like ghosts, or souls and such.

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  7. Probably one of your best so far, Marty. Watching each step in this blog is turning into quite a journey.

    The term ‘numenous’ has been used by Dawkins in the past, I think. Not a bad word to adopt, considering its apparent absence from the modern lexicon. Lost words, words forgotten in time; that’s where you’ll find terms untainted by contemporary connotations.

    Temporarily, of course. :3

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  8. Yes! Please, please dump that weasel word “spirituality”. It conveys no useful information and is, in fact, a cult buzz-word. “It’s not religion, it’s spirituality, ” as gawd gets shoved down reluctant throats and dogma is forced upon vulnerable people.

    Now, I’ve been fortunate enough to have a small number of experiences involving altered consciousness (and with out drugs, I might add), but I do not find it useful to describe these occurrences as “spiritual”.

    Likewise “mystical”. A relatively unknown anthropologist at Syracuse University came up with a good definition of “mystic”, which I myself do find useful. But I don’t know that very many people at all are aware of this. So “mystic” is as full of woo and new age nonsense as “spiritual”.

    Love Sam Harris though I do, I wish wish wish he’d find other words, and would drop “spirituality” entirely.

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  9. Good post! I took a shot at choosing another word some time ago. :-)

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