If not spirituality, then what?
As a continuation of some of the thoughts I expressed in my article “An Atheist and Spirituality“, I think it is worthwhile exploring some of the traits of being human that some may call “spiritual”. To be sure, the human experience is complicated and multifaceted, so there are many avenues worth exploring on this topic. And it is true that the human species is a relatively young one in the scope of things, and our journey of exploration is only just beginning. So it is no wonder that when we don’t understand something that we will label it incorrectly, we endow it with improper qualities, and we mistakenly identify happenings in our own brains as somehow being the will of outside forces.
So, what are some of the qualities of the human experience we incorrectly label as “spiritual”?
Firstly and most obviously is the idea of a “soul”. I don’t see, and have never seen, any evidence to suggest that there is any such thing. The very idea is a by-product of self-awareness coupled with very complex problem-solving abilities that we have evolved over millennia. We also, due to our empathic natures, struggle with the idea of death, because we wonder about and fear what happens when our hearts stop beating. We hate the idea that our brains simply stop functioning because so much happens in our brains over a lifetime, and for that to just stop seems a mighty waste indeed. We see others die and hope that all the thoughts and experiences that person had are somehow still around after they are gone, and we like to think that when we die, the same will happen to us. This idea has been very conveniently used by the religious to try to control the actions of people, by claiming to know what happens to us after we die. The idea of “soul” lives as a fanciful idea inside our brains, not in the realm of the intangible spirit.
“Since our inner experiences consist of reproductions, and combinations of sensory impressions, the concept of a soul without a body seem to me to be empty and devoid of meaning.” – Albert Einstein
Secondly, is the idea of a human “connectedness” that we feel, connections with each other, our families and pets, the world around us and the universe. We feel connected because we are connected. Not by some invisible force or spiritual strings, but by our very existence. We owe our existences to the earth, the stars and our parents. We interact with each other, and take parts of this interaction with us when we go our separate ways. We are connected to the sun and the planet earth because the very molecules we are made up from came from them, and before that, from the death of stars. If we weren’t connected, our families and societies as we know them would not exist. There’s nothing spiritual about it, there is only the biological advantage of kinship passed down through human evolution.
Thirdly, what of mind-reading, fortune-telling, ESP, soulmates etc.? I’d go so far as to say that these are misunderstandings of the way we process our world around us. We are pattern seeking animals. we seek to find patterns to help us renegotiate the world around us. We make correct and incorrect judgements of the world based on these, but so often it seems we place importance on things that may just be happenstance. But we also misread the emotions we experience, the level of subtlety with which people interact, and the feeling of bondedness we feel for one-another. And there are always those who are ready to claim that they are in touch with the “spirit” realm based on their abilities to read people and convince them of something, as in the case of fortune tellers and mind-readers. The power of suggestion is very strong, and we are all subject to its whims. As for ESP, see what James Randi has to say on the subject.
“Here’s something to think about: How come you never see a headline like ‘Psychic Wins Lottery’?” – Jay Leno
And fourthly, but by no means lastly, is the idea of spirits themselves. God and Gods, ghosts, demons, elves, phantasms, ghouls, poltergeists, tree-spirits etc., all hold two things in common; there is no evidence for them, and all have been used as ways to explain away things we once did not understand. This is the most troublesome of “spiritual” ideas, because people have convinced themselves, despite all evidence to suggest there’s no such thing, that they can speak to these spirits, and that these spirits can alter reality, change the course of things or deliver good or bad fortune to us. Prayer and ouija-boards go hand in hand, in that they claim that they are somehow connecting with “the other side”, and that these ethereal beings are somehow guiding the goings on in our world. Once upon a time, many believed that tree-spirits control the forests, and water nymphs control the streams. Others believed that the old house down the road was haunted by a ghost. And of course there are thousands of historical gods that have fallen out of favour over the centuries. As we progress in our understanding of things, so do the spirits fall by the wayside. The thing that goes “bump” in the night is now the house settling, the ghost in the old house is a trick of the light, water turned into ice by the frost-demon is just temperature at night causing water to solidify. If looked at in enough detail, we can explain away almost all of the realm of “spirits”, and those we can’t, it just means we aren’t asking the right questions.
“Prier Dieu c’est se flatter qu’avec des paroles on changera toute la nature. (To pray to God is to flatter oneself that with words one can alter nature.)” – Voltaire
This is by no means comprehensive, but I hope it adds to my earlier thoughts.