I have been wanting to write about this for a long long time. It’s a hard one to get right because firstly it’s super important, and secondly I’m not certain about what I mean to say.
Spirituality. Let’s start with only the word. The term is often considered the exclusive property of religion. Most atheists are hesitant to use it. I really think this is a shame. Why? Because it’s just a word at the end of the day. Words shouldn’t be monopolised. When they are, language becomes a barrier. Of all the conversations to build barriers around, those concerning belief are certainly the most dangerous. The discourse has to be open and accessible. It is essential that everyone can, and does, employ terms like spirituality, awe, wonder, freely. Conversations about the universe and life are tricky enough without us speaking in different languages altogether.
For the sake of progressive discussion, we all have to try and be clear on our definitions. Any Christian’s understanding of spirituality is bound to differ, if only slightly, from another’s, let alone a Buddhist’s or an atheist’s like me. Explaining your positioning on something as important as spirituality can seem a tall order. I think half of the time because we are uncertain of ourselves. But this only makes trying all the more important. You can’t hold an opinion, a belief, whatever you want to call it, without being able to justify it – to yourself.
So here’s the question, what does spirituality mean to me?
As an atheist, it has nothing to do with the supernatural. Rather the opposite, it’s about being truly in touch with the natural, ourselves and others. Spirituality is a quality that transcends our extremely limited primal senses, the faculties that allow us to physically interact with the world around us. It is still such a faculty – and certainly not a religious sensation – but the highest of faculties, the highest form of human sensation. I specify human, because as far as we know, you and I belong to the only species capable of wonder and existential curiosity. I believe this to be our most valuable, endearing, redeeming quality. Other species appear bound to biological urges, seeking basic, temporary satisfaction and contentment, in the form of food, sleep and sex. Spirituality is the deeper sense of well-being shared only by humans; the fulfilment of an inner peace, unrelated to physical health or prosperity. An inner freedom achieved through being conscious (that is to be aware rather than just awake) of our smallness within, but also oneness with, the universe.
That’s my poorly articulated, vaguely expressed understanding of spirituality. A kind of numinous sensitivity. But how does one try and attain this state? Obvious spiritual pursuits might be prayer or meditation. They share the same notion of turning within to seek understanding, blocking out our other senses, and the distractions they detect. But using my spiritual definition of awareness, smallness and oneness, I would just as equally propose that other activities can be spiritual pursuits, such as science or literature.
Science, like prayer, is an attempt to understand the universe. Its goal is to extend our knowledge and awareness. Its discoveries – the realisation that the sun does not orbit our earth – have humbled our species, forced us to accept our smallness. Science and religion do occasionally even arrive at similar conclusions. Buddhism teaches that everything is nothing and thus everything is the same. To many this appears an idealistic simplification. Modern science has made us think twice. I don’t claim to know a great deal (or even a small deal) about atoms, but I know that they are everywhere, and make up everything. I also know that every atom is 99.9% empty space. Adding one and one seems to indeed suggest that everything is very nearly nothing. Lawrence Krauss has a little more to say about the poetic nature of our universe, and the spiritual notion of oneness. He is like me, an awestruck atheist:
My final example of a spiritual pursuit is literature, something very dear to my heart. Outside the pages of the so called ‘holy texts’, you might not feel stories are capable of being a source of spirituality. But to me the world of fiction seems a perfectly reasonable way to seek an understanding of the seemingly incomprehensible. Reading has many similarities to prayer or meditation after all. It is a time you spend alone, separate from the physical world and biological urges. It is an activity that can translate meaning and invoke empathy, awe, wonder. Novels, poems and plays can change lives and perspectives. At their finest, they can have us reevaluate the world outside of their fiction. Who would deny that reading offers a very secular out-of-body experience?
So I’m a spiritual atheist – in my understanding of the word that is. How would you define yourself? Any attempt is going to first require pondering and navigating around an array of enigmatic terms: spirituality, god, soul, spirit, religion, consciousness, life, transcendence, faith, energy, awe…
I wish you luck.