I often think that some people who term themselves “atheist” do, in fact, reflect a quite reflective and spiritual side and some of those of religious persuasion the opposite. So spirituality, like other character traits, seems strangely nondependent on our belief systems. We are searchers or we are not, I guess. What we find and keep depends on how hard we look and what we value.
This perceptive comment set me thinking. We very easily slip into a lazy mode of thinking wherein words are used with less precision than they deserve. Specifically, we often use spiritual almost as if it were a synonym for religious. Is this fair? Answering the question is made more difficult by the broad set of meanings ascribed to spiritual, as illustrated here.
I suggest that the answer is no and by way of evidence submit the common experience that we have of meeting people of firm religious belief who are not in the least spiritual. This leads to the proposition that while spirituality and religion often go together, they need not inevitably do so.
This in turn leads to the related question of whether there are people who are not religious but who are clearly spiritual. The question is not made any easier to answer by the fact that there are those – including militant atheists but not limited to them – who claim that there is no such thing as the spiritual, that this is just another fictitious concept along with God, soul, ghosts, angels and all the other weapons in the armoury of the religious believer.
What do we mean by spiritual, anyway? Again, I think you are likely to get as many answers as people answering the question. We could go into this quite deeply, tearing away the layers of the onion and probably end up with nothing. I am therefore going to boldly suggest that we intuitively know what spiritual means and that for some people at least, the spiritual realm, dimension, sense – call it what you will – does exist, that to them it has a reality that the rest of us, whether we feel it ourselves or not, have to respect.
I would further suggest that the spiritual has to do with meaning, value and significance, all of these being entities that are constructs of the human mind and cannot be found as solid objects in the physical world – hence our difficulty in defining the spiritual and saying what it is.
If this is right then the religious have no right to claim spirituality for themselves and deny it to others. Atheists can be as spiritual as Catholics, Muslims or Buddhists. Spirituality can, but does not necessarily, imply the supernatural. It is surely enough to feel that there is something greater than oneself, to which one belongs, which responds to one’s longing to transcend the finite and the perishable. Just as love can have many objects (e.g. I love my partner, my son, my cat) so can the spiritual. There are those for whom the unique object of the spiritual is God but, equally, there are those for whom the spiritual emanates from nature, from beauty; those whose spiritual hunger is assuaged by poetry and art and music or the beauties of scientific discovery and theory.
If theists consider these other objects of spirituality inferior to God, then that is their right, but its exercise is arrogant, as is any claim to possess a unique truth. To my mind, the others have as good a claim and they enrich our lives and our culture as much if not more. Further, I would say that it is this sense of there always being something more than we have yet grasped, something that we approach ever more closely but that finally always eludes our clutches that defines mankind, makes us what we are and elicits our finest achievements.