Saturday, October 14, 2006

But First -- Are You Spiritual?

I keep coming across the notion, mostly in American writings, that although many people no longer regard themselves as religious, still they stress the importance of spirituality. I have a problem with spirituality. I don't know what it means. And I'm pretty sure nobody else really does either.

Cognate words in Swedish are andlighet, which has strong connotations of the church-going little old lady, and spiritualitet, which means "a humorous way with words" (though less well-read Swedes have begun to use it to denote spirituality in the American non-sense). Spirituality seems to be what younger Swedes mean when they say "I'm not religious, but I do believe in something".

I think the main reason that it's so hard to understand "spirituality" is that it refers to feelings that are impossible to communicate clearly. Each American who professes spirituality very likely means different things, though they will never know that as they can't visit the insides of each other's brains. To explain what they mean, they may cite their feelings when watching the stars, walking in majestic natural scenery or gazing into the eyes of babies. Those things of course awaken profound feelings of something or other* in me too. But what do they have to do with spirits? Concretely speaking, there's no such thing as spirits or souls. There's just brains harbouring thoughts and emotions. Evolution has made sure to equip me with wonderful feelings for babies. It's a good way to help them stay alive until maturity, which is all that evolution really cares about.

So "spirituality" can mean pretty much anything. I'm tentatively translating the word as "undogmatic religion". A good thing about old-school dogmatic religions with carefully worded creeds and rigidly delimited canons of literature is that you know exactly what they expect you to believe. I only need to read the first line of the Nicene Creed to know that I'm not a Christian. But how do I know whether myself or anyobody else is spiritual? Really no way of telling. You can't reasonably contradict me if I say you're murglezoinggg either, as none of us knows what the word means.

Maybe I'm in fact a deeply spiritual man. Or a highly neebzeebluffle one. I guess I'll never know.

* Douglas Adams & John Lloyd. 1983. The Meaning of Liff. "Hambledon (n.). The sound of a single-engined aircraft flying by, heard whilst lying in a summer field in England, which somehow concentrates the silence and sense of space and timelessness and leaves one with a profound feeling of something or other."

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Anonymous pablo said...

I've wondered with similar thoughts. I suspect that people who still hold to a vague "spirituality" are those who simply are unready to make the next step into agnosticism or atheism. Or this is their sort of mental placeholder while they flirt with doubt, but it still allows them to return to belief without seeming to contradict themselves. I think there is some fear of supernatural retribution that motivates them as well. I agree that there are moments/places/ideas that have a numinous quality, but as you suggest, I think these are either the result of evolutionary hard wiring, or, more likely, culturally conditioned responses. How many people see god in the sunset because that understanding was provided to them at many other points in their lives as a sort of cliche?

14 October, 2006 10:56  
Blogger Martin said...

Well put. Maybe "spirituality" also has something to do with people's need to assure themselves and others that there are still things they hold sacred although they believe in no supernatural beings. Perhaps they feel a lingering doubt that a person can continue to treat human life, babies, nature etc. as sacred despite the realisation that it's all just atoms.

14 October, 2006 20:09  
Blogger Frostbeard said...

People in North America use "spiritual, but not religious" as an indicator that they believe in some things considered supernatural, but that they do not belong to any organized religion, and are generally not interested in such. Many people who call themselves spiritual will still believe in one or many gods, and may believe in other supernatural beings such as ghosts or fairies. Some are atheists though, who simply believe that there's more to the world than the sum of its parts. It's one of those terms that varies from person to person, really.

15 October, 2006 00:41  
Blogger Marthe said...

Betyr det at den eneste kuren mot spiritualitet er å lære å uttrykke seg i klartekst?

19 October, 2006 19:21  
Blogger Martin said...

Yeah, but I think part of the spiritual affliction expresses itself as a strong unwillingness to communicate clearly. "Putting words to some things takes all the magic out of them". Well, quite.

19 October, 2006 19:36  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

I think many Americans equate belief in "something higher" with "being a good person" instead of "selfish".

Also, there are plenty of places where saying you're an atheist isn't a good idea, but saying you're deeply spiritual says "I'm in the club, I belong, I'm one of you".

26 October, 2006 16:30  
Blogger Martin said...

Yeah, I've realised only fairly recently that to many Americans, "atheist" is not far from "satanist".

From my Swedish perspective it's really hard to understand that religion can be such an emotional issue among educated people.

26 October, 2006 17:34  
Blogger Bronze Dog said...

Might as well throw in my 2 cp while I'm here.

26 October, 2006 17:42  
Anonymous Skeptico said...

Spirituality – all the nice warm fuzzy feelings and reassurance of religion without the inconvenient rules.

27 October, 2006 01:54  
Blogger The Science Pundit said...

Salman Rushdie said it best when he suggested that the word "spirituality" should be banned from the English language for 50 years.

27 October, 2006 21:40  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My fiance and I decided that being "spiritual" was the adult version of being "emo". We might be off base a bit but it struck us as singularly correct.

28 October, 2006 07:30  
Blogger Martin said...

A young Gothic lady reader of this blog recently explained to me that cutting yourself in the skin of your arms is no longer seen as a Gothic thing to do. It's emo. So I researched the emo subculture and came up with a list of bands I'd never heard of, all apparently playing a descendant style of grindcore punk.

Arrived at this point, I decided that it was unnecessary for a man of mature years do delve any deeper into such adolescent folly. I mean, these people all still have a full head of hair.

28 October, 2006 08:17  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that personals/dating websites can offer a valuable perspective on this.

Websites like allow the poster of a personal ad to select their own "faith" from a list which includes all common religions, several Christian demoninations, Atheist, Agnostic, Other, and Spiritual but not Religious.

The illuminating part is that the poster also selects the faith of their so-called ideal partner from the same list of choices. This provides a good hint of what their self-described faith really means to them.

For example:
I've browsed a large sample of ads placed by women between the ages of 18 and 35, within North Carolina, who describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious." Although I have no hard numbers, it appears that most of these women are looking for a date who is either spiritual, Christian, Jewish, or sometimes agnostic. Atheists might as well be Satanists.

Self-described agnostic women are typically looking for a date who is spiritual, agnostic, Christian, or Jewish.

This is in North Carolina, tobacco country, and part of the so-called Bible Belt of the US; I'm sure the results from this kind of survey would vary by area. And I realize that's one of the main points of this blog post: spiritual doesn't hold a coherent definition. But I think it might have a clear meaning to many who use it to describe their beliefs.

28 October, 2006 14:22  
Blogger Martin said...

Funny that your agnostic female compatriots are so tolerant of Christianity and Judaism. But I guess that's the only way they can see any action. Most "Christian" guys won't turn out to be Jerry Falwell, after all.

28 October, 2006 20:28  
Blogger peter said...

You sound like a reformed neebzeebluffle to me. And call me a murglezoinggg once more and there'll be trouble.

As a recovering catholic who had profoundly spiritual experiences (one Easter vigil at Ampleforth Abbey in Yorkshire, England is still stuck in my mind from about 25 years ago) before seeing sense, I would like to know what goes on in the brain of a believer during a mass/service. What bits light up, which waves grow, which subside. Insofar as we could define spirituality, that may be it.

It would be intellectually interesting, and maybe we coulde then find a cure for it.

29 October, 2006 19:54  
Blogger Mojoey said...

Martin - I equate spirituality to religion. I equate spirituality in atheism to waffling. There is no God, the is no soul, no spirit, no meta-physical world. Only here, now.

Nice post!

29 October, 2006 21:16  
Blogger mygaia said...

Lets call it emotionalism

29 October, 2006 22:00  
Blogger Martin said...

Thanks Mojoey!

Some people keep asking for an evolutionary explanation to the brain's capability for spiritual epiphanies. I tend to feel that as most people don't seem to have them at all, and as many who do so have them under the influence of various hardships and/or chemicals, it's simply the brain's equivalent of a system crash.

White noise raging through your synapses, and the system trying to make sense of it all. Of course you see god. Your head is being fookin' re-booted.

29 October, 2006 22:31  

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