The HPedia: Spirituality

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Spirituality is fast becoming a common and accepted term for the pursuit of inspiration, meaning, and purpose, even among the non-religious.

Where many seem to get tripped up is in the root of the word, “spirit”, which seems to indicate some kind of supernatural entity.  However, the etymology of the word can be taken in quite naturalistic directions:

spirit (n.)mid-13c., “animating or vital principle in man and animals,” from Old French espirit, from Latin spiritus “soul, courage, vigor, breath,” related to spirare “to breathe,” from PIE *(s)peis- “to blow” (cf. Old Church Slavonic pisto “to play on the flute”).  (Online Etymology Dictionary)

The root meanings of courage, vigor, breath, to breathe, and to blow all have naturalistic overtones.  Moreover, concepts ancestral to the English notion also have naturalistic roots: Greek pneuma or “breath”, and Hebrew ruach or “breath, wind.”  Finally, the usage of the word to refer to a supernatural being is relatively late:

Meaning “supernatural being” is attested from c.1300 (see ghost); that of “essential principle of something” (in a non-theological sense, e.g. Spirit of St. Louis) is attested from 1690, common after 1800. Plural form spirits “volatile substance” is an alchemical idea, first attested 1610; sense narrowed to “strong alcoholic liquor” by 1670s. This also is the sense in spirit level (1768).  (Online Etymology Dictionary)

In addition to these ancient naturalistic meanings referring to air-based phenomena, a new meaning has developed in the modern era:

In modern times “spirituality” has acquired a new meaning. It still denotes a process of transformation, but is often seen as separate from religious institutions, as “spiritual-but-not-religious.”  Spirituality has come to mean the inner experience, the individual aspect. Religion represents the organized aspect, the institutions which press people into a mold. This modern spirituality blends (humanistic) psychology with mystical and esoteric traditions and eastern religions.

Social scientists have defined spirituality as the search for “the sacred,” where “the sacred” is broadly defined as that which is set apart from the ordinary and worthy of veneration. Spirituality can be sought not only through traditional organized religions, but also through movements such as the feminist theology and ecological spirituality. Spirituality is associated with mental health, managing substance abuse, marital functioning, parenting, and coping. It has been suggested that spirituality also leads to finding purpose and meaning in life.  (Wikipedia)

To illustrate the shift in meaning in modern times, it may be helpful to display a number of uses of the word by notable figures today.

Lawrence Krauss, physicist and strident atheist, exclaims:

I get upset when people say that science isn’t spiritual.  I get spiritual wonder looking at every Hubble space telescope picture.  And science, in fact, is a better kind of spirituality because it’s real.

In a Huffington Post article, evolutionary evangelist Michael Dowd explains:

New Theists practice what might be called a “practical spirituality.” Spirituality for us means the mindset, heart-space and tools that assist one in growing in integrity (i.e., in right relationship to reality) and supporting others and our species in doing the same. It also means an interpretive stance that can be counted on to deliver hope in times of confusion, solace in times of sorrow and support for handling life’s inevitable challenges.

Pantheist Annika Garratt adds:

Some people regard the word ‘spirituality’ as pertaining strictly to the ‘supernatural’. In my opinion, spirituality can be wholly naturalistic. Is ‘spirit’ something supernatural? This word is Latin in origin and means “breath”. To breathe is not a feat of the supernatural. Breathing is a characteristic of something that is alive, and to be ‘spirited’ or ‘in high spirits’ is to be lively. So then, spirituality is something to do with breathing and feeling lively, understanding what life is, and valuing this experience of being alive. Your personal spirituality is your understanding of what life is and how to make the most of this life. A spiritual experience is something that inspires you to go on living. Sometimes, gazing up at the sky is my only reason for living.

Philosopher Brendan Myers comments in The Other Side of Virtue:

Spirituality is very simple.  The values that configure a meaningful life need only transcend the individual self to be spiritual.  They need not transcend the whole world.

Further, Spiritual Naturalist DT Strain writes on The Humanist Contemplative:

But most people think of ‘spirituality’ as inherently about the supernatural – God, the afterlife, souls, and so on. How can there be spirituality without spirits? The group’s literature points out that the root Latin word, spiritus, meant wind or breath – the essence of life. “When we say ‘the spirit of the law’ we mean the essence of the law. In the same way, a true spirituality would be a practice that focuses on the essence or the ‘essential in life’. To those with supernatural views,” says Rev. Strain, “…that might be salvation in the afterlife. To us naturalists, the ‘spirit of life’ is about living a good, meaningful, and flourishing life in the here and now. This is an older and broader understanding of spirituality.”

Politician Al Gore is quoted in Bron Taylor’s Dark Green Religion:

Gore contended that Western civilization had become dysfunctional and destructive and that the roots of the environmental crisis were “spiritual.”  When making such statements, Gore knew he was going out on a limb: “As a politician, I know full well the special hazards of using ‘spiritual’ to describe a problem like this one. . . .  But what other word describes the collection of values and assumptions that determine our basic understanding of how we fit into the universe?”

Finally, neuroscientist and atheist Sam Harris defends the use of the word, and mentions that so did the late Christopher Hitchens.  Harris is, in fact, in the process of writing a book on the subject.

These comments vividly demonstrate the shift in meaning described in the Wikipedia article.

See also “Deity.”

Check out other entries in our HPedia.

4 Comments on “The HPedia: Spirituality

  1. At the same time as being a naturalist, I also am a bit of an animist, too. For me spirits are more like the sense of gestualt , a connection or what one might say in ecology, a system — much like speaking of Gods, a metaphor to something real I cannot really explain or label, yet experience.

  2. Words mean what people mean by them, so there is no correct meaning of “spiritual,” but some meanings will be more generally acknowledged than others.

    That little bit of postmodernism aside, for me the ultimate referent of the word “spirituality” is a particular experience: the experience where subject and object are one and the same, what is sometimes called the experience of non-duality. That experience is privileged because it is the only absolute experience available to humans — an experience that by its very nature must be always the same.

    In his book of spiritual poems, “The Enlightened Heart,” Stephen Mitchell quotes Chuang-tzu, who wrote: “When we understand, we are at the center of a circle, and there we sit while Yes and No chase each other around the circumference.”

    As I use the word, everything that moves us toward the center of that circle belongs to the word “spirituality,” and everything that moves us away is the profane. (Of course, the distinction between toward and away, between spiritual and profane is just another dualism, but until we find our way to Chuang-tzu’s lap, we need mappings with clear directions.)

    I do not claim this is the correct definition of spirtuality, or how it should be used here. I do wish to claim (and its my only reason for bothering to write this) that if we lose this aspect of the meaning of spirituality, we risk losing our ever so tenuous connection with the ancient sages.

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