- Published on Thursday, 14 February 2013 06:56
- Written by John Draper
- Hits: 5480
What exactly do we mean by Spiritual? It does not mean religious - that would mean belonging to a religion and having certain beliefs. It certainly does not by itself mean theist - belief in a god. I would say that it at least means to do with a soul or the supernatural. But atheists don't generally believe in the supernatural or a soul that lives after death so how can an atheist be described as spiritual? Buddhists and Hindus don't believe in the same kind of god that Abrahamic religions do - in fact, you can be a Hindu and still be an atheist. Yet Hindus are very spiritual - they focus on the essence of a person; the part which makes them an individual and which allows abstract thinking. In the sense that this is not yet quantifiable by science, this is mystical and supernatural. This essence could be defined as a soul. Perhaps all higher animals have such a soul and are therefore spiritual?
Amongst my siblings, my two brothers are atheists but my sister is "spiritual". I once described her as religious because she is caught up in the "Holy land" and the "Love of Jesus" but she strongly objected and said that no, she was not religious but was simply spiritual. Like me, she was brought up as a Catholic but has now turned to what I would call a Pentecostal version of Catholicism. Thechurch she attends focuses on emotional, mystical things like singing, rousing sermons, praying etc. and not on liturgy, theology and dogma. In my mind, she is catering to her spiritual side. She likes the mystical and emotional side of herself and other people. She then wraps her emotional thinking in a cloak of pseudo-Christian religion where she believes mostly the parts about love and goodness. But her main focus is on her "spiritual side".
A friend who is definitely not religious or a theist was reluctant to call himself an atheist because he saw a kind of spirit in nature. He described a river flowing through idyllic pastures (in poetic language which I don't remember!) as demonstrating that there is a beauty in the world which is more than just the physical factors like dimensions, colour, texture etc. The whole is more than a sum of the parts. This extra essence of nature could also be described as a kind of impersonal god and is definitely a spiritual concept.
So although "Spiritual" is usually connected with religion and with belief in an immortal soul, it can also mean that part of us that is non-material like emotions, abstract thinking, our value system etc. It may well be that one day science will identify what part of our brain manages these aspects but in the meantime, it "feels" right to think of them as separate to the rest of our body. I am convinced that this mental separation of spirit from physical is where the concept of an immortal soul came from. I am willing to accept that humans have a spiritual side and that we even have what might be called a soul. But it's too big of a stretch to imagine that this is immortal and either goes on to the "spirits only" world of heaven and hell or gets re-incarnated per Buddhist thinking.
So if the term is defined to not mean religious or anything like it, then most atheists are spiritual.
Originally published April 2011