An atheist’s take on the value and meaning of spirituality

As an atheist, I have long struggled with the word “spirituality.”  To my rational mind, it connotes a realm reason and physical laws, a place where magic beings called “spirits” roam around.  To me, this is a fantasy cooked up to avoid having to face the uncertainty and finality and inevitability of death.  I know to many people this is a positive thing, this spiritual aspect, but I could not relate to it.

I find often as an atheist that when people speak of religious or spiritual things, I have to translate into what I think of as “the real world.” This is a world where there are no superheroic beings in the ether controlling our fates, where things happen because they are caused, and causation can only occur when there is a set of rules shaping how things happen in the world.   But I could not find a way to interpret this word “spirituality” as it seems to explicitly connote a magical world where peoples’ escapist fantasies come to life.

Recently I was reading a book called “The Art of Happiness” written by Howard Cutler but with the author given as the Dalai Llama XIV when I came across a definition of spirituality that really opened my eyes and softened my heart.  In the book, the Dalai Llama speaks of spirituality in two senses, one is religious and involves faith.  This is the spirituality which I still cannot sign onto.  This is the one where you pray to God and he saves your son from cancer.  Good luck with that!

But there is a second sense, that he calls “basic human spirituality,” which he defines as “basic human qualities of goodness, kindness, compassion, caring.”  He says that “true spirituality should have the result of making a person calmer, happier, more peaceful.”  He then states that “whether one leads a spiritual life depends on whether one has been successful in bringing about that disciplined, tamed state of mind and translating that state of mind into one’s daily actions.”

In this sense, I can completely sign onto spirituality.  This is the mark of an elevated person, someone that understands deeper ideas and goes beyond narrow self interests.  So when you tell me now you are a spiritual person, I can translate that into “I am a person who uses practices and ideas from some tradition to bring me to an understanding of calmness, happiness, and connection.”   At this point I can nod and support you in something important to both of us.

I can think of another useful translation of “spiritual” as well. This one has to do with the human spirit, a deep essence of our being human, which can be noticed, trained and cultivated.  Some aspects of this spirit are limiting and harmful, some are neutral, some are empowering and helpful.  In this sense, I would say that spirituality would be more Buddhist, in the sense of noticing the various qualities of our human spirit and taking care to promote the better aspects.  This would involve meditation and the types of practices noted above.

Of course I’m still a scientist, so you can claim to be a “spiritual person” all you want, but I’m going to be waiting for some evidence.  🙂  Jesus is supposed to have said, “by their fruits you shall know them.”  So, tell me, are you really spiritual, or do you just want to believe in spirits?  Do you just need Jesus for comfort, or are you willing to comfort others and use your strengths for good purposes?


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