“Spirituality” has its origins in the concept of Dualism, which holds that there are two substances in the universe: matter and consciousness. Consciousness is said to flow from the Spirit world, and matter, of course, is a function of the vulgar material world.
The Latin origins of “spirit” mean “breath;” early humans, in their ignorance of the human body, concluded that life was “given” by a supernatural and unknowable “breath.” Of course a “breath” implies a breather, and this has always been a fundamental pillar of religion.
Our Judeo-Christian culture in particular has always deprecated the material world. The concept of original sin is a classic example of how distasteful we material creatures are. Our only salvation is to “transcend” this lowly physical existence and touch the Divine Spirit world, where we will find Truth and Beauty.
Secular knowledge under Christianity was an evil. The early Greeks calculated the distance of the earth from the moon and sun; they calculated the diameter of the earth. Christianity destroyed this early science, all in the name of Spirituality. Even the science of cement, so crucial to the early Romans, was lost for centuries.
The time when Spirituality prevailed is known as the Dark Ages.
Of course the problems with religion, and Judeo-Christian religion in particular, go way beyond the attack on science. Authoritarian control is a natural offshoot of a sinful population benevolently cared for by a Spiritual elite.
Slavery, serfdom, the Divine Rights of Kings, the good fortunes and absolute power of the landed aristocracy, the oppressive patriarchal attitudes toward women and children, and of course racism and xenophobia are all closely associated with our Spiritual heritage.
Constantine was no fool when he adopted Christianity to unify control over the Roman Empire. The Empire’s victims were told to seek Spirituality, rather than betterment in this world. They were slaves because God made them slaves, and they should “love their masters, with fear and trembling, as before God.”(Ephesians 6:5-6)
Anyone remotely familiar with the history of Western philosophy simply cannot deny these roots for “Spirituality.” These are objective facts. Thus I maintain that non-theists should refrain from referring to the higher human aspirations and experiences as “Spiritual.” To do so is to continue the anti-humanist tradition I have outlined above.
My critics use a of number of arguments.
“That is only one definition of 'Spirituality.' The modern definitions are totally secular.” This is often accompanied by a trip to the dictionary, the ultimate argument from authority.
Only a fool would deny that “Spirituality” has secular definitions in our modern age. But that only begs the question: why is a word, whose core meaning relates to the Spirit world, used to describe noble human emotions and experiences? Is not such a definition a result of a process? Is the background not found in the philosophical roots of the word, in the Judeo-Christian tradition that has tortured our species for so long? Is this not an example of religious forces desiring to frame secular human phenomena in religious terms? If non-theists consider the root ideas of Dualism and Christianity detrimental to human progress and even deeply anti-human, then why do they continue to frame their concepts in terms based on those ideas?
“Let’s use their own values against them. Let’s show them that we are more ‘Spiritual’ than they are.”
Again this argument fails to deal with the roots of the word. Instead why not say, for example, that we have many peak human experiences of awe and wonder encountering the many beautiful things in the world, be they gorgeous mountain streams, splendid sunsets or the sweet innocence of a baby? Such a statement returns the peak experiences to the human dimension, where they rightfully belong.
“Why get entangled in semantic arguments? As long as we both understand what we mean when we use a word, then we can communicate.”
One of the ironies of this position is that it in fact is unable to go beyond the subjective experience of the speaker, even though on the surface it claims to argue against subjectivity. Sure, if you and I are clear on what our terms mean, then we can communicate quite well, even if we use different terms for the same thing. The problem is that we are not talking about you and I. We are talking about how the average listener in our society perceives what we are saying. We are talking about our effectiveness in promoting reason and science, instead of faith and authoritarian ideology.
This brings up the issue of framing, something that George Lakoff is famous for addressing. Framing of language is rather akin to framing of a picture. The use of particular words has a powerful effect upon the listener, based upon the cultural experience of that listener.
In our case I maintain that the average listener in our culture experiences "Spirituality” as a quasi-religious term, a magical way of speaking about peak human experiences. It certainly in no way challenges the predominant Dualist philosophical understanding of noble human experiences. In fact, by framing those aspirations in traditional Dualist terms, it directly perpetuates such a perspective in the average listener.
Possibly the most surreal aspect of this semantics argument is that it is sometimes promoted by people who otherwise talk about Lakoff in glowing terms.
“I’m not trying to change other people. They can believe what they want, and I in turn wish to be respected for my beliefs.” This approach is often combined with the semantic arguments.
Again we encounter the irony of being unable to get beyond the subjective, all in the name of fighting subjectivity. Certainly everyone has the right to believe the most preposterous of contentions, and if it gives their life meaning and purpose, then it serves a positive function –– for them! The problem is that we again are not just talking about you and me, about the interpersonal. Rather we are talking about the consequences in society when masses of people draw conclusions without evidence.
Remember all the negative phenomena associated with religion? This is not merely a chance association. The bottom line is that when you base your core ideas about the universe on faith and cultural myths, rather than on reason and experience, you epitomize the closed and biased mind. (Have you ever noticed that the definitions of “faith” and “bias” are nearly identical? The only concrete difference is one of connotation; “faith” is a positive version of “bias.”)
Such a closed, authoritarian, absolutist outlook will result in the destruction of our species. Between global warming, overpopulation and the increasingly deadly technological weaponry, our species either has to come of age intellectually, or self-destruct. The damage done by religion in the past is nothing compared to what it can do today.
At this point some would complain that I equate Spirituality with oppressive organized religion. The latter flows from the former, but not necessarily so.
In my view this is a fundamental epistemological fallacy. Ideas about the world that are not solidly based on evidence take on the oppressive characteristics of organized religion precisely because those concepts have no basis in reality. Society, it must be remembered, consists of very powerful people who strive to use ideas to promote their power and wealth. Ideas that have no basis in reality provide the perfect building blocks for oppressive, authoritarian ideologies. Throwing in an all-powerful, tyrannical Warrior King, otherwise known as God, just adds icing on the cake. But the ultimate problem is the methodology of faith, and its corresponding claim to reflect absolute Truth.
“I have gone beyond the petty self-righteous attitudes of being politically correct and ‘proper.’ It many times feels like a continuation of the traditional Victorian religious mindset, one that sees lying and cheating in everyday commerce as compensated for by expressing sorrow to God, while using certain magical words, or engaging in forbidden sexual acts, condemns one to eternal damnation.”
I find this argument far more compelling than the others. The problem is that using certain terms has far more implications than “using the Lord’s name in vain,” or using street slang to describe a sexual act.
I try to be sensitive to a number of terms. For example I am careful to avoid saying “he” when speaking of a generic person. I say “letter carrier,” rather than “mailman.” I don’t use terms like “mankind” and “man” to mean the entire species. I do this not because I want to be “proper,” but rather because I see patriarchy as a major negative.
Likewise I don’t use “faggot” to refer to gays. This usage has its roots in the pieces of wood the Spiritual elite gathered to burn gays at the stake, and I am repulsed by that.
By consciously using terms that are sensitive to issues such as patriarchy, we provide a reminder to the average listener that there is a problem with the old way of thinking. And that is exactly what happens when we reframe human experience in humanist, rather than Spiritual, terms.
The oppression of gays, just like the oppression of women, has always been justified by religion; it provides a cultural justification for this hatred, just as it has done for slavery and every other form of exploitation of people without power.
I simply cannot understand how a non-theist who recognizes the negative effects of religion, who feels that peak human experiences are above all human instead of other-worldly, who strives to base his or her life on reason and compassion, rather than on empty faith and authoritarian doctrines, who understands the basics of Western philosophy and in particular of Dualism –– how such a non-theist could speak of peak human experiences as “Spiritual.”