I have a few close friends who describe themselves as ‘spiritual’. In fact, for the intervening period between leaving religious dogma and rejecting god-concepts altogether, I described myself along similar lines. When I said it, and I suppose when my friends say it, it meant that while I did not adhere to a particular religious tradition but still recognized that there was a non-intellectual part of the human experience that made up a non-trivial portion of my life. While my particular ‘spirituality’ did not encompass things like ghosts or angels or other non-corporeal forms of life, it did recognize that there is more in the world than limited human understanding can fully encompass.
In elementary school and throughout my life as a churchie, I was told that in addition to physical, social, emotional and mental health it was important to maintain one’s “spiritual health”. Googling the term gives you a whole flood of holistic sites that make the same claim. The interesting and telling part of both the religious and secular concepts of the spirit is that neither one bothers to actually define it, except in the most vague terms:
Spirituality is having meaning & direction in life. It involves development of positive morals, ethics & values. Being healthy spiritually helps us to demonstrate love, hope & a sense of caring for yourself and others.
The above is the most specific definition I could find, and even it doesn’t really bother to define what the spirit is, merely asserting the effect that having ‘healthy spirituality’ has. Apparently, according to this particular site, morals and values are the domain of the spirit – so much for philosophy and psychology I guess.
The galling part of the ‘spirituality’ issue is that, almost without question, it is describing subjective states of the brain. At least the religious definition posits the existence of a soul, although it is clear from explorations in neuroscience that the ‘soul’ is just another trick of the mind. However, the idea of ‘spirituality’ is inherently flawed in this way – it confuses an illusion with reality, and then back-fills its assumptions to fit the conclusion. First, the ‘spirit’ is created out of thin air; next, characteristics and qualities are ascribed to this figment; finally, a complicated system of diagnostic and treatment techniques are prescribed to maintain the health of the spirit:
- Create art work and/or writing centered on hope of peace, then have an art show
- Create cards to send to individuals who are alone, sick or just having a difficult time
- Draw or write about what you would like to do for a job or career when you get older
- Participate in mentoring i.e. reading a story to a younger child, either at home or within the school day
- Participate in random acts of kindness
- Have a ceremony celebrating Canadian Citizenship (lolwut?)
- Recognize others special gifts or individuality – e.g. Identify a strength of each person in your class/family
- Identify/draw a picture of or write about two community resources that help children/youth
It’s not a minor issue – major health care providers offer ‘spiritual health services’, seminars teach courses about how to heal your spirit, books are written that advertise the secrets of ‘boosting your spiritual health’. Millions of dollars are being made every year by people who claim to hold the secret to fixing a part of you that doesn’t exist. What’s more, belief in this non-existent vestigial and ephemeral organ is seen as a virtue – watch as people nod sagely and knowingly as someone repeats the canard “I’m not religious; I’m spiritual.” Contrast that to the reaction to someone who says “I don’t ride horses; I only like unicorns“.
Once we unpack the embedded implication of ‘spirituality’ – that there is something called a ‘spirit’ or a ‘soul’ that exists separately from the body – we are left to explain the pseudo-phenomenon of spirituality. We certainly experience life as though we are a spirit encased in a body, as though there is a living energy (as Orson Scott Card would call it, an aiùa) that comprises our ‘self’, our unique essence. It’s impossible to discuss this phenomenon without leaning heavily on the psycho-babble that makes up the language of spirituality. Anyone who has meditated, been inspired by a beautiful sight or song, felt connected to the planet, or allowed her/his mind to wander cannot deny that there is at least the illusion of a ‘self’ that exists beyond the wet and fleshy bits that make up our body.
What is this a picture of?
If you said ‘a pretty butterfly’, you’re wrong (if you said anything else, you might have a psychological problem). This is a picture of a bunch of coloured dots, arranged in a pattern that resembles a butterfly. The image of the butterfly is the product of your brain interpreting a number of individual stimuli and synthesizing them into one coherent expression. In the same way, your brain takes a variety of sensory information and builds a subjective experience that creates the illusion of a ‘spirit’ or soul:
All this is in no way meant to diminish the power of subjective experiences. I’ve been sublimely moved by works of music or literature (particularly the latter) that have changed the way I look at the world. I have, while looking at the night sky, felt a super-real connection to the universe. I have, on occasion, been knocked completely sideways by a stray thought that altered my perspective. I have, in years past, felt the Lord Jesus Christ in my heart, and had the Holy Spirit speak through me. These kinds of experiences are part of what defines our human experience. However, it is important to remember that while these things may have deep, powerful personal meaning, they do not correspond in any way to objective reality.
Tl/DR: There can be great value in those things we call ‘spiritual’, but the word itself props up a flawed view of the world.
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