Skepticism

Afternoon Walkin’ The Plank, 9.19

Avast, me hearties! ‘Tis time for another special Pirate edition of the Afternoon Inquisition at Skepwench.

So answer ye scurvy dogs!  Be it possible to be ‘spiritual’ without believing in a Dread Pirate Roberts in the sky?

(In other words: “Is it possible to be spiritual without believing in a God?”)

Yarrrrr. I’m off to find a bottle ‘o’ rum.  And possible a parrot. Yarrr.

Masala Skeptic

Maria Walters (a.k.a. Masala Skeptic) has spent a lot of time in ‘furrin parts,’ including Hong Kong, Trinidad, and Pittsburgh. Although her passport is from India, she’s spent most of her adult life in the United States. She currently lives in Atlanta and has an unhealthy affection for science fiction, Neil Gaiman and all things Muppet.

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61 Comments

  1. I think it’s possible to believe in a soul, or an enduring part of being, without believing in God. I can imagine a religion based on, say, reincarnation and ghostly hauntings without having to resort to a Great Father/Mother figure.

    Ray Kurtzweil’s firm belief in Everlasting Life Through Technology always struck me as a sort of neo-techno-spirituality.

  2. In occupational therapy (my current profession – so this isn’t entirely out of nowhere) we talk about “spirituality” in terms of intrinsic qualities of the person. So for example, what gives meaning to a person’s life, their sense of self, and/or their sense of purpose. For many people those things may be religious, for others they may be abstract concepts or tangible objects/beings of some personal importance.

    So thought of from that perspective, yes one could be “spiritual” without believing in a God.

  3. I know it’s possible to not believe in god, although I never have.

    I don’t know what “being spiritual” is. I know people like to wear flowing clothing and talk like Edie Brickell sings and flow about the room and talk about crystals and energy flow. So if you’re asking if it’s possible to be absurd and not believe in god, then I’d say yes.

    and…umm… ye maties.

  4. I know a computer science student once who smoked a whole hell of a lot of pot, dropped some acid and decided he was at one with all computers.

    I’m not sure that was exactly spiritual, but there ws definitely a one-ness involved.

  5. Avast—I be spiritual! I be all full o’spirits, me beau-tee! But I be not as full o’ spirits as I want. Arrr, you scallywags, open the bung hole an’ pour me some more spirits, err I’ll make ye swab the poopdeck!

  6. @msd: Quite frankly I think our profession has taken the word and stretched it out to mean something more secular when it once probably meant “religious”. When they realized they couldn’t have something religious as the center of an occupational model, specifically the Canadian Model of Occupational Performance (also called the Person-Environment-Occupation model), they had to adapt it because it didn’t describe every person. So now the word in OT means something weird that it took a whole semester for us to wrap our heads around — students kept asking whether it meant religion and the professors would say “no” followed by a garbled insufficient explanation of why not.

    Still an interesting perspective, but that’s just it — “spirituality” depends on the perspective of the person. I think at this point it’s one of those words that’s been bastardized so much that it has lost all meaning.

  7. That depends on your definitions of “spiritual” and “god”, I suppose.

    Animists are spiritual (that is, they believe that all things have a non-material “spirit”), but don’t believe in a “god” in the usual sense of a supernatural person who must be obeyed (or appeased).

    I consider myself spiritual, in that I spend time cultivating the intangible things about myself (personality, emotional connection to my fellow humans, etc.), but I’m an atheist. In my case “spirit” is similar to the concept of the “spirit of the law”.

  8. I’m sure it’s possible to be spiritual without believing in god. Personally, though, I’ve abandoned the word spiritual because (with or without gods in the equation) it almost always signifies one type of woo or another.

    An equally interesting question: Is it possible to be spiritual AND skeptical?

  9. Ok, in my haste to write like a pirate, maybe I wasn’t very clear :)

    I agree that different people define spirituality differently and I think that’s what interests me. I’m interested to know if there are secular definitions of spirituality. Oh and yes, definitely skeptical definitions too.

    For example, if you are in nature and you are amazed by the beauty and wonder of a redwood tree, that can be described as a spiritual experience.

    When I was in Capetown a few years ago, we stayed in a game park out in the middle of nowhere. At night, when we looked at the sky, I had never seen so many stars. There was a river of light across the sky that I realized was the milky way. It was beautiful and humbling and beyond any words I can use. It might have even been spiritual in that it lifted my spirits and made me very aware of my connection to the universe.

    Or is spirituality always associated with woo? @Kimbo – i think we’re on similar pages here.

  10. E.O. Wilson’s “Ionian Enchantment” sounds to me like a completely secular and naturalistic version of spirituality. And for those atheists who appreciate the trappings of religion, Unitarian Universalism and Buddhism are two options. So yes, you can be spiritual, even religious, without having a God belief.

  11. @Masala Skeptic: Yeah, I think we are.

    I find that the various meanings of the word dilute the spirit (ho ho!) of it though – what is spirituality on this huge spectrum? The people who come up with words should come up with one for “secular spirituality” to distinguish the awe of existence etc. from “I’m not religious because I don’t go to church, so I’m just spiritual”. Or perhaps it’s a state of being with yet indefinable qualities — much like consciousness.

  12. Of course you can be spiritual without believing in a god. Of course you can be a spiritual skeptic.

    I refuse to let purveyors of supernaturalism and woo have a monopoly on useful and positive language about the human condition.

  13. I agree with what Sam Harris says about being rational and atheist, yet still have esoteric ‘mind opening’/’spiritual’ experiences. As he points out, people have gone on ascetic journeys or sat in caves for years, only to come back thinking about the world in a new and almost mystical way.

    All of this can be done with a sort of scientific and rational approach – “well, sitting in a cave didn’t do anything for my perspective, but going hiking in the mountains did – maybe I’ll try hiking again.”

    So basically, I think you can be rationally spiritual without believing in any dead sky pirates; even though dead sky pirates would make life much more plunder-ful.

  14. “Spirituality” has been used and abused so many times that I no longer give much creedence to it, mostly because it’s hard to get any two people to agree on what it means. (See the above discussion.)

    I agree that seeing the Milky Way clearly for the first time is a humbling and awe-inspiring thing, as Masala has said above. I have felt the same way when viewing objects in space through a telescope, too. I also have felt that way seeing a beautiful sunrise or sunset, a tremendous thunderstorm, etc. I don’t know if that is “spiritual.” It is an acknowledgement that we are connected to the universe, that we are all “star stuff,” as the dear departed Carl Sagan put it. Isn’t that enough?

    Unfortunately, possibly because I am a recovering Catholic, I associate “spiritual” with things like gods, religions, New Age malarkey, etc. Perhaps that is my loss. I don’t believe that anything of “us” survives death – it’s just “Game Over.” Interestingly, the older I get, the more convinced I am that is exactly what happens.

    I think our minds and all that goes with them, our emotions, thoughts and dreams, are emergent phenomena from the complexity of the human brain. When the brain dies, so does all of that – forever. Sad? Maybe. But our lives do tend to be bittersweet, don’t they?

  15. Spirituality seems to come in two varieties. The first seems to be a kind of generalized code for thinking your personal thoughts, beyond how they influence your actions, affects the outcome of the universe-either through prayer or Secret-style wishing or whatever. Such notions and skepticism do not mix.

    On the other hand, spirituality as a practice of getting over yourself- relaxing your sense of self-importance, gaining an appreciation for the scale of things, how such exercises are both humbling-a person is very small- and ennobling-a person is vastly complicated, tremendously malleable, the latest in a vast chain of survivors- are wholly and completely compatible with skepticism, and indeed, should be a natural outgrowth of considering the of the universe as we know it.

  16. @Timothy: I totally agree. I see nothing wrong with using the word “spiritual” to refer to the deep inner experiences we all have, or our sense of awe and wonder at the universe, or the love we have for those around us. I have what I would call spiritual experiences all the time, but that doesn’t mean I believe anything supernatural is happening. In fact, it feels great to experience that kind of joy without feeling like it needs to be the basis of some kind of woo-woo truth claim.

    Actually, I recently heard an interesting Point of Inquiry interview with Michael Dowd, where they talked about this very thing: using “night language”, or religious-sounding words, to describe secular phenomena. I don’t think anyone necessarily has to call these kinds of things “spiritual”, but personally I don’t mind using the word.

  17. The thing about feeling “one with the universe” is that science tells us that we are in fact one with the universe. If you take the really big picture, we’re all just local perturbations in a clump of the unevenly distributed matter that makes up the universe. Physics shades into chemistry, and in one particular clump of matter, full of relatively heavy atoms harvested from the debris of supernovae, one little nucleic acid latched onto a ribose chain, and managed to pick enough bits and pieces of other molecules to make a copy of itself. And for 2 1/2 billion years, that little nucleic acid has been copying itself over and over, introducing transcription errors and weeding out combinations that can’t reproduce, until about 100,000 years ago, a bipedal ape walked on the African savannah. It looked just like us, but it still wasn’t quite us because it lacked fully developed language. About 60,000 years ago, almost all of the apes died, but the ones that survived had learned a neat trick: fully articulate speech. And with the capacity for speech came consciousness — self-awareness — almost as an afterthought. And while language and consciousness may have ensured our survival, it also meant that for the first time, a speaking ape said, “I’m in here, and everything else is out there.”

    Now cognitive scientists are telling us just how thin the veneer of consciousness lies above essentially autonomic faculties — “Man is not a rational creature,” they say. “He is a rationalizing creature.”

    But sometimes, more often for some people than for others perhaps, we experience things with a remarkable directness and immediacy, and the thin veneer of consciousness is pierced if only for a moment, and we are once again slight perturbations in a clump of cosmic matter.

    And that’s what we call spirituality.

  18. This is something I’m struggling with right now. I want to be spiritual, but I’m also dedicated to science and skepticism. I think that what I’ve come up with is something along the lines ass nature as a force, something that you can connect with. Not on a physical level but on some level. I’m still not sure if thats really how I feel or not, but there is somethng to it.

  19. AVAST ye moth-eatin’ bilge bunnies!

    If by spirtual, ye mean a sense of awe and connectivity to the universe around yer scurvy self, then spiritual I be. YAAAAAAAAAR!

    In fact, only by sendin’ the the whole religion thing off the plank did it become possible for me to be spiritual. Doncha know. Yaaaaar.

  20. So… I really agree with Kimbo Jones, the word is so dilute now that we need to define it each time we use it. Does spiritual mean you believe in magic? If so, no. Popularly, I think people who say “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual.” mean that they don’t believe in the Christian God, but they do believe in a kind of mystical life energy. If that’s you’re spiritual, then you can certainly be skeptical without believing in God, but you’re still believing in magical B.S. so what’s the difference?

    If you love the feeling of being in awe o the wonder and majesty of nature, without an accompanying belief in the supernatural, then I think you are spiritual without believing in God and there’s an actual difference.

    But they are not eh same thing, and so definitions are necessary.

  21. I suck at typing while my kids are interrupting me. “o” should be “of” and “eh” should be “the”. And if I messed up any typing in this correction, I shan’t correct it further.

  22. Avast ye scurvy sons of motherless dogs. I’ll see the lot of ye…

    Ah fuck this.

    Okay. I’m going to observe orthodox jewish talk like a pirate day. It ends at sunset and it is dark outside.

    I’m now 7 gin and tonic’s closer to spirituality.

    Queaition authority was talking about thunderstorms in his/her post. I haven’t thought about it as a spiritual experience but I love thunderstorms.

    Here in Texas we get amazing storms. The entire house shakes from the thunder even the concrete slab. The wind blos wo hard it the rain is horizontal. The lightning is so bright that the street lamps turn off.

    And when this happens I am 7 feet tall. (6 inches taller than normal)

    When the thunderstorms roll through I am supreman. My cock can drive nales and I am faster than light and more romantic thatn romeo or casanova.

    I have been so moved that I have danced naked in the rain of thunderstorms. It is so powerful that the rain drops have left bruises.
    My hair in my face a smile from ear to ear. I feel so strong I could uproot a redwood.

    Would that be spiritual.

  23. Mhhmno I feel much more spiritual now. But I have to type much slower. I just watched an episode of Numbers. I don’t really now muc Uh about his show because I don’t watch eposideic telecision. But this was about a cult where they were busy killing each other. It wasn’t terrible.
    I miss californi so much.. I want to live in san francisco. I grew up in the area. I miss it every time I am geeling good. Oh, I’m feeling teh leak of spiritality. I need a refill

  24. Set a weather eye for the lee coast, ye mutinous dogs. If spiritualism started by the Fox sisters ‘n debunked by Houdini ye be referin’ to, then it ain’t worth a pint of grog.

    Now if ye be referin’ to a deep love and appreciation of nature then I’d be reckonin’ we’re all a bit spiritual.

    Splice the mainbrace, ye scaliwags, and sail an even keel. It’s getting cold enough here to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.

  25. @Chew: as a navy man I know what it means to frees the ball of a brass monkey. Okay nerd alert.
    A brass monkey was the pyramid of cannon balls next to a cannon on the old square riggers. It would get so cold sometimes that the top couple of balls would fall off. “cold enough to frezze the balls off a brass monkey.”

  26. @whitebird: I thnik, and I could be wrong, as I often am, that wat Masala is tryiying to say is that humans want a sense of wonder. We want to feel that we are part of somehtin Larger than ourselves. I tknow that I have wanted this. I finally found it in science but that isn’t always how it works out. Don’t tear our people down. We are so few in number. We need to support each other and disagree in , in uhm nice is wrong, hum support, no that ain’t i. Dammit. We need ot help each other. I’m srue ober Gabriel would no the rith words.

  27. Absolutely. I consider myself to be a spiritual person and I do not believe in deities. Well, atleast not in the “traditional” sense. What I consider to be a “god” is nothing more than a human archetype – a personification of things we consider good (and bad, in the cases of “evil” gods). I don’t believe in the supernatural. Yet I spend my mornings meditating and thanking the world for such a wonderful life. Pointless? Maybe, but it makes me feel good, so it isn’t really “pointless.”

  28. @Kimbo Jones: hey here is a girl, let me tell you, here is a girl. I love this figrl. But no, fire isn’t bad. Fire is good. Ttrees are pretty. But it isn’t that easliy. Some tiiems fier is bad. But sometimes fire is good. I ahve yused fire for good. Sometimes trees need fire b efore the relae thesre seeds.m So both are good and beutiful

  29. @Kimbo Jones: Oh myh, I just tried to read my last post. It is gibberish. I don’t even know what my buffy quoate was. I never really watched the show. I saw the movie with mhy mom when I was a kid. But I was so crushing on the acress wh played buffy and had adventures in babysitting. That I didn’t mind. What was my buffy quote?

  30. I don’t believe in God, gods, nor a sentient universal power. But I sometimes like to meditate until I feel a centered sense of peace or at one with the universe. I don’t know a better word than “spiritual” to describe that kind of mental exercise that gives those emotional benefits.

    Other times I like to drink a beer, watch crime dramas on cable, and feel at one with my couch. Yarrr.

  31. Interesting question! I figured out the whole “religion” thing when I was about five. God = Santa Claus = Easter Bunny, etc. I developed my own belief system which I learned years later was incredibly similar to classical Taoism. Taoism in its essential form is an atheistic philosophy. To me, the Tao represents the reality of the universe – what is possible. Some might call it physics or science in general and to go against that grain is foolish – but you still can if you choose. In some ways, the Tao is similar to Lucas’s “The Force” but you can’t channel it in any greater sense than you can electricity or heat. You can “go with the flow” or go against it. It is your choice. You just have to realize you fighting against the current of reality. Unfortunately, classical (Lao Tzu’s) Taoism was infected with lots of woo and became a religion in the usual sense. I feel somewhat “spiritual” and part of the universe but very solidly atheistic at the same time. I would love reincarnation to be possibility but I just don’t see a mechanism for it.

  32. @flib: I’m pretty sure E.O. Wilson is a theist. At least, he’s spending a remarkable amount of his time lately trying to unite the church with science.

    And I’m late answering the question ’cause I thought it was an easy one: of course.

    As I’ve said before, zen is one of my security blankets, and it’s not (inherently) theistic.

  33. We are all made of Star-stuff. We are the universe become self aware allowed to know itself. I believe Carl Sagan said something along those lines. If that’s not spiritual i don’t know what is, and the kicker.. it’s also true. <3

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