Many atheists will be aware that discussions about religion with non-atheists can often contain the ‘S’ word. That is, ‘spiritual’, ‘spiritualism’, or derivations of those concepts.
Let’s start with some dictionary definitions:
Spiritual adjective (1): of, relating to, or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.(2) of or relating to religion or religious belief.
Spiritualism noun (1): a system of belief or religious practice based on supposed communication with the spirits of the dead, especially through mediums.(2) philosophy: the doctrine that the spirit exists as distinct from matter, or that spirit is the only reality.
Weasel words plural noun: words or statements that are intentionally ambiguous or misleading.
The New Oxford Dictionary of English
Other dictionaries are available.
Also, apologies to weasels, living or dead, as no offence was implied or intended by Atheism UK.
How many times have we atheists heard people say something along the lines of, “I’m not really religious, but I’m spiritual; you know, like there must be something else”. Trying to drill down into what is meant by ‘spiritual’ or ‘something else’ is very often fruitless and pointless. We learn nothing from further prevarication by people who call themselves ‘spiritual’ but can’t explain what it means.
However, we all, sort of, know what ‘spiritual’ means, even if it’s not a word atheists would normally use without deliberate intent.
What I’m suggesting is that we come up with another term to replace the ‘spiritual’ word. Or do we? Maybe we just need to recognise ‘spiritual’ when it’s used and call it out. That is, ‘what do you mean by that and what do you get out of it?’ Maybe, you just haven’t thought about it.
For me, the natural world we live in, that is the planet Earth and the known universe, is full of awe, wonder and beauty. To invoke ‘spiritual’ in the sense that there ‘must be something else’ seems lazy and disrespectful of what we have in the natural world and can experience first-hand, without wishing there was something else. What more do you want when there is so much more to learn about our own planet? We know more about the Moon than we do about the deepest, unexplored regions of the oceans on Earth.
‘Spiritual’ really is a weasel word as it’s a big get-out for explaining what a person means. Ask anyone who uses the ‘spiritual’ word to explain exactly what they mean, and you’ll very likely get a reply that never answers the question.
Personally, I would replace the word ‘spiritual’ with ‘awesome’; other words are available. For me, ‘awesome’ is snorkel-diving on a coral reef; climbing to the top of a mountain and looking over the valleys and lakes; playing live with my band when the crowd went wild, etc.
It’s not ‘spiritual’, it’s real-life experiences. What more do you need? What are you wishing for that the here-and-now can’t give you?
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Atheism UK.
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I have to admit, over the years I have developed a bit of a tick when I hear this word used in a serious conversation!
Yes – I hate the word “spiritual”; it’s a cop-out. As a nice cartoon a year or two back (in Private Eye, quite likely) had it – one of a couple to another: “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual; I believe in _modern_ nonsense.”
Some years back at an international meeting operating with simultaneous interpretation, I bridled at a phrase used by someone when talking about grass-roots campaigning. I interrupted the discussion and complained that the English channel I was listening to was spouting nothing I recognised as meaningful English – though the speaker (from the US) was also allegedly speaking English [ie I was listening to the live feed, not to an interpreter]. I said that someone had referred to “spirituality from below”, and I asked, in all seriousness, what on earth that meant … was I to understand it as a reference to ghosts in the basement? One half of the meeting collapsed in laughter; the other half barely talked to me for the next couple of days of the conference…