Can a Humanist be Spiritual – backgrounder

The September 2013 meeting discussion opened with the following background information.

It is sometimes heard, even from individuals who don’t consider themselves “religious”, that “spirituality” is essential for people to find meaning and a purpose in life. What is meant by that, and does it make sense to the typical Humanist? Can Humanists be simultaneously Humanist and spiritual?

The word “spirit” (from Latin “spiritus”) literally means “breath”, from “spirare” (to blow, to breathe).
Some meanings of the term (from various dictionaries) are:

• A vital force that gives life to physical organisms
• A supernatural being or essence
• A person’s outlook, temper, disposition, motivation, tendency, mood, attitude or liveliness
• The immaterial sentient part of a person

The term “spiritual” can be used in various contexts:

1) Spiritual as shorthand for “religious” or “devout”
2) Spiritual as shorthand for “in touch with one’s inner essence”
3) Spiritual as shorthand for exploring subjective experiences one can’t normally access (e.g., via meditation, communion with nature, etc.).
4) Spiritual as shorthand for engaging in behaviours related to what is best about human nature (culture, inventiveness, beauty, kindness, etc.)

In theory, Humanists are people who try to always be aware of their environment. They are people who pay attention and ask questions all the time to try to understand the reasons behind what he/she experiences. Being curious and open minded (as much as one can be, given our shortcomings) becomes a way of being. At the same time, experiences that don’t have a rational explanation are treated with a healthy dose of skepticism until some evidence-based framework can be developed.

As such, the typical Humanist would not support option 1, would have a lot of trouble with option 2, and might accept all or parts of options 3 and 4. Of course, some Humanists might also think that the whole notion of spirituality is irrational and that one just needs to ignore the topic altogether.

Let’s examine option 3, which is perhaps one that many Humanists might support, at least under certain circumstances: “Spiritual as shorthand for exploring experiences one can’t normally access (e.g., via meditation, communion with nature, etc.)”

These are experiences in a state of consciousness that is qualitatively different from our daily consciousness. For example, feelings of complete calm after spending an hour watching the clouds in the sky go by on a lazy summer afternoon. Or being completely submerged in the appreciation of the sounds coming from a high quality recording of a piece of music that means something to you. We may feel “connected” with something bigger than ourselves and may be using our brain differently.

These experiences are subjective. The senses may feel “sharper”, colours or sounds more intense. One can feel more connected to one’s environment, life, relationships or other important parts of one’s life.

The only problem is that the term “spirituality” already has too much “baggage”, too many negative connotations for many Humanists. Has anybody tried to find an alternative terminology?

The concepts described under option 3 are somewhat similar to the term “peak experience”, introduced by the psychologist Abraham Maslow. He talks about hierarchy of needs that all humans have (physiological, safety, love and a sense of belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization). A self-actualized person spends a fair amount of energy cultivating his/her full potential. It is during these times that peak experiences are said to occur (e.g., moments of profound awareness, contentment, interconnectedness, being fully engaged). Any experience that expands the boundaries of who you thought you were and answers the question “what does it mean to be fully human?” could fall under the heading of “peak experience”. Afterwards, our perception of who we are and where we fit in the world may change dramatically.

Another word to describe this state is “fulfilled.” You are where you want to be physically and psychologically. The world is not seen is terms of deficits, of what you don’t have or can’t be. One is at peace with who one is and accepts one’s strengths and weaknesses without trying to turn life into a permanent house renovation project.

For a short introduction to the topic of spirituality, visit the following sites to find links to various resources: