I used to be a very spiritual person. I considered myself to be a Buddhist, believed in God (in a deistic kind of way) and meditated a lot. Now I’m a secular humanist. I reject the idea of God as possible or even knowable. I also find religion to be unhealthy and unnecessary for anything vital to human existence (with a few exceptions in the present). A psychologist friend said to me one day that being spiritual and being a humanist are not mutually exclusive. (After, I might add, a lengthy discussion on the topic) Turns out, she may be right about that.
Looking at why being spiritual is different than being religious will help bring an understanding as to why being spiritual is compatible with being a humanist.
The word itself derives from the Latin root spiritus, which means ‘breath’—referring to the breath of life. Philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel defined spirit and mind synonymously. In modern culture it has two popular meanings. The first defines spirit as some kind of non-corporeal entity that exists inside and/or outside of the material world. Spirit is also popularly defined as a life force of some kind (i.e. has has great spirit).
However you define spirit that doesn’t really help us understand what it means to be spiritual. It has a secular and non-secular meaning. In the religious sense being spiritual means pursuing a lifestyle and values as defined by that particular religion. For the secular it means a’ …non-religious quest for spirituality also includes identifying oneself as part of a larger community, as well as developing a vital, enthusiastic involvement with nature, the arts, and science. Here spiritual fulfillment equates with feeling fully, vibrantly alive and connected to others, as well as to our broader environment.’ (source). To be spiritual can take on quite a personal definition as well, from lofty religious piety to something as simple tending to your garden or adding a stamp to your collection.
Psychologists are divided on the issue ‘On one end of the spectrum, most of mainstream psychology does not concern itself with issues of consciousness and spirit and rejects what is not scientifically quantifiable. On the other end, many contemporary spiritual traditions view the psyche as an unreal construct and believe that psychological work is an indulgent reinforcement of the story of the false self.’ (source) However most psychologists do recognize the benefit of spiritual practice. Some even go so far as to advocate its use as a means of psychotherapy. Maslow felt spiritual awakening ranked even above self-actualization. Following Carl Jung and Williams James’ suggestion of its importance psychologists like Victor Frankl and Otto Rank helped form transpersonal psychology which Ken Wilber described as: ‘ those deeper or higher aspects of human experience that transcend the ordinary and the average—experiences that are, in other words, ‘transpersonal’ or ‘more than personal,’
The ambiguity of the word but the importance of its existence has lead us to many different things being passed off as spiritual, attaching an aura of mystery to everyday things such emotions, ideas and the natural world. Out of this combining of existential pondering and psychology we get what is called ‘new age’ spirituality. While new age spiritual pursuits are mostly harmless there are some valid criticisms of it:
- Pseudo-science: Pawning off everything from feng shui, to magical crystals and astrology charts that promise the world and actually do nothing at all.
- Religious cherry picking: Taking bits and pieces from various religions like angels, God and other kinds of archaic nonsense religion has brought the world and ignoring the rest.
- Self-Absorption: New age beliefs are very egocentric (my body, my future, my success, my health, my relationships…etc.) and it has a love of pretentious language
New age beliefs do sometimes come close to the mark in their treatment of psychology. Self-improvement and the pursuit of meaning are necessary if we are to survive with our sanity intact. However these pursuits can be done without the pseudo-science and the scams. In fact some would argue that the pursuit truth is itself very spiritual.
On the difference between being spiritual and being religious the Dalai Lama said:
I believe there is an important distinction to be made between religion and spirituality. Religion I take to be concerned with faith in the claims to salvation of one faith tradition or another, an aspect of which is acceptance of some form of metaphysical or supernatural reality, including perhaps an idea of heaven or nirvana. Connected with this are religious teachings or dogma, rituals, prayer and so on. Spirituality I take to be concerned with those qualities of the human spirit such as love and compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, a sense of responsibility, a sense of harmony which bring happiness to both self and others. While ritual and prayer, along with the questions of nirvana and salvation, are directly connected with religious faith, these inner qualities need not be, however. There is thus no reason why the individual should not develop them, even to a high degree, without recourse to any religious or metaphysical belief system. This is why I sometimes say that religion is something we can perhaps do without. What we cannot do without are these basic spiritual qualities.”
So, is humanism compatible with being spiritual? Absolutely. In fact, you can even find some who define themselves as religious humanists such as Ethical Culturalism or the Universal Unitarians. Wherever it is you find meaning and hope, to whatever it is that helps you get through life, you’d be surprised just how spiritual that might be no matter how secular you are.