Friday, June 18, 2010

What's Wrong with the Term "Spiritual"?

Here is a letter we received recently from a viewer asking why we don't use the term "spiritual" over at AETV, along with my response beneath:

Original Letter
I am a big fan of the show and I myself am an atheist. I agree with probably 99% of what you guys talk about, but there is a minor thing that erks me that I just wanted to share. Let me just say that i am not the best writer but I will try to formulate my words the best I can to convey my ideas to you.

I don't understand what is so wrong with the word "spiritual". I know that most of you, if not all of you don't believe in the existence of a soul or a spirit (neither do I), but the way I feel, many interpret the word having to do with the mind and body in a connection with nature or the universe (maybe sort of a high), not necessarily a soul or a spirit.

For example, having a lucid dream or an
out of body experience could be described as spiritual. Also, I think the word can have to do with nature, and a feeling of the mind and body, or a profound oneness with nature. A work of art or a piece of music could be said to be spiritual for giving you some heightened sense, nothing to do with any spirits at all. This is an emotive word. I guess what I am trying to say is the English language is full of these sort of context particular words, and I think you guys DO understand what the person MEANS in a given context, as speakers of English. Why give people a hard time about this word? I think it makes sense? I think it is just the morphology of the word that bugs you, but words themselves take on extensions of meaning and language changes all the time. It a lot of times is to do with a mind-body-nature thing. Does this make sense?

Also, one more thing. I find it very ironic that you guys have no problem with the word "supernatural". I hear you guys use this word all the time. What does THAT mean? In my opinion, there is no such thing as supernatural (literally speaking). Sure all words have linguistic application, like the word spiritual, but think about the word supernatural for just a second. In reality, there is no such thing; NOTHING is supernatural. Let's say for example, just hypothetically, that ghosts really did exist. Even if ghosts do really exist, then they would be part of the natural world (just not part of what we understand). Even though we can't prove them or study them or explain them scientifically, a scientific explanation exist, even if we never find it. Just like if there was a God and the whole nine yards of any religious claim were in fact true, a scientific explanation exist whether or not we are capable of ever finding it. So I honestly don't understand what you guys mean when you say "supernatural". Do you mean "fiction" or "unproven"? Perhaps "mythological"? Just wanted to point out that supernatural is also a blurry word. The word supernatural is a paradox..The dictionary says "existing outside the natural world" but NOTHING EXISTS OUTSIDE THE NATURAL WORLD, OR IT WOULD NOT EXIST AT ALL. That was all I wanted to get off my chest. Keep up the good work with the show; I wish we had more people like you guys out there on TV to encourage critical thinking

My Reply

Yes, we are aware some people use "spiritual" to describe secular functions. But the word has a very powerful religious meaning as well. We can't force anyone to use or not use any words, but when atheists or skeptics use this word, it's an invitation for theists to misapply. We see this all the time whenever a scientist who is also an atheist so much as mentions "god" in the most off-hand or metaphorical way. There are no end of theists who try and assert that people like Einstein or Hawking were not atheists, because of some metaphorical language they may have used. Recently, as an example, I saw an old Dawkins lecture online. He mentioned that between biologists, they refer to the results of natural selection as "design"--but they don't dare use that term publicly, due to the reality that religious people will jump all over it and distort it to death and try to use it as a means to claim even biologists recognize the work of god.

Whether or not you personally see that as any compelling reason to check your language is up to you. But I don't want to provide theists any more ridiculous ammo than they already think they have, so I avoid borrowing their terminology whenever possible--when I'm aware and thoughtful enough to understand "There are theists who are going to misappropriate this term." Why use language that has clear supernatural definitions if there are other terms I can use that do not invite unwanted, but very legitimate misunderstandings?

On your other point regarding "supernatural," can you point me to a video where anyone on our program--host/cohost--claims to believe it exists? We use the term because it has a meaning "that which is outside of or beyond nature." Even though no atheist is compelled to not believe in the supernatural, I can assure you that nobody working on the program currently accepts that "supernature" exists. Additionally, we use the term "god" as well--but we don't believe it exists. You talk about how easy it is for people to grasp what you mean by "spiritual" from your context; but, here you've just demonstrated how simple it is to distort what someone means when they use a term. We use supernature because it is a label for something we do not accept exists, and this appears to have been misconstrued by you--despite myriad conversations on the program, where we clearly use the term as something we reject.

I hope this helps you understand the position better; but I get you, or anyone, does not have to personally adopt it.



  1. Yes. I can only speak for myself, but I for sure have no idea what people mean when they use the term "spiritual", and this viewer's mail didn't help. Supernatural has a clear definition, and stating that it doesn't exist... Well, this viewer probably didn't think that argument through.
    By the way: "Einstein and Hawking were"?
    God, you gave me a fright.

  2. The main problem with the word "Spiritual" is that like "Natural" it is used so casually that it really has no meaning. It is usually associated with the emotions, feelings and the irrational side of human existence. Theists also use the term to indicated some connection to their god or Jesus. This makes the word a bit of a land mine for those of us who see no evidence for anything beyond the universe we can observe.

    "It a lot of times is to do with a mind-body-nature thing."

    I have become more of a reductionist of late and take exception with the concept of mind body duality. Recent advances in our understanding of neurology have produced convincing evidence that the mind is a product of what the brain does - there is no separation. This is resisted by theists since if the mind is only and emergent property of brain chemistry - what is the soul?

    Since our bodies exist in the "natural" world we are part of nature not separated from it. The fact that it is all brain chemistry does not change a person's ability to feel the emotions of joy and wonder. The fact that it is all based on something real and measurable makes it all the more amazing.

  3. In his attempt to explain why the word "spiritual" is safe to use, the writer himself used multiple definitions - AND - admitted that it has different meanings for people who believe in spirits and souls. Yet he still doesn't understand why there are problems with the word.

  4. When I hear people talking about being spiritual, it is usually kind of a compromise position.

    They clearly don't believe Gods are real and the Bible is true and all of that because they think it sounds silly.

    But they also know that the big bad world of being an atheist can be scary and of course the term carries negative connotations to so many people.

    This way they can have their cake (not being a lunatic creationist) and have it too (not be an atheist.)

  5. Just like how I don't see any evidence to proof religion right, it's the same for me as far as spirituality goes.

  6. "Spiritual" is both a loaded and empty term even when it is well defined - if you look up its definition in MW, all but one of the definitions given are in reference to either the supernatural or religious belief. I.e. Loaded with emptiness...;)

    Other times, it's a term of retreat when the theist doesn't want to out-and-out say "believe in the god of the bible". It's more often used by new-agers who are generally still theists but with even more watered-down definitions of god like "big wide space" and rot like that.

    So to me, it's just as useless a term as "god"; it has no real descriptive value and as Tracie points out, there are better alternatives. "Woo" is a good one and there are others.


  7. I think a good question is- why do atheists want to use the term spiritual? The author claims that we all know what people mean since we speak english (implying we are not being honest in our argument), but a quick look in the English dictionary has two options:

    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

    I think these are find definitions, and they are the reason I question people who claim they don't believe in souls but try to use the word. I constantly hear people trying to redefine it to suit their need, which is often to accommodate/placate a religious person, hence the definition is vague and full of contradictions as they try to expand it far beyond its value.

    It's nice to try to find some common or middle ground with someone who really is spiritual, but I prefer to honestly say something like "I don't believe in God(s), but that doesn't mean I don't have deep thoughts and considerations about our place in the universe."

  8. Nothing is wrong with the term "spiritual" per se, but it has been hijacked by idiots.

  9. To be fair when discussing the use of the word supernatural I think that the writer wasn't implying that any on the show believe in the concept of the supernatural, just pointing out that the show has no qualms about using the word in order to convey a common language concept whereas they don't avoid the word spiritual. I think the writer was keying in on the defense that is sometimes used on the show that spiritual isn't used because it is hard to define, but in your response you provided here you took more of a line where avoidance of the word is essentially because it is sort of a loaded term that would liable to be abused by believers. Sort of how a few (not all by any means) atheists will adopt a term like agnostic or humanist to describe themselves over atheist because atheist has a history of being a bit of a loaded word in our culture.

    And I can buy into that agrument, that those on the show would seek to avoid spiritual because of it being a culturally loaded word. Actually you see this sort of language correction all the time, a word will start out with a well-defined and narrow meaning, via culture it will become slowly distorted to have other less well defined connotations and then people will start using other words that are free of such connotations to describe what that word originally meant for the sake of clarity. A decent example is the word 'retarded' which originally was just used in the literal sense but over time became a sort of slur for stupidity and now you see people shy away from it's use to other less loaded terms. So I can see use moving away from a term like spiritual in that over time it has become pretty diluted to mean a lot of different things to different people rather then staying true to it's original meaning.

  10. Seems like we are missing a simple point here.

    Can someone give a definition of Spiritual that is concise and meaningful that doesn't involve the supernatural or religious?

    If people define it as MW defines it (see my earlier comment), I don't think the hosts would have an issue. The problem is, people say it doesn't mean that, and when the hosts ask them to define it, they don't seem to be able to. It sounds like they are trying to change the meaning to, as Sully said, compromise.

  11. @Jeremiah- The problem wit hthat argument is that there is a very simple and concise definition as to what "supernatural" means. "Spiritual" on the other hand is not only "loaded" as you put it, but vague and differing from person to person. I agree with MattD in that I've never heard someone who uses the term be able to also define it adequately. Thus i see know reason to use a term that serves to muddy my conceptions versus clarify them.

    I like Sam Harris. He's probably my favorite of the 4 horsemen era of atheists. But even when he starts rambling on about "spirituality" my eyes glaze over and I want him to snap back in to lucidity. I kind of get where he is coming from and I don't necessarily have a problem with the intent or his actions in things he considers "spiritual". But when even he can not succinctly bring the meaning in to focus, I find it nothing but frustrating.

    I was at the park today with my dog and wound up staring up at the wind blowing through some very tall overlapping trees with willow junk floating all about...There was something great in experiencing this and I enjoyed it until the terrier complained about our lack of movement. Even immediately after I couldn't put in to words why it held my attention or what exactly I was thinking at the moment. That may be considered spiritual. But at the same time, when I say it was spiritual, I'm not sure it's properly descriptive. It may mean the entirely wrong thing depending on how the listener or reader defines the term. So the term itself needs further clarification and context. That is why it is sometimes best avoiding the word altogether.

  12. Spirituality is one of two things

    a) a synonym for wonderment which is a good thing to have

    b) a metaphorical mask for non-believers to hide behind so they can avoid the crap that comes from not-believing.

  13. I liked this letter a lot, because it is about something I am breaking my head over for a while now. I dislike the term spirituality or spirtual, because it is a vague ill defined term. Having said that, I do think that there have been plenty of examples throughout history and in our own time, of people getting to a trance state where their perception of everything around them is radically altered. Pretty much every mystic movement in any religion has this aspect in them. Now I am convinced there is nothing supernatural or divine about this. It is simply a way to induce a certain state of the brain that alters the perception of the world. And this state of the brain is something very interesting to me, because I belief it can have added value for an individual. The problem emerges when people add all kinds of mystical mumbo jumbo to gaining thsi ste, making it 'mysterious'and 'divine'and the usually call it spirituality. There I jump of the wagon. I know a lot of non-religious people who have said that they had a spiritual experience. This experience is almost always described in similar terms. It conveys a sense of belonging in the world, and also the value of everything natural around them. Now what I would like to see is more scientific research into this area. Not to prove God, not at all, but to de-spiritualize these experiences. I think there is nothing wrong with having waht are currently called spiritual experiences, especially since there are many established methods to getting these experiences. They are natural things, that are functions of the brain, as far as I am concerned but they might be useful things. To actually research this I think we have to move past the world spiritual and look at what actually happens. Let's put some budhists or sufi's or shamans through a CT scan of the brain, and let's see what is happening ther. We could find out nothing is happening there at all, but we could also find out that certain parts of the brain oare more active, or something like that. Now if the latter thing is the case we could start looking at these things without words like spirituality, religion or divinity polluting them, yet still experience them as a positive thing in our lives.

    I can see I went on a bit of tangent here. This is mainly because I think this is an area that we know very little of, and very little proper research goes on in these areas (lot's of holistic 'scientific' claims of course) I think this is a useful area to research, because not only would we learn more about how our brain works, but also how we can then experimet in this area individually without being sucked into any dogma or religion.

    I realize this idea might not be exactly popular on here, but it's something I think about a lot, and I think the whole knee jerk allergic reaction many atheists (including me btw) have when hearing the word spitual or spirituality is a big hindrance, because we tend to throw everything that is called that in the Theist drawer and consequently stop thinking about it. An additional problem is that a lot of what is called spirituality IS in fact religious mumbo jumbo, which then justifies our prejudices and voila it is no longer interesting for research.

  14. I am the person who wrote the letter. Now that I have had time to think about it, I see the ambiguity with the word spiritual although whenever I myself have used the word it was with secular meaning, a mind-body thing, what ever you wanna call that, maybe the sense of wonderment, I suppose. I do think it is a shame that it has become what it has become. Maybe there is a better word to replace the word with, but we are not all scientists and we convey thoughts using these conventional words out of habit. Nobody seems to have a problem with "oh my god". I have tried to be careful lately on my use of the word spiritual ever since I started watching AE but I still understand what people imply by context when it is used.

    Now, when I was talking about the word "supernatural" I guess I didn't word my thought correctly-I will get back to you guys when I have it more composed. I see the word as a paradox but when I am more composed I will elaborate later.

  15. one more thing! I know how to say what I was trying to say about "supernatural" and why I find the word to be a paradox. For something to be supernatural it needs to not exist in the real world, however to refer to something as supernatural one supposes absolute certainty that this thing which one refers to is not of the real world....

  16. Hello this is valu777 from youtube why block me are you scared of the truth ??

    are you scared of my questions ?

    are you realy free thinkers ,

    are you worried about my christian power to cast out your denmons?

    oh you might be scared of me is this the reason

    or are you going to use the troll excuse ? to hide behind


  17. Valu777, if you think childish playground taunts are the way to get our attention, then it's no wonder someone may have banned you on YouTube. We prefer to talk to grown-ups and not petulant overgrown juveniles. If you have a point of view you think is worthy of considering, express it. I strongly doubt you have anything to offer that hasn't been refuted a thousand times over, but on the minute chance you may surprise us, is there something actually interesting you have to say?

  18. Is it an honor or offensive to someone if you call them Poe when they are serious?


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