I WAS in London last weekend (pics) meeting some wonderful people. One topic of conversation that came up late one evening was spirituality. It’s something that I have, in the past, had a lot to speak about. However, often pre-conceived notions of what spirituality really means (and we are well into in the realms of semantics here) hinder some discussion. This wasn’t the case the other day; as cursory as the discussion was, spirituality was not viewed as a skeptically-negative concept, but we were all way too tired, and the safe side of sober, for that discussion to last.

I’m re-posting an old post, written when I had something to say about the matter.


Post, of the same name, re-posted from an earlier incarnation of this blog:

AMAZEMENT still strikes at our primitive emotions. When we are left in bewildered awe at a spectacle or new insight, it tugs at us in a manner that a reasoned scientific account can do no justice. It is, in many respects, a “religious” experience, but the word “religious” is bandied around in place of a slew of terms that could be used.

Such experiences are spiritual, being of matter (the brain still being a material object), yet insubstantial and deeply emotive. Whether it is some perception of a deity, or a new dimension of worldly understanding provided by science, these experiences are linked in their spiritual nature. In fact, I am with Carl Sagan in my belief that science is a profound source of spirituality.

In talking about spirituality, there is no implication of talking about religion. Spirituality is a sense of meaning (or purpose) and unity, but it does not have to be divinely inspired; it should not be confused with mysticism, which is concerned with magic, the occult and supernatural. The scientific journal Nature defines spirituality it as “An inner sense of something greater than oneself. Recognition of a meaning to existence that transcends one’s immediate circumstances”. It’s a good word, and one that we ought to take back, releasing it from its pre-scientific context.

Nature and the universe certainly put us in our place with the realisation that the atoms that make up your body are billions of years old, they’ve made many other things in their existence, and will continue to do so long after we’re gone; we are simply borrowing them for a while. Scientists, and readers of science, have a lot to be spiritual about. We have a particular impulse to understand the world around us. It is a great injustice to ignore the natural world in favour of an inferior and artificial facsimile in the form of the supernatural. Why ignore what is in front of your eyes, from the sub-atomic to the cosmos, and instead make it up?

Science doesn’t have all the answers, but it has more than any faith can offer me. Science has so many more questions that it will answer, whereas most faiths have said everything they have to say. Fortunately, as a rational human being, and a scientist, I don’t need anyone to agree with me to be comfortable in my reasoning. If a million scientists decided to recant on DNA being the basis of genetic inheritance, unlikely as that is, it would mean nothing. DNA would still continue to be the basis of genetic inheritance unless they had hard evidence to the contrary. It is this facility than enables freethinking, rational people to be truly uninhibited and unprejudiced.

So why is spirituality important? Science can, in a practical sense, only really deal with the material; though this “material” may extend well below the size of an atom, or may be as intangible as love or trust. We still inhabit physiologically stone-age bodies with minds hard-wired for day-to-day problem-solving, strategic planning and interacting with the physical world that our ancestors could see, hear, touch, smell and taste. Yet we managed to arrive at this state in the absence of both writing and mathematics. Most of what we’ve achieved since then has been achieved by co-opting these more primitive thought processes (the original “transferable skill” set) and applying them in a new direction: complex reasoning and abstract theoretical modelling, applied to science and mathematics.

It is no surprise, therefore, that much of what we have learned in science is difficult to process, especially when they are beyond the resolutive power our innate senses; we need things to have defined boundaries and exist at the right scale. We know there is a sense of change; that processes are shaping life, the planet and the universe around us. We are part of something shared, much greater than ourselves, and every time science offers a new awesome insight into this, we find a connection with our spirituality.


11 thoughts on “Spirituality…

  1. Yes, like I say, it comes back to semantics, though I’d still like to wrest spirituality away from its religious connotations. Though I’m not going to make it a mission 😉

  2. No, I don’t think so. Regardless of what you think it means. Even in your definition, which could be deemed by some people to be quite reductionist, it will always make more sense to say “I am spiritual” than “I am full of wonder and awe at the world through the spectacles of science in the manner of Sagan”.

  3. @Christine, this is where you and I differ a bit (I was actually hoping to ask you more about this on an occasion when I wasn’t so drunk, sadly this occasion hasn’t come around yet!! :-/ )

    Saying “I am spiritual” can mean anything, as we can all feel awe and wonder at certain experiences but the frame we put that into can be very different. From personal experience, when someone describes themselves as a spiritual person, I can’t help but chuck in all the connotations that accompany that. I would much rather identify with a less obfuscatory definition (like Sagan’s for example) than use such a loaded word to describe myself.

    Any occasion in which I’ve said “I’m a spiritual person” has always followed or preceeded “I am not religious”, because I feel it is important to make this distinction.

    That said, your definition of spirituality seemed quite different to mine (which is why I would be interested to hear more). Sorry for the blog post within a blog post Jim!


  4. Write as much as you like Carmen; it’s free 😉

    So, thing is, what Carl Sagan said was, ‘Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality’. I also remember seeing this documentary about Richard Dawkins, touching on some of the same material, which crops up in his book Unweaving the Rainbow.

    Obviously this would be an ad hominem argument for the support of ‘spirituality’ from esteemed science communicators, but given the definition of spirituality is very much open to interpretation, I guess it’s freely debatable.

    For me, when someone says they are spiritual, what they are not saying is that they are religious. If they were religious, surely they wouldn’t beat around the bush and come out and say it?

    “Any occasion in which I’ve said “I’m a spiritual person” has always followed or preceded “I am not religious”, because I feel it is important to make this distinction.”

    – True of me too, though now I’m just going to send them to this blog post, lol

  5. Yeah, I think I should write one of these too!

    I don’t know if it’s necessarily true that people aren’t saying they’re religious when they describe themselves as spiritual, because the word can be interpreted to mean a great many things.

    @Christine, please correct me if I’m wrong, you described the way you interpret your spirituality as having a lot in common with shamanism, which you were quick to point out, thus clarifying your spirituality, whereas my spirituality is defined by a more empirical approach. For example, if I get a lucky break I know that it is down to a series of unrelated events coupled with my awesomeness, as opposed to there being a master plan that I am somehow involved in. I know that things aren’t “meant to be” just as you have a similar level of knowledge that you are a small part of a bigger picture. I got the impression that for you, that picture is already drawn out, whereas I believe that I’m the one painting it…?

    (Urgh. Cheesy analogy alert!)

  6. If someone announces they’re spiritual, I normally assume that they’re a New Ager which to me means that they don’t won’t to be tied to a monotheistic vision but are going for something a bit pantheistic and nature-worshippy. I don’t consider this an entirely bad thing.

  7. @carmen

    It’s interesting that we talked about this very little and you have managed to extrapolate a lot from one or two very un-elaborate professions of belief of mine.

    I don’t disagree with you about chance – I don’t think there’s some kind of master plan. I do believe in the interconnectness of all things – perhaps that is where you got your misconception from?

    My personal belief system embraces what Jim explains in this post, but it also has different facets of context/significance for me.

    I don’t see why empiricism and mysticism can’t co-exist in two layers of meaning. No, it’s not a purely scientific approach not to reduce things to their simplest. So shoot me.

    I don’t think any spiritual thing I experience couldn’t be explained by science, hypothetically. But I don’t know. I think more research needs to happen in the area of neuroscience and supersensory perceptions.

    I’d like to point out that in the absence of more convincing information, I understand anyone who is skeptical about mysticism. At worst, it is just a way I enjoy experiencing my life, ritualising it, in a way that does not hurt anyone else.

    There’s a big difference between my spirituality, religion in general, and cranks who tout cures that have no basis in evidence. I’m only claiming to be helping myself, not affecting anyone else.

  8. @Christine
    Absolutely, hence the “correct me if I’m wrong” as it was a very brief discussion that I’d love to have chatted more about!

    It’s really fascinating learning about how other people have arrived at their outlooks on life, mine is from a very strict catholic background, with a heap of odd events that shape why I think the way I do. It’s always fun discussing how others have arrived at their outlook, we shall definitely discuss it further when we next hang out 🙂

    I disagree with your views on mysticism, as I find it an unnecessary facet to viewing my world, and I’m quite vocal about people peddling woo to others who wouldn’t otherwise find it useful. I didn’t mean to directly compare what you believe with people who prey on others. I find that life and the world is beautiful and complicated enough that there’s no room for meaning, but again, this is due to my own perspective being shaped by my individual experience.

    You’re right about the interconnected implication, which I took a bit further than what you said, and for that I apologise. However, I am rather fond of the arbitrary nature of the way things seem to happen. That is where my sense of spirituality flourishes.

    There’s a brilliant book by Bruce Hood which I can lend you if you want? It’s proper funny and is really fascinating. He talks about spirituality, mysticism, out of body experiences etc. It’s well worth a read 🙂

    But anyway, we shall talk about all manner of things in much greater detail at some point!

  9. @carmen

    Book sounds cool, thanks, I’d love to borrow. Bearing in mind I am not due to read an entire book ’till after June 2010.

    I think I was slightly caught on the back foot, finding it slightly unnerving that my highly personal (not that I’m an intensely private person) beliefs/thoughts/philosophies discussed on a public forum such as this here blog.

    Even though I’m sure I started it.

    I’m not sure I could explain in a way that would satisfy you. In fact, I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t. But I’m not into dogma, so I really wouldn’t care about convincing you. In fact there’s nothing to convince you of. Only my experiences that I can’t possibly validate to you. Just some stories, then, but stories that enrich my life.

    I’m interested on hearing more about your views, of course, if you want to tell me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s