Defining spirituality

My husband has a long personal history with religion. While the details of his story are not mine to tell, the relevant bit is that his life was constructed to culminate in an eventual career as a pastor. He obtained a Masters of Theology before converting to Catholicism and accidentally meeting some atheist on a dating website.

Being the type of atheist that I am, this has been fantastic for me. I want to know everything. I want to know why Martin Luther did this or why Catholics still do that. I want to know where prosperity gospel came from and how people reconcile it with a loving god. I have so many questions, most of which lead to more questions, and he always answers them.

Which leads to tonight.

I was exchanging ideas with a friend recently, and I construed that he was atheistic. He clarified that he’s not an atheist, that he’s spiritual with a leaning toward Buddhism. I didn’t respond, because my initial thought was, “Can’t a person be all of those?” And then, I needed to think a lot. I thought a lot, and I didn’t get anywhere.

So on tonight’s run with my husband, I took my question to the source.

Can’t an atheist be spiritual? I asked.

What do you mean by spiritual?

Well, like when I climb to the top of Moose Mountain and I look out at the lake, over all the trees. Sometimes I’m overcome with emotion, this undefinable feeling of awe. Or when I’m in the middle of nowhere on a clear night in July and I look up at the stars, and I feel so small. There’s no concrete explanation for all those feelings.

I don’t attribute those feelings, or this universe, to a god. I just know there are things I can’t explain.

If we approach this from a philosophical perspective, what is spiritual or supernatural is a thing we can’t explain through human reason. And all of those things – the mountains, the lake, how you got there – can be explained through human experience and science. What most people are talking about when they refer to spirituality is when they have an experience that cannot be explained by human reason.

What, like a coincidence? So, in order to have a spiritual experience, I need to buy into the idea that God is leading my coincidences? That’s a let-down.

Well, okay. What are the things that make you think your view from Moose Mountain is a spiritual experience?

The scope of it, the beauty, the fact that sometimes it makes me cry.

These are all very personal things. It’s bigger than you, it’s beautiful to you, it makes you cry. What’s the one thing in common? It’s you. The one thing we don’t understand as human beings is human consciousness. So what’s spiritual is your perception of the experience. Because we can’t explain how humans can perceive those things and experience emotions like we do.

So I’m sitting in the cave, watching the shadow of myself sitting atop Moose Mountain?

Plato might say so.

Can I be spiritual, as an atheist? I can think there are unexplainable things in the world and believe they’re not the work of a deity. Both of those things can be true, and I find no dissonance in believing them.

And I guess maybe it’s less about spirituality and more about humanity. Being capable of having a sense of wonder about the world and not being invested in how it got that way. Just opening your arms and being amazed. It’s beautiful and liberating.

Go be amazed.


2 thoughts on “Defining spirituality

  1. Well this is curious to me, that you don’t give where we came from a single thought, but yet wonder if these fantastic, tearful experiences you have are spiritual experiences. I guess it doesn’t add up to me why you’d even be concerned with having spiritual experiences when to me it’s just as simply having a heightened sense of being connected with nature and everything around you.

    I think about moments in my life that had NOTHING to do with God or church or anything remotely spiritual, yet had DEEPLY moving experiences that brought tears to my eye and filled me with a deep, profound joy and feeling of connected to something bigger than myself. I’ve felt that at the U2 360º tour at TCF Bank Stadium, I’ve felt it in moments where nature seemed all the more vivid to me and overwhelmed with its beauty, and even this past Wednesday when I saw my daughter’s class “informance” demonstrating how they’ve learned to play Indonesian Gamelans and hearing the artist in residence talking about the experience of the kids playing together, and unified in the experience. I had tears in my eyes with what a wonderful experience they were having and what a tremendous opportunity they had.

    …and it had nothing to do with spirituality or a deity or anything remotely religious, and it never even entered my mind that I was having a spiritual experience (much like how it’d never cross your mind to wonder why we’re here and if a god put us here on earth for a grander purpose).

    I think you experienced something remarkable — being deeply connected and hyper-aware of all that is around you, being overcome by its beauty, and having a heightened awareness in that moment. There’s probably a chemical reaction going on there that has something to do with some deep inner workings of the brain and the stimuli around you, but on the most basic level, I can presume that you’re just having an awesome and overwhelming experience that can’t help but provoke an emotional response.


  2. To be clear, I don’t tend to wonder (or worry) in the moment if they’re spiritual experiences. The question of whether or not they could be construed as such came up when I was specifically interrogating the intersection of atheism and spirituality.

    About 30 minutes after the conversation above, I likened these experiences to when people feel moved by music. I’ve had friends comment that X song made them feel the presence of the spirit, and knowing what I do about music, I (quietly, and to myself) chuckle in the knowledge that they’re actually feeling the presence of a 4-3 suspension. And there’s nothing mystical about that. In fact, it’s a very calculated, deliberate manipulation of the listener on the part of the composer and performer. So the times when I feel moved by music evoke the amused bonus-feeling of: “You son of a bitch, you used me.”

    To that end, whether or not a person accepts an experience as spiritual seems to come down to whether or not there’s a tidy definition for it – and, failing that definition, how the individual wants to describe it. I describe coincidences as coincidences, and I apparently describe nature-induced emotions as something unknowable.


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