In a study involving 275 atheist scientists from elite universities 72 said they had so called 'spiritual qualities' consistent with science.

Per the article:

"Ecklund and Long noted that the spiritual scientists saw boundaries between themselves and their nonspiritual colleagues because their spirituality facilitated engagement with the world around them. Such engagement, according to the spiritual scientists, generated a different approach to research and teaching: While nonspiritual colleagues might focus on their own research at the expense of student interaction, spiritual scientists' sense of spirituality provides nonnegotiable reasons for making sure that they help struggling students succeed."

The study was conducted by researchers from Rice university and is to be published in the June issue of the journal, Sociology of Religion.

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This is a flawed and useless exercise.
For a start, the meaning of 'spirituality' was not clarified. The correspondence posted after the article exposes that well enough. 
No matter how defined, the word suggests a hint of some lurking belief in the supernatural.
True atheists make no allowance for any kind of supernatural nonsense. 

the word suggests a hint of some lurking belief in the supernatural


Dr. Meadan, this quote suggests that, because religionists have done their best to conflate spirituality with religion in an attempt to legitimize religion, that spirituality is part and parcel of religion, and that you may have accepted that conflation. I respectfully disagree with that premise.


I define spirituality as a deep and abiding respect for and sense of awe in the universe in which we find ourselves and be humbled by it, and that has nothing to do with religion. 


Indeed, there are many eastern philosophical traditions from India and East Asia that refuse to make any metaphysical speculations at all, but for whom spirituality is the essence of their reason for being.  Zen is one that comes immediately to mind.  I recall a discussion I observed once, between a Zen practitioner and a Sufi.  What sticks in my mind was a comment by the Zen master, who said to the Sufi, "You project a god and then you bow down and worship it!  How nonsensical is that?"  The Sufi's reply was equally sharp: "It is the best tool I have found for accomplishing what you assert is your goal - by sublimating myself to the divine, I find I am better able to abolish my ego."  Zen is often described as climbing the face of the cliff directly to arrive at the summit of abolishing the ego; Sufism has been described as following a long zig-zag path up the back side of that hill.  Zen is pure meditation; Sufism is pure prayer.  But the goal is the same summit - an egoless state of perfect humility.


The goal of any true scientist is to get past his ego and prejudices, and see the world as it really is, not as he wishes it to be.  That is the objective of the Zen practitioner as well.  This is why I believe that they each have a lot to learn from the other.  And it is why I believe that spirituality is vitally important - and its encouragement would do a lot to solve the world's problems.  The big barrier, of course, is to separate out and remove its parasite, religion.

Scott Bidstrup wrote:"I define spirituality as a deep and abiding respect for and sense of awe in the universe in which we find ourselves and be humbled by it, and that has nothing to do with religion." 

Defined like that, everything changes.

I can go along when you choose to say "a deep and abiding respect for and sense of awe in the universe in which we find ourselves and be humbled by it, and that has nothing to do with religion."

Yes, that is me too, but it is not all what I have always taken "spirituality" to mean. 


   A look at the Oxford English Dictionary produces the definitions I have always known:

* The quality or condition of being spiritual.

* A spiritual thing or quality as distinct from a material or worldly one.

* The fact or condition of being spirit or of consisting of an incorporeal essence. 


And the latter condenses the operational point into true supernaturalism. 

As a long-time student of eastern philosophy, I learned long ago that the commonly accepted concept of spirituality widely subscribed to in the west, is woefully inadequate and errant and does not allow for a non-theistic spirituality - by design, as I have noted.

The problem with the definition given in the Oxford English Dictionary is that it reflects the common conflation of spirituality with religion that is so very common in western cultures - mostly, I think, as the result of millenia-long domination of both politics and culture by that most aggressive of religions, Christianity, which has long portrayed itself as the be-all and end-all of spirituality.

This conflation is quite foreign to many Asians, especially Buddhists and Confucianists and their philosophical relatives.  As noted, many Buddhist sects, including Zen, refuse to make any metaphysical speculations at all, and Zen actively rejects them.  Does that make them non-spiritual?  I don't think so, and I think most practitioners of those spiritual disciplines would be horrified at the suggestion.  So in such a cultural context, the Oxford definition would simply not make sense. 

Dictionaries are written by men with cultural prejudices, and that includes the Oxford English Dictionary. I am reminded of the definition of "oats" given by Samuel Johnson, in the first dictionary published of the English language: "A grain, which in England is generally fed to horses, but which in Scotland, supports the people."  The OED's definition of spirituality strikes me as being equally prejudicial against non-theists.

BTW, Oxford University, the source of the Oxford English Dictionary,  I might point out, is an institution that has been closely associated with a religion since its founding.  So such subtle cultural prejudices in a dictionary produced by it are not a huge surprise.

I dig the info in this response!  Well, put.

Scott - i meant to send a message, but i'm new to this.  i'd really like to talk to about buddhism - there are so many sects.  


more anon - alexa (NYC, u.s. of a.)

When I studied Buddhism, it became evident to me very early on that the thousands of Buddhist sects represent accretions to Siddhartha Buddha's message, all of which were quite useless, mostly metaphysical speculations and ritual that sadly diluted and distracted from the philosophical core he was trying to teach. 


Of all the Buddhist sects, it is clear to me that the purest is probably Zen Buddhism, but that isn't saying much.  Even it is not without its rather pointless multiplicity of ritual accretions. Many of the Japanese Zen temples have lost much of their following because of it.  One famous roshi once even said that Zen in Japan is dead and ought to be reimported from America  (where many of those accretions were sensibly rejected).


So I advise people who would study eastern philosophy to not get involved in any particular sect, but to study many of them and look to the philosophical correlations between them, throwing the mysticism and ritual away as meaningless distractions. Dig deep in the correlations, and ignore the contradictions, which are myriad.


That is what I did for many years.  And it led to some interesting experiences.


When, after about 20 years of this study, I took a job in the Muslim north of Nigeria, and found several of the Muslims that I worked with were deeply spiritual people, and that their philosophical core and mine were not at all dissimilar, though their cosmologies were considerably different from mine.  Occasionally, they would even come to me for spiritual advice - and went so far as to declare me to be the "informal Imam" of the community of Muslims where we were working.  Over the years, I have discovered the same philosophical correlations to every major religion I looked at, even though cosmologies on which they are based are invariably radically different, conflicting and contradictory.


So to me this is the real value of studying Buddhism or for that matter, Vedic Hinduism, Vendanta, Vispasana, Sufist Islam or any of the other eastern religions I have looked at.  Their philosophical cores - but only their philosophical cores - are a tremendously useful guide for ordering your life, your outlook, your relations with others and your sense of belonging in the universe.  What they are not is anything like a useful description of the nature of the universe in which we find ourselves. 


As a famous Zen roshi once said, "If you are speculating about God or Gaia, you're distracted from what you should really be working on, so get a grip, throw away the nonsense and get back to work on yourself.  And do it now!"  I find that to be very good, practical advice.  Speculations about "spiritual energies" and "beyond the veil" are meaningless distractions stimulated mostly by organized religion that are very appealing to a sense of lurid curiosity, but have no useful meaning in a physical world, because of the total lack of evidence to support any of them and the distraction from the philosophical sense of a humble "I don't know" that they always, inevitably entail.



thanks, scott -  


that explained much about Buddhism that confused me.

  - alexa    (but i'm still with the Indians on this one :)

Thank you Scott! You are a marvelous teacher. Your message is concise and complete. I have learned a great deal just reading this single post. I have long been bewildered by the apparent contradiction between the simple teaching of Buddha, and the ludicrous ceremony, prayer wheels, etc. used in the practice of Buddhism, especially Tibetan. ( thanks for "accretions", too :-) When I was a catholic child, I loved the incense, robes, Latin, Gregorian Chant, and the rest of the ceremonial claptrap. Now I am immune to the sensual seduction of ceremony. The eastern religions' principle of "Ahimsa" is what I try to live by. Though I am arrogant, argumentative, selfrighteous, and easily offended, I keep trying.
What is your understanding of Jainism? It appealed to me in my cursory study of comparative religions. As I read more, it seemed a belief system that taught the fear and hatred of women. We are little more than a temptation to sin, to be avoided. Kind of like St. Paul's opinion of us. Also, it appeared to me that its stated respect for all forms of beings was based on the idea that human souls were reincarnated into these other beings, and that this was the sole reason for treating them with kindness. Thank you, again. Now that you have exposed your knowledge and, yes, wisdom, we atheists will wring you out like a wet towel. We seem to be more eager to understand and learn about the principles and cosmology of religions than are most people of "faith".

Dogly Writes: When I was a catholic child, I loved the incense, robes, Latin, Gregorian Chant, and the rest of the ceremonial claptrap. Now I am immune to the sensual seduction of ceremony.


Beauty is one of the seven principal hooks of religion as defined by Richard Cohen in his book, "Mind of the Bible Believer."  So of course Catholicism is really big on this - it has worked well for centuries.  It is also one of the main reasons why all religions, not just Christianity, accrete these things, too.  It makes them more attractive to people who find beauty in them.  That is why even Buddhism has accreted these accretions. 


Yet, in my experience, there are always the sincere seekers - those who understand at a subconscious level that they are accretions to a core philosophy and find themselves more attracted to core philosophies stripped of their accretions.  I like to say that the accretions are the weeds growing in the lovely garden of the prophet's (probably better to say originating moral philosopher's) thoughts. One moral philosopher of my acquaintance has suggested that the truly sincere seekers are drawn to pure moral philosophy, bare of these accretions, "like a bee is drawn to a flower."  That is very true in my experience.  And they usually represent the new cult's first converts, and the record of their thoughts, representing that purity, are often revered by subsequent generations (can we say, "apostles," boys and girls?).


One can see this process of accretion most clearly in the case of Christianity - read the four gospels and extract from them their common moral philosophy as spoken by the Jesus figure they portray.  Then listen to the current crop of mega-church evangelical preachers, wailing on the sin of relying on government for the cure of social injustice, the evils of homosexuality and error of "secular humanism," etc., and compare the two, and you can quickly see just how much the accretions of demagogic appeals to base instincts, in a bid for converts, have polluted the core philosophy.  The poster-child for this has got to be David Coe, the leader of the C-street "The Family" cult to which many members of Congress and our current Secretary of State belong.  He has openly and publicly expressed his admiration for Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler and Mao Tse Dung,  because "they understood power."  That manipulation of power appeals to him and his base - hence the cult's appeal to Beltway politicians - but talk about pollution of the core philosophy! I don't know how he could have gotten any further away from it!


These accretions accumulate with time, until finally the core philosophy is totally lost or becomes unreachable.  That is when a "reformer" comes along, pushes the whole wreckage over a rhetorical cliff and starts over.  Moses did that with Mesopotamian tribal religion, Jesus did that with 1st. century Judaism, Mohammed did that with Christianity and 7th Century Judaism, and I could go on and on.  It has happened to a religion as new as Islam - Baha'ullah did that two centuries ago in Iran (giving birth to the Baha'i faith).  And now, even Baha'i is ready for the same treatment.


Dogly writes: What is your understanding of Jainism? It appealed to me in my cursory study of comparative religions. As I read more, it seemed a belief system that taught the fear and hatred of women.


I have not studied Jainism extensively, but what I know of it, it seems that its original core philosophy emphasized the principle of non-violence, taken by subsequent leaders to the extreme, commanding followers to not even step on a bug.  Of course, those leaders knew nothing of the fact that the simple human act of taking a dump sends billions of living cells straight to their death in the sewage system.  An example of the pointlessness of accretions. 


But Jainism, like all other religions, has accrued many accretions that have polluted the core philosophy of non-violence.  Those accretions, include the mandate to never step on a bug (but ejecting millions of respiratory tract bacteria in a sneeze is apparently OK), to go around publicly naked (as some Jain cults do), misogynistic attitudes towards women, etc.  So it is a badly accreted religion, and in my view, is rather pointless to pursue for that reason.


At the end of the day, because of the seriousness of the problem of accretion, I would like to assert that I can see no point in studying religion as a source of moral philosophy.  Better to go straight to the moral philosophers and see what they have to say, devoid of metaphysical speculation that seems to invite accretion. 


That's where you can get the real deal, unpolluted by dogmatic accretions.  They will challenge you, they will confound you, they will bring you to wonder, amazement and frustration.  Religion, as a path to "self realization," is like climbing a mountain by going up a winding road.  May get you to the top, maybe not.  But studying moral philosophy is like hiking straight up the side of the mountain, through the unbroken woods, towards the top.  It is much harder, but it is a much more direct route.  But if you want to gain wisdom, that is by far the most direct way to do it.  By comparing moral philosophers' ideas, you chart your own course.  And it is that charting of the course, not the adopting of positions, by which you gain wisdom.  As any eastern philosopher will tell you, it is not the destination that is really important, it is the journey that matters.  Once you "arrive" at "self realization," the wood is still the wood, and the water is still the water - and you still have to chop the wood and you still have to carry the water.



Hi Dr. Meaden:


Per your position that "True Atheist make no allowance for any kind of supernatural nonsense" -


Spiritualism according to my definition requires only the belief that there is an energy involved in sustaining life that is different from any known to science (but one that science may some day discover) and does not require subscription to religion nor the existence of a god(s). I am agnostic toward it.

One of the things that Rene Descartes is famous for is his assertion that a being cannot know whether its perceptions accurately represent any external objective reality that might exist. (Of course his approach was the well known ‘I think therefore I am but how can I know whether anything else is‘ question.)

On p#45 of Stephen Hawking’s book, The Grand Design, he says:
“George Berkeley (1685-1753) even went so far as to say that nothing exists except the mind and its ideas. When a friend remarked to English author and lexicographer Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) that Berkeley’s claim could not possibly be refuted, Johnson is said to have responded by walking over to a large stone, kicking it, and proclaiming “I refute it thus”. Of course the pain Dr. Johnson experienced in his foot was also an idea in his mind, so he wasn’t really refuting Berkeley’s ideas. But his act did illustrate the view of philosopher David Hume (1711-1776), who wrote that although we have no rational grounds for believing in an objective reality, we also have no choice but to act as if it is true.”

From a purely rational perspective, with this problematic nature, must we not jump to the conclusion that there is an external objective reality? That is, without jumping to this conclusion can we hold that any of reality is not spiritual (according to the definition of spiritualism that I presented)?

I think it is safest that the definition of Atheism be restricted to only include a disbelief in god(s) rather than to include in it a disbelief in spiritualism (per my definition). Even if a being could rationally rely upon its perceptions, until more were scientifically known and understood about the natures of its energies, I think the safest definition of Atheism should be as above.


Skepticism is good until it slams the door on science (remember the instances of Galileo and Darwin). To accommodate science open-mindedness must coexist with skepticism. Science does not yet fully understand the energies that might sustain life nor how they might interact in so doing. Accordingly, a disbelief in spiritualism (per my definition) should not be a prerequisite of Atheism especially if the disbelief stems from fear of ridicule for being open-minded or what false notions not disbelieving might lead to.

In this regard we must take care to not throw the baby away with the bath water. The goal is to discover and promote truth (the baby) and not throw it away for fear of ridicule, what false notions acknowledging a scientific possibility might lead to nor any other reason as bathwater (invalid conclusions).



Hello John

You write:
Spiritualism according to my definition requires only the belief that there is an energy involved in sustaining life that is different from any known to science"


What does this mean?            ?... energy ... in sustaining life?   

Spiritualism is a belief that some kind of energy sustains life??????

'Life' is an attribute common to all living animals----whether amoeba, ant-eater, ape or human---and is initiated by the action of two strands of the double helix and their self-replication aided by certain proteins.

Thus from Scientific American, 2007: "Nobel Laureate H. J. Muller wrote that the gene material was "living material, the present-day representative of the first life," which Carl Sagan visualized as "a primitive free-living naked gene situated in a dilute solution of organic matter."  . . . Many different definitions of life have been proposed. Muller's remark would be in accord with what has been called the NASA definition of life: Life is a self-sustained chemical system capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution."


What have unscientific concepts of spiritualism and spirituality got to do with the self-sustaining chemical systems that are the force of life? 




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