Let's All Get Spiritual! The Many Meanings of "Spirituality"

“Without knowing the force of words, it is impossible to know men.”



I recently heard some women discussing a “women’s spirituality group.”  They wanted to determine whether there was such a thing as “female spirituality”?

It’s impossible to say, since no one can really be sure what someone else means when he/she uses this word.

Spirituality is very popular these days.  Everybody wants to be known as “spiritual.”  That’s not surprising, because religiosity is on the rise, governments in America and in the Middle East believe God is on their side, and 90 or so percent of the US population professes to believe in God.  With those kinds of numbers, no one wants to be on the outside.

So “spirituality” has become a very big tent indeed. The word has many definitions.  Unless we listen carefully, we may not know which one or ones of them the speaker intended.

In fact, it’s one of the Big Three religious buzzwords. The other two are “God” and  “the soul.”   In each case — just as with business buzzwords like “reenginering” — the meaning becomes more and more broad over time, as more people seek to be included in the in-group of folks who use the word.

First definition

“Spiritual” used to mean “of the spirit,” i.e., the non-material, the divine.  A monk or a nun would have been said to be an example of a devoting one’s life to matters spoiritual.  According to the dictates of the deity (at least, some interpretations), a spiritual life involves altruistic activities like tending to the poor, as opposed, I guess, to politicking, oppressing, warring, whoring, pillaging, and getting wasted on the alcoholic beverage of your choice. 

The few who still pursue a hermetic or ascetic life, renouncing wealth and physical comfort, may be called “spiritual.”  But you can be wealthy and spiritual, in one or more of its sesnses.

However, as I explain below, the basic distinction is no longer compatible with modern science. 

Second definition

Belief in the supernatural translates into behavior…so the second definition of “spiritual” is “concerned with religious activity — prayer, contemplation of ancient texts and performance of dietary and other rituals” as well as the altruistic behavior just described. 

To speakers of American English, “spiritual” usually means “concerned with at least one of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam),” because those are the religions that occupy most of their attention.

This kind of spirituality can be private, as with prayer and ritual in the home or place of worship.  But “spirituality” can also refer to public, intrusive religiosity. 

When people give religion undue prominence outside their home or place of worship — when criminals find Jesus or athletes thank him for sports victories, when prayer and creationism force their way into the school day, when politicians bow their heads at prayer breakfasts (in a show of fake humility), when Muslim (always male) mobs burn the Pope in effigy for quoting what someone said about their religion 600 years ago, or when smug clerics or televangelists explain natural disasters as God’s wrath upon this or that group — that’s religiosity. 

Ostentatious public piety, religious talk and behavior as a means of group bonding, of social/political control, and of individual validation (“I’m so holy!”) — that’s religiosity.  Such people also get to call themselves “spiritual.”

Religiosity = fake spirituality

Talking about God or to God in public does not solve problems.  It only binds together the people who believe (or profess to believe) in God  — and it makes life more uncomfortable for those who do not.

Why “more uncomfortable”?  Because uttering words changes things.  People who make a show of public piety and religiosity should be aware that their words have consequences. 

Orthodoxy and fundamentalism are ever on the move.  They are aggressive.  They push their version of creation and Armageddon as the only acceptable versions.  They cannot tolerate dissent or diversity.  They are always looking for acolytes and converts.  They are not prepared to share the one planet we have with anyone else.

This is not a workable point of view.  It denies the value and dignity of other human beings.  Thus, I do not consider pious, God-talking fundamentalists to be humanistic or spiritual — at least, not on the basis of such conduct alone.

Do they believe?

Much prayer and religious ritual, including the veneration of supposedly sacred objects and texts, is considered “spiritual,” but consists of empty religiosity.  On the outside, people are praying, but who knows what’s going on inside?   Do they sincerely believe they’re talking to God?  Maybe some do.

As a student of public speaking and a speechwriter, I like to look at audiences.  If you observe how carefully the audiences in religious services are paying attention to – and how deeply they seem to be involved in – what’s going on, you’ll notice many levels of inattentiveness, as well as some genuinely fake attentiveness, as if to say, “See how pious I am?”

Third definition

There are many religions besides the Western/Abrahamic ones…which leads to the third definition of “spiritual:” “concerned with the religions, belief systems, creation myths, and sometimes health practices (as with yoga) associated with non-Western cultures of all eras.”  This is also called “New Age spirituality,” and entire bookstores are filled with this sort of material. 

Moving away from religious mythology entirely…

Fourth definition: Spiritual = humanistic

Spirituality has also been identified with humanistic virtues.  Norman Shealy, M.D., Ph.D., in his book Sacred Healing, identifies such “attributes of spirituality” as forgiveness, tolerance, serenity, compassion, charity, confidence, courage, reason, and wisdom.

And Muslim scholar Laleh Bakhtiar, responding to criticism of her recent Quran translation as “feminist,” said that she was rather a falat — a “spiritual advocate…who rises above gender issues seeking fairness and justice for all, constantly striving for the sake of others and struggling to replace vices like jealousy, greed, lust and anger with the virtues of mercy, compassion, and forgiveness” (Chicago Tribune, 4/15/07).

What’s not to like?

I hereby declare myself a falat.  What if everybody did just that and abandoned prayer and mythology entirely?  Would God punish us for ignoring him? 

Fifth definition

“Spiritual” is sometimes used to describe a state of love, ecstasy, connectedness, and total absorption in the moment, as in meditation or athletic or artistic performance. 

A mathematician whose mind is churning in search of a new proof can be said to be engaged in spiritual activity.   So can a person who sits quietly on a beach and contemplates the ocean.


Sixth definition: Spiritual = philosophical or psychological.

Sometimes “spiritual” is used to refer to philosophical, psychological, or otherwise internal, subjective concerns.  Zen could loosely be described as a “spiritual” undertaking, but the other two words apply as well.  This meaning can include many beliefs and practices; thus, even MORE people can call themselves “spiritual.”

Watch out

Watch out for people who leverage (another business buzzword) the vagueness of the word “spiritual” — they may be talking about God and Jesus when they refer to our “spiritual needs,” though there are, of course, many non-theistic ways to fulfill these psychological needs. 

That’s how clergymen can talk to people of all stripes about “spirituality” while letting the audience interpret it any way they like, because it’s so vague.  Let’s all get spiritual!!

Earnest Professor Charles Margrave Taylor recently collected $1.5 mil, more than a Nobel Prize, from the Templeton Foundation, for talking, vaguely but earnestly (and frequently), about “spirituality” in this manner and purporting to introduce it into various academic disciplines and other areas.   Because of the Templeton Foundation’s orientation, I’m pretty sure he’s talking about the Bible and God/Jesus, though in his public statements, he’s cagily ambiguous about what he means.

Supernatural = imaginary

I mentioned earlier that the original distinction between “spiritual” (divine) and “material”  is no longer relevant. 

That’s because science has pushed the boundaries of the known and inferrable world very wide indeed, to include subatomic particles, strings, the electromagnetic spectrum, billions of galaxies, alternate universes, other dimensions….and nowhere in any of this do we find God (or the soul).

The spiritual/material distinction was relevant at a time when people had little or no idea why things happened.  How long before they figured out how to make fire?  Or that sex leads to babies?  Of course, knowing nothing scientifically, they had to imagine their way to explanations of the unexplainable.  Thus, religion.

So they posited the “supernatural.”  But there’s no “where” to the supernatural, in the sense that it’s located somewhere in space-time.  Today, there’s only one place left for it: in our heads. 

So, to a secular humanist, there is no difference between “divine/supernatural/metaphysical” and “subjective/imaginary/brain-endogenous”.You use one set of adjectives or the other, depending on your world-view. 

These ancient notions of supernatural spirituality, and the texts which their adherents wrote about them, don’t jibe with our current understanding of reality, and — viewed objectively — they’re of little more than casual intellectual interest to laymen, except those with an anthropological or historical bent. 

To make these stories the center of entire belief and behavioral systems is an impulse, a holdover, from an earlier age.  At some point, perhaps around 1,000 BCE, humans realized that the voices in their heads weren’t gods.  But in most of the West, we didn’t take the next step: to realize that there are no gods outside our heads and bodies either. 

It’s sad, but people have wasted millennia talking to and about God (and killing others in his name), when they should have been doing what some Eastern religions (and Socrates, Hillel and Aquinas) advised: learning to understand their own mind.

Humanistic religion

Humanistic religion is the practice and promotion of the kinds of thought and behavior that bind all human beings to each other — indeed, genetics tells us that we are far more alike than different — and unite them in an effort to improve each other’s lives and life on earth generally.

Religious-humanistic habits of mind and behaviors include tolerance, courage, honesty, nonviolence, compassion, charity, humility, forgiveness, and respect for the value, dignity, autonomy, and individuality of each human being.

Let’s all get spiritual!

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Comment by Alan Perlman on June 15, 2012 at 10:57am

You are most welcome!



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