It was a pleasure last week to join the Nontheist Friends Network, part of Quakers in Britain, to open a discussion of spirituality, connection, and finding meaning and purpose from a humanist perspective. Here, more or less, is what I said…
One thing spirituality can’t be for humanists is something which is somehow disconnected from this world, something in another world or realm to which we have to gain access in some special way. Spirituality for humanists, if it is anything, is not something in any way located in or connected to anything outside of this physical universe and our material condition.
And there are humanists who reject ‘spirituality’ entirely, believing it assumes a bridge between embodied human beings and some disembodied entities which is simply a distraction from worldly priorities. Others believe it to be so nebulous in its modern usages (google ‘spirituality’ and you’ll get the idea), that the word is meaningless.
My views on this change all the time but I don’t at present reject out of hand the usage of the concept of spirituality and I think it can have some resonance for humanists.
A vast literature both popular and academic has investigated and promoted the concept of a materialist and non-theistic spirituality. Five aspects emerge from those various works that also accord with what I personally would describe as a spiritual experience. So, for this humanist at least, spiritual experiences, in no particular order:
- are positive experiences – and at the more powerful end of experiences in general, causing a surge of feeling;
- are fleeting – and we become conscious of them only when they are underway or are over;
- are personal and individual experiences – they’re subjectively experienced even when they’re shared;
- are not not intellectual or rational experiences – although they occur within ourselves and minds, they’re not experiences to which you can ascribe any meaningful analysis (neither are they irrational experiences!).
- take you (metaphorically or imaginatively) outside of yourself – you feel as if you are connected to something bigger or more than yourself in some way.
These may be universal aspects of spiritual experiences. I don’t know. The distinction however, between a religious person who might have those sort of experiences and a humanist, is that while the religious might believe they are the consequence of a separable soul, personality, or entity within our material selves that transcends the material world in such moments, humanists will see them as the product of the incredible, complicated, and still unknown (maybe unknowable) human brain. (I know from my own life and am sure you do too, that two people can have identical feelings and ascribe them to two very different causes.)
If the feeling of connectedness is important to the experiences we are talking about then what is it that the non-theist and humanist can connect to? I can think of three things for which there is a good distinctive humanist basis:
- The natural world we are surrounded by and part of. A humanist is someone who accepts we ourselves are a natural part of this wider natural world, at home on it, nestled in it. We are earthlings; a product of the same natural processes that have given rise to every other life form, and to which we feel connected. There is a reason that when we stand in a place of natural beauty, that we feel comfort, both intellectually and existentially, and this is it, our deep connection to the environment.
‘We could never have loved the earth so well if we had had no childhood in it, if it were not the earth where the same flowers come up again every spring that we used to gather with our tiny fingers as we sat lisping to ourselves on the grass…’
– George Elliot
- Our own personal self, which has different aspects. The famous injunction of the humanist novelist E M Forster to “Only Connect!” is not just encouragement to connect with others but also to connect the different parts of our selves. We can connect with our own feelings and this can be peak experiences. A humanist is also someone who will believe that by allowing for personal development, we can create a society that is kinder and more compassionate.
‘One has to be friends with oneself before one is fit to be a friend. Nobody else is responsible for taking care of one’s interests, satisfying one’s interests, satisfying one’s needs and desires, fulfilling one’s chosen possibilities, making a job of one’s life. Doing the best for oneself can be the best one can do for others.’
– Harold Blackham
- Other human beings, whether real or imagined. The most obvious example is in our personal relationships with friends and family. We are all familiar with the spike in feelings that these connections can give rise to. But we can also connect with human beings we have never met or are not even real. The novel is an incredibly humanistic medium and artform in this sense; there can be moments of great realisation when reading and this can also be true for plays, art, music, and films.
‘I think that’s what novels and by extension, all good art does: it opens the universe a little wider. It makes us more alive to a thousand tiny, tiny, kaleidoscopically tiny things.’
– Ian McEwan
- The bigger human story. With a leap, we can situate ourselves in the long human story of many millennia, contemplating that chain of ancestors stretching back through time and, in the other direction, the story we might hope stretches on into the future. These thoughts take us out of ourselves.
In all these diverse ways, none of them linked to anything theistic, or outside of our natural existence and this natural universe, humanists can experience spirituality. Those of us who have a non-theistic worldview and humanist approach to life have access to deep, profound, and inexhaustible sources of such inspiration.