Spirituality: Friend or Foe? – Adam Frank and Tom Flynn

March 14, 2011

Recently, it has come to light that many scientists—scientists who don’t believe in God—nevertheless claim to be “spiritual but not religious.” Some in the secular movement have responded favorably to this new trend-one unfolding against the backdrop of an increasingly secular America, and a millennial generation that is also discarding traditional religion while extolling spiritual meaning.

Yet others are sharply opposed, calling secular “spirituality” little more than a semantic gambit, a misappropriation of misleading, faith-infused language.

In this week’s show, we present two different takes on whether we should embrace, or discard, the concept of godless spirituality.

Our first guest, Adam Frank, is a nonbeliever with a deep respect for the domains of human spiritual endeavor who represents the pro-spirituality view. Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester, where he studies the formation and evolution of stars. He’s also a freelance writer for Discover and Astronomy magazines, a blogger at NPR’s 13.7, and author of the book The Constant Fire: Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate.

Our second guest, Tom Flynn, is a non-believer who represents the anti-spirituality view. He’s the executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, editor of Free Inquiry magazine, director of Inquiry Media Productions, and director of the Robert G. Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, among many other accomplishments. He has written numerous books, both fictional and non fictional, including 1993’s famed (and in-famed) The Trouble with Christmas.

Today’s show is brought to you by Audible. Please visit Audible podcast dot com slash point to get a free audio book download. This is Point of Inquiry for Monday, March 14th, 2011. 

Welcome the point of inquiry. I’m Chris Mooney. 

Point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs. 

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In the past year, I’ve written several articles exploring the fact that many scientists, scientists who don’t believe in God, by the way, nevertheless claim to be, quote, spiritual. I’ve been pretty favorably inclined toward this notion of an evolving secular spirituality, but I’ve also heard from others in the secular movement who are more skeptical and more opposed. So in doing a show on this topic, I decided it would be important to hear two different perspectives. That’s what we’ve done. Our first guest, Adam Frank, represents the pro spirituality view. Frank is an assistant professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester, where he studies the formation and evolution of stars. He also writes for Discover magazine and blogs at NPR’s thirteen point seven and most important for our purposes. He’s author of the book The Constant Fire Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate. Our second guest, Tom Flynn, represents the anti spirituality view. He’s the executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism and the editor of Free Inquiry magazine. Tom has written numerous books, both fictional and nonfictional, including 1993 is the Trouble with Christmas. 

Adam, Frank, welcome to Point of Inquiry. Great to be here. 

Yeah, I wanted to have you on to talk about a subject on which we’ve both written, but you a whole book, the idea of a sort of science based spirituality that’s separable from traditional religion and does not necessarily subscribe to any supernatural beliefs or unprovable claims. It’s more about the inspiration involved in studying the natural world and the intensity and passion that comes along with that. 

Right. That’s what my book, The Constant Fire was about. What I was looking to do was look at the history, the long history of the human engagement with spirituality, and no one can argue about what that means. But to try and take this long view and from that, try to understand the way science emerged out of this long history of human beings, you know, interacting with the world and their response to the world, as well as try to understand the more recent history of how we ended up with this view that that all spiritualities in some is in some sense an anathema to science. 

And let’s go into a little detail. You say in the book, I remember this passage. You describe what it’s like to look at pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope in a darkened room and how they kind of take your breath away. And that’s maybe a spiritual experience, not a religious experience. 

Caesarea. Right. And that’s one of the things, you know, one of the things I find that is really missing in the public debate about science versus religion. And I try to stay away from the word religion because religion tends to point towards the institutional prerogatives, the institutional imperative. And that’s very different than what we’re talking about here. We’re taught about the individual human encounter with the world and the experiences and emotions that that generates. So scientists are often quite willing to say, oh, what I get from science is a sense of awe. And I’ve often had this experience in conferences where, you know, it’s three o’clock. Everybody’s getting really tired. You know, everybody’s brain is turning into oatmeal and then someone flashes a result, a new result from the Hubble Space Telescope. And for an instant, everyone’s eyes are open again. Everybody’s back and we’re all kids again. You know, before that, the beauty of this image of interstellar cloud and we all have that sense of awe. And of course, what happens if you try and say to a scientist like, well, that is a fundamentally spiritual experience. They’ll say, oh, no, no, no, it has nothing to do with that. But the problem is they haven’t really done their research on the scholarship, about religion, about the long history of religion because of Rudolf Otto, who is, you know, part of the canon of religious studies, identifies the experience of all as being a fundamental indicator of of a religious or spiritual experience. So one of the things I have difficulty with is that, you know, human beings have had this experience since we were hunter gatherers. Scientists have this experience. It motivates a lot of the reasons why we end up being graduate students and spending all this time working in science. And yet we keep cutting ourselves off at the knees because of the more recent history of the antagonism between institutional religion and science, that we can’t identify our own experiences, experiences that other you know you know that the people who looked at the psychology of religion or the the anthropology of religion clearly understand is something it has to do with the human spirit. 

Well, let’s maybe it will help some scientists who remain skeptical, because I think I know where you’re coming from. If we try to emphasize that the kind of spirituality we’re talking about is experiential, it’s a feeling. It’s not a belief. So it’s not refutable and it doesn’t make you commit to anything that you can’t prove. 

Exactly. And and once again, there is this you know what? I had the problem I have with people like Richard Dawkins, etc., is there seems to be a sort of a willful ignoring of the scholarship about, you know, human spirituality. It’s as if I walked into a physics classroom, you know, looked for 20 minutes and said, I know everything about this. I don’t think there’s anything to it. Right. So this idea of experience, that category of experience as being something which people who are interested in religion and spirituality attached, you know, will attend to has a long tradition going back to the seventeen hundreds, actually. And in particular, the United States. We’ve had some really brilliant scholars on this, most of all, William James. You know, one of the founders of modern psychology. And he wrote the book, The Varieties of Religious Experience. And the important thing here to note is that you can be an atheist. You don’t have to exactly as you said. You do not have to adopt a set of doctrines or dogmas or creed to understand that that science has this familiarity or has this similarity to what occurs in human spirituality. And it is as you said, it’s an experience. It’s about what occurs in your sort of within one’s personal experience. And it’s really not amenable to being proven by someone else because this is a fundamental problem with subjectivity. One can argue the butoh philosophy, either science of consciousness as much as one wants. But still, you know, these are. Share your experiences and to identify to understand that this has always been part of one part of what happens in human spiritual endeavor is to understand then the links between what happens in science as an as what what inspires it, what drives science and what has been happening for, you know, fifty thousand years in the domains of human spirituality limit. 

Let me ask some some more sort of background kind of things, the history here. Most famously, Einstein said he was a, quote, deeply religious nonbeliever. He talked of having a, quote, cosmic religious feeling and a, quote, feeling of awe at the scheme that is manifested in the material universe. He also said he didn’t believe in a personal God or the supernatural. Yet he used the word religious. Why is he using it in the way that we would use spiritual? Is it just the word change from Einstein to here? 

I think it is just a word change. I mean, Einstein certainly identified within science, within his own experience of science, that ability to manifest all that ability to inspire a sense of reverence for the world. And that reverence was that the reason why he spent so much time studying it? Right. I mean, the anthill is something you just walk over or you stop to notice the behavior, you know, of, you know, these these thousands events. And suddenly, you know, you you want to draw closer to that with a marvel there. And so you study it. It’s an act of a reverence in some sense to study these things. So I think Einstein very much was identifying for himself this sensibility of of, as you say, spirituality. What we now recognize in the West, especially after the introduction of Eastern Buddhism and yoga, that people wanted to somehow distinguish between the institutional religions they grew up and something that perhaps didn’t have a personal God or duty into it. And that’s why in the West this term, spirituality has arisen. So certainly, yes, I think what we’re what he was talking about was a a non a spirituality that did not have any deity involved in it. 

Well, I want to note that certainly a lot of scientists today seem to be in agreement with Einstein, according to data from Alain Ekland of Rice University. 

Twenty percent of top U.S. scientists are spiritual, but not religious. But when scientists say they’re spiritual, they mean something very different, assuming they do understand the nuances we’re going at right now. They mean something very different than the U.S. public means for the U.S. public. It can actually mean sort of religious eclecticism and it, you know, blending together different faiths and actually has some supernatural content for scientists. These scientists, it has none, right? 

Absolutely. And I think that’s an important distinction. If, you know, I would certainly consider myself to be an atheist. You know, the idea of a supernatural beauty does not make a whole lot of sense to me. But, you know, of course, in the public realm, you’re going to find a lot of you’ll find that variety. And, you know, for what I find is when I have discussions, they often got him speaking with the public on this. Is that my sense? What I went when I talk to the public, what I’ll say is like, look, I’m coming at this. My own experience tells me that that, you know, the idea of a supernatural deity just doesn’t make sense to me. But what matters most is your experience is that you have an experience that brings or you’re free to interpret that however you want in the sense that, you know, the idea that the argument over the existence or nonexistence of God. Good luck trying to solve that one in the next 10 years or a hundred years. It’s been going on for 2000 years. People are going to. Some people are going to respond to the world with that belief in a deity. And, you know, I don’t really see I don’t think that argument has to be solved in order for us to make some progress in understanding the ways in which science calls up deeper aspects of human experience, some of which we could call spiritual. 

I want remind listeners that Adam Franks book, The Constant Fire Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate, is available through our Web site Point of inquiry dot org. So here’s the first problem, because I want to sort of channel some critics, even though I agree with you. This is what they would say. They will say we’re just engaged in wordplay here. What we’re calling spirituality is just passion or inspiration in one’s career. And those are better words so that we don’t confuse people. 

I think that that argument really misses the long history of human engagement with spiritual endeavor. The work that people have done, because as a scholar of religion, Elaine Pagels says, every generation does creative misreading. Every generation redefines the language to its own needs. Right. I mean, you know, as as Karen Armstrong said, a myth that is no longer useful will be discarded. So what we’re really in the process of trying to do now is trying to find a language, trying to recapture from older language words that can speak to two new meanings. Yeah, I think we don’t want the things we’re trying to do is go beyond our sort of, you know, grandfathers debate of science versus religion and find something that actually speaks to our moment, especially with, you know, the ecological challenges that we face. I think that’s part of it. Seeing science through that and spirituality through that lens is something that many people are trying to create. I don’t think it’s just wordplay. What we’re actually trying to do is recover and build an appropriate language for a new understanding that is generated that has come up in the last 20 years or so. 

But you agree with me. The word we’re starting with spirituality, spiritual. It has an origin. 

Adam, illogically, I believe that does imply some sort of supernaturalism that may no longer be present when you and I use it, but it does hail from that tradition. 

That’s right. Yes, that’s probably true. Although one you know well, one can also think of the word spirit as meaning not necessarily something supernatural, but as being, you know, the immaterial, the indefinable characteristic of being human. But again, I’m not I’m not a big fan of the word spirituality in the book. What I really focused on is the word sacred, because I think sacred is a much more appropriate word that that does not have the kind of resonances that exactly you’re talking about. The word sacred actually refers the only religion that you’re going to get upset about. If, you know, if you’re thinking about the word sacred is if you’re a pagan because it actually refers to Roman temple architecture. There was the facer, which was the inside of the temple where you had to be attending to the needs of the Roman gods. And outside was the phantom where, you know, you could sell your walnuts and you’re your Grateful Dead T-shirts. So we don’t say sir or sacred really doesn’t refer to any religion now. But it’s a word that speaks to the idea that we hold some things to be elevated. We believe that some aspects of our experience hold a special that they’re pregnant with, meaning they’re super abundant with meaning. And so for me, I really. Yes, spirituality. I agree that has that difficulty. But I think if we focus on a word like sacredness or the sacred, that actually we’re not going to have any of those resonances if we really look at the deep history of the word. 

It’s interesting because I pulled a quote from Durkheim for precisely this purpose, and he wrote, By sacred things. One must not understand simply those personal beings which are called gods or spirits, a rock, a tree, a spring, a pebble, a piece of wood, a house. In a word, anything can be sacred. 

Exactly. And one of the things I think that science does so another person who wrote a great deal about the sacred was Mercia Eliade. Who is the doyen of the Chicago School of Religion. And he talked about the idea of horrific these and these were either locations or objects that could serve to to allow the sacred to erupt into our lives. So he spoke about for a deal early Hunter-Gatherer communities that a delayed or a tree could be sacred, where people would go to perhaps get married or, you know, or the ritual ceremonies would occur there. 

And it was just a sense of this place carried some special meaning for them. And what I’ve always thought is that science can act as a horrific day. Right. Every time one of these Hubble Space Telescope pictures is on the cover of Newsweek magazine and people see it and they suddenly get that that that moment of having their breath, catching their breath, or when they go to a planetarium and they’re sitting under the planetarium dome, that these moments act as gateways in some sense of that experience that people have always wanted. People have always they’ve they’ve had that experience, whether it’s under the stars or, you know, the birth of their own child. And then much of human culture is about trying to regain that experience. And that is one of the reasons where, you know, the good parts of religion have come about, you know, being a Buddhist contemplation. You know, some of the monastic rites in Christianity were people trying not to control everybody else, but trying to somehow regain and get closer to that experience. And I think science very much is tied to that. Science is about, you know, it is it’s reverence for the world. And so we study the world to to draw ourselves closer to. That feeling. 

It’s interesting as this goes on, though, I’m feeling in terms of the connotations of the words we use differently than you, because I feel that spiritual this is just my sense that it is losing a religious meaning and really is becoming secularized by our culture. Sacred. I actually feel not so much. 

So in what sense you feel it’s sacred? 

Phil has a religious connotation to the average person, I think. Yes, I think spirituality less so, but still probably, yes, but less so. And I really think spirituality is changing in terms of how the society uses the term. I’m not sure that sacred is changing. 

Well, that may be. And I’m you know, I’m I’m I’m agnostic, so to speak, with about what will happen with these words. But what matters, however, is that we find we find words, we build a language that can approach these experiences and we can build a language that through which science can be Tyne’s can find its proper place or science and human spiritual endeavor. I often use that word spiritual endeavor because I think it really is the indelible part is really important, whether it’s people doing Buddhist meditations or people feeling some sense of deep ecology and trying to build something out of that. But somehow what we have to do is build a language that allows science and spirituality to begin a dialog that goes beyond the now completely exhausted debate between the creationists. And, you know, really what I would call the strident atheist. People feel like they just have to have a fight between these two people. I think for the rest of us, it’s time to move on. Let it go. You know, those people are going to fight tooth and nail forever. And the best thing the rest of us can do have an interest in this is, you know, begin forming, formulating other questions. 

Well, I really do want to talk about exactly that point. What this means for the science versus religion debate. That’s what you say in the subtitle of your book, that this approach is going to take us beyond that debate. But I don’t think saying we’re going beyond that is the same thing as saying we’re ending it. 

No, it’ll never end. That’s my point, is that, you know, there are two very entrenched groups, very polarized groups that for whatever reasons, you know, there are different reasons on different sides. And one of things I do in the book is I tracked the history of how it ended up like this. I mean, there were very specific historical reasons why we ended up with this idea of a war between science and religion, because, you know, most of what the irony is that most of the founders of science, Kepler, Galileo, you know, they wouldn’t have recognized the war. Certainly. I mean, you know, even when we look at the early history of the church and, you know, Copernican ism, there were some people in the church who thought, like, hey, great idea, put the sun at the center. So the image of God. Other people thought is heresy. So and so, you know, Kepler, certainly Newton, certainly Copernicus. We’re all deeply but we’ve called spiritual. Maybe some of them were overtly religious. Newton certainly was. So this idea that there is, you know, that science or religion are at war with each other is a fairly modern idea. 

Right. I understand. My understanding is that it’s a Victorian idea in particular. And, you know, that’s I’ve I guess I couldn’t really reiterate entirely why right now. But but let’s say we’re going going beyond the debate. What that what that would mean is that spirituality is is a broader category than religion. And so religion is just one vehicle perhaps for spiritual feeling, but not the only one. So that’s actually you the possibility of fully atheistic, fully scientific spirituality. But then you still have conflicts, because if everyone can be spiritual, not everyone can be religious, right? 

I don’t think that’s you know, I mean, there’s no doubt that the road ahead on this is going to be about developing this language. And there’s going to be arguments within that. It’s not going to be you know, we’re not going to, you know, hold hands and sing Kumbaya. There’s gonna be a lot of debate about this, about what their correct approach to doing this or a meaningful approach. Maybe that’s a better way of putting it, a meaningful approach. Some people are going to. Let me just back up for a second. Certainly what I’m not interested in anymore is sort of continuing the old polarization, because as everyone knows, you know, you do a post on the blog, right? You’ve had this experience. I’ve had this experience. So I do a post on my on my NPR blog on science. And I try to talk, like getting beyond the traditional debate. And what happens? There’s 10000 posts where people just wanting to do the old argument, you know, why evolution is false. And then you know that the skeptics saying that everything about religion is bad and it’s nothing but, you know, Naziism, you know, in a different guys. And so, you know, there’s going to be a group that will always want to have that battle. Right. But for the group that wants to move beyond it. The difficulty will be right. You know, can you have a fully non-religious spirituality? Can you have a spirituality that has some components of of a deity? You know, can you can you define a deity in a way that the scientists are going to be able to go like, well, OK. 

You can have that if you want, but I’m not going there. So you know how how this debate gets. Shape, I think, is something that’ll be interesting lot love interest in intellectually interesting things that can happen here. But the first step is to recognize that there’s more ways of talking about science and human spirituality than simply the evolution versus the skepticism debate. 

One question is when it comes to dealing with creationists. Does this approach of a science based spirituality really change anything or is it going to be the same battle with them? 

It always was. I think, you know, for the hardcore creationists, my my perspective is forget about it. 

I mean, there’s just no changing. You know, if somebody really wants a, you know, a scripturally based description of reality where you know that somehow, you know, Genesis is an accurate cosmological model, you don’t. And that’s actually a well, I don’t think there’s there’s there’s that that’s not gonna be very fruitful. But I what I believe is there’s a lot of people in the middle who, you know, have an appreciation for science. You know, who are have they consider themselves religious, may go to church, but have a real appreciation for science. And they’re some of those things you can have with those people. You can have a discussion in the dialog with the people who are really anti science and are demanding that, you know, that the that they’re somehow the scripture get included in the narratives of science. I just don’t see a lot happening out of that debate. And I person willing to say, you know, have at it guys, but I’m not really interested in debating with you. I’m actually interested in creating something new that I think, you know, when I go out and give talks that there’s this sort of silent majority to, you know, use that somewhat tongue in cheek, given its history. But a silent majority of people who are, you know, quite sympathetic to science, as well as having their own sometimes amorphous beliefs about the nature of the. 

I want to remind our listeners again that Adam Franck’s book, The Constant Fire Beyond the Science versus Religion Debate, is available through our Web site Point of inquiry, dawg. So it seems to me one key question is going to be if we adopt this worldview, what’s it good for? I mean, does it change something about one’s actions or one’s place in the world? Does it help you live your life better? I mean, that’s what religions claim to do. 

Whether or not it allows you to live your life better, whether you need this view. I don’t think that’s necessarily the question to ask. I mean, you could not have this view. You could live your life as a as a highly skeptical atheist and still think that spirituality is crap and you could have a wonderful life. 

I don’t think it’s necessary for your own personal happiness. What it is necessary for, though, is for engaging in a world full of people with different views and also for capturing a correct. What I would believe is the correct place of science within the world of human knowledge and within the world of human endeavor. Because what I feel has really happened and one of the things that is quite dangerous is that because of the historical reasons for having a war versus science and religion, science has has we have cut off the power of science, the power of science to inspire, to motivate, to shape world views. For a lot of people, because I’ve had this happen to me where I’ve had given talks and, you know, showing astronomical images and people will come up afterwards and say, wow, that was that was beautiful. I wish I felt spiritual. Right. And I’ve had talks with scientists where, you know, I bid that they told me where, you know, they’ve been discussing with other scientists that sense of their something being spiritual about it. And then these other scientists who are hardcore skeptical say there’s nothing spiritual about it. Right. And that’s sort of what we’re doing, is we’re cutting off at the knees in some sense, the ability for science to manifest its power in the world in some ways other than just by handing out technologies. Right. And this is particularly problematic. Now, we face a moment in our history, unlike any in the entire you know, in the you know, the fifty thousand years of our sense of the big bang of consciousness, you know, with the the difficulties we’re faced with climate change and resource depletion. You are not going to manifest the needed human response purely from logical arguments. It has to be based also on what we hold to be sacred. You have to be able to use that language and be able to marshal that language in a effective and meaningful way. So, you know, the the import here is not for a skeptic to take this on because they’ll be happy. But it’s really the intellectual endeavor and the historical endeavor to to see science as proper connection with the rest of human activity. Particular what we call spiritual endeavor. 

And so now you’re coming around and I think this is important. 

You’re coming around to something like what an E.O. Wilson says, who again is someone who doesn’t believe in God, but he has a religious background. I think now you’d probably call him spiritual. And for him, science motivates a conservationist impulse. 

Absolutely. I think and that’s one of the most important things to understand about. 

What we’re trying to do now, really at this, you know, the turn of this new millennium when we’ve truly become a global species, when we’re trying to navigate the bottleneck of having, you know, 10 billion people on the planet and mean somehow to, you know, very quickly develop this new a new concept of a sustainable global culture is that we’re gonna have to call on the tools that we have, all the tools of wisdom. Right. That effective action that we can possibly marshal and that the deep ecology, you know, is the term some people use that that sees the world as an enmeshed, you know, mesh set of systems, you know, both living and non-living, the ability to sort of call forward the all and the wonder and the reverence for that theme, both through the eyes of science, because that’s one of the things that, you know, planetary systems and climatology has taught us, as well as through the eyes, the more traditional eyes of of the myth. And, you know, an arts that binding those together are the only way we’re really going to be able to find an effective means of dealing with this issue, because just as we’ve seen with the climate debate. Just showing people the facts is not enough because you’ll get the opposing forces to show their facts as well. You know, even if those facts have been made up or not have nothing to do with the actual research. And, you know, it ends up just becoming, you know, very confusing. You’re going to have to draw from something much deeper to inspire people to build this new form of culture. 

Well, I. I agree with you absolutely fully on that point. And I guess I just want to ask you one final question. I may have to develop it a little bit first. I mean, let’s say this sort of spirituality we’re talking about catches on. There’s reasons to think that it is in the sense that, you know, traditional religion is declining in a lot of Western cultures. Spirituality is rising or people are at least describing themselves that way more if you look at U.S. millennials. OK. If that happens, you can imagine us coming into a very polarized world because what you’ll end up with is these sort of spiritual people who are very intellectual and scientific, but also, yes, they have this capacity for feeling. But then you’re going to have just a lot of also fundamentalisms. What is that world going to look like? 

Well, I think, you know, one is, you know, there’s different debates on why there is so much fundamentalism now. Right. One argument is that one of the reasons you have this kind of fundamentalism is a response actually to the developments in culture. Right. I first read it that the claim always had been back in the nineteen hundreds that we were gonna be led to this great new secular age, right. Where, you know, religion would disappear. And that didn’t happen. But I think what did happen is the emergence of this sort of this spirituality that you’re talking about. What did emerge, people? Because what we have to understand is this need to have the sacred to have the faith. That’s my word. You know, the word I like the best. But the need to draw closer to the sacred is elementally human. And, you know, you can’t will it away so that what has happened, you know, as this world, the secular world began to sweep across the globe is that people still needed some connection with what they found to be what they count, found to be sacred. And that is where this this sort of new spirituality that you talk about emerged. And so, yeah, there’s going to be a polarization, but eventually. Right. Just as you know, these are what happens in historical change. And there will be debates about meanings. And but eventually, hopefully, what you’re going to have is a more effective world view, especially for dealing with the kinds of environmental, societal challenges. And you know what will survive? We’ll be the more effective world, too. Right. And that will be the one that allows you to develop a sustainable culture. So, you know, the winner is the hopefully the historical winners will be the ones that that are more effective for dealing with a new set of, you know, environmental, ecological challenges. 

Well, I certainly hope so. I don’t I’m not quite as optimistic, but I think we might end up with VINOS that the two world views in different camps. 

But in any event. Adam, Frank, it’s been great to have you on point of inquiry. Thanks for being with us. It was a pleasure. 

OK, then we’ve heard from Adam Frank delivering the case for secular spirituality. Now let’s turn to Tom Flynn for the counterpoint. 

Tom Flynn, welcome back to a point of inquiry. 

Hi, Chris, it’s great to be back with you today. 

Yeah, I wanted to have you on to talk about this topic of spirituality. And more specifically, I’m having you want I want you as a counterpoint, because I’ve argued in favor of a sort of science based form of spirituality, which is atheistic. And we’ve also heard from a physicist, Adam Frank, who shares a similar view of things. But I know not everybody agrees with me. I was discussing this with Peezy Myers in Los Angeles and he said whenever we start talking about spirituality, I just want to puke. Does it also make you want to puke? 

Oh, it makes me very concerned of a 19th century philosopher. Max Sterner said a lot of crazy things, but he had one one liner that I think is just excellent. He wrote, Can I change a piece of nonsense into sense by reforming it or must I drop it outright? And I would argue that some pieces of nonsense really need to be dropped outright and for a lot of reasons, principally hinging on the way our discourse is perceived by those who hear us. I think humanists and other people from a of a scientific orientation who take their naturalistic world view seriously should avoid spiritual language because it causes us to be heard in ways that tend to undercut our position. 

So let’s elaborate on that. You think it’s confusing because we might mean one thing and people are hearing something else, or what is the. The piece of nonsense in there that you feel is part of the spiritual language? 

Oh, I think that’s it. Exactly. I mean, when a secular person says, oh, I’m not religious, I’m spiritual, we have to keep in mind we know what we mean by that. We know what religious liberals mean when they say that. But we’ve also got to keep in mind how that’s perceived by, you know, average Americans for everyday men and women. Spirit is it’s like ectoplasm. 

It’s the stuff that God and angels and souls and ghosts and karma and things are made of. Now, if you tell the average American that you’re spiritual, you’ve told him or her that you believe in material substances, whether you mean to say that or not. 

And there’s a huge problem with this because as as defenders of a naturalistic worldview, we’re usually swimming against the current of a majority sentiment in the United States that believes that there is a supernatural order, that people have eternal souls. What have you. Our our witness, if you will, as naturalist’s is threatening people with traditional belief systems don’t like to think that anyone could make it through the night or make it through a lifetime without some sort of invisible means of support. So just by being naturalist’s, just by being people who do believe only in the world of science and common experience, we pose a challenge to them. Now, how are average people going to try to resolve that challenge? And one way to do that is to rationalize and convince themselves that they don’t need to take us seriously because we don’t take ourselves seriously. We’re not serious about our worldview. And so when I when I see secular scientific people using spiritual language, I don’t necessarily want to puke. But I definitely cringe because I know darned well that most of the average Americans who hear that person think they just cut that speaker being a hypocrite, that they think they just got that speaker admitting, hey, you know what, I can’t really make it through the night without something transcendent either. 

And I’ll just call it spiritual and we’ll all go off and be will will together, whether we mean it or not. No matter how carefully we try to define our terms, we have to be realistic. That’s the way many average Americans are going to hear us. And that’s self-destructive. 

I think that there’s a lot of truth to that. I think that the word does have a theistic meaning to a lot of people. On the other hand, I think that you’d agree with me that words change their meaning over time. Words evolve. And this one might be undergoing that type of process. What do you think about that? 

Oh, I think it may be undergoing that kind of process. I think it’s not there yet. Or rather, I think it it’s well on its way there in more highly educated spheres of discourse. Yes. When when religious liberals. Theologians or scientists get together and talk to one another about being spiritual. I think they all know what they mean. And they don’t mean ectoplasm. When that conversation goes out into the community as a whole, I think we need to be more cognizant of the fact that most everyday Americans aren’t there yet. They’re a long way away from that. And of course, it is doubly difficult because the spiritual language, words like spirit and spiritual lead these double lives. You know, everybody uses them all the time as metaphors. You know, we’ll watch a marathon and look at the runners and go, wow, those runners really have spirit. What we mean to say, they have a lot of spunk, but some people are going to hear us as saying, oh, they must run so well because they possess mighty souls. And well, I guess if we believe in mighty souls, then nothing further. We have to say on the subject of naturalism needs to be taken seriously in the eyes and the ears, rather, of those hearers. 

Mm hmm. I think you’re probably familiar with the data. I’m sure you are showing that America is changing, becoming more secular. And also the millennials in particular are not all that religious. But again, they do like this spiritual thing. If if you don’t like the term, what is the way to appeal to this sort of secularizing group? 

Well, I think what we think what we need to do is to encourage the millennials who are fond of being spiritual to say that’s great. You’ve made a lot of progress, but you can go further. I think I am drawing a lot of this from reflections on what has worked and what hasn’t worked historically for the gay and lesbian movement, because I think there are a lot of parallels between what the GOP tea movement has done over the last 35 years to improve its standing in American society and some of the work that still lies ahead of US unbelievers. 

And what concerns me on that basis with this resort to the language of spirit. It’s a way to try to pass away, to try to fit in, to diminish what makes us a little bit different from the norm and even from these secularizing millennials. 

And that is the idea that we really explicitly do not believe in any supernatural order. Now, if you look at GSB tea history in the in the early 1960s, long before Stonewall, you had groups like the Martin Sheen society that tried to increase social acceptance of gays by pointing out all the way is that all gays were really just like everybody else and not really that different. 

And the movement was not successful. And one reason that the movement was not successful was that average Americans knew perfectly well that the gay orientation was different. 

And one particular thing about it, the whole idea of same sex physical love was extremely repellent to know average Americans at that time. Now, what happened starting in the 70s into the 80s, you had more radical groups. You had groups like Act Up, Queer Nation coming out, being very assertive about sometimes the most extreme aspects of the gay lifestyle. At the same time, you had all of this news coming out that whether you know, whether this turned out to be accurate or not, but it was widely reported at the time that gays and lesbians made up 10 percent of the population. And these two forces caused mainstream opinion to move and to be very blunt about it. It was really a matter not of convincing middle America that gays were just like them. It was a matter of changing middle American attitudes about what it meant to be gay and confronting attitudes about same sex physicality and getting average Americans to get to the point where they’re not disturbed by the sight of two men holding hands or two women kissing in public. And really. Yeah, that, you know, these differences are real. That’s what these people are. And that’s okay. Now, I think the parallel motion for us should be not to retreat behind the language of spirituality, not to soft pedal the fact that we really live without invisible. Means with support. Rather, we should be forward about that and saying to even these millennials, hey, where you’re going is great. But understand, there’s a significant population of people who’ve gone one step further. They live without spirit. They lead fulfilling lives. It works for us. And again, I think when we use spiritual language, we we throw sand into that process. We’re following. We’re following a Martin Sheen style strategy when we should be being a little more assertive, not, you know, not snapping people’s heads off, but being open and explicit and straightforward. Here is who we are. Here’s what we live with. Here’s what we live without. And yes, it works for us. And by the way, there’s a lot of us. 

Well, what do we do then? From your point of view to categorize and define those aspects of our own movement that in the past have talked in very much this way? I’m thinking about someone, someone like Einstein. He even used the word religious to describe his cosmic sense of things and his on at the universe. But he didn’t believe in a personal God. I mean, do what what term do we give to someone like that? 

Perhaps. Well, perhaps a religious humanist is one possibility. And let me tell you a little something of my own background. I grew up Catholic and thought my way out of that. During my high school and college years and went looking around in the literature and what was available in the media at that time. And I was looking for people who were explicitly atheist. I was curious what the atheists were saying, how their world view held together. And, you know, I ran across, you know, Einsteins, a discussion of spirits ran across some of Carl Sagan’s statements of a more spiritual bent, you know, waxing euphoric about the the wonder of the universe. Isaac Asimov even had some passages like that. And each time I came away thinking, oh, well, I’m going to have to keep looking to find someone who really espouses Athie ism because these guys are all into ectoplasm. So I sampled Einstein, I sampled Sagan. I sampled the asima. And I walked away from them and viewed them as not expressing the atheist sensibility that I wanted to know more about because of their use of spiritual language. And I. I very much doubt that I’ve been alone in that. 

What term do you think? You know, when a scientist says something like that, says, you know, I feel I feel wonder. There’s many, many of these quotes from all the people that you mentioned and many, many others. What is it? I mean, we should just say inspiration. We should just say motivation. We just just keep the spirit out. 

I would argue that to me all and wonder are two perfectly good words in inspiration. You know, in spirit. And it doesn’t. Yeah. That that’s that’s a little bit squarely to you know, one of the most reprinted things I’ve ever written was a piece I did in Secular Humanist Bulletin back in the early 90s called 95 Ways Not to Say Spirit. And all I did was sit down with my thesaurus. And, you know, spirit is used metaphorically in a number of senses. There are lots of perfectly good, clear words that capture these meanings. And I you know, I’ve tried to, if you will, this spirit, my vocabulary and when I feel tempted to type out some kind of spirit language, I I’ve talked myself to sit back and say, hey, what do you what do you really mean to say? So, you know, if you mean spirit in the sense of life, well, maybe animation, Dasch essence, you know, if you mean spirit in the sense of vigor, how about, you know, ardor, gusto, enthusiasm, zeal and so on. 

One of the other aspects of spirit is because it can be a metaphor for so many things. It’s very easy to reach for basically and in a sloppy use of language. 

If you’re tempted to say or type spirit or spiritual or one of its cognates, there’s probably a better word that says exactly what you really mean and doesn’t run the risk that some of your hearers or some of your readers have just going to think you just admitted you believe in ghosts. 

Well, let me just thank you. That was that was really awesome. 

You’ve actually done a lot of the linguistic work here, but thank you for a very dispiriting answer. Oh, it was precisely the least I could do. 

What about, you know, these spiritual atheists? They are out there, people who choose those terms to find themselves. There’s no doubt that these people exist and we’ve enough data on that. Are they at least good allies against the creationists? 

Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. But I think we need to look at them as coalition partners. There’s a great deal of diversity within the no religious affiliation community. At least a third of them are people who are in some cases between churches. In some cases, they’re they’re engaged in a personal metaphysical search or they may just be spiritual and absolutely there. I mean, there are lots of people who use the language of spirit. And that’s exactly what they mean. And yes, when it comes down to squaring off against a, you know, intelligent design activists on the local school board, absolutely. We’re in the same camp. We’re shoulder to shoulder, but we’re not the same. We’re part of this mosaic of diversity within the the larger religiously unaffiliated community. 

And what do we do about the sense that at least for some, some people, spirituality is what they associate with the sense of meaning they get from life and also the motivation to do something good in the world. Like, for example, some of these spiritual atheist characters one thinks of I would classify maybe E.O. Wilson in this way. This spirituality, so to speak, leads to something like an environmental or conservationist impulse. 

Well, if if that’s your you know, that is your personal viewpoint, you’re certainly welcome to articulate it. But I don’t think the spiritual language is necessary to articulate that. You know, Wilson, leave the spiritual language aside. Wilson makes an extremely powerful case that we need to work together and take better care of the planet, or we’re going to make it unlivable and we’re going to, you know, greatly straighten, if not eliminate our prospects for, you know, our descendants future survival. You don’t need to use spiritual language to make a very, very powerful case of that now. Wilson has put that argument into spiritual language and reached out to religious believers, has reached out to the clergy and has had great success getting a green message into even some rather fundamentalist churches where you wouldn’t expect it to get. And I think that’s an extremely encouraging development because, you know, 20 years ago, you’d go into a fundamentalist church and you’d be hearing, you know, the gospel, according to Sarah Palin, hey, let’s make some more fires and kill some more polar bears and pave over the world. And Wilson has made a tremendous contribution towards countering that kind of anti environmental attitude within the churches. And he has done that with some language that’s very appropriate for that audience. I think we also need to have whether it’s Wilson wearing his other hat or other people or environmental advocates making a wholly non spiritual case for it, because you don’t need to be spiritual to love the planet. You don’t need to be spiritual to be concerned about the future of the biosphere. And that needs to be expressed, too. 

Well, I think that the the the fundamental thing, insofar as I’m disagreeing with you, it’s I guess because I want to know what is our best case put forward with the best language possible that is devoid of spiritual connotations, where we say what our sense of meaning is and why it makes us want to do good things in the world. You know, who’s the best? What’s the best case of articulating that? And in a way, that is I won’t use the word inspirational, but at least moving. 

Actually, Paul Kurtz has done some wonderful work in this area. His forbidden fruit, the ethics of humanism also goes into a good deal of detail about a wholly secular approach to meaning. And, of course, one of. The things we have to be up front about as advocates of the naturalistic viewpoint is there’s a certain kind of meaning that traditional religious believers can take advantage of, that we can’t. And we need to be open to that. If you’re talking to a religious person who feels that he or she has meaning in life because of his or her link to a transcended all powerful God who cares about us all. Well, we don’t have anything to put up against that. 

What we need to do in that case is be be upfront and say, you know, we don’t have Big M meanings. We don’t have the big guy in the sky. But we don’t think there is one capital and meaning in life. We think it’s enough to have small meanings that each of us build out of our own lives and our own aspirations and our own judgments of what’s best for the human future. And that may not be as spectacular as thinking you’re going to live forever in heaven. But it has this huge advantage of almost certainly being real. 

Well, I think that itself is brilliance via I mean, certainly describes what I think and feel and what we all think and feel. And so I guess at the end of the day, I mean, this is going to be, in some sense, kind of something you can’t really necessarily completely put your fingers on in terms of whether you whether you say that you want to use the language and define it secularly or whether you want to not use the language. Who I guess I’ll just ask you, you know, for some sort of a closing thought on spirituality. You know, if you could chase it, chase it out of the lexicon, then how would things be? 

I think we’d I think we’d be somewhat more precise in our language. I think the major change would be that there would be a growing perception that, yes, Virginia, it is possible to get through the night and get through a life without transcendence. You know, there’s an awful lot of propaganda in the religious community that argues that there’s really no such thing as an atheist because nobody can get through life without depending on something transcendent. That that’s kind of like an extension of the old canard that there are no atheists in foxholes. Well, there are atheists in foxholes. There are people who live without invisible means of support and we’re them. And I think when we get to the point that more religious Americans recognize the existence of this group and don’t try to rationalize it away by thinking, oh, well, we’re really spiritual and we just don’t want to admit it, we’ll have gone a long way towards really changing attitudes because as as the gay and lesbian movement showed, one of the giant steps towards achieving heightened social equality is being recognized that you exist. And right now, there are an awful lot of tropes that encourage religious religious believers. To conclude that serious naturalists really don’t exist, scratch a naturalist, he’ll say something spiritual. Aha. You got something transcendent to lean on, too. You’re not serious. And I think the the way we combat that is by simply setting an example. 

Of being sincere and approachable, but straightforward, that we don’t believe in things spiritual. 

We’re non-spiritual and we lead perfectly pleasant lives without that crutch of spirit. 

Well, Tom, I want to thank you for really articulating that view of just standing up and saying who we are and not compromising. And it’s been great to, again, to have you on point of inquiry. 

Well, thanks very much, Chris. Always good to be here. 

I want to thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry to get involved in a discussion about today’s show. Please visit our online forums by going to center for inquiry, dot net slash forums and then clicking on point of inquiry. The views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor of its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on this show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dot org. 

One of inquiries produced by Adam Isaac in Emma’s New York and our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Waylan. Today’s show also featured contributions from Debbie Goddard. I’m your host, Chris Mooney. 

Chris Mooney