Whenever I have a free morning, I throw a book and my journal into my bag and head to a park or coffee shop where I can sit and enjoy a book or write down my thoughts without distractions. It is one of the small rituals I engage in to help get the most out of my mornings and enjoy my isolation. As I sit and drink my latte or cappuccino at a small table, I take time to enjoy every sip, noticing how the first few sips have the strongest flavor. I take a few more sips a few minutes later before I notice that the coffee has gone cold, the foam suddenly gone. Several uninterrupted minutes of writing later, I overhear a conversation that finally distracts me, and I switch gears and begin generating ideas and backstories for these characters that populate the real world.
A morning ritual, even if it is inconsistent, is important for the mind. My first instinct for the situation above is to call it spiritual, even if the term immediately triggers an idea of religious ritual and belief. I sometimes resent the monopoly on spiritual language that religious and new age folks have claimed. So I find myself constantly turning back to the question, can the term spiritual have any meaning within an atheist’s worldview? I think it absolutely can, although it means something different to the atheist than it does to the theist. The term ‘mind’ is used in the history of religion and philosophy as a placeholder for ‘soul,’ a term that has extremely heavy religious and philosophical baggage. The term ‘mind` is still an extremely useful concept to analyze and try to save from the wreckage of dualism. Until one has a better understanding of what ‘mind’ is, any progress made in fields like psychology and neuroscience may have limited application. The field of neurophilosophy has partially emerged in the last 40 years to help explore the philosophical dilemmas that arise from having a misunderstanding of what minds are. Similarly, I hope to find a way that the term spiritual can maintain meaningful linguistic content for an atheist to help better their lives and help better express their inner lives to others, all without embracing the implied religious or supernatural baggage.
What would the atheist’s definition be for “spiritual”? Will it have a precise definition, or will the term end up being a convenient shorthand for a collection of types of experiences and their affective content? A spiritual experience is by no means one single thing any more than religious experiences. I hope to carve out a space for secular experience similar to what William James’ describes within The Variety of Religious Experiences.
Here are the existing definitions for spiritual, as sourced from Merriam-Webster online:
SL1) of, relating to, consisting of, or affecting the spirit : INCORPOREAL
SL2) of or relating to sacred matters
SL3) concerned with religious values
SL4) related or joined in spirit
SL5) of, or relating to, supernatural beings or phenomena
As we can see, all these definitions refer to the sacred, religious, supernatural, or a ‘spirit.’ What of the term ‘spirit?’ The primary definitions are similarly religious/sacred in nature, but there are a few exceptions. From the same dictionary, here are some of those definitions:
S1) an animating or vital principle held to give life to physical organisms
S2) a supernatural being or essence
S3) temper or disposition of mind or outlook especially when vigorous or animated
S4) the immaterial intelligent or sentient part of a person
S5) the activating or essential principle influencing a person
S6) a special attitude or frame of mind
S7) a lively or brisk quality in a person or a person's actions
S8) a person having a character or disposition of a specified nature
We continue to see that the existing definitions favor the mention of supernatural, essential, principle, immaterial. However, note definition S6. Alone among these definitions, it refers to spirit as an attitude or frame of mind. It is not a vital or necessary part of a person’s character. This is the spirit to which the atheist’s usage of spiritual refers.
This usage is key not only in secular circles, though. Even the devout use spiritual in this way. Where the meaning differs is the meaning of the referent, mind. As discussed earlier, a theologian will conceive of differently than a compatibilist. The secular use of the term ‘spiritual’ refers to the same kind of experience, but without the metaphysical baggage. The atheist and devout alike have extremely meaningful experiences which are spiritual, even if how each person describes it differs phenomenologically.