What does “spiritual” mean anyway?

I’ve touched on this topic in earlier posts, but it has come around again. I think most of my friends claim to be “spiritual,” and obviously there’s a larger discussion in the political culture in which the right’s colonization of religion has focused a lot of pwogwessives on the idea that they have to declare their own spirituality to be taken seriously. In personal life–and you can really see this in personal ads, that alienated place where people try to find new love–it’s pretty much de rigeur to declare oneself “spiritual, but not religious,” whatever that means! So I’ve been talking to several of my atheistic colleagues about this, since I can’t believe that so many people are actually religious (even if an awful lot of folks do seem to embrace squishy New Age-ish thinking).

I find the people I have grown closest to, and feel are the most fully engaged with their humanity, are usually quick to invoke a spiritual dimension to their lives. That leaves me in the awkward position of recognizing that I like them and feel more connected to them emotionally than, say, someone who I know through ‘activism,’ but weirdly alienated by the vague spirituality that creeps into many conversations, parties, gatherings, etc. I would like to unpack the conceptual meaning of the term, and perhaps suggest that we could be more precise about what we’re referring to when we say ‘spiritual,’ and by so doing, decouple the religious connotations from what we’re really talking about.

I think ‘spirituality’ is often a code word now, indicating two basic qualities: emotional literacy and a comfortable embrace of life’s connectedness. Neither of these notions are particular religious, in fact, both are easily accommodated by secular philosophy. I have been an atheist my entire life and find the embrace of mysterious higher powers perplexing at best, and often aggravating when invoked to explain social and historical dynamics. But I’ve also grown wary and weary of card-carrying atheists for their religious fervor to convert everyone to their brand of rationalism.

Does that put me into the agnostic camp? Not really. It’s a psychological insight into the dysfunctionality of the religiously atheist (obviously I’m generalizing here, but I think that’s legal on one’s own blog!)… In the lefty political life that I’m most familiar with (albeit not the run-of-the-mill party brands) there are so many lonely and damaged people, seeking to assuage their pain and confusion by joining together with others in various “movements.” Not a bad way to contructively address one’s unhappiness, except I don’t really want to spend so much time in political groups managing people’s psychological traumas and emotional needs. Mostly I’ve joined a lot of other people in removing myself from formally political groups. Do those damaged people need a spiritual life to repair themselves? That’s what a lot of “spiritual”-leaning people automatically think… If I’m on to something, and the spiritual dimension that’s missing here is really one of emotional literacy, then I think you can gain some of that healing exactly where they’re trying to find it, in community, in proactively addressing this fucked-up world. But a lack of psychological self-awareness among too many activists is also one of the key reasons why getting active in politics (in this time and place anyway) so often feels awful. Political revolt really has to be enjoyable to grow. It has to bring depth, pleasure and yes, connectedness into our everyday lives, or else why would anyone do it except for bad psychological reasons?

When it comes to social and political life, a rational discourse promotes clarity, communication, and human betterment. I tend to be extremely liberal about real religious beliefs: you can think anything you want, but keep it to yourself! The problem of course is that a lot of religious philosophies are especially aggressive and expansive, requiring their adherents to find new recruits… this goes for every podunk cult as much as it does for the Catholics or the Pentecostals or Wahabi Muslims.

Leave religious belief to private life. A society based on mutual tolerance and respect has to guarantee the privacy of religion (even if I personally think religious belief is a big waste of time, and fundamentally insane!). Spiritual beliefs are sometimes religious beliefs, but more often than not I think we’re trying to communicate something else entirely with that label. So I wrote this to encourage a broader discussion about what we really mean when we say we’re ‘spiritual’. It might mean we believe in god (one or several!), but I suspect it is more a statement about our discomfort with aspects of modern life, with the alienation that passes for normal, with the isolation that market society does so much to promote, with the emptiness of buying instead of living, etc. etc. What do you think?

Last addition, unrelated but necessary: here’s a photo taken at the Jan 27 antiwar demo in San Francisco by my pal Amy Trachtenberg. Curiously it’s a woman who works down the block from me at Philz who I see often at the corner but not usually so animated. The sign is a new rendition of the same slogan that we photographed and published in a collage in Processed World 26/27 from the first Gulf War.

5 comments to What does “spiritual” mean anyway?

  • bstender

    don’t ask, don’t tell?

  • Hugh D'Apostrophe

    Chris: I agree that a “emotional literacy” is a big part of what people mean when they say they are “spiritual”. But I think that there is also an implicit (and confused) critique of modernism and
    the modern world. You’re heading that way with this statement:

    > it is more a statement about our discomfort with aspects of modern
    > life, with the alienation that passes for normal, with the
    > isolation that market society does so much to promote, with the
    > emptiness of buying instead of living, etc. etc.

    I think that many spiritual people are unhappy with a specific aspect of modern life, and that is its frequent denial of subjective experience. Some examples:

    You may FEEL that there is something more to life than working and shopping. But life leaves time for little else. You may FEEL that war is an abomination, but in fact you are alone (yellow ribbons attest to that).

    Or, subjective life may not be denied. Rather, it may be perverted:
    You FEEL anger and suppressed rage. Now consume this heavy metal music and horror film. You FEEL loneliness and longing for human affection. Now consume this pornography.

    At the same time, and for different reasons, science and rationality also deny our subjectivity. Science does not care, for example, that you FEEL that echinacea helps your sinus condition. It wants evidence, and if it cannot find evidence to back up your claims, it will state with great authority that your beliefs are wrong. Rationality does not care that you KNOW that the Earth is flat. What the subjective mind may see as obvious may in fact be illusion (or delusion).

    These two attacks on subjectivity are entirely separate, with different motives and different results. But people often experience them (subjectively, of course) as one in the same.

    Spiritual people, engaged in a project of defending an authentic subjectivity, end up rejecting science and rational inquiry at the
    same time that they reject consumerism and propaganda and other aspects of modern life. They will react to an insistence on rational inquiry and evidence-based analysis defensively. They FEEL that a key element of their resistance to modern life is being undermined and attacked.

    From this perspective, the idea of being pro-science and anti-authoritarian must seem oxymoronic. All the more reason to make the radical arguments for science. But it will be an uphill battle.

    As for Biker-X: I wonder what he would make of my personal belief that there is a pink dinosaur inside his skull. He cannot specifically disprove my belief (the dinosaur is too small to be detected by X-ray). Therefore, he must be agnostic about my personal belief that there is a pink dinosaur inside his skull.


  • Biker-X

    Ooops…forgot to include the Rainbow Family gatherings in the list of more modern social networks having tribal hierarchies.

    Last year’s Rainbow Family gathering was effectively shut down, to the best of my knowledge.

    The unconventional yet effective advantages to tribal forms of social organization have not gone unnoticed by the powers that be. Now is an important time to recall the RAND study, which was mentioned briefly in this ProcessedWorld.com PDF, but deserves closer srutiny:

    The above critical mass of links and studies are provided to underscore just how heavily scrutinized and co-opted by corrupt powers-that-be the Critical Mass phenomenon and swarming techniques have been in the last 10 years. Make no mistake: the global ruling elite are terrified of such contagious memes and grassroots movements.

    It’s offensive and nauseating to look at how RAND and the DOD have taken the beautiful community bicycle ride known as Critical Mass:


    and turned it into a weapon deployed against other groups and cultures organized along tribal lines.

    This is not just a passing trend. Here is a very recent RAND report from 2005 touting the future of warfare, and the use of tactics such as “swarming,” derived from the studies (more like experiments) on SF Critical Mass ans elsewhere:

    Operation Dark Claw is out-and-out theft of the labor of love put into SF’s monthly community bicycle ride, and shows just how much of a hard-on the US military has to usurp the power of a grassroots movement:

    Just about the greatest sin in tribal cultures is to misuse tribal culture and technology to divide and destroy the tribe.

    The question yet to be answered is, can authoritarian governments and military powers successfully use such tribal methods, when they are unable to recreate the magic, love, and beauty that gave birth to such beautiful grassroots movements such as CM?

    The capitalist empire is terrified of such movements: it’s time to UNITE THE TRIBES.

    Footnote: Observe that the US federal government’s requirements on modern cell phones that mandate all new cell phones and cellular systems in the US have the following features:
    -Reverse GPS geolocation based on triangulation of cell phone signals strength.
    -The ability to remotely “turn on” cell phone microphones and listen in on private citizens’ conversations (abuse of privacy courtesy of the NSA).

    The ability to monitor cell phone conversations in real time was developed and implemented by the NSA decades ago. Research ECHELON for starters. The ability and federal government requirements to reverse-triangulate precise cell phone locations was implemented following the RAND studies on Bay Area activists, which preceded the 1999 WTO protests.

    PS: A smidgen of my dry humor: IMO, both RAND and Ayn Rand can both rot in hell.

    [This entire Biker-X commentary is Copyleft.]

  • Biker-X

    As concise as I can make it…

    Glad you mentioned agnostic in there. I make a very careful distinction between being agnostic and being an atheist. Personally, I think atheism in the pure sense of absolutely denying the existence of any creator (will not invoke the words God, or Allah, or Goddess, or gods, or the deity du jour), is as big a leap of faith as affirming the existence of a creator or creators or deity(s). Lack of concrete evidence either way makes embracing either viewpoint untenable from a purely rational standpoint.

    Churches are merely institutions grafted onto a philosophy, and institutions tend to deal with money, and will inevitably become corrupted by it. Historically speaking, most philosophers (or prophets as some call them) have not proclaimed themselves to be incarnations of a god or creator, or multiple deities. Even in the teachings of the historical figure known as Jesus, he never proclaimed himself to be the son of god (much to the chagrin of Biblical literalists). Is it simply a flaw of human nature to confuse the message with the messenger, and deify the finest philosophers? Not necessarily, as for thousands of years, Chinese philosophy was not institutionalized as western philosophies have become. In many eras of Chinese history, individuals prided themselves on understanding and practicing the philosophies of Confucious, Mo Tzu, Hsun Tzu, Mencius, Lao-Tzu, Chuang Tzu, to name a few. Similar western philosophers would be Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, and John Stuart Mill: none of these western philosophers were proclaimed the incarnation of a higher being on Earth, despite their contributions to social and moral understanding. Alternatively, there was no need to deify these more modern western philosophers, as the Catholic Church was already in place for social control. Witness the recent upsurge in popularity of fundamentalist “Christianity.” (I use quotes, because these fundamentalist teachings and practices are completely at odds with the philosophical teachings of the historical figure known as Jesus, who threw the oney changers out of the temple, and taught us to love thine enemy, not demonize her or him.)

    The various western flavors of “Christianity” are almost all structured from the top down, and play into the hands of the global ruling elite, as a form of societal control, as the Catholic Church has been structured and has functioned for over 1000 years now. Most Native American societies are organized in reverse: tribal decision making processes are almost identical to consensus making processes, or even the xerocracy of Critical Mass. That is, ideas with merit are followed by the rest of the tribe. In fact, European settlers and their governments have done everything possible to destroy social groups with tribal structures for hundreds of years, almost from the first day western “civilization” was brought to the Americas, and proclaimed superior to the cultural and religious practices of Native American “savages.”

    Consider the following: examining the organizational hierarchy of popular movements and sustainable societies such as Critical Mass, Reclaim the Streets, Earth First!, ELF, ALF, “al Qaeda” cells, Amish societies, AIM, MOVE, the Zapatits, the Black Panthers, all are structured and operate like functional Native American tribal cultures. Then note that all have been systematically targeted by the US government, and western governments beholden to billionaire corporate interests, and one has a new motive for the repression that these movements and organizations have endured for centuries. It’s not necessarily that they threaten profit or business as usual, but the bigger threat is that they offer a working alternative to corrupt monopoly capitalism, and its approved forms of social structure they disempower the individual. In all the years I have read about the popular movements above, and the reasons for the repression they have endured, I have never come across the anthropological view that these are organized like tribal societies.

    In recent history, there is one exception to the historical phenomenon of churches being founded on popular philosophies: it’s called Scientology. Scientology is the ultimate capitalist “religion” or “church”, being founded on top-down hierarchy and mind control, and not any underlying philosophy of merit. One cannot grow and excel in the “church” of Scientology without spending ever more money. The finest, most honest look at Scientology I have stumbled across is at this web site, appropriately titled “The Nut In The Hat.”


    It has been rumored the L. Ron Hubbard founded Scientology following a bet he could make million$ simply be founding and marketing a religion. How ironic that Tom Cruise has been “chosen” in the last week as the new “leader” or “god” of Scientology. It’s cheaper to worship the satirical animation South Park, and the laughter you’ll get has more healing properties than a stack of Scientology questionairres.

    I recommend the book “A Short History of Chinese Philosophy” by Fung Yu-Lan, published by The Free Press, a division of MacMillan Publishing Co. for further reading.


    Mathematically speaking, the universe as physicists understand it today is something like 11 or 23 dimensions. Most people tend to think in terms of 3 dimensional space, with the 4th dimension being time. There are physical phenomena that defy explanation to even the most brilliant humans. To credit such inexplicable phenomena to a deity is misguided and ignorant, yet to affirm that no such “higher power” exists in a universe we cannot fully comprehend is also going out on a limb. Think of the movie “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” or review James Howard Kunstler’s description of Cargo Cults in his book “The Long Emergency.” The western-centric historical viewpoints he defends in chapters 2 and 3 are nauseating; in particular his Islamophobia and Arab-bashing, and the undefensible excuses he makes to degrade one Abrahamic religion over others, by focusing on a handful of violent “Islamic” fundamentalists, while ignoring equally reprehensible “Christian” and “Jewish” fundamentalism. (Again, all in quotes, as these corrupted fundamentalist wings of these religions are so far removed from the philosophical teachings each religion professes.)

    Here is another reference on Cargo Cults, a form of worship of advanced technology by societies considered less advanced:

    PPS: I am admittedly loathe to mention Kunstler here, given the obvious bigotry and racism he exhibits in his blog at:

    If one applies Kunstler’s own standards to himself, Kunstler is an obvious hypocrite. His insights on peak oil and the destructive nature of the automobile and western greed, self-indulgence, unsustainable farming practices, energy consumption, global warming, air pollution, water pollution, overpopulation, corporate control, and other ills of western societies still have merit.

    Also note that not all Native American civilizations adhered to the tribal organizational model. The Aztecs, for example, with their high priests and top-down social hierarchy bled their own working class dry, and eventually collapsed as empires historically do.

    [This entire Biker-X commentary is Copyleft.]

  • hibiscus

    i think churches are an economic measure as well as a community building and worship. i think people with education and resources want a sense that things will work out for the best, but that going to church, if it’s not an established or needful community practice, feels regressive. maybe because out in the world, religiosity is commonly reactionary, poisonous or cynical.

    also, besides wanting a less anxious life, i think there’s a difference between emotional connection and religious sentiment, which is kind of a combined humility and commitment and a little vanity. sort of like, being here for a reason, to make the world better, but being very much a specialist in a labor-divided world, i’m not sure i know ‘best’ for sure.

    maybe that’s it — “best” is a big problem for people.

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