Spirituality: WTF???

December 12, 2012

The name of this blog (spirituality is no excuse) side steps many of the questions about spirituality itself. The main focus is on the way spirituality is used as a cloak for scamming and killing for fun and profit.

I’m an atheist; and I see no reason to believe in any spirit world or subtle energies or precognition or esp; but this is not strictly speaking a “skeptic blog”. Partly that’s because I lack the science background to investigate topics with the thoroughness and fairness good skeptic sites undertake. But mostly it’s because I was, for some reason, just totally outraged and unspeakably infuriated and sickened by the deaths caused by James Ray. I have felt like I belong, at least socially, to what could be called the international “spiritual community” for most of my adult life, and my atheist perspective is as much a product of my subjective inquiries through meditation as it is my reading of science.

I guess that’s why Ray’s crimes pissed me off so much. Seeing the photos of the people he killed reminded so much of people I know and love, and could easily have wound up getting themselves drawn into his racket. And it makes me painfully aware of how exposed many of my friends are to quackery, emotional, sexual and financial exploitation, and believing ideas that are not designed to serve their best interests. I want to do something to stop people spreading these ideas, and to encourage people to start thinking a bit more critically about the exploitive and dangerous spiritual culture that has developed in recent decades.

Many people get the feeling that something’s wrong with it all, but don’t quite know where or how to start criticizing it. Once you know how to do it, it looks easy, but for those who have lived mostly in the warm and (seemingly) protective cocoon of the New Age, the intellectual skills involved seem strange and cold. Sometimes it’s genuine curiosity and concern for the truth that makes them pick up that cold spanner on a frosty morning and start unscrewing things. Often it’s pain that has raised the bar for belief, and made them want to check out if this stuff is really true. 

Whatever the case, initial discovery that one particular set of New Age teachings is bullshit, is often followed by the discovery that a second set of New Age teachings is also baloney. At this point, I notice, some people like to scurry back to the cocoon. Others keep on tugging at the loose strands and eventually notice that the whole fabric of New Age culture is indeed cut from the same cloth and it just keeps on unraveling.

So, what’s left after all that unraveling?

I think that some of it was wrapped around some things of real value, like for example alternative medicine makes good use of relaxation and positive fantasies to induce desirable physiological changes. Such techniques are (or should be) used where possible by mainstream medicine. There’s certainly nothing mysterious about them, but it could be argued that having been wrapped in woo clothing, they are now more widely accepted and their worth more clearly recognized. It’s also conceivable that we might stumble on new ways of using them that might not have been discovered had they not been used in a woo setting.

The term “spirituality” might also have some value, beyond its use as a label for cultural beliefs and practices. I could imagine it being a useful “placeholder” for subjective experiences which we can’t really pin down, but are nevertheless too important not to talk about somehow. Or maybe not.

Comments are open!



  1. One alternative definition I’ve heard is the feeling of connection with the rest of the universe, which can be felt by being aware of the science behind how we got here. “We are made of star stuff…” and such.

  2. I have become very aware of that “warm and (seemingly) protective cocoon of the New Age” since I got free of it, and I see the emotional hold it has on people everywhere. It’s not an easy sell, the “cold spanner”. They fear there will be something missing, something about love and poetry and joy. And they’re convinced they’ve found something we haven’t, even though we found it and then put it away again. And despite having found it, they’re still desperate, always searching for the missing secret that will explain why. Why doesn’t science agree? Why are there still wars? Why do some people resist? I heard someone in a Q and A session asking the newage lecturer what could be done to get rid of doubt, so that people aren’t afflicted by it. “I don’t mean like some medication, just…”, he said, innocently, apparently not quite sure what intervention he’d use to end critical thinking. You can feel the genuine care in his voice, wanting to save the suffering from their unbelief.

    Personally I reject the term “spiritual”, because of its obvious derivation from “spirit”, but it’s not a big deal. It just seems a bit lazy not to find better words. In fact, that’s half the battle. It focuses the mind on what it is people think they’re going to lose. I’m not spiritual, I’m sensitive, philosophical, caring, loving, joyous, poetic. What do they think I’m missing? Credulousness, apparently. Being special. One of god’s children. Eternal Salvation, that’s what. Everything Being All Right.

    Well, I haven’t believed in Father Christmas for some time and I cope.

  3. They fear there will be something missing, something about love and poetry and joy.

    There’s something I say about that: “Does knowing that a rainbow is the result of water droplets refracting light make it less beautiful?”

    I suspect I had it easy in a lot of respects since most of the difficulty I had was accepting mortality and the absence of an afterlife.

    Had a few warm fuzzies from arguable subversions of the ‘love conquers all’ tropes by explaining them. I think it actually made them more powerful, not less.

    One Garfield cartoon subverted the ‘love is the secret ingredient’ trope involving an elderly lady whose pasta cooking couldn’t be replicated by a corporation, leading them to conclude she had a secret ingredient. At the end, Garfield revealed what it was: She cared about her cooking and customers so much that she’d repeatedly taste test while cooking to make sure she’s doing it just right and adjust as necessary. The secret ingredient was closer attention to detail and extra effort, which were inspired by love.

    One other came from Yu-Yu Hakusho, filled to the brim with the supernatural, and yet they did have one subversion. Yusuke was facing down the last enemy of the arc, who had Yusuke’s girlfriend under a threat. The only way to save her was to beat the enemy despite having run out of spiritual energy during the fight. Result: Yusuke draws on his life force at great personal risk to win the fight. Villain has an epiphany while falling to the ground, realizing the strength of soft, compassionate humans: Yusuke’s love encouraged him to take a high risk, high reward, self-sacrificial tactic that a selfish person like himself would have never considered.

  4. The scope of the website/blog is improved by extending it beyond criticising cranks and moving into a positive theme (I mean providing somewhere else to offset or relieve the primary negativity).

    There will always be a few people who are dis-satisfied with conventional religions, or materialistic culture, or urban living. I would agree with those few people.

    But when those few people look for alternatives, what do they find, usually the cranks, frauds and scammers ?

    Analysing and de-bunking the frauds still leaves the original dis-satisfaction unresolved. And something constructive could be salutary.

    I wonder was it always like this (the cranks), and I think the answer is no. Maybe it traces back to the British Raj – once Indian philosophy & religion started making inroads in Europe, roughly 150 years ago.

    To a lesser (?) degree, there were also some reverse influences on Islam after the Mughals conquered India. But I do not know or remember much about the history of that now.

  5. I’ve occasionally thought of posting some more constructive stuff on here, but always decided against it. Part of me would love to post about William Blake, or crazy Zen stories or mythology, or something, but it’s all a bit too personal, and I’ve heard so many other people blabbing on about that stuff that I’d probably throw up before I wrote anything. I can be a bit precious about that stuff.

    But I am very happy to open it up for discussion.

    One issue I see is that for most people going through some kind of private suffering or emotional pain, a scientific appreciation of the universe doesn’t really help the pain to go away. And for anyone feeling freaked out and lonely, or on the edge of going a bit psycho, the scientific world view can perhaps even be enough to push them over the edge. I think it’s sometimes underestimated how much of a shock it can be for people to seriously confront the idea that we’re here alone, in a dangerous world, and the Ancient Ones who are supposed to be protecting us are really a bunch of fish or something.

    I know there are advantages too. I stopped having horrible “psychic” experiences and getting attacked by dead people in my dreams, after I realized that the “objective” spirit world I believed didn’t exist, and of course reality has its own rewards. But it takes deliberate and conscious effort to develop enough understanding of science for it to feel really okay.

  6. I also think that spirituality, whatever (if anything) it may be, doesn’t mix with science. All the talk about “other ways of knowing” is bullshit. If anywhere, it belongs in the realm of art and creative expression.

  7. @Donald, that’s a good idea about providing something constructive for people disatisfied with religion, materialistic culture and urban living, but I wonder what sort of thing you would suggest.

    That bit about the British Raj made me smile. I’ve just had a long and excruciating exchange with a Hindu who reckons the ancient Indians discovered the essential features of reality several thousand years ago, which the West doesn’t understand yet, although we’re catching up now with quantum mechanics, since Schrödinger studied Hinduism. He was as pseudoscientific and irrational as anyone I’ve ever talked to, but I have to admit he knew more QM than I, and it’s hard to deny the challenges it holds for our normal atomistic view of things. I’m with Einstein in that I like to think the Moon is there even when I’m not looking at it.

    @Bronze Dog, I’m also with you about rainbows to some degree, although it’s probably a very different and less emotional appreciation I have than if I thought it was my spiritual father reminding me of eternal salvation. When I compare my general feelings before and after “waking up”, they are almost the opposite of what most would expect. Almost, because I have less extreme highs now – nothing enhances an endorphine rush like imagining you’re in God’s arms. But I was more depressed and angry than I am now. Now I’m a bit more chilled, and yet I’m also more inquisitive.

    @Yakaru, this thing about being constructive is interesting. I was intruiged by your interpretation: “William Blake, or crazy Zen stories or mythology”, and that they were a bit personal and you might throw up. Do you mean relating moral tales get a bit sugary and sound a bit patronising?

    I’m thinking that our challenge as secularists is to reclaim the moral and educative issues that have been couched in religious terms since time immemorial. Right now we’re lacking a lot of the language and behavioural frameworks to do that. I intended to join the Brights Society, but the name put me off. Things are changing. The Internet is giving us new opportunities for challenging our ideas and learning from others. And blogs like this ARE constructive by doing that, and doing it in an honorable way. How you conduct yourself is a better moral lesson than telling people moral lessons. And there can be something rather depressing for the reader about deliberate up-beat-ness if they’re feeling at odds with the world. One of the biggest sicknesses is that most people are trying too hard to sell a message, so hard that the message gets distorted and it all looks fake. Genuineness is refreshing and attractive. Conversely, my irritation with woos is more about their failure to be honest with themselves and others than what their conclusions are.

    I think the vast majority of people who don’t cope well without their old support structure just return to it or find a new one, although I’m sure there are casualties. My Hindu “friend” has a long list of philosophies he used to follow but since decided were false (including “science” and the LoA), but now he knows he’s found the absolutely true one.

    “I also think that spirituality, whatever (if anything) it may be, doesn’t mix with science. All the talk about “other ways of knowing” is bullshit.” – Yes, especially when it gets to the solipsistic position “consciousness creates reality” and the related special pleading (sceptical inquiry gets negative results, you have to make a leap of faith, then you see it from the new paradigm). I’m happy for people to make that their creed and claim it, but they can’t also claim scientific support unless they first bother to show why it’s not an unfalsifiable claim. If there’s the possibility that experiments prove whatever you’re expecting, you can’t do science as we understand it.

  8. I have been trying to develop a verbal description of untainted spirituality. So far I have come up with “A rational outlook that respects reality & harmonizes thought, word and action into a vocation or calling.” That definition only applies to humans. I think there is room for improvement. For example there are some animals that exhibit a purposeful behaviour that is distinct from just struggling to survive, sometimes the behaviour can induce their death. (The cases where horses, racehorses or draught(draft ?)horses, over-exert themselves in collaboration with a human and drop dead.)

    Religion etc does not respect reality. The spirituality the faithful profess is a (self-)delusion.

    Some of the problems with me, it appears to me, could be that
    (a) I do not want to use words like God, soul, hell as they all refer to imagined, fictitious, and mksleading concepts.
    (b) I have other uses for words such as spirituality (& I think I am not alone in adopting contrary definitions or understandings, particularly vis-a-vis spirituality)
    © I sometimes invent, pervert or subvert words for my own purposes, but after a while they fall into disuse and I forget the variants.

    So I feel the need to apologise for being egotistical and semi-prescriptive about a few obscure definitions.

    @Yakaru @lettersquash

    I disagree with the contention that spirituality (in the sense I use the word) does not sit well with science.

    (From the http://www.m-w.com online dictionary)

    : a branch (as neurophysiology) of the life sciences that deals with the anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, or molecular biology of nerves and nervous tissue and especially with their relation to behavior and learning

    I would highlight the three words “relation to behaviour”.

    Regarding what would I suggest for people alienated by materialism, religion, and urban living…

    Become a field anthropologist – there are still some ecologically sustainable small native societies out there. But when you set out remember to pack a mosquito net and insect repellant.

  9. @Donald, I’m really baffled. I’m happy for people to use whatever definition of words they like, but I can’t understand why it’s not easier to retain established definitions and choose different words for what you want to say. Thefreedictionary.com defines spirituality as “of, relating to, consisting of, or having the nature of spirit; not tangible or material”. You define “untainted spirituality” as something that appears to be a combination of rationalism, realism and motivated social conscience. Why?

    And, of course, in the sense you use the word, spirituality is closely related to science, but aren’t you putting the division of meaning in between “spirit” and “spirituality”? Presumably you don’t actually believe in spirit, do you, or other fundamentally immaterial things?

  10. I have been thinking this morning that there may be a distinction between spirituality and spiritedness.

    You can say a horse is spirited (correctly, refering to its character) and some people would say a horse (or a human) has an intangible, immaterial spirit (with which I would disagree, if there is something going on in the brain conditioning behaviour I would regard that as tangible, not intangible, like the idea that a computer programme executing is mentally tangible).

    I think there can be spirituality in the relationship between a person and:
    other people (reflexively);
    other creatures (reflexively to varying degrees);
    or their physical environment (one direction).

    About re-defining and/or deconstructing words, that is one way I tend to laterally respond whenever I encounter other people (ab)using my notions of reality.

    I don’t believe in other-worldly phenomena. I do not believe in faith. As far as the people who do believe religions are concerned, I am confident they are wrong, hence I am not going to accept their definition of spirituality (they are not qualified to define it) and I think the word can be more productively used for a rational application.

    It’s a bit like this:

    Christians believe The Bible contains the word of God (sic).

    No part of the Bible was written down at the exact time of the events described. Some of it is impossible myth, some parts contradict other parts.
    A few Christians will claim they can prove the existence of God. I think they will refer to the Bible to do so.

    I would respond, no you can’t use the Bible, the world was not created in 7 days. By using the Bible you are just perpetuating a corruption of language to satisfy the craving for spirituality or an answer to the meaning of life.

    At some point somebody made up parts of Genesis. That person was not present 4000 or 5000 years ago.

    That’s obvious, just like it is obvious to many Australians, especially kooris, the book Mutant Message Down Under is fiction, and just like it must be obvious to North American indians and anthropologists where MM plagiarised her pseudo koori descriptions from.

    It can be very difficult to argue with someone who is a compulsive liar and fraud. I change the parameters, don’t try to argue, instead adduce facts, and challenge their fundamental definitions. Shift the groundwork out of their frame of reference (?).

    Moving to science, the smallest component of matter used to be an atom. When science figured out atoms are not the smallest, it came up with a new definition of an atom – protons, neutrons, electrons. When science figured out neutrons can emit radiation and break into even smaller components, (is this true ?) then a neutron was re-defined.

    (But as I have written before, I am sceptical that the current scientific models of atoms and su-atomic particles, and sooner – probably later – some genius is going to develop a better theory or model.)

  11. @LS (earlier comment)
    Yep, I get sick of myself very quickly when I talk about things that are important to me.

    Regarding science vs spirituality, when I did have spiritual beliefs, I thought that there were things that science was incapable of finding. So I just accepted that and was actually quite relieved about it. Imagine if science really did suddenly discover God and start proving that certain teachings were right and others wrong. Boy would that set the cat among the pigeons.

    @Donald (earlier comment)
    What I object to in mixing science and spirituality is that it always seems to involve watering down the science to such an extent that it’s not science anymore, but they still want full “science” status.

    I guess I’m thinking more along the possibility that maybe spiritual is a useful term for intangible things that we want to talk about. You mentioned apparent self awareness in animals on the other thread, so I’ll take that as a possible example. The “self”, as I understand it is an illusion. I think I know who I am, but if I go and look for that “me” inside, I can’t find it. I still have a sense of “me-ness”, but it’s more like an empty abyss that just watches.

    (Sorry for the woo talk, but that’s how it seemed when I first noticed it age 3, and how still does after years of meditation.)

    The self, though, is obviously a useful illusion to have, both socially, for normal daily functioning, and as part of a legal concept for a thing that has rights. It also seems to have some kind of psychological unity, and some things I do feel more “me” than others, and I don’t want to even try and define it any more closely. A word like “spiritual” which also implies that it’s highly valued but intangible and undefined (/undefinable) might be useful.

  12. The point I find most relevant to my question is: “I don’t believe in other-worldly phenomena. I do not believe in faith. As far as the people who do believe religions are concerned, I am confident they are wrong, hence I am not going to accept their definition of spirituality (they are not qualified to define it) and I think the word can be more productively used for a rational application.”

    Thank you. I see. Still, I would advise against this attitude. I don’t think it’s correct to say that believers defined “spirituality” – but anyway, it is just a generally accepted definition, whoever came up with it. If you don’t accept that it is a real phenomenon, surely you only muddy the water by redefining the word rather than clearly denying its reality. If you consider it unreal, there is little substance to the argument that someone else isn’t qualified to define it. Indeed, it seems logically the opposite:- Tolkien is the most qualified person to define a hobbit because it is fictional.

    You say it is like…the Bible, but you don’t appear to redefine any of the words you consider wrong.

    Then I find it difficult to comprehend the idea that “more productive use” of a word can be made by redefining it, since it’s redundantly describing an imaginary thing. Words are quite easy to make up if you absolutely need to, but it’s seldom necessary.

    The risk is that you confuse people. When you talk about spirituality being possible between people, or people and animals or people and the environment, I don’t know whether to take that as the “spirituality” that you say is defined by unqualified people and doesn’t generally exist, or your new definition of the word. It might seem obvious to you that since you don’t believe it exists, I can deduce which it is, but people aren’t always giving a complete picture – you might now be describing an exception to the rule “spirituality is imaginary”. Besides, if I try your new description, “a rational outlook that respects reality & harmonizes thought, word and action into a vocation or calling”, I’m left wondering what that has to do with horses rather than motorbikes or cooking. Indeed, it seems to hint more closely at communication, consciousness and therefore mental phenomena than realism and committed occupation.

    The beauty of language is that we can describe all manner of imaginary things as well as real things. And it is by collective acceptance of the definitions that we can discuss the things they denote, including whether we think they exist or not. Of course, the process is entirely voluntary, but it seems unhelpful to opt out of the shared understanding of a particular word. I can sort of understand the inclination, though. I’ve found myself refusing to put capitals on religious proper nouns like christ or god, but that’s about as far as it seems wise to go. I wouldn’t consider talking about how christ definitely exists, but I’ve decided from now on it’s a kind of sweet-and-sour sauce, because the other one is nonsense.

  13. You can find the history of the word spirituality in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles.
    In 1441 it first appeared in English and denoted “The Clergy”. By 1456 it began to refer also to ecclesiastical revenue (money, uh oh). In 1500 it added the meaning “condition of being spiritual”.
    1606 A spiritual thing or as distinct from a worldly one. 1681 the condition of an incorporeal essence.

    I don’t think any of those meanings was coined by an atheist.

  14. Donald, yes, that’s probably right. But it was the most trivial point of my post.

  15. Yes, what you write is right also (about it being a trivial point – in the context of what else you were writing), but it was what you wrote at the top of your post so it was the first thing that caught my attention. I happen to have both the single volume and split double volume editions of the SOED in the living room, so my response was facile.

    I apologise for not answering the rest of your post, but
    (a) it was too much to absorb on a mobile phone, and

    (b)You wrote
    “If you don’t accept that it is a real phenomenon, surely you only muddy the water by redefining the word rather than clearly denying its reality.”

    From reading that I had the impression either I had not explained myself well or you had misunderstood something I wrote.

    I don’t accept spirituality is a real phenomenon in the restricted definition that the faithful would have everyone believe spirituality is a real phenomenon. I think spirituality is a real phenomenon in the sense of something that can be at work in a person’s brain and affect their outlook on life and behaviour.

    © You next wrote:
    “If you consider it unreal, there is little substance to the argument that someone else isn’t qualified to define it.”

    But I don’t consider spirituality to be unreal, virtual maybe as it is in your mind, but I don’t see spirituality as being unreal or false in the sense that some people manifest spirituality and the spirituality they manifest is unrelated to faith or religion.

    It’s the faith part and intuition which are false.

    Another problem is over the use of the pronoun “it”, which can lead to ambiguity over which “it” is being refered to.


    As an analogy, at school 40 yeard ago in science labs there would be diagrams on the wall with an atom illustrated. The image would have red spheres representing protons, white ones neutrons, and blue ones electrons. I accept that there are components of matter that correspond to what we know as protons neutrons and electrons, but we have no direct visual experience of them and they are certainly not structured in a way like blue, red & white marbles. The people who designed those wall charts had no objective basis for the design. The design displayed is false. Students are given the impression the chart is scientific, but in large part the chart is a stand-in for something no-one has or ever will see with the naked eye.

    I am tickled that 600 years ago it seems Catholics started using the word spirituality to raise money via donations.

    Some things have not changed much in 600 years.

  16. Thanks, Donald, that makes a lot more sense to me now. I hope I don’t misrepresent your meaning in the following, but this is me trying to work out the general principle. I think I do the same thing with “consciousness”. Similarly, I imagine, it was coined mostly by people who thought it was a separate subjective entity (spirit or soul), and although I don’t agree, I don’t deny its existence as a phenomenon or process, so I’m inclined to redefine what it is. BD’s example of “rainbow” is even more obvious. I don’t call them atmospheric spectral refraction patterns.

    I thought you must have some peculiar attachment to the word “spirituality”, because I see its connection to “spirit” as much more fundamental and something I can’t ignore – just another part of speech of the same word almost. Maybe it’s more about my aversion.

    Still, for me to do that redefining thing, I have to see that there is something to an idea (or word) that there aren’t better words for, and I just don’t with spirituality. To me it would be like going into the woods to hunt for “bigfoot”, and still calling it that, because I’ve looked at the evidence and think the sightings must have been of something big and hairy, and I’m going to find out what it is…then (when I find the hitherto undiscovered large boar) demanding that it’s given a species name Bigfootus lettersquashii.

    You seem to think there’s something there that needs redefining, but I hardly see any connection with your new definition. Furthermore, your example of a horse (you wanted to extend “spirituality” to include some animals) working itself to death, as indicating the possession of this “spirituality”, or a “purposeful behaviour that is distinct from just struggling to survive” seems to demonstrate ignorance of evolutionary theory and invite a pseudoscientific view of animal psychology. You’re a fan of Richard Dawkins, and I’m pretty sure he would refute that there’s anything “spiritual” going on when animals engage in self-sacrificial behaviour. There is always some evolutionary connection with the “struggle for survival” (or rather, reproduction), IMO.

  17. Just now commenting here, hope I don’t interrupt the flow of comments here!

    @Donald T, thanks for replying to my comments on the Marlo Morgan thread. I loved reading Tolstoy years ago, I may have to read Anna Karenina again from my more adult perspective.

    On the one hand, I suppose I shouldn’t let the spiritually smug color my views on the concept of spirituality, on the other hand, they are the ones mostly defining the term. My experience is limited to a certain region of the U.S. and to some degree what I read on the Internet. The term still leaves a bad taste in my mouth, I now realize.

    @Yakaru, I love your blog and I think it offers a nice foothold to people who are starting to learn to think for themselves but are still in that having been taught what to think.

    I’ll add that in my own experience, I’d come to disbelieve in the Bible as the inerrant word of God, and gave up belief in a theistic deity. Still, I clung to a “spiritual identity” of sorts, which left me open to the Hicks’ scam.

    I think it’s easier for people coming out of religion (or maybe just for myself!) to let go of the concept of spirituality, with its connotations of connecting with the “divine” than to try to redefine it. And, as I’ve said, so many consider themselves “spiritual” when they’re quite religious and/or superstitious, leaving them deaf to any discussion on the dangers of religious thinking and religion.

    All this is why I’m interested in this discussion!

  18. @lettersquash
    It’s perceptive of you to detect that I seem to have some affinity to the term spirituality. I think it is because I want to keep it as part of the vocabulary that can be used in connection with the word agape. I can jettison “soul” because I don’t have a need to use soul vis-a-vis agape.

    I want to distinguish between soul & spirit, yet different religious people refer to “immortal soul” or “holy spirit” as if both words spirit and soul can have the same meaning. (Or the same meaning to different people.)

    I think my views about horses go back to my childhood where in the bedroom through the window each morning milk in bottles was delivered by a man, with a Clydesdale and a waggon. The horse knew when it needed to wait for the man to catch up.

    I assume horses only die from over-exertion when working with people (& particular people with a relationship to the horse, not strangers , but what happens with alternate jockeys ?)

    There’s a recreation of a 1900’s farming co-operative farming movement (“Andelslandbyen” possibly a peculiarly Danish (not sure) that died out 80 years ago).

    http://www.andelslandbyennyvang. dk guessing the website address ?

    I was there on an open day 14 months ago. When the dozen or so working horses had their lunch break it was an affecting (emotional, & spiritual) experience for me.

    I don’t regard myself as a fan of anyone at the moment, Susan Sontag comes close though. I just am not a “fan” sort of person.

    I consider Christopher Hitchens’ God is not Great a superior work to Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. There were however two mistakes (or more, I only found two) in the first edition of God is Not Great, which the publishers were to correct in reprints.

    I am not a fan of (the late) Christopher Hitchens either. He was a very smart man, but he drank (& I suspect he chain-smoked & swore) so I don’t respect CH unqualifiedly. (Susan Sontag was a smoker also, pity, “kiss a non-smoker – taste the difference…”

    I think Lionel Trilling (literary critic, academic) was a smoker also, regretably.

    Maybe Peter Singer is not a smoker nor drinker ?

  19. Correction:

    Nyvang website:


    Also, synchronicity (sic) with @Mariah had a delay of two minutes. A fun thing to happen would be for all five people here to post within one minute of each other, by accident.

  20. @Donald, “It’s perceptive of you to detect that I seem to have some affinity to the term spirituality.” – It didn’t take much perceptivity.

    “I think it is because I want to keep it as part of the vocabulary that can be used in connection with the word agape. I can jettison “soul” because I don’t have a need to use soul vis-a-vis agape. … I want to distinguish between soul & spirit, yet different religious people refer to “immortal soul” or “holy spirit” as if both words spirit and soul can have the same meaning. (Or the same meaning to different people.)” – It sounds like you’re working on an idealist philosophical treatise. I’m not really into that kind of thing. Thanks for sticking with it this long on your mobile.

  21. @Mariah, I certainly don’t feel you’ve interrupted, but enhanced the discussion. But then your views are close to mine on this issue, so I would. :)

  22. $piritua£it¥ © 1456 Vatican, ® Trademark, Patent Pending

    Unauthorised use, redefinition or subversion is an ecclesiastical offence, punishable by the Holy Office, maximum penalty for individuals – death by burning at the stake (or €250 000 in the case of corporations)

  23. I didn’t know about the Catholic church’s role in defining or inventing spirituality. Interesting. Do you know of any internet sources that cover it?

  24. I was being facetious. I have no evidence, all one can claim is that someone who was probably a cleric in England in 1456 used the word in that sense (spirituality = the clergy), with or without the formal blessing of the Vatican. In the 15th century most people in England belonged to the Catholic church (there were no Protestants until Martin Luther in Europe, later ?)

    I suspect when spirituality was originally coined & used to refer to the priesthood, the word was generated via the same mechanism that commune becomes community or nation becomes nationality.

    I only stumbled on this definition a couple of days ago, because a) we were told christians/Catholics did not define/invent the word, so I checked, and because b) I happen to have the rather large 2500 page SOED to hand, and that may be one of the few places this well-forgotten detail will be uncovered.

    That’s just a fluke. Especially in that it dovetails with the postings here where they describe how the word spirituality is generally used by adherents of one denominational to differentiate themselves from everyone else.

    I am not sure if the admin at the library sold their complete Oxford English Dictionary or what, but if it is still there, I could probably find more extensive information in the (20 000 page ? about 1.5 metres thick) OED.

    You’re not likely to find the OED at most German libraries.

    I don’t know of & have not looked for internet sources (warning, in any case “You should not believe everything you find on the internet.” Better trust the OED or SOED)

    I was looking for articles on the internet about the place of the shy people though, and there is almost nothing, except for the official outcome of a case heard in the Supreme Court, quite intriguing.)

    A corollary of that is that once search engines like Google update to the latest postings on SINE, until you edit the postings to remove references to B, meantime searches on the B word should start directing people to SINE blogs !

    By the way, Nyvang is a working re-created/preserved co-operative-farming-movement (Andelslandsbyen) museum rather than a living community.

  25. This isn’t a direct response, but just something that indicates my problem with the word, as well as mentioning the “belonging to the church” meaning. http://en.allexperts.com/q/Etymology-Meaning-Words-1474/2010/3/etymology-18.htm

    Elsewhere I came across “spiritualty” (note, without the second “i”) defined as property of the church, which I think was probably just a happy little typo. (cf “realty”)

    Incidentally, I did correct myself on the matter of the origin of “spirituality”, which was probably coined by believers in spirit (and when I originally said it wasn’t, I meant generally that there may have been non-believers involved at some stage, and I said it was irrelevant).

    But I prefer not to continue its popularity for the same reason that Donald prefers to redefine it. I would also like to reiterate that I consider this a matter of choice, although obviously I might argue for mine with some enthusiasm and advise against the other.

    I also don’t mean I have an aversion to the word and want to burn books with it in. I agree with you (Yakaru) that it may be useful for describing something immaterial. I only have an aversion to espousing it or aspiring to it or trying to work out if horses have it. When biology, or even psychology, investigates such things, it tries to be very precise about measurable physical or behavioural characteristics, qualities or processes. It might, for instance, ask whether elephants demonstrate behaviour consistent with a theory of mind (recognising themselves in a mirror is the usual test – they do). I’ve not heard of any studies with horses, but my guess is they will probably have been tested, and they’re not mentioned, so they probably don’t possess theory of mind. Elephants also have a mourning ritual, and of course mourning is thought to be closely related to the beginnings of religious belief or spiritual sensitivities. Archaeologists judge the dawn of religion largely by apparently deliberate burial of the dead.

    The two general definitions of the word are represented everywhere without any clear winner – some emphasise belief in spirit, connection with religion, search for the sacred, transcendence of the material world, and some emphasise the moral, artistic, educative and humanist side, specifically distancing spirituality from belief in any immaterial construct. The latter appears to be a modern development (or, as I’d have it, corruption).

    It seems natural that, as humanity gradually awoke from ubiquitous religious beliefs, people would still feel the emotions and have thoughts that they used to explain as “spiritual” (due to actual spirit), but, rejecting the actual spirit, the word might begin to be redefined away from its original meaning, towards the vague catch-all of happy concepts it enjoys now. And then it starts working to divide people into those who feel the vibes and those who don’t. This new “spiritual” has as its opposite “shallow”. And yet, to my mind, the waking up took depth. The spiritual were the shallow ones.

  26. Alas I do not know if before there was religion or superstition, – a very long time ago, some humans already had what could be categorised/recognised as spirituality, even though there was no word for spirituality or mental concept of spirituality.

    To try to devise a scientific test:

    Maybe at some future time neuroscientists will be able to study the differences in the physiology and brain scannings of a spectrum of creature brains, such as human, elephant, horse, wombat and (big) octopus brains to figure out what bearing (if anything) the physiology and brain scan activity may have on behaviour vis-a-vis mirrored reflections, deaths of fellow animals, & mass strandings.

  27. […] post started off as a comment in the discussion from the previous post. It started getting a bit long, and I wanted to add some references, so I […]

  28. @Donald,
    To pick up an earlier point (maybe on another thread), I’ve seen some interesting studies about self awareness in animals, It was discovered that some animals who appear not to recognize themselves in mirrors, actually can do if the experiment is designed properly. Crows for example ignore their reflection, but when an experimenter places a white spot on its feathers out of its direct sight but visible in a mirror, the crow suddenly starts jumping about trying to remove it.

    Other studies involve things like spraying a dog’s scent in places it is visiting for the first time. It reacts with surprise at discovering its own scent. It doesn’t recognize itself in a mirror, but its primary perceptual system is scent rather than vision. So that kind of thing also suggests some level of self awareness.

    I noted on another thread, I think, that Sam Harris is apparently writing a book on the idea of “spirituality” as a useful term. I’ll be curious to read because he has argued both in favor of some form of secular Buddhism, as well as arguing that ethics can be founded squarely on science.
    Also, regarding your earlier comment about a Hindu who claimed that Indian philosophy discovered quantum physics, did he “know” they’d done that before he read Fritjof Capra, or only after?

  29. Secular Buddhism

    There were six teaching staff, 3 lecturers, 3 tutors, in the Department of Indian Studies at Melbourne during the “Second Golden Age of Indian Studies at MU” circa [1975]-[1980]. One of these staff was a Sinhalese Buddhist monk, two were Bengalis, two Australians and one Russian. 2x f, 4x m.

    In the mind of the Sinhalese, Buddhism / Hinayana-Theravada Buddhism, was a philosophy not a religion at all. I guess he would see Mahayana and Vajrayana as religions and not legitimate authentic pristine Buddhism.

    A bight orange yellow Sun has just risen over the Pacific and the tile ridge of the house east of me, shining in my eyes, slightly dazzled.

  30. Yes, I watched Sam Harris’s TED talk on morality based on science, which I found worse than unpersuasive. I don’t know much of his other stuff.

    Ah, the Hindu guy was a second generation Indian immigrant to Britain, and he may well have read Patanjali before Capra. He said he had a BA in the philosophy of science (a “first” or distinction in it), and he showed an apparent breadth of philosophical knowledge that made it believable, yet he literally could not think from one end of a sentence to the other. His posts were littered with contradiction, non-sequiturs, false syllogisms, straw-man arguments, the whole works.

    Incidentally, when I said earlier that quantum mechanics poses some challenges for our normal atomistic view of things, I was in the middle of researching more of what he had posted, and up to then I was finding lots of hits that reiterated the quantum consciousness stuff, so I was being generous towards it. As usual with google, all the stuff that people are getting off on gets re-blogged and ends up topside. But I dug further and began to find the other argument, and most scientists do not support the Quantiousness interpretation. Probably THE crux of this (as I expect you know) is the idea that the wave function is collapsed through “observation”, and the argument turns on whether this has to involve a conscious observer or is merely a technical term for interacting with some measuring device. It appears to be the latter. Silly scientists for calling it “observation” instead of “interaction”. They could have saved us many shed loads of woo.

  31. I have a vague recollection that there is film / video of a particularly mischievous dairy cow that used to spend its time luring other cows up against an electric fence. Every time another of the cows in the paddock was tempted to touch the fence and got zapped, the “cow provocateur” or “cow fatale” would erect its tail and start trotting around the paddock jauntily.

    But in the overall scheme of things, cows, horses and sheep are not intelligent.

First-time comments moderated to prevent spam

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: