Can Spirituality Be Defined?

Or, at least a definition that is satisfactory to me.

In this post I will explore what I think are two definitions of spirituality. The first definition I came up with (back in the early 1990s) is spirituality is the search for order. As a teaser, this would be close to the popular*¹ Einsteinian version of spirituality. The second definition I made (much more recently) is spirituality is a connection to something that is greater than yourself. I will try to determine which one I now favor, or whether or not they are compatible. This is, can both positions be held at the same time? I will also explore if either of them now fit into my own personal beliefs.

A word on my beliefs is in order. I am an atheist, so it might be surprising that I would write on spirituality at all. I had at one point after coming out of my Christian fog, and back into my atheistic beliefs (I was one before I was a Christian), thought that there might still be something I could find that would give me some spiritual link to the universe. A link which I now believe does not exist. It was in this phase of my life that I decided upon the first definition above.

As with everyone, whether they know it or not, I have presuppositions (background beliefs). The major one of which in relation to my atheism, or maybe because of it, is that no supernatural entities exist (metaphysical naturalism). I said because of my atheism because I only became aware of this philosophical position some years ago after reading Richard Carrier’s Sense and Goodness Without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism. But, it was more a coming to know the term, while previously holding the position.

So, what can be expected from an atheist when it comes to what spirituality is? An impartial view? Probably not. So, both of these definitions should hold regardless of whether or not there is anything that is actually spiritual. But, the use of a term like spirituality needs a relational definition. In other words its use must be in relational terms; there must be something or someone that an individual has a relation to. Both of my definitions fit this kind of definition (the second even more so).

Let me start with my first definition of the 1990s. Spirituality is the search for order. I was looking for a definition that was acceptable on a nonreligious basis. I thought that people wanted to find order in their life and in their world and that this could suffice as a form of spirituality. Science certainly seems to fit this as science can be seen as the search for patterns, and patterns are ordered.

Einstein is said to have said: “I believe in Spinoza’s God, Who reveals Himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a God Who concerns Himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.” (not my italics) Harmony is certainly when things are in order. He also supposedly said: “It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.“*² (not my italics) Each of these quotes could easily be said as a spiritual statement of looking for order in the world.

But, I think this definition could be seen outside of science. Just look at the amount of people that do to do lists, or schedule their day to the minutest detail. There must be found a certain peace in these activities. And, peace is often thought of as a reward of a spiritual life. Granted, these same persons might suffer a good deal of anxiety. I know that when I was learning to deal with my anxiety without clonopin I did a to do list everyday. These to do lists brought many purposes in my life to the surface. Purpose is another component of the rewards of a spiritual life. My current life has a overall order to it, but much flexibility that allows me to have the freedom to flitter about from activity to activity.

So, could I buy the definition of spirituality being a search for order? I have two issues with this definition as it now stands. The first is I do not know how many people would agree with it. Most people, I feel, think of spirituality as a relationship with god or possibly connected with meditative practices. In defense I would say that sacred texts have something to say about the order of things. A prime example would be the creation story in the Bible, and while I am not familiar with other sacred texts, I would bet that they contain how the orderliness in the world came about. Oh, in the Bible there is a big concern for order outside of the creation story. Look at the detail given for Noah’s ark and the tabernacle, or the array of tribes leaving Egypt and the concern over censuses. So, maybe the search for order could be a partial definition for what is spiritual.

My second reason for ditching this definition, possibly the main, is I do not believe the spiritual exists. So, while I seek some degree of order (but, not too much) the definition would fit my life. But, this is not enough for me to label myself as a spiritual person.

Let me move on to my second definition. This is spirituality is a connection to something that is greater than yourself. I believe that most people would agree that this definition fits. Some might have some qualms because there is no mention of god. The connection in my definition could be with anyone or thing.

Other than god there are other connections that might fit my definition. Here are some: in Alcoholic Anonymous (AA) one must accept a higher power, but what that higher power might be is left up to the individual, and there are some that consider the group as a whole as their higher power; in connection with god there is the church in which one worships, and some have more of a connection to their church, than to god, and there is research to show the benefits of belief may occur because of their connection to people in their church, such as the support found there, rather than belief proper; there are some secular Jewish congregations that only have a connection to the ethical principles in the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud (there has to be a lot of cherry picking for this¹), not to god; other people have other groups that they are immersed in (e.g. encounter groups, ethical societies, and fraternities); in many cultures the people maintain connections to their ancestors; and there are other people that feel a connection to the universe as a whole (Spinoza’s god) or nature.

I just mention a connection to the universe as a whole. I would like to relate an experience I had back in the mid-1990s. I was on the patio of my apartment just finishing up a smoke when I look up into the clear night sky. It seemed wondrous that although the universe was this great expanse, and I was an insignificant speak in the whole of it, I was part of it all. No, I was not smoking marijuana; it was tobacco.

At that time I leaned toward calling it a mystical experience. I was lost and encompassed at the same time. At that moment was I experiencing the spiritual? I would say not. Mystical experiences are supposed to be life changing events and ineffable. After I went inside I went on with my life as usual. My life did not change, and my experience was just as I described it. In the end it was definitely not a life changer. I would add I found no solace from my troubles at the time. I belief now (whatever my efforts at the time of my experience to find a spiritual connection without god) there was nothing spiritual there.

So, this definition would not work for me. Does it work for anyone else. I think it could. This is especially so for the pantheists such as Spinoza and atheist or agnostic members of AA. Pantheists’ whole of spirituality is their connection to the universe^; and it is between the bond of AA members that healing is often found, and healing is often thought of as part of having a spiritual connection. Some theist would have strong objections to this definition. Spirituality is strictly a direct relationship with god; you cannot have any other avenue to spirituality they would claim. Other theist could accept it because after all is there not a connection between god and his universe, and besides god is certainly larger than the believer in any case. And, members of groups can certainly feel a connection with other members and the group as a whole. Whether or not these people would consider the group as greater than themselves is a question that could be asked, but many such members certainly do, so I think they would be able to accept this definition.

What about combining the two definitions? I do not see any real problem here. While probably the main reason people seek out the spiritual (including god) is for comfort or direction or peace of mind, many people want to know why things are the way they are, or why there is anything at all? A combined definition would likely be stronger than each of them individually, but could leave out people who only accept one of the definitions, as well as, those that do not accept either definition.

Where does this leave me? Since I now see my first definition to not encompass what most people think spirituality is, I give up this definition despite the order I may seek in my life and the universe, and I see no greater connection to anything in my life that applies in the second definition, so I reject both of my definitions as workable for me. I consider that my life has no spirituality to it, despite ranking high in it in a survey I took about four months ago.† I will add that it is not that I think that nothing is greater than I am; it is that I feel no spiritual connection to it or them.

So, I am spiritually, definitionally adrift, but seeing that I have no need for any such definition, I feel fine with not being tethered to the universe or anything else. I mean I am a comfortable atheist as well as a firm one.² If my definitions are acceptable or not to anyone, so be it.

Something greater than myself?


¹ I have a post on cherry picking – Do You Want to Pick Some Cherries?

² See Can You Believe That? for what I mean by firm belief.

*¹ I say popular because this is how his spirituality is usually portrayed. *² Both of these statements can only support that Einstein was a deist. However, it maybe that all this god talk is metaphorical; although, it would take a much longer look to support this.

^ While theism is part of the word, and some pantheists claim to have a personal relationship to the universe, most claim no such relationship, or a modest one at best.

† I was surprised at the results when I took this survey. The reason why I think I scored so high was that the person who devised the survey claimed that spirituality (actually spiritual wellness was what the survey was about) involved finding meaning and purpose in your life, and the fact that I feel my life has meaning and purpose to a high degree, it is not so surprising that I scored so high after all.


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