The Lost Rewards of the Spiritual Life

Julian Baggini

“I don’t believe in God, but I’m a spiritual person.” These are the exact words I recently overheard a young woman say to a man with whom she was flirting on a train. I hear the same or similar words all the time. Like many secular humanists who have thought their worldview through, I often find them frustrating. I find myself wanting to turn around and say, “What do you mean by that?” In my imagination, I hear the answer: “I don’t believe in God, but I do believe there is more to life than just food, sex, and material goods. And I don’t think science captures everything that is real.”

At this point, one is tempted to think that given ten minutes—half an hour at most—one could set such a person straight: “You don’t need your vague idea of ‘spirituality.’ Everything you want from the spiritual can either be found right here in this mortal, physical realm; or else is a delusion.”

However, the conviction that what is grouped under the broad heading of “the spiritual” is false, unnecessary, or has a surrogate in naturalist terms is too optimistic. There are some things of value in the “spiritual” life that the hardheaded atheist simply cannot have, while there are other such goods that are possible for the atheist to access but which are more easily available to the believer.

To make this case, I want to begin by identifying the cluster of disparate features typical of “the spiritual life.” I’ll then divide them into those that can be part of the secular humanist life and those that the secular humanist has to give up. Unless humanists accept the limitations of their worldview, they will never be intellectually honest and won’t be able to persuade people with false promises of what they have to offer.

Spirituality is a vague and imprecise term. It’s probably best seen as an umbrella concept covering a range of ideas about human beings and the universe that it is believed the purely materialist worldview cannot account for. In the material world, we have everything that can be captured and measured by empirical science, such as bodies, laws of nature, and wealth. The spiritual realm then gets everything we have reason to suppose exists in some way but which isn’t material in this simple sense, such as love, values, meaning, and beauty.

As an ontological category, spirituality is clearly unsatisfactory. Much of it is perhaps better described as “mental”–belonging to the category of things related to consciousness. The philosophical debate then becomes about whether something other than the operation of physical brains and bodies is required to account for this mental realm.

But to approach the subject in this way is already to move too far from the everyday sense of spirituality that leads people like the woman on the train to assert its importance. People who hold onto the spiritual do not generally do so because they are committed to a dualist metaphysics (though their thinking may indeed presuppose one). The material/spiritual distinction in everyday modern life is much simpler than this.

By material, people generally mean all those things that solely, or primarily, deal with the physical life and worldly possessions: food, drink, sex, money, personal appearance, houses, cars, jewelry, televisions. In some ways, this is a paradoxical list. On the one hand, it is clear that most people covet most of the things on it and doing so is not generally condemned. These things can be pursued or indulged in to excess or inappropriately, but, in themselves, they are legitimate goods. On the other hand, when one is presented with a list such as this, one can’t help but feel a moralistic shudder. A life characterized by the pursuit of these goods alone is the paradigm of empty, shallow, amoral hedonism.

This is indeed how most people view the limitations of the material life. Hardly any renounce it, but most feel it is inadequate. Hence, you get the comical absurdity of celebrities who enjoy the high life and then jet out to India to “relax and get spiritual,” as one fashion model recently put it. These “something mores” do not have much in common other than that they are not primarily associated with the material world. But not all are self-evidently premised on what secular humanists would see as the manifest falsity of belief in a “spiritual realm.” Even if you forget about gods, souls, and heaven, the possibility of “spiritual” goods such as meaning, value, and transcendence still remains.

Some items on the spiritual person’s shopping list are easily supplied by secular humanism. Easiest of all are two that people often find intuitively the most perplexing: how can there be meaning in life and moral values in a world without gods? Although I would not pretend that the answer is clearcut or beyond all debate, it is at least well-rehearsed and does not need repeating here. (My own version can be found in What’s It All About? Philosophy and the Meaning of Life, Oxford University Press, 2005.)

Secular humanism also has no problem retaining another spiritual desideratum, a sense of mystery. Indeed, it is arguable that humanism has a better grip on life’s mysteries than religion. For example, I’m genuinely in the dark about how the universe started, whereas plenty of religious believers have that hole in their understanding plugged by their deity.

Nor must atheists reject humility in favor of hubris and resort to the simple mantra that “Man is the measure of all things.” The universe is not the servant of our will and consciousness, just as the truth is not just what we say it is.

If meaning, value, mystery, and some measure beyond ourselves are features of the “spiritual” readily available to secular humanists, others are harder, though still possible, to fully embrace.

“Religious attitudes” is a slippery concept, one that perhaps makes the mistake of assuming that the attitudes in question are essentially religious in character. One of the most valuable of these is gratitude, and although that is something atheists can obviously feel, I think there are reasons for believing it comes more easily to those with a religious faith. (I commend Ronald Aronson’s essay on gratitude in The Philosophers’ Magazine, issue 24, 2006.)

Religious observance makes a sense of thankfulness natural in two ways. First, it ritualizes it. Grace before meals and daily prayers mean that the religious are in the constant habit of reminding themselves that they are fortunate (whether they are or not, one might add). While it is obviously true that atheists can intellectually understand the reasons to feel gratitude as easily as religious believers, the lack of rituals to make this remembrance habitual means it is harder to do, for purely psychological reasons. Some kind of secularized ritual—“Remind yourself every day of the good things you have and that the bad things will pass”—all seems rather artificial compared to the naturalness of prayer for the devout.

A spiritual outlook makes sense of gratitude in more easily digestible terms than a fully secular one. There is a recognition of our fragility, our dependence on others, and of the unseen, uncontrollable forces of fate or chance that limit our power to be masters of our own lives. These link with humility but in a more specific way: we are not just aware of our frailties, we are aware of them in comparison to things more powerful than us.

This is where religious believers also have a second advantage, in that there is someone to direct their gratitude toward. It’s much easier to say “Thank you” when there’s someone to say thank you to. While it is true that one can have a general sense of one’s good fortune, metaphorically thanking your lucky stars is no real substitute for thanking the creator who, by his divine benevolence, made it all possible.

Although feelings of gratitude are often mixed up with mistaken metaphysical views about higher powers and forces of destiny, at their core I think they are admirable and desirable. Atheists, too, can have them, but I think we should be honest and admit that they come more naturally to those whose false worldview makes a more natural home for them.

The same is even truer for a sense of transcendence, which has two general meanings. One is belief in some transcendent realm; the other is a subjective experience of “rising above” the present moment, going beyond the here and the now in some way. The first is a dry, theoretical kind of transcendence, which religious people may have whether or not they really feel anything. The second, in contrast, can be experienced whether or not one really believes, rationally, that what one is experiencing inheres in the immanent or transcendent realm.

Such subjective experiences of transcendence are available to everyone, regardless of belief. For nonbelievers, such experiences may be through artistic or natural beauty or even intense sexual or narcotic experiences. Believers may also induce similar states through religious practice, but there is increasing evidence that neurologically these are very similar to those states that others achieve without the metaphysical baggage.

Why would we think it is valuable to have such experiences of transcendence? Such “peak experiences” provide some of life’s most intense, vivid, and valuable moments. But it could also be argued that they can give us a veridical appreciation of things that genuinely do rise above the particular and the private. An intense aesthetic experience, for example, gives us an awareness both of real properties of a work of art or aspects of nature and of a kind of shared, intersubjective experience that others who appreciate the same thing may have.

However, again it has to be conceded that the religious have some advantages over unbelievers in this respect. First, a commitment to the real existence of a transcendent realm makes them more primed to have experiences of transcendence. Expectation has a strong impact on the frequency and intensity of any experience, and transcendent ones are no exception. Second, there is greater opportunity for such experiences, because there is a whole area of experience around religious practice that provides an opportunity for them that is barred from the atheist. I think this is one reason why so many atheists and agnostics still confess a real pleasure in being in old churches, especially during sung masses. Such people normally say they like the aesthetic aspect of many religious ceremonies, but that is possibly an understatement. The nonbeliever can sneak into such a mass and get some sense of transcendence from it, but how much more powerful must it be if you additionally believe that the holy spirit is at work?

I have, so far, presented an optimistic picture of how atheists can have almost all that people commonly associate with “spirituality,” albeit sometimes less vividly, but there are some aspects of spirituality that the godless life effectively gives up. The first is the special sense of belonging that a religious community fosters. Of course, nonbelievers can be members of all sorts of communities, but religious ones are somewhat special in this respect. You can see this by considering the difference between what could be called “elective” and “nonelective” communities. Although the distinction is not always clear, elective communities are those that you choose to join, while nonelective ones are those of which you can’t help but be a member. For example, for most people a political party is an elective community whereas a family is not.

We can also distinguish between the elective aspect of a community post- and pre-entry. For example, if someone is converted to Christianity, then he or she has clearly chosen to join a certain religion. But the way it feels for that person, once that choice has been made, is that there is no real choice at all. Serving Christ and praising him is optional in only the most technical of senses: being a believer is demanded of Christians.

Nonelective communities provide more of a sense of belonging than elective ones, because one’s membership is never probationary or temporary (or at least it feels that way). And it seems clear to me that after families, religious communities are the most powerful nonelective communities we have. Indeed, the Church often does feel like a second family, and it is no coincidence that Christians talk of God as the father and Christ as the groom with the Church his bride.

Nonreligious groups cannot replicate this. There are humanist groups, of course, but no one has the sense that being a humanist requires being a member of such a group—that to drop out would mean giving up on humanism. One reason for this is that our attachment to a group or belief system can be cognitive, emotional, or a combination of both. Although it would be too simplistic to say that secular humanists are rationalists while religious believers are not, it is nonetheless the case that the role of reason in the different camps tends to be quite different. Secular humanism foregrounds its rationality and prides itself on basing its views on reason and experience alone. This is its strength but also its weakness as a mass movement, since people do not feel the same level of attachment to beliefs they hold for mostly intellectual reasons.

Religion, in contrast, can be of a more or less intellectual variety, but even believers who argue in detail for the intellectual coherence of their views usually base their beliefs on something quite else, such as a direct sense of God’s reality. Theistic religion at least is about having the right relationship to your creator and is thus inherently about an emotional connection.

The second feature of a nonreligious life that cannot be replicated by secular humanists is a strong sense of a “higher aspiration.” In some ways, you might think this is obviously not true. Numerous atheists have devoted themselves to humanitarian causes, seeking social goals that many do not expect to be fully reached in their own lifetimes.

This may be the case, but there are still important differences. A sense of higher aspiration is something that every religious believer has automatically. As with belonging and community, it is not optional; it is mandatory. For the atheist, however, such undertakings are always a matter of choice. Worse than this, the intellectually honest nonbeliever will, I think, always feel some sense of the pointlessness of even the noblest endeavor in the grand scheme of things. The question “Why bother?” always threatens to return, no matter how abstract it might feel when confronted with the needs of a fellow human being.

However, the biggest clue that the religious have an advantage over the atheist in this regard comes from the clearest examples of where nonbelievers get most of the advantages of both community and a sense of higher purpose: devotion to a social cause. People who band together to fight some social injustice often do so in a quasi-religious way, in which commitment tends to become total, uncritical, and unconditional. In contrast, when people are motivated to help others by no more than sympathy and a rational sense of what is right, the strong sense of higher purpose felt by the religious and quasi-religious tends to be elusive.

A third and final possibility that religion offers that secular humanism does not is what I’d call “salvation from science.” This might seem an odd phrase, because secular humanists do not see science as something we need salvation from. But in this they are perhaps complacent. Just think of some of the ways of describing human beings that have emerged out of a scientific investigation of our natures: naked apes, meme machines, sophisticated robots, illusory selves. Science may undermine many of the things we hold dear about our selves, such as the belief that there is some inner core of being that comprises a unity of self; that we have free will in the generally understood sense of; that our thoughts and deliberations control our actions; that our most cherished beliefs are chosen.

Facing up to the truth about human nature is difficult and challenging. No wonder, then, that religion provides a comforting reassurance that we are singular, immortal selves endowed with free will and capable of being restored to our proper relationship with our creator. The realist message of humanism is flat by comparison: yes, we may be pretty dumb, mostly irrational, mortal mammals, but, hey, it’s not that bad really. I don’t think it’s surprising that many would rather be saved from what science has to reveal about us, and only religion can promise to do so.

I have argued that a naturalist understanding of the world does make room for much of what people seek when they look for the spiritual. But there are other things not directly tied up with false beliefs about immaterial realms that secular humanism struggles, and sometimes fails, to provide.

This does not mean secular humanism is a failure. Taken in toto, it offers a more satisfying, coherent way of viewing the world than any religious alternative. The point of acknowledging its limitations is to recognize that it is intellectually dishonest (or mistaken) to claim that there are not losses as well as gains in the humanist life. If you are religious, getting rid of your belief is not just a liberation from falsehood. You will miss some of the things that you leave behind, understandably so.

I’ve always thought of atheism as the most mature of worldviews, because it refuses false consolation. However, in practice, many secular humanists offer themselves the false consolation that there is nothing in religion that they are not better off without and that all the supposed benefits of a religious life are all direct consequences of false beliefs. That is not true, and we should not comfort ourselves with the mistaken conviction that it is.

Julian Baggini

Julian Baggini is the editor of Philosophers’ Magazine and the author of Atheism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2003).

“I don’t believe in God, but I’m a spiritual person.” These are the exact words I recently overheard a young woman say to a man with whom she was flirting on a train. I hear the same or similar words all the time. Like many secular humanists who have thought their worldview through, I often …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.