Rebuking the Foul Spirit

Tom Flynn

I welcome Andy Norman’s riposte. Still, after several close readings I cannot escape three conclusions:

  1. With all good intentions, he underestimates the scope of the problem.
  2. He inadvertently makes my point that spirit-talk is corrosive of naturalism.
  3. He underestimates how easy spiritual language is to avoid.

1. The Scope of the Problem

Norman argues that little damage is done when members of the general public hear seculars use spiritual language. “Occasionally, people understand such talk as designating a kind of ghostly metaphysical substance,” he writes, but “the fundamental role of spirituality-talk” is “to call attention to depths of attention that are presently inexpressible.” He seems confident that most members of our society will “get it” when sophisticates use spirit-talk metaphorically and that only a few will walk away thinking they just heard naturalists confess belief in ghosts.

Let’s put this thesis to the, um, highly scientific test of checking the first two dictionaries easily at hand—my trusty old hardcopy American Heritage and the ever-popular dictionary.com. Here’s how American Heritage defines the adjective spiritual:

1. Of, relating to, consisting of, or having the nature of spirit; not tangible or material. 2. Of, concerned with, or affecting the soul. 3. Of, from, or pertaining to God; deific. 4. Of or belonging to a church of religion; ecclesiastical; sacred. 5. Pertaining to or having the nature of spirits; supernatural.

Every item on this list has a supernatural referent! Norman’s intended meaning—the one he expects most people to understand when they hear seculars engage in spirit-talk—doesn’t appear at all.

Here’s dictionary.com on spiritual:

1. of, pertaining to, or consisting of spirit; incorporeal.
2. of or pertaining to the spirit or soul, as distinguished from the physical nature: a spiritual approach of life.
3. closely akin in interests, attitude, outlook, etc.: the professor’s spiritual heir in linguistics.
4. of or pertaining to spirits or spiritualists; supernatural or spiritualistic.
5. characterized by or suggesting predominance of the spirit; ethereal or delicately refined: She is more of a spiritual type than her rowdy brother.
6. of or pertaining to the spirit as the seat of the moral or religious nature.
7. of or pertaining to sacred things or matters; religious; devotional; sacred.
8. of or belonging to the church; ecclesiastical: lords spiritual and temporal.
9. of or relating to the mind or intellect.

While slightly friendlier to Norman’s position—items 3, 5 (arguably), and 9 don’t assert supernatural concepts—none comes close to the meaning Norman has in mind.

How lopsidedly these definitions skew in the direction of supernatural interpretation! Granted, two dictionaries is a modest sample—but if these are at all indicative of actual usage, they throw doubt on Norman’s contention that “The tendency to interpret such talk as denoting ghostlike entities is withering away.” I suspect he is optimistic to expect that spirit-talk will be misunderstood as mystical or religious only occasionally. More likely, when seculars use spiritual language, many nonsecular hearers or readers will conclude that they just caught a naturalist betraying a hypocritical commitment to the supernatural.

2. Spirit-Talk Is Inescapably Anti-Naturalistic

What purpose does spiritual language serve? Norman claims it “calls attention to a class of phenomena that have a strangely ineffable quality,” inhabiting what Doug Muder called “the gap between what you can experience and what you can describe.” For Norman, the objects of spirit-talk are things “[w]e experience . . . quite directly, and often very deeply—but language remains inadequate to them.”

Naturalists—indeed, all philosophical monists—should have huge problems with this, because their stance effectively precludes the existence of “ineffable” phenomena. On their view (and mine), nothing is inherently ineffable. Naturalism admits no necessary gap between what can be experienced and what can be described. All that occurs unfolds within the natural realm and is describable using natural language. That is not to say that you or I will always be able to compose an accurate description of any given experience. But that is not to say that my failure of description—or yours—places its object outside the realm of the natural.

When Norman divides natural things describable by language from “spiritual” things whose character language can limn but imperfectly, he implies that reality is not one. To follow this path is to cashier monism for dualism, naturalism for . . . well, for something that is not naturalism. If not exactly supernaturalism, Norman’s view encapsulates a corrosive supra-naturalism that, taken seriously, would undercut the naturalist enterprise.

However inadvertently, by this argument Norman himself confirms the potential of spiritual language to wreak “real damage” from the naturalistic point of view.

Whether it be “team spirit,” aesthetic rapture over a breathtaking sunset, or romantic love, I simply do not agree that so-called spiritual phenomena carry “depths of experience that are . . . inexpressible” or that “currently defy words” in any general way. Wonder and mystery are valuable goads to inquiry, but we gain nothing by apotheosizing them. Norman’s romantic view encodes assumptions profoundly at odds with naturalism, which most would rightly consider inseparable from an atheistic or humanistic worldview.

3. Spirit-Talk Is Easily Avoided

If the resort to spirit-language is harmful, it is also unnecessary. Norman says it does a job “that no other words in the English language are quite right for.” But spirit-talk is far from indispensable. In fact, it’s surprisingly easy to avoid—or replace.

Writing eighteen years ago, thesaurus in hand (“We Need Some Exorcise!,” Secular Humanist Bulletin, Fall 1994), I generated ninety-five synonyms to reach for in place of spirit, spiritual, and cognate terms. Avoiding spirit-language is easy enough that you can do it with a word list, I asserted; moreover, the modest effort required to jettison spiritual metaphors often enhances the vigor and clarity of our language. “95 Ways Not to Say Spirit” was reprinted eight years later in Free Inquiry (“When Words Won’t Die,” FI, Summer 2002). I still hear from people who keep a copy by their keyboard as an aid to composition. (It’s reprinted once more below).

95 Ways Not to Say Spirit

“Spirit” in the sense of life

  • animation
  • consciousness
  • dash
  • energy
  • esence
  • feeling
  • spark
  • vitality
  • vivactiy

“Spirit” in the sense of mood

  • attitude
  • disposition
  • feeling
  • frame of mind
  • humor
  • temper
  • tenor

“Spirit” in the sense of vigor

  • ardor
  • enthusiasm
  • gusto
  • liveliness
  • resolution
  • spunk
  • zeal

“Spirit” in the sense of courage

  • audacity
  • dauntlessness
  • determination
  • firmness
  • fortitude
  • grit
  • pluck
  • resolve
  • steadfastness
  • tenacity

“Spirit” in the sense of nature

  • character
  • drift (as in, “You get my drift”)
  • essence
  • gist
  • quintessence
  • substance

“Spirit” in the sense of intent

  • intention
  • meaning
  • purport
  • resolution
  • sense
  • significance
“Sprit” in the sense of the sublime

  • admirable
  • affecting
  • amazing
  • astonishing
  • attractive
  • charming
  • dazzling
  • elegant
  • elevated
  • enticing
  • excellent
  • exciting
  • exquisite
  • grand
  • harmonious
  • imposing
  • impressive
  • inspiring
  • lofty
  • magnificent
  • majestic
  • marvelous
  • matchless
  • moving
  • noble
  • outstanding
  • overwhelming
  • peerless
  • piquant
  • poignant
  • provoking
  • radiant
  • resplendent
  • seductive
  • sensual
  • sparkling
  • splendid
  • stately
  • stimulating
  • stirring
  • stupefying
  • superb
  • thrilling
  • touching
  • unsurpassed
  • venerable
  • virtuous
  • wonderful
  • wondrous

Language-puzzles that Norman views as signposts to the ineffable yield rapidly to the “95 Ways.” Want to know whether Mom is “in good spirits”? Ask if she is filled with enthusiasm, vivacity, fortitude, or grit. Marcus Aurelius celebrated the “untroubled spirit”; naturalists might better keep an untroubled mind or outlook. “Spirited people” are less equivocally described as ardent, energetic, or resolute. Moreover, these three words have subtly different meanings; rejecting spiritual metaphor empowers us to choose exactly the one that captures the connotation we intend.

To his credit, Norman provided examples of more nuanced spirit-talk that my list doesn’t fully address. Someday I must expand it to “125 Ways.” That should suffice to ensure that it will offer explicit alternatives to a word like inspiration or a concept like the spirit of the law.

Norman objects that when we criticize users of spirit-talk, we risk alienating potential allies. That’s a valid concern, but I think it is outweighed by the far-greater benefits we can seize when we model speaking, writing, and living wholly without “the spirit.” Apologists for religion insist humans can’t “make it through the night” without transcendence or the spiritual. There’s no more powerful counterargument than our demonstration-by-example that we lead loving, satisfying lives free from any hint of spirit or mysticism. Naturalists may be all over the Internet, but most Americans still think they’ve never met one. We still need plenty more people living “dis-spiritedly,” and doing it with such clarity that anyone can see that’s what they’re doing.

Andy, step away from your metaphors. Row back to my cooler, less presumptuous shore! What struck you as “dis-spiriting” was simply the determination to engage with reality as it is, not as we might wish it to be.

As I wrote in 2002, “Let us call courage courage, call vigor vigor, and call the sublime sublime. But let us dig a grave for spirit . . . bury it, and make an end.”

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).


I welcome Andy Norman’s riposte. Still, after several close readings I cannot escape three conclusions: With all good intentions, he underestimates the scope of the problem. He inadvertently makes my point that spirit-talk is corrosive of naturalism. He underestimates how easy spiritual language is to avoid. 1. The Scope of the Problem Norman argues that …

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