Spirited Naturalism: A Heretical Manifesto

Andy Norman

In a spirited polemic against “spirit”-talk (“Excrement Eventuates,” FI, February/March 2012), Tom Flynn invites us to join him on what he calls the “welcoming shores” of a “wholly dis-‘spirited’ naturalism”—a place where the natives reject all “spiritual security blankets” and sternly contemplate the fact that everything in life is all just “shit happening.”

Sorry, Tom. I spent decades on your “welcoming shores” and I found them, well, dispiriting. I write from the sunny, thoroughly naturalistic beach on the other side. We don’t mess with cheap metaphysical comforts here either, but our world appears quite different. The difference is hard to capture in words, but you, my friend, have quite inadvertently shown us the way. Here in the land of spirited naturalism, it ain’t just shit happening; it is—if you’ll pardon the expression—some happenin’ shit! And you too, without delusion of any kind, can experience this gestalt switch. The trick is to approach things in the right spirit.

No, I will not subject you to a woolly-headed defense of spiritualism. I have in mind a position akin to Alain de Botton’s “Atheism 2.0,” admirably expressed in his TED talk by that name. In advocating for this stance, I risk being branded an apostate, I know, but I do it to aid the church of reason. Just hold off on the excommunication proceedings until you hear me out.

First, some common ground: Yes, spirit-talk is sometimes used by folks deluded enough to think that disembodied spirits exist. Occasionally, people understand such talk as designating a kind of ghostly metaphysical substance or sense of cosmic meaning. You want an outlook purged of such nonsense. Amen to that, brother. It’s high time we outgrew our childish attachment to imaginary agents and spiritual substances. Ectoplasm must go.

Second, I’ll stipulate that a lot of spirituality-talk is mushy and maddeningly vague. Too often, it provides cover for flaky New-Age nonsense. Count me an opponent of “woo-woo,” too.

Third, you’re right that such talk is sometimes interpreted as referencing supernatural entities, even when the intent is perfectly naturalistic. I’ll even concede the basic premise of your argument: every time a thoroughgoing naturalist uses spirit-talk, we bypass an opportunity to “demonstrate . . . that a wholly dis-‘spirited’ naturalism lies within the scope of human possibility.”

You conclude that spirit-talk “does real damage” and that it ought, for that reason, to be abandoned. I’m not convinced that the harm caused is very great, but in any case, your conclusion doesn’t follow. For a consequentialist, assessment must look at benefits as well as costs.

And spirit-talk has real benefits. We spirited naturalists think it’s OK to describe someone as being “in high spirits.” Not only is such talk permissible, it’s useful. The difference between being “in high spirits” and being “dispirited” is very real. If a family member is struggling with a protracted illness, you can gather every objective fact worth knowing, and it will still be important to find out whether he or she is “in good spirits.” No other words in the English language are quite right for the job. (Compare with “How’s your mood, Mom?”)

We spirited naturalists know that “team spirit” can be the difference between winning and losing. It’s hard to say exactly what team spirit is, but we know it when we see it or feel it—we’ve experienced its effects, and they can be profound. “Spirited” people tend to raise the spirits of those around them, and “dispirited” people tend to depress them. These are facts. Moreover, “inspiration” is a real phenomenon. When we seek it, we are not seeking nothing; when we find it, we have found something important.

Spirited naturalists also recognize a difference between “the letter” and “the spirit” (of, for example, the law). When an unthinking bureaucrat attends only to the language of a wise regulation, showing none of the practical wisdom needed to channel its “spirit,” we are rightly incensed. When someone plays within the rules but is untouched by the “spirit of fair play,” we don’t want to play with them anymore. Agreements not backed by “a spirit of cooperation” (or dare I say it, “good faith”) tend to unravel, as do relationships not backed by “a spirit of goodwill.” Good partners are attuned to these differences, and as Thomas Hobbes pointed out, only a fool ignores them. (Hobbes, whose naturalism was as thoroughgoing as it comes, was perfectly clear on the importance of such talk; see Leviathan, Chapter XV.)

Marcus Aurelius—no one’s woo-woo supernaturalist—distilled an extraordinary trove of wisdom to this: “The first rule is to keep an untroubled spirit; the second is to look things in the face and know them for what they are.” The second imperative expresses the same stern naturalism that Flynn champions. The first is a gem: insightful, succinct, genuinely useful for promoting wisdom, and—to my ear at least—perfectly expressed. There is also wisdom in Aurelius’s ordering of these principles, for a troubled spirit invariably distorts one’s perception of reality.

But perhaps I am being unfair. After all, Flynn had in mind a particular class of spirit talk—variations on “I’m not religious, but I am spiritual.” I don’t speak this way myself, but many in our movement—true kindred spirits—do. Does this do “real damage” to our cause? I doubt it. The tendency to interpret such talk as denoting ghostlike entities is withering away. (Nouns, of course, needn’t denote substantial entities to play a legitimate role in linguistic practice—if this were a requirement, secularism, time, and reason would be equally impermissible.) Moreover, awareness that thoroughgoing naturalism is a real possibility is now nearly universal. Resolute exemplars abound—they’re all over the Internet—and the value of adding one more is marginal.

The refrain “I’m not religious, but I am spiritual” is quite common, though, among those in the process of moving away from traditional religion. I’ve talked to many people in this category, and their intent is usually naturalistic. To interpret such pronouncements in nonnaturalistic terms, under such conditions, is at best uncharitable. (And if uncharitable interpretation does not violate the letter of the reasoning game, it certainly violates its spirit!)

If you ask a “spiritual person” what he or she means by “spiritual,” of course, he or she will often struggle to explain. What are thoroughgoing naturalists to do in such cases? We can fault them for vagueness or dismiss them as flaky. We can condemn them for aiding and abetting the enemy. But such responses just drive budding naturalists back into the clutches of dogmatic religion. “To heck with these atheists,” they’re likely to think. “At least the folks at church make an effort to understand me.” These people are natural allies. We need them. And they’re struggling to express something important to them. To make our shores truly welcoming, we need to listen to them. Really listen.

I’ve really listened to these folks, and it turns out they have much to teach us. They just need help articulating it. Fortunately, thinkers like Doug Muder and Jonathan Haidt have done the heavy lifting for us. Chapter 9 of Haidt’s fascinating book The Happiness Hypothesis (Basic Books, 2006) likens a world without spiritual depth to a “flatland” and argues that there is a “dimension” of experience that we seculars are prone to miss. Or consider Muder’s proposal in his excellent “Before Words” (UUWorld, Summer 2011): that we think of spirituality as “. . . an awareness of the gap between what you can experience and what you can describe.”

I find this definition remarkably insightful. Like all good definitions, it is sensitively tuned to its concept’s intent and functioning. As a rule, spirit-talk calls attention to a class of phenomena that share a strangely ineffable quality: inspiration, team spirit, a playful spirit, a spirit of camaraderie, a spirited performance, a spirit of goodwill, the feeling of being in high spirits. We experience these things quite directly and often very deeply—but language remains inadequate to describe them. Spirit-talk functions, in part, to express this very fact.

No doubt the neurological basis of the underlying brain states will someday be well understood. Of course it’s all just matter and energy—at one level of description. That’s not the issue. The point is that, despite the human animal’s extraordinary capacity to share intentionality through gestures and symbols (the latest theories of human cognition give intentionality-sharing a central role in the evolution and character of the human mind), certain experiences stubbornly resist linguistic expression. Words fail us. Wordsmiths, poets, filmmakers, and musicians constantly push the boundaries, but somehow, experiential depth keeps receding, like the horizon. This is fortunate, for insight, inspiration, and wonder all spring from these very depths. People who are “spiritual but not religious” like to gaze into these depths and savor what they find there. When they engage in spirituality-talk, they invite us to peer into these depths with them.

That is the fundamental role of spirituality-talk: to call attention to depths of experience that are presently inexpressible. Of course words can perform this task only clumsily. Still, spirituality-talk merits toleration. It calls us to cultivate attentiveness and attend carefully to aspects of experience that currently defy words. Such attentiveness generates much of the insight, wonder, and inspiration that fuels science. And that is something we naturalists should embrace, if only because it stretches the boundaries of what is expressly understood.

Andy Norman

Andy Norman is professor of philosophy at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and director of CMU’s Humanist Initiative. He is working on a book titled Unhinged: Faith, Ideology, and the Ethics of Belief, Boosting Mental Immune Response in the Ideological Animal.


In a spirited polemic against “spirit”-talk (“Excrement Eventuates,” FI, February/March 2012), Tom Flynn invites us to join him on what he calls the “welcoming shores” of a “wholly dis-‘spirited’ naturalism”—a place where the natives reject all “spiritual security blankets” and sternly contemplate the fact that everything in life is all just “shit happening.” Sorry, Tom. …

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