What the hell does “spiritual” mean anyway?!?

By Steven Olsen, co-founder of Carl Sagan’s Dance Party

“I am spiritual, but not religious” is a phrase used quite frequently, to the point of cliché. When I hear it my gut reaction is that this person will be nicer than your standard fundamentalist Christian, but I tend to put less stock in their perception of reality.

The reason why is because spiritual is poorly defined–perhaps intentionally. This allows it to be a catch-all term for new agey metaphysics, belief in “only the new testament,” a fuzzy deification of the universe, The Secret, various forms of neopaganism, and a way to strike a sense of balance between the dogmas of Christianity and the horrible void of a materialist existence. It always amused me to see this on dating websites as it seemed to imply that the poster merely wanted to be appealing to the widest possible demographic sphere.
So let’s try to find out what “spiritual” even means. From Merriam Webster’s:

1. of, relating to, consisting of, or affecting the spirit, 2. a : of or relating to sacred matters b : ecclesiastical rather than lay or temporal 3. concerned with religious values, 4. related or joined in spirit, 5. of or relating to supernatural beings or phenomena.

Definitions 2 and 3 seem hardly distinguishable from “religious.”  1, 4 and 5 seem to fit the Spiritual But Not Religious crowd a bit more.  However, it’s far too broad to be of any use.  Aside from the original usage of spirit to mean “breath” it doesn’t really describe anything that we can demonstrate as being real.  We can play dictionary tag all day and still not get a clear definition of what spiritual is supposed to mean.  

In the early 2000s, I thought that while there wasn’t a god, there probably was something to spirituality. This problem of definition was apparent even then, but I thought I could come up with a better definition. After careful thought, I decided that the definition for spiritual should be “A feeling of awe connected to something larger than oneself.” There aren’t any gods or demons, but I certainly felt…compelled when I saw pictures from the Hubble Telescope, or contemplated the full scale of evolution or my place in the universe. These thoughts humbled me and filled me with emotion. If anything was “spiritual,” it had to be science. Looking back however, I see I was mistaken. My definition of spirituality was just as meaningless as Sylvia Browne’s. A word doesn’t really have meaning unless a plurality of people agrees on the definition. I could say that “chair” means “a large species of monitor lizard which resides on the Komodo Island near Indonesia.” But if I do that, I shouldn’t then expect people to know what I mean when I describe being terrified of being eaten by chairs.

Just as the religious are obligated to provide evidence of the supernatural, the spiritual are obligated to define their term better. So if you absolutely must use this term, define it before jumping in with the assumption that people know what you are talking about, then provide the evidence for it.

Unlike my unique definition of chair, spirituality is given a great deal of weight in the United States.  I’ve had Christians admonish me and my atheist peers because while we have read the Bible, we don’t read it “spiritually.”  When I then ask for a definition of spiritual, I am told that I must read the book with faith.  So the only conclusion I can arrive at is that we have to read our ancient holy books as though we already believe them, or we’re doing it wrong. I’ve not yet met a Christian interested in reading the Bhagavad Gita spiritually using that definition.

Why does all this matter?  Shouldn’t I let people with poor language and reality testing live their lives in peace?  Unfortunately, all desire to be live and let live must be set aside for now as Christians have forced the issue into public life.  American soldiers are now being forced to undertake Spiritual Fitness testing, and mandatory remedial spiritual training. Since this is such a poorly defined word, you can rest assured that foxhole atheists are getting this message: “You are unfit as a soldier.” Here is Rock Beyond Belief’s founder, Justin Griffith’s results from the unconstitutional mandatory spiritual testing.  Using the broadest definition, lets see what happens if we replace every instance of ‘spiritual’ or ‘spirituality’ with “dedicated to the that which can’t be properly demonstrated” and see if it makes more or less sense.



Earlier I intimated that some of the ambiguity on the definition might be intentional.  Based on my experience in churches and the Army’s spiritual fitness fiasco, I have come to be convinced that the non-dogmatic, hippie new agers defined spirituality as this vague and fuzzy kind of dedication to the unreal and this redefinition has since been worked to the advantage of fundamentalist Christianity.  The Establishment Clause of the Constitution constantly is in the way of Christians in America using the government to indoctrinate, and this is just another way of trying to sneak religion in through the back door.  Just like “intelligent design.”  When you can’t win on merit, just wear a disguise.

In conclusion, all we can really determine about the term “spiritual” is that it either means the same thing as religion, or it is defined as what it is not–dogmatic, mean religion.  So it either means one thing or something on the exact opposite end of the spectrum of the nonexistent.   Who knows, maybe they just don’t like the baggage that comes with the word “Christian.” It means something different to everyone who uses the term, so if someone insists on using it then have them to define it.  Hold their feet to the fire and you’ll soon learn that either spiritual is indistinguishable from religious or it is even more meaningless than religion. And something more vapid than religion is quite hard to imagine.

  • http://serenadante.xanga.com Serena Dante

    It really just depends on how you use the word. I’m atheist, but sometimes I refer to myself as spiritual. The reason for that is because I do believe in non-material (and yet non-religious) things like love, for example. Call me a hopeless romantic, but I do think that love has more-than-earthly qualities, which is why I would consider it to be a “spiritual” thing. There might be better words for describing it, certainly, but “spiritual” can also be used, and it doesn’t have to have any sort of religious connotation.

  • http://carlsagansdanceparty.wordpress.com Steven Olsen

    @Serena: If you are defining "spiritual" as "love" then I would have to agree that it exists. But love is pretty well understood as a a chemical cocktail in the brain. That doesn't really take away from the meaning we derive from it though. I haven't seen anything to suggest there is a supernatural component to it.

  • Adam

    @ Serena: But why use the word “spirit”? It implies there is some supernatural force that we can’t see or define… or prove – just like “god”. Sounds to me like you are a Secular Humanist… or Naturalist. Appreciating humanity and the natural world around you has nothing to do with “spirits”. I like the way you think, just be careful with the words you use. Words have meaning. You don’t believe in god because there is no proof for him… or spirits.

  • colluvial

    @Serena: There are a vast number of mental states that one could label as spiritual. If love is spiritual, what about other mental states such as sadness, enthusiasm, or even the perception of colors? If love is spiritual, why not red? I think what confuses the issue is considering a particular mental state as being a thing in its own right, rather than a suite of emotions and feelings that’s played out by a human brain and body.

    To view any emotion as other-worldly would seem to require that you view your mind and body as a conduit for the supernatural. This doesn’t seem too far removed from religion.

  • aashish

    Hi Adam,

    I like your post. I have always had serious issues with the word "spiritual". Reading your post makes me feel that I am not alone after all…

    I have tried to ask for the meaning of the word when I found myself very confused about it. People gave VERY fuzzy definitions of it, and when I tried to narrow it down to some specifics, they got quite flustered and I have seen responses ranging from "you will never understand…you are not willing to understand" to "you may define it as whatever you feel like; I have my own definition". There were NO real "definitions", believe me, and if I was free to make my own definition, what was the whole point in having a word that everyone seems to have "heard of" and even claim to have "some idea" about? SIGH!! (rolling eyes)

    However, while I find myself having just plain frustration about its real meaning, I think that your "frustration" with it seems a bit more objective than mine. You seem to be genuinely interested in finding what it means, and your 'prejudice' (if any) is much less intense than mine. :-)

    Oh… and I LOVE the title "I'm Spiritual, Not Coherent"! :-D



    (Bangalore, India)

  • http://www.atheismresource.com/2011/hell-spiritual-anyway chrissy84

    Well written article.
    I do think, that whenever we use a word, we define that word ourselves. And you are right, that what definitions we choose to define our words by… must be held in consistency with the universal understanding of that word, between people. or common understanding.
    The issue with saying "spirituality" is constrained to a certain context, is that it is so heavily used among many different people, with different beliefs, that it is difficult to say for sure what is commonly understood. But, i would personally say, that it is understood to be referred to a connection to the spirit. To say one is spiritual, i think it means that they are interested, and engaged with a spirit. Is this their own spirit? or another being/spirit? It is truly up to context.
    But since, in Christianity, the 3rd person of the Trinity, is the Holy Spirit, it is often used in context with that Spirit.
    Otherwise, people wouldn't tend to feel the need to define themselves when they used the word. People would just know what they meant. But since people are now using the word "spiritual" to not refer to engaging with the Holy Spirit, but instead to just be in tune with their inner self, or whatever it is personally to them… they feel the need to separate that, when the word itself, was in direct context to one's religious beliefs, and more precisely in relation to the "Holy Spirit" of Christianity.