Spirituality and “skeptuality”

Is “rational” spirituality a contradiction in terms? In the latest episode of the Rationally Speaking podcast, Massimo and I try to pin down what people mean when they call themselves “spiritual,” what inspires spiritual experiences and attitudes, and whether spirituality can be compatible with a naturalist view of the world.

Are there benefits that skeptics and other secular people could possibly get from incorporating some variants on traditional spiritual practices — like prayer, ritual, song, communal worship, and so on — into their own lives?

We xamine a variety of attempts to do so, and ask: how well have such attempts worked, and do they come with any potential pitfalls for our rationality?


12 Responses to Spirituality and “skeptuality”

  1. brianpansky says:

    I’d like to check this out. To me, the word ‘spirituality’ meant incorporating awareness into the process of growth. Awareness of one’s own mind, discovery of the world/universe. It can be almost anything about growth, meaning, or value (and I suppose some may say ritual can go here with many variations, which may include the traditional spiritual practices you mention such as prayer and communal worship which to me sound like they have a supernatural target).

    These days I keep thinking that the word ‘spirituality’ is too ambiguous given the possibility that it is supposed to include a spirit/soul. Also I much prefer describing this stuff in more specific terms like I tried to above.

  2. Barry says:

    Very interesting — I think this was one of my favorite podcasts. I’ve been interested in this question for a while, and found Daniel Dennett’s take on it to be pretty valuable: “[L]et your self go. If you can approach the world’s complexities, both its glories and its horrors, with an attitude of humble curiosity, acknowledging that however deeply you have seen, you have only scratched the surface, you will find worlds within worlds, beauties you could not heretofore imagine, and your own mundane preoccupations will shrink to proper size, not all that important in the greater scheme of things. Keeping that awestruck vision of the world ready to hand while dealing with the demands of daily living is no easy exercise, but it is definitely worth the effort, for if you can stay centered, and engaged, you will find the hard choices easier, the right words will come to you when you need them, and you will be a better person. That, I propose, is the secret to spirituality, and it has nothing at all to do with believing in an immortal soul, or in anything supernatural.”
    I also liked “The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality” by Andre’ Comte-Sponville. Did you or Massimo run into in when you were doing your background reading?
    Finally, I was a little sorry that Ethical Culture (along with other non-theistic religions) got such short shrift in the podcast. It seems to me to be very creditable attempt to capture the valuable aspects of what many would call spirituality without asking the participants to subscribe to “immaterial consciousness” or other supernatural beliefs.

  3. David Schreier says:

    Very nice survey. I was hesitant about listening to this one because I felt there would be a full frontal assault on spirituality or at least aspects of it that skeptics find repellant, but that didn’t happen. One of them is of course the idea of a person having two-way communication with a non-human supernatural entity. While you may still hold brain malfunction to be the primary driver behind a person’s experiences, I sensed less dismissiveness in this podcast vs earlier ones. Maybe proprioception failure opening up other doorways in the brain is similar to the higher mileage that a blind person often gets out of the undamaged senses.

    I would comment that the discussion about ‘spirits’ wholly within the head or without simply begs the question of physical space as reality or something that is sensed. In other words, it might not be very useful to worry about the geographic source of the spirits. Much more interesting to try to understand the hallucinations that do not map to anything previously experienced in everyday life.

    More generally, a discussion about spirituality or any other way you choose to cast the mysterious unknown could easily be flipped into a discussion about objective reality. So if we were to agree that the spiritual experience is simply a substitution of one set of stuff that informs our consciousness for another set – then is the area of disagreement the relative validity of one set over another?

    It leads us back to the allegory of the cave, or my favorite – 5 people sitting around a table at a diner discussing the table’s existence. In today’s version, not one but two people have supposedly taken leave of their senses and are firm in their belief that they are sitting around a large cardboard box. All 5 of them have the same internal pictures of cartons and tables. Because every scientific experiment performed (with scissors and large heavy objects) by the 3 to prove its a table gets invalidated by the 2’s inability to square their perceptions with others’ evidence, and because the two can talk to each other and validate their common belief, one is hard-pressed in that small community to prove the cartons unreal.

    I have been flailing with both the writings of the very spiritual David Bohm and his belief in an objective reality, even though the reality he conjures is probably more fantastical and unknowable than common and widely held beliefs in the nature of things. But we do agree that stuff we imagine is fundamentally no different than the stuff that constitutes the above table or carton. I’m not sure he comes right out and says it, but it seems that following his reasoning you could make a case for all knowledge of the universe being contained in every last part of it. Imagine that, getting to visit the Grand Canyon by staring at lint the right way. Einstein thought of Bohm as a worthy successor, although I suspect this was mostly because Einstein needed another causally oriented ‘realist’ in his camp. But to many hard-nosed skeptic Shermer-variety rationalists, Bohm’s ideas represent woo.

    Back so the podcast, what was so good about it was the positive tone. Maybe religious people dislike the thought of their rituals being co-opted with a new ‘museum of the soul’ down the block. Tough. Dialing down discomfort with spirituality into discomfort with language so as to turn your ‘sacred’ into my ‘cool’ – that’s the way to go.

  4. For me, the whole idea of someone being a skeptic always seems to be a fallacy. Instead, I wonder if a skeptic is someone who is genuinely into taking action to find out the truth. Not one who simply sits back and proclaim they are a skeptic and never adventure into any real inquiry.

    To venture into discovering the true meaning of being spiritual, takes clarity. There has to be the clarity to see beyond the physical and the psychical. Truth transcends all things and so, spirituality is the discovery of that reality for oneself.

  5. This is a question that truly show the dicotomy of Spirituality. Is it similiar to the question can you be spiritual and rich. There will be doubters, however it is our responsiblity not to argue or convince them but to attract the believers. This is the premise of this post that I have been sharing with spiritual communities today.
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  6. Ian Pollock says:

    The podcast was very good. I have to confess that I am pretty much spiritually dead, or at least that’s the way it seems to me. I spent several years of my youth as a “seeker,” but never found anything worthwhile, either in spiritual belief or practice.

    • adonisalexander says:

      Rationality is a factor of the mind. Spirituality transcends the mind. The awakening of Spiritual understanding is beyond the mind and its logical reasoning, conceptualizations and assertions of thoughts.

      The mind as thought has created the idea of praying, rituals, chanting and all meditation techniques. But, spiritual meditation is beyond the mind which comes when you start inquiring into understanding yourself. One may exercise ones capacity to reason but that will not reach the divine. You cannot reach the divine intelligence through thought. This intelligence may come to you but you cannot go to it.

      Spiritual awakening comes when you empty yourself of mind and go beyond reasoning. Then, that love, that glorious beauty blossoms within you.

  7. adonisalexander says:

    All such things as praying, rituals, and meditation techniques are a thing of the mind. There is no spiritual awakening in rational thinking. Spirituality transcends the mind. Through reasoning, man cannot reach the sacred essence. Only through the death of ones ego will you come to understanding yourself. To seek the truth through the mind is futile. The mind being limited cannot reach that which is limitless. The moment you see the falseness of the ego, it comes to an end. Then, out of grace, that which is beyond the mind and its reasoning may awaken within you.

  8. David Schreier says:

    Re belief, you would need a reason for it. While I believe in “all possible gods, extremely limited entities such as they are”, its only there because I sensed stuff that happened that I cannot explain any other way. But I really don’t have a bond to any of these except a single reverse-image personal entity with a linkage defined by mutual creation. Neither a pure atheist or a pure everyday believer would understand this (fortunately none exist), but that is only because they hold either the human entity or the godly entity as superior to the other, and tend not to jump outside both human consciousness/existence/whatever-you-call-it and also jump outside of the idea that the Other must be ‘holier’ or better by virtue of its mysteriousness. Its all just simple information being mapped, or better, bonded in the funny way it does this, no different than a discarded candy bar wrapper attaching itself to a dollar bill on the pavement.

    Re practice, well there you would probably do as others do, those with who you have a common interest, no different than being a Stampeders fan who share a love of 110 (!?!) yard game and view the more reasonable 100 yard American version with disdain.

    And on that note I pray that Tim Tebow selects a fine house in our fine town as he prepares to become a short term member of the New York community, but as is usually the case around these parts, he does it in New Jersey. While the local real estate agents are silent, if he indeed moves here as some say he might, my property value increases, and all will be well in my semi-compatibilist solipsistic world.

  9. Why do you consider a “spiritual worldview” (as opposed to a strictly materialistic worldview) to be irrational?

  10. David Schreier says:

    Rereading this entry, and some clarifications and follow-ups….. re the ‘defined by mutual creation’ bit. That is akin to a programmer writing some code, and continually tweaking it as the program’s results change the coder’s requirement. Both entities ‘communicate’ with each other in this manner and create elements of the other’s ‘essence’, that is to say that the coder’s new requirements become part of the coder.

    re the story of Mr Tebow, a few days later I excitedly brought my local paper to work with the Tebow rumors on the front page. A co-worker reviewed the story. Two weeks later he tells me Tebow moved to a block away from HIS home, (which is also a block away from Eli Manning’s). Boy did I feel like a jerk.

    re the spillover of the Krauss / Albert / science / philosophy / theology wars into the intellectual mass media enthusiatically fanned by the NY Times new editorial leadership (I like what they are doing but not sure about their methods) Well every side makes good points, while they use words like ‘moronic’ to describe the adversaries. I hope that the hurt these people are inflicting on each other translates somehow into progress on any front, be it science, philosophy, or theology.

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