The Spiritual, A Secular Understanding

Many atheists recoil from attempts to connect their experiences and outlooks to words that they think are connected to supernaturalism. It is common, for example, for atheists to hear that atheism is as much faith-based as religion, or even that atheism is itself a religion. As an aside, I disagree with both of those assertions, and have already discussed some aspects of this in other essays (Faith vs. Belief, Atheism vs. Agnosticism), and plan to discuss such issues further in future essays (now published: Living a Faith-Free Life). Conversely, atheists are often criticized for lacking an appreciation for the wondrous, the sacred, the spiritual. The first set of ideas stem from a deeply-felt idea that there is something fundamental about faith, religious belief, or the spiritual that influences or motivates everyone universally, even if it isn’t directly acknowledged. The second set of ideas stem from an opposite contention, that lacking a direct acknowledgement of the divine, atheists are fundamentally blind to important aspects of the human experience. On the surface, these two sets of assertions about atheism appear mutually contradictory, so it is particularly amusing, or frustrating, for an atheist to hear both types of assertion from the same person. But while it might be fascinating to delve deeper into this apparent contradiction to see if these views are reconcilable, that’s a topic for a future essay. In the present essay I instead want to tackle the problem from the other end, by describing a secular understanding of the spiritual.

For this discussion I want to make very clear that I am speaking for myself only. I am not trying to broadly represent atheists, for that would be a nearly impossible task. Consider how many different views on art there are among people who don’t believe in Santa Clause; similarly, views on spirituality among people who don’t believe in God are wide-ranging. So instead I will be discussing my own personal views only. There may be a lot of atheists that will agree with some of my viewpoints, but probably none that agree with all of them. What I am trying to provide is merely an example of how an atheist can approach these issues.

The hallmarks of spirituality

I don’t think there is any question that what people perceive to be spiritual experiences have produced some of the most incredible art the world has ever seen. Mozart’s Requiem Mass is nothing short of spectacular. The Michelangelo painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling is exceptional. The architecture of La Sagrada Familia by Antonio Gaudi is stunning. The bible itself, from a literary standpoint, is a fascinating, complicated, and insightful window into the minds and lives of a past age. Although some atheists attempt to argue that nothing good has ever come from religion, I personally feel that in many areas, and perhaps most dramatically in art, the inspiration and passion resulting from spiritual experience has driven the creation of many of the most brilliant works mankind has produced. This is not an argument in favor of the reality of the supernatural things the spiritual experiences are attributed to any more than the artwork of painters and musicians on hallucinogenic drugs are an argument for the reality of the experiences they perceived while high. But it is an argument for the creative power of such experiences.

To me, the central effects of spiritual experiences are feelings of awe, wonder, reverence, even dread, and an appreciation for aspects of the world that go beyond individual experience, in some cases leading to a feeling of oneness or harmony with the larger world, in other cases leading to a feeling of distress at the largeness of the universe and/or the smallness of the individual. Linguistically, we can wonder whether it is these effects and feelings that are the hallmarks of a spiritual experience, or whether the label should be applied based on the source of those feelings. Many atheists dislike the term “spiritual” because of perceived necessary supernaturalistic origins of the phenomenon. I, on the other hand, view the word as referring to the human spirit, a concept that can be understood either in supernatural terms as the soul, or in purely secular terms as a psychological phenomenon. I am not alone in this interpretation.

Carl Sagan, who described himself as an agnostic, used the term “numinous” to describe spirituality. In his work of fiction, Contact, the main character and her significant other discussed this directly: “It’s a lazy Saturday afternoon, and there’s this couple lying naked in bed reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica to each other, and arguing about whether the Andromeda Galaxy is more ‘numinous’ than the Resurrection. Do they know how to have a good time or don’t they?” While it’s probably not helpful to view the issue as a competition between the religious vision of the spiritual and the secular vision, I do think that many religious people have a very hard time understanding how, without God, anything could seem numinous. Honestly, many atheists have a similar problem, being unable to understand how anything with God could seem numinous, and that position is unquestionably baffling to the religious. So, solely to try to help with understanding, and emphatically not to start a, “my spirituality is more authentic than yours,” competition, I am going to pick a few examples where I see the numinous and try to explain my viewpoint on them.

Our place in the solar system

The universe is enormous. Ok, stop laughing at the obviousness of that statement, at least long enough for me to get across just how huge it is. A person’s average walking speed is about 3 miles per hour. The Earth is roughly 25,000 miles in circumference, so if we didn’t have to worry about oceans, stopping to eat, sleep, or take bathroom breaks, it would take someone approximately a year to walk around the Earth (I am picking walking as a unit of measure because in biblical times walking was a major mode of transportation, and thus considering how far someone could walk is a good way to get an idea of how small their “universe” was). As of today, only a few people have left the planet, and the furthest any of them were able to get was the moon, which is approximately 240,000 miles from the Earth. If that same person were somehow to walk to the moon in a straight line, they would have to walk for over nine years nonstop.

Figure 1: Earth, the pale blue dot, as seen by Voyager 1.

Figure 1: Earth, the pale blue dot, as seen by Voyager 1.

How about the distance to the sun from the earth? This distance is known in astronomy as one “astronomical unit,” and is 92,955,807 miles. Walking that far nonstop would take over 3.5 thousand years. That is over half the life of the universe, according to Young Earth Creationists. Voyager 1, the Earth spacecraft that has traveled farther than any other, is over 127 of these astronomical units away from the Earth, and has passed outside the solar system. Just our one solar system is already unimaginably huge in comparison to our terrestrial experience. In 1990, when Voyager was a mere 40 astronomical units away, the spacecraft turned around and took a photograph of Earth. By that point, our home was significantly less than a single pixel in the camera. Carl Sagan reflected on this photograph in one of the most moving statements about our place in the universe that I have ever heard:

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

I desperately wish I had the eloquence of Carl Sagan.

Humanity is simultaneously tiny and special within the solar system. Big as the Earth is to us, it is barely mentionable on the scale of the solar system. We are as small on the Earth as bacteria are on our skin. And the Earth is as small in the solar system as we are on the Earth. And in the other dimension, time, humanity’s place in the solar system is similarly miniscule. The solar system is estimated to be 4.5 billion years old, but anatomically modern Homo sapiens developed only about 200,000 years ago. If we compressed the age of the solar system into a year, then anatomically modern humans would only have been around for the last 23 minutes of that year. We are unimaginably small in both space and time. There is no way, in my opinion, to contemplate the solar system and feel anything short of awe.

But we have something that is unique in the solar system. We alone are creatures that have reached beyond our own world, even past the edge of the solar system. We alone pass ideas down from generation to generation, allowing an idea to live far beyond our own paltry few decades. Only humans, as far as we can tell, attribute meaning to the world around us (this also is the subject of a separate future essay). Only we can interpret. Only we can appreciate beauty. Only we can hope. If these realizations aren’t spiritual, I don’t know what is.

Our place in the universe

So far, I have only explained our place in our solar system. The observable universe, however, extends far beyond just the solar system. Start by contemplating just how small you felt reading the Sagan quote above. Then consider that our sun is only one of 300 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy. And then consider that there are between 100 billion and 200 billion galaxies in the observable universe. That means that there are between 30 and 60 sextillion stars in the universe, if our galaxy is typical.

Numbers that large are quite difficult to grasp, so comparisons are important. We can roughly estimate that there are 7.5 quintillion grains of sand in all of the beaches and deserts on Earth. So we would need around four thousand earths to have enough sand for each grain to represent the number of stars in the universe.

However, it was estimated in 2013 that there were at least 100 to 200 billion planets in our galaxy. That’s a lower limit… if you’re willing to make some more reasonable estimates, there could be orders of magnitude more. How many of those could conceivably have conditions suitable for life to be supported? That last question is a very hard one to get a good estimate of, but even if a tiny fraction of these planets are in a habitable zone and have compositions compatible with life, there must be quite a few such planets in the Milky Way. Multiply whatever number that is by 100 billion to get a conservative number of habitable planets in the universe. How many of these habitable planets actually have life? Well, that depends on how hard it is for life to arise if the conditions are right. That is probably yet another essay, but here’s the short version. If you think it is impossible for life to arise spontaneously, then indeed we may be alone in the universe. If you think it is simply extremely unlikely for life to arise spontaneously, then there are almost certainly lots other planets where life has arisen, simply due to the vast number of habitable planets there are. If you think it is likely for life to arise given the right conditions (as I do), then the universe is probably teeming with life.

This is truly wondrous to contemplate. We are tiny, but the universe is magnificent! Contemplating the size and complexity of the world around us is nothing short of numinous. When I consider the Christian viewpoint, which places humanity (and specifically in many cases the Israelites), as specially favored by God, I am baffled at the smallness of this vision of the universe. It just doesn’t seem plausible that a God so immense that he can create a universe on such a scale as we see would be interested in the slightest about the worship behavior or moral transgressions of individual members of a species that has been in this universe for a blink of an eye, and who live on a tiny planet in the backwaters of an unremarkable galaxy. It would be akin to me deciding to care immensely about the activities of a handful of water molecules in a corner of a bacterium on my skin at the back of my left knee. (There is a very relevant internet meme that I recommend glancing at.)

Quoting again from Carl Sagan, “Ann Druyan [Carl Sagan’s wife] suggests an experiment: Look back again at the pale blue dot…. Take a good long look at it. Stare at the dot for any length of time and then try to convince yourself that God created the whole Universe for one of the 10 million or so species of life that inhabit that speck of dust. Now take it a step further: Imagine that everything was made just for a single shade of that species, or gender, or ethnic or religious subdivision. If this doesn’t strike you as unlikely, pick another dot. Imagine it to be inhabited by a different form of intelligent life. They, too, cherish the notion of a God who has created everything for their benefit. How seriously do you take their claim?”

Understanding the complexity of nature

As I touched on above, humans are the only species we are aware of that can think deeply about the world around us. We are the only ones that can ask probing questions about our world, and most importantly, devise sophisticated ways to answer those questions. We have formulated questions about the history of the universe, and have developed testable models for its formation that reach back 13.8 billion years, to within one trillionth of a second of the event itself. We have directly peered into the past nearly that far back due to the fact that light travels at a finite speed; the most distant object observed is 13.4 billion light years away, meaning that the light from that object has been traveling for 13.4 billion years before reaching our telescopes.

In the other direction, we routinely are able to take images of matter with resolution better than a tenth of an atom’s diameter, or about one one-hundred-billionth of a meter. We can measure physical events with femtosecond resolutions. That’s a quadrillionth of a second. If one second were expanded to be six thousand years, the young Earth Creationist view of the age of the universe, then there would be four thousand of these femtoseconds in the new expanded second. And we have scientific models that span the miniscule to the enormous, from the insanely fast to the unimaginably slow. The wonder of discovery, that light-bulb moment when a new phenomenon is finally explained, is a triumph of the human mind’s ability to move beyond the instinctual survivability advantages that our brains provide, and more importantly of the human spirit that devoted such training and effort to understanding even the minutest detail of the world around us. I often feel that theists find the explaining of a phenomenon to be a negative thing, removing, for them, the wonder of the phenomenon. For me, there is little more spiritual than understanding. The beauty of a rainbow is not lessened by understanding the refraction of light in raindrops, it is enhanced by it. The magnificence of the Grand Canyon is magnified by comprehending the nanosecond-scale interactions of photons of light with the colored minerals, the second-scale fluid dynamics of the Colorado River, and the thousand-year creep of erosive forces. The exquisite complexity of life is heightened by grasping the chemical bases for metabolism, the ecological roles played by various life forms, and the origins of those species via evolutionary pathways. What could possibly be more spiritual than exploring our place in the universe, and in the end approaching understanding even how we are able to understand things? What better testament to the power of the human spirit is there than piecing together the puzzle that is our existence?

Experiencing love, beauty, and understanding

Human emotions are part of the software our brains run. They are so deeply embedded in the operating system that they are directly tied to hormonal changes in our bloodstream. Many emotions make perfect evolutionary sense. Love of family is so strong because it conveys a survivability advantage to our genes. Fear of death is similarly strong for similar reasons. Hatred of those who threaten us and our loved-ones also makes perfect sense. These emotions may not feel like they are biologically determined, and for very good reason. If they did, we would be more likely to question them, and thus more likely to argue ourselves out of acting on them. But as I argued above, understanding the origins of emotional reactions doesn’t diminish their value. Love is real, and it is wonderful, because it provides benefit. The rush of joy, relief, and awe that I felt upon first seeing my son after a long, hard labor is no less real to me because of an understanding of the roles that adrenaline and oxytocin play in mediating those feelings. These emotions are part of what it means to be human.

There are, however, deeply spiritual experiences that are significantly less directly tied to genetic survivability. Admiring the beauty of a van Gogh, reaching the peak of a mountain and surveying the surrounding landscape, participating in communal worship or meditation, developing an explanation for a previously-unexplained phenomenon… all of these experiences, and many more besides, produce deeply spiritual feelings. While natural selection has molded biology to be gene propagators, something new happened when human-level brains developed. The survivability advantages these brains provide is unparalleled. We can plan a course of action, to hunt prey, escape a predator, or safeguard the lives of our family, by mentally modeling what is likely to happen. We can test strategies in our minds without having to test them in the real world, where the stakes are much higher. And with advanced communication, which is also facilitated by our large brains, the survivability advantages of highly cooperative behavior take a quantum leap from instinctual cooperation to planned cooperation. The human brain was a game-changer, because it allowed abstract thought, and just as engineering became possible with the abstract formulation of mathematics, advanced survivability became possible with general abstract thought.

But abstract thought brings with it side effects. We can mentally model the world in ways that no other animal can. But that means we can now ask questions no other animal can. Where did the world itself come from? What does it mean to have a sense of self? What happens when we die? It is from questions like these that religions spring. And because getting those questions right confers little survivability advantage, there is little natural selection for or against any one of these sets of religious beliefs. Having a religion of some kind may confer a benefit in terms of community cohesion, but the metaphysics is largely irrelevant. Some beliefs become largely universal, such as the Golden Rule, because those specific beliefs provide survivability advantages to the society. But why the Golden Rule is followed in each society is largely irrelevant to whether or not that rule survives the new societal selection process, which is a social version of natural selection.

Abstract thought makes possible a number of ideals that individuals can value, and each of these ideals can provide a survivability advantage.

  • Concordance with reality. If someone’s view of the world doesn’t correspond to the world around them, this can be dangerous. This can translate into sensibilities in the “realism” style of artwork.
  • Innovation. Being able to come up with out-of-the-box solutions to problems is clearly a survivability advantage. Usually this involves seeing the world from unusual perspectives, which might challenge established approaches or viewpoints. This can lead to impressionistic or other modern artistic sensibilities.
  • Interconnection. Recognizing similarities in spite of differences helps make predictions about behavior more accurate. Even though a buffalo is different from a human, we need to drink water, so probably a buffalo does to; maybe we will find buffalo at the watering hole (obviously, this is an oversimplified example). This way of seeing the world can lead to an appreciation of sophisticated literary allusions and other types of representationalism.

These are but a few examples out of a very large number of possibilities, but I hope they are sufficient to convince you that natural selection, when it leads to brains sufficient to allow abstract thought, can be used to explain a wide range of ways of looking at the world that directly support different types of artistic sensibilities as natural byproducts. And remembering that natural selection operates on populations rather than individuals explains why a wide range of artistic approaches and viewpoints can be present in a single population. There is clear survivability advantage to have some members of a population that focus on the learnings of the elders, others that develop innovative approaches to solve problems, and yet others that look at the big picture. And each type of person is predisposed to finding beauty in different things. That beauty is in the eye of the beholder does not mean that it is arbitrary or that it is meaningless; and it definitely doesn’t diminish the deep emotional effects of that beauty.

Differing worldviews

When confronted with a naturalistic materialist, theists often seem baffled by how small they perceive our universe to be without a vision of an eternal life, of a divine creator, and a well-defined meaning of life. The naturalistic materialist is equally baffled by what they perceive from theists as the conceit associated with the idea of eternal life, how small a creator they seem to posit compared to the measurable extent of the universe itself, and the seemingly human visions of meaning that they attribute to God. The divide between these two extremes is vast, but I think it is less about how each side sees God than it is about how each side sees the world. To the evangelical theist, what matters is what is close by, what can be touched, what can be experienced directly. Whether another species lives out their lives in on another planet matters little, because it is the relationships we form that are primary. This is why so many Christian sects have redefined their relationship with God to be a personal one, a view that would have been utterly foreign in the eyes of the faithful in, say, the 1500s.  To the naturalistic materialist, however, whether another species exists elsewhere in the universe tells us something fundamental about how we need to view ourselves. Are we unique? Or are we one of many? What have they learned that we have not, and vice versa? Do they have a plurality of viewpoints, or are they unified in worldview? Have they come to the same conclusions we have about ethics? About beauty? About political systems? About religions? What we have in common takes one step toward being considered to be universal; what we differ in cannot be.

Summing it all up

This essay has certainly been more of a personal exploration of ideas than a rigorous argument, and so it has probably come across as more rambling than my other offerings. I think that is appropriate to the subject material, however. I would like to leave you with a few further quotes from Carl Sagan that summarize my views quite well.

Plainly there is no way back. Like it or not, we are stuck with science. We had better make the best of it. When we finally come to terms with it and fully recognize its beauty and its power, we will find, in spiritual as well as in practical matters, that we have made a bargain strongly in our favor.

But superstition and pseudoscience keep getting in the way, distracting us, providing easy answers, dodging skeptical scrutiny, casually pressing our awe buttons and cheapening the experience, making us routine and comfortable practitioners as well as victims of credulity.

In its encounter with Nature, science invariably elicits a sense of reverence and awe. The very act of understanding is a celebration of joining, merging, even if on a very modest scale, with the magnificence of the Cosmos. And the cumulative worldwide build-up of knowledge over time converts science into something only a little short of a trans-national, trans-generational meta-mind.

’Spirit’ comes from the Latin word ‘to breathe.’ What we breathe is air, which is certainly matter, however thin. Despite usage to the contrary, there is no necessary implication in the word ‘spiritual’ that we are talking of anything other than matter (including the matter of which the brain is made), or anything outside the realm of science. On occasion, I will feel free to use the word. Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or of acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Ghandi or Martin Luther King Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.

Not every branch of science can foretell the future – paleontology can’t – but many can and with stunning accuracy. If you want to know when the next eclipse of the Sun will be, you might try magicians or mystics, but you’ll do much better with scientists. They will tell you where on Earth to stand, when you have to be there, and whether it will be a partial eclipse, a total eclipse, or an annular eclipse. They can routinely predict a solar eclipse, to the minute, a millennium in advance. You can go to the witch doctor to lift the spell that causes your pernicious anaemia, or you can take vitamin B12. If you want to save your child from polio, you can pray or you can inoculate. If you’re interested in the sex of your unborn child, you can consult plumb-bob danglers all you want (left-right, a boy; forward-back, a girl – or maybe it’s the other way around), but they’ll be right, on average, only one time in two. If you want real accuracy (here, 99 per cent accuracy), try amniocentesis and sonograms. Try science.

Think of how many religions attempt to validate themselves with prophecy. Think of how many people rely on these prophecies, however vague, however unfulfilled, to support or prop up their beliefs. Yet has there ever been a religion with the prophetic accuracy and reliability of science? There isn’t a religion on the planet that doesn’t long for a comparable ability – precise, and repeatedly demonstrated before committed skeptics – to foretell future events. No other human institution comes close.

If this isn’t sublimely spiritual, if this isn’t numinous, I don’t know what could possibly be.


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