Is being “spiritual” to be “non secular”?


Yoga at English Bay, Vancouver, 2009

A recent judgement (December 2013) [] by the British Supreme Court raises an interesting point about the epistemology of the secular. Whilst the judgement of their Lordships was undoubtedly right, since it ended one form of religious discrimination, the terms of their ruling exposed a shortfall in understanding contemporary no religionism.

The Supreme Court granted an appeal by a young couple, Louisa Hodkin and Alessandro Calcioli, to marry in a Scientology church in London. The couple had been prevented from doing so by the Registrar General who felt he couldn’t recognise Scientology as a religion on the grounds that it didn’t require “an object of veneration” (meaning in effect a god). (Ms Hodkin’s brother had got a Scientology wedding in Edinburgh because the Registrar General Scotland already recognised the Church, under different definitions, as valid as a place for marriage.) Their Lordships granted the appeal, in a long and most interesting judgement concerning the nature of religion in the modern age, critically on the grounds that there is no need for a god as a central feature of a religion. But in the judgement, Lord Toulson (with Lords Neuberger, Clarke and Reed agreeing) stated:

“I would describe religion in summary as a spiritual or non-secular belief system, held by a group of adherents, which claims to explain mankind’s place in the universe and relationship with the infinite, and to teach its adherents how they are to live their lives in conformity with the spiritual understanding associated with the belief system. By spiritual or non-secular I mean a belief system which goes beyond that which can be perceived by the senses or ascertained by the application of science. I prefer not to use the word “supernatural” to express this element, because it is a loaded word which can carry a variety of connotations. Such a belief system may or may not involve belief in a supreme being, but it does involve a belief that there is more to be understood about mankind’s nature and relationship to the universe than can be gained from the senses or from science.”

Here, in stating “By spiritual or non-secular I mean a belief system”, the term “spiritual” is clearly held to have some ability to substitute for “supernatural”, and, more critically, to be in some way an opposite of “secular”.

This is where I think there is evidence to disturb the terms of their Lordships’ judgement. In my oral history interviewing of no religionists, secular humanists, atheists, agnostics, freethinkers and secularists in Britain and North America since 2009, the word “spiritual” comes up quite often: 33 out of 70 respondents discussed the term. Its use amongst this group varies. For some it is a stepping stone between religion and atheism. Karen Bulmer from Edinburgh told me how in her young adulthood she “got into” reading about spiritual journeys: “then from spiritual I then described myself as agnostic because I didn’t know, and then I think erroneously I used that term as a sort of middle ground, whereas actually it’s a position of knowledge as opposed to a position of belief, and I think that’s misconstrued these days, but I certainly described myself as that.” Joyce Murphy, a Unitarian Universalist in British Columbia said: “When I joined, it was going in its academic intellectual phase and so it was in many ways not, nothing spiritual at all.” She liked its ethical sermons, the community fellowship, and the heated debates: “… as time has gone on, and I like it now that I think we do realise that we do need to have some spirituality, something else besides food for the brain.” Peter Scales, also from BC, described hearing a Unitarian Universalist preacher for the first time: “He didn’t mention Jesus, or God, or the resurrection. There was no cross in the house and it was interesting and it was kind of spiritual and it opened my eyes to something. The service was 45 minutes long and coffee afterwards was like an hour long, and the people at coffee time were bright, well read and anxious to talk about Humanism, and religion and atheism and churches they had left. It turned out almost all of them had left a church, and these were conversations I did not get at work because you wouldn’t just talk about religion at work, and I wanted to, I was hungering for it by then.”

Many humanists and atheists use the term “spiritual” to describe the awe with which they see the universe and humankind’s place within it. Some preface their comments by referring to the late Carl Sagan’s famous “Pale Blue Dot” commentary from his 1980 Cosmos television series on astronomy. [] Others spoke of nature at length. Jean Willig a resident of Boston, Massachusetts, said: “I think I am a spiritual person. I think spirituality really has nothing to do with organised religion, because I think organised religion is about power, and actually the founders of the United States were not really Christian in the ordinary sense because they rejected the Trinity and for both of them, their idea, they were deists, they believed in nature. And they did believe there was something which they couldn’t identify, that put order into the world. What I don’t even think, everything is random, but I do find a great deal of joy in nature, and I think that’s a spiritual thing. To me it is. I find nature extremely uplifting.”

Many of the no religionists I interviewed referred to meditation, yoga, chanting and “trancing” as legitimate parts of their loss of religion through which they cultivated “a spiritual sense” One English respondent, Omar Husein (a pseudonym), told me of a secular humanist study course he had attended: “I’d say I am an atheist. There was a discussion about spirituality and what spirituality means, and it was interesting. At the course there was a clear distinction between spiritualist Humanist and non-spiritualist Humanists, and it’s an area that I wish to explore more to understand what that means. And I sort of came to see it as a personal preference. There are some people when they looking at leaves bursting now in April, with this longer, harsher winter, there is a vibrancy around one, and as nature is transforming there is a feeling that permeates people, and whether that feeling touches your inner core or fills you with a sense of joy or evokes an emotional response. And some people seem to be, I don’t want to use the word susceptible, but more in touch with how these things make them feel and willing to express those feelings as wonderment, and others seem to be less touched.”

Yet, some atheists and humanists shy clear of “spiritual”. One example is a long-time humanist pioneer in Scotland, Nigel Bruce, pamphleteer, educationist and philanthropist for the humanist cause who lost God during the tank battle of Caen in 1944. He told me of how those who work as Humanist Chaplains in hospitals and universities may need to engage with the term: “I am worried about the name ‘spiritual’ myself. I always, in my writings, I always avoid the term ‘spiritual’ except in inverted commas, but if you join a chaplaincy you have to be happy to use the word ‘spiritual’ I think, which I would personally feel very uncomfortable about. It’s a difficult one, this one, … I had it when I was in the Lothian Region Committee, as to whether I would accept the word ‘spiritual’ or not, and I went down in the end … to say the balance was against the humanists accepting the word ‘spiritual’, that I would prefer words like emotional, or psychological or mental, but I don’t think one should make that a breaking point.”

This lack of unanimity amongst those without religion does not conceal the reality that “spirituality” is very far from being, as in their Lordships’ judgement, the equivalent of “non secular”. It is a term denoting a flexible concept, ranging from the transition away from orthodoxy in religionism, to the entrancing sensation in yoga and dance, and on to the wonder (as Sagan put it) of humankind’s “delusion of a privileged position” in the universe on “a mote of dust“, “a fraction of a dot“.

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