24 July 2007

All and Enough: Humanist Spirituality

"Let us consider the way in which we live our lives." - Henry David Thoreau

"You gotta love livin', baby, 'cause dyin' is a pain in the ass!" - Frank Sinatra

I was once asked if I thought "humanist spirituality" was a contradiction in terms. As luck would have it, I had been thinking on that subject only a week before. A Google search directed me to Doug Muder's blog, where I found an excellent essay on the subject. It's one I recommend reading. The question posed by my friend seems fair, given the subject of spirituality is thought of as supernatural and that the majority of definitions for humanism include a rejection of the supernatural. Is spirituality truly limited to the supernatural, though? I have read the opinions of many on this subject as I sought to articulate my own thoughts, and the opinion is universally expressed by commentators that spirituality has a far more encompassing definition than the one religious personalities assign to it in their zeal to monopolize its use. I would say that spirituality deals with the essence of things, and that by this definition we can relate spirituality to the natural world as well, which is where it belongs to those of us who think of supernaturalism as farcical.

Spirituality in religious and some philosophical systems deals with realizing and nurturing the growth of the individual essence, or spirit. Jews do this by studying Torah and performing mitzvah; Christians by being born again; Muslims by living in submission to Allah. In some other religious systems, a person's essence is nurtured and grows through reincarnation. Whatever the religion, all of these practices concern themselves with overcoming and improving upon our base nature. We recognize that we are given to some desires and behaviors that can prove destructive. We realize that if these desires and this nature can be overcome or controlled that we can live better lives.

The third Humanist Manifesto declares that the natural universe is "all and enough". Our own minds, then, are all and enough to nurture our "essence". Humanists rely on reason and empathy to live informed and fulfilling lives. Both of these tools require only our brains to use. For the Humanist, fulfillment is an internal affair. We do not need magic rocks to pray over or idols to bow down before. We do not require the sacrifice of animals or any other rituals. We do not need holy books. Our minds are all and enough. I have said before that the subtle beauty of humanism is that it is a philosophy often self-arrived at. If someone makes reason and empathy the bedrock of their worldview, that worldview will be humanistic. The values arrived at will be by and large the same.

How, then, do we use these tools? How do I as a person who believes my mind is all and enough find essential -- spiritual -- fulfillment and growth? How do I use my reason and empathy to effect such a result? Spirituality is so broad a subject that I could scarcely expect to cover any of it in one article. What I attempted to do with this was to explain what the basis for humanist spirituality is. If you're interested in spirituality in nontheistic and naturalistic systems of thought there are of course numerous blogs and books devoted to that subject. To end, though, I'd like to explain what my "spirituality" is like.

I begin with this statement: I study the sciences and humanities, appreciate nature and art, and love humanity. This is the nature of my spirituality. Essentially, spirituality for me can be tied to one word, love. Being a humanist, I love truth and humanity unconditionally. I love them both because they so enrich my life. Being able to revel in the knowledge that I'm alive is all-important to me. When I stopped caring about God in 2005, I said to myself that I was going to enjoy life as best as I could and help other people. That was where I really began to grow spiritually, and that occurred well before I discovered the Ex-Pentecostals and began to deconvert. Being able to appreciate being alive -- to really appreciate it -- is the best gift you or I can ever give to anyone. Even when I'm sick, I'm still happy because my joy isn't based on what happens to me. My joy comes from a deeper source, and that is my appreciation for being alive.

I love learning about science because it allows me to appreciate the world around me more than I could if I were ignorant of it. My love for science has grown as I have grown as a person in the past couple of years, and so to has my appreciation for the universe. I can spend hours sitting outside and enjoying the day. When I look out of my bedroom window and see the lush green trees set against the unbroken blue sky, I understand worship. There are times when I am looking at pictures of nature when I think that my chief pleasure in this world is to appreciate this beauty. Nature can be cruel, but it can also be breathtakingly beautiful. I think it's important to focus on the beauty given that all of this is a beautiful accident.

I also love studying the humanities -- history, literature, art, music -- because these subjects remind me of my humanity. When I listen to instrumental music while contemplating the vastness and beauty of space, I am moved. I delight in reading literature and fiction because they represent a sharing of experiences. I can learn more about my humanity and feel more connected to the people with whom I associate. There are similar subjects -- philosophy and sociology -- that I enjoy for the same reason. I am human; not a god. I want to grow as a human, not as a "saint". Pindar, the last of the Greek aristocrats, said "Strive not thou to become a god; the things of mortals best befit mortality."

The last part of my spirituality is that I attempt to live in love -- in hope for humanity. I set goals for myself and I strive to work toward them. My fondest dream is that of a peaceful and healthy Earth, occupied by humans who are united in their love for one another. This idealism drives me. I want to see this; I want to make it happen. I live each day trying to be the best human I can be. Is a united Earth an unrealistic goal? Perhaps now it is. I think, though, that by setting goals for ourselves -- as individuals and as a race -- we also provide motivation to meet those goals. Even if we don't meet the ideal completely, we can still improve the human condition.

I've grown a lot the past few years -- in knowledge, in confidence, and in my ability to live life in love for it. I anticipate growing even more in the future, as I plan on attending services at a Unitarian Universalist fellowship. I can only imagine how enriching being part of that kind of community will be. I've tried to articulate my feelings on spirituality for a long time now, but I feel like one blind man trying to determine the shape of the Great Pyramid. Spirituality is a colossally broad subject, and books and blogs have been devoted to the idea to do justice to it. In this essay, I explained what I think is the basis for naturalistic spirituality and expressed what some of what spirituality means to me in practice.

In this article, I referenced one quotation from Pindar, a classical personality. I found that quotation in "The Greek Way", by Edith Hamilton. I failed to write down the page number when I initially read it, but Google informs me that Pindar is covered in chapter five of that book. To end, here are my results from a QuizFarm quiz that I found over at GifS; if you dig into that blog's archives you can see how long I've been trying to express my thoughts on this subject.

Here are some essays that I found helpful in forming an idea about what humanist spiritualty was and should be:

"Humanist Spirituality: Oxymoron or Authentic Path to Enlightenment?"
- This is my favorite, and I make a point to re-read it every so often.

"Spirituality: What on Earth is It?"

"Integral Spirituality, Humanist Spirituality"
- This blog has another post called "Can Atheists Be Spiritual?"

"Why Atheist Spirituality isn't an Oxymoron"

"Faith of an Atheist"

You scored as Spiritual Atheist, Ah! Some of the coolest people in the world are Spiritual Atheists. Most of them weren't brought up in an organized religion and have very little baggage. They concentrate on making the world a better place and know that death is just another part of life. What comes after, comes after.

Spiritual Atheist


Scientific Atheist


Apathetic Atheist


Angry Atheist


Militant Atheist






What kind of atheist are you?
created with QuizFarm.com

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