Freethought and Spirituality

Freethought and Spirituality

I write this article in response to our own Sheri Lawson and to another friend, Dr. Valerie Tarico*, who writes for website.  While I rely heavily on humanism, I will touch on naturalism and, ironically, Pantheism, which relates, I hear, to a future God Discussion Radio show guest.

Can one be a freethinker or an intellectual and spiritual too?  Various people have asked that question in many different ways lately.  Three years ago, even Salman Rushdie asked a similar question of Molleen Matsumura, AKA Sweet Reason, on The Humanist Network News Podcast, which is the first eleven minutes of the show.  Sweet Reason’s basic thesis was, “Let’s reclaim the language and not recreate a new language.”

While some atheists may disagree with me, I do not think spirituality is exclusive to theists, but notice, I did change the word slightly.  I also think, with some redefining of the word, we freethinkers can reclaim what is part of the human condition.  Another way to ask this question is, “What does it mean to be human?”  That is the basis of many such questions, which I often ponder, especially since I left religion.

First, how is spirituality part of the human condition?  To answer this question, I must look to humanism and psychology to find a satisfactory answer.

Richard Norman on Humanism (11 minute audio)

When I speak of spirituality, I am not exactly speaking about the spiritual.  I am referring to the innate feelings we get when we interact and feel at one with another human being, with nature, other animals, and even the universe.  This is part of the human experience and the human condition, but even Jeaneane Fowler, author of Humanism: Beliefs and Practices, said on page 50, “There is no doubt that the word [spirituality] is connected with religion according to its usage in centuries past.”  She then adds the Oxford English Dictionary of the term, which links the word to ecclesiastical persons, revenue, or property, but also to the dualism of spirit and matter.

This suggests that the word spirituality has to be rejected by Humanists on two counts:  first because of its religious connotations, and second, because it opposes the monistic nature of the human being.

In getting rid of this word, however, I think Humanists need something in its place, or need to redefine it in a secular sense.

Even Dr. Tarico mentioned this issue that many non-theists have concerning the word “spiritual” in her article on Ex-Christian:

Some nontheists argue that the idea of spirituality is too bound up with religion to be of any use to us who have left religion behind. Front and center are philosophical problems brought up by the term “spirit.” Religions typically espouse one or another type of dualism—a faith-based idea that some form of consciousness-aka-spirit exists independent of our bodies and brains, rather than being emergent from them. Many forms of belief, like American Pentecostalism, go on to elaborate a whole realm of spiritual beings engaged in quasi-human affairs, including battles of good guys against bad guys, minus the substance of this physical world. (Cognitive scientists now suspect our tendency toward dualism to be an artifact of the way our minds process information—with separate hardwired subroutines for processing information about sentient persons and about physical objects including bodies.)

Then, besides the philosophical problem, there’s the social problem: As soon as you start talking about spirituality, even outside the bounds of traditional belief systems, people assume you are open to new forms of unsubstantiated and un-falsifiable ideas. You risk being proselytized, or scorned by skeptics, or ending up at a dinner party with Tim Minchen and Storm, and being seated on the Storm side of the table.

Spirituality has a lot of baggage, bad history, bad company – pick your metaphor.

Indeed, the words “spiritual” and “spirituality” do carry a lot of religious baggage, but in my opinion, the religious hijacked the word centuries ago.  However, Fowler continued to state that one cannot deny that there are times the material world slips into insignificance for a moment or two.

This is usually the result of some kind of stimuli in the environment- music, magnificent scenery, the view from the top of a mountain, a sunset, snow, sex, a painting, holding your newly-born-baby- indeed there is no end to the stimuli that can promote a “transcending” feeling, a feeling as if the material world is, even if just for one moment, utterly transcended.  This has much to do with the depth of life and experience of the self in its more subtle modes.  But I do not think it is part of the self that can be denied.

Thus, again, we see that to deny this aspect, these feelings, of the human is to deny a part of us that makes us human. These moments of peak experiences are part of the human condition and to deny them is to deny some of what it means to be human. Call them numinous, which Webster’s Dictionary, in the third definition defines as, “appealing to the higher emotions or to the aesthetic sense” or call them spiritual, but the point is that these feelings are neuro-chemical and very much part of the human experience.

I remember when I held my first son in my arms for the very first time. As the two of us gazed into each other’s eyes for the very first time, it felt more transcending than any other event in my life. We were total strangers, yet we knew each other intimately and were very much one. That moment was extremely “spiritual” and no god was involved. It was just my newborn and me at one with the universe. For a brief moment, my son and I were connected to each other and the universe all at the same time. It felt as though there was no distinction between the cosmos and ourselves.



Sam Harris discussed feelings of transcendence in his article, “Selfless Consciousness Without Faith”.  In this article, he talked about a trip he took to the Sea of Galilee.

As I sat and gazed upon the surrounding hills gently sloping to an inland sea, a feeling of peace came over me. It soon grew to a blissful stillness that silenced my thoughts.  In an instant, the sense of being a separate self—an “I” or a “me”—vanished. Everything was as it had been—the cloudless sky, the pilgrims clutching their bottles of water—but I no longer felt like I was separate from the scene, peering out at the world from behind my eyes. Only the world remained.

This to me is “spirituality”.  It is not supernatural, religious, or theistic.  However, these peak experiences are part of being human and very much natural.

Harris continued:

There is no question that people have “spiritual” experiences (I use words like “spiritual” and “mystical” in scare quotes, because they come to us trailing a long tail of metaphysical debris). Every culture has produced people who have gone off into caves for months or years and discovered that certain deliberate uses of attention—introspection, meditation, prayer—can radically transform a person’s moment to moment perception of the world. I believe contemplative efforts of this sort have a lot to tell us about the nature of the mind.

There are, in fact, several points of convergence between the modern sciences of the mind—psychology, neuroscience, cognitive science, etc.—and some of our contemplative traditions. Both lines of inquiry, for instance, give us good reasons to believe that the conventional sense of self is a kind of cognitive illusion. While most of us go through life feeling like we are the thinker of our thoughts and the experiencer of our experience, from the perspective of science we know that this is a false view.  There is no discrete self or ego lurking like a minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain. There is no region of cortex or stream of neural processing that occupies a privileged position with respect to our personhood. There is no unchanging “center of narrative gravity” (to use fellow “On Faith” panelist Daniel Dennett’s fine phrase).

Dr. Marlene Winell discussed transcendence in an essay called “Do You Believe In God” and in this essay, she also includes a couple of quotes from two famous men.

“How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, ‘This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant’? Instead they say, ‘No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.’ A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.”`

-Carl Sagan

“I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.”

-Albert Einstein

Of course, these two quotes are very Pantheistic, despite the “all is god” translation, and at the same time, very naturalistic. describes natural spirituality as thus:

Authentic spirituality involves an emotional response, what I will call the spiritual response, which can include feelings of significance, unity, awe, joy, acceptance, and consolation. Such feelings are intrinsically rewarding and so are sought out in their own right, but they also help us in dealing with difficult situations involving death, loss, and disappointment. The spiritual response thus helps meet our affective needs for both celebration and reconciliation. As Richard Dawkins puts it in his book Unweaving the Rainbow, we have an "appetite for wonder," an appetite for evoking the positive emotional states that are linked to our deepest existential questions.

First, it is clear that under naturalism connectionwith the world is built in to every aspect of our being, not a hoped for eventuality in the life to come. We’re joined to the cosmos and the everyday world as described by science in countless ways: the elements composing our bodies are the products of the Big Bang and stellar evolution; most of our DNA is shared with other beings; our perceptions and sensations are all mediated by processes involving photons, electrons, ions, neurotransmitters and other entirely physical entities; and our character and behavior is fully a function of genetics and environment. We are, therefore, fully linked with our surroundings in time, space, matter/energy, and causality. In fact, no more intimate connection with the totality of what is could be imagined. So, from a naturalistic perspective, there is an empirically valid referent for the sense of cosmic consciousness encountered in spiritual experience. The feeling of unity generated by (actually, identical to) the quieting of the orientation mechanisms in the brain mirrors the objective state of our complete interconnection with the world.

Add to that,’s definition of spirituality:

By spirituality and spiritual we don't mean any kind of supernatural or non-physical activity – we use the terms in a wider sense. We mean that part of our lives that relates to our deeper emotions and aesthetic responses towards Nature and the wider Universe – to our sense of our place in these, and to the ethics that these feelings imply.

We take the real Universe and Nature as our starting and finishing point, not some preconceived idea of God. We feel a profound wonder and awe for these, similar to the reverence that believers in more conventional gods feel towards their deity, but without anthropomorphic worship or belief that Nature has a mind or personality that we can influence through prayer or ritual.

Our ethics are humanistic and green, our metaphysics naturalist and scientific. To these we add the emotional and aesthetic dimensions which humans need to cope with life's challenges and to embrace life's joys, and to motivate their concern for Nature and human welfare.

None of this is about a god of religion, but rather a reverence for animals, nature, the earth, and the universe as a whole.  However, the idea of reverence for the earth and the cosmos is part of where the idea of “all god” occured, thus the term Pantheism or “Sexed up atheism” as Richard Dawkins once called and wrote a response.

Can there be such a thing as a completely naturalistic form of “spirituality” with no supernatural elements?

Increasingly, leading atheists and humanists are saying yes. This compilation from Dawkins, De Grasse Tyson and Sam Harris neatly embodies some of the trends.

When you pursue this approach of celebration and spirituality further, you are no longer in the real of basic atheism – which does no more than deny the existence of gods.

You have in fact arrived at Naturalistic Pantheism.

Our completely naturalistic Pantheism does not believe in any supernatural beings, forces or realms and is fully compatible with atheism and skepticism. As Richard Dawkins writes:

Pantheists don't believe in a supernatural God at all, but use the word God as a nonsupernatural synonym for Nature, or for the Universe, or for the lawfulness that governs its workings.

I very much agree with what Neil deGrasse Tyson said at the end of the video above, which, ironically, is what Pantheists refer to when they call nature or the cosmos “god”. However, I do not go that far, because it is not a god and I feel we must be careful in using such connotations. The word “god” is not one that can or should be redefined, because it is a dangerous human concept and I think we should avoid it at all cost.

Dr. Winell also goes into discussing “transcendence” in her article, using the same naturalistic terms as the others above:

Transcendence. There are moments of awe for us in life, those times of being overwhelmed with wonder at beauty, or love, or natural power. At these moments you get clues about the immensity of the cosmos, like pinpricks in the veil around your limited consciousness. You are humbled and thrilled as you gaze at a sunset or a torrential waterfall. A moment of pure love can be ecstatic. Let your vision extend into the night sky, and you may experience a blissful dissolving of your individual ego. Not needing to understand or control, you can experience a sense of total Mystery. These moments are gifts that reflect your spiritual capacity, gifts that become more available as you open to your sense of the ultimate. This is not ultimate in the sense of above or better, but simply beyond your usual mode of consciousness. These are moments of realization knowing that the sense you have of “god” within is not only in contact with but one and the same as the transcendent “god”-beyond.   You are a wave in the ocean, individual in a sense but also part of something much bigger – the immensely huge and powerful ocean of existence.   You don’t understand and you don’t need to understand.  All of this is multiverses away from “believing in God.”

Greg Epstein often discusses community and the connection humans have with each other. This connection and social interaction to each other can trigger similar feelings. The spoken word, music, and various activities, such as a baby naming ceremony, a wedding, and even a funeral celebration can trigger these feelings, yet all of these things are an important part of being human.

Again, Dr. Tarico mentions this aspect of humans as social creatures, in her article on Ex-Christian, and it is this social interaction that can trigger numinous feelings also.

We now know that the moral dimension of human life derives not from religion but from our need, as social animals, to cooperate and live in community with each other. We are social information specialists; that is our ecological niche, and a solitary human is a pretty sorry creature. That is why altruistic instincts and emotions like empathy, shame, and guilt emerge early in child development in every culture around the world. Religion may provide justification for our moral impulses, but the building blocks are innate.

This neurology is triggered by external stimuli, such as another human, other animals, the earth, and even the universe. Neil deGrasse Tyson talks about the awe and wonder the universe triggers within him from a very early age.

An external stimulus triggers internal chemistry in the brain, causing us feelings we can label “numinous”, “transcending”, “awesome”, “spiritual”, and, one I created for extreme emotions, “quantum influx of disequilibrium”. This is not religious, but rather describing and claiming an extreme feeling, which occurs naturally in relationship to others and our environment, using the insufficient vocabulary we possess already.

These peak experiences, albeit more powerful and overwhelming than any human language can describe, are no different from any other emotions that humans experience.  In my opinion, it is also part of what makes us human.

Richard Newman said in his interview with Philosophy Bites, mentioned earlier in this article, “What does it mean to be human?”  One of my first thoughts, as one who studies the human condition, are human emotions, moved by interactions with other humans, other animals, human creations, such as music and art, the earth, and the universe, which I call a from of “spirituality”.

Even Fowler stated, on page 52 in her book, “Humanism can stress the importance of the awareness of beauty and the appreciation of nature as part of the necessary experience of self.”  Even the death of a love one, although not beauty, can trigger a peak experience.  She does not believe a peak experience is an activity, but rather a state of being or an emotion, which we do not express at will, and “Humanists are on difficult ground when they deny “spirituality” exists.”

Fowler referred to Abraham Maslow “who did extensive research into, even coined the term ‘peak experiences’, and presented considerable evidence to suggest that such experiences are part of the natural expressions of human life.”  She quotes Maslow:

When a “peak experience” occurs, the stimulus, as Maslow says, “is seen as if it were all there was in the universe, as if it were all of Being, synonymous with the universe.”

And according to Maslow it is the more evolved person who is prone to such “peak experiences”. He terms such people “self-actualizing” and claims that they are more integrated and less egocentric personalities.

Thus, again, we refer back to external stimuli triggering chemicals in the brain, which cause these feelings of peak experiences.

The point here is that any Humanist denial of spirituality, suggesting that human beings imagine some kind of false religiosity that does not exist, is somewhat wide of the mark.  Transcendent experiences do exist, they just do not have to be associated with religion, and if the word “spirituality” can only relate to religion, then it is the wrong term to describe many transcendent or peak experiences which are wholly secular.

In many ways, these emotions, as well as the chemistry involved, connect us to each other, other animals, the earth, and even the universe.

I am not talking about the emotion itself, but that helps too, just as it does for a mother and her newborn child, because without it, the desire to bond might not exist.  Thus, the very chemicals that give us these feelings are needed even for human survival and the continuation of the human species, but often denied by the religious in relationship to anything, except God.

However, these same chemicals found throughout our bodies, as well as those elements that makes us human, are found in other animals, the earth, and the universe.  We are not different or separate, but rather very much a part of everything within the universe, including the universe.  Thus, it is no wonder we experience overwhelming awe and wonder concerning interactions with other humans, other animals, the earth, and the universe.

Granted, these elements are in different combinations in other species, the earth, and the universe, but in the end, when we die and return to the earth, it does matter.  The same is true when our sun goes nova.  It is all one, all connected, and we are nothing more than parasites on the earth.  In the end, we will end up recycled by the universe.  Not even our sun is immune from this result, which is, in my opinion, extremely awesome.  Thus, I can very much relate to Tyson’s sermon-like lecture.

Returning to Humanism: Beliefs and Practices, Fowler again quoted Maslow:

Transcendence refers to the very highest and most inclusive of holistic levels of human consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos.

This is exactly what I referred to throughout this article and exactly how I redefine “spirituality” for myself.

Fowler continued:

In short, peak or transcendent experiences are a dimension of the human self which serve to give it quality, and it is not the “religious” person who has a monopoly on such experience.  All human beings probably have an innate potential for such experiences and these experiences are natural and not supernatural, secular and not religious.

Thus, with this great vast awesome connection to everything in the universe, we need to redefine “spirituality”, as even Sweet Reason suggested.  We can fill the “God-shape Hole” that Rushdie referred to, after leaving his religion, with a love and adoration for the human condition, other animals, the earth, the universe, and the cosmos as a whole.

At one time, gay meant happy.  It still does, but we rarely use the word in that manner now.  Eventually, the same could happen with words such as “spiritual” and “spirituality” if we, as non-theists, reclaim it as human beings, despite the religious baggage it currently carries.

Homosexuals succeeded in claiming the word “gay”, but it took some time.  We, as humans, have all the time our sun has left or until we become extinct.  If we try, I think we can eventually secularize some of these religiously laden words.

We need not lose some vocabulary to describe feelings, which are innate to the human, and part of the human condition.  We do need to remove the religious connotations and superstitions that currently go with some of these words though and reclaim them as part of the human condition.

That is also the beauty of human language.  Like us, it is forever evolving and changing as humans change and evolve.  In this case, we can attach science, specifically psychology, neurology, sociology, chemistry, and other natural and social sciences to these old words.

These feelings are extremely powerful and in some cases, the numinous feelings are a quantum influx of disequilibrium or in other words, so overwhelmingly powerful, which, not only are there no sufficient words to describe them, but sometimes knock us off our feet with awe and wonder.  For a brief moment in time, we feel as one with our surroundings and maybe even with others, who are human or other species.  This, in my opinion, is spirituality without religion or superstition.

Therefore, yes, Sheri, I think intellectuals can possess spirituality and yes, Valerie, freethinkers can reclaim the language of spirituality.  To do anything less is to deny that we are human and to allow the religious to hijack that, which is part of the human condition and make it something that it is not- superstitious mumbo jumbo, hocus-pocus.

*Dr. Valerie Tarico is a Seattle psychologist and author of Trusting Doubt, who often assists Dr. Marlene Winell.

About Mriana

Mriana is a humanist and the author of "A Source of Misery", who grew up in the Church of God, Anderson Indiana. After she became an adult, she joined the Episcopal Church, but later left the Church and became a humanist. She has two grown sons and raises cats. Mriana raised her sons in the Episcopal Church, but in their teen years, they left the Church and she soon followed. One of her sons became a "Tao Buddhist" and the other a None, creating his own world view. She enjoys writing, reading, science, philosophy, psychology, and other subjects. Mriana is also an animal lover, who cares for their welfare as living beings, who are part of the earth. She is a huge Star Trek fan in a little body.
  • Great article, and I think this is part of what Sheri was getting at.

    I prefer to call it "being conscious." Or maybe, being aware would be more appropriate. I agree with you that the word "spirituality" can be reshaped and is being reshaped without the baggage of religion.

    When I was taking Aikido, the teacher had us "center" by being aware of the middle section of our body and discarding worries and thoughts. We did "before" and "after" experiments, blindfolded, both being centered and un-centered, and it was incredible how you could "sense" the presence and intent of others by being aware.

    I personally feel that this awareness can extend. There's nothing psychic or hocus pocus or deity-induced about it — it's just a sense that we have, just like animals (or in your words, other animals) have. Depending on what you are focusing on, the experience can be transcendent.


    • I think Valerie was trying to get at this too with her article on Ex-C. This is something I've been researching/studying for a long time. First through Pantheism and then through humanism. Marlene was the one who introduced me to the Naturalism site, esp after she heard my views and all.

      I very much agree with you on being aware too.

  • Mriana, this is one of the most well thought out and eloquent articles I've ever read. Not only did you answer my question but you made me realize I'm actaully probably a Pantheist. GREAT job!

    • Thank you. I've spent a lifetime trying to figure this out or at least it seems like a lifetime. 🙂 Glad I could help answer your question and learn something about yourself.

  • I don't think we can rescue the term spiritual from those who believe it refers to a 'spirit' in a literal, or metaphysical way: so I think it needs abandoning. It is too tainted, used by mind, body and spirit crowd – and doesn't really convey a non-theistic account of the sublime psychological experiences humans are capable of.

    Likewise, pantheism doesn't suit me – due to the theism therein. We already have a good term for the belief that we just exist, and that there is no pre-existing essence, soul, divine being etc- it is atheistic existentialism: and it is the start of working out how to live…

Scroll To Top