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Sacred—Moral—Evil: Should Freethinkers Shun or Claim the Language of Spirituality?

By Valerie Tarico ~

On reading an early draft of Trusting Doubt, which looks at my old Evangelical beliefs from my current vantage as a nontheist, one reviewer commented, “This is a very spiritual book.”

What?! I thought. A part of me protested: I don’t believe in the Christian God any more, or for that matter any kind of humanoid god or for that matter any kind of supernaturalism. I’m not allowed to call myself spiritual. But another part of me kind of liked the label, even though I was startled by it. I tried it on for size. What would it mean for me, a freethinker, to think of myself as spiritual? What is spirituality if you scrub away the woo and soak any potential regrowth in a strong solution of reason and evidence?

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.

And yet . . . And yet, despite all, it is also our most understandable, most resonant way of referring to a dimension of life that is way too important to cede to white haired men in white collars and hippies with fairies on their derrieres. I’m talking about this: the profound sense that we are a part of something bigger than ourselves; the delight of reveling in the grand mysteries that lie beyond the bounds of our knowledge; the sense that some things are deeply, unspeakably sacred and others are deeply, unspeakably wrong; the yearning to have our lives matter, or as Steve Jobs put it, “to leave a dent in the universe.”

Most nontheists are former believers. We’ve heard words like spirit and even love and joy and forgiveness and goodness bandied about until they become common, or twisted into Orwellian forms (loving kids means spanking them; forgiveness demands blood sacrifice; eternal punishment for temporal sins is good) to the point that many of us are wary of any thing that sounds remotely like whatever kind of church-talk we used to trust too much. So, one challenge in reclaiming these words and the underlying concepts is figuring out how to claim them in a way that allows us to access their power without the old associations. I have found that at least one part of the solution is simply pushing yourself over the hump. The more you use words like these in your own way, in your own context, the more they take useful shapes. The old associations become background as new ones get formed.

Why bother? To truly move beyond religion we need to engage in a process that will let us refine new answers to some of life’s big questions. But absent the traditional vocabulary of spirituality, we are left without words with which to express deep existential questions and answers to each other or even to ourselves. That can leave us personally impoverished. It can also leave us isolated, because honest religious modernists who cherish what I am calling the spiritual dimension of life look for bridges into our community and fail to find them. Lastly, without a spiritual vocabulary we end up sounding hyper rational (and hyper boring) in conversations ranging from kitchen table banter to public policy debates. We face theists who speak from the heart, tapping the most powerful emotions known to humankind, while we limit ourselves to words and clauses that work in college essays.

Religion and morality are bound together, and parallel to the challenge of articulating a genuinely secular spirituality is the challenge of articulating secular morality. Embracing spirituality requires that secularists cast off the cloak of post-modern relativism (anything goes; it’s all good) and re-engage in humanity’s multi-millenial argument about what is right and wrong, about what ultimately is worth fighting for and worth dying for. If some things are good, some things are bad. If some things are precious, some are evil. I couldn’t write this paragraph without using words (evil, moral, right and wrong) that are considered by many folks to be the exclusive property of religion.

But should they be?

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.

On top of that, there has been a clear trend across millennia toward increased cooperation among humans, a move away from vengeance toward mutual respect and dignity, with a corresponding evolution away from authoritarian structures toward pluralism and open inquiry. As humanity’s moral consciousness evolves toward more sophisticated cooperation and decreased violence, iron-age religious texts and traditions pull people in the opposite direction, anchoring believers to a time when murder rates were fifty times what they are now, when women and children were chattel, literally, and righteous slaves were admonished to serve their masters with due humility. Old-time religion is becoming the opposite of moral. It’s anti-moral. I’ll say it: Immoral.

We face theists who speak from the heart, tapping the most powerful emotions known to humankind, while we limit ourselves to words and clauses that work in college essays. And yet, think about it. When was the last time you used the word evil during an impassioned outburst of moral indignation? The Church has no problem calling you evil: your rejection of belief is evil; your sexual intimacies (if they are outside of marriage or queer or done for pleasure) are evil; your decisions to regulate your childbearing using modern methods are evil. But how many times have you used the word evil to describe the untold suffering the Church imposes on impoverished families denied contraception; or the lies told to protect belief; or the propaganda that turns resource wars into holy wars; or the specter of kind-faced volunteers threatening kindergarteners with hell?

For those of us who are avowedly secular to claim the power of moral and spiritual language requires that we define our terms and then dive into a vigorous debate, first with each other and then with the world around us. Religionists have been doing so for centuries. (If you believe in the power of natural selection, then you have to believe that the arguments of religionists have been refined by one of the most powerful polishing processes known to humankind.)

When it comes to joining the moral fray, Sam Harris launched an impressive opening salvo in the first few chapters of The Moral Landscape, in which he asserts that we can talk about prescriptive morality – should and should nots – without any need for divine revelation. Harris makes a very simple argument: We know that there are sentient creatures who have varying degrees of wellbeing, and we can make decisions that increase that well-being – or, on the contrary, increase suffering. This alone provides the starting point for a science of morality grounded in evidence and reason. Tim Killian at takes this a step further. He says that Harris’s arguments become even clearer and stronger when we move out of the abstract realm of ethical philosophy and into the realm of public policy.

All of which is to say, the time may be ready--not just for us to try on the ancient moral words, but to start wielding them.

Ultimately, though, it is what I would call the spiritual dimension that makes the moral argument worth having. We have to decide what matters, what really matters, before we can measure our individual and collective behavior against that standard. We have to know what the land of milk and honey looks like before we can figure out if we are getting there. I used the word “know” but really I should have said, “decide” because in the end, defining the spiritual realm is really about reaching a set of collective agreements. The old way of doing it was to take a set of emergent hypotheses, a set of stories and precepts and intuitions that could be distilled out of the swirl of culture and mythos, and then put the name of God on them. “God said, God wants us to, God is speaking, God told Sarah Palin . . . .”

But the reality always has been more like the Ouija board we played with at childhood slumber parties. It was just us, and we kind of knew it, but it gave us chills all the same. (And some of us believed.) As a species, we never have been channeling anyone but ourselves. But for God’s sake, there is a lot of power in that! We live in the age of nukes and smart phones, and the “spirits” channeled by Middle-Eastern prophets (and the Middle-Eastern prophets channeled by modern self-anointed holy men) are still influencing who we kill and how many babies we have. Channeling our collective selves, whether through prophets or congregations or wikis is a part of how we leave a dent in the universe. Now that we know that doesn’t mean we have to stop.

I say let’s claim spiritual and moral language – not in the way that some believers use old words to create ambiguity --let’s all use the word “God” and then pretend we’re talking about the same thing—but to say exactly what we mean. Nontheists are as yet a small minority of humankind. Most of us have thought deeply about what it means to be human—to live well and die well. Many of us have devoted our lives to leaving this world more compassionate, or pursuing humanity's age old quest for truth, or protecting the sacred web that gave us birth. Our experience of love and wonder sustains us. Why should we go through life wearing muzzles that we ourselves have tied on?