In my short time as an Atheist - less than a year now - I've heard lots of people talking about spirituality and how Atheists have none. This isn't just coming from believers either. Atheists, on several occasions, have contested it. I wasn't sure why, really. I consider myself a spiritual Atheist. I'll explain why later, but let's look at the word "spirit" and how it's used so that I can better define what I'm talking about here.

  The word "spirit" comes from the Latin word spiritus, which means, simply "breath". It was also equated with "courage" and "vigor" as well as "soul". From what I can gather, it is a consensus among religions that "soul" and "spirit" are not the same. "Soul", from a religious standpoint, refers to an eternal part of a person's being that, in some cases, exists before you were born and, in almost every case, will continue to exist after your physical body dies. A religious definition of "spirit", as I understand it, is sort of the "middle-man" between a person's soul and the creator they believe in, but there are many more, regularly used definitions.

  Ghost hunters, I think, would say "spirit" and "soul" are the same. They refer to spirits haunting a house, for example, and that those spirits can't "move on" until some unresolved issue is put to rest. In their world, spirit and soul seem to be synonymous. They seem to believe that sometimes, particularly when there is some injustice in the events of someone's death, the eternal part of a person's being gets caught between worlds, as it were.

  Cheerleader spout the phrase "We've got spirit! Yes, we do! We've got spirit! How 'bout you?" Are they expecting to see ghosts? No. Are they asking everyone to pray? Nope, not that either. They want you to be excited and feel like part of the team. They want you to cheer and holler for their team to win.

  Would you like a glass of spirits? No, I'm not offering you a glass of ghosts, nor am I offering a glass of Jesus blood. This refers to distilled beverages with 20% or more alcohol. Spirit, in this sense, comes from alchemists back in the day who were interested in making medical elixirs. They referred to the vapors given off in the distillation process as the "spirit" of the ingredients used to make it. This is the "breath" definition, I think.

  We also refer to things like "soul food", which doesn't mean it's food made from ghosts or souls. It doesn't really refer to anything like that. Soul food is food that might not be so good for us, but it gives us the "home-cooked" good feeling that reminds us of having a good meal with the people we love.

  Finally, we have phrases that start with "In the spirit of...". When we say that, we don't think that some dead person is standing next to us, cheering us on for doing things the way they did in life. No. It simply means, in most cases, to emulate or otherwise connect with the things that person did in life. We can also connect with ideas in that same way, for example, when we do things "in the spirit of the season".

  It seems to me there is a common theme among all these definitions. They have to do with how we feel about things. Even the use of "spirit" when referring to alcohol seems apt, as it makes us feel different when we drink "spirits". It has to do with connections between not just people, but ideas and ideals. There seem to be a lot more alternative definitions that indicate that it's not really a "religious" word. I think that's what scares some Atheists about spirituality. They feel it's a step backward.

  I've said, in other blogs, that I feel such a great sense of awe when I contemplate the Universe, in general. There are so many things that I think about that bring tears to my eyes on a regular basis. When I listen to Dawkins talk about the "magic of reality" or when Sagan or Tyson talk about the "star stuff" that we're made of, I get that feeling I used to get when I went to church. I want to throw my hands up and weep at the awesomeness of the reality that we live in.

  That's my idea of spirituality. It has to do with feeling connected, as we have proven to be true in many aspects of our existence. If stars hadn't exploded, we wouldn't be here. If the chemistry of Earth had been slightly different or if the Earth had a slightly different orbit, we might not be here. To know that we're but a tiny speck in the vastness of the Universe is humbling, but also, as Tyson puts it, "I actually feel quite large at the end of that. ...We are in the Universe and the Universe is in us". How can someone contemplate Tyson's statement about us all being connected in the "holy trinity" of the Universe and not feel emotional about it? "We're all connected to each other, biologically, to the Earth, chemically and to the rest of the Universe, atomically." To know that we're not made up of common matter, as most of the matter in the Universe is dark matter, from which we were not evolved, makes me feel pretty damn special. We live in a set of uncommon circumstances, as far as we know. We have yet to find life anywhere else. I think it exists somewhere else, but it is obviously uncommon for life to appear in the Universe. 

  Let me qualify a bit here. I am in no way suggesting that the Universe has a soul or has feelings of any kind. I don't think there are ANY supernatural forces at work here. I don't feel like I'm "communicating with the Earth" when I have these feelings. I'm not saying that I can hear the thoughts of the animals when I'm contemplating these things. I know, so far, I probably totally sound like a "tree-hugger", but that's not the kind of idea I'm trying to relay here...or maybe it is.  

  It's the idea of connectedness that makes me feel good. Connecting is a basic human need. Without it, a baby could turn out to be like Beth Thomas, a.k.a. the Child of Rage, for example. People who don't connect or associate with others, tend to have severe problems dealing with the real world and often perform actions that are detrimental to other people and/or society. Beth Thomas, because she lacked the connection with people in her very early life, was unable to feel emotions. It took years of therapy for her to actually feel negatively for hurting other living things. She wasn't only hurting other people, but also hurting animals. This is proof, I think, that our emotional side doesn't come from a god. If it did, I don't think little Beth would have had such a difficult time because she would have been born with them. It comes from those connections with other people. We learn what emotions are and we learn that other people have them too. We learn what feels good or bad and our empathy makes us want to share the good and avoid the bad when we interact with others.

  But why do those connection need only be personal connections? Why would someone think that if you're not religious, you're not spiritual? Why are people afraid to feel connections with non-living things? We're made of the same elements you find in the Earth. We can contemplate ideas and get the same feelings of connection that we would get if we were believers praising a god whom we thought put the whole thing together. We could be thankful that stars exploded to put the right chemicals into the Universe. We can be excited by the fact that simple chemistry is what made all life on Earth and that evolution and natural selection took over to make us who we are today. Probable or not, that's an amazing notion that brings me great joy.

  Our existence is the result of a series of amazing events. It's hard for me to contemplate these events and not feel moved by each and every one of them. Maybe I'm completely wrong. I don't fully understand my emotional "explosions" when I think about these things. It is my hope that someday we will.

  One final note: Thank you, Dr. Tyson, for your 57 second speech that has made me see things in a whole new way. You are directly responsible for me writing this as well as helping me understand the feelings that I have about meaning and connection since I became an Atheist. Your passion makes me smile and I only hope that more people will take your words into consideration when contemplating their own places in the Universe.

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Tags: atheism, spirituality

Comment by Alexander Jason Cherry on April 13, 2012 at 4:09pm

Spiritual means "of or related to the spirits, the supernatural."

I think what you're thinking of is a related word, "spirited."

'spiritual' is based on the supernatural definition of the word 'spirit'

'spirited' is based on the non-supernatural definition.

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