‘Spirituality’: A word that makes my hackles rise

‘Spirituality’: A word that makes my hackles rise

SPIRITUALITY: It’s a word that’s come flapping at me from all directions in the last month or so, most recently at a somewhat bizarre funeral in Spain of a close acquaintance, a delightful character called Surj. In his early 40s, Surj was from a Sikh background but, being a non-believer, put a great deal of distance between himself and any form of organised religion.

Surj was one of the most flamboyant of Benidorm’s gay characters. At the time of his sudden death from a massive stroke, he and his partner Steve were running a popular bar called “Spirit”. This fact was seized upon by the fella who conducted the funeral. He said the name of the bar was wholly appropriate, given Surj’s “deep spirituality”.

I winced. It was my second wince of the day. The first was when I caught sight of Surj’s remains lying in an open coffin at the crematorium – wearing a turban!

Now, while Surj was given to donning some pretty outlandish headgear, and looked particularly exotic whenever he appeared in drag, I imagine he would rather die – sorry! – than be seen in a turban … unless a sizeable chunk of campery was involved.

The service was a teeny bit Christian, faintly humanistic and a lot Sikh. Surj’s magnificently bearded dad first addressed the mourners in English, then did a lot of chanting and intoning in what I think was Punjabi, but it could have been Urdu or Hindi.

At any rate, the message that came though loud and clear was that Surj, despite his rejection of faith, was “spiritual”. Sure, Surj would sometimes suggest to me that there was “something bigger than ourselves” in the universe. He’d usually do so with his signature can of Strongbow in one hand, and a cheeky grin on his face. I could never be sure whether it was Surj or the cider that was doing the talking, but whatever woo he professed was never so hardcore as to raise my hackles.

Richard Waterborn, on the other hand, makes me want to throw knives at my radio. He has a slot on Talk Radio Europe called Open Hearts and Minds.

This is what I said in an email to Dr David Webster, who teaches Religion, Philosophy & Ethics at the University of Gloucestershire:

Leaving aside the mindless shite that he and his guests gush, Waterborn probably has one of the most drearily irritating voices on the planet, and all I want to open when his away-with-the-fairies voice comes on air is an artery. His choice of music alone makes me want to leave my 31st floor apartment via the balcony.

I contacted Webster after learning that he has just written a book called Dispirited: How Contemporary Spirituality Makes Us Stupid, Selfish and Unhappy. (Zero Books, paperback £9.99, 978-1-84694-702-5. [buy from Amazon])

Pleased to learn that there was at least one other person on the planet who finds the whole spirituality thing profoundly annoying, I told him how delighted I was that someone had tackled this issue, and told him that TRE had become:

A conduit for all manner of spiritual, New Age programmes, which drives me absolutely loopy.

Webster replied:

I feel your pain! It was such feelings/experiences that led me to writing the book.

Dispirited gets off to a no-nonsense start. Webster’s opening line is:

When someone tells me that they are ‘Not religious, but very spiritual’, I want to punch them in the face .. hard!

In an interview published in the online Religious Despatches magazine, Webster adds:

Of course, I go on to note that I resist such temptations – for reasons of ethics and cowardice. However, this annoyance was something I wanted to investigate. Why did it wind me up so much?

He said that:

Thinking about my aggressive grumpiness led me to read lots of New-Age and mind-body-spirit catalogues. This didn’t help. In many ways I became more and more annoyed by some of the materials and adverts that I encountered … if you literally believed the metaphysical and empirical claims they made and implied, they were more often than not logically incompatible … No claim, no matter how preposterous or unfeasible, seemed to be unacceptable – and to question the claims was seen as either spiritually naïve or as being locked into some kind of pro-conflict, old-religion mindset of harsh exclusivism.

For me, when looking at particular New-Age material this ‘everyone is right, all paths are valid’ approach was not only untenable and intellectually insulting, it all too often edged into smugness.

Webster says:

The idea of being ‘spiritual, but not religious’ is, at the very least, problematic. As I suggest in the book, mind-body-spirit spirituality is in danger of making us stupid, selfish, and unhappy. Stupid, because its open-ended, inclusive and non-judgemental attitude to truth-claims actually becomes an obstacle to the combative, argumentative process whereby we discern sense from nonsense. To treat all claims as equivalent, as valid perspectives on an unsayable ultimate reality, is not to really take any of them seriously.

It promotes a shallow, surface approach, whereby the work of discrimination, of testing claims against each other, and our experience in the light of method, is cast aside in favour of a lazy, bargain-basement-postmodernist relativism.

Selfish, because the ‘inner-turn’ drives us away from concerns with the material; so much so that being preoccupied with worldly matters is somehow portrayed as tawdry or shallow. It’s no accident that we see the wealthy and celebrities drawn to this very capitalist form of religion: most of the world realises that material concerns do matter. I don’t believe that we find ourselves and meaning via an inner journey. I’m not even sure I know what it means. While of course there is cause for introspection and self-examination, this, I argue, has to be in a context of concrete social realities.

Finally, I argue that the dissembling regarding death in most contemporary spirituality – the refusal to face it as the total absolute annihilation of the person and all about them – leaves it ill-equipped to help us truly engage with the existential reality of our own mortality and finitude. In much contemporary spirituality there is an insistence of survival (and a matching vagueness about its form) whenever death is discussed. I argue that any denial of death (and I look at the longevity movements briefly too) is an obstacle to a full, rich life, with emotional integrity. Death is the thing to be faced if we are to really live. Spirituality seems to me to be a consolation that refuses this challenge, rather seeking to hide in the only-half-believed reassurances of ‘spirit’, ‘energy’, previous lives, and ‘soul’.

A couple of days later, I discovered that another academic, Daniel Midgley who works at the University of Western Australia, published The Case against the Word ‘Spirituality on his Good Reason blog.

He pointed out that he has had lots of talks with people about “spirituality”, “and the one thing I’ve learned is that it’s important to figure out what they mean by that.

If by ‘spirituality’, they mean ‘a feeling of wonder and awe at the universe’, or ‘a sense of being interconnected with all things’, or even ‘a focus on worthwhile but non-material things, like relationships’ then they’ll get very little argument with me, because I like those things too.

He added:

If, however, by ‘spirituality’, they mean ‘a belief that our material reality is overlaid with an invisible realm of spirits and incorporeal beings’, then that’s just crap. Nobody has any evidence for that.

Midgely then directed readers to an item on Sam Harris’s blog, in which the atheist writer reveals that, in his next book:

I will have to confront the animosity that many people feel for the term ‘spiritual’. Whenever I use the word – as in referring to meditation as a ‘spiritual practice’  – I inevitably hear from fellow skeptics and atheists who think that I have committed a grievous error.

Harris considered words other than spiritual, but concluded that:

There seems to be no other term (apart from the even more problematic ‘mystical’ or the more restrictive ‘contemplative’) with which to discuss the deliberate efforts some people make to overcome their feeling of separateness – through meditation, psychedelics, or other means of inducing non-ordinary states of consciousness. And I find neologisms pretentious and annoying. Hence, I appear to have no choice: ‘Spiritual’ it is.

Midgely is unconvinced:

I just don’t think ‘spirituality’ is a good choice to refer to the transcendent and ineffable. It’s so fuzzy and imprecise – it could mean anything. And that means that when you use it, you’re leaving yourself open to misinterpretation. Why use a word that you have to explain every time you use it?

Not only that, it’s going to be very difficult to uncouple the word from a set of associations people have about it; memories of being in a church, an implication that religion is positive. These are implications I don’t intend and don’t want to reinforce.

And of course, the link between the word ‘spirituality’ and supernaturalism is well-nigh insurmountable. It has ‘spirit’ at its root. How is someone not supposed to think of spirits whenever you use it?

Instead of trying to redeem the word ‘spiritual’ out of the muck of supernaturalism and religious tradition, why not use another word: transcendent. Or transcendence, if you need a noun to replace ‘spirituality’. These convey the transportive sense of wonder and awe most adequately.

In a lengthy analysis of Webster’s book, Robert McLuhan, a journalist and author based in London, wrote on his Paranormalia blog:

Webster doesn’t provide much detail to back up his assertion that spirituality makes people ‘stupid, selfish and unhappy’. But I agree that embarking on a spiritual journey can have profoundly negative consequences, making a person complacent, dogmatic or just plain silly. I’ve seen it often enough. A little mystical knowledge, poorly understood, is worse than none at all. In extreme cases, it makes people easy fodder for cult leaders and charlatans, leading to the breakup of families, bankruptcy and premature death.

But then a movement that encompasses yoga, meditation and strict Buddhist practice alongside crystals, Tarot, channelling and aromatherapy, not to speak of Scientology and other cults – all under the New Age umbrella – isn’t something one can easily generalise about.

Webster’s target is too big and too vague. It’s like attacking France. Some Brits consider that France exists merely for them to mock (as some French think of Britain), and while that’s good for a laugh, others will be more discriminating about what they dislike (eg Parisian hauteur) and what they admire (fine wine, countryside, etc). If a critique is to stand, one has to fully know the object of one’s scorn. But I get little impression that Webster has really engaged with it, or knows it from the inside.

He concluded:

I enjoyed Webster’s book. It’s sometimes good to get an outsider’s perspective. I don’t think it’s a fair or accurate overview of spirituality, but it’s a pretty good representation of how it is viewed by a certain type of atheist, one who understands the importance of ideas in determining how life should be lived.

I think it’s useful, too, to see the spirituality movement in the broader social context – not just as a community of like-minded individuals, but as one of the dominant ideologies of our time. In theory it should have political heft. Most of the noise is being generated by religious fundamentalists and atheists, but there could come a time when spirituality starts to make its presence felt in the same way, helping to shape society through direct political action, as well as through the acts of spiritually-oriented individuals. Its potential in that regard could be better understood.

By the way, McLuhan is the author of Randi’s Prize, which:

Argues the case for the existence of genuine psychic phenomena.

• This article first appeared the the August, 2012, edition of the Freethinker

22 responses to “‘Spirituality’: A word that makes my hackles rise”

  1. Yewtree says:

    I wouldn’t use “transcendent” either, as it can mean a feeling of being connected to the whole (epistemological transcendence) or it can mean the same as spirit, i.e. existing beyond the physical universe (ontological transcendence). And I think you’ll agree that it would be hard work saying epistemological transcendence every time you wanted to express feelings of awe and wonder at the universe.

    One way round it is to say “atheist spirituality”. But I don’t know of a word that encompasses these feelings without expressing some kind of supernaturalism.

    Michael York (a Pagan academic and theologian) has suggested “preternatural”.

  2. Matt Westwood says:

    If you really want the feeling of precious time wasted in a futile manner, try and discuss the mathematical concept of infinity with one of these mush-headed subhumans. It will be entertaining to observe that however much they proclaim the knowledge of the unknowable and all that new-age malarkey bollocks, they will have absolutely not a clue how to go about comprehending true infinity.

    “I’m not religious, I’m rational. My own feelings of brutality and bigotry come from inside, they’re not imposed on me by some fuckwit imaginary fascist. Now go away before my fist has reached the apex of its swing.”

  3. Broga says:

    I think spiritual is used by people to induce what they want to feel rather than a description of what they do feel. I’m lucky enough, as I see it, to live in a sufficiently remote area to be able to see the stars without the obscuring effects of street lights etc. I never look at them without a sense of wonder at the cosmos of which I am a part. I don’t feel spiritual but I do feel cosmic. The sea, but not on a crowded beach, has the same effect.

    I think the world spiritual just has too much baggage to carry and much of that is religious and New Age.

  4. sailor1031 says:

    When people use the words “transcendent” and “ineffable” I want to barf……I know we’re in deepity country. And these are two favourite codewords of catholic bishops to explain why atheists are “less than human” – we don’t get the transcendent and ineffable as Cormac Murphy-O’Connor and the Rat in the Hat both told us a year or two back!

  5. Nitya says:

    I’m glad to see that others wince a little when they hear the word ‘spiritual’ bandied about. I usually profess complete ignorance of the word and ask exactly what they mean by it. Normally I get some vague ,’airy-fairy’ response.
    At that point I usually suggest they mean some sort of emotional reasoning as opposed to the main, logic driven form of reasoned response.
    It seems to be a very lazy way of expressing one’s thoughts and feelings without analyzing where they’re coming from.
    I wish Sam Harris would use another word, as I greatly respect his writing and the clarity with which he reveals his thought processes.

  6. ZenDruid says:

    I’m with Midgley. I think the deciding factor is whether, or how, the individual separates feeling wonder, connectedness, relationships and all from the imaginary fluff. Is there a word for ‘feeling good about life, the universe and everything without the nonsense’?

    Hmmm. Supposing some stray warm emotion comes from nowhere and leaves you uplifted, would you say something like “Dude, that was really fortytwo!”?

  7. RussellW says:

    Agreed. “Spirituality” is an extremely annoying term, but it’s also very useful socially as it can mean basically anything, rather like “democracy”.

    What a ridiculous word “ineffable” is, makes me think of “effable”.

  8. Broga says:

    Just heard another word that irritates me. Or a phrase as in, from under the hammer, Ratzi aficionada Lord Chris Patten who has just said, “my years of public service.” That means highly paid sinecures and, in his case, a clutch of them. I think he is in trouble as the Daily Mail hordes are not impressed with him. That’s a bit like saying a pack of hyenas are chasing you and they are not coming to lick your hand.

  9. AgentCormac says:


    A favourite of mine is when someone starts a sentence with, ‘With all due respect….’

    In other words, ‘You’re completely fucking wrong, and I have no respect for you whatsoever’.

  10. Rudi Preston says:

    @Yewtree I actually do like the term transcendent. It makes me think of the transcendent numbers in mathematics such as pi. But I do understand where your opinion comes from as I’m sure that would not be the first thing they think of when they hear the word.

  11. Matt Westwood says:

    @AgentCormac: With all due respect, it’s got to be said in a tone of bored condescension in order to have its full effect. A subtle emphasis needs to be placed on the word “due” so as to imply that no positive quantity of respect *is* actually due …

  12. remigius says:

    Rudi Preston. It cannot be a coincidence that all transcendental numbers are irrational.

  13. Broga says:

    @Agent Cormac: I think a great phrase to induce cringe and sceptism is “absolutely clear” as in “I made it absolutely clear in the House of Commons” or I want to be absolutely clear”. It is a favourite of politicians and means “I’m in deep shit here if you discover what really happened and I’m going to lie, confuse and obfuscate while persuading you that I am being candid.” Now, we must be fair about this. These politicians are artists at making it “absolutely clear”. When they finish I sometimes wonder myself if I have learned something. They are professional liars whose skilled have been honed over the years.

    When you hear the phrase “absolutely clear” be sure they have something to hide and want to con you.

  14. Rudi Preston says:

    Remigius. I had not actually thought of that aspect of it so when i read your comment it gave me a little chuckle. On the plus side, whilst the numbers may be irrational we can at least prove that they exist as mathematical constructs.

  15. AgentCormac says:

    Matt Westwood

    Totally agree. Condescension is a wonderfully appropriate word in this context as it encapsulates the distain that the person speaking has for anyone and everyone else.

    Equally, I’m with Broga on the issue ‘absolutely clear’. As soon as you hear anybody utter those words you know that they are a lying, cheating, scumbag who has something terrible to hide. (Which would apply to most politicians, bankers and religious.)

  16. Matt Westwood says:

    “Absolutely clear”: wasn’t that one of Tony Bleah’s favourite phrases, along with “believe passionately”? Both the verbiage of scoundrels.

  17. Dylan Wrenn says:

    Speaking of spirituality. What do people think about this whole 2012 enlightenment not doom theory? Has anyone heard of this concept of solar flares breaking through our magnetic fields. There’s this movie called Solar revolution that seems really interesting. I guess it posits that the sun’s energy will override our penal gland and bring us all into a higher state of consciousness. Check it out if you’re intrigued. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r7jplpRKWOI

  18. carver says:

    @ Dylan Wrenn – Solar flares that break through the Earth’s magnetic shield (like the one in 1859) would knock out all electrical and electronic dependent systems which in any technologically advanced society will mean being in the dark with no TV, Radio, Internet – no refrigeration, no automobiles (after 1990 manufacture), no water service, no food delivery to mention a few of the problems. As to a spiritual enlightenment – I would be hard pressed to see any enlightenment out of that scenario.

  19. Lazy Susan says:

    I look at the Sun with some fear. That’s not a nice friendly warm ball – it’s a furious exploding nuclear furnace that luckily happens to be far enough away and behind a magnetosphere and ozone layer that we are not all fried. There’s no saying how long this state of affairs might last.

    We really must get off this planet.

  20. pheldespat says:

    Try replacing ‘spirituality’ with ‘y?gen’, from Japanese.

    Y?gen is said to mean “a profound, mysterious sense of the beauty of the universe… and the sad beauty of human suffering”.

  21. pheldespat says:

    Instead of ‘Y?gen’ it should read ‘Yuugen’.