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Humanist spirituality

Does a humanist approach to life leave room for depth of wonder? Read Jacqueline Watson on a humanist sense of spirituality.

Some critics claim that a humanist conception of a good life lacks a whole dimension, they say it leaves little room for depth or wonder. Below, Jacqueline Watson explains how our lives need not be diminished by a humanist worldview, nor denied a ‘spiritual’ dimension.

The word ‘spirituality’ has religious roots, originally referring to the idea that human beings have a non-material spirit or soul. Since humanists are materialists and don’t believe in a spiritual realm, many humanists prefer not to use the word.

However, many humanists argue that spirituality can be understood as referring to a set of natural human characteristics which are as vital to those who are not religious as to those who are. If we use the language of spirituality to refer to a natural dimension of human life, then non-religious people can be included in the discussion.

Spirituality is about meaning. All animals have to make meaning of the environment in which they live: they have to make sense of it to avoid falling into rivers, or to find their way to food or a suitable mate. Human beings, probably because of our special abilities with language, have gone further and developed a need to make meaning of our lives.

You could say that without a god or higher being there is no meaning to life, and it is certainly true that humanists believe there is no pre-determined purpose to human life. But all human beings need to feel their life has meaning. Humanists believe that each of us constructs spiritual meaning for ourselves; we are responsible for our own spirituality.

To achieve that sense of spiritual meaningfulness we feel a deep need to connect with something greater than ourselves. Traditionally expressed as connection to a god or a supreme being, non-religious people might equally connect with nature, the earth, or the universe; or with family, friends, or a political party; or with all of these, or something else. People especially search for spiritual meaning at significant stages in life. When people get married they often want more than just a legal arrangement, and wish to make promises to their partner based in shared beliefs. When we die, we want to tell a meaningful story about our life, to consider how our life fits into a bigger picture, a bigger whole. We sometimes want to transcend our everyday lives.

In a similar way, spirituality has to do with a sense of satisfaction in (temporarily) losing our (sense of) self. And, again, that loss of self doesn’t require religious mysticism or meditation. We can achieve loss of self in a place, in a person, or with a group, or through the flow of an absorbing activity like walking, surfing, painting, motorcycle maintenance, or watching a football match. Although the bigger picture may be important, some of the most spiritually fulfilling moments of our lives are those when we escape rational reflection.

Spirituality is also linked to a sense of awe and wonder. A religious person might claim this is achieved through revelation of the power of a god working through the universe. Humanists can achieve a sense of awe and wonder through the observations of science, which offer awe-inspiring insights into the natural world and the universe. When fully realised, scientific ‘revelation’ can generate a spiritual shock as powerful as mystical insight, though rooted in material reality. As the eminent scientist Carl Sagan said, ‘The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.’ Brian Cox and David Attenborough generate spiritual responses from scientific facts in their television programmes, often with the help of poetic language and captivating photography; the arts have always been used to stimulate spiritual experience. The spiritual experience that science can generate can also motivate human beings to moral action, perhaps through illustrating our connections with other human beings or our wonder at the natural world.

Today, the word ‘spirituality’ in used routinely in public services and elsewhere as a broad term, signalling the inclusion of all people in spiritual nurture and care, including those of us who are not religious. As a result, for instance, humanism is taught in schools, and humanists support non-religious people in hospital and prison chaplaincies. This is important because research suggests that spiritual resilience helps people deal better with life’s challenges. Human beings are a wonderful result of natural evolution but, because we are self-aware, being human involves existential challenges. To face such challenges and enjoy life to the full, non-religious people need opportunities and support in developing spiritual meaning and strengthening spiritual resilience.

Question: Do you think a humanist life can have a spiritual dimension?

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Introducing Humanism: Non-religious Approaches to Life, with Sandi Toksvig

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