Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Jul/12

1

Not Necessarily Woo-Woo?

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Sam Harris goes on a spiritquest:

In writing my 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.

The word “spirit” comes from the Latin spiritus, which in turn descends from the Greek pneuma, meaning “breath.” Around the 13th century, the term became bound up with notions of immaterial souls, supernatural beings, ghosts, etc. It acquired other connotations as well—we speak of the spirit of a thing as its most essential principle, or of certain volatile substances and liquors as spirits. Nevertheless, many atheists now consider “spiritual” thoroughly poisoned by its association with medieval superstition.

I strive for precision in my use of language, but I do not share these semantic concerns…

We must reclaim good words and put them to good use—and this is what I intend to do with “spiritual.” I have no quarrel with Hitch’s general use of it to mean something like “beauty or significance that provokes awe,” but I believe that we can also use it in a narrower and, indeed, more transcendent sense.

Of course, “spiritual” and its cognates have some unfortunate associations unrelated to their etymology—and I will do my best to cut those ties as well. But 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.

Dear me, he’ll be writing about searching for meaning next.

But, whatever floats his boat…

H/t: Andrew Sullivan

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2 comments

  • Richard Sheaffer · July 6, 2012 at 3:19 pm

    Sam Harris is correct. Cleansing the concept of spirituality is the first step on the path of spirituality. You cannot get there unless you know in which direction to head.

  • Angie Van De Merwe · July 7, 2012 at 4:42 pm

    “Spirituality” of the transcendent kind always leads to presumptive assertions that make claims that cannot be known. And when this happens, people presume upon others.

    “Spirituality” of the atheistic kind presumes because of certain values that are inflicted upon everyone in policy matters.

    So, “spirituality” is not prone to liberty, because of its need to define spirituality. Don’t different folks tend toward “different strokes”? Neuroscientists believe so.

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