Can Sam Harris Reclaim the Word ‘Spirituality’? June 28, 2012

Can Sam Harris Reclaim the Word ‘Spirituality’?

Sam Harrisnext book will take a scientific look at spirituality.

His first task might be convincing atheists to come along for the ride despite their shortcomings about the “S” word. He writes this in defense:

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.

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  • ortcutt

    Why does he think that “spiritual” is a good word?  It’s irredeemable confused and overladen with bad metaphysics.  Kill it with fire.   Everyone else seems to have settled on “mindfulness” for what Harris is talking about here and it’s a 100% better term given that it avoids all of the bad “transcendent” connotations of “spirituality”.  “Mindfulness” good, “Spirituality” bad.

  • jose

    While you’re at it, you can claim “prayer” and “God” for the cause, too.

    Insightful. Profound. Awesome. Inspiring. Rad.

    Likewise I don’t see the advantages of using “transcendent”. Transcend what exactly? Originally it was the limits of the rational mind and body what they were trying to transcend, in order to achieve some high level, enlightened wisdom from above. But atheists are materialists: there is only body. Unless you’re talking about donating a kidney to someone, you’re not going to transcend anything.

  • Spiritual, because our vocabulary is too weak to use to better, less ambiguous words. 

  • Reginald Selkirk

    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.

    Most of the stuff that falls under “spirituality” that I can agree with would fit just fine with “emotional.” Perhaps Harris could better expend his effort in rehabilitating that word. Calling someone emotional seems to have pejorative and dismissive connotations.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Hence, I appear to have no choice…

    Well duh. Didn’t he just write a book or essay claiming that free will doesn’t exist?

  • I support this reclamation of “spirituality” if and only if the reclamation will be successful.  Which is weird, since its success depends on the support of English-speakers like myself.

  • LesterBallard

    Calling Alain de Botton . . . 

  • The big problem here is that the word “spiritual” is a big victim of the whole “the word means what ever you want it to mean for you” viewpoint and, as such has become irredeemably vague. Ask a thousand people what spiritual means and you will get a thousand different answers. I have always found that when someone describes some thing, event or themselves as spiritual, they have told me absolutely nothing.

  • BenZ


    “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.”

    What?? Here’s a few that fit the many uses of spiritual that are not face-palm worthy.

    “’beauty or significance that provokes awe’” – beauty, awe-inspiring, compelling, allure
    “over come their feeling of separateness” – solidarity, brotherhood, humanity, companionship, camaraderie, oneness, commonality, 
    “inducing non-ordinary states of consciousness” – meditation, pensive, reflection
    Or, more accurately: intoxicated, stoned, delirious, high, tripping balls…

    This is trying to add weight to mental experiences that need no additional value. The word “spiritual” lends much less precision and greater chance of confusion than the more accurate alternatives at our disposal. The same goes for “faith”.

  • Randomfactor

    Spiritual, adj, pertaining to certain distilled alcohol-containing liquids.

  • antdrew

    There is a lot of plasticity in words people. Its not a big deal! Sam Harris is doing a good thing 🙂

  • Zeggman

    I think it would be easier to wrest “awesome” away from the stoners than to reclaim “spiritual” from the theists. I like Sam Harris, but I feel like I’ve outgrown the need for mystical, spiritual experiences. I probably won’t be buying or reading this next book.

  • Tom Rafferty

    How about WAC (Wonder, Awe and Connectedness)?

  • Groan. The word “spiritual” has lost any meaning. “Reclaiming” it can only accomplish just so much. The sooner we dispense with the word … and all of its associated, ill-defined, often-nonsensical notions … the better off we’ll all be. Enough already.

  • starskeptic

    Some of the most spiritual people I know are non-believers…

  • Cicada

    I kind of like ‘spiritual’ being what it is at the moment. It’s interesting watching people shuffle in their seats when you ask  them to explain what they mean when they use it.

  • Deven Kale

     Not all atheists are materialists. in fact, you can’t really say atheists “are” anything. The only thing you can say about an atheist is what they’re not, believers in god claims. It seems highly unlikely, but it is probable that at least one atheist believes there’s a world outside of what we can detect. Call it metaphysical, supernatural, whatever. I’ve even heard of atheists who believe in ghosts. Maybe there are atheist dualists, who believe the brain is simply an interface between the body and mind/consciousness, and we just haven’t figured out where our consciouness actually is yet.

  • Bubba Tarandfeathered

    Oh Sam, I’ll bet you have your foollowers, but I am not one of them. Let’s dispense with the cunning ploys to meet the religious halfway. Please Sam it’s time for you to come out of the closet and declare your Agnosticism. Your refusal to use new slang makes your religious clinging more evident. Maybe “Imaginative” might be a better fit for you Sam.

    There is too much ambiguity in the Atheistic community’s language as it stands, we should instead invent a whole new language to describe our feelings. We need to evolve our current language into some form that clearly defines our matured principles. Becoming an Atheist is not a spiritual path, it’s not really a journey, sure there might be a journey leading up to that realization, but none the less it is a simple, singular choice, to believe that reality is not imaginary.  The words spirituality and transcendence are part of the religious community’s imaginary vernacular. Let us break free from the ties that bind us to that barbaric past.

    At least, don’t leave it for me to define.

  • Bubba Tarandfeathered

     Furthermore Sam you got your proscription from Dr. Dawkins. Now explain to me why you are going to only take some of the pills and possibly reinfect your mind with the religious meme? Unless the answer is, you never started taking the proscribed medicine in the first place. Need I remind you, that religion is a memetic disease that causes, amongst many things, grandiose delusions. You are certainly deluding your self into believing, that using a few religious words is OK and if you write another book on this subject in essence you are advocating the spread of that meme. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is pure insanity. You should be arrested for your terrorism against the Atheistic community. Memelogical attacks should be criminalized.

  • And I find neologisms pretentious and annoying.

    All words were once neologisms. Don’t be afraid to create a new term when a new meaning needs to be expressed. “Meme” is a very useful concept and term, and I don’t find it pretentious or annoying at all.

    The root etymology of “spiritual” is spiritus, which means “to breathe.” So we get words like inspire, expire, perspire, and conspire. Breath-spiritus and its derivatives have been tangled up with the metaphysical meanings of “spirit” from the very beginning. I think that too much woo has accumulated onto the word “spiritual,” like barnacles on the hull of a ship, encumbering it too much to be useful for what Mr. Harris wants it to do.

    If you invent a term that is suitable and useful, introduce it clearly, support it with sound arguments, and use it confidently and without embarrassment, it will flourish and be added to the richest, most innovative language in the world.

  • Sindigo

    As a former: Reiki healer, aspiring Yoga instructor and all-round new ager/hippy (now cured) I have spent far too much time around batshittery describing itself as “spiritual” to ever use the word without implied air quotes. I don’t think it needs reclaiming. 

    Also, I question the use of the word “shortcomings” in the post above. /pedantry

  • I, for one, will devour this book as soon as it’s released.

  • Reginald Selkirk

     That is so whack.

  • The trouble is that in most speech people will not even know that you are using the word in a secular manner. They will infer supernatural implications and go their merry way thinking you have just told them something you never intended to. …but of course that’s not to say don’t use the word ‘spiritual” as you wish. I’m just saying the larger agenda is a little implausible. Language change is awful damned hard to plan.

  • ruth

    I have long felt that what people were talking about with “spiritual” was a feeling, emotion.  But feelings are mundane to bad.  Spirituality is big and important.  

  • Ryan

    For all of those who disagree, please see the opening chapter Carl Sagan’s “The Demon Haunted World.” He would agree with Sam on this, and so do I.

  • HeresySchmeresy

    “Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light‐years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.” 
    ― Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

  • I have been reading the new book Eat and Run by Ultra Runner Scott Jurek.  He seems to grapple with the term that extreme runners feel and the search for that zone and spiritual is probably just as good as any term.  He doesn’t mean it in a religous sense and it comes across just as such.  It is definately a different and unique state of consciousness.  I don’t see what the fear is in discussing the concept or calling it spiritual in that regard.

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