Can Atheists Be Spiritual? Spoiler: No!

Personally, the word  “spiritual” makes me cringe. Although I understand its completely secular etymology from the Latin noun, spiritus, “breath”, when I hear it, various images enter my mind uninvited:  unicorns, Deepak Chopra  and those annoying Jesus messages religious relatives post on Facebook on Sundays.

However, with Sam Harris’s new book, Waking Up due out later this year, atheists are again contemplating the meaning of “spiritual” and if we can rightly apply it to ourselves. Judging from the publisher’s description of Waking Up, it appears Harris thinks that we can:

Waking Up is part seeker’s memoir and part exploration of the scientific underpinnings of spirituality. No other book marries contemplative wisdom and modern science in this way.

As a “seeker’s memoir”, Waking Up, is sure to be of interest to many non religious Americans; a  2012 Pew Research Centre survey reveals that 37%  of the American public, who are unaffiliated with any religion, identify as “spiritual but not religious” (see image below where I’ve drawn a rectangle around the relevant section).

Spiritual but Not Religious

37% of Religiously Unaffiliated Americans Identify as “Spiritual but not Religious”

Some prominent atheists (note that the unaffiliated aren’t all atheists) also apply the word to themselves; Lawrence Krauss advocates for the atheist reclamation of spiritual in his tweet but if you look at the replies, you can see the majority of atheists, just like I do, feel uncomfortable with using “spiritual” to describe awe and wonder. This compels Krauss to reply with a definition that we find, intellectually at least, more palatable. It’s a perfectly fine definition, but unless you consistently remind yourself and others about the type of “spiritual” you are talking about, using the word seems contrived.

Richard Dawkins, also feels “spiritual” is a perfectly good word that the religious have hijacked and he is probably right because I see spirituality linked with religion throughout popular culture; it’s especially apparent in how book stores categorize their books. Amazon’s religious and new age books reside together in their Religion & Spirituality section and Canada’s very own Chapters-Indigo does the same.

However, as Krauss did in his tweets, here in this excellent TVO interview about The Unbelievers documentary,  Dawkins must resort to an alternate explanation of “spiritual” to explain why he is a spiritual person; this momentarily confuses the host even though he intellectually knows that Dawkins’s secular definition is a good one. Again, the word “spiritual” just does not quite fit.

But why do we cringe? Why is it such a struggle to reclaim this word? American Atheists president, David Silverman hits on why many of us feel awkward defining ourselves as “spiritual”:

Atheists sometimes use this word “Spiritual” to mean “compassionate” or “full of awe”, and this is dishonest, because that is NOT how it is interpreted AND WE KNOW IT. When atheists use muddy words like this, we are trying to soften the blow of our atheism, for the benefit of the theist. The problem is we end up giving the wrong impression, AND WE KNOW IT, and this only makes us look smaller, less committed, and fundamentally religious “deep down”.

I think he has a point. When we aren’t trying to make our disbelief more palatable to believers, we are probably trying to say, “hey, I’m like you too” as if we are somehow less than human if we don’t share a “spiritual” bond. Unfortunately, it doesn’t make us feel more connected to our fellow humans, but instead feels forced, hypocritical and ultimately distasteful.

Let’s stop using this word. There are so many other words for us to use and Dawkins lists them: wonder, awe, moved. These words don’t require a lengthy explanation for why they apply to us as atheists.

What do you think? Should we abandon the word, “spiritual” or reclaim and redefine it for ourselves?

Introducing Michael Said

Michael Said is a Canadian website run by Michael Leamy, the author of The Atheist Bible. Leamy’s latest article is “The Billion Dollar Tithe,” an article that praises progressive Quebec and criticizes Ontario:

Ontario never had a quiet revolution, so the anachronistic school boards from hundreds of years in our past still exist. Quebec ended its own separate school boards in 1999, the continued efforts of the revolution and its goal of secularization. The charter of Quebec values is the manifestation of that revolution that we can see today, and just as they did in the sixties, Ontario is deriding Quebec for its aggressive stance against religion.

A funny thing though. As Ontario conflates Quebec nationalism with modern secularism, Ontario is, more and more, noticing its pants are around its ankles.

What an image: Ontario with its pants down around its ankles!


As Leamy says,

it’s time to educate Ontario’s leadership once again . . . If Alberta and Saskatchewan want to listen, you could learn something as well.

“Religion Is an Addiction”

While he softens the blow by saying,

I’ve had the pleasure of working with many advocating for human rights whose compulsion to faith is not divisive, but there does exist a select number where religion is an addiction.

Kevin Smith, a member of the board of directors for the Centre for Inquiry, is right: religion is an addiction. Smith makes this statement in response to the latest Ottawa Citizen “Ask the Religion Experts” question, “Was York University right to order accommodations for the student who was opposed to working in a group with women?”:

The recent issue of the religiously obsessed York student’s request to remain closeted in his home, for fear of mingling with the opposite sex, might seem trivial compared to religion’s golden era of influence on society.

However, he goes on to point out,

In Canada, religion continues to undermine secular values. Ontario-taxpayer-funded Catholic school boards and B.C.’s Trinity Western University’s fixation on superstition offensively discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.

John Counsell, the lead pastor at Vanier Community Church, is a perfect example of a person addicted to religion Christianity. Why does the Ottawa Citizen continue to enable him?

Counsell is so addicted to and besotted by religion he can not stop himself from making the most outrageous claims:

the strongest voice for equality has always been the Bible.

He also maligns York University by saying,

York University has been gaining a reputation for being anti-semitic for quite some time now.

Counsell supports this claim with the testimony of one disgruntled blogger:

“The intimidation of Jewish students has been going on for years. Of course, it is clumsily disguised as ‘criticism of Zionism,’ but anybody who has even the faintest idea about those people, can see that the term encompasses everything related to Israel and its culture. Every Jew who doesn’t loudly condemn his or her culture is presumed guilty.”

Counsell fails to mention that York University did not change its policy of cancelling classes on Jewish holidays until the fall of 2009, but goes on to say,

So the fact that York U would accommodate such sexist bigotry should come as no surprise. What is disheartening is that York U is not more exposed for being such a fertile breeding ground for such hatred.

Counsell’s assertion that the Bible advocates for equality would be laughable if it weren’t so wrong.  Counsell should stop reading the Bible with faith-fogged glasses. He should stop criticizing the “brand of Islam, which would deprive women of their dignity” until he can assure readers that Christianity allows women complete control over their own lives and bodies.

“The Medium Is the Message”?

A colleague tweeted this poster, and I’m having a difficult time interpreting its message;


According to Wikipedia,

“The medium is the message” is a phrase coined by Marshall McLuhan meaning that the form of a medium embeds itself in the message, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived.

So what’s the message?

The poster was produced by the College of Humanities, University of Utah and is featured on its home page. Does this influence how we read the message?


What message do we derive from seeing scientist who is, stereotypically, clothed in a white coat, running away from the Tyrannosaurus Rex?

I bet my friend Larry Moran will have something to say about this poster.

Please help: what is the poster’s message?

Super Bowl, God and Advertising

The NFL Super Bowl XLVIII  takes place on February 2, 2014.  The game itself, between the Seattle Seahawks and the Denver Broncos, is one of a trinity of preoccupations for North American viewers.

Jerry Coyne tells readers “Half of American fans think God (or demons) affect the outcome of sports“:

One of the perpetual ways to make fun of religion, at least in America, is to note that many Americans think that God takes an interest in sports. Athletes like Tim Tebow give thanks to God for their achievements and their teams’ victories, and Americans regularly pray for the success of their teams. (I doubt that this happens much in Europe, but I’m sure it’s common in South America!).

Companies and organizations take advantage of a captive audience to get their message to consumers.  In this CTV News Video, Seneca College‘s Creative Advertising Prof./Program Co-ordinator Anthony Kalamut discusses the Superbowl XLVIII ads on CTV.

Calgarians, travelling along Edmonton Trail NE, shopping for their Super Bowl parties will see CFI Calgary‘s “Praying won’t help” billboard.


American Atheists “Take [a] Playful Jab at Prayer in Super Bowl Billboard“:

football-800On Sunday, February 2, there will be something for everyone!

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