The Human(ism) Side of Spirituality

Updated: Jun 15




I recently gave a presentation to a group on the subject of humanism and spirituality. The American Humanist Association describes Humanism as, "... a progressive philosophy of life that, without Theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity." Whereas Atheism is a conclusion with respect to disbelief in the existence of God, Humanism promotes a non-religious/supernatural way of life that is ethical and altruistic.

There tends to be an ambivalent and suspicious feeling in the non-religious community about the word "spiritual." This is the matter I took up in my presentation and discussion. What follows are the notes and points I made with respect to this topic. The title I gave it was, Can Humanism be "spiritual"?

What is spirituality?

A reasonable place to begin is to define spirituality. A basic dictionary definition states, “Spirituality is the quality of being concerned with the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.” I would call your attention to that part of the definition that contrasts "spirit/soul" with "material/physical." Spirituality is a realm or area of inquiry that is non-material.

Spirituality is a broad concept with room for many perspectives. In general, it includes a sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves, and it typically involves a search for meaning in life. As such, it is a universal human experience—something that touches us all. People may describe a spiritual experience as sacred or transcendent or simply a deep sense of aliveness and interconnectedness.

There's an assignment in my Life After Religion Course called: Determining what “spirituality” means to you. The exercise involves answering the following questions as a way of cultivating a personally meaningful, authentic, non-religious spirituality. Notice that none of the questions speak of "God," "supernatural," "religion," or "faith."

What makes you come alive? What satisfies you most deeply? What fills you up? What brings you joy? What centers you?

What need in the world moves you to action?

What hardship and suffering in the world weighs heavy on your heart?

What injustice in the world makes you angry?

What is a source of delight and pleasure for you?

What areas, fields, or subjects are you interested in exploring? What makes you feel connected to yourself? What forms of self-expression are the most gratifying? What would your sense of adventure tell you to do? What way of being in the world resonates most deeply with your heart? Where does your sense of curiosity take you? How are you most compelled to aid the liberation of others? Where in life are you inspired to be a tangible expression of love, acceptance, and compassion? What self-care practices nurture your physical and mental health?

What would it mean to address the root cause of your chronic disharmony and unhappiness?

In the non-religious community there are different ways people relate to the word and concept of spirituality. Atheist neuroscientist Sam Harris describes spirituality as, “…. inhabiting the far end of the positive side of the continuum of human psychology and human well-being… radical insight into the nature of consciousness by virtue of a disciplined practice like meditation.”


Harris also mentions words such as awe, well-being, love and happiness as experiences that do not require the framework of religion, belief in God or the supernatural. He states there is no sufficiently adequate word or term to replace the term “spiritual” or “spirituality,” and instead calls for a reclaiming and redefining of these words. (However, the words Yugen and Satori are sometimes mentioned is such conversations.) Sam Harris sees the mystery of consciousness as one of the primary scientific and spiritual areas of inquiry in the non-religious community. Sam Harris shares these thoughts in this video.

There are many voices in the non-religious community who speak of spirituality.

In an article about spirituality in Psychology Today, David Elkins, author of the book: Beyond Religion: A Personal Program for Building a Spiritual Life Outside the Walls of Traditional Religion, remarks that “… the word spirituality derives from the Latin root spiritus, which means ‘breath’—referring to the breath of life.” To Elkins, spirituality involves “opening our hearts and cultivating our capacity to experience awe, reverence, and gratitude. It is the ability to see the sacred in the ordinary, to feel the poignancy of life, to know the passion of existence and to give ourselves over to that which is greater than ourselves.”

Robert C. Fuller in Spiritual But Not Religious writes:

“Spirituality exists wherever we struggle with the issues of how our lives fit into the greater scheme of things. We encounter spiritual issues every time we wonder where the universe comes from, why we are here, or what happens when we die. We also become spiritual when we become moved by values such as beauty, love, or creativity that seem to reveal a meaning or power beyond our visible world. An idea or practice is ‘spiritual’ when it reveals our personal desire to establish a felt-relationship with the deepest meanings or powers governing life.

The planetary scientist, Carolyn Porco, writes,

At the heart of every scientific inquiry is a deep spiritual quest to grasp, to know, to feel connected through an understanding of the secrets of the natural world, to have a sense of one’s part in the greater whole. It is this inchoate desire for connection to something greater and immortal, the need for elucidation of the meaning of the ‘self,’ that motivates the religious to belief in a higher ‘intelligence.’ But the same spiritual fulfillment and connection can be found in the revelations of science. I consider myself a spiritual person, meaning that I’m someone who seeks the extraordinary in the ordinary; someone who wants to know the underlying meaning of everything; someone who looks around them at everyday life and asks, “Is there a purpose to this? Where is this leading? What lies beyond? And how do I fit into this whole picture?”

Unitarian Universalist minister and author Doug Muder, in a piece called, A Humanistic Perspective on Spirituality, poses the question: “What if we had an authentically Humanist spiritual vocabulary that didn’t have to be borrowed or transplanted or reinterpreted?" According to Muder, "The people who invented Humanism already had an advanced spiritual practice consistent with their Humanism.” Examining each of the four Greek schools of the Hellenistic era - the Cynics, Epicureans, Skeptics, and Stoics - Muder concludes that they “...represent the birthplace of modern western humanism.” Muder sees the ideas of the Stoics particularly as best embodying “the full Humanist complex of ideas.”

Because the word "spirituality" is often associated with religion, supernatural or metaphysics, there is the distinction of secular spirituality. Secular spirituality is the adherence to a spiritual philosophy without adherence to a religion. Secular spirituality emphasizes the personal development of the individual, rather than a relationship with the divine. Secular spirituality is made up of the search for meaning outside of a religious institution; it considers one's relationship with the self, others, nature, and whatever else one considers to be the ultimate. Often, the goal of secular spirituality is living happily and/or helping others.

Science and spirituality

In the non-religious community a link has also been made between science and spirituality.

Particle physicist Jeff Forshaw writes,

“I am struck by the astonishing beauty of the central equations in physics, which seem to reveal something remarkable about our universe… the natural world operates according to some beautiful rules… We are discovering something at the heart of things… It feels like a personal thing – like we are relating to something very special."

And of course there are the well-known words of Carl Sagan,

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 of 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.”

As mentioned previously spirituality belongs to the realm of the non-material, which is increasingly becoming a matter of scientific interest. Dr. Gary Schwartz, professor of psychology, medicine, neurology, psychiatry and surgery at the University of Arizona, writes:

“Non-material science began to emerge at the turn of the nineteenth century when physicists started to explore the relationship between energy and the structure of matter. When they did this, the belief that a physical, Newtonian material universe was at the very heart of scientific knowledge was abandoned, and the realization that matter is nothing but an illusion replaced it. The very make-up of an atom is comprised of what we believe to be empty space. At this point, scientists began to recognize that everything in the universe is made out of energy, and this has been known in the scientific community for more than one hundred years.

Some materialistically inclined scientists and philosophers refuse to acknowledge these phenomena because they are not consistent with their exclusive conception of the world. Rejection of post-materialist investigation of nature or refusal to publish strong science findings supporting a post-materialist framework are antithetical to the true spirit of scientific inquiry, which is that empirical data must always be adequately dealt with. Data which do not fit favored theories and beliefs cannot be dismissed a priori. Such dismissal is the realm of ideology, not science.”

As I have thought about it, I have pondered a connection between spirituality and the theory of evolution. Let me explain. Abraham Maslow created a theory of psychological health known as Maslow's hierarchy of needs. He portrayed this in the shape of a pyramid with our most basic needs at the bottom, and the need for self-actualization at the top. The basic idea is that we have survival needs for food, water, safety, shelter, etc. Then, to continue to develop, we have psychological needs for belonging and love met by friends and family, as well as a sense of self-esteem that comes with some competence and success. According to Maslow's theory, if you have these needs fulfilled, then you can explore the cognitive level of ideas, the aesthetic level of beauty and, finally, you may experience the self-actualization that accompanies achieving your full potential.

What is less well-known is that Maslow amended his model near the end of his life, and therefore the conventional portrayal of his hierarchy is inaccurate, as it omits a description of this later thought. In his later thinking, he argued that the we can experience the highest level of development, what he called self-transcendence, by focusing on some higher goal outside ourselves. Examples include altruism, or spiritual awakening or liberation from egocentricity. Here is how he described it in The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, "Transcendence refers to the very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos."

I have often wondered about the possibility that "transcendence" or "spirituality" could have been an acquired trait through natural selection because it instilled a sense of being part of something beyond and bigger than simply oneself and one's own individual potential. In other words, it was a necessary trait for advancing the human species to be aware, mindful, meaningfully connected to and in active relationship with a larger framework that included other species, nature, the cosmos, and the interdependent web of all existence, and that this connection was forged by nonmaterial dynamics such as the emotions of awe, gratitude, empathy, service, compassion and beauty.

Spiritual but not religious

There are two terms that are common descriptors of the non-religious community. The first is "nones," which are those who do not identify with any religion. The terms comes from what is typically the last choice on questions about religious affiliation - "none of the above." There is also the SBNR distinction - "spiritual but not religious." These are people who discard religious structures for a more personal spirituality.

A recent survey reports that as many as 33 percent of the population identify themselves as SBNR. One of the most interesting statistics here is from USA Today, which in 2010 claimed that no fewer than 72 percent of Generation Y identify themselves as “more spiritual than religious.”

I have discovered in many cases that when individuals declare themselves “spiritual but not religious,” they are adhering to principles of humanism. Many people who aren’t self-identified humanists are de facto humanists. An article aptly titled The Spiritual Perspective and Social Work Practice, author Patricia Sermabeikian talks about the spiritual dimension of life as expounded by such humanistic and existential theorists as Viktor Frankl, Eric Fromm, and Abraham Maslow. Her quotation from Maslow is particularly instructive: “The human being needs a framework of values, a philosophy of life, a religion or religion-surrogate to live by and understand by, in about the same sense he needs sunlight, calcium, or love.”

The word "spiritual" often stands in contrast to "secular," and both terms are often viewed in quite a narrow-minded sense. Religious/spiritual people tend to have an inadequate understanding of the word "secular," and non-religious people return the favor with an insufficient view of the word "spiritual." The words are often thought of antithetical - in other words, what is "secular" cannot be "spiritual" and what is "spiritual" cannot be "secular." Part of the confusion is that the word "secular" implies to some the absence of things like any kind of deep sense of aliveness and interconnectedness or feelings of awe, well-being, love, beauty and happiness or transcendent experiences of knowing oneself as part of and belonging to a greater, mysterious and beautiful whole. And then on the other hand, the word "spiritual" implies to some the belief in God and religion or a bunch of woo-woo and supernatural/metaphysical mumbo-jumbo and irrational nonsensical quackery.

That many humanists themselves disparage the term spiritual as mumbo-jumbo—as little more than outdated pre-scientific superstition—doesn’t much help the matter either. For it inflicts the word with negative meanings similar to what Christian conservatives have done to the tag “secular.” I think humanists would want to claim all the positive, non-supernatural aspects of spirituality, and leave the heavily biased, parochial derision of the term secular to those too narrow-minded, or prejudiced, to appreciate how they’re using it.

In the article, "Humanism and Spirituality: A Spiritual Perspective," Humanist psychologist Judith Goren writes, “Humanism, to be a viable movement in the 21st century, needs to expand its parameters to explore, address and include the spiritual dimension of human experience.” With respect to the Humanist Manifesto of the American Humanist Association, I think that according to all the secular definitions of spirituality I’ve seen—Humanism's philosophy, ethics, and its principles and practices makes humanism a spiritual movement, and one to be reckoned with. Some hope that future humanists will come to recognize their essential identity and reclaim a word that actually reflects the very heart of what they’re all about. Which is to say their aspiration to lead virtuous, morally responsible lives that are at once rational and—emotionally—rich, passionate, exciting . . . and deeply fulfilling.

There are many examples of people expressing non-religious spirituality such as this Atheist Superbowl Commercial and this compelling and inspiring video entitled, My spirituality as an atheist.

As stated at the outset, the title for my remarks and discussion was, Can Humanism be "spiritual"? This breaks down into a few very different kinds of questions. With respect to "can" humanism be spiritual, of course it can. In the simplest and perhaps the most profound sense of the term, Humanism IS spiritual. Religion can often be a barrier to nurturing spirituality to the extent that it assumes that it has already answered all the deepest questions of life, systematizes the spiritual realm into an approved set of beliefs, practices, do's and don'ts, and rules and rituals, uses the construct of divine reward and punishment to engender good or moral behavior, and discourages skepticism, questioning and exploration beyond its own beliefs and conclusions.

So yes, Humanism "can" be and IS spiritual.

However, there is the question of whether Humanism wants to claim and use the word "spiritual" or "spirituality" to describe itself. In so doing, Humanists may have the burden to explain what they don't mean and what they do mean by these terms since many people already have a fixed understanding about them. Choosing words such as Yugen and Satori would have its own challenges. Others have suggested that reference is simply made to the "human spirit."

After my remarks, the group discussed the following questions:

1. What is "spirituality" and why do people want it? 2. What is the humanistic mindset or response to the interest people have in spirituality? 3. Is there a secular or humanistic spirituality? 4. Is being human enough, and is everything we need to know for living a meaningful, fulfilling, and purposeful life found in our humanity?

5. Are there better semantics or language for identifying and talking about the ideas that the word “spirituality” are referring to?


In my work as a Spiritual Director, I am often working with people who have been damaged or suffered spiritual abuse through their involvement in religion. I also have many clients who are humanists and non-Theists. In my spiritual direction work I utilize a spectrum of non-religious perspectives and insights from philosophy, depth psychology, science and the arts.

To explore the topic of non-religious or humanist spirituality, check out these books:

The Good Book: A Humanist Bible, A.C. Grayling

Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, Sam Harris

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, Neil deGrasse Tyson

The Meaning of Human Existence, Edward O. Wilson

Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, Stephen Batchelor

Christianity without God, Lloyd Geering

Reason and Reverence, William R. Murry

Christianity without God, Daniel C. Macguire


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