by Craig Biddle
Does spirituality pertain exclusively to the realm of religion? Many people think so. But this is an error—and a spiritually destructive one at that.
A spirit is the nonphysical part of a person, the part that subsumes his consciousness, his rational faculty, his choices, character, and emotions. Spirituality, then, is properly concerned with the corresponding aspects of human life, such as the nature of human consciousness and reason, how one uses one’s mind, the choices one makes, the character one creates, and the emotional experiences that add psychological meaning to one’s days and years.
Living a spiritually rich and fulfilling life requires tending rationally to these areas. It involves thinking clearly about one’s psychological needs, choosing and pursuing goals that fill one’s life with meaning, developing healthy relationships with good people, and using the concepts and methods that make all of this possible.
Unfortunately, as important as spirituality is to human life, religion has corrupted this sphere so deeply and broadly that few people are able to think coherently or to communicate effectively about it. And religion is not the only offender. Various secular philosophies have defiled spirituality too.
Whereas religion sullies the field with vulgar conceptions of the nature of spirituality, certain secular, Eastern, and new-age philosophies deny the very existence of the things that make spirituality both possible and necessary, such as the spirit and the self.
The combined effect of these religious and secular assaults is a multi-front war on spirituality. And it has taken a dreadful toll. It has debased and disfigured this vital sphere so thoroughly that few people today are able to live a deeply spiritual life—because almost no one has any idea what that means.
The purpose of this essay is to begin the process of undoing this damage, clarifying the secular nature of the spirit (aka soul), and creating a lexicon of rational terminology pertaining to this crucial aspect of life.
The goal here is not to address these issues comprehensively. That would require a book. Rather, the goal is briefly to indicate the ways in which spirituality has been subverted and corrupted, to touch on the genuine nature of this vital sphere, and to begin reclaiming the terminology necessary for thinking and communicating about it.
We’ll look first at the school of thought that denies the existence of spirit.
Philosophic Materialism: Denial of Spirit
Philosophic materialism is the idea that everything in existence is material or physical, and thus that nonmaterial, nonphysical things do not exist. On this view, spirituality is senseless: If there is no such thing as a spirit, then any endeavor concerned with the nature, health, or use of the spirit is clearly silly.
Spirituality smearituality, say the materialists; there’s no point in contemplating or pursuing that which doesn’t exist. All talk of “spirit” or “spirituality” is sheer mysticism. People are nothing more than matter in motion. Get over it, and embrace your exclusively physical nature.
On examination, however, the materialists’ theory makes no sense.
The theory here is that there is no such thing as nonmaterial things. OK. What is a theory? A theory is an idea about the nature of something. And what’s an idea? An idea is a thought—a nonmaterial thing. See the problem?
Materialism amounts to the idea that ideas don’t exist, or the thought that there are no thoughts.
That human beings possess both physical and nonphysical attributes—that we are beings of body and mind, matter and spirit—is a self-evident, universally experienced, rationally undeniable fact. Of course, people are free to deny this fact—as materialists do—but they are not free to make sense while doing so.
This phenomenon was first identified by Aristotle and is called reaffirmation through denial: When you use something in the process of denying its existence, you thereby reaffirm its existence.
Materialists can’t have their theory and deny it too. But this should not upset them. Although it means that their theory is wrong, it also means that they have a mind and that their life can have meaning. That’s a beautiful consolation if ever there was one.
Whereas materialism self-contradictorily denies the existence of the spirit, our next offender self-contradictorily denies the existence of the body.
Philosophic Idealism: Denial of Matter
Philosophic idealism holds that everything is idea or spirit or soul—and thus that there is no such thing as matter, physical objects, or bodies. We’ll make short work of this school, as its basic error is essentially the same as that of materialism.
The theory here is that physical objects do not exist. But in order for an idealist to voice such an idea, he must physically exist; he must employ his vocal chords or a pen or keyboard or the like; and in order for others to hear or read his claim, they too must physically exist, have ears, eyes, brains, and so on.
Here again, reaffirmation through denial applies. An idealist is free to deny the existence of physical things, but he is not free to make sense while doing so.
In terms of the human condition, Ayn Rand eloquently summed up the absurdity of materialism and idealism as follows: “A body without a soul is a corpse, a soul without a body is a ghost.”
Happily, you and I are neither. But our next offender has something to say about that.
Self-Denialism: Denial of You
Whereas materialism denies the existence of soul, and idealism denies the existence of body; self-denialism accepts the existence of soul and body, but denies the existence of self.
According to self-denialists, the self is an illusion, and the ultimate goal of spirituality is to dispel the illusion and transcend the self.
But denial of the self is not an act of spirituality; rather, it is an assault on the very being to whom spirituality matters: the self.
The basic argument for the nonexistence of the self is as follows: You cannot locate your self. Look around. Look inward. Look outward. The “self,” the “I,” the “ego” is nowhere to be found. Sure, you can locate your body and brain, but those are not your self. They’re your body and brain; they’re physical things engaged in chemical processes. Yes, you are conscious, but your consciousness is not your self, either. It’s just your consciousness, which emanates from your body and brain. And, yes, you have thoughts, but there is no thinker of your thoughts; there are only the thoughts, which emanate from your consciousness.
I realize that this is all quite dizzying, but this is the self-denialists’ argument. The crux of their case is that last point: the idea that there is no thinker of the thoughts you think. As Sam Harris, an outspoken proponent of this view, puts it: “If you look for the thinker of these thoughts, you will not find one. And the sense that you have—‘What the hell is Harris talking about? I’m the thinker!’—is just another thought, arising in consciousness.”
Consciousness may exist, say the self-denialists, but the self does not. The self is not real. And to treat it as though it is real is to engage in fantasy.
That’s the argument. But it does not withstand scrutiny.
As indicated above, one’s spirit is the nonphysical part of one’s self. One’s self, in turn, is one’s spirit plus one’s body. It’s the integrated being that consists of one’s spiritual aspect and one’s material aspect; the complex being you know as “me,” “myself,” or “I”; the being whom, in others, we refer to as “you” or “he” or “she.” One’s self is the being that lives, thinks, values, acts, cares, dreams, and speaks.
To say “there is no self” is a clear-cut case of reaffirmation through denial. Who is making the claim? Your self is making it.
Ultimately, the illegitimacy of philosophic materialism, idealism, and self-denialism lies in the fact that the existence of spirit (mind), matter (body), and self (the integration of the two) comes down to perceptual reality and direct experience. Strictly speaking, reaffirmation through denial is not proof of their existence; rather, it is reaffirmation of the fact that their existence is self-evident.
Let’s turn now to the most widespread corrupter of spirituality: religion.
Religion: Corruption of Spirituality
According to religion, spirituality pertains ultimately to a “supernatural” being named “God.” On this view, being spiritual is about connecting with God, who is alleged to be the ultimate spirit, the ultimate source of all other spirits, and the ultimate object of spiritual concern. This theory is extremely popular—and patently false.
There is no evidence for the existence of a supernatural being, which is why no one has ever presented such evidence. There are, of course, people and books that claim God exists. But claims are not evidence.
What do we have evidence for? We have evidence for the existence of the natural world in which we live. We have evidence for the existence of our selves, our bodies, our souls. We have evidence that our soul is integrated with our body and that we can make choices and direct our mental and physical actions. And we have evidence that by using our soul and our body in certain ways—ways in concert with the natural requirements of human life and happiness—we can create spiritually rich and fulfilling lives.
“But,” religionists will argue, “you can’t explain in natural terms how human consciousness or your spirit came to be!”—to which the proper reply is: So what?
The fact that we may not (yet) know how consciousness developed evolutionarily or how it develops in an individual person is not evidence that a supernatural being created or creates consciousness. To claim otherwise is to commit the fallacy known as argument from ignorance, which consists in treating ignorance as though it were evidence. The religionists’ claim boils down essentially to this: “You don’t know how consciousness came into existence, and your ignorance is evidence that it was created by God.” No, it is not. Ignorance is not evidence.
Nor does ignorance of the origins of consciousness (or of anything else) leave the possibility of supernatural causes on the table. Rationally speaking, supernatural causes are literal non-sense—as in, no sensory evidence supports (or even suggests) them. Things in nature can be evidence only for things in nature—as, for instance, the fossil record is evidence for evolution. Things in nature cannot be evidence for things outside of nature. Nature is all there is. It is the sum of what exists. Something outside of nature would be outside of existence—that is: nonexistent.
We have a world of reason to believe that all things in nature were caused by things in nature, and we have zero reason to believe otherwise. Thus, to believe otherwise is to believe irrationally. People are free to believe irrationally, but they are not free to do so rationally.
Like one’s body, one’s spirit or soul is a natural phenomenon. So too are all of its aspects, requirements, and manifestations: Just as our ears and eyes are natural, so are our conceptual and emotional faculties. Just as our need of food and water is natural, so is our need of purpose and self-esteem. And just as the common, everyday emotions of pleasure, curiosity, and anticipation are natural and pertain to things in nature, so the richer and rarer emotions of serenity, exaltation, reverence, and the like are natural and pertain to things in nature.
Unfortunately, religion has expropriated such important terms and has convinced practically everyone that such concepts pertain only to religious values, leaving people without words to name important secular values—which are, in fact, the proper referents of such spiritual terms. This conceptual expropriation is particularly evident with respect to the emotional aspect of the soul. As Ayn Rand wrote in her introduction to the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of The Fountainhead:
Religion’s monopoly in the field of ethics has made it extremely difficult to communicate the emotional meaning and connotations of a rational view of life. Just as religion has pre-empted the field of ethics, turning morality against man, so it has usurped the highest moral concepts of our language, placing them outside this earth and beyond man’s reach. “Exaltation” is usually taken to mean an emotional state evoked by contemplating the supernatural. “Worship” means the emotional experience of loyalty and dedication to something higher than man. “Reverence” means the emotion of a sacred respect, to be experienced on one’s knees. “Sacred” means superior to and not-to-be-touched-by any concerns of man or of this earth. Etc.
But such concepts do name actual emotions, even though no supernatural dimension exists; and these emotions are experienced as uplifting or ennobling, without the self-abasement required by religious definitions. What, then, is their source or referent in reality? It is the entire emotional realm of man’s dedication to a moral ideal. Yet apart from the man-degrading aspects introduced by religion, that emotional realm is left unidentified, without concepts, words or recognition.
It is this highest level of man’s emotions that has to be redeemed from the murk of mysticism and redirected at its proper object: man. (p. ix)
Such redemption and redirection are essential to the establishment and maintenance of a rational conception of spiritually—on both the personal and cultural levels.
Toward that end, lovers of life should definitively reclaim and objectively define the important terms that religion has illegitimately coopted, and we should use these terms as appropriate when discussing spiritual matters. I’ll supply plausible definitions for several such terms here, but improvements are always welcome:
- Spirit: The nonphysical aspect of a human being; a person’s consciousness. Just as caring for one’s body is essential to physical health, so too caring for one’s spirit is essential to psychological health.
- Spiritual: Pertaining to human consciousness; regarding one’s spirit or soul. Her spiritual life greatly expanded after she realized that she had previously restricted “spiritual” to mystical conceptions of the term.
- Exaltation: A state of extreme joy or happiness. Exaltation ensued when the doctor realized that he had indeed discovered a cure for Alzheimer’s disease.
- Reverence: Deep respect for someone or something. After realizing that frackers provide the fuel on which industrial civilization depends, his emotional reaction toward them shifted from one of contempt to one of reverence.
- Bliss: A state of unhindered joy. Listening to the symphony, eyes closed and soul open, he experienced bliss.
- Ecstasy: An overwhelming feeling of pleasure or joy. The couple achieved sexual ecstasy—and broke some furniture in the process.
- Serenity: A state of calmness and peacefulness. Serenity swept the Western world following the long-overdue elimination of regimes that sponsor jihad.
- Worship: The feeling and expression of reverence and adoration for someone. Whereas some people worship Jesus because they believe him to be the son of God, other people worship Aristotle because they know him to be the father of logic.
- Sacred: Worthy of veneration or deserving of reverence. When the students entered the hall and saw the original Declaration of Independence, they knew they were in the presence of a truly sacred text.
- Happiness: The emotional state that proceeds from the achievement of one’s goals or values. Having struggled for years to create her school and to perfect its curriculum, she found great happiness in her knowledge that its students were learning how to think.
- Values: A person’s principles or standards of good behavior; one’s view of what is morally right or important in life; objects one acts to gain or keep. Productiveness and honesty being among her highest values, Serena was happy to work for her advancement in the company, and she refused to take credit for work she had not done.
- Morality: A code of values to guide one’s choices and actions. Although his parents, teachers, and preachers had always insisted that morality calls for self-sacrificially serving others, after reading the The Virtue of Selfishness, he realized that they were wrong and that rational morality calls for self-interestedly serving oneself, using one’s mind to choose and pursue life-serving values, and respecting the rights of others to do the same.
- Pride: A feeling of deep self-esteem, earned by acting consistently in accordance with one’s rational values and goals. Having struggled for years to earn his PhD, Dave’s pride was visible during the celebration.
- Love: A feeling of intense affection for a person or a thing. His love for his wife continually expanded as he came to know her beautiful soul ever more deeply.
No doubt those definitions can be improved. My purpose here is not to formulate perfect definitions but to emphasize the importance of reclaiming from religion the terminology that is essential to rational spirituality.
Rational spirituality is about understanding and embracing the nature and needs of the human spirit, acting accordingly, and thereby living a spiritually fulfilling life. There are countless ways to live such a life, and everyone who is interested in doing so must choose his own path. But whatever path one takes, one needs the conceptual tools that enable and foster a truly spiritual life.
Philosophic materialism, idealism, self-denialism, and religion constitute a four-front assault on the realm of spirituality—and thus on your life. By understanding their natures, identifying their errors, and reclaiming the terminology of this vital field, you enhance your ability to live a deeply spiritual life.
Conceptual clarity is fuel for the soul. Fill up.
About Craig Biddle
Craig Biddle is the editor of The Objective Standard and author of Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It. His book in progress is on the art and science of thinking in principles.