April 8, 2009

We've Got Spirit Yes We Do

I've come across this issue from a few angles quite a lot recently -- what exactly is "spirit"?

At least some religious folks, Protestant Christians in particular, seem to think that a "spirit" is some kind of autonomous or semi-autonomous but non-corporeal entity capable of influencing emotions and minds. There are apparently good and evil spirits for these people. The distinction between spirits on the one hand and angels or demons on the other hand is a bit hazy to me, but it may have to do with whether these entities have bodies that a person can touch and feel and interact with when the entity manifests itself.

Or you can say it's something like Satan or a ghost.

If that definition isn't to your liking, there's all sorts of New Age and pre-New Age claptrap out there that makes even less sense.

Here on this blog, not too long ago there was a lengthy colloquy between two Readers and myself regarding what a "spirit" is and how one experiences something on a spiritual level. You can read the whole thing here. I didn't come away from the discussion any more illuminated than I was going in, unfortunately, but I thank my Reader for giving it his best shot.

On Friendly Atheist, I see a link to a Pew Research poll result showing that about 5% of Americans state that they do not believe in God, and the question then becomes, what do these people call themselves? Only about a quarter call themselves "atheists," although if they don't believe in God that's what they are, at least as I've defined the term "atheist" for my own use. Interestingly, as many people who who do not believe in God call themselves "agnostics" as they call themselves "Christians." So something very odd is going on there. Doesn't a Christian, by definition, believe in God? How can someone say they do not believe in God and then call themselves a Christian? My brain, it explodes!

Also on the Pew Forum, only a minute number of people called themselves "spiritual" with nothing more; the surveyors undoubtedly pressed for additional details to get a result like that. I've encountered quite a lot of people who offer that one-word explanation to describe themselves and then act as though they've answered the question about their religious identification.

In an e-mail forum in which I participate, the question of what exactly people mean when they describe themselves as "spiritual" has come up. My theory is that these are people who a) aren't particularly religious, b) haven't given religion a whole lot of thought or are otherwise dissatisfied with religion in an inchoate way, and c) don't really want to dwell on the issue, will describe themselves as "spiritual" when asked to religiously self-identify.

But another participant in the forum, who in turn advises that he was paraphrasing (of all people) Ayn Rand,* describes it thus:
The word "spirit" means "pertaining to human consciousness." It is real, essential to human life, an integral part of what we are, and wholly this-worldly.

Do you experience joy, suffering, pain, happiness, elation, pride, confidence, ambition, self-esteem, self-loathing, or any combination or permutation of these or any other emotions? If so, it is wholly appropriate to integrate their sum in terms of a single concept: "spirit."

... [T]hose for whom "spiritual" means the opposite of "emotionally dead" have it exactly right. This is no false dichotomy. The error arises when secularists accept the notion (advanced by Plato, Christianity, and Kant) that spirit must necessarily exist apart from the body, and therefore be a product of and evidence for the supernatural. Since the supernatural doesn't exist, neither does the spirit. QED.

But the premise is wrong. Your spirit does NOT exist apart from your earthly body. It is the product of your own premises and of your capacity to feel, of the conclusions, judgements and values accumulated and automatized over a lifetime. It is your real, authentic, this-worldly soul: the essential "you." Nearly all people, at some level, know this, and know its importance. So long as we secularists deny its existence, we cannot blame them for turning to religion.
The kind of emotional life that my correspondent writes about are at the core of life. To feel those sorts of emotions -- pride, awe, appreciation of beauty, love, joy -- are at the very core of why life is good, why we should all be happy to be alive. So too are less pleasant but no less vital emotions, like grief, pain, despair, or horror.

So too does Omar point out that our emotions and our ethics are inextricably intertwined. Who among us, when confronted with a story in the news about some shocking, awful act like a murder or a rape or a kidnapping of a child, does not react with some degree of visceral emotion as well as simultaneously with a value judgment? None of us. Our emotion of revulsion dovetails with our sense that a grave moral wrong has taken place. Conversely, when we see or hear of people doing very nice and good things, we get a simultaneous feeling of a good value judgment, approval, along with a happy, fulfilled emotion.

I like this last way of thinking about the "human spirit" very much because it does a nice job of offering an insight into the human condition, and it rings true with the sorts of experiences that we all have. And it doesn't require belief in the supernatural, just a healthy sense of morality and some degree of empathy. Call it a "soul" or a "spirit" if you want, it's something that is within all of us, something that is deeply a part of what it is to be human and alive.

* I'm being unfair to Ms. Rand here -- she certainly would claim to be a lover of this vibrant aspect of life were she still alive to quibble with the likes of me. I'm not so sure she would have been able to universalize that joie de vivre, though; she loved it for herself and while she made no apologies for it, she'd have been quick to say that your enjoyment of life is your responsibility and not hers. I think at the end of the day, though, we cannot completely abdicate our responsibility for others in this interdependent world and that this, too, can be a source of happiness.


trumwill said...

Some people view being Christian as sort of like being Jewish. Something you're born with.

People who talk about being spiritual without being religious tend to annoy me. I see nothing wrong with that being someone's stance per se, but it seems to attract the sort that want the benefits of believing in God without the accountability of the social institution. It also gives you the opportunity to become across as all individual and deep-thinking and better than those sheepling... but without actually abandoning faith in a higher power.

Pamela said...

"My brain, it explodes!"

I imagined this in an Italian accent and could not stop laughing. Very interesting blog by the way. You provide a lot for all of us to consider.

David Schraub said...

There are plenty of religious Jews that don't believe in God too. Many Reconstructionist Jews, for example.

Burt Likko said...

What exactly are these religious Jews doing when they attend temple services, then? If they don't believe in God, then do they just kind of zone out during the parts where the rabbi talks about God?

David Schraub said...

Mordechai Kaplan (the founder of RC Judaism) started the branch because he felt that Jewish ideas and practices as traditionally conceived were incompatible with naturalist western thought, but he nonetheless found the rituals and practices meaningful (he reconceptualized Halakah, for example, as a "folkway").

I certainly empathize -- I'm indifferent to the existence of God (I don't actively disbelieve, I just don't find it a terribly interesting or meaningful question), but I still am connected to many of the prayers or practices for a variety of reasons: I grew up with them and they're familiar to me, I value the connection they give me to my ancestors and traditions, many of them express moral principles or sentiments I want to affirm (and affirm as embedded within my own social history), and I do genuinely feel the pull of the 614th commandment, etc.. Given that Kaplan's view of God was essentially just Jewish-flavored Deweyist Pragmatism, it's not too difficult to reconcile RC Judaism with a lack of belief in anything approaching a traditional God.