Can An Atheist Be Spiritual?


A lot of people these days are throwing off the oppressive shackles of religion in favor of a more aloof and personal spirituality. My question to atheists is this - do you ever describe yourself as spiritual? Do you consider yourself spiritual in any way?

Some atheists I know claim to be spiritual in public simply because it circumvents the possibly uncomfortable conversation regarding atheism. Because spirituality is commonly understood as a personal feeling or belief that is beyond the material plane, it's a safe statement to make which requires little further explanation. Spirituality is easily transformed by the other person into whatever they think it refers to, and is therefore inoffensive even if your spirituality and their spirituality are completely different.

While I don't believe in the spirit or any other religious nonsense, I do consider myself spiritual. This is because I personally feel that the term spiritual is related to the feelings and reactions I have that are not tangibly anchored. I feel swells of complex emotion when listening to music. I feel filled with an undefinable sense of awe and inspiration in certain places like the desert at night or the ocean. I am sensitive to people's emotions and feel compelled toward compassion and empathy even for people who I dislike or who openly dislike me. These are things which have logical explanations and I don't attribute anything supernatural to them - but I do consider myself spiritual because of them.

Why complicate human reactions and emotions by labeling them as spiritual? Because personally I feel that emotions and reaction are the very root of spirituality. Emotions are something everyone has of course, and while you can map the brain and measure chemicals and somewhat quantify what an emotion is, the way it's received and expressed is very personal and in that reception and expression, I think you find my idea of spirituality.

People who are close to me understand my position. They understand that I have no belief in god or anything supernatural. When I'm having a conversation with someone I don't know very well, 'atheist' is always the first term I assign myself, but if pressed after that I do say that I am somewhat spiritual because I don't know any other succinct way to explain that I don't believe in god, but I do find overwhelming beauty in life and I am often deeply moved by things and people in ways that are entirely relevant to myself in a way that I can't really explain to other people.

One of the things that bothers me about religion is the idea of the shared experience. The feelings I feel which I would consider 'spiritual' aren't things that I expect anyone else to have felt or to really understand. I would never push the reaction I have to a sunset on anyone else and claim that they lack some aspect of humanity because they don't share my feelings of appreciation for it because I respect the fact that everyone is different and beauty is subjective. I understand that my feelings of connectivity are quite possibly completely imaginary and so I usually only talk about that kind of thing with close friends because I don't want or need agreement about those feelings in order to attain any kind of validation for them. It's how I personally feel. The collective religious experience makes little sense to me because I can't see how something so personal could be transformed into a group activity.

I think the term 'spiritual' is something that, while having a literal definition which is definitely religious in origin, is an example of a socially ambiguous idea. My version of spirituality is nothing like what a fundamentalist Christian considers spirituality and is equality different than a Zoroastrian's idea of spirituality and that's OK. I think if you consider yourself spiritual you can also be an atheist, because I think I fit into that category myself.