What is “spirituality”?

This is another archival repost originally written for the old site in 2007.

My initial intention was to write a quick Brain Fart post with random thoughts on a dozen or so topics that aren’t ready for a full post, but I got a bit carried away with a couple of the topics. We’ll start off with “what spirituality is.”

Stephen Fry is fantastic, and like all good queens, would appear to have two birthdays: BBC Two is having a Stephen Fry birthday weekend a month or so after BBC Four held one. It means they re-broadcast his episode of Room 101 again. There is one short episode in the programme where I found myself disagreeing with Fry: his defence of the “spiritual” while decrying the “new age”. Fry defines the spiritual as matters concerned with our sense of self, and with love, hate, anger, fear, and so on. I can’t argue that these are not important properties of humanity, and I can’t tell him his definition of spiritual is wrong — “of, concerned with, or affecting the soul,” is one of several listed in my dictionary, and one of the several definitions of “soul” is “a person’s emotional or moral nature.” But the other four definitions of the adjective “spiritual”, and three of the other nine definitions of the noun “soul” explicitly invoke religion, god, and the supernatural. I can’t cite any statistics regarding what is commonly meant by “spiritual” and “spirituality,” but I would be very surprised if Fry’s definition were anything but a tiny minority. After all, humans are very interested in our sense of self, and because of this we have a huge range suitable vocabulary for discussing it, and don’t have to resort to using ambiguous terms like “spiritual.” Charlie Brooker’s definition of “spirituality” is closer to what I think most people mean when they use it: “what cretins have in place of imagination.”

The other day I was listening to some old episodes of the wonderful Australian programme Ockham’s Razor, a series of fifteen minute monologues. Gillian Ross was talking about the “science of spirituality.” For the first eleven and a half paragraphs I merely disagreed that Ross’ conclusions followed the premises: that science can not explain everything does not mean that spirituality is of any use; because Ricard or Wilber says something, does mean it is true; and so on. But woah, paragraph twelve. We go from non sequiturs to all out woo. What’s interesting though is that science has been applied to Ross’s spiritualism — real science, that is, not the learn-by-doing-nothing science that she advocates. Real science shows, for example, that Ross’s “subtle energy channels” are not the explanation for acupuncture’s efficacy.

The problem is that this is one of those arguments that doesn’t just invoke a difference in empirical data, or the interpretation of data, but a whole different way of thinking. It’s hard to change somebody’s mind with data like that for acupuncture when data is not important to those who think that “the eye of contemplation” is a valid path to knowledge. And while we’re on the subject, Ross thinks that all science has ever done for us is make life a bit more comfortable? Well, what does Ross’s spirituality do, other than comfort her? As Charlie Brooker says: if you want comforting, suck your thumb. Buy a pillow.

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