Does Being ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’ Really Mean Anything?

Oct 28, 2014

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By Adam Frank

“Spiritual But Not Religious” is a phrase you hear more and more these days — and with good reason. In 2012, a Pew Foundation survey on religion found that almost 20 percent of Americans placed themselves in the category of “unaffiliated.”

That 20 percent unaffiliated translates into a whole lot of people. It’s a big enough number that, most likely, your next airport van ride will include someone without traditional religious attachments onboard.

But to really appreciate the importance of this 20 percent in the landscape of American life, you have to consider one more number: 10 years.

That’s how long it’s been since philosopher Sam Harris published his book The End of Faithand kick-started the New Atheist movement. Along with writers like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett, Harris was unapologetic in his denunciation of literalist religious beliefs.

Looking back, New Atheism was at its best when it provided a clear defense of reason against the many fundamentalisms that only look backward. At its worst, however, it dismissed all experiences of “spirituality” as worthless, pudding-headed confusion.


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52 comments on “Does Being ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’ Really Mean Anything?

  • OP :

    Is experience primary, or do we ever get perspectives that can be free of our perspective (of things-in-themselves)?

    Hmm, I smell a philosophical moment ! Yes of course experience is primary, otherwise you would have been eaten by something by the time it took you to ask the question. Our various perceptions of the world are largely accurate enough, otherwise we wouldn’t be here, but are liable to being fooled and to be capable of presenting illusions in our brains.

    What else can we rely on to tell us about the “outside” world, if not for our senses ?



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  • The OP goes on to suggest that none of the New Athists have made supporting statements about spirituality.. This is plain wrong. Hitchens once surprised William Lane Craig by identifying the existence of the transcendent. Richard Dawkins has spoken of his love of spiritually uplifting music and poetry more often than I can count.

    I know of very few athists and agnostics who do not recognise that we are emotional creatures and that we are capable either through our experiences (like music) or our inner feelings (like love) of experiencing feelings that transcend the mundanities of the rest of our lives.

    Adam Frank protests too much, methinks.

    There is a danger here that those who think such feelings are paramount – and, to be fair, most of us feel that way from time to time – then these feelings must lead to some kind of truth, or that they equate to some form of evidence for something.

    The more sophisticated, as DArcy notes, will express this as ‘philosophy’.

    Frank is not alone. I know of at least one member of my close circle who has great difficulty separating feelings from coherent and verfiable evidence.

    Does being spiritual but not religious really mean anything?

    Yes, it means being confused. In particular it means confusing emotional with meaning beyond our personal taste. It also means being confused about what constitutes justified true belief. Those who are knowledgable will spot the philosophical answer.



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  • There seems to be the fallacy of “evidence by repeated assertion”, throughout this piece, in trying to create a religious identity for “nones” who profess “spiritual” or “emotional” reactions to sensory inputs, and then to slide and shuffle this, into a “support for faith-thinking”, as an alternative to scientific methodology, using their atheism as a false badge of authority!

    (All very theosophical!)

    @OP – Looking back, New Atheism was at its best when it provided a clear defense of reason against the many fundamentalisms that only look backward.

    .. . .. and of course it still is!

    At its worst, however, it dismissed all experiences of “spirituality” as worthless, pudding-headed confusion.

    Spirituality” IS worthless, pudding-headed confusion, when it confuses internal emotional responses, with objective evidence of the exterior universe, so “worst” is just an unsupported assertion, promoting “worthless, pudding-headed confusion”.

    What happened was Harris, like many in the 20 percent, had always found meaning in experiences of personal spirituality.

    “Meaning”???? Really??????? I think we need to have a look at what definition is being used for that word!
    A feeling of awe, an emotional high, a feeling of loss or of empathy, or a drunken stupor, are experiences, but “meaning”? – hardly!

    The self-transcending experiences these contemplative methods make possible are, Harris claims, reproducible.

    I suppose just like drinking a second bottle of whiskey, a week after drinking the first one! The effects are “reproducible”! But valuable insights or contemplations ???

    That’s what makes them good analogues to the evidence-driven methods of modern science.

    No it doesn’t! What a load of rubbish! It would make the study of the effects of drunkenness, observed and measured by a medical third party, evidence driven science, but the stupefied individual, would only be wallowing in chemical emotionalism.

    Thus, space in the book is also dedicated to neuroscience and the study of consciousness. . . .. . . . . .

    Are we sure that the experiences people feel as spiritual are fully exhausted by neuroscience in its current form?

    Of course neuroscience needs further research on the complexity of the brain, but that does not leave the physics and chemistry of the neuroscience open to wild supernatural speculations.

    Are we sure there’s no further meaning to be explored in these experiences either personally or in public philosophical and scientific contexts?

    Ah! The theist determination to inject undefined “meanings”, into physical reality!

    Of course we can’t be sure. That is what makes the questions so rich and the experiences so potent.

    No it doesn’t! The emotional responses work, regardless of any “certainty” or “understanding”, by the individual experiencing them.

    As Harris’ book demonstrates, there is a really interesting conversation to be had in this new territory. It’s a landscape of open questions like: What is the relation between brain and mind?

    It might be dubbed an “interesting conversation” for theists, but the dualist concept of the separation of brain and mind, is not science! It is mythology! The working of the brain IS the mind!

    What is the context of human meaning?

    Ah! That pseudo-deepity undefined “meaning” again!

    Is experience primary, or do we ever get perspectives that can be free of our perspective (of things-in-themselves)?

    Experience is “primary, but is open to self-deception, intoxication, illusion and delusion. That is why we use scientific methodology to reduce cognitive biases, errors, and wishful thinking, when trying to understand the workings of nature as distinct from whimsical notions of nature.

    We can objectively study zoology, or whimsically watch unreal Disney animals! The two are quite different. Scientists are the people who recognise the difference!

    It’s all the terrain lying beyond the false certainties that have dominated the past 10 years of exhausting public “religion vs. science” debate.

    All very vague doubt-mongering, without specifying which “false certainties” are being discussed, and appearing to equate or bundle, the false certainties of religious dogmas, with the high probabilities of scientific evidence.

    And it’s a new conversation that will, hopefully, welcome truly curious people of all persuasions: religious, atheist, scientific and spiritual.

    Ah! The “truly curious”! That false equivalence again!

    Why would the neuroscience of “spiritual or emotional” reactions, want discussions with clueless supernaturalist dualists, on the workings of the brain?
    http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/synapse.html
    Human brains do not do objective personal analysis of their own subconscious or emotional reactions.
    That requires objective outside observers to conduct the experiments, comparing monitored reactions various individuals under controlled conditions with the assistance of technical devices provide data.

    For example: – “I will understand, by introspective contemplation, how my neurons were working when I was drunk, “, is not a scientific investigation!!!



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  • The writing here is very confused. Apart from Frank being apparently nonreligious, the closest he comes to hinting what he thinks about any of these issues (until near the end of the article, where he apparently foretells the SBNR group is here to stay because the S part is popular even with the scientifically minded) is when you can identify what additional premises would be needed for his reasoning to make sense. The only problem is, when “Spirituality requires religion” and “No it doesn’t” (and variants thereof, e.g. “These people think so” and “No they don’t”) come out of this, they paint an inconsistent picture of what Frank thinks to be true.

    “Spiritual But Not Religious” is a phrase you hear more and more these days — and with good reason.

    The given reason is simply that the non-religious are common and growing, so presumably Frank thinks this group at least claims to be capable of spirituality. On the other hand…

    At its worst, however, [New Atheism] dismissed all experiences of “spirituality” as worthless, pudding-headed confusion.

    So presumably Frank thinks that New Atheist books are hostile to spirituality at least in part, but that its people will often not be. I wonder why he thinks all of this is obvious. I don’t recall anything in the books of the kind he’s describing. It would have been nice to get an example.

    For persistent readers, however, Harris’ now decade-old book held a surprise. In the last chapter, this fiery critic of religion argued that real spiritual experience was not only possible, it was a kind of birthright. I remember getting to that last chapter and thinking, “Whoa, what just happened?

    Was Frank surprised because he isn’t the kind of non-religious person who sees spirituality as feasible for him, or surprised that Harris would recognise such feasibility? I’m confused. The former possibility implies Frank’s opening is based on an impression that many non-religious people disagree with him on this issue; the latter that he’s convinced that, however many non-religious people may embrace spirituality, one won’t do it in a book. It seems he expects a large gulf between at least 2 of the following 3: himself, other non-religious people, and the leading voices in that group.

    Those experiences now take center stage in Harris’ latest book, Waking Up.

    I get the feeling this was meant to be a book review, but it didn’t spend enough time talking about the book itself. The confusing material I identified above could have been excised to make space for chapter-by-chapter details – or, failing that, at least Frank supporting and/or critiquing parts of the book.

    That’s quite a statement coming from one of the “Four Horsemen of Non-Apocalypse.”

    How does Frank (for want of a better word) divine this conclusion? Again, he never gives an example to suggest such authors have ever been hostile to using what-Harris-calls-spiritual-experiences this way.

    If anything, the 10 years since the rise of New Atheism has shown us how limited its engagement with questions of human spirituality can be. Yes, fundamentalism is dangerous and anti-scientific. Yes, we should vigorously defend the progress made since the time of the enlightenment. But is that really all there is to say about science and spirituality?

    Surely that’s not any of the things to be said about science and spirituality, but rather facts about science and religion. Is Frank equating spirituality with religion, thereby implying you can’t have one without the other? Because that doesn’t really fit with what he’s said before.

    Are we sure that the experiences people feel as spiritual are fully exhausted by neuroscience in its current form? Are we sure there’s no further meaning to be explored in these experiences either personally or in public philosophical and scientific contexts? Of course we can’t be sure. That is what makes the questions so rich and the experiences so potent.

    Firstly, the point of the scientific demand for evidence is not to be confident unevidenced things are non-existent, but to provisionally assume specific hypothetical examples are until new evidence suggests otherwise. Secondly, why should the fact that these experiences are poorly understood make them more potent? It just makes them more surprising (and even then, only if how surprising they are to you is determined by how well science understands them, rather than your own anecdotal impressions; and I don’t think that’s how those who have spiritual experiences feel about them, even if they’re non-religious).

    It’s all the terrain lying beyond the false certainties that have dominated the past 10 years of exhausting public “religion vs. science” debate. And it’s a new conversation that will, hopefully, welcome truly curious people of all persuasions: religious, atheist, scientific and spiritual.

    Again, there’s a religion-spirituality conflation; however poorly we understand spirituality, that religion is irrational and dangerous isn’t a “false certainty”, and the question of how we make scientific sense of spirituality seems unlikely to interest the very religious people who use the absence of such science as an argument for interpreting such experiences in theological terms.



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  • I loathe this wrangling of the “spiritual” and “transcendent” into some kind of quasi-science or some kind of quasi-religion. No intellectual understanding of the hard problem of consciousness will make the vivid shock of real experience any the less, nor diminish the open-handed magic of profound experience from the littlest of stimuli. We can understand how expectation guides cognition and how minimal our aesthetic drivers needed to be to do their behaviour generating job and how second order and third order byproducts of such evolved cognitions may create rich, complex interior worlds, but the dopamine floods are what we live for and what they come from are nameless strange.

    Art, the narratives we tell of living, the experiences we make for others, is the way to enjoy and expand this world, bequeathed by evolution. I see New Atheists embrace these things with a rare passion. Making personal meaning is our thang. Noticing our similarities and our differences our delight.



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  • Alan4, thank you for your thorough dismemberment of the Spirituality Woo argument. I am rather tired of hearing that spirituality is an honorable form of belief in the transcendent. “Spiritual”, I have concluded, is one of the worst of the weasel words.

    There either IS a transcendent realm that gives the material world meaning — in which case all religions are back on the table — or there is not. And if there is not, no amount of euphoria in the experience of drugs, music, orgasms, newborn babies etc. can be labeled as ‘transcendent’. It is either intellectually lazy or plain dishonest to confuse awe and dizzying excitement with otherworldliness unless (as you yourself pointed out) the ‘transcendence’ is merely a temporary emotional rising above the banality of everyday life).
    The “We are all connected in the universe” proof also fails as an argument for spirituality since even the most hardcore materialist would be happy to agree that all matter is fundamentally energy, in the real, experience-able world, and It is not a mystery.



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  • Basically – the science of the brain (all the neuro…..isms) and the way in which it creates the consciousness is just as opaque to the lay-persons understanding as quantum physics! Such a rich subject to air your (currently) improvable hypotheses on the gullible public who dearly want there to be fairies at the end of the garden. Harris just wants to make some money…end of….



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  • it has multiple meanings:

    “i didn’t listen much in church or school”

    “I’m clever in a way clever people don’t understand so even cleverer than them by default”

    “I don’t have an opinion I’m comfortable backing up”

    “I want everyone to like me because I’m not secure enough to be discerning about my associations”

    “I’m extremely wise, if received wisdom counts”

    “I’m good at remembering short statements”

    “the things I don’t understand aren’t important”

    “I’m self-obsessed”

    “I’m still sat on the fence checking which way the wind blows”

    “I’m probably the sort who’d not realise how dumb I sound when I mix my metaphores”

    did i miss any?



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  • Hi Sagan,

    Good comment.

    Being naïve I limited myself and my answer to people who only take positions that they’ve actually thought about, or who might be honestly and simply confused.

    I’m actually quite surprised that being an atheist and agnostic hasn’t turned me into a pessimistic disparager of human nature – isn’t that the way the faith-heads say it’s supposed to work?

    I worry about you though 😉

    Peace.



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  • I think your comment was very good and well thought out but did prehaps give more credit to self-confessed spiritual types then I could muster.

    It’s down to personal experience, the apes I’ve met that profess to being spiritual without having religion have tended to be lazy thinkers, unwilling to dedicate the time and energy needed to either educate themselves in science or discipline themselves in the teachings of religion.

    “spritiuality” is a term that allows its followers to help themselves to the nice bits from huge buffet of eastern philosophies from the ancient like hinduism or budhism to the modern organised con artistry of traditional chinese medicine. there are no clerics qualified to tell them they’re wrong, no rationalists allowed to question their thinking.

    in fact the term “eastern philosophies” itself makes my tail go spiky. I try to remind them eastern philosophies include judaism, christianity and islam which all have some choice views on their hippy-dippy lifestiles but to no avail. it seems I “don’t understand”



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  • the way in which it creates the consciousness is just as opaque to the
    lay-persons understanding as quantum physics

    “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.”
    Richard Feynman

    We can explore and use quantum mechanics to great effect. Can we do the same with consciousness in the way that Sam Harris suggests through a combination of neuroscience and meditation? After all consciousness is probably quantum mechanics at work.



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  • I don’t know. Does being sadomasochistic but not part of any official kinky sex club really mean anything? Does it have any effect on science, or even philosophy, that isn’t likely to introduce fallacies, faith, and its own brand of dogmatic fanaticism? This article does nothing to assure me otherwise.

    What exactly are the “spiritual” trying to claim? An alternative epistemology that gleans facts from introspection? A commitment to particular kinds of pleasant experience? A set of odd methods for trying to do science on yourself without recourse to MRI scanners? What? If a long article about them can’t even clear this up, and actively seems to jump among the different positions, then I see little reason to take what it says seriously, especially given Alan4discussion’s and Jos Gibbons’ critical breakdowns above.

    My suspicion, every time I read defences like this, is that the apologists are hiding behind smoke and mirrors. Call it paranoia or a desire for clarity, but when I’m told the best thing atheists did was shut up fundamentalists, I have to wonder why the conspicuous absence of the “non-fundamentalist” religious crowd makes my hackles raise. And when I see the Big Questions, like the brain-mind connection, trotted out as reasons for reconciliation between science and spirituality, why shouldn’t I immediately think of “Here comes the new boss, same as the old boss” quotation? Especially when this is a trick the religious themselves have pulled many times before?

    Why does Frank think we dismiss “all experiences of “spirituality” as worthless, pudding-headed confusion”? What does that even mean? Are we supposed to belittle the feelings of awe and wonder we get when we contemplate the universe, or watch people do kind things for each other? Are we telling spiritualists they’re making claims that science can’t support, based on nothing more than sitting in a room listening to their own heads?

    Are atheists supposed to be getting too scientistic, or do we lack the certain something that makes spiritualism oh so much more special and wiser? And why are we getting quietly rebuked and patted on the head every time we want to know why we’re heading down the consciousness philosophy path when we were discussing personal experiences? Why is Frank putting fences around neuroscience, one of the sciences that makes nonsense of the whole idea of introspection, and telling it what it can’t do with regard to studying the mind? Isn’t that like an oil business lobbyist lecturing climatologists on how the modern global warming trends are just like the Ordovician and so must be occurring because of the sun?

    You bet your bottom dollar I get suspicious around a so-called SBNR crowd. They’re indistinguishable at times from the R crowd. The general atmosphere of warm but solemn “Big Questions of humanity” fuzzies seems to bleed into their thinking just as it does with the major brands. And it’s bad enough when the Officially Religious try to twist and turn and pull as much confusion and trickery over atheists, without seeing unofficial versions fail to clear up what exactly they’re all about.



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  • Alan4D.
    Thanks for such a comprehensive argument. It’s everything I think about the topic and so much more. ‘Spirituality’ is a brain state. An emotion! It can be brought about by substances. Yes!
    I never use the term ‘spiritual’ (unless in a mocking way) because there are many words better suited to each situation. One can be ‘transported’ listening to music. One can be ‘uplifted’ looking at a natural wonder.
    ‘Spiritual’ comes with so much associated baggage. I avoid it like the plague.




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  • Nicely put Alan.

    The self-transcending experiences these contemplative methods make
    possible are, Harris claims, reproducible.

    I would be more worried if they weren’t. The near death experience in which a bright light is seen so often is surelly just the way the brain shuts down. Just like those old black and white televisions.



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  • 19
    aquilacane says:

    It means you are desperate for a special fuzzy feeling that makes you feel part of something bigger and more profound than mere existence but you don’t want people to think you are fucking crazy. It also gives people who are good for next to nothing the ability to come across as an educated person in their own special knowledge of the universe, making them feel like an authority, even if it is bull shit. Spiritual people are suckers or sucker hunters.



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  • I became “spiritual” as an older teen to improve my chances with girls….It worked.

    I recognise it in retrospect as another “badge of goodness” particularly prized by women as a filter to weed out the complete idiots, the thugs and those with skid-marked underwear. It was replaced later by metrosexuality and pastel shirts.

    I guess Sam is refloating the idea as an alternate more general purpose “badge of goodness” now that “religious” is coming in for some stick and losing a little shine.



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  • All is interpretation, isn’t it? There’s what happened and then there’s what one can say about what happened or what one feels about what happened. The only complaint I have about some of the new atheists is about their shyness when it comes to giving expression to their own deeply felt emotions as if they aren’t allowed in or relevant to a discussion about religion. As an artist and atheist who happens to be bipolar, I prefer to feel profoundly. There’s a lot of mischief in the way people want to interpret their own profound feelings and file them in a place that helps them make sense of the world.



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  • .Phil.
    how second order and third order byproducts of such evolved cognitions may create rich, complex interior worlds, but the dopamine floods are what we live for and what they come from are nameless strange.

    Wow! That whole sentence was very nicely put.



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  • Nitya Oct 29, 2014 at 3:45 pm

    Alan4D.
    Thanks for such a comprehensive argument. It’s everything I think about the topic and so much more. ‘Spirituality’ is a brain state. An emotion! It can be brought about by substances. Yes!

    A couple of weeks back, I did a guest spot at a music night in a pub, – (just myself with a guitar and a backing drummer) and had the whole room singing along and rocking.
    The band leader asked me to do an encore at the end of my spot. This was probably as satisfying and emotional for those present as any happy-clappy evangelist service.

    Of course it tells us nothing about the mysteries of the distant universe, but quite a lot about the psychology of human groups, entertainment, and pleasant emotional social responses.



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  • Religion relies on these artistic moments be it music, art or architecture.

    I remember a holiday in Turkey when I woke very early and so as not to wake the rest of the family, I made myself a nice black tea and went and sat on the balcony. I could see the town of Hisaronu below me and just as the day light began to show more detail the cockerals started crowing followed by a dog here and there. A lorry engine started turning over trying to start its day and just then the Ezan started from the minarets. There were at least three mosques within ear shot and the relative distances made for a magical echo in the morning air. Although we left Cyprus when I was only five I must have some memory of the Ezan that still moves me…..at times….because later on in the day, when we ere eating, it felt more disrupting and threatening.



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  • TSM Oct 30, 2014 at 11:43 am

    Eben Alexander was well debunked in an earlier discussion on this site.

    (“I couldn’t possibly have been hallucinating, due to oxygen starvation, medication, or hysterical as a result of the meningitis brain infection!
    I was a reliable witness to all this while I was unconscious in a coma”)

    Try that one in a court of law!!! –
    Still there are plenty of mugs who buy nutty books and make loads of money for their authors!



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  • I think I’m a pretty spiritual dude. 🙂

    But I don’t think I ever say that as there are more useful ways to describe the various traits that have tended to get one called spiritual in the past, which can avoid bringing into the mind of the listener things like religion, dualism and pyramid power.



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  • 28
    maria melo says:

    I have not too much free time to answer, so I do it poorly.
    And again, let´s quote the same sentence:

    “Is experience primary, or do we ever get perspectives that can be
    free of our perspective (of things-in-themselves)?”

    I guess epistemology would have the answer.
    We do not aphreend things at once, as Bachelard would state: we think and re-thing, our cognitive structures change over time and experience play a crutial role.

    “do we ever get perspectives that can be

    free of our perspective”

    Of course, that´s what objectivity in phsisical/natural sciences, or in a peer review.

    what about social sciences ? A science that defines it´s object where a certain degree of subjectivity is acceptable, even “ideology” ?

    See this reference: early in history what is a science´s object, can a science define it´s own object?

    Sorrry I lack imagination for more commenting (or time)

    Not that gravity (as God) is a human construct as Imperius have stated somewhere.



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  • Whats in a word? Google Websters dictionary (published in the US) and there’s only one definition for spirituality. It’s tied to religion and a deity. Google the Oxford dictionary (published in the UK) and find two definitions. One is tied to religion and the other is secular. Just one more simple example of how the UK and European community in general, has led in the movement towards a more secular society. 🙂



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  • Hi Alan. it sounds like a great experience and you would have been on a natural high after the performance. We all get that to a greater and lesser degree on occasion. I can imagine the thrill of an Olympic athlete ( let’s say swimmer) after winning a race.
    My natural highs occur as the result of lesser input, but I can definitely relate to the feeling. I suppose I can understand why a sudden rush of endorphins could be attributed to something ‘spiritual’. It’s all chemistry at the end of the day.

    I like to know the biology behind feelings because it makes sense of the world. I don’t like calling on mystical experiences or being fobbed off with an “alternative epistemology”. This probably puts people like us in the minority, but there’s no going back. Looking through ‘faith-blinkers’ is not an option.



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  • Hi Olgun. Your description conjures up images of a poem, though I can’t quite place it. ….perhaps someone could help me out. The poem used the terms ‘mizzen’ and’ calls to prayer’. Aghhh!! Google doesn’t help.
    Anyway, suffice to say its very powerful imagery and I feel as if I’m there on the spot; I can smell the aromas and see the sunlight filtering through the haze. I can even imagine how you feel at the recollection. Such is the power of words!



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  • Nitya Oct 30, 2014 at 5:15 pm

    I like to know the biology behind feelings because it makes sense of the world.

    A friend of mine who is a PhD researcher into psychoactive drugs derived from plants, explained to me that drugs provide chemical substitute neurotransmitters, which change the effects at our synapses as shown in the diagrams on my link in my earlier comment.
    https://www.richarddawkins.net/2014/10/does-being-spiritual-but-not-religious-really-mean-anything/#li-comment-158966

    This is what causes illusions and delusions by corrupting the messages in those who take such drug-trips when these substitute for our normal body chemistry. It is the chemical switching mechanism in circuits in the brain. Have a look at the link which explains it.

    @ my link – Neuroscience For Kids
    Many psychoactive drugs and neurotoxins can change the properties of neurotransmitter release, neurotransmitter reuptake and the availability of receptor binding sites.



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  • Alan4D. Thank you. I certainly will look at the links. Sometimes I pass them (the links) on to the needy, but I suspect they’re not even opened. It amazes me that people are willing to believe the likes of fossil fuel apologists and not reputable sources.
    BTW what is the connection between rock musicians and atheism?I have another very outspoken friend who also plays in a rock band on occasion. There must be a spiritual link! ( sample-size of two).



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  • 34
    aquilacane says:

    That is a matter of being clever not spiritual.

    I think Sam wants to cash in on the power of worship. He’ll become a “spiritual leader” I’m guessing. Not enough gulible atheists. He is hanging with a new crowd who will show him the ropes and bring him in under the brand label.

    He’s done with atheists or, at least, trying to play two audiences. He’s looking for people who desprately want something and they know god isn’t it. Atheism offers nothing that makes them special, it makes them average or less so. Spirituality offers whatever they want it to offer.

    If you could be the leader of people’s wildest dreams, you would live well.



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  • 35
    Fish Eagle says:

    Maybe spirituality isn’t enough for you and still leaves you disappointed, but how stupid would it be to fill the gap with jumbo jumbo?



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  • 36
    Fish Eagle says:

    The dictionary on my [American, non-European :-)] Mac has what I need and use: “relating to, or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.” I experience my spirit and soul directly in love and particularly in what I call the “sacred super space” when two people go into the 4th state of love-making; the progressive stages/states being physical > emotional — intellectual — spiritual.

    I submit this is corroborated by the frequency of orgasm being punctuated by gasping: “Oh my god!” — 🙂 ;-).

    Evolution’s Greatest Magic—the one left out by both Richard Dawkins and Helen Fisher—is evolution’s gift of spiritual love as the greatest stimulus to procreate and protect one’s own genetic stock.



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  • Nitya Oct 30, 2014 at 6:32 pm

    BTW what is the connection between rock musicians and atheism?

    I’m not sure.

    There is certainly a mental ability connection between musicians’ understanding of interacting sound waves, and physicists’ understanding of waves in general!

    I have another very outspoken friend who also plays in a rock band on occasion. There must be a spiritual link!

    You certainly need to be outspoken and confident to take front position facing a large audience. . . . and rock audiences are not quiet and servile like sheeples in church!

    Rock bands tend to go for wide-range, sensory, emotional, atmospheric experiences , with stereo / quad. sound, lights, strobes, smoke generators etc.
    If you look at crowd hysteria at big venues / festivals (Beatles etc. onward) it is quasi- religious – a bit like big stadium football match supporters.



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  • That is a matter of being clever not spiritual.

    Well exploitative perhaps. It was entirely dishonest of me. But noticing (after the fact) why I was claiming such “sensitivity” brought me up short. I have to work at empathy rather. Being “spiritual” seemed part of it.



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  • Alan4d,
    As a fellow muso I wish you well, but after reading your post, you seem to be “lodged” in a place from where it seems that the only things that exist are those that can be thought about.
    You seem to be constantly looking “out there” where all these phenomena – ideas, thoughts, emotions, etc are occurring.
    You should also try looking back at where you are aware that you are experiencing these things – the space in which you are conscious.
    This is not a physical thing, it is spiritual.
    Remember, this is not something to think or debate about, but something to experience. Just be there.
    It differs from religion in that it doesn’t involve any beliefs – they are thoughts.
    It involves doing it. Point at where others see your face and see what you see.



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  • Peter Oct 31, 2014 at 10:53 am

    Alan4d,
    As a fellow muso I wish you well, but after reading your post, you seem to be “lodged” in a place from where it seems that the only things that exist are those that can be thought about.

    Perhaps I was not clear enough? The underlying reality which science tries to map very accurately, is independent of “thought”. Thought is only our perception of these features, but nevertheless, thought is still a physical process in our brains.

    You seem to be constantly looking “out there” where all these phenomena – ideas, thoughts, emotions, etc are occurring.

    There is emotional experience, which is “in there” mentally, and there is scientific analysis of emotional experience (usually carried out by someone else).
    One is immersing yourself in the sensations.
    The other quite different process is analysing the psychology and neuroscience of how these effects work in human biology.

    You should also try looking back at where you are aware that you are experiencing these things – the space in which you are conscious.
    This is not a physical thing, it is spiritual.

    Everything in the universe is a “physical thing”! Matter and energy. There is no mythical “ether” which is separate from these. Biology is complex, but still physical.

    Remember, this is not something to think or debate about, but something to experience. Just be there.

    You can certainly just appreciate the atmosphere on many occasions, but that does not preclude understanding the biological, chemical, and electrical mechanisms of the human brain and the endocrine system, any more than it precludes musicians from understanding the physical workings of human ears, mixer-desks, amplifiers, speakers, microphones, or the sound producing mechanics of instruments.



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  • You can just enjoy the moment or you can enjoy understanding why you are having that moment Peter. I’d rather know why. Much greater buzz. My mum tells me I used to take my Christmas presents apart by Christmas evening wondering why those cars made that noise and where the Sparks came from.



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  • 43
    Barry.M says:

    …thought is still a physical process in our brains

    You’ve summed it up there! I also loved your earlier piece (Oct 28, 7:41 pm) and found myself in full agreement with the tone of your response. It’s incredibly frustrating when people try to separate thoughts and emotions from the brain and thereby give them some kind of ‘spiritual’ dimension.

    The sun rising above a misty forest, a favourite song, or simply a smile from a loved one can all be incredibly moving – but I fail to understand the need for an associated spirituality to help explain such feelings.



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  • Neuroscience, explains spirituality best or spirituality is misinterpreted bio-chemistry and physical effect.
    I’m perfectly happy with an awe and appreciation for things, guided by reasonable contemplation for my fleeting chemical rushes.



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  • The term “spiritual” like all words has acquired multiple uses over time – too numerous to cover here. A primordial scenario best captures how I want to use it for the purpose of this discussion. In some distant pre-scientific past a man watched his companion die. Her breathing became shallower; her heartbeat fainter. Finally she expired (literally to give up the spirit or breath form a body – “respiration”=breathing has the same Latin root.) The man wept as the warmth left her body and she became cold. Without access to scientific knowledge, how was he and his fellows to comprehend the awesome inexplicable event? He remembered his deceased partner only as she was in life, animated by what he could only call a “life force.” When she died this force obviously went “somewhere else.” Her corpse heading for swift decomposition was surely “other’ than her spirit which had flown to distant regions or still hovered in or around his environment. Though ignorant of modern science, he was not stupid. His belief in a spirit world beyond the physical was coherent, persuasive, even ingenious given his state of mind. Others speculated that various life forces permeated the natural world – rocks, tree, rivers- and/or operated within a hierarchy of
    spirits -demons, angels- likely ruled over by gods or a single supreme God.

    Sam Harris runs the risk of diminishing our appreciation for his thesis by using “spiritual” in a sense that recommends mystical practices that evoke too much identity with its primordial meaning. Today we know that our physiological composition as an organism, including our huge brain and nervous system, remains confined to a physical environment. No function of the material brain, however configured by complex neurological processes, ever leaves our skulls and connects to a supernatural entity, force or plane of being. Harris articulates the caveat many times but still provokes our reactions by persisting to use the conventional term, “spiritual” loaded with “mystical” connotations at odds with contemporary neurology.

    Basically what I derive from the case that Harris makes for the benefits of meditation is that the brain can achieve “enhanced” states of consciousness through psychoactive drugs, which he admits triggered his first experience, or, more fair to his thesis, through practicing various mental disciplines in the traditions of
    mystical eastern religions, notably Buddhism. Understanding that the brain is a physical organ with no transcendent connection to non-existent supernatural phenomena, Harris does make a good case for exercisng the brain in disciplined ways which can confer personal benefits – peace, relaxation, anxiety-reduction, even the metaphorical “obliteration of the self” – . Mentally and sentiently such exercises are probably “good for you” in the same way that relaxing alone in an easy chair and letting yourself become absorbed in the aesthetic and emotional pleasure of Beethoven’s 9th symphony is “good for you.” As exercise per se, however, none of these techniques differs in principle from working on your abs at the gym.



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  • Melvin Nov 1, 2014 at 3:34 pm

    Her breathing became shallower; her heartbeat fainter. Finally she expired (literally to give up the spirit or breath form a body – “respiration”=breathing has the same Latin root.) The man wept as the warmth left her body and she became cold. Without access to scientific knowledge, how was he and his fellows to comprehend the awesome inexplicable event? He remembered his deceased partner only as she was in life, animated by what he could only call a “life force.” When she died this force obviously went “somewhere else.”

    Interestingly, this passage reminded me of wild-life filming of elephants mourning dead infants or related members of the herd for several days, before moving on.

    http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/episodes/echo-an-elephant-to-remember/elephant-emotions/4489/
    One of the most moving displays of elephant emotion is the grieving process. Elephants remember and mourn loved ones, even many years after their death. When an elephant walks past a place that a loved one died he or she will stop and take a silent pause that can last several minutes. While standing over the remains, the elephant may touch the bones of the dead elephant (not the bones of any other species), smelling them, turning them over and caressing the bones with their trunk. Researchers don’t quite understand the reason for this behavior. They guess the elephants could be grieving. Or they could they be reliving memories. Or perhaps the elephant is trying to recognize the deceased. Whatever the reason, researchers suspect that the sheer interest in the dead elephant is evidence that elephants have a concept of death.

    Researchers have described mother elephants who appear to go through a period of despondency after the death of a calf, dragging behind the herd for days. They’ve also witnessed an elephant herd circling a dead companion disconsolately. After some time, and likely when they realized the elephant was dead, the family members broke off branches, tore grass clumps and dropped these on the carcass. Another researcher noted a family of African elephants surrounding a dying matriarch. The family stood around her and tried to get her up with their tusks and put food in her mouth. When the rest of the herd finally moved on, one female and one calf stayed with her, touching her with their feet.



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  • Spirituality is the tether by which we find our way back to the familiar place where we blew up God. An occasional stroll amidst the wreckage soothes the nerves for those who aren’t quite ready for freedom.



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  • 50
    Light Wave says:

    Well said Alan …I’ve nothing to add to your excellent dressing down……except I think Sam Harris thinks too much and all he does is take 300 pages to say what many of us instinctively know already but never try to put into words…..and he does it in a kind of annoying drawl way….Will Self is a more colourful and textured philosopher for me to relate to…its that old UK versus USA bias again….



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  • Thus, many of the “Spiritual But Not Religious” are trying honestly to
    understand what it means to be both spiritual and scientific.

    By the sound of it, this “spiritual” engagement with the world is what I would call an “imaginative” engagement. They are using their imaginations to subjectively transform their experience of life into something richer and more rewarding than it otherwise would be, and that can be a noble, healthy and creative use of the imagination – as long as you remain aware of what you’re doing. I think the term “imaginative” is more meaningful than “spiritual” in this context, and reminds us not to confuse the world transformed by deliberately subjective perception with the world as described by science.



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  • Neurophysiology of Religious experience

    Though missing the chat this PPT is a fairly good summary of these sorts of investigation. Its serotonin what dunnit and here is some of the story how. (Summary at end..)

    Things to note are wide variability between people and the explanatory gap between an experience and brain chemistry with no apparent external trigger.

    I wonder if this is pure spandrel or perhaps part of an enhanced agency detector mechanism? I would love to see tests for this.



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