My Case Against Spirituality

By Richard H.

My name is Richard, and I am a grateful recovered alcoholic. I am also an atheist and most certainly not spiritual.

It seems like the word spirituality means something different to everyone who uses it in AA. I’ve heard people use “spirituality” to describe strongly theistic belief systems such as reliance on a prayer-granting deity. I’ve heard more “new age-y” ideas incorporating things like “karmic forces” in the Universe, I have heard secular ideas like the ones promoted by Sam Harris, a well know atheist author, and I’ve heard everything in between.

This brings me to my first problem with the use of the word “spiritual”. Because these ideas about what is spiritual vary so greatly from person to person, no one seems to know what anyone means when they say they are spiritual. Even when we eliminate the blatantly theistic ideas, it’s left up to any one person’s imagination what is being conveyed when someone references their spirituality.

If we were to sit down and discuss what exactly we mean when we talk about practicing spirituality, some (or possibly all) of the following ideas would be mentioned:

  • Practicing kindness
  • Being honest
  • Being compassionate
  • Practicing acceptance
  • Achieving serenity
  • Being slow to anger
  • Self-examination
  • Some sort of giving back/charity
  • Loving of nature
  • Being “at one” with The Universe
  • Having a sense of wonder
  • Deflating the ego
  • Enjoying music
  • Meditating
  • Repeating mantras or affirmations

This list is by no means comprehensive, but certainly these are some of the major themes. By and large, these are all excellent concepts and practices, and most of us would inarguably benefit from incorporating them into our daily lives.

However, even on this list of secular ideas, there can be confusion about how to practice them. For example, the seemingly simple idea of meditation becomes an exercise in confusing mental gymnastics. How does one meditate? Is there a right or a wrong way? What exactly is it? I admit that I am guilty of using this kind of spiritually-centered language about meditation when I am sharing in an AA meeting as well. Being an atheist who doesn’t pray, I feel I have to meditate to be accepted in the club. I enjoy swimming and try to get into the pool 5 days a week. I find the water peaceful and find the repetitive splashing and breathing calming. I find that trying to keep my mind clear of everything except which length I am on difficult, but rewarding. About a year ago, I bought a waterproof iPod Nano with waterproof headphones. I was going to listen to some of my favorite music while I was in the pool. I used it twice. (On that note, if anyone wants to buy a waterproof iPod Nano … ) I missed the peaceful quiet and the repetition of *splash splash* breathe *splash splash* breathe.

I describe my physical and cognitive understanding of the experience of swimming as meditation. I have no idea if it is or not. I went to a Step 11 meeting in Toronto about 3 years ago where the meeting started with 10 minutes of quiet “meditation.” Everyone sat quietly on their chair and said nothing. For me, this was a completely different experience than my swimming, yet it’s still called meditation. Are they the same thing? They can’t be, can they? Does anyone actually know?

If we look up the definition of spiritual on dictionary.com, we find that we have to broaden the definition from the secular one above.

Spiritual:

  1. of, relating to, or consisting of spirit; incorporeal
  2. of or relating to the spirit or soul, as distinguished from the physical nature
  3. closely akin in interests, attitude, outlook, etc.
  4. of or relating to spirits or to spiritualists; supernatural or spiritualistic
  5. characterized by or suggesting predominance of the spirit; ethereal
  6. of or relating to the spirit as the seat of the moral or religious nature
  7. of or relating to sacred things or matters; religious; devotional; sacred

richard-h-2 This is my second problem, and it goes beyond just confusion about what the word spirituality means. The unifying idea in these definitions is the existence of something unseen. We see the words incorporeal, supernatural, ethereal, and sacred. This idea that spirituality encompasses the existence of something unseen is, in my experience, far more commonplace than the secular concepts I listed previously. It encompasses the “I’m spiritual, but not religious” crowd, many of the “new age” kinds of ideas, and even many who would consider themselves agnostics.

I find this idea even more unpalatable than I find the confusion around the secular idea of spirituality. I find this idea unpalatable for the same reason I am an atheist. I see no evidence for a spirit, a soul, anything supernatural, or anything separate from the physical world. If you are going to claim that such things exist, then I require proof. Until you present that evidence, I am going to suspend belief. Some of the ideas in the above definitions and practices actually fare worse than that. Not only is there no evidence for the existence of a soul or spirit, modern neuroscience provides good evidence that mind-body dualism is false. This entire idea of spirituality sounds like woo.

Tying these ideas together is easy enough. All the secular ideas that I listed above (even the confusing idea of meditation) are a result of physical actions and processes. There is no need for me to invoke any woo to describe the actions and processes that have helped me recover from alcoholism. I decide to be kind and honest. I do not act impulsively out of anger. Slowly, as I practice these behaviors over a period of time, I have become better and better at them. I practice positive affirmations, and slowly my self-esteem has improved. I slow down and look at the world around me. I look up at the night sky, and I realize I am just the smallest piece of a universe so immense I cannot comprehend it. I examine my past behaviors and I try to do more of the good things, and less of the bad, and all of those decisions are influenced by my secular worldview and secular morality.

But what does all this matter? It matters because, in recovery, we try to share our experience, strength, and hope. If we cannot share our experience in such a way that it’s very clear to the majority of the people present what we’re talking about, then what good is it? When we talk of spirituality, the confusion as to what we mean renders what we share virtually meaningless. It offers no more clarity than “I did stuff and then stuff happened.”

The other, and perhaps more important reason, is that it matters for the newcomer. The newcomer who is not yet comfortable with the overtly theistic language we often hear in AA rooms. The newcomer who hears the word god, decides he has walked into a cult, and never comes back. Statistics show that the number of non-believers is growing in the United States. In other countries (like Canada, where I live) the number of non-believers is much higher. The overtly theistic/religious nature of AA is driving the newcomers away, and as the percentage of non-believers grows, AA’s membership will surely decline. If we truly want to help newcomers, we need to move away from the overtly theistic/religious language, and move toward embracing language that is very clear and unmistakably secular.

My name is Richard and I am a decidedly unspiritual recovered alcoholic.


About the Author, Richard H.

Richard is one of the many educated waiters.  His degree is in Finance but he works at a successful and critically acclaimed restaurant in Calgary.  If he isn’t at work you will often find him in the pool swimming.  He has been sober since February 2012 and helped start a WAAFT meeting in Calgary.

Audio Story

The audio version of this story was narrated and recorded by Len R. from Jasper, Georgia. Len is interested in starting a secular AA meeting in his area. If you would like to join him, please send an email to lenr.secularsobriety@gmail.com

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Andrew L
Andrew L

Even more baffling is the way that the word is used colloquially in the fellowship. When measuring “spiritual condition,” if you hear the speaker’s whole story out, it usually becomes clear that they think their “spiritual condition” is determined by whether they are happy/comfortable or not. Ergo: if I’m happy, that means Zeus loves me and if I’m unhappy, Zeus is clearly displeased. Talk about tyranny; that’s a true prison of the mind. I love my secular group, where I hear that idiotic word about twice a year, and that’s mostly by accident/force of habit. Instead of superstitiously fetishizing our… Read more »

Jeb B

Words are only symbols. Therefore, the only thing important to me is the meanings I attach to them.  For me, spiritual only means “non-material” and therefore refers to my thoughts, attitudes, ideas and feelings/emotions. That helps me immeasurably to both listen and describe my experience. I heard an oldtimer recently say “My first AA meeting was a spiritual experience, finally feeling connected with others. I knew I belonged there.”

RonB
RonB

Jeb, Words are not symbols. You can manipulate and confuse with words but not with symbols. Of course you can attach your own meanings to words and create your own dictionary but the intent is to convey yoor perceptions as accurately as possible to other with words they understand, or in the case of politicians confuse with words they don’t understand.

I like Chinese writing because it’s pictorial.

Thoughts are material, emotions are sensory and material, attitudes are learned.

Spirituality is that experience the oldtimer talked about.

I guess you did too!

all the best

Peter T.
Peter T.

I cringe every time I hear “I’m a spiritual being having a human experience.”… so when I’m asked to speak, I usually work in “I’m a physical being having a physical experience.”

I’ve backed into definition of spirituality that works for me:  The creation of meaning, where none is apparent.

Geoff
Geoff

I say this at every meeting  I share “The most spiritual thing I will ever do is not take the first drink”

JHG

The fact that spirituality is used in ways that avoid specificity and/or that are often quite contradictory of each other (and even within themselves) is not the real problem. In fact, there is a not insignificant benefit to the vagueness of the word spiritual in that it becomes what is called an “empty signifier”. Empty signfiers, because they are shared by people who don’t agree on exactly what they mean, can facilitate unity in the midst of diversity. The American flag means something different to different people, but it can contribute to a process by which, in spite of vastly different interpretations of what… Read more »

Ed W.

I like using the word “spiritual” at times, but I want take it out where it doesn’t belong. Like the person who keeps time on your shares: He or she is not a “spiritual timekeeper”, that’s person’s just a timekeeper… That annual morning gathering of your A.A. district’s “dignitaries” over bacon, eggs, and coffee is not a “Spiritual Breakfast”, it’s just breakfast… Also, for as much as I’ll champion the causes of “Don’t Drink and go to Meetings,” and “You don’t have to believe in God or work these Steps if you don’t want to,” there is at times (and… Read more »