Spirituality for Skeptical Thinkers

Spirituality for Skeptical Thinkers

What does “spirituality” mean to an intellectual? What makes it worth our time to grapple with this question? To determine that, we need to start (as always) by defining our terms. Unfortunately, most people’s definition of spirituality is murky. Wikipedia tells us that spirituality “may involve belief in a supernatural realm beyond the ordinarily observable world, personal growth, a quest for an ultimate or sacred meaning, religious experience, or an encounter with one's own ‘inner dimension’." 

That’s a lot of concepts rolled into one word—and talk of a “supernatural world” and “ultimate or sacred meaning” leaves some wanting to take a pass. After all, many intellectuals use reason and critical thinking as the primary way of understanding our world. And those who have a naturalistic worldview and don’t practice an established religion tend to be particularly skeptical of belief systems founded on faith, revelation-based truths, or the supernatural. 

Nevertheless, the following passage from Philosopher Julian Baggini in The Shrink and the Sage applies to sophisticated, skeptical thinkers as much as anyone:

We have our physical needs for food, shelter and health; and our material desires for wealth and possessions. But a life that revolves only around such things is an impoverished one. What we also need are morals to live by, and things that cause our spirits to soar: beauty, love, wonder, and awe. 

Many intellectuals are able to find new levels of fulfillment and clarity by unhooking the concept of spirituality from belief and redefining it as the experiences of beauty, love, wonder, and awe that Baggini identifies as needs (perhaps also including a deep sense of connection and gratitude). Defined this way, spirituality becomes available through a variety of means, including:

  • Art (both visual art and music)
  • Fiction (which offers, among other things, an unparalleled opportunity to get inside the mind of another and experience understanding and compassion) 
  • Philosophy (not just learning what great thinkers offer but also personally grappling with life’s big questions) 
  • Nature
  • Love and friendship
  • Helping others

A sign at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City states:

While some other species can solve problems and communicate with each other, only humans can use symbols to recreate the world mentally and contemplate endless new realities. Although we have not lost our selfish motivations, symbolic consciousness gives us a capacity for spirituality and a shared sense of empathy and morality.

This capacity for spirituality, born not out of beliefs but out of recreating the world mentally and contemplating new realities (through art, nature, connection, and thinking itself), can be one of the most meaningful and rewarding elements of an intellectual life.

An Imperfect Intellectuals Guide