Some people consider themselves to be “spiritual”. What does this really mean?


Are we all in fact spiritual? Is this term simply a vague, redundant description?




comments: Thor May -; ;

discussion topics blog (list of topics):

topic suggestions: a) site; or b)

topics already discussed:








This is an initial starter list for discussing the ‘spiritual’ topic. The list makes no special claim to quality, and additions are welcome


- Thor









Gentle Thinkers Debate #15 in Brisbane - “Some people consider themselves to be‘spiritual’. What does this really mean? Are we all in fact spiritual? Is this term a vague,redundant description?" Composed and posted on 19/10/2013 by Yena. Concept Sanbox blog, online @







Anderson, nn (September 2010) "The Scientific Method". Bozeman Science, online Youtube video @


Barber, Nigel (24 October 2013) "Is Religion of any Practical Use?" Huffington Post, online @


Baylor University (June 12, 2013). “‘Spiritual’ young people more likely to commit crimes than ‘religious’ ones”. Psypost, online @


de Botton, Alain (July 20122) "Atheism 2.0" TEDtalk video, online @


Dennet, Daniel (April 2012) "Secular Ecstasy". video online @


Doidge, Norman (30 April 2012) "Neuroplacticity". TVObigideas series , online Youtube video (1hr) @


Einstein, Albert (9 November, 1930) "Religion and Science". New York Times Magazine pp 1-4. Posted, online @


Fuller, Robert (2009) “Spiritual but not religious”. Beliefnet website, online @


Harris, Sam and Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett (15 July 2013) "Spiritual Experiences". video online @


Hopkins, Gerard Manley (May, 1877) “Windhover” poem. Quoted in The Guardian, online @


Jackson, Wayne (n.d.) “The Spiritual Person”. Christian Courier, online @ 


Jones, Milton (4 October 2013) “Is Christianity Weird?”. Guardian video, online @ [comment: inane video, but the 736 comments are worthwhile ]


Knight, Kevin (2013) "Belief". Advent Catholic Encyclopedia, online @


May, Thor (1998-2013) The Agnostic’s Survival Manual. e-book collecting many of Thor’s (not necessarily consistent) thoughts on this subject over a number of years. online @ (pdf), as well as an html version @


Michaelson, Jay  “How is a "Spiritual Person" Supposed to Act?”. Reality Sandwich blog, online @


Robson, Steve (1 January 2013) “Spiritual people are more likely to be mentally ill (but at least they think life has more meaning)”. Daily Mail (UK) online @

Rubenstein, Ben & Nicole Willson, Manuel_Montenegro (n.d.) “How to become more spiritual”. Wikihow, online @


de Spinoza, Benedict (1677) Ethics. republished translation by R.H.M. Ewles in the Gutenberg Project, online @


Sunday Assembly (2013). Non-theistic assemblies for congregation without god(s) (assemblies worldwide). SundayAssembly online @


The Economist  (20 September 2013) “How many people convert to Islam?”  The Economist, London, online @  [comment: interesting to consider this from the viewpoint of religion-as-a-social-environment Vs religion-as-a-spiritual-environment, although followers may rationalize the former as the latter]


Tornqvist, Dominicus (2013) "Faith Is Not A Virtue". Concept Sandbox blog, online @

Tornqvist, Dominicus (2013) "'I'm Spiritual'. Nice Try ". Concept Sandbox blog, online @


Watkins Books (Spring, 2013) “Watkins’ Spiritual 100 List for 2013 - 100 Most Spiritually Influential Living people”. Watkins website, online @


Wikipedia (2013) “Spiritual but not religious (SBNR)”. online @


Wikipedia (2013) “Spirituality”. online @


Wikipedia (2013) "Religious Views of Albert Einstein". online @


Wikipedia (2013) "Ethics, by Baruch Spinoza". online @





The Windhover       -     Gerard Manley Hopkins
To Christ Our Lord

I caught this morning morning's minion, king-
      dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
      Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
      As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
      Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing. 

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
 Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier! 

      No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
      Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.





Notes by Thor: Some people consider themselves to be “spiritual”. What does this really mean?


1. Words in natural language mean what you want them to mean. If you can find another person to share your meaning with, you can have a conversation.


2. Some words are extremely promiscuous and unfaithful: they will broker conversations within many different circles of people, and change their colour to suite the fellowship of the moment. “Spiritual” is one of these promiscuous words. To know the meaning of “spiritual” at any given moment, you have to look carefully at the company it is keeping at that moment.


[The ambiguous and changeable qualities of natural language are extremely valuable, allowing communication across time and in situations where the rigidities of, say, a formal computer language would paralyze interaction. The cost however is often some confusion and wasted time from misunderstanding.]


3. The references accompanying these notes show various interpretations for “spiritual”, and also show that its more popular modern meanings have separated the term from traditional religions, especially Christianity. However many Christians adhere to meanings for “spiritual” negotiated within their own faith, and refuse to acknowledge non-religious, “false” meanings.


4. Historically, most organized religions have developed schisms over the centuries which favour either a spiritual/mystical relationship with god(s), or a more legalistic/textual/”rational” relationship. Ultimately this schism seems to be a property of different psychological preferences or personality types which divide us all.


5. Modern urban communities, especially the middle classes, have developed groups of people who see themselves as “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR). A large section of the meetups on are SBNR. This sub-population descends closely from similar personality types already mentioned in organized religion. My impression is that more women than men are attracted to SBNR groups. “Spiritual” in most SBNR communities seems to be a fairly diffuse notion developed in opposition to the rigidities of formal religion, but sharing the notion that there is something magical and mysterious out there which we will never understand. It apparently impacts on human well-being, and can be influenced to favour the well-being of particular individuals if they behave appropriately. This sense of spirituality is not unrelated to the intense cultivation of “luck” which I encountered in Chinese culture when I lived there.


6. My personal meaning code for “spiritual” is not a religious one, but would probably not square well with many SBNR people either. In the religious pantheon, I am agnostic, or non-dogmatic atheist. I am pretty sure of my own moral value code and see no need to attach it to any religion. (In fact religious claims on morality have always seemed to me to purely opportunistic grabs for social control, unrelated by a shred of credible evidence to any arguments for the existence of god(s). Obviously this interpretation is not going to persuade the faithful however).


7. “Spiritual” for me refers to that which inspires awe and wonder, especially in nature, but where no known human explanation is available. To assign a supernatural “explanation” to this seems me to be a cop out of the same low grade as all magic, voodoo and the rest. I’m cool with not yet being to explain a great deal. It sets up a fascinating challenge to search for (genuine) explanation. We have a limited set of biological senses to become aware of and decode the world we encounter. Given these limitations, it would be astonishing if much was NOT beyond our perception and understanding.


Scientific methods have made great progress in enabling us to interpret a lot by deduction and induction applied to careful observation. Much still remains beyond even our indirect interpretations using scientific method. Parts of the unreachable may always be unreachable. Parts of the unreachable may occasionally, through hidden chains of causation, lead us to perceive astonishing and “unexplainable” things with our limited human sensory apparatus. Call that spiritual if you like. It needs no fake explanations of gods, fairies, spirits, devils, leprechauns and all the rest. Fairy tales are fun, but I prefer to keep “spiritual” for real occasions of awe and wonder.







Spiritual People (c) Thor May 2013


discussion topics index   || return to homepage



WebSTAT - Free Web Statistics