The topic of spirituality is very difficult for most Humanists. Very few of us use that word as it often implies a transcendent soul or religious experience. Humanism is, by definition, a secular philosophy, meaning it is focused on practical matters, not religious matters.
The fact remains that some Humanists do use the word “spiritual” to describe themselves and this leads to confusion both for Humanists and for non-Humanists alike. As I was asked just the other day to clarify this topic for a non-Humanist, I thought I would share my insights on this subject here.
I personally do not use the word spiritual in connection to my practice as a Humanist. But I do know several people who do and I totally understand why.
When a Humanist uses the term spiritual, they are almost always using it in a secular sense. And yes, spiritual can and often does refer to something inherently non-religious. For instance, Humanist notables John Dewey and Daniel Dennett have both discussed the importance of secular spirituality to their practice of Humanism.
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So, what is secular spirituality? The Congregation for Humanistic Judaism defines secular spirituality thusly: “Secular spirituality is a non-material force in human life that is non-supernatural. It helps overcome people’s immediate drives, and integrates one with others. It is comprised of compassion, dedication, emotion and knowledge.”
I have always thought of Humanism as being both an emotional and an intellectual practice. When Humanists use the term spiritual, they are almost always referring to the emotional component of our practice. It is the aspect of our philosophy that helps us find inner peace, seek happiness and to be motivated to improve the world in which we live. In all cases, a Humanist understands this to be a natural as opposed to supernatural experience.
That we view this as an inherently natural experience doesn’t take away from the awe we feel when we experience it. Whether you call it “spirituality” or “awe naturale” Humanists feel, pretty much constantly, a deep sense of connectedness to our world and to every other human on the planet and all that implies. It is a mind-expanding emotional perspective worth cultivating and yes, it probably could benefit from having its own word. But when some of my friends tried to come up with a word, all we could agree on was “Humanism” as that’s what it feels like to be a Humanist.
Long story short, spirituality, when used by a Humanist, is being used in a secular and non-supernatural sense. I would argue though that the word used to describe this mind-expanding perspective is less important than the experience of Humanism itself.
Jennifer Hancock, is the former executive director for the Humanists of Florida Association. She can be found on the web at www.jen-hancock.com.