I’m busy with my children’s book, and will be for a few days, because writing it is HARD. In fact, it’s about harder than any 1500 words I’ve ever written. I don’t have children, and know only that you shouldn’t condescend to them in books, and that the books should appeal to parents as well as their kids. So I’ve had to go to bookstores and read gazillions of children’s books, which has left me more confused than ever. They are very diverse. But I’ll say this: I have a newfound admiration for those who can write well for children.
But I digress. As my head is wrapped around India, cats, and mice, it’ll be hard to deal with anything substantive on this site for a few days. Bear with me; like Maru, I do my best.
But here’s one thing, which came from reader Steve S. who sent me a link this morning with the note “Not to ruin your day right off, and suspect you may have seen this. Note the comment from a fellow Chicagoan. Had to double check it wasn’t you.” The “ruining my day” bit was because Steve sent a link to a piece in The Nation about the oleaginous Krista Tippett, the National Public Radio host of “On Being”. (Three years ago, sensing a change in the winds, she changed the name from “Speaking of Faith”). If you’re a regular or semi-regular reader here, you’ll know I’m not a fan of Ms. Tippett, because, as I said about her previously, “She hasn’t met a religion she doesn’t love, is infatuated with ‘spirituality,’ uses a lot of words to say nothing in particular, and always seems on the verge of bursting into tears at the depth of her own insights.”
It turns out that Tippett has written a new book, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, whose title already sets my teeth grinding and kishkas roiling. And for some reason that I can’t fathom, I always recoil at the description of someone as “wise.” I’ll let the piece’s author, Michele Moses (!), describe the book’s contents:
Becoming Wise is Tippett’s “cartography of wisdom for the emerging world,” a world which she says is marked by the decline of organized religion and the rise of the Internet. The book is divided into five sections, each dedicated to one of the central theme’s five components—Words, Flesh, Love, Faith, and Hope. The book consists primarily of excerpted interviews from the show, with brief sections of exposition, and a few autobiographical stories. It effectively synthesizes her ideas and seamlessly carries her conversational tone into print. Becoming Wise doesn’t offer anything new, but then, it’s not really meant to.
Offers nothing new and doesn’t try to? Then why on earth should we read it? And if you read the book’s blurb on Amazon, you’ll see that it certainly does intend to offer something new: “a master class in living, curated by Tippett and accompanied by a delightfully ecumenical dream team of teaching faculty.” In fact, the only book worth reading that doesn’t offer anything new is a dictionary.
If you’ve had the misfortune to listen to Tippett on NPR, you’ll see that she’s really big on “spirituality,” which has replaced religion as her main topic of conversation. She always asks guests about their spirituality, and returns to it when the conversation takes a different turn. But what is spirituality? I looked up both “spiritual” and “spirituality” in the Oxford English Dictionary (a book worth reading that does offer something new: first and historical usages). And I found this: you have to go pretty deep down in the definitions before you get one that doesn’t have religious overtones or includes the word “ecclesiastical.
For example, here’s “spiritual”. Yes, it could include “higher moral qualities”, though they’re usually religious. And it could refer to non-material things, which must include mathematics, physics, and philosophy.
1). a. Of or relating to, affecting or concerning, the spirit or higher moral qualities, esp. as regarded in a religious aspect. (Freq. in express or implied distinction to bodily, corporal, or temporal.)
d. Of transcendent beauty or charm
4.) a. Of or relating to, consisting of, spirit, regarded in either a religious or intellectual aspect; of the nature of a spirit or incorporeal supernatural essence; immaterial.
It gets worse with “spirituality,” as you have to get to the third definition before religion isn’t mentioned:
3. a. The quality or condition of being spiritual; attachment to or regard for things of the spirit as opposed to material or worldly interests.
I haven’t really heard Tippett define what she means by “spirituality”, but let’s be honest: for most people it connotes either religion or the numinous, things “not material or worldly” as in the definition above. But if we adhere to that definition of spirituality, then what do we mean when we say we or others are “spiritual”? Michele Moses gives a hint:
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans increased from 15.3 to 19.6 percent between 2007 and 2012. And more than a third of this group identified themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” These people access spiritual life in an enormous range of ways: through yoga, meditation, music, poetry, community service, psychedelic drugs, the outdoors, and more.
But some of these things are worldly, like community service and the outdoors! What do these things have in common that could be called spiritual? It is simply that these activities promote emotional well-being rather than material gain. And if that’s the case, then other things become spiritual, too: reading books and newspapers, taking a walk, having sex, watching movies, and (often) doing science. In fact, who isn’t spiritual in this respect? Yet pollsters and other regularly not only fail to define spirituality, but imply that it’s somehow an offshoot of religion. And that’s why we should get rid of the word—so we don’t get lumped in with religionists.
In fact, when Tippett tries to discuss spirituality with scientists, she can get into trouble. We like precision in language, and the term “spirituality” is about as precise as compatibilist’s “free will.” Moses describes one such run-in:
Faith, for Tippett, entails no particular set of convictions or beliefs. Instead, it’s a kind of curiosity—a willingness to stand amidst the mysteries of life without demanding certainty. In whom or what faith is placed—that’s incidental. It’s the process of investigation that matters. “Spiritual life is a way of dwelling with perplexity,” she writes.
Well, if that’s the case, science is spirituality embodied, for it’s the formalization of curiosity. Even religious faith isn’t nearly as imbued with curiosity as Tippett’s conception of faith. But it’s somehow wrong to equate the scientific process with sprituality. Moses continues:
Still, even this broad definition of faith can cause trouble. Becoming Wise contains several conversations with cosmologists and physicists; in their “reverence for wonder and the possibility of never-ending discovery,” Tippett sees a kind of spirituality. This can occasionally cause her and her guests to disagree. When the theoretical physicist Brian Greene describes the power of quantum mechanics to map the universe’s unseen truths—“How can you not be in awe of that? And how can you not be convinced that that is revealing some deep truth about reality?”—Tippett asks, with obvious hopefulness, about the aspects of life (love, consciousness) that “can’t be measured.” Greene, a materialist, delivers the bad news that even love is measurable: It comes down to “some physical process playing out inside this messy grey blob inside of our heads.” To Greene, the ultimate nature of reality may be unknown, but it is not unknowable.
So if you conceive of spirituality, as I would, as “emotionality or wonder”, then of course those remain emergent properties of molecules. Emotion and wonder are still real—Sean Carroll makes a good case for this in The Big Picture—but they’re not separate from the material, and must be consistent with the laws of physics, even if they give us a way of talking about things that is useful and convenient.
Nevertheless, Tippett, who desperately and constantly searches for nonmaterial aspects of human life (I truly believe she’s a dualist), manages to finesse even this contretemps with Greene. As Moses notes,
There are limits, in short, even to Tippett’s radically open definition of faith. And as a fan, it can be jarring to hear her bump up against them. But even in the same breath, she succeeds in other ways. She might not share Greene’s worldview [JAC: I don’t think she does, as I don’t see her as a big advocate of naturalism] but she finds common ground with him in the experience of wonder; in the end, they agree that his work is like poetry in its reverence for exploration. “Science deserves to be right smack in the center of culture, because it is our quest to understand who we are and how we fit into the big picture,” says Greene. With inspiring regularity, On Beingcaptures moments when people with differing beliefs manage to find meaning together.
Well, pardon my French, but that’s screwed up. Science is not at all like poetry. Science finds truth (which can make us emotional); poetry recounts one human’s emotional reactions, and is not a way of finding truth about the cosmos.
Greene is right, of course—science should be a foundation of any educated person’s worldview—but calling curiosity about the world “spiritual”, as Tippett wants to do, is simply a misuse of language. One might as well call a police detective solving a crime as having a “spiritual experience.” For if anything is a “worldly concern”, it’s the desire to find out how the world works—the purview of science and empiricism.
So let me suggest one word to replace the noun “spirituality” for us atheists—a word that doesn’t toe the line of the numinous:
Of course Tippett wouldn’t be able to dine out on that one. Imagine if her show were called “On emotionality”!
Replacing “spirituality” with “emotionality” comports, I think, with how we nonbelievers conceive of our “nonmaterialism”. The practice of science, and the curiosity that drives it, isn’t emotional: looking for the laws of physics isn’t an emotional experience. Having wonder about the laws of physics is an emotional experience. Eating is not an emotional experience; watching a movie can be. Enjoying a hike in the mountains is an emotional experience. For some people sex is fraught with emotionality, for others it’s recreational.
Instead of allowing people like Tippett to corral nonbelievers together with religionists by characterizing us all as “spiritual,” let’s insist that we don’t know what that term means—but we do know what “emotionality” means. I believe it was Richard Dawkins who pointed out the use of “spirituality” as a lasso by faitheists to put us into the herd of believers. We should adamantly refuse to let ourselves be so herded. When someone asks you if you’re “spiritual,” ask them to define the term. If they mean anything other than “emotionality” or “wonder”, it’s likely to be woo. If they mean emotionality and wonder, then let’s just use those words.
Of course I welcome commentary below. You can, for instance, say we should retain the use of “spiritual”, and give a definition, or give a substitute word as I have. Or say anything you want on the topic.