In general, I haven’t talked much about personal stuff on the blog, unless it related to
something else that I was already talking about. This post is going to be an exception to that.
There’s a bit of a scienceblogs flamewar that started up, with Rob Knop, a new SBer on one
side, and a bunch of atheistic SBers on the other. I pretty much think arguments like this are a
total waste of time: Rob isn’t going to convince PZ that he’s not a delusional idiot for being
religious; PZ isn’t going to convince Rob that he is a delusional idiot. It’s all just
But as part of it, PZ made a statement in one of his posts that bugged me. It’s one he’s made before, and which I’m sure he’ll make again; but it’s an example of a kind of thinking that has always bothered me. The statement, from the title of his post, is “Spirituality? Another word for lies and empty noise”.
As long-time readers of GM/BM know, I’m a religious Reconstructionist Jew. I don’t write about
my religion, because I view it as a private matter, and one which isn’t likely to cast any
light on much of anything. I’m not interested in converting anyone else to my beliefs, and I’m not particularly interested in listening to the same old silly rants from Christians or Atheists trying to convince me to adopt their beliefs.
But throwing the concept of spirituality out the window because you don’t like religion is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. In fact, I would go so far as to say that based on reading PZs blog for several years, that he is actually a rather spiritual person.
In these kinds of discussions, we constantly get related, but distinct, concepts all muddled together. Too many religious folks mix their belief in a deity up with all manner of other things – ranging from morality to free will – and present them as a single, inseparable, monolithic whole. And too many atheists accept that muddling too quickly. Just like there’s no real reason to insist that you can’t have real morality without religion, there’s no reason to insist that you can’t have something like spirituality without religion.
So what do I mean when I say spirituality? There’s something more to my life than just a
bunch of chemical reactions. I love my wife. I care about other people. I core about the way the world is, and work for things that I think will make it a better place. These things – these emotions, desires, concerns – they may well be nothing more than emergent phenomena resulting from the basic physical and chemical processes that I am a part of. But for my own experience of my life, even if they are nothing more than an illusion, they seem real – as real as other abstractions like free will, morality, and other such things.
The photograph of a waterfall and Banff on my wall isn’t solid. In fact, if I were to look at it very closely, it wouldn’t look anything like the waterfall. But all the tiny parts that make it up interact with light, which interacts with chemicals in the cells in my eyes to transmit a bunch of electrochemical signals to my brain, which result in me seeing something that looks like the waterfall. And most of the time, in my daily life, treating it as a picture of a waterfall in Banff is the right thing to do.
To me, spirituality is something very similar to that. My experience of the world occurs on more than one level. There’s direct physical experience – I move around, I touch things, I see things. There’s a level of intellectual experience – I interpret what I see, and attempt to make sense of it, and decide how to react to things on some level beyond pure physical reflex. There’s an emotional level of experience: things make me happy, or angry, or frustrated. And there’s a spiritual: there is a level at which I am aware of myself, my thoughts, and my emotions – where I can do more that just experience those things, but where I can observe them. Why do I love my wife? What connection do we share? Why do I want to make my children happy, even when it involves doing something that I don’t enjoy? There is that level to my experience, to my choices, and to my life which is absolutely real to me – and which I believe is real to someone like PZ too: look at his blog, the way he talks about how he feels about his wife. There’s some level of experience where we feel things like that. That’s spirituality.
It’s not lies, and it’s not empty noise. In fact, it’s the part of life that I value the most. It has nothing to do with my religion; I tend to vary through phases of belief, and phases of agnosticism, but that part of my life is always there, and it’s always important.