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The following is an old blog from Atheist Nexus, around October of 2015.  I think the topic material is still very relevant to the here and now, though.

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How many times have we heard it?  “I’m not religious, but I am spiritual.”  To this day, while the intent if not the meaning of that phrase is at least vaguely understood, there should be another way to express it.  I suspect that a goodly number of the people on this planet have experiences which class under that heading, and such experiences are as natural as breathing.  The problem in essence is the heading itself.

The problem is compounded by a vocabulary which treats such experiences only in religious terms.  Look for synonyms for “spiritual” and words like “divine,” “mystical,” and “supernatural” head the list.  As for the word itself, its root remains “spirit,” yet another concept without a well-defined referent and thus completely unhelpful.  As Sam Harris himself has observed, there currently exists no independent, areligious verbal mechanism for giving expression to such personal events, yet they occur regardless of belief or lack thereof.  Neither believer nor atheist can claim a monopoly on them.

My own sense is that spirituality is a catchall for some of the less well understood nature of the human animal, including elements such as awe and wonder and the numinous.  Experiences which come under those headings have frequently been puzzling and mysterious to those having them, and the pursuit of understanding them in the past has lead people down some less than desirable roads, including religion.  I think the mystery needs to be removed and replaced with a firm grasp of just what is going on with ourselves and the capabilities and potentialities of our minds.  The old Latin adage: “Tenet nosce – Know thyself” is the focal point here.  Understanding who we are and how we work, both physiologically and psychologically I suspect is at least part of the means to developing the comprehension needed to sweep away the old vagaries and replace them with hard self-knowledge.  I will acknowledge that diving into the mechanics of numinous experiences is no small task and one which neuroscience will be a long time understanding.  It remains a necessary endeavor, though, if we as humans are to culture a meaningful hold on exactly who we are.

Some time ago, YouTube producer TheraminTrees stated: “If we’re to grow up as a species, we need to address the systems that infantilize us.”  I think we need to confront the superstition and woo which permeate our culture, recognize them for what they are, and dismiss them.  Substituting new age spirituality for the old guard simply replaces old bullshit with new bullshit and is not a solution.

Is humankind capable of such a paradigm shift?  Good question, one I don't have the answer to.  I DO believe that accepting irrational explanations for real phenomena is potentially dangerous, and I personally will have no truck with that.

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Comment was by Grinning Cat on July 6, 2021 at 12:38pm

Ruth, thanks for the interesting article! It mentioned the existence of both "positive" and "negative" nodes in that circuit; some lesions made people less spiritual and religious, others, more.

Comment was by Joan Denoo on July 5, 2021 at 6:05am

I am not at all surprised about the brain's propensity for awe. Perhaps the primitive people experienced a sense of awe, and to make sense of it turned it into a religion. God, an imagined experience, became their reality. I can imagine them being overwhelmed with a sense of awe at the birth of a child, having emotional feelings of happiness, pride, loneliness, fear, anger, frustration, and sadness. Maybe, these experiences were projected onto a god/allah/shiva. 

Comment was by Ruth Anthony-Gardner on July 4, 2021 at 7:35pm

Researchers have mapped the area of the brain associated with spiritual and religious belief to a specific human brain circuit. I wonder what function this propensity for spirituality or awe served in our ancient progenitors, or whether it's a side effect of some other function. In any case, until we deal with this aspect of our genetics, we won't be empowered to free ourselves from being easily sucked into woo.

Brain circuit for spirituality?

"Our results suggest that spirituality and religiosity are rooted in fundamental, neurobiological dynamics and deeply woven into our neuro-fabric, … "We were astonished to find that this brain circuit for spirituality is centered in one of the most evolutionarily preserved structures in the brain."

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Comment was by Joan Denoo on July 2, 2021 at 7:36pm

I am spiritual!

Oh? What do you really mean?

I mean I am an Agnostic, Atheist, Disbeliever, Freethinker, Godless, Heathen, Heretic, Infidel, Irreligious, Non-worshiper, Nonbeliever, Pagan, Planter, Profane, Questioner, Skeptic, and an Unbeliever in god, goddesses, Allah, Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism, Ganapati, Vishnu, Shiva, Shakti, Devi, Ganesha, Vednatha, Chaturmukha, Prajapati, Hiranyagarbha, Vedagarbha, Kaushal, Parvati, Navadurgas, Matrikas, Mahavidyas, Durga, Kali, Bhadrakali, Bharavi, Chamundeshwari, Chandi, Bhumi, Prithvi, Lakshmi, Ashtalakshmi, Gayatri, Mantra, Ganga, Narmada, Annapoorna, Yami, Sati, Shashthi, Devasena, Savitri, Manasa, Svaha, Dakshina, and Lakshmi.

OH! I can’t list anymore; there are far too many and I am losing track of the gods and goddesses. If you want to add to the list, please feel free to do so.. 

I like the sound of agnostic and atheist and they work just fine for me; they fit nicely with scientist, experimenter, and explorer.

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