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.
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.