New Point of Inquiry: Spirituality, Friend or Foe?

By Chris Mooney | March 15, 2011 6:16 am

I’m traveling today and may not be able to blog again. However, I’m happy to announce that my latest hosted episode of Point of Inquiry has just gone up–featuring not one but two guests, Adam Frank and Tom Flynn. Here’s the write up:

Recently, it has come to light that many scientists—scientists who don’t believe in God–nevertheless claim to be “spiritual but not religious.” Some in the secular movement have responded favorably to this new trend-one unfolding against the backdrop of an increasingly secular America, and a millennial generation that is also discarding traditional religion while extolling spiritual meaning.

Yet others are sharply opposed, calling secular “spirituality” little more than a semantic gambit, a misappropriation of misleading, faith-infused language.

In this week’s show, we present two different takes on whether we should embrace, or discard, the concept of godless spirituality.

Our first guest, Adam Frank, is a religious non-believer who represents the pro-spirituality view. Frank is an assistant professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester, where he studies the formation and evolution of stars. He’s also a freelance writer for Discover and Astronomy magazines, a blogger at NPR’s 13.7, and author of the book The Constant Fire: Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate.

Our second guest, Tom Flynn, is a non-believer represents the anti-spirituality view. He’s the executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, editor of Free Inquiry magazine, director of Inquiry Media Productions, and director of the Robert G. Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, among many other accomplishments. He has written numerous books, both fictional and non fictional, including 1993’s famed (and in-famed) The Trouble with Christmas.

Again, you can listen to the show here.


Comments (10)

  1. Dunc

    Null reference exception, line 0: “Spirituality” is null or is undefined.

  2. Mike

    I wanted to make a point on Tom Flynn’s argument against using the term spirituality: He says when he was a young atheist he walked away from statements from Sagan, Asimov, Einstein, etc looking for someone that really espoused atheism, presumably because the language didn’t resonate with him.

    Ironically, I walk away from arguments from Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennet feeling think their language doesn’t resonate at all with my atheism. It may be because I was raised in a religious household and never had a particularly violent rejection of my religious upbringing. Calling myself spiritual resonates with my sensibilities. I think it acts as a valuable bridge between atheists and the faithful.

    Sure, occasionally I have to make a point to say I don’t mean spiritual like crystals and chakras – but at that point at least there’s a dialogue happening. And at the end of the conversation you tend to find a lot more in common with the average person than you do by describing yourself as an atheist with a sense of awe.

  3. Jon

    Dunc: Null reference exception, line 0: “Spirituality” is null or is undefined.

    You’re a computer? If so, can I define a “self-parody exception” error?

    If you claim you’re a human, I’m going to accuse you of a performative self-contradiction

  4. vel

    Please define “spirituality” without invoking any “spirit” be it a “soul” or a deity. To be blunt, it is idiotic to invoke “spirituality” if one doesn’t believe in the supernatural. Use other words (concerned with the earth and its people, awed by the universe, etc) and get over how you feel like more of special snowflake if someone triggers your long learned response to religious nonsense. Also, trying to claim “I’m spiritual but not religious” is the same sematic juggling that Christians try to use when they want to not deal with the negative connotations of the word “religion” that they and their antecedents have polluted the word with. “Oh I have a “relationship” not a “religion”.

  5. Jay Fox

    I was raised Catholic, and attended their schools through grade 8. Upon entering the public school system, I promptly failed science while being far ahead in other subjects. What they were teaching didn’t exactly fit with what I’d been previously taught. My eyes were opened to reality.

    Upon enlistment in the military, I was exposed to just about every religion. Since mine didn’t somehow measure up with the science I was now aware of, I was curious to find what others believed. It was an interesting journey.

    Most major religions appeared to have the same beliefs, with the details around the edges being different. Nearly all started to sound like cults. Nearly all claimed to “The Only True Religion.” Nearly all were intolerant of other “brands” of religion. And they all wanted MONEY. On that point, they all seemed to agree.

    One looking at scientific evidence is more likely to find evidence of contact with alien species from elswhere as they are to find evidence of supernatural origin.

    And yet, we sometimes experience things that are hard to pin down with known science.

    There does seem to be something “bigger” out there, but it might just be aliens. I wonder if they want money, too.

  6. As a trained, professional Spiritual Director, I am happy to define “spirituality.” Spirituality is the universal human drive to seek to know ourselves and to have a direct experience of the transcendent (which only some call “God”). Spirituality in its most basic sense has NOTHING to do with religion, belief, faith, etc. Spirituality often gets a “bad” name because somehow it got lumped in with religion. Spirituality seeks the answer to the questions: Who am I? How can I connect with something bigger than myself (which is sometimes about finding peace, compassion, joy)? What are my own unique gifts and how can I share these in the world for the benefit of my fellow human beings and the earth itself? Spirituality is inherent and as much a part of ourselves as our very breath. Religion, on the other hand, is a human creation, a vehicle through which an outside perceived authority tells us who we are and tells us about their understanding of that which they call “God,” and if we are not consciously tending to our spirituality, we take their word for it. Spirituality helps us grow. Religion can also help us grow, but only when it is held accountable by our mature spiritual exploration.

    Lauri Lumby
    Authentic freedom Ministries

  7. Jeff Keogh

    I’m afraid that Tom Flynn’s point is simply unanswerable. It is a fact that to the average person, ‘spiritual’ implies supernatural belief. The Clapham Omnibus is packed with those who make that link.

    To operate as if the general population does not automatically make that connection is to be divorced from reality.

    You can redefine words all you like, but if you use a word outside its commonly accepted usage, you *will* be misunderstood, and you *will* give the wrong impression.

    And seriously: sacred has no supernatural meaning because it didn’t initially mean supernatural in Latin? Really? What is this: argumentum ad etymology?

    For pete’s sake, in common usage, sacred is interchangeable with holy. On what planet is that not supernaturally loaded language?

    I found the first half of that podcase to be most vexing.

  8. Jeff Keogh


    For podcase, read podcast. *facepalm*

  9. David George

    #6 Lauri Lumby — So, is there a God in your religion?

    #7 Jeff Keogh — If everyone was divorced from reality, what would a realist be?

    #5 Jay Fox — I noticed there is something “bigger” out there, too. Funny, I must have missed it before.

    #4 vel — Is it true that every snowflake is different?

    #3 Jon — Do computers fight each other with logic?

  10. Jeff Keogh




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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs.For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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