Why are we so afraid to speak of the spiritual?

January 10, 2012 by
Filed under: Social Brain 

Le 21ieme siecle sera spirituel ou ne sera pas – Malraux.

“The 21st Century will be spiritual, or it will not be.” Well said, Malraux.

Spiritual. That other ‘s-word’. Not ‘even spiritual’, ‘almost spiritual’ or some other timorous apology.  Why shirk from matters of ultimate concern?

I don’t exactly know what ‘spiritual’ means, but I also don’t know what lots of words I use on a daily basis mean; goodness, happiness, wisdom, freedom, democracy, power, love, equality, joy.

On reflection, most of the things that matter to us are ‘essentially contested’ i.e. the definition is alway a matter of contention. The best you can do is lay out the various conceptions of the concept that matter and declare an interest in which matters most to you in a given context.

On another day, I might make a pitch for a definition of spirituality, perhaps reflecting on self-awareness or reflexvity, something about mystery, aliveness, peace of mind and belonging; or say what is meant by ‘ultimate concern’. I would include something about the unconscious and the numinous, the transcendent, perhaps discipline and commitment, mythos and the sacred, and various other intrigues. It would also be worth reflecting on the nature of spiritual experience and how it differs from spiritual ritual or practice, or indeed other kinds of experience. Something would have to be said about the dark side of spirituality (satanic rituals, football hooliganism etc) and I would definitely mention Ken Wilber’s Pre-Trans fallacy. But defining the term is not my main concern today.

It is not just that we don’t know what we mean by the spiritual, but rather that we are afraid of what the spiritual might mean for us.

What is bugging me is the tendency to apologise for speaking of the spiritual, regardless of what we mean by it.

We are familiar with Freudian slips, but there are different kinds of psychological leakages that are worth paying attention to. I have in mind pervasive statements like: “Mental, emotional or even spiritual”…”Almost spiritual”, “‘Dare I say ‘spiritual‘?” and so forth.

What is going on here? Why do we appear to be so cautious about this term?

I don’t exactly know what ‘spiritual’ means, but I also don’t know what lots of words I use on a daily basis mean, like goodness, happiness, wisdom, freedom, democracy, power, love, equality, joy. On reflection, most of the things that matter to us are ‘essentially contested’ i.e. the definition is alway a matter of contention.

To begin with the good reasons:

  1. You can’t go far in an argument without defining your terms, or at least sensing that your interlocuter knows what you are talking about. This is not easy with spiritual.
  2. Whatever it means, the spiritual is deeply personal, private even, and we don’t want to be intrusive or presumptive.
  3. The term is closely related to religion, and there are a lot of zealous atheists out there. You never know when somebody might assume you are a naive idiot without giving you a fair hearing.
  4. There is a lot of vapid narcissistic activity that passes for spirituality.  Some view things like carrying crystals in your pocket, getting over-excited about coincidences, summoning personal angels and similar b**locks as spiritual. Good luck to them, but I don’t.
  5. Spirituality is easily conflated with spiritualism, with seances, spirits etc and few people want to be associated with the likes of Derek Acorah.
  6. As Howard Gardner indicated when considering whether to add ‘spiritual intelligence’ to his set of multiple intelligences, the problem is the ‘uncertain ontology’ of the spiritual- the term is a bit of a catch-all for things that are important but elusive, but does not seem to have any settled underlying coherence.
  7. Indeed, studies in the Sociology of Religion suggest that there is no coherent notion among those who use the term. There is no obvious ‘pattern that connects’ (Bateson) the different uses of spirituality.
  8. Even though a millions of British people consider themselves “spiritual but not religious” they don’t seem to know what they mean by that.
  9. The spiritual faces two big opponents coming from different perspectives: scientific materialism and established religion. Both view ‘spirituality’ as a young-pretender without legitimacy.

The spiritual is to the conceptual what Turkey is to the EU. We know we should accept it, but we are not sure what we are letting ourselves in for.

Such reasons, and I’m sure there are more, make some sense of why we hesitate to use the word. If the reserve was purely intellectual, I would respect that and move on, but it feels to me like something deeper is going on. In many people I sense something more like ‘spiritophobia’- fear of the spiritual. It is not just that we don’t know what we mean by the spiritual, but rather that we are afraid of what the spiritual might mean for us.

The spiritual is to the conceptual what Turkey is to the EU. We know we should accept it, but we are not sure what we are letting ourselves in for. If we were to let the term become an intellectual bona-fide what would follow?

Facing up to ‘the spiritual’ obliges us to problematize human nature, to think more deeply about our values and our direction, and to ask ourselves the big questions on a more regular basis. Spirituality is discomforting and we prefer not to think too much about what it points towards, for fear it will oblige us to change our lives.What I am here for? Am I wasting my life? What really matters to me?

Scary stuff.

But essential too. Malraux’s point is that most of the world is run without really facing up to these questions. And so we live in a world with a climate crisis, a burgeoning population, ubiquitous terrorism, nuclear weapons, and the recurring possibility of financial meltdown.

Scary stuff.

But essential challenges that require some deep thinking. For such reasons, and more, perhaps we should speak of the spiritual more often, even if we don’t know what it means.


  • Anonymous

    It sounds like it’s time to forget the ‘Social Brain’, and rebrand as the ‘Spiritual Brain’ ;-)

    You say that “Facing up to ‘the spiritual’ obliges us to problematize human nature…”

    I was looking at a book by the transpersonal psychology pioneer Prof Charles Tart last night, titled ‘Living the Mindful Life – a handbook for living in the present moment’. It draws on the spiritual traditions of both Buddhism and the ‘Fourth Way’ of GI Gurdjieff.

    Like your Steer/Social Brain work, in some ways, it is a book about realising that we are often relatively unconscious, operating automatically – and then devising experiments to see our own automatic habits and beliefs in action.  But the Gurdjieff crowd have been doing these experiments in self-observation, in discerning our multiplicity of rival ‘I’s (now discovered by brain science!), for a century and the Buddhists for an awful lot longer.

    How can Social Brain/Steer learn from these traditions, I wonder?

    I like that Prof Tart inserts a phrase repeatedly throughout his book, as a prompt to stop, be physically and mentally still – in order to wake ourselves up out of our automaticity, to encourage present-moment awareness of ourselves, our bodies.

    The phrase he uses is ‘the bell is ringning’, or variations of it.

    How about that for the next Social Brain report? ;-)

    Turn the text itself into a tool to prompt moments of mindfulness…!


  • Jonathanrowson

    Thanks Matthew. Whatever the spiritual is, becoming more aware of our automaticity is surely part of it.

  • Casadepaup

    Why not just admit it? It’s Religion! Take it seriously, it’s not a trend or a hobby. It’s not a dirty word.

    • Kanti Khanna

      It is not a conventional religion based on physical divisions but it is a spiritual religion or way of being from a set of inner values. It demonstrates the core values of the soul, primarily peace. So it is a religion of peace?..

  • Kanti Khanna

    I fail to understand what all the fuss is about, if you don’t know about something just ask yourself “who am I ” and the chances are you will find out. A pure and simple desire of the heart cannot be left unfulfilled for very long.

    So, spirituality is the term that covers all aspects of I the soul. For far too long our awareness has been based on our physical identity that is, I am this body, my name is such n such, I come from so n so country, I follow this religion, I am a teacher or such like, by profession, I am married or single, as the case may be,..this would be classed as the introduction of the body or body consciousness.

    But I am a human being and so I am this body plus the Being, the living energy that animates the non living Body made of matter. Any information which refers to the being or the soul is called soul consciousness. This is the unlimited field of spirituality. I could go on and on, but hope this wets your appetite to discover more of this unique and fascinating and essential knowledge about me, the most wonderful creation of God.

  • Kanti Khanna

    That is perhaps because the answers are so radical that not many are ready to consider the spiritual truth. I feel that is what we all want and are searching for but, yes a degree of courage is needed to be a leader….