Paula Kirby: Are Humans Spiritual?

The word “spiritual” is a common, everyday word that many people use to describe a wide variety of apparently transcendent experiences. But should we be more careful? Has “spiritual” become a word that some people deliberately use in order to deceive others?

Paula Kirby’s perspective

A commentator for The Washington Post’s “On Faith” section, Paula Kirby, argues that this is definitely a problem:

‘spiritual’ is a word that believers throw in when they’d like to claim something for religion, but suspect they wouldn’t get away with it. ‘Spiritual’ is conveniently ill-defined and therefore perfect for their purposes, conveying, as it does, a vaguely religious implication that humans are special, somehow elevated above the other animals, attuned to other-worldly influences and having an added dimension that cannot be satisfied with mere Earthly matters. ‘Spiritual’ leaves open the possibility of ‘mysticism’ and ‘higher powers’ and ‘immortal souls,’ without ever having to spell out, and therefore defend, what is meant by such things.

As she writes later, this “is a particularly sneaky way of trying to ensnare the unsuspecting” and is “also part of a more general tendency on the part of the religious to try to claim that those of us who do not share their beliefs are lacking in something other than mere credulity.”

Honest Motivations or Tricking the Unsuspecting?

There are two main problems with Paula Kirby’s characterization:

First, she paints all believers with a broad brushstroke. By lumping all religious believers together, she does many of them an injustice. Are Buddhist monks in California, imams in Ohio, and professors at Bob Jones in South Carolina really working together to advance a common purpose? To make a conspiracy of this magnitude believable would require the literary talents of Dan Brown.

Second, she lumps all the unbelievers together as unsuspecting victims who are at risk of being fooled by sneaky religious people. Are there actually that many atheists who have been converted by the inadvertent use of the word ‘spiritual’ by their religious friends? Such a low view of the reasoning ability of atheists stands as cross-purposes with Daniel Dennett, a professor at Tufts University, who wants to rebrand atheists as “brights.” Atheists deserve better PR than this.

The Lowest Common Denominator

When Paula goes after the worst possible examples of religion, and characterizes these examples as normal, she misses out on at least two important opportunities:

  1. To make a stronger case by showing how even apparently inspiring religious stories and communities are not actually beneficial to society.
  2. To cultivate respectful dialogue between people from different perspectives. By focusing only on the worst case scenarios, she lowers, rather than elevates, the discussion about religion.

So what?

Whether or not humans are “spiritual” or just seeking “emotional and psychological well-being” is actually an important question. Instead of attacking the motivation behind the use of this everyday word, let’s have a serious and respectful discussion about whether humans are just “social animals” or whether we are also spiritual beings made by a divine power.