How do we define spirituality?
To borrow a phrase from the the former Bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway, I would describe myself as a 'Recovering Christian'. As a former senior priest I've seen the best of Christianity and know many extremely good people who still adhere to its tenets, but I've also seen and experienced its worst instincts, especially when channelled through the Church, and it's these things that have convinced me that it is, sadly, no longer for me.
That said, I still consider myself to have a spirituality whilst also maintaining that I am an atheist. How can this be? How can someone who rejects the idea of a supernatural deity have a spirituality? Well this blog seeks to offer an explanation that I, at least, find helpful.
The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines being 'spiritual' as being interested in matters of the spirit or soul. However one tries to pin down the idea of the soul in the countless religious traditions that Homo Sapiens have dreamed up; in the end, it all has to come down to metaphor and I certainly find the idea of the soul to be a very useful metaphor.
The brilliant thing about a metaphor is that it allows us to leverage our imagination; it connects us through our amazing facility with language and storytelling to our inner world. For me, it's that inner world that acts as the place where my life force is generated and sustained. What's more, this doesn't have to have any reality outside of my own imagination, so I don't need to sign up to fixed religious dogma and I am able to be mentally flexible in my understanding of this soul-metaphor as my understanding of myself in the world grows and matures.
So what does my soul look and feel like? Well, I experience it as an expansive place of great beauty, a place of calm and awesome wonder and a force that pulls me out of the narrow focus of my day-to-day life and propels me into something infinitely greater, more strange and more exciting. What is also really intriguing is that when I talk to others who have found a sense of spirituality without God, they talk in similar terms. Some might find this an argument for the existence of the God I reject, but, for me, it's evidence of the common themes that have emerged in our evolutionary journey and towards which we are naturally drawn.
Our evolution has given us a wonder reservoir of stories, experiences, mental necessities and luxuries that we can draw on to enable us to feel a greater sense of wholeness in ourselves and connectedness towards other.
So, can an atheist be spiritual? Yes, we can! I would even go as far as to argue that without the kind of spirituality I describe, we are insulting the 500,000 year evolutionary journey of our amazing, creative, story telling, metaphor-embracing species!