Greater Manchester Humanist Group Meeting Report.

Wednesday 9th April 1997. Discussion Humanism and ‘spirituality’.

Should Humanists use words like ‘spirit’ ‘spirituality’, ‘soul’ and ‘psyche’ when such words are often given a strong religious ethos? Are there alternative words with which to replace them?

It was clear from the beginning that such words are so problematic and ambiguous that there would be little chance of us agreeing on their meanings, and we felt that similar doubts, concerns and disputes about the meaning of human spirituality will arise whenever such expressions are used in theological, pro-religious discourse, academic seminars and in education. Using the British Humanist Association fact sheet on ‘The Human Spirit’ and some classic dictionary definitions of the words in dispute, that Barry Thorpe presented to us to set the discussion rolling, we tried to define the nature of human spirituality. The word ‘psyche’ derives from the Greek expression for the breath of life, or that which gives animation and vitality to living From the Latin we have the word ‘Anima’, again representing the breath of life.

Other words highlighted for us included ‘spirit’ seen as representing a high and vital rational principle of thought, and/or as a soul, which might or might not be attached and dependent on a living human body. A ghost is a soul that exists detached from the living material world.

Many of us found that using words like conscience and sub-conscience from psychoanalytical thinking was better than using outmoded religious terms like soul and spiritual essence. At the beginning of the meeting, we seemed to be happily defining a human’s essence as a product of brain and mind activity, but this cosy assumption was also was quickly challenged. We are aware that the left hand of the body is largely controlled by the right brain’s hemisphere, and that the right brain hemisphere largely controls the left-hand side of the body but it now seems that there may be more complex interaction between brain (or mind) and body than previously thought, possibly involving something over and above either, though we had no doubt that this too will die when we perish. Our funeral officiants generally find no reason to refer to the soul, and avoid it as a word in their tributary remarks about the dead possibly because it is such a contentious word.

Members were sure that the mind and body of humans are not divided as philosophers from the days of Descartes onwards have suggested, but that the two seemed to intertwined, and that neither body or mind could survive separated from the other. Surprisingly, at this point, we made no mention of the fact that medics recognise death as occurring when the brain stem stops functioning. Consciousness was still regarded as being brain-related, and many, if not all functions attributed to souls and spirits within us are really the product of brain activity.

At this stage in the talk we seemed to divide into two parallel schools of thought. Some members defined living human beings as a bodies comprising of complex constituent parts, bonded at a molecular atomic, or subatomic level by electrochemical activity. Our soul or psyche for those who believed this, is simply what those chemical and electrical parts do before death discorporates them and they dissipate. Other members found this view too technical, and even dehumanising, preferring to believe that the human essence is something which distinguishes a person from the rest of the race, rather than what makes us all one and the same. Others were more concerned to see a definition of spirit as what characterises a particular individual and makes him or her unique. We think of a composer or a great artist, i.e., Shakespeare or Beethoven has having great inspired spirit, whilst Peter (Yorkshire Ripper) Sutcliffe, or Hitler would be regarded as having dark, evil spirit. Our moods and emotions are seen as spirited states; someone bored, depressed or sad is looked upon as being in low spirits, while someone enthusiastic and happy is seen as being in high spirits. Such recognisable moods and behaviour patterns are not easy to equate with spirit and essence being at a sub-molecular level of our natures. We seem to define a person’s spirit by what we remember them doing and achieving. Hitler has left us with a strong set of negative memories, while Beethoven fills our memories and our own spirits with a warmer sense of his spirit. Spirit, for the non-atomists became a sense that spirituality is the sum of an individual’s achievements, and aspirations, and preferences. Many will find their spirits moved by the Spice Girls as much as by Beethoven. It is difficult to see such different tastes and preferences being governed at molecular distance. This is possibly the first time that The Spice Girls were mentioned in the same sentence as Beethoven. Our spirituality is something natural to us, but which is governed, changed and influenced by our lives as we evolve and progress through daily activity.

We were asked about the role ‘instinct’ plays in human spirituality. Instinct was defined as a basic, raw gut instinct that compels us and drives us to fight or flight when faced by any given situation. Instinct is compulsive behaviour, and may or may not relate to spirituality directly. Faced with a possible fight, we may give in to our instincts for violently fighting back. It may be that we have to override such basic compulsive instinctive reactions; as our potential to kill in a compulsive, instinctive rage may prove too costly in the long run. This raises the disquieting question of whether our spirits are instinctive and or spiritual, or whether we learn them through the educational processes of living. Is it more spiritual to be driven by instinct, or is it more spiritual to avoid following your instincts?

Some members see spirituality as being governed by the quality of a life being lived. It was assumed that someone who was well educated and well read, would have more spiritual satisfaction than someone less so; but this was countered by the view that someone blissfully ignorant but happy might be left feeling just as spiritually rewarded. Many religious hermits and monks live a ascetic life of abstinence, and fasting, limited in food and drink, education, and denied all sexual thought and activity, but may well feel spiritually ‘blessed’ by their sense that this makes them closer to their gods.

We were particularly impressed by the quotation in the BHA statement from Prof. A.H. Maslow;

The spiritual life is part of our biological life. It is the highest part of it, but yet part of it. The spiritual life is part of the human essence. It is a defining characteristic of human nature, without which human nature is not full human nature. It is part of the real self, of one’s identity, of one’s inner-core, of one’s specieshood, of full humanness."

We should be more aware of the linguistic difficulties before casually using words like spiritual, otherwise we will leave young impressionable students and children confused and worried.

Despite sharp divisions in respective view points, we did seem to find some common ground as well. We recognised the false assumption by religionists that spirits are somehow connected with the search for a God and that the answer lies within the human psyche While religionists see the soul of a person as property of God, Humanists see the spirit as an individual’s own property. Suicide was regarded as a crime because it jeopardises not just the corporate body but also the fate of the soul. Humanists see suicide as a final resort move of a desperate individual with overbearing problems. Whilst many people would appeal to a suicide not to take his own life by making him think of his family, friends, or even his god, others would more wisely try to assertion the problems of the individual contemplating suicide. We see the spirit and the life as one and the same, as property and the right of the individual.

Bridget Lechner thoughtfully raised the best alternative expression to use instead of soul, and spirit for humanists; ‘Lifesense’, which was well received, though some problems are associated with it as a holistic all embracing blanket expression. No doubt Humanists will continue to use words like soul, essence, lifesense, and spirituality, and perhaps there is no reason why we shouldn’t. It would have been bad for poetry, literature and art if such words had never been used at all, but we are and should be aware also that such words come tarnished by ambiguity and that we must make it clear when mentioning them, just what we mean, especially in educating our young.

Arthur Chappell