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What is spirituality?


‘Spirit’ comes from the Latin ‘spiritus’ – meaning ‘breath’, ‘soul’, ‘vigour’, ‘courage’.

The Shorter Oxford Dictionary defines ‘spirit’ as: “The animating or vital principle in man (and animals) that gives life to the physical organism, in contrast to its purely material elements; the breath of life.” It also defines 'Spiritual' in the following way:  “Of, pertaining to, affecting or concerning, the spirit or higher moral qualities, especially as regarded in a religious aspect.”

It’s worth noting that the above definition, while stressing the religious nature of many aspects of spirituality, also makes it clear that it can also be applied, with no religious connotations, to “higher moral qualities”.

Spirituality and neuropsychology

Research carried out at the University of Missouri in 2008 with individuals with traumatic brain injury has shown that spiritual experiences are based in the brain and  are associated with selflessness. They are related to decreased activity in the right parietal lobe of the brain.  Professor Brick Johnstone who conducted the research explained: 'We studied people with brain injury and found that people with injuries to the right parietal lobe of the brain reported higher levels of spiritual experiences such as transcendence.' The researchers argue that selflessness, and enhanced feelings of spirituality can be learned by decreasing activity in that part of the brain. This supports previous brain research which shows the physiological mechanisms which leads individuals to experience spiritual transcendence as a result of prayer or meditation.

Difference between religion and spirituality

Many commentators differentiate between organised religion and spirituality. Organised religions usually comes with structured belief system and requires compliance with a set of rules or commandments. Spirituality can mean the contemplation of ‘higher’ things, the pursuit of meaning in life, the seeking of moral purpose, the use of the intellect or higher faculties of the mind. It can, of course, also imply a personal belief system in a ‘higher being’ but which does not fit closely with any of the major organised religions.

Some people would sum up the difference between religion and spirituality as something along the lines of: ‘spirituality comes from inside us, while religion comes from outside’. Others would say that spirituality is inherently within us and that it is in seeking to explore our spirituality that we join, or set up, religious groups. Religion becomes the tangible manifestation of our inner spirituality.

While many people use the words ‘spiritual’ and ‘religion’ interchangeably, it seems clear that there is an important difference. To have true religious belief, it seems necessary to be spiritual. But to be spiritual does not seem to require adherence to a religious group, nor a belief in a higher deity (or deities). William Irwin Thompson, the cultural historian and yogi, differentiates them thus: "Religion is not identical with spirituality; rather religion is the form spirituality takes in civilization."

Atheistic spirituality

In 2006 the contemporary, and acclaimed, French philosopher Andre Comte-Sponville published a book entitled The Book of Atheist Spirituality. Contrasting spirituality with religion he defines atheist spirituality as 'a spirituality of fidelity rather than faith, of action rather than hope ... and, naturally, of love rather than fear or submission. (141)

Sponville recalls one of his first spiritual experiences. He was walking in the woods with friends. They ceased chatting and walked silently and he began to register his surroundings, then 'all of a sudden ... ' -

What? Nothing: everything! No words, no meanings, no questions, only - a surprise. Only ... this. A seemingly infinite happiness. A seemingly eternal sense of peace. Above me, the starry sky was immense, luminous and unfathomable, and within me there was nothing but the sky, of which I was part, and the silence, and the light, like a warm hum, and a sense of joy with neither subject nor object ... . Ys, in the darkness of that night, I contained only the dazzling presence of the ALL. Infinite peace! Simplicity, serenity, delight. (page, 157) 

A few sentences later Comte-Sponville acknowledges 'The ego had vanished'. So too had judgements, a sense of time, or negative emotions. Everything was present. He had a sense of there being 'enough' and also of 'acceptance'. Though he doesn't make this specific point we can see how western culture now undermines the liklihood of spiritual experiences by encouraging people to develop their ego and to continually pay attention to what they don't have.

Spirituality and positive emotion

In his book Spiritual Evolution – A Scientific Defense of Faith, George E Vaillant, the American psychiatrist and Harvard professor, argues that while spirituality is the source and the outgrowth of faith for many people, for just as many others it is treated as suspect, often associated with bogus faith healers, reincarnation, telepathy, crystals, angels, tarot cards etc. He also rejects the new age attitude that spirituality can mean nothing more than to “follow your bliss”.

His research career, which includes several decades in charting adult development and “successful ageing”, addiction, alcoholism, and personality disorder he believes that, at the beginning of the 21st Century, many people are searching for some sort of common spiritual ground:

On the one hand, increasing education and intolerance for patriarchal dogma have led to steady erosion of membership in most mainstream religions. On the other hand, this shift towards secularism has been offset by an equally steady increase in fundamentalist religions that isolate their believers from the rest of the world. As a result, contemporary culture holds no universally accepted view of human nature. If the world is going to function as one small planet, the development of some kind of consensus regarding human nature is essential. That consensus should include the recognition that human nature is more than a bunch of “selfish” genes.

Vaillant puts forward his own definition of spirituality as: “The amalgam of positive emotions that bind us to other human beings –– and to our experience of ‘God’ as we may understand Her/Him”.

Among those positive emotions, he includes love, hope, joy, forgiveness, compassion, faith, awe and gratitude as spiritually important, arguing that these are significant because they all require human connection. By contrast, he goes on to say: “I have omitted from the list four other positive emotions – excitement, contentment, hilarity and a sense of mastery – because we can feel these alone on a desert island.”

For Vaillant, inborn negative emotions, such as fear and anger, are also of great importance, being dedicated to individual survival, but they do not have the potential to “free the self from the self”.  “We feel both the emotions of vengeance and of forgiveness deeply, but the long-term results of these two emotions are very different. Negative emotions are often crucial for survival – but only in time present.”

Vaillant's point is that positive emotions help us to broaden and build, widening our tolerance, expanding our moral compass and enhancing our creativity. “They help us to survive in time future.” He posits the view that spirituality has a deep psychological basis:

... a reality rooted in the positive human emotions that need to be better understood … I believe that by taking the science of positive emotions seriously, we can make spirituality palatable, even useful, to the critics of religions. Simultaneously, we can help those enthralled by their own faith traditions to appreciate what they have in common with the faith traditions of others.

To back up his case, Vaillant cites experiments by Wisconsin neuro-psychologist Richard Davidson, whose research has proved that in people with gloomy, introverted personalities, the right prefrontal brain is biologically more active than the left prefrontal brain. Whereas, in sunny, optimistic people, the left prefrontal brain is much more active than the right. In measuring the brain activity of a devout Tibetan monk, Davidson found that his left prefrontal brain activity was higher than in any of the 175 Westerners he had tested.

As a result, Vaillant concludes that: “Once we recognise that spirituality has a biological basis, we realise that we must have evolved toward spirituality. It is not too great a leap to hope that as natural selection continues, if we don’t denude or blow up our planet first, human being may become still more spiritual”.

Spirituality and nature

George W. Burns, an Australian psychotherapist, in a review of the literature and the natural environment and well-being (published in The Science of Well-being) maintains that there are three different ways in which contact with nature contributes to a sense of spirituality. First it often leads to a sense of awe and transcendence. This is the type of feeling people often report when they gaze at the stars or view the world from the top of a mountain. ‘This awe relates to a bigger-than-me experience’ explains Burns. Secondly, paying attention to the natural world can help us feel ‘connected’ or part of a holistic universe. This too enhances feelings of spirituality. Finally, viewing the natural world, for example observing birds or animals, can often bring about an epiphany or personal transformation.


Johnstone et al, 2008.,'Support for a neuropsychological model of spirituality in persons with traumatic brain injury',Zygon(r), 2008; 43 (4): 861 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9744.2008.00964.x

'Spiritual Evolution – A Scientific Defense of Faith', Vaillant, G.E,  2008, Broadway Books.)

Mary Nash and Bruce Stewart 'Spirituality and Social Care – Contributing to Personal Community & Well-being', Nash, M & Stewart, B, 2002, Jessica Kingsley.

'Flourishing – Positive Psychology and the Life Well-lived, Keyes, C., & Haidt, J, 2003, American Psychological Association.

'Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological wealth', Diener, E & Biswas-Diener, R., 2008, Blackwell.

'Visions of Compassion', Davidson, R.J  & Harrington, A, 1998,Oxford University Press.

'The Book of Atheist Spirituality', Comte-Sponville, A, 2008, Bantam Press.

'The Science of Well-being', Hupert, F., Baylis, N .,& Keverne, B, 2006, Oxford University Press.


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