Spirituality for the Skeptic

What does it mean to be a spiritual person? According to some, spirituality is about identifying with certain otherworldly beliefs. Others consider it to indicate faith in a deity or in supernatural beings. Recently, in Waking Up, Sam Harris has suggested that religious traditions have too often imposed their restrictive ideas onto spirituality. A spiritual person is not necessarily a religious person, and may only be spiritual in the sense of having a particular disposition towards life, the world, and the universe.

Robert Solomon, who was Quincy Lee Centennial Professor of Business and Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin, refers broadly to spirituality as “the thoughtful love of life” in his book Spirituality for the Skeptic. He identifies reverence, trust, and love as constituting the essence of spirituality – a spirituality that is prominently about the human experience of life, rather than a reference to the supernatural. To be spiritual is, for Solomon, not so much about beliefs, but about living well, particularly by orienting ourselves towards a larger view of life than we get from its apparent brevity. This larger view extends to social life, to a fate not solely of our own making, and to life and existence on the whole.

Trust on this account is an existential stance, a way of being in the world. It is not given, nor is it self-confidence, since to trust the world must mean recognizing where we reach our limits. Authentic trust involves a choice to trust, and is not merely a blind or naive habit. Solomon suggests that this aspect of spirituality differs from religious faith in that it “does not involve anything being done for us.”1 Further, trust is not motivated by our hopes or expectations. It is conditional and primarily concerned with the integrity of relationships. Similarly, reverence is conceived of as a recognition of our responsibility, significance, and confidence in the face of something greater than us. A devoted, overflowing love embraces life itself in redefining the concept of the self into the more inclusive one of “we.”

A central part of Solomon’s spirituality involves accepting the world in which we live, and not denying or whitewashing the unpleasant and even offensive reality that sometimes emerges from it. Life, he says, has an essential tension between our passionate commitments and the awareness we have of things being outside our control. The ultimate frustration of our projects is inevitable, and none of us is entitled to anything. Yet we benefit in this universe – be it benign or cruel – and a naturalistic gratitude is able to recognize this without there needing to be any divine being to whom this gratitude is directed. As life is a gift none of us deserve, we should be grateful to life, for our life.

Another major aspect of this kind of spirituality is the emphasis on the soul or the self. Many forms of spirituality advocate a transformation of the self as the purpose to life, and in this respect Solomon’s is no different. This spirituality is self-actualizing in its focus on adopting a particular disposition to life and the world. However, the soul in this context is not transcendently detached from life, nor is it deeply internal to us. Solomon articulates a view of the soul (self) that is similar to Eastern philosophy in its unification of the individual self, the social self, and the all-encompassing self. The meaning of life for Solomon is ultimately about self-transformation in a way that brings out passionate engagement with others while also striving to receive the world and be in the world as genuinely as possible.

Throughout Spirituality for the Skeptic, numerous comparisons are drawn with various religious views, sometimes in agreement and other times for critical purposes. Solomon insightfully challenges doctrines that call away from the immanent in seeking the promise of a transcendent world, or a transcendent god. Forgiveness, he notes, is an action, not a mental state, and to defer forgiveness to God is to simply not forgive. Additionally, “[t]o think that life after death answers our concern about death is just another form of denial.”2 On the other hand, a good deal of wisdom is taken from religious traditions that emphasize our relationships within present reality. Solomon praises the openness in which the self, soul and spirituality are contextually conceived as a negotiable aspect of nature and society in Eastern philosophies.

Solomon is careful to state that “one does not literally make anything true” by adopting his suggested spiritualist stance. What spirituality does is open up “all sorts of possibilities” that might not have been as evident before. Spirituality is about changing the self, not the external world. Solomon emphasizes a larger perspective on life, including the social component of life, in an effort to reorient the self. Human beings do sometimes unite to do terrible, arrogant things, yet our condition in this world is among other beings, including non-human lifeforms. The self, it could be said, often thinks selfishly, and Solomon’s recommendations do not seem intended to inflate our egos, but instead serve to remind us of our vulnerability and frailty. Others are around us. Others have come and gone before us, and others will do so long after we are gone. Exceptions have not been made for them, nor will exceptions be made for us. What is up to us is to decide how we consciously meet the world.

Like many who are skeptical towards religion, I have occasionally voiced resistance to spirituality as well, finding it something of a nebulous concept. Although this is still a problem in certain corners (especially among the self-described “spiritual but not religious” crowd), Solomon’s book helps elucidate the prospects for a meaningful kind of spirituality, and one could even call it a naturalistic spirituality. The text deals with a multitude of topics, including love, death, fate, suffering, trust, hope, reverence, and so on, all to illustrate why taking the spiritual orientation towards life has value.

I first read this book having just come out of a painful and difficult time in my life, and found it immensely rewarding and provocative. Solomon’s writing is very informative, yet also captures the same sense of passion he calls for in his thesis, making this something that should appeal to a lot more than just the average philosophy reader. As such, it leaves unanswered questions – namely, why use the label “spiritual” when it has other connotations? – but the project here is not intended to be comprehensive, only to chart an alternative route, if you will. In that respect, I would say it is fairly successful and well worth considering.

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1. Robert Solomon, Spirituality for the Skeptic (Oxford, 2002), p. 50.
2. Ibid, p. 113.

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