Several people have questioned me on using the word ‘spiritual’. They remark it is nonsensical or confusing, that even if they understand my use of it in the term Spiritual Materialism, that it will cause confusion for others and I’m doing myself a disservice. This is something I worry about, that passers by on my blog will see ‘Spiritual’ and neglect ‘Materialism’, thinking it is yet another site promoting groundless woo or pseudoscientific babble. Also, it risks falling into the ‘spiritual but not religious’ category, which seems to be disliked by both the religious and non-believers, used mostly as an accusation or accompanied with a roll of the eyes.
I use the word ‘spiritual’ for two main reasons.
Firstly there’s simply no better word to convey my meaning so pithily. Certainly there’s no better single word, I could term use terms like ‘deeply emotional’, ‘personally significant’, or any other phrase, but none that’s very punchy. Some psychologists use the term ‘transpersonal’. This is aesthetically ugly and doesn’t add any clarity. From a materialism viewpoint it’s no better; no-one can be ‘beyond’ the personal, even if the feel they experience it. Being a new word people will have no prior association to hook into it with.
This brings me onto my second reason; initial confusion is rather the point. ‘Spiritual materialism’ is a juxtaposition meant to invite curiosity, ‘isn’t that an oxymoron? How can materialism be spiritual? I want to remind people of the traditional association of ‘spiritual’ with supernatural and undermine their expectations and then convince them we can divorce the two. If this blog’s title didn’t include that invocation, but used something more mundane like ‘emotional’ then I wouldn’t have any convincing to do.
Regular readers should be aware that I use ‘spiritual’ to mean something like ‘concerned with long-term emotional well-being’. The point of my blog is to point out that non-believers aren’t usually concerned enough about this well-being, for themselves or others, and that this should change. Through the finding of science we now know enough about those emotions and experiences that are typically called spiritual that we can give them material explanations, just as science has for life, the creation of the universe or morality. I am explicitly trying to divorce the supernatural connotations of the term, but I need to allude to the old baggage in order to dispel it as myth.
However, perhaps I am doing myself an injustice by turning those people away from my argument before they even hear it because of the associations of the word ‘spiritual’. If that was all I was trying to do another word might be better suited. The problem is that I also want to do to other things. To reach out to believers and demonstrate to them that materialists can care about the same things they do when it comes to emotional well-being. And also to remove the potential argument that the experiences that I talk about, those caused by the cultivation of emotional well-being and usually deemed ‘spiritual’, are evidence for something beyond the material.
In conclusion, there simply isn’t a better option for what I’m trying to convey and ‘spiritual’ has it uses.
Sam Harris has a much superior defence of the word’s use, and he was a huge influence on the development of spiritual materialism. So I owe him credit and admiration where it’s due. I like his point that ‘spirit’ comes the Latin spiritus, meaning ‘breathing’, which runs a nice etymological thread to an important practice of spiritual materialism; mindfulness of breathing meditation.
– The Spiritual Materialist