Sandy raises a point that comes up a lot. When you write about “spiritual” versus “non-spiritual” people, our mind tends to immediately think in extremes – often helped by the extremeness we have experienced with those two classes of people!
It’s easy to think of “spiritual” implying all the good virtues – generosity, faithfulness, control of negative emotions, a reverence for life, etc., and “non-spirituality” as implying nothing but greed, cynicism, evil, immorality, etc. Certainly many people who label themselves “spiritual” claim they represent all that’s good and everybody else is evil.
But let’s step back a bit.
First, the way a person is conventionally labeled can sometimes be useful, especially when your dealing with general characteristics of large numbers of them. “Short people don’t make winning pro basketball players” is a useful generalization when you’re putting together a team, but not absolutely true. So some of the nastiest people may label themselves “spiritual” and fool others into buying into that label – we humans are good at deception – and some who call themselves “atheists” may be among the nicest people around.
Second, let’s remember that having a philosophy or belief system about the world that you derive the “spiritual” and “non-spiritual labels” from is an intriguing and often fun intellectual activity, to usually be engaged in when times are easy. But when you’re under stress and things get tough, intellectual philosophies may go out the window, without you even noticing, and you are run by instincts (psycho-biological programs built into the human bio-computer) and emotions. On the one hand, we have the saying from some general that there are no atheists in foxholes. On the other, many a person has gone from a sweet idea of a benevolent God to a “Fuck you, God, you don’t even exist, you phony!” attitude when a loved one dies of cancer or the like.
Indeed I’d argue that if we were good at self-observation, we would probably notice our position on “spiritual” vs “non-spiritual” changing many times per day with mood and circumstances.
Third, let’s also remember that there are many variations in the beliefs associated with words like “spiritual,” “materialist,” “atheist,” etc.
So in a group, general sense, then, when I’m talking about “spiritual” versus “non-spiritual” people or belief systems, I’m making generalizations that have to be modified in individual cases. If I say someone is a “materialist,” e.g., of the kind I discuss in The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together, I’m talking in general about people whose intellectual philosophy is that everything is made up of material objects, moved only by material forces, and that there’s no logical place to talk about “ideals,” “morals” or the like except as biological outcomes of mindless and purposeless physical forces operating over billions of years since the (meaningless, it just happened) Big Bang. If, as I discuss in the book, you truly believe this, then looking out for your material welfare is certainly the most sensible thing to do: it’s all you have, really. All those emotions, satisfactions, hopes, fear, loves, etc. are biological byproducts and are totally dependent on your physical well being.
If I describe someone as “spiritual” or spiritually inclined, on the other hand, I’m describing someone whose intellectual philosophy (and perhaps some deeper experiences) is that there is some other kind of real level of existence than the material, and the goals and values stemming from contact with this “higher” level are much more important than mere material ones. When Canadian physician R. M. Bucke, e.g., whose Cosmic Consciousness experience is described in The End of Materialism says
“Among other things he did not come to believe, he saw and knew that the Cosmos is not dead matter but a living Presence, that the soul of man is immortal, that the universe is so built and ordered that without any peradventure all things work together for the good of each and all, that the foundation principle of the world is what we call love and that the happiness of every one is in the long run absolutely certain…”
we may be deeply touched, especially if we think of ourselves as “spiritual.” If we are logically materialists, though, our only sensible conclusion is that Bucke experienced some sort of seizure where his brain malfunctioned, for the cosmos is dead, man has no soul, and the universe has no care whatsoever he we live or how our lives come out.
Dr. Alan Smith, whose Cosmic Consciousness experience is described later in the book, was an agnostic before his experience, now he’s quite spiritually inclined. That’s an illustration of what I briefly alluded to above, that our “philosophy” may be created by much more than intellectual speculation about life.
So a person may be an “atheist” and a very nice person – they can blame in on the human firmware, the biological instincts they inherited. Or a person may strive to be good because of what they believe and seek about the “spiritual.” Or a person may be good or bad as the result of enormous social and psychological pressures in their upbringing. Or, or, or….
Bottom line in my writing: I’d like to do a bit to make the world a little better place, I think generally (not exclusively) having “spiritual” values leads people in that direction more effectively than having just “material” values. My concern in The End of Materialism was to help people who have been denying their spiritual aspects because they think science had “proved” that spirituality was all nonsense. The next book, Explorations on the Spiritual Side, will be to share some ideas and reflections about getting on with developing our spiritual side in modern times….