As a former Christian turned atheist, I have a lot of stuff that continues to linger. Perhaps most useful, as compared to the crap dealing with being good, guilt, etc, is the question of spirituality. While I do believe that the universe is an entirely physical thing, not only are there mysteries about which we don’t even have the right questions but aspects of life that do not seem explicable in purely physical terms.
Which of course they can be, and will be – in time. (If we don’t annihilate the planet first.) But there is an aspect of life that can only be described, I think, as spiritual. Not in terms of actual spirits or god or non-physical entities of any kind. That stuff simply is not possible. But here is what is possible:
I can stand at the edge of the ocean and watch the sun setting and I can feel something inside me that is far more than appreciation for the beauty or the joy of even being there.
I can read the words of Annie Dillard in A Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek and be in awe of something I cannot begin to describe.
I can hold my new-born child and lose contact with my own mortality.
I can sit in silence, observing my body breathing, and come into the fullness of my own mortality.
So, yea, there’s something about being alive and being human that seems to be more than the electro-chemical workings of the brain, even though I know that absolutely everything I feel and know and remember and understand is nothing more than the electro-chemical workings of the brain. But the human brain is a perfect place to use that old saying “more than the sum of its parts”.
Whatever this something more is, for lack of any better way to name or describe it, I will call the spiritual. You might also call it consciousness, but what I am trying to describe goes further than consciousness, the awareness of myself – the recognition of my brain by my brain, which is the ultimate rabbit hole if you really want to lose yourself.
I don’t. The search for the something more I sense is a search to find myself. No gods are involved. No spirit entities. Just the brain that a few million years of evolution has gifted me. Consciousness and more. I have no other word for, so, for now, I will call is spiritual.
And now to take a bit of a tangent:
The ancient native religion of Japan is Shinto. It’s a form of animism, a belief that everything is alive in some manner. Shintoists have a variety of beliefs in this regard. These range from “every creature and object, including rocks and water and the works of human hands, are as alive as humans” to a more generalized type of belief in a life force that makes creatures and things spiritual and, to some degree, alive – and some of these are indeed gods.
Almost no one in Japan is an actual Shinto anymore, but the echoes have Shintoism linger, sometimes deeply. It’s at the heart of Marie Kondo’s joy. It’s in the reverence for the nation’s natural beauty and the care with which certain aspects of history and tradition are kept alive.
The practice of Shinto today, which seems to me to be a respectful honoring of the ancient beliefs, might be a good place to consider spirituality in an entirely physical universe. I do not believe there are any gods in the waters of East Rosebud Lake in Montana or the mountains that rise high around it, but what I felt being there as a teenager – what I am incapable of ever forgetting – lives in me as if kept alive by something, someone, alive.
Shintoists observed the world and found in the beauty and preciousness of both the natural and created work an expression of life so vivid and meaningful that they attributed it to the presence of living beings. Gods – kami. There are no gods, but that does not mean the beauty and preciousness of life is not present in the things we view with wonder, delight, and appreciation. Will I bow my head to the kami of a beautiful old tree? No, but I will bow my head to mystery I cannot grasp but only absorb.
If the spiritual is no more than the mystery of what I do not know and yet feel, that is more than enough for me.