The Fellowship of the Human Spirit

The second talk of the 1998 Conference was given by Robert Ashby, head of the British Humanist Association (BHA).

The question of whether we humanists should use the word 'spiritual' has engaged members of the BHA for some years. The most notable context is education, where adoption of 'spiritual' means access to that undefined state goal of 'spiritual development' with repercussions for religious education and collective worship. A more recent context is pastoral care, where adoption of the word 'spiritual' may give access to humanist hospital, military and prison chaplaincy.

To me, it's ironic that it is whether we use the word that is important, not the underlying nature of the spirituality we wish to nurture. Thus I have enjoyed Don Cupitt's many useful reminders of the role of language in such matters. The BHA's long-serving education adviser, John White, prepared a splendid paper which showed just how often authors used 'spiritual' in the context of the human spirit, rather than communion with the supernatural. The school inspectors of OFSTED have even been guided by the explicit statement in their 1995 handbook that 'spiritual is not synonymous with religious'. As far as linguistic proof is concerned, I think the case is closed.

Many humanists, myself included, feel occasional or complete discomfort with the word, because of the baggage it brings with it. The most powerful baggage in the public mind is not in fact from the more traditional western religions, but comes from the so-called 'new age' concoctions, from the spiritualist revival, and the upsurge of Buddhism in Britain. Thus some humanists will choose to use the word 'spiritual'; others will find another expression. The BHA itself is clear that there can be a non-religious use of the word 'spiritual', but does not require that individual humanists must use the term. But I was heartened to hear that this conference is not about the meaning of words; in fact I have sat through far too many such discussions, which really seem to get us nowhere.

So, I come to this conference as a person, alongside other people. And I intend, at last, to learn from you more about spiritual experience itself, and not the language. I am not an academic...not a theologian, not a psychologist...but believe that when we come to events like this, dealing with human experience, it is a subject open to us all. Although there are plenty of books dealing with matters spiritual, very few get to grips with what spirituality actually is! Even papers entitled 'What is spirituality?' seem not to attempt a definition, but scurry through a series of side-steps and party tricks, to finish with a grand and resonant phrase...but no definition. I can always go back to William James—has much happened since?

Why such a fashionable word?

Every new school textbook for Religious Education seems to be using the word spirituality. Heinemann's Spirituality in Focus contains sections from different religions and a splendid section on Humanism by John White. But nowhere, despite the title, does it say what spirituality is! There is a book of papers from a symposium at Oxford, called Modern Spiritualities, which again just veers away from trying to say what spirituality is.

Perhaps it is a fashionable word because it covers so much: it is a very large umbrella. For those who feel a bit squeamish about the word religious, perhaps because of its latterday association with fundamentalism and war, 'spirituality' is a good alternative. For those seeking acceptance for their allegiance to crystal healing, or other irrational props, it grants respectability while retaining an aura of mystery.

If people really started openly talking about what spirituality actually is, I guess that the word would soon start to fade from fashion. There'd eventually be another word to take its place.

Well, down to business. First I will share with you some of the instances where I, as one of those dreaded and drily rational humanists, have had experiences which I could call spiritual. And then I will try to say what on earth spirituality is.

Personal experience

I kept a list for a while, adding to it now and then, and it contains these items: Shostakovitch's 8th quartet, and even one particular Borodin Quartet recording, which I seem to have played in that phase of anger mixed with grief when a friend has died. Too often.

Other music: maybe that tense moment in a piano concerto where a modulation appears so perfect that muscles tense and all other thoughts are banished for a few seconds. Or Gary Moore and occasional moments of blues and electric guitar. Or Billie Holiday, who speaks for herself, I hope.

Rodin drawing—vague item... but I remember vividly something about the sense of line, and the washes, and the sense of closeness to its creator in time and thought. Again this sounds rather pretentious, snobbish—but I recall this after almost ten years, and so clearly. Often, in fact, I find that a particular line or use of paint can awaken what I'm calling here a spiritual sense. Much the same applies to the Leonardo cartoon in the National Gallery, in front of which I've seen people sit and stare for long minutes.

'The hills step off into whiteness.' That line of Sylvia Plath. 'People or stars regard me sadly. I disappoint them.' Language more intense for me than any liturgy.

Ants. In fact sitting on rather weed-lined crazy paving at home, and my eyes suddenly zooming in to that other world of minute creatures...and watching the ants in all their intricate scurrying, their communication with each other, and a realisation of the wonder of all that is around us, most of which we do not see or cannot see. Have I caused the ants panic? If they had advanced language, would I be a god?—a destroyer or a creator?

The moon. One evening walking home from the tube I looked at the fairly full moon and the conditions were right and my eyes sharp enough for once to see some of the surface detail. Just a little, but that brought home the vastness of all that out there, far more than the pinprick of a star.

Landscape from a train. Yes, I remember; it was a train from Paddington to Newport. It was December. The rhythm of the tree trunks we passed, the clear light, the mellow greens and greys of bark. Something very beautiful; so much so that it grazed against the boundary of being sad.

Dover Beach—only after I came to use this list for my talk did I notice with a smile the connection with the Sea of Faith. While staying with my sister in Dover I walked late one evening on the small part of beach by the town: shingly and with no one in sight. There was that strange light of the shore at night, the shifting glimmer of the swell, and there was the peaceful sound and rhythm. Since then I can bring to mind Arnold's opening line, 'The sea is calm to-night', and feel a gear change within me.

These were the sort of thing that appeared on my list.


When I came to look at the list as a whole, I could see that it might show me in a terrible light. Snobbish, depressive loner—that's what the psychiatrist might say. Yet I will continue and be honest; for if we are not honest when talking about personal experience, the whole discussion is worthless.

But I looked again. Firstly, I had no communal experiences that I called spiritual. But I'd had times of pleasure and of sorrow alongside and shared with others. Why had I discounted them? To me, spirituality was to be found in solitary experience. This may immediately raise questions: many people these days view spiritual experience as primarily communal; I do not. Later I will look at this from the perspective of our evolutionary inheritance to try and explain further.

Secondly, as above, a large number of the experiences I'd noted seemed melancholy. The trees seen from the train sum it up for me: that beauty which is somehow melancholy. Or music that is so perfect that it is somehow sad. To me at least. But in ordinary life I'm apparently a rather cheerful person: so what is all this? Again, why do I not consider the joyful experiences to be in the category of spiritual?

Essentially, it is precisely because they can be pinned down in description. To me, they do not need the more complex terms of spirituality. When reading books on spirituality, I wonder too about the whole culture of spirituality that is building up: it is somehow wrong (or at least improper) to stress the melancholy at the expense of the joyful; as if one was giving spirituality a bad name. This joyful status quo is far from the spiritual gloom of many of the prophets and philosophers—and I think it is partially dishonest.


These experiences all have an element of otherness. Otherness not from the generality of human experience, but otherness from my everyday experience. I live in London, am busy with work and voluntary commitments, juggling time and juggling energy, amid the bustle of crowds, supermarkets, rush-hours, and noise...the otherness becomes very clear. To describe it, I will steal the phrase 'moments of being'—clarity amid the hours of existence or busyness.

I wrote this before I had read Don Cupitt's inspiring but infuriating Religion and Being, but I use the word with a small b, a humble part of a naturalistic world.

The otherness is mental as well as physical. Which reminds me of Mr Hague's description of striding the Yorkshire moors as being spiritual, and then him saying how far removed it was from his daily physical and mental world of politics. Otherness.

And for some of the religious people I've discussed this with, I get the impression that their sense of otherness also coincides for the most part with what they describe as spiritual. (Interestingly, I know of other people who are most certainly religious believers, but who do not appear at all to be open to what I would call spiritual concerns.)

The Alice Effect

A number of my experiences involve a sudden change in my relation to my surroundings (or perception of my surroundings): a jolt along the scale of things. Alice in Wonderland's 'eat me' disorder. This jolt may be sudden and unpredictable, or it may slide into focus, but again without conscious manipulation.

With the moon, I am suddenly small. With the ants, I am suddenly huge. I am taken out of my ordinary perspective and become a different creature; different from the physical creature that my mind tells me I am.

And maybe this jolt of scale temporarily confuses the mind and weakens its rational defences, opening up perceptions free from the chains of language.

One can feel this change of scale in a cathedral, with arches and vaults taking one's eyes up higher than any normal substance would be, unless you live in New York or in the mountains—visits to which are also often described as spiritual.


As far as scientists know, another feature that marks humans apart from other animals is the waking dream of imagination. Our extraordinary ability to imagine the absent can play its part in some spiritual experience, though perhaps it's more likely to be relevant to the new age or religious spiritualities. Yet, if I analysed my own experiences in psychological depth, I could probably suggest how imagination played its part.

Putting these three together—Otherness, the Alice Effect, and Imagination—let us take an example of a spiritual experience described by Fenner Brockway. He stood on the shore at sunset, and firstly his aesthetic appreciation triggered the Alice Effect: 'I became lost in the beauty of the scene ...I became one with the spirit of the sea and sky.'

This led on to a sense of Otherness: 'It swept over me as I looked out to the stars at night...I felt that I was more than an individual.' And then he imagines himself as part of the evolutionary process: 'The life of all was within me and about me.'

Lord Brockway was a humanist, but I think that his experience must be similar to that of many religious people. My explanation for that experience is the same; the individual's conscious labelling of it, the afterwards addition of language, is what varies.


My own experiences all have an element of spontaneity. They cannot really be cultivated, although I could put myself in a situation where I might have that moment of being. So I doubt whether, for me, practised meditation would lead to the spiritual. That, like worship, would just be alien to my nature and elicit no response. Again, I am probably at odds with many of you who would claim that one can elicit spiritual experience through meditation or prayer. As the experience is alien to me, I can but read others' descriptions of this state, and wonder if the experience is actually based on reduced oxygen in the brain, through the slow or shallow breathing that is mentioned in each of the accounts I have read. Thus it has a very direct and explicable link with biology.

But some elements of religious experience, which are often described as spiritual, seem to share the spontaneity of my experience. Again, they arise amidst our lives that are largely controlled, whether by time, by energy, by other people, or by chance.

It raises the question of whether spirituality should refer to occasional experience, or to the underpinning of one's whole life. I choose the former, for, in the latter case, I think that spiritual is being used simply as a nice adjective, easier than picking a clutch from a list such as kind, thoughtful, loving, caring, mysterious, deep, and so on.


My experiences all have an element of emotion, which seems essential to anything that is going to be called spiritual. I would suggest that emotion lies at the heart of the matter. And I would also say that this is an obvious statement (although a number of writers about spirituality seem to be able to draw it out thinly to the length of a book).

What I find particularly interesting about experiences that I've chosen to call spiritual is that they seem to involve more complex mixes of emotion. Whereas other experiences are easily described as joyful, distressing, or whatever clear-cut emotion is appropriate, these experiences achieve a different category. So if I've been in a group of people, joyful with them, I would call this a joyful experience. I wouldn't necessarily call it spiritual...although many religious people might.

There are other emotional aspects too. Many people who are depressed, and who see no direction in their lives, may well find invisible support and certainty from either new age or more traditional notions of the spiritual. Clearly there is an emotional link here, and perhaps a conscious one. But that subconscious meme, or cultural connection, linking happiness with spirituality, still passes through cultures all round the world, and is powerful. (I have already noted the unwillingness of books on spirituality to mention the melancholy aspects of experience.) The link even survived the several generations of materialism in the former Soviet Union (although it could be argued that the ritualistic and dogmatic elements of Communism and Marxism quietly kept alive other, transcendental, tendencies).


Personally, I consider aesthetics as a sub-heading under emotion. This may be heresy to many philosophers! Many aspects of my spiritual experiences are enhanced or even initiated by aesthetic responses. I have already quoted Fenner Brockway's aesthetic appreciation as his gateway to spirituality.

There is a vast culture behind us which influences that strange experience of being melancholy while being happy—something I see at the heart of much of my experience. Perhaps it is a tenuous link, but an interesting one, to see a Darwinian origin of this sensitivity to mortality, that has the effect of concentrating our minds on this life and that old urge of the heterosexuals to reproduce?

Whereas many other people will consider spirituality to be a sense of detachment from life, you will note that, even though I have stressed otherness and changes in the scale of one's perception, I still insist that the spiritual experience is a particular focus on this life, not some new sort of sense, hitherto undiscovered by scientists. This is quite simply because, as I have said, the experience is one of greater contact with one's real life, that moment of being, away from all the distractions of the world around. It is a concentration on life and the self. It is quite at odds with the bombardment of images around us, which suggest that life and self are about work, clothes, money, lifestyle and so on—all of which are concepts that have arisen extremely late in the process evolution of the human brain.

However culturally delineated, or however universal to all humans through our evolutionary heritage, beauty and pathos are two recurring aspects of spiritual experience and aesthetics. Ronsard, in his sonnets, wrote 'Un soleil voit naitre et mourir la Rose'.


I consider memory to play a vital, but largely unrecognised role in spiritual experience. Memory forms associations, generally subconscious, perhaps most importantly through our various senses—smell, touch, perception of colour, a particular sound. These associations heighten the experience of now, adding echoes of then.

Eliot's The Wasteland: '...mixing memory with desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain'.

There is also some element of cultural memory—something larger, and shared such that particular images have strong resonances in individual minds. These, I think, are diminishing in Britain. Not only consumerist images bombard us. We also are told that all religions are somehow equally valid, that it is acceptable to assemble one's own pick-and-mix of concepts, mixing Buddhist practise with Christian beliefs, and new age therapies. The cultural memory is becoming blurred and wildly animated. Some age-old human images remain: the cult goddess survives from ancient religions, through Christianity to the extraordinary manifestation of mourning for the Princess of Wales, stirred and developed by the media and control of the images which acted as triggers on many people's minds.

Biology and Spirituality

There seems to be plenty of research about brain functions and irrational belief, spirituality, and extremes of experience. Much of it reaches the national press, distorted by the editorial mangle. And the link between brain function and spiritual experience seems, to me, to be utterly sensible. If I am talking about emotion, imagination or memory, then of course the human brain is creating this human experience, bound up with the chemical factories and genetic predispositions that vary only slightly between different people.

Research into human consciousness will yield discoveries of how the human spirit works within us as a natural function, in stark contrast to the image some religious people have of an external force bringing the spiritual sense.

And drug-induced experience, that is heralded as spiritual, has been around for thousands of years, and in most cultures. There is nothing very new about narcotics and religious worship; perhaps these days most clearly manifested in some elements of the new age, or in some theistic cults.

The brain is also the seat of language. Here we see the packaging and labelling of memory, some of the access points which can trigger emotion, and the tools for aspects of imagination. The brain should be the basis of any discussion about spirituality itself.

Professor A.H. Maslow, in Towards a Psychology of Being brought it home: 'The spiritual life is part of our biological is part of the human essence'—and shared by us all.

Evolution and Spirituality

I have already alluded to possible Darwinian explanations for some factors underlying spirituality. This perspective gives me the main reason why I concentrate on solitary experience today, and discount the collective experience.

It seems to me that group spirituality—the heightened joy of worship; the transmission of grief through crowds—is triggered by the hundreds of thousands of years that humans spent in tribal, hunter-gatherer communities, and before that in small colonies of ape-like ancestors. But nowadays we largely live through transient or anonymous encounters with most other humans. We also have strangers pumped into our homes through radio and television. We know more about what is alleged to be happening in the White House than in some of our neighbours' houses. The traditional concept of the tribe is dead for most of us, and dying for much of the rest of the world's population. But the tribe is what we are biologically adapted for. It is where our minds' evolutionary inheritance is most likely to secure our survival.

Perhaps, then, the often sudden and fast-spreading collective experience is a moment of overwhelming return to the tribe, and as intense as it is for precisely this reason of familiarity and appropriateness. It can be seen among chimpanzees—both joyful and hysterical—but is considered merely natural group behaviour. Yet, when it happens among humans, other explanation is these days brought in.

Yet, even in solitary experience, there may be something akin to the sudden re-formation of a link with the tribe—without bringing in communal or collective experience. If I consider my vivid memory of standing in front of that Rodin drawing, and elsewhere my particular liking for drawings or oil sketches where the artist's presence and process is clearly visible...considering this, I can consciously recognise my delight in that immediate link with the creator of the object, with the very movement of their hands.

It is certainly not a link with another, deeper sense of myself, there is that definite link with another. It is an extraordinary psychological experience, and I am surprised that so few people I know seem to share it. But I would certainly call it spiritual in this context.

Are there other Darwinian perspectives? Maybe they would relate to the evolution of emotional expression and recognition in humans. Certainly there may also be status value in being able to describe and communicate one's spiritual experience. In much of human history, spirituality has been linked with closeness to the gods, and thus with temporal power on earth.

We might also postulate aspects of kinship and reciprocity that would be enhanced by the sort of emotions I've been discussing. I hope that others with Darwinian expertise may delve further into this area.

But have I explained anything at all?

I hope that I have achieved something, but wonder if it is just such simple common sense that it wouldn't make the philosophers happy.

Beyond Dover Beach, Matthew Arnold also wrote in Empedocles on Etna:

Is it so small a thing
To have enjoy'd the sun,
To have lived light in the spring,
To have loved, to have thought, to have done?

Our lives are mainly filled with doing, amidst which spirituality is a mosaic of moments of being. For some people, be they gurus or the humanist Fenner Brockway—people who are referred to as spiritual, for their melancholy and burden of the sum of human woe, far more than for their communal joy—for them, the mosaic fills most of the space, and a pattern becomes clearer. Or for those such as Billie Holiday, the spirituality of their life is echoed in Louis MacNeice's powerful line: 'One must live at the heartbreak of things'. What on earth, then, is spirituality? Moments of being, composed of emotion, imagination and memory—which somehow link up to take us beyond everyday awareness to an enhanced sense of reality.

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