Defining Naturalistic Spirituality

naturalised spirituality

Over the last 50 years in the UK, the proportion of the population identifying as non-religious – often referred to as ‘Nones’ – has been on the rise. The British Social Attitudes Survey from 2019 found that over half (52%) of the UK population regard themselves as belonging to no religion. Hannah Waite, from the think tank Theos, has examined this group in a report: ‘The Nones: Who are they and what do they believe?’ The report’s findings come from a 2021 YouGov survey conducted on behalf of Theos and The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion.

The Nones encompass a variety of beliefs; for the sake of this discussion, however, I want to focus on ‘Spiritual Nones’ – those who claim to be “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR), and who are characterised by a range of spiritual beliefs and practices. These make up 32% of the population of Nones.

So what can it mean to identify as ‘spiritual’ if you’re not religious? Here are some key findings from Theos that can help clarify how varied spiritual beliefs are among the non-religious (this includes all Nones not just Spiritual Nones):

  • 14% believe in a higher power
  • 9% believe in God more or less firmly
  • 36% believe that “Humans are at heart spiritual beings”
  • 42% believe in some form of the supernatural
  • Nones believe more readily in aspects of New Age spirituality rather than traditional religious beliefs. 17% believe in the power of prayer, 16% in reincarnation, 14% in the healing power of crystals, and 14% in the supernatural power of ancestors. 20% state they definitely/probably believe in life after death, 27% believe in ghosts, and 11% believe in Heaven. 

Spiritual Nones are:

  • Spiritually open
  • Less atheistic and more agnostic in their belief about God
  • More likely to believe in a higher power of some form than a personal God
  • Accepting of religion
  • Individuals who see value in religion and its place in the modern world
  • Individuals who believe that science is only able to describe and explain part of reality

80% of Spiritual Nones believe in some form of the supernatural. It would appear that the belief in supernatural entities, forces, or realms is strongly associated with non-religious spirituality, which makes sense, in light of these statistics from Theos, the fact that ‘spirit’ (a supernatural concept) is in the term spirituality, and the strong connotations that spirituality has with New Age beliefs. 

However, not all people who identify as spiritual or who are interested in spirituality (the latter of which may feel like a less cringeworthy part of one’s identity) believe in the supernatural. One can be a committed Buddhist, for instance, without having to adopt the beliefs in the supernatural that exist in some of the Buddhist traditions. Secular Buddhism is a popular path for many. One may also be interested in what are referred to as ‘spiritual practices’ – such as various forms of yoga and meditation, intentional journeys with psychedelics, sensory deprivation tanks, lucid dreaming; anything that offers non-ordinary states of consciousness – without believing that these states involve supernatural entities, forces, or realms. Experiences in natural surroundings may also evoke states of mind – such as awe and reverence – deemed non-ordinary in a distinctly ‘spiritual’ sense. Others, meanwhile, may find that sex, human connection, creativity, or even just present-moment awareness can be sacred or spiritual at times, dissimilar from what scholar of religion Mircea Eliade called the profane: our ordinary, everyday types of experience.

So what does spirituality mean for the secular, non-supernatural-oriented person? Based on the above, and in keeping with Eliade’s system of thought, we could say that the spiritual area of life is that which is experientially non-ordinary. But is that enough to encapsulate what people feel is ‘spiritual’ in a way distinct from what is deemed ‘non-spiritual’? Perhaps not. After all, one may enter various kinds of non-ordinary states of consciousness and while they may certainly be non-ordinary, novel, strange, and so on, they may not feel imbued with sacredness or spiritual qualities. 

Philosopher of psychedelics Chris Letheby has proposed that connection is a core aspect of naturalised spirituality (spirituality combined with naturalism or physicalism, or the belief that everything is ultimately natural or physical, such that all phenomena – including all mental phenomena – are necessitated by physical entities, forces, and laws; thus rendering physicalism/naturalism a rejection of the supernatural). Letheby writes:

The sense of increased connection is a common hallmark of psychedelic experience. Sometimes this takes the form of connection to a God or metaphysical principle, but often it does not. Instead, subjects report feeling connected to their bodies, senses, feelings and values, as well as to other people and the world at large.

After receiving psilocybin therapy for treatment-resistant depression, one patient said: “This connection, it’s just a lovely feeling … this sense of connectedness, we are all interconnected, it’s like a miracle!” On the question of separating the spiritual from the supernatural, in How to Change Your Mind (2018), journalist Michael Pollan – who describes various psychedelic experiences in the book – writes:

I could easily confirm the ‘fusion of [my] personal self into a larger whole’, as well as the ‘feeling that [I] experienced something profoundly sacred and holy’ and ‘of being at a spiritual height’ and even the ‘experience of unity with ultimate reality’. Yes, yes, yes, and yes – provided, that is, my endorsement of those loaded adjectives doesn’t imply any belief in a supernatural reality … Still, there was no question that something novel and profound had happened to me – something I am prepared to call spiritual, though only with an asterisk. I guess I’ve always assumed that spirituality implies a belief or faith I’ve never shared and from which it supposedly flows. But now I wondered, is this always or necessarily the case?

Letheby goes on to state:

The dimensions of human experience that we call ‘spiritual’ are often intertwined with belief in non-natural or supernatural realities, but they need not be. Psychedelic evidence supports the idea that spirituality is about connection, aspiration and asking the big questions; that these are all forms of enlarging the self; and that enlarging the self in this way, with or without pharmacological assistance, is compatible with a naturalistic worldview.

When we enlarge our sense of connection, aspire to greater things, and reflect on life’s most profound questions (i.e. about meaning and purpose), Letheby – and other proponents of naturalised spirituality – believe we can call this a form of spirituality, without invoking a belief in the supernatural. Letheby adds:

Another traditional assumption about spiritual practice, as the German philosopher Thomas Metzinger emphasises, is that it involves some kind of enquiry. Spirituality is not just about uplifting feelings, but about being in touch with how things really are. Does naturalised psychedelic spirituality pass this test? Well, subjects who rediscover their own neglected or forgotten values are, at least, getting in touch with something psychologically real and existentially important about their own lives. Those who begin to reflect on age-old philosophical mysteries are grasping something real about the human situation, about our epistemic limitations and the nature of our cognitive relations to reality. And those who feel their profound interconnectedness with other people and the natural world are certainly getting more deeply in touch with an undeniable objective fact – one that we ignore at our ever-increasing peril.

Of course, some secular or atheistic people who appreciate these aspects of naturalised spirituality may nonetheless want to do away with the label ‘spiritual’ or ‘spirituality’ given what they believe to be its negative connotations. Leading a contemplative life or pursuing contemplative practices may be offered as alternatives, which lack the cultural baggage of the term spirituality. On the other hand, many secular people don’t mind identifying as spiritual or using the term spirituality, so long as they qualify that they mean so in a purely naturalistic context.

In light of Letheby’s proposal for naturalised spirituality, I think transcendent may be something else that secular spiritual people may find appealing, as long as transcendence is framed in naturalistic terms (after all, the notion of ‘the transcendent’ may imply beliefs about incorporeal realms). Enlarging our sense of connection – and, in turn, our sense of self – can be viewed as a form of transcendence since it involves escaping the narrow confines of the habitual ego. We can identify instead with a larger whole. Elsewhere, in a paper for Zygon, Letheby points to how taking psychedelics results in “disruption to neurocognitive mechanisms underpinning the sense of self, and consequent experiences of self-transcendence and of the decoupling of attention from personal concerns. This liberation of attention can result in the availability of broader perspectives and the development of wonder and appreciation for life.” 

Meztinger’s point about enquiry being central to spirituality is also relevant here; enquiring can be seen as transcending – moving beyond – veils of ignorance and delusion allowing us to see clearly what is real about our physical, psychological, and relational reality. For example, if one comes to discover intrinsic interconnection in the world, as that patient in the psilocybin trial did, this may help a secular person move beyond a more self-centred life to a more selfless one, one which involves more acts of service, which is seen as crucial to a spiritual life. Yet this deep sense of interconnection or interdependence doesn’t have to require any supernatural assumptions; it can be completely reasonable for a naturalist or evidence-minded person to adopt this worldview. Innate similarities between sentient beings may be felt as the necessary unifying qualities that encourage compassionate action. We can also see here that different aspects of secular spirituality interrelate: enquiry may lead to an enlarged sense of connection, self, and aspirations in life.

I think the ideas found in humanistic psychology are relevant to this discussion as well. Psychologists such as Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow advanced the idea that positive individual change came from factors like realising our potential and peak experiences (“moments of highest happiness and fulfilment”, according to Maslow). Both the realisation of our innate capacities and awe-inspiring experiences that situate us fully in the present moment are – like spiritual psychedelic or meditative experiences – ways for us to transcend our normal personal identity, achieving states of being and identity that lead to meaningful improvements to our well-being and life satisfaction.

While spiritual experiences can, for the secular person, sometimes be negative and distressing (see this paper from philosopher Christopher Bache on ‘dark night’ experiences), a key element of a spiritual life seems to be about achieving self-discovery (identifying the nature of one’s true self) and self-actualisation (moving towards and becoming one’s true self, and moving away from an inauthentic or herd mode of being). This often involves encounters with the dark and unpleasant aspects of the mind and human experience. But coming out the other side of this can feel like an awakening of sorts. Self-actualisation, which Maslow describes as the realisation of one’s full potential, can allow you to experience new levels of maturity, peacefulness, meaningfulness, appreciation for life, and existential joy.

Here it is worth highlighting that Maslow, right before his death, argued that self-transcendence, not self-actualisation, was the pinnacle of human development or the human hierarchy of needs. He defined peak experiences as:

feelings of limitless horizons opening up to the vision, the feeling of being simultaneously more powerful and also more helpless than one ever was before, the feeling of great ecstasy and wonder and awe, the loss of placing in time and space with, finally, the conviction that something extremely important and valuable had happened, so that the subject is to some extent transformed and strengthened even in his daily life by such experiences.

While people who are self-actualised experience this, Maslow claimed peak experiences were a means of transcending the self:

As he [the person in peak experiences] gets to be more purely and singly himself he is more able to fuse with the world, with what was formerly not-self, for example, the lovers come closer to forming a unit rather than two people, the I-Thou monism becomes more possible, the creator becomes one with his work being created, the mother feels one with her child.

Maslow thought the Western-centric idea of self-actualisation (which, as an apex, makes sense in terms of the Western ideology of individualism) should be reconciled with the value placed on transcendent experiences in Eastern cultures and shamanistic traditions. Essentially, self-actualisation is a stepping stone towards self-transcendence; once the need for the former is fulfilled, Maslow believed individuals would hunger to feel needs and goals that go beyond the self:

The goal of identity [self-actualization] seems to be simultaneously an end-goal in itself, and also a transitional goal, a rite of passage, a step along the path to the transcendence of identity. … If our goal is the Eastern one of ego-transcendence and obliteration, of leaving behind self-consciousness and self-observation, … then it looks as if the best path to this goal for most people is via achieving identity, a strong real self, and via basic-need-gratification.

Maslow’s (expanded) hierarchy of needs.

Many secular people find that making this process of transcending limitations and the self a conscious activity – for the sake of one’s own well-being and that of others – is fundamental to leading a spiritual life. One need not embrace pseudoscience or the supernatural to desire to become more than our individual selves. Moreover, living in accordance with so-called spiritual principles (perhaps Buddhist virtues like loving-kindness or sympathetic joy) aligns with this pursuit of transcending negative limitations and achieving a new, healthier state of being. This is the aspirational quality of naturalised spirituality that Letheby underlines. The philosopher Jerome Stone, who advances a position of religious/spiritual naturalism, claims that “a robust (if not completely satisfying) religious/spiritual life can be maintained without reference to a God or other ontologically distinct and superior being or realm, to a soul or to an afterlife.” He adds: “My specific version of religious naturalism involves the pursuit of continuing challenging ideals (e.g., the pursuits of truth, beauty, selfhood and justice conceived as regulative ideas) and openness to creative and healing resources which are transcendent to one’s situation as perceived.” 

Even experiences of the ‘divine’, ‘God’, or ‘sacredness’ that a secular or atheistic person may have during a mystical experience could be consistent with their worldview (although this may be a point of disagreement, given that many believe these experiences point to a transcendent, divine reality). A secular person may choose to view the divine as a kind of ‘Higher Self’, an ideal of what one, deep down, aspires to become. A divine presence or discarnate entities may be interpreted in psychological or symbolic terms, as representations of untapped parts of the individual’s mind. The themes of connection, transcendence, aspiration, and enquiry consistent with naturalised spirituality could allow secular people to use these altered states for personal growth and healing, without feeling the need to invoke any supernatural themes.

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