Religion Week, 1: Spirituality

by stephenpalmersf

I am an atheist and a humanist, and I always have been.

What is spirituality? It is a belief system composed of stories designed to explain the nature of the world in which human beings find themselves. In my opinion, it arose around a hundred thousand years ago give or take a few tens of thousands of years. I think it only applies to homo sapiens. Although Neanderthals were far more sophisticated than archaeology has so far given them credit for (although read Rebecca Wragg Sykes’ fantastic book Kindred), I don’t think they had the mental architecture necessary for the symbolic manipulation needed to believe in spiritual ideas. Neanderthals, to my mind, were pretty literal, albeit that such literalism was of a fantastically high order.

Early human beings needed spirituality because, like us, they lived by metaphors strung into stories. It is this quality of metaphorical thinking that in my opinion (and the opinion of many others – see Steven Mithen’s trail-blazing work) is lacking in Neanderthals. Homo neanderthalensis understood what a bird was and what a man was, but were unable to imagine a combination of the two, unlike artists at Lascaux.

Our stories – personal and cultural – must have a beginning and an end. How was the world created? Where do children come from? What happens at the end of the world? What happens to me when I die? Sane life was impossible for human beings without having such fundamental questions answered. No meaning = incoherence. Insanity beckons from that position. The early human response was to imagine answers which brought meaning to their lives: coherence regardless of factual accuracy.

From these tiny, cumulative beginnings entire spiritual realms were imagined. They bore no relation to reality, but that did not matter. What mattered was that they were coherent in the minds of the people comprising the tribe or culture, that they explained what they experienced to their own satisfaction, that they answered certain fundamental questions common to all human societies, and that they brought meaning to life via narrative.

Our word spirit comes from the root spiro, meaning breath. This is how ancient people imagined the supposed incorporeal part of a human being. From such imaginings entire traditions were built. Any imagined spirit needed an incorporeal realm to go to, or preferably a few, as “explored” by shamans. The human imagination was fertile and prolific…

Spirituality was an essential answer which had fundamental importance to early people trying to make sense of the world, but it was the wrong answer. That didn’t matter so much in times when people didn’t have the power that we have today. Perhaps it didn’t matter at all. Today however, able to damage the planet in any of dozens of ways, having the wrong answer does matter.

We need the right answer now.