Spiritual as superfluous synonym

So what, as a matter of empirical fact, do people tend to mean by the word ‘spiritual’? When someone claims a ‘spiritual’ experience or blessing, in reality she is probably talking about an emotional one. This is particularly notable among Pentecostals and charismatics, who like to manipulate themselves and others into states of emotional excitation. They then proceed to describe these emotional jags as ‘spiritual’ phenomena, or as ‘blessings’. What they actually are is adrenaline highs. Were it to be objected that this is the same thing, then we would have to dignify all adrenaline highs as ‘spiritual’, forcing us to conclude that football hooligans and soldiers in combat are undergoing a ‘spiritual’ experience.

Many people, under challenge to explain what they mean by the word ‘spiritual’, will speak of such things as quietness and peace. I myself yield to none in my love of peace and quiet, I think of noise as the regrettable absence of silence rather than silence as the peculiar absence of noise. Even so, I would ask why noise should be considered as part of the visible, ordinary, material world while the absence of noise should be considered as belonging to a putative realm transcending that ordinary material world. Why are they not both considered part of the sublunary sphere, but preferable or not according to taste?

Any sudden change in our perception of the world, any enlightenment, is also likely to be described as a ‘spiritual’ experience, but it seems more natural to describe this as a mental event. That is, if I suddenly perceive how my politics reflect my relationship to the means of production, this may be called an intellectual breakthrough, whereas if I suddenly perceive how my sense of continuing personal identity is in fact an illusion, this is supposed to be a ‘spiritual’ insight. But why? After all, I can find the latter idea both in the Buddha, who founded a religion, and in the Scottish philosopher David Hume, who didn’t. Calling any insight ‘spiritual’ is the attempt of religion to hijack philosophy; that is to say, rent-seeking.

If I am lying awake in the small hours and look back on my life and realise what a shit I have been, many people will also call this a ‘spiritual’ insight. But, like the foregoing experiences, it can perfectly well be described in words whose meaning we actually know, in this case terms such as ‘ethics’, ‘conscience’, ‘remorse’ and ‘vain regret’. Occam’s Razor suggests that this is what we should do.

Using unnecessary synonyms also leads to the danger that we might use ‘spiritual’ to denote all the aspects of the world or ourselves that we happen to like, or as a synonym for the perfectly respectable adjective ‘good’. In contrast, mainstream Christianity has traditionally held that there are both good and bad spirits, and both carnal and spiritual sins; further that the spiritual sins are by far the worse. This perspective has been entirely lost in New Age, which tends to use ‘spiritual’ as a contentless expression of subjective approval.

Now, if a ‘spiritual’ experience is neither emotional, nor intellectual, nor ethical, what is it then? Without begging the question by talk of a direct relationship with God, can anyone explain what this fourth dimension of human existence might be? I beg to suggest that ‘spiritual’ merely refers to some undefined mixture of the three categories above and is not only logically redundant but positively obfuscatory. The bottom line of the whole discussion of spirit and soul is that, without an indefinable term for an invisible component of human beings that no one can properly identify, religious scamming and exploitation would become much more difficult.

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