When Words Won't Die: A Dispiriting Proposal. (Special Subsection: Religious vs. Secular Humanism)

By Flynn, Tom | Free Inquiry, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

When Words Won't Die: A Dispiriting Proposal. (Special Subsection: Religious vs. Secular Humanism)


Flynn, Tom, Free Inquiry


Robert M. Price is right when he observes that the dispute between secular and religious humanists is ultimately semantic. Much of it turns on a quarrel over a single word: spirit. One reason many religious humanists call themselves "religious" is a sincere conviction that spirit denotes a genuine, ineradicable reality that religious humanism acknowledges and secular humanism denies. But what kind of reality? Malcolm D. Wise admits that "If one confines the word spiritual to its traditional meaning, then the spiritual quest is a gigantic illusion." Then he defends a broader definition that excludes transcendent claims in favor of emotions such as awe and love. This mirrors the shift of meaning that John Dewey Paul Tillich, and others have striven to impose on religion and religious. Religion as commonly understood includes, indeed requires, some transcendental or supernatural element. Religious humanists often broaden the meaning of religion to include any worldview or value system passionately adhered to, wh ether supernaturalistic or not.

What's happening with religion, religious, spirit, and spiritual is all the same word game. For simplicity's sake, then, let's focus on spirit. If we admit that spirit no longer means ectoplasm or soul or transcendent essence--if religious and secular humanists will stipulate that no one in either camp believes in things like that--is it wise to shift spirit's meaning in order to go on using the word? I'd say no. Are there dangers in doing so? I'd say yes. Rather than shift a clearly mystical term to a non-mystical meaning, we manifest our thinking more honestly by discarding the obsolete word. Otherwise we admit a new obscurantism to our vocabularies. Down that path trouble lies.

Consider two words from the science of centuries past, one that died with dignity and one that kept itself alive by extraordinary measures. Phlogiston was held to be the mysterious "principle of fire" released when objects burned or rusted. Ether was held to be the unmoving medium through which light traveled. After Lavoisier identified combustion and rust as types of oxidation (1770-1790), phlogiston theory was discredited. A word without a referent, phlogiston did what too few such words do: it died. From the Michelson-Morley experiment of 1887 to Einstein's theory of relativity, the concept of ether was shattered just as thoroughly. But ether did not disappear; among other things, it had seized a second life as the name of an anesthetic. Ether cast about for something further to do, rather like an unemployed buggy-whip maker, finally settling down as a fuzzy metaphor for the sky space-time, the cosmos, or universal substance. What's the harm in that? Go down any list of bizarre occult and pseudoscientific claims popular during the twentieth century You won't see phlogiston: it stayed dead. Ether, on the other hand, pops up frequently Its unsatisfactory "afterlife" has kept it available to be yoked to no end of dubious, dishonest, and sometimes hurtful concepts.

So what about spirit? As a secular humanist, I believe strongly that there's no such thing. The available evidence, while imperfect, gives me no reason to doubt that matter, energy, and their interplay--from the quantum level to the cosmological-comprise all that exists. If there's no remainder, no magical or transcendent or simply awe-inspiring "something left over" that the scientific worldview unjustly slights, then spirit is a word without a referent. It should go the way of phlogiston. Sadly it has not done so. The fact that spirit keeps on cropping up in everything from occult babble to the sincere writings of religious humanists reveals an aperture through which society may suffer genuine harm. Some has already occurred.

From just after World War II until the mid-1970s, most intelligent people expected some form of humanism to come to dominate the social order. …

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