Spirituality & Humanism


Spirituality & Humanism
By Ron Steelman (sort of) 

The word “spirituality” is difficult to define. We Humanists equate the word with religion and even with folks who say, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” Of course most people can’t define what “spiritual” means. With the help of some others, I will attempt this audacious feat.

       [Also, see my blog post on this:   “I’m Spiritual, But Not Religious” (Bronx Cheer)]


I’d like to share a good article I just read on Humanist-UK website HumanistLife.  The article is Spirituality and Humanism – by Jeremy Rodell. I have selected those parts that best help to define that terrible “S-word.” I also have illustrated his article with a few of my photographs. These photos may not qualify for you as spiritual, but I hope you can enjoy them and remember for yourselves your spiritual moments. But first we must define that damn word. 

Spirituality and Humanism – by Jeremy Rodell

(Here’s where I pick it up     “. . .Experiential spirituality”)

“. . .here’s Andre Comte-Sponville, former Professor of Philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris, from his Book of Atheist Spirituality :

‘The first time it happened I was in the forest in the north of France. I must have been twenty five or twenty six. I had just been hired to teach high-school philosophy in a school on the edge of a canal, up in the fields near the Belgian border. That particular evening, some friends and I had gone for a walk in the forest we liked so much. Night had fallen. We were walking. Gradually our laughter faded, and the conversation died down. Nothing remained but our friendship, our mutual trust and shared presence, the mildness of the night air and of everything around us…My mind empty of thought, I was simply registering the world around me – the darkness of the undergrowth, the incredible luminosity of the sky, the faint sounds of the forest…only making the silence more palpable. And then, all of a sudden…What? Nothing: everything! No words, no meanings, no questions, only – a surprise. Only – this. A seemingly infinite happiness. A seemingly eternal sense of peace. Above me, the starry sky was immense, luminous and unfathomable, and within me there was nothing but the sky, of which I was a part, and the silence, and the light, like a warm hum, and a sense of joy with neither subject nor object …Yes, in the darkness of that night, I contained only the dazzling presence of the All….

…’This is what Spinoza meant by eternity’, I said to myself – and naturally, that put an end to it.’

(Headed West in 1988)

What he’s talking about is an intense human experience. I recognise it because I’ve had one too. Most religious people, as well as Comte-Sponville himself, as an Atheist, would call this a ‘spiritual experience’. In this example, it’s particularly powerful. But it’s on the same spectrum as the experience created by great art, whether it’s the shiver down the spine from a Beethoven slow movement, or the instant of human connectedness from a great painting, novel, film or play, or the sense of wonder from seeing the stars on a dark night.

(Mt. Baldy’s Devil’s Backbone trail – over 9,000 feet down. . .on each side)

Albert Einstein put it in a cosmological context:
‘There are moments when one feels free from one’s own identification with human limitations and inadequacies. At such moments one imagines that one stands on some spot of a small planet, gazing in amazement at the cold yet profoundly moving beauty of the eternal, the unfathomable; life and death flow into one, and there is neither evolution nor destiny, only being.’

(San Diego Harbor double rainbow with my Uncle Bob on his birthday – 3-7-92)

This is non-religious ‘spirituality’ in Comte-Sponville’s sense. Einstein isn’t suggesting there’s a spiritual realm or nature-defying miracles. He’s talking about enhanced human experience, in this case triggered by the natural world. Many artists try to do the same thing. As the painter Mark Rothko said: ‘A painting is not about an experience. It is an experience.’

(Sunset Peak off the Angeles Crest Highway, CA)


There are a few things that these artistic and natural examples of ‘experiential spirituality’ have in common:

  • For a start, they are non-intellectual. As Comte-Sponville found, as soon as you try to analyse what’s happening – in his case by thinking about Spinoza – it disappears. Beethoven didn’t want you to think about the structure of his music, he wanted you to be transported by it.

    (Mt. San Jacinto by Palm Springs, CAds with my wife, Elaine)

  • Secondly, the core of the experience is a sense of transcendence or connectedness. That may mean other people, wider humanity, the rest of the universe, or simply ‘something greater’. The experience carries with it a diminishment of the ego, sometimes to the point where there is no self-awareness, or separation between subject and object. Rather than ‘you’ looking at ‘it’, there is simply ‘looking’.
  • The feeling that goes with it is powerful and positive – elation, joy, compassion. Sadly, for most people, especially those of us who tend to over-intellectualise, it’s often short-lived. We quickly come back to normality as we start to think about it.

    (Kelso Dunes – Death Valley, CA)

  • The final characteristic is that the experience is individual. As far as we know, the others in Comte-Sponville’s party just had a nice walk. Even sharing art with others in a concert hall, or a gallery, our experience is entirely subjective and individual.

The big difference between a religious person and a humanist in considering any type of spiritual experience is that the religious person may see it as a religious experience, a manifestation of the spiritual realm, perhaps of the divine. The humanist would say it is a subjective human experience, available to anyone, taking place in a human brain, triggered by a complex combination of external sensory inputs and internal memories and processes, and nothing to do with a spiritual realm or deity, both of which she thinks are imaginary. Spiritual experiences can even be created in the laboratory or by taking the right drugs.

(Mt. Whitney – 14,445 Ft.  Scary, insanely intense.  Early snow on the trail forced us off the mountain. We felt very small up there, and Wow!)

But knowing all that does little or nothing to diminish the power of the experience. Our ability to have a sense of transcendence and connectedness with others is arguably one of the defining features of our humanity.

(In the happy mirror together: transcendence and connectedness – 2004)

There is nothing magic here, just the still-mysterious characteristics of human consciousness. . . should humanists actually use the word ‘spiritual’ in this experiential sense? Other terms might do just as well to convey what we mean without confusing the two. ‘Sense of the transcendent’ maybe?

. . . This is from an article by Joe Cornish, the respected British landscape photographer:

‘For some landscape photographers, Nature’s beauty is all the evidence they need of a Divine Creator. For others, scientific curiosity reveals an alternative explanation, where over unimaginable aeons our plant has evolved into the unique wonder that is our home today. This is a form of ‘terrestrial theology’, a belief in the fundamental, non-negotiable laws of physics. It’s not by any means depressing, reductionist scientific thinking based on the inevitability of nature’s immutable laws, but a broad church which encourages compassion and wonder in the beauty that we find in landscape, and humility in the face of what the world has to teach us. There is little doubt that for many of us, landscape photography is a spiritual journey.’

Is anyone going to say to him ‘Sorry Joe, you’re obviously an atheist, so you’re not allowed to use that word’?

(“over unimaginable aeons” – Flying over the Grand Canyon – 1988)

‘Spirituality’ is an ambiguous term. . .The ambiguity lies in its breadth of meaning. . .

. . .Humanists may prefer not to use the S word if there’s another way of conveying what we mean, maybe aesthetic awareness, sense of transcendence, love of nature, or simply love. On the other hand, we shouldn’t let the baggage of religious spirituality put us off if it’s the best word available, or if we need to reclaim it from those who seek to use it to exclude the non-religious.

Whatever terms we use, spiritual experience, and awareness of our own and others’ profound inner lives, are important parts of what it means to be human – and a humanist. And while this will remain an area of difference between humanists and the religious, we can also recognise it as an important area of common ground.

(Reading the notes other hikers had left for us above Death Valley atop Mt. Rose, added to our transcendent moment. The others were as thrilled and overwhelmed with this experience as we were.)e_rosepeak_death_v

Finally, Steelman Says:

If we Humanists can define the word, then we can use it (most people can’t). The best definitions I have found. . .as of today.

Spirituality is the sense of the transcendent.
– Jeremy Rodell, Humanist UK

Spirituality is emotional and psychological well-being.

– Paula Kirby, Washington Post

Spirituality is an awareness of the gap between what you can experience and what you can describe.
– Doug Murder, UU World

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by Ron Steelman
June 19, 2018

(Photo from Today.com)

I happened to see an article in Time magazine about the untimely deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. One point author Belinda Luscombe makes in her article is that the way we often look at those who are extremely successful is through the lens of one of the seven deadly sins: “Envy.” We wish we had what they have (had). That got me thinking about the other deadly sins. I think there’s something worse than envy. 

You remember the whole list, right? In Christian tradition the sins are pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth. As an actor I once played the character Gluttony in the play Doctor Faustus, not the opera Faust, but the original play by Christopher Marlowe (I don’t know why they cast me in that role??). I’m not really an expert on the “seven deadlies,” but let’s say I’ve experienced them all at some point in my life.

While reviewing the definitions of these sins, I discovered the original meaning of the word, “sloth.” It comes from the Latin & Greek word “Acedia.” From Wikipedia: “It’s been translated to “apathetic listlessness; depression without joy. It is related to melancholy: acedia describes the behavior and melancholy suggests the emotion producing it. In early Christian thought, the lack of joy was regarded as a willful refusal to enjoy the goodness of God. . .” Good grief!

This primitive, religious belief that depression and suicide is a sin, is something I’ve been wrestling with for years. It continues poisoning our thoughts. I have had various friends and relatives who have gone into severe depressions, some of them in such pain that it led to them taking their own lives. I don’t know anything about the nature of Kate Spade’s and Anthony Bourdain’s depression. However, it makes me so sad/mad that not only are they gone now, but that they are condemned as sinners in the eyes of the Christian God, and by many Christians who today still harbor this ill-informed belief.Smile_No_Hell_Black

As a modern society/culture we must grow beyond these ancient tribal beliefs and work instead to understand the hideous nature of depression and seek help for those who suffer from it. Too often we try to fix the blame, instead of fixing the problem. Once you fix the blame you are done. That’s easy; you can walk away.

But if you begin with a little empathy and compassion, maybe you can help to fix the problem. Depression is a human problem. It is part of the human condition. It is not a sin, not something about which we should be judgmental. Sorry, we do not get to be vindictive Gods who can send people to hell because they are depressed and not worshiping us properly. Be kind.

Excerpt from the June 25, 2018 Time article by Belinda Luscombe

“Sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human condition,” wrote Graham Greene in his second autobiography, Ways of Escape, a book which the chef, author and travel show host Anthony Bourdain, who died on June 8 at 61, kept on his nightstand.

The full Time Magazine article – June 25, 2018:

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My Apostasy

by Ron Steelman  © 2012

Part I – My Baptism
BaptisimUntil now I really didn’t feel it was necessary to personally sign a “DeBaptismal” certificate. I thought that was a little over the top for me. I wasn’t motivated to give that act so much credibility, even though the possibility of doing so struck me as deliciously post-theological. Some of my friends purchased special forms from secular humanist and atheist organizations and have even participated in public ceremonies which were officiated and certified by various high-ranking un-religious wiseacres. But times they are a-changin’. The shrill voices of religious fundamentalists grow louder, accusing non-believers of causing all the evils in the world. I have no choice. I must reevaluate the passive status of my apostasy.

infant baptismSome people have told me that they would never forswear their Baptism as long as their parents were still alive. That act would signify such a gross repudiation of “this loving act” by their parents that it would be like stabbing mom and dad with a dagger. I doubt if I would have told my parents had I renounced my Baptism, but I never renounced it while they were alive. However, after reading the wording on the following DeBaptismal Certificate (from the Freedom From Religion Foundation), I am now ready and happy to sign it. Since both of my parents were cremated they won’t be turning over in their graves.*

So here it goes.

I, Ronald G. Steelman, having been subjected to a Christian baptism before reaching an age of consent, having submitted to baptism before embracing freethought and reason, hereby officially renounce that primitive rite and the Church that imposed it. I categorically reject the creeds, dogmas, and superstitions of my former religion, particularly the pernicious doctrines of ‘Original Sin’ and damnation.

I further denounce as an affront and defamation to humanity the false and demeaning belief that any baby is born with ‘Original Sin’ and must be cleansed of it by baptism. From this day forward, I wish to be excluded from any claims and religious affiliation or membership based on baptismal records.

Signed:  Ronald G. Steelman
on this day   
March 22  in the year of No Lord  2012
Affirmed by:
Please be my witness by commenting on this post below.

Part II – My Apostles’ Creed

While going through some old photos that my sweet mother saved for me, I discovered this photo from my Presbyterian Church Communicants Class. When we finished the prescribed course, we all received our own personal King James Bible. I believe this event was in May 1959 when I was turning thirteen.

Ron with class & Jesus paintingAll the other boys have burr haircuts. That’s me in the center with the Rock & Roll duck tails: my hip, and at the time considered a hood(lum) hairdo. Clearly, I didn’t fit in with this crowd, religiously, philosophically, or socially. Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure there were some good kids in this group who knew the difference between right and wrong, and who were maybe even trying to emulate the good teachings of Jesus.

Rocers Eddie Cochran & Gene vincent

Rockers Eddie Cochran & Gene Vincent

There had to be. This was 1959 for Christ’s sake! And there was a picture of a white Jesus on the wall there. However, what sticks in my mind is the way I was treated and tricked by some of these upper crust Christians. It bothered me that some of these kids were already demonstrating a certain level of hypocrisy when it came to “doing the right thing.” Some were already trying to game the system — and me.

I just didn’t fit. Maybe it was because I was more worldly-wise. I had a paper route and was out on the street delivering newspapers to my 100+ customers every day. To get paid, I had to collect the money from the customers every week and turn it in at noon on Saturday. When I would collect on Thursday night and Saturday morning, many people on my route would ask me in to their apartments while they went to find the money. Let me put it this way, I was hip to all kinds of weird things by the time I was 13.

The only thought I had about the “Communicants” thing at church was that my parents made me take this class. So, I finished it and I received my Bible — just to please them. I actually didn’t think about the class till after it was all over. During the next couple of years that class made me question everything about my real beliefs. Although I had learned about honesty and character at home at my kitchen table, I had to go to church to learn about hypocrisy.

So now, this is part II of certifying my Apostasy. Here we go: I now disavow my being a sworn adherent to the Apostle’s Creed. I was forced into it and I was brain-washed at the time (I was just turning 13!) I tried to forget about it for years. But now I must finally correct the record. Maybe this will encourage others to let go of their old religious baggage.

My Repudiation of the Apostle’s Creed
Greek Apostles CreedI BELIEVE in God the Father Almighty (no), Maker of heaven and earth (no), And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord (no); who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary (you’re kiddin’ me), suffered under Pontius Pilate (not sure about that), was crucified, dead, and buried (there’s no real proof of that); he descended into hell (there is no hell); the third day he rose again from the dead (see Penn & Teller); he ascended into heaven (there is no heaven and I don’t believe the rest of this, especially the resurrection-of-the-body part), and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic Church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen.

Part III – My Belief

I feel so much better now that I have officially shed the religious affiliations that were forced upon me as a child. This should not happen to any child. Moral and ethical lessons can be taught without any religious affiliation, leaving the final choices about spiritual/religious preferences until the child becomes an adult. The child should make their own decisions upon becoming an adult (and I don’t mean 13).

I aspire to be a Secular Humanist. What is Humanism? Well, one important distinction is that Humanism is a philosophy, not a religion. Here is the definition:

Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.

* The Footnote About My Parents:  I am confident that although my parents went to their church for over 50 years, they went specifically to participate in its noted music program. We never had a discussion about God, or Jesus, or the virgin birth. Even as they were dying I could not engage either one of them about their beliefs in a hereafter, or anything else that was religious. Their lips were sealed. Why? For them it was the music that was their spiritual connection. They were in a huge choir. Mom was the soprano soloist and Dad was the tenor soloist. There was a five manual pipe organ, the best organist around, and exposure to some of the best ‘sacred’ music created by all the world’s best composers like Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Handel, Haydn, Randall Thompson, Gabriel Fauré, Carlos Menotti. Sometimes they’d add strings and/or brass to the arrangements, using musicians from the local Symphony. I was a choir brat so I sat out front and listened to all this. It was fabulous and moving, but not from a religious sense. It was the beauty of the musical arts that kept Mom and Dad going to church. At the end of Dad’s memorial service in the church, the organist played one of Dad’s favorite organ pieces, the Widor Tocatta. If you don’t know this piece, you should find it and play it on the biggest speakers you can find. I am in awe of the beauty and power of all the music I heard there, magical music created by human beings. That’s inspiring.

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