When people say they are spiritual, although atheist, what do they mean, if they mean something at all? Can you claim being spiritual if you don't believe in gods, ghosts and the like?

Is there a spirit, from a non-religious point of view, as a separate thing from the mind?

  • It would be helpful if you pointed out a particular example. May 7, 2014 at 21:13
  • 2
    This question appears to be off-topic.
    – iphigenie
    May 8, 2014 at 7:52
  • @iphigenie: try to interpret the question as "what is the spirit?" Do you have to believe in something like ghosts to believe there is a 'spirit', separated from the mind? The question can have a philosophical interpretation. May 8, 2014 at 9:39
  • 3
    Good edit, I retract the close vote (:
    – iphigenie
    May 8, 2014 at 10:15

5 Answers 5


When an atheist says she's spiritual, she means that she finds beauty and balance in the world around her and in her very own self. There are lots of activities other than the ones that have to do with religion that you can participate in that will get you that outlook on life: art, science, philosophy, etc.

  • 2
    The term has some geographic variation, this is probably more true in the US than in England where it has a strong New Age connotation. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Age
    – Lucas
    May 7, 2014 at 22:17
  • 1
    @Lucas you Brits are crazy :)
    – user132181
    May 7, 2014 at 22:25

Atheist Sam Harris wrote a blog post on this:

Of course, “spiritual” and its cognates have some unfortunate associations unrelated to their etymology—and I will do my best to cut those ties as well. But there seems to be no other term (apart from the even more problematic “mystical” or the more restrictive “contemplative”) with which to discuss the deliberate efforts some people make to overcome their feeling of separateness—through meditation, psychedelics, or other means of inducing non-ordinary states of consciousness.

He also summarizes Christopher Hitchens (Britisch American) take on spirituality:

He [Hitchens] spoke instead of the spiritual pleasures afforded by certain works of poetry, music, and art


This question is probably better suited for English.se than philosophy.se, but the basic answer is that spiritual has to do with spirit. But what is spirit?

One answer could be the Holy Spirit for Christians. I think there's a similar concept available to Jews and Muslims but I don't know as much about that. By extension, there's a meaning of Spirit which refers to our consciousness as a group in Hegel. Apart from the Hegelian version, this is an odd one for an atheist.

But Spirit does not always mean obtaining from a religious or heavenly realm. Instead, spiritual can be a synonym for mental. Thus, Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit is translated in one contemporary translation as Phenomenology of Mind. Thus, "spirit" in English sometimes translates Geist in German. In the same way, it can mean experiencing psychological enjoyment at something or merely enjoying it for non-material reasons. Or to give a different language's take 精神的 means "spiritual" but also could be translated as "psychological."

(For Hegel, the two turn out to be synonymous since self-consciousness is the ultimate property of the divine for us... but I digress)

A further possibility and one that should raise eyebrows coming from an atheist is a panentheist sense of meaning in nature. On such a reading, the spirit is in us and things, and our connection with those things is "spiritual" as this is the unifying element of our diverse matter.


Lots of good answers, just one thing to add. I have seen different uses of the term "spiritual" used by atheists:

1) In the first sense, it is metaphorical. This is the point of the Hitchens quote from jeroenk. Quotes by Einstein, Sagan, and other similar types likely fit into this category.

2) The second sense is "spiritual" in the New Age, mysticism sense of trying to connect to something that transcends matter. For an actual atheist, I can't imagine this point of view is internally consistent. If you deny that there is anything divine and that the universe consists only of the matter, trying to connect to something that transcends matter doesn't make sense.

3) Adoption of religious practices for non-religious purposes, with the primary example being meditation, are sometimes called "spiritual," even though there is no claim to a "spirit" being involved.

  • Regarding point 2, living beings are already in a form of existence that transcends matter. In an ordinary sense it is full of spirit. Perhaps it is when people focus on it they become 'spiritual', but that doesn't seem very zen. In fact your internally consistent atheist sounds more zen, and more spiritual in a different way. May 8, 2014 at 23:27

Re: "Is there a spirit, from a non-religious point of view, as a separate thing from the mind?"

I would say yes, inasmuch as an emotional state, such as shock, is not the same as mind itself. But spirit is more that just a state. As the notes below show, it is also like a flame, and other things besides. It has a complex and intriguing origin.

The notes begin with two quotes from Jacques Derrida's essay, 'Of Spirit' (1987). As you will see, the meanings are generally quite down-to-earth, although they express the extraordinariness of emotional states -- spirited states, if you like.

The other angle, the burning flame analogy is interesting. You may have seen pictures of disciples with burning flames on their heads, or shining halos at least.

Image from Wikipedia

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Jacques Derrida:

What is spirit?

The reply is inscribed in maxims which translate certain poetic statements by Trakl, in a form which one would call ontological if ontology were still the dominant regime of these texts.

"Doch was ist der Geist?" Heidegger indeed asks. What is spirit? Reply: "Der Geist ist das Flammende." Further on, "Der Geist ist Flamme."

How to translate? Spirit is what inflames? Rather, what inflames itself, setting itself on fire, setting fire to itself? Spirit is flame. A flame which inflames, or which inflames itself: both at once, the one and the other, the one the other. Con-flagration of the two in the very con-flagration.

(Of Spirit, page 84)

Martin Heidegger (translated by J. Derrida):

The burning up is the radiance of a reddening glare. What burns itself up is Being-outside-itself (das Ausser-sich) which illuminates and makes shine, which also, however (indessen auch), can devour tirelessly and consume everything up to and including the white of the ash (in das Weisse der Asche verzehren kann).

"The flame is the brother of the palest" is what we read in the poem Verwandlung des Bösen (Transmutation of the Evil One). Trakl envisages "spirit" on the basis of this essence which is named in the originary meaning (in der ursprünglichen Bedeutung) of the word "Geist," for gheis means: to be thrown (aufgebracht), transported [or transposed, deported: entsetzt, again -- and I believe this is the most determining predicate], outside itself (ausser sich).

(Of Spirit, page 98)


... spirit was initially used to translate Greek pneuma and Hebrew ruah, starting in about 1250, and all versions of the Bible from Wyclif onward use spirit in translation of the Greek and Hebrew. Prior to the Middle Ages, however, ghost was used. It comes from the Indo-European root gheis- "fear or amazement", and there are descendants of that root in most of the Germanic languages, all of them possessing similar meanings. Some etymologists believe that Sanskrit he'das "anger" is related, and the general meaning of related words outside of the Germanic language family appears to have been "fury, anger".


Geist. m. Old and Middle High German geist, Old Saxon gêst from West Germanic *gaista- m.: "supernatural character or being, emotional state;" also in Old English gâst, Old Frisian jêst. From the Indo-European root *gheis-d- : "to be out of one's mind" [au er sich sein], also in Sanskrit hîd-: "to be angry" [zürnen]; unexpanded in Avestan zaêsa-: "terrible, dreadful" [schauderhaft], Gothic usgeinan: "to be frightened" and usgaisjan: "to frighten" [erschrecken], Old Norse geiskafullr: "completely frightened." To the extensive family of *ghe/ghei- : "yawn" [gähnen], belongs also the sense "to open wide one's mouth", hence probably a derived root *gheies-: "Wide opening of the mouth"; the -d- is probably a short grade of *dô-: "to give." Therefore *gheis-d- would mean: "to bring about a wide opening of the mouth" [Mundaufsperrung herbeiführen]; "to make someone open his mouth wide."


In regard to Beowulf:

Gæst occurs 8 times apparently meaning "ghost," or "demon" only, as a masculine noun, with variations of 4 compound nouns ('ellen-, ellor-, geoscaft-, and wæl-'). At least two instances are uncertain. Gæst (also spelled gist,) occurs 9 times, with the apparent primary meaning of "guest." Lexicographers from Bosworth and Toller onwards have differentiated in their editing of instances of this word or words, according to whether they see Grendel and his Mother as demonic. ... A more recent editor suggests that only context can decide. The difference is important because the words seem to distinguish between the natural and the demonic, accentuating Grendel's and his Mother's monstrous natures. The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots notes that gæst meaning "guest" derives from *ghos-ti, meaning "stranger, guest, host," and "someone with whom one has reciprocal duties of hospitality." Reflexes of the word include Germanic *gastiz, Latin hostis "enemy" and Greek xenos, "stranger." Lewis and Short note that Latin word hostis, derives from the Sanskrit root *ghas- to eat, consume, or destroy" and that the Germanic gast is derived from the same word. The compound of this word in Latin, hospes, adds the suffix "pa" "to feed," thus combining the idea of feeding with the word for stranger, and then contracting to "hospites" or "he who entertains a stranger." The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots gives gist as deriving from *gheis in an unclear original meaning, having to do with "fear or amazement," with the "suffixed o- grade form *ghois-do in Germanic *gaistaz, a ghost." The Oxford English Dictionary notes that word's etymological relations are "fury, anger.... the root "*gheis-, *ghois- appears with cognate sense in ON geisa to rage, Gothic usgaisjan to terrify; outside Teutonic the derivatives seem to point to a primary sense "to wound, tear, pull to pieces." This last may suggest a link between the two original words, since both roots have to do with consumption, with a possible development from the relatively neutral *ghas- , "to consume", to the more negative *gheis-, "fear." The first would note what is expected from a social relationship, the offering and consumption of food, while the second would encompass the possible excesses of a guest who destroys. Simple, ritualized consumption gives way to destruction and fragmentation. The negative association of the supernatural world with cases of excess would also make sense, in that enforcement and punishment of those who break the treaties is projected into the realm of the gods, as numerous examples in Greek demonstrate. The case for reading the disputed words in Beowulf as either "guest" or as "ghost," or as reflexes of the same idea, cannot be solved here, since there is no syntactical or prosodic reason to prefer one to the other.


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