Non-supernatural spirituality

A widely overlooked distinction is that between the spiritual and the supernatural.

An entity, event, or phenomenon is supernatural if it can’t be accounted for by the scientific worldview. This means that it can’t be explained by contemporary physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, or other fields of science and can’t even foreseeably be explained by future science. Belief in the supernatural includes belief in a personal God, an immaterial soul, an afterlife, reincarnation, extrasensory perception, and fate.

The spiritual is often thought of as synonymous with the supernatural, but this merging of the two ideas overlooks the possibility of non-supernatural spirituality. Many of the varieties of spiritual experience reported by devout people from different religious traditions do not require a belief in the supernatural to believe that those experiences really occur, to see them as meaningful, or to think that they are worth pursuing. Sometimes reports of spiritual experiences are even couched in scientific language, such as Abraham Maslow’s concept of a peak experience or Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan’s descriptions of experiencing states of transcendence and wonder through scientific access to knowledge of the cosmos.

Spiritual concepts such as the soul, divinity, and even God can be reappropriated from their supernaturalist origins and used in the service of spirituality that is compatible with a scientific understanding of existence.

Some people are skeptical of the notion that spirituality is an important, perhaps vital, part of human fulfillment. Others are convinced of its importance, but do not see the possibility for spirituality without the existence of the supernatural. The feeling that the spiritual depends on the supernatural fuels both skepticism toward spirituality and belief in the supernatural.

The choice many people see in front of them is to believe either in a meaningless world of atoms or a world of invisible, intangible, undetectable magic. A third possibility is that meaning is not derived from magic. It is plausible to think that what spiritual seekers are chasing is not magic — not the supernatural — but a set of phenomena that can be understood by science without diminishing their meaningfulness.

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