If you haven’t done so, please read Part I, here.
In Part I of this series, I outlined a few of the arguments for and against the use of the word “spirit” by atheists in and out of Alcoholics Anonymous. In this section, I’d like to look more closely at each position and express some of my objections, specifically to those arguments for the use of the word.
Ultimately, I side with those atheists that advocate against the use of “spirit.”
The main justification for my position has to do with the goal of communication. Communication is a process we use to inform, direct or educate. It is a method of expression by which we convey our ideas in such a way as to promote mutual understanding. Keeping this goal in mind, does use of the word “spirit” facilitate or hinder that understanding?
My argument, which echoes those of atheists who have come out against the use of the word “spirit” goes something like this:
First, the word is irredeemably bound up with notions of souls, god(s) and other supernatural (i.e. non-demonstrable) phenomena.
Second, even when used by well-intentioned atheists for the purpose of naming that “mysterious quality of humanity that ‘defies articulation,’” the word is unintelligible.
Therefore, because the word either refers to non-existent phenomena or is unintelligible, it is useless for the purposes of communicating ideas and should be scrapped.
I will begin by looking more closely at Marya Hornbacher’s use of the word “spirit” in her well received book, Waiting: A Non-Believer’s Higher Power. If you’d like to read her definition of “spirit” and justification for using it throughout her book, please see Part I of this essay.
Her claim, at bottom, is that there is an aspect of the human being that can be called “spiritual,” what she calls the “thing in ourselves that stirs.” She distances herself from the current understanding of the word by referring back to the ancient Greek definition of spirit as “breath.” She writes
The origin of the word spirit is Greek. It means “breath.” That which stirs within, slows or quickens, goes deep or dies out. When I speak of spirit, I am not speaking of something related to or given by a force outside ourselves. I am speaking of the force that is ourselves. 
Poetic, isn’t it? But what does she mean? First of all, when she resuscitates the Greek definition, “breath,” she clearly doesn’t mean to say that the word spirit is synonymous with an actual, human breath. Breathing is part of the biological process of respiration. There’s nothing about it that defies articulation. Clearly, she means something else.
The latter part of the quote seems to suggest that she takes spirit to be a force that doesn’t merely exist within ourselves, but rather is equivalent to ourselves. Yet, I don’t think she means that the spirit and the self are definitional equivalents, either. If they were, she would simply use the word “self,” or “human.”
She wants to suggest that spirit is the self plus something else – that there is something additional to the self that either animates or imbues the self with life or consciousness. What does she say that something else is? The something else is
the experience of living in this world, bound by a body, space, and time, woven into the fabric of human history, human connection, and human life. This is the force that feels and thinks and gives us consciousness at all; it is our awareness of presence in the world. It is the deepest, most elemental, most integral part of who we are; it is who we are. 
I actually love this description of what I would call the human condition. It illustrates perfectly why Hornbacher is a Pulitzer Prize-winning, best-selling author.
Notice, however, that my claim is that this is a description of the human condition, not a spirit. There is nothing in this description that suggests spirit or breath. This description is perfectly human. And this gets to the crux of my objection to Hornbacher’s use of the word spirit in her book. It is a completely unnecessary, confusing, and ultimately meaningless word used to describe humanity or the human condition.
My contention is that Hornbacher could simply use the word “human” or “humanity” (or in some cases “mind”) in almost every case that she uses the word “spirit” or “spirituality” in her book.
To illustrate this, I’d like to look further into Waiting and pick out a paragraph where she uses the words spirit and spirituality. Can we clarify the paragraph through word subsitution?
In Chapter Six, “The Moral Self,” Hornbacher discusses our transformation into moral beings. I present the paragraph just as she wrote it:
And it is willingness, not will, that sparks this evolution in us. It is not will that moves us forward, any more than it was will that began to open our spirits. This entire journey has been a matter of allowing ourselves to expand spiritually – not to force our spirits to speak but to let them do so, not to power our way through spiritual struggle but to open to its wisdom, not to chase spiritual wholeness but to let it arrive in its own time. This is the paradox of being transformed, not by an outer force but by inner spiritual forces working in accordance with the world. 
Let’s replace each of the ill-defined, baggage-laden words:
And it is willingness, not will, that sparks this evolution in us. It is not will that moves us forward, any more than it was will that began to open our minds. This entire journey has been a matter of allowing ourselves to expand as human beings – not to power our way through the human experience but to open to its wisdom, not to chase mental and physical wholeness but to let it arrive in its own time. This is the paradox of being transformed, not by an outer force but by inner forces working in accordance with the world.
You may have noticed that I dropped the line, “not to force our spirits to speak but to let them do so,” after the hyphen. I find this expression poetic, but vacuous. As an atheist, I have no idea how or what could be described as spiritual within me that could speak. In the remaining instances where Hornbacher used spirit and spiritual, I substituted the words “minds,” “human beings,” “human experience,” and “mental and physical wholeness.” These words are clear. By removing the vague, ill-defined, baggage-laden language, we’ve made the paragraph easier to comprehend and more intelligible.
Sam Harris presents a similar justification for using the word “spirit” in his article, “In Defense of ‘Spiritual.’” Harris’ central point is that the word spiritual is a word that we cannot do without. To recap, Harris writes
We must reclaim good words and put them to good use—and this is what I intend to do with “spiritual.” I have no quarrel with Hitch’s general use of it to mean something like “beauty or significance that provokes awe,” but I believe that we can also use it in a narrower and, indeed, more transcendent sense. 
Harris begins by agreeing with his late colleague, Christopher Hitchens (Hitch), that the word spiritual, generally speaking, should “mean something like ‘beauty or significance that provokes awe.’”
Again, if the word were merely being used to describe something beautiful or awe-inspiring, we would have no need for the word. We would simply use the words beautiful or awe-inspiring.
But like Hornbacher, Harris wants “spiritual” to mean beautiful or awe-inspiring plus something else. To Harris’ credit, he defines what he means by something else. He advocates that the word should also be used in a more narrow and “transcendent sense.”  What does he mean by “narrower” and “more transcendent?”
It may be a failure of imagination on my part, but I can honestly say that I have no idea what Harris means when he says that he wants to use the word in a “narrower” sense. I’m more than willing to entertain suggestions.
I have some idea, on the other hand, of what Harris means by transcendent. In normal, day-to-day parlance, transcendent usually means something to the effect of “beyond ordinary limits.” If this is the usage Harris supports, then “spiritual” might be something along the lines of “beautiful or awe-inspiring beyond the ordinary.”
In this case, however, Harris might be better served by replacing the word spiritual with the words “extraordinarily beautiful,” or “abnormally awe-inspiring.” These particular phrases convey the same meaning but don’t carry the supernatural baggage that the word spiritual carries.
Transcendent also has differing philosophical meanings, dependant upon which school of philosophy one is reading (i.e. Scholasticism, Kantianism, or Realism). However, I don’t believe Harris has these meanings in mind when he suggests a more transcendent sense of the word.
Regardless, I don’t see any need to use such a baggage-laden word when there are plenty of other words that could be used in its stead.
In the next paragraph, Harris switches gears a bit and wants to use the word spiritual 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. 
I understand the desire to call certain experiences human beings can have “spiritual,” especially those experiences we’ve had on hallucinogenic drugs, during meditation or other conscious-altering activities. However, I would resist doing so for the same reasons I’ve been suggesting all along.
Labeling the mind-blowing experience we had on LSD one night at a Grateful Dead concert “spiritual” doesn’t convey any clear meaning about what actually transpired and actually weighs the message down with supernatural baggage. Indeed, these types of experiences are rare and actually deserve more explanation. Using the word “spiritual” seems cheap and inadequate.
My position echoes that of Matt Dillahunty, president of the Atheist Community of Austin and host of The Atheist Experience, a public access television show that promotes “positive atheism.” According to Dillahunty
There’s nothing I do that I would label spiritual. Not only because I do not know what the hell the definition of the word is, but because I have words for the things that I do… People keep using this word spiritual. And I am completely convinced that it is a nonsense word that they use to try to find some middle ground between being religious and non-religious. I think it is a misuse of language to use this ill-defined term in the hopes that other people won’t call you on it. And I’ll call you on it. I want to know what it means. 
Dillahunty’s point that the word “spiritual” is usually used as an attempt to find middle ground between the religious and atheistic worldviews is especially common in Alcoholics Anonymous. How often do we hear members claim to be “spiritual but not religious?” These members are trying to hold on to god(s) and higher powers while abandoning religious dogma.
While a step in the right direction, the problem is that many of these members fail to think about what they mean by spiritual. As I pointed out in Part I, this leads to a kind of intellectual laziness, whereby the member doesn’t have to think too hard about their beliefs.
By using the term spiritual, a member says “I really don’t want to think about this too hard. I really don’t want to investigate this too hard. I really don’t want to dig into why I think what I think. I just want to kinda go and enjoy it.” 
Thus, not only does use of the words spirit and spiritual convey no real meaning which tends to muddle communication, using these words is also intellectually lazy.
In conclusion, I don’t believe that it is necessary to use the words “spirit” or “spiritual.” I find them confusing and ultimately meaningless. Instead of using these word that are, in many cases, unintelligible, let’s use words that actually convey meaning and help further understanding in our conversations.
If we are to abandon use of these words, how then are we going to discuss the Twelve Steps? What can atheists make of the “Spiritual Experience” of the Twelfth Step? In Part III, I discuss the Twelfth Step from an atheistic point of view and suggest that we start thinking about a Spiritual Experience in terms of a Human Experience.
If you have an opinion, I’d love to hear it. Please leave comments below! If you’d like to link to this page, here’s the shortlink: http://www.aa-atheists.com/?p=377
 Marya Hornbacher, Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power, (Center City: Hazelden, 2011), xiii.
 Hornbacher, Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power, xiii-xiv.
 Hornbacher, Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power, 74.
 Sam Harris, “In Defense of ‘Spiritual,’” SamHarris.org, http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/a-plea-for-spirituality, (accessed Nov. 25, 2012).
 Harris, “In Defense of ‘Spiritual,’”
 Harris, “In Defense of ‘Spiritual,’”
 Matt Dillahunty, The Atheist Experience, #661, “Islam’s tender nerves.” http://blip.tv/the-atheist-experience-tv-show/atheist-experience-661-islam-s-tender-nerves-3773017, (accessed Nov 28, 2012).
 Dillahunty, The Atheist Experience, #661, “Islam’s tender nerves.”