How to Study Spirituality

Many people are interested in spirituality. But there is an unfortunate among of superstition and pseudoscience attached to the subject. Many atheists, agnostics, and Humanists avoid the term because it is associated in the minds of many with religion.

But spirituality is not necessarily connected to religion. Sam Harris has shown this in his book Waking Up. But it is important that we think carefully about how we approach the subject of spirituality. We want a personal relationship with reality, not myths and superstitions.

So here are a few guidelines in approaching the subject. Spirituality should never contradict science. Spirituality should never go beyond science in objective reality. Spirituality should never confuse the objective and subjective. Spirituality should never go against reason. Spirituality should follow the best evidence. Spirituality should develop the mind. Spirituality should mature the emotions. Spirituality should discipline the will. Spirituality should utilize the body. Spirituality should embrace the senses. Spirituality should conquer the ego. And spirituality should give meaning to life.

Nothing in here about God or gods. No religion required, as many who claim to be spiritual but not religious have found. Humankind is incurably spiritual, it is a part of our nature. We don’t need to deny spirituality, we need to guide it to connect to reality as it really is. These guidelines are a start in that direction.

What is Knowledge?

There is a whole branch of philosophy dedicated to this question, it’s called epistemology. We use the word “know” in a number of different contexts. Here we are speaking of propositional knowledge. A proposition is a statement that something is, and it is a statement that is either true or false.

I prefer to use the word “claim” rather than “proposition.” It seems a little clearer and is more common. A claim, just like a proposition, is a statement that is either true or false. But knowledge is more than that. It is something that is believed. For something to qualify as knowledge it must be true and it must be believed.

But that is still not enough to qualify as knowledge. You can make a luck guess that the shirt I am wearing is white, but you did not “know” that. So guessing is not a part of knowledge. The classical definition of knowledge is “justified true belief.” The justification part simply means that you have good and reliable grounds to believe a claim is true. In other words, your belief is based on evidence.

But then a man named Edmund Gettier published an article in 1963 that called into question this classical definition of knowledge. These Gettier cases, as they came to be known, show that in some cases, someone might have a “justified true belief” that ends up being wrong.

For example (not used by Edmund Gettier), George gets up in the morning and looks at the clock in the Kitchen (the only clock he has) and it says 6:15. So he believes it’s 6:15. And it just so happens that it is 6:15. So he was a “justified true belief.” But the clock has stopped two days a go. It was simply luck that he looked at the clock at exactly 6:15 two days later. He does not have knowledge, argued Edmund Gettier. Almost all epistemologists have agreed.

The struggle to answer these Gettier cases continues. Some have tried to explain them away, others have tried to give a fourth qualification to knowledge. The solution is still not agreed upon. The answer may involve coherence of beliefs, or the truthfulness of assumptions. But each solution causes other problems and raises other issues.

I use the classical definition in my book Does God Exist? I would argue that knowledge is “justified true belief” because no better definition has yet been agreed upon. But I am aware that it is not always the case, as Gettier cases show.


013 The Pros and Cons of Buddhism

What are the pros and cons of Buddhism? Buddhism is the philosophy and way of life founded by Siddhartha Gautama, also known as the Buddha, which means awakened one. The teachings of the Buddha are summed up in the Four Noble Truths: In life there is suffering, the cause of suffering is attachment, suffering ends when attachment ends, the Eightfold Noble Path is the way to end attachment and hence suffering. The Eightfold Noble Path consists of right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. The pros are it is partially empirically based, logically consistent, sufficiently com­prehensive, partially pragmatically verified, and is humanly relevant. The cons is that it is only partially empirically based, and hence only partially pragmatically verified.

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Five Minutes With Jay Forrest
Copyright © 2015 Jay N. Forrest

More Positive Affirmations

An affirmation means to affirm something, in other words, “to show a strong belief in or dedication to (something, such as an important idea)” ( Positive affirmations remind us of important ideas and worthy goals. They are sticky notes in our minds. The following are secularized prayers.

A revision of an Irish Blessing: “May the road rise to meet you, May the wind be always at your back, May the sun shine warm upon your face, The rains fall soft upon your fields and, Until we meet again, May Nature sustain you and may your health endure.”

A radical revision of the Lord’s Prayer: “The Earth, being part of the Cosmos, is sacred to us. Its laws govern all, both on earth and in the heavens. May Nature’s bounty and human compassion provide daily food for everybody. May we all be quick to forgive, slow to harm. For we are all in this together, for as long as we live.”

A radical revision of a prayer by Francis of Assisi: “May I strive to be an instrument of peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love. Where there is injury, let me sow forgiveness. Where there is irrationality, let me sow science. Where there is despair, let me sow hope. Where there is darkness, let me sow light. Where there is sadness, let me sow joy. May I not so much seek to be comforted as to comfort. May I not so much seek to be understood as to understand. May I not so much seek to be loved, as to love. For it is in giving that we receive, it is in forgiving that we are forgiven, and it is in self-sacrifice that we awaken to a meaningful life.”

A radical revision of a prayer by William Temple: “The interconnected Earth, the source of all humanity, should awaken the hearts of all people and their rulers to our interdependence, through the power of compassion and reason, that peace may be established among the nations on the foundation of justice, ethics and truth; may the principles of reason, the findings of science, and the teachings of Humanism bring all people together for the common good.”

A radical revision of Psalm 23: “Because the Earth is my Provider, I have everything I need. It produces green pastures for me to lie down in, and I rest in its fields of green grass and enjoy its peaceful streams, and they refresh me. But the Earth needs me to do what honors it the most. Even though I face the shadow of death, I will not fear it, for I return to the arms of Mother Nature. Being in harmony with the Earth and its ways protects me and guides my life, giving me comfort. Even in view of those who dislike me, the Earth provides a banquet for me. It welcome me as an honored guest, filling up my cup to overflowing. Surely the Earth’s beauty and bounty will be with me for the rest of my life, truly it is my one and only home.”

Positive Affirmations and Thanksgiving

Humanists don’t pray, because prayer is “an address (as a petition) to God or a god in word or thought” ( Humanists don’t believe in God. But we do make positive affirmations. An affirmation means to affirm something, in other words, “to show a strong belief in or dedication to (something, such as an important idea)” (

The serenity prayer can be easily turned into a positive affirmation. “May I develop the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” These are important ideas to be dedicated to and aim for. Positive affirmations remind us of them. They are sticky notes in our minds.

Before going to bed, we can say a positive affirmation like this, “May I sleep peacefully and have no fear, may my heart seek wisdom and my mind be clear, may I be filled love and compassion for all beings, and may I live a good and long life filled with happiness.”

Humanists can also give thanks for what they receive. Before a meal they can affirm, “We give thanks to all beings who helped bring this food to our table, and vow to respond in turn to those in need, with wisdom and compassion. Let us eat mindfully.”

You don’t need to fold your hands when making an affirmation or giving thanks. Some prefer hold hands as a family, or simply placing their hands on their lap. I prefer the meditation position of the hands as practiced in Insight Meditation. But it doesn’t matter. The point is to affirm the importance of what you are saying, helping us to remember them.