Spirituality in the Absence of Belief

A few days ago, I was reading an online article about the use of spiritual assessments. In many institutional settings, including hospitals and the military, the use of assessments for spirituality has become common. There is a wide variety among these instruments but they generally ask a range of questions about spiritual and religious practices as well as social support and meaning in life. The reason that they are used is that research has shown that spirituality is a key part to resiliency for those with serious health and mental health problems.

From my perspective, the article didn’t present anything particularly new. However, I was surprised as I read the comments posted in response to the article. The comments conveyed a belief that the goal of spiritual assessment is to enable conservative Christians to identify and convert agnostic or atheist individuals. Given my familiarity with spiritual assessments and the research behind them, I was taken off guard by the assumption that the process of spiritual assessment was an attack on atheists.

As a progressive Christian, I often experience a range of attitudes from disrespect to disdain directed toward me by conservative evangelical Christians. My beliefs are different from theirs, though we both call ourselves Christians. A person who is agnostic or atheist experiences much more serious criticism and is subject to unwelcome evangelization.

Conservative Christians often draw battle lines aiming at those whose beliefs are different from their own. Because conservative Christians loudly insist that others share their beliefs, people who are agnostic or atheists are not given the freedom to voice their convictions. This results in a barrier for agnostic or atheist individuals’ ability to identify and develop the spiritual dimension of life.

Spirituality is a dimension of human experience that we all share. Spirituality is not about beliefs in a deity or some realm beyond us. While spirituality may include beliefs in a deity and religious practice, spirituality itself is related to our ability to create or discover meaning, purpose and value in our daily lives. It’s a human capacity and capability.

During these winter nights, as the daylight draws to the end, I often look out from my dining room window to the western sky to the varying shades of purple, pink and blue that stream from the West. I experience awe at the beauty of the sky. I also experience a sense of gratitude for life when I look at the winter sunset. Looking at the sky in the late afternoon before darkness falls draws me to an inner stillness. In short, the experience is meaningful to me and enables me to experience my life as having a sense of meaning. In other words, watching the winter sunset adds a certain quality to my life that is more than just watching the changes in the sky as the sun sets.

We know from studies of other primates, like chimpanzees in the wild, that they too will sit transfixed while watching the sunset. Clearly, they are also drawn to something and demonstrate an experience of awe in that moment. Do chimps who watch the sunset and experience awe take something from that experience and use it to build meaning in life? I have no idea. But people do – no matter what their belief system may be.

Spirituality is about our capacity to create or discover meaning in ordinary life events. Spirituality draws us to something more than what is apparent in daily routines. Spirituality is what enables the drudgery of work to be experienced as purposeful or sacrifices made for a loved one valuable.

When we lose the capacity to find meaning, purpose, or value in our daily lives, we are more likely to have difficulty recovering from physical or mental illness. In this way, spirituality is a key component for resiliency. To that end, the goal of spiritual assessment, whether used in health care, mental health, or by the military, is meant to utilize an individual’s inner resources for wholeness.

I was saddened to read the angry responses to the article on spiritual assessment. It’s clear that one of the many casualties in the American culture war is that people whose belief system does not conform to certain perspectives are disrespected and marginalized. As research continues to emerge on the relationship among spirituality, health, and mental health, it is my hope that people who are agnostic and atheist will experience greater freedom in exploring the spiritual dimension of life.

© 2011, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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6 Responses to Spirituality in the Absence of Belief

  1. THMartindale says:

    I just read an article today that says 30 % of the chaplains in the armed forces list themselves as members of evangelical churches whereas 3% of the service people list as members of evangelical churches. I do know that the “spiritual assessment tests” are being used by the military. I strongly oppose the use of such testing. People are being harrassed and being identified as needing religious education. I truly believe that this kind of spiritual identification is being encouraged, pushed by people associated with the C Street group. It is also strongly identified with the people who lead the annual Prayer Breakfast that is held in Washington annually.
    My father was an officer and a dentist in the U.S. Air Force and my husband was an officer in the Air Force. Both men retired honorably from the service and the kind of “religious identification” that we are seeing now was not a part of the Air Force that they served.

  2. Lou says:

    While I understand your concerns and don’t underestimate the role that Evangelicals are playing in shaping national policy, I have read a rather lengthy article on the the military’s use of spiritual assessment. Several studies have shown that spirituality is related to resiliency in treatment for PTSD and other psychological issues. The article is entitled Spiritual Fitness, by David Hufford, et al., and found in MILITARY MEDICINE, 175, 8:73, 2010. If you (or anyone else reading) is interested in the article, I can email it. (It’s a 16 page PDF — larger than I want to post here.) My email is lou@loukavar.com.

  3. You did not mention accessing spirit guides either directly or through mediums. Living a life in contact with them is literal spirituality. Through this practice we recognize that dimension that includes relatives, teachers, masters and the like who want to help, and that we all have been through and will return to in the cyclical manner that defines all of existence. Thanks for the opportunity to share. Mark

  4. Lou says:


    Thanks for the response.

    You’re correct: I didn’t discuss mediums or spirits because it was my intention to focus on those who do not have beliefs about the existence of anything other than what we know on this plane of existence. Believing in the existence of spirits is itself a belief in something beyond the natural world.

  5. Thanks so much for your comments. It’s nice to know that the spiritual and/or Christian progressives are out there. I have long maintained that “transcendence” can take many forms in our ordinary lives—even, as you point out, in looking at the purple shades of a sky line….John Marohn

  6. Lou says:

    John: I appreciate that you took time to comment. When spirituality is defined in relationship to deistic belief, it reduces the role spirituality plays in all of our lives.

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