Author Guidelines
Editorial Board
Related Links
Contact Us

a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
(more on the Journal)

Vol. 30 No. 2  Fall 2003

Defining Spirituality in Public Education:
A Response to R. J. Nash from a Spiritually Engaged Atheist

Timothy Bagwell

I am an atheist … but I am an atheist who knows that I am a spiritual being, a human hardwired (as we all are) to seek meaning beyond my existence, to grapple with understanding how and why this world that we all share came to be. This spiritually rooted atheism – as dislocating and disconcerting as those terms sound to many practicing theists – is simply, but profoundly, where I have come to find the greatest meaning in my spiritual journey.

This article is offered in direct response to Nash.1 I desire to further the conversation by taking his invitation seriously. Yes, atheists – and anyone else who has interest in this subject – must be part of the conversation; to embrace anything less than full inclusivity is to ultimately and fatally truncate the discussion. I will argue here that my approach to spirituality, which I call "critical spirituality," can be academically appropriate and pedagogically meaningful in public colleges and universities.

As an atheist with a passion for living out and expressing his innate spirituality, I frequently feel the pinch caused by the absence of an established and agreeable language with which to talk deeply with deists and theists, especially post-9/11, when both science and religion are offering little but the most meager scraps of transnational understanding on how we, as enculturated humans, can get along with one another. Toward that end, I will offer a definition of spirituality based not on arguments of belief (or disbelief) in the supernatural but solely on the psychological perception of human emotions. I will argue that if we speak about what we feel – those emotions that, when activated, summon forth our perception of spirit – then we speak of spiritual commonalities, the basic elements of spirit that we all share. My definition is intentionally designed to establish a foundational understanding, a linguistic commonality, for the serious, rigorous, and critical examination of spirituality amongst all who are interested in participating in the conversation.

The concept of personal narrative, whether oral or written, is a crucial pedagogical tool when exploring the subject of spirituality as these stories naturally hold within them the relational power so necessary to achieve genuine connection with other people. Stories of spiritual journeying are most frequently wrapped in (conscious or unconscious) metaphors of "quest"2 and offer unique illustrative material. Because articulation of each seeker’s on-going story is critically instrumental to the robust and open exploration of spirituality, I shall use my own story in this paper, italicized and interspersed at critical junctures, to document my long-standing involvement in this topic.

[To read more...]