Atheist Dictionary of Religious Terms – Spirit


From: Middle English, from Anglo-French or Latin; Anglo-French, espirit, spirit, from Latin spiritus, literally, breath, from spirare to blow, breathe
Date: 13th century
1 an animating or vital principle held to give life to physical organisms
2 a supernatural being or essence: as Holy Spirit or Soul
4 the immaterial intelligent or sentient part of a person
5 a: the activating or essential principle influencing a person b: an inclination, impulse, or tendency of a specified kind: mood

Hexham’s Concise Dictionary of Religion
In some religions, spirits are disembodied entities that display the characteristics of individual persons, and are sometimes regarded as the souls of dead ancestors. Spirits can interact and even communicate with the living through dreams, illness, and unusual events which reveal the presence of a spirit. The soul is the immortal element in human beings sometimes regarded as our true self. The immortality of the soul gradually replaced the earlier emphasis in early Christianity that the central concept was the resurrection of the body.

One may assume that the human brain is the seat of information collection and processing and that the glandular system contributes much to our emotional responses. Does anything remain unaccounted for in that system of human physiology, requiring the presence of an immaterial sentience essential for personhood? If so, do we interact with other humans, other sentient beings, even inanimate objects in ways that do not occur on the material plane of measurable observation?

In recent years, thinkers such as Jung have postulated a collective unconsciousness based on the occurrence of acausal coincidence, and that some level of deep meaning exists in universal symbols and human archetypes as revealed in mythology. Others argue that the search for meaning and significance where none exist gives rise to pseudoscience and undocumentable paranormal practices.

Atheist Definition: Spirit describes those essential elements of individual identity that are immaterial and do not, therefore, adhere to physical or medical laws. An individual’s spirit may interact with others, or with all existence (Spiritus Mundi, the spirit of the world) in ways that may reveal shared experience or common affect from which one may glean meaning. If one is concerned with the association with Spiritism, then the word perhaps may be used interchangeably with the terms “mind” or “soul.”

5 thoughts on “Atheist Dictionary of Religious Terms – Spirit

  1. “Does anything remain unaccounted for in that system of human physiology, requiring the presence of an immaterial sentience essential for personhood?”

    One could argue that life itself remains unaccounted for. We still have no definitive answer to the origins of life. I’ve been reading since the 60’s that we are only a few years away from creating artificial life, and still no one has managed that yet. We have created artificial DNA strings, but they had no life until injected into a living cell. We have no evolutionary chart from the first “living chemicals” to the modern cells. At this point, we can only quote Pasteur, “Life comes only from life.”

    One could argue that definition one of spirit remains a viable possibility. The fact that we haven’t detected any such spirit is meaningless; we believe in a whole lot of things we can’t directly detect, like Dark Matter, or Strings. If one accepts definition 1, it makes definition 4 an easy leap, and 2 only a slightly longer one.


  2. Interesting point, Joel, and one that I imagine may be clinically tested in my lifetime (although I do not profess a sufficient knowledge of genetic engineering to know for certain that this has not already been accomplished at some level). I was inclined to use the term “life” to describe the total package of an organism’s functioning. But, you raise the question about that spark of life or that last catalyst needed to turn strings of animo acids into something with living function and capacity.

    Perhaps the real test will eventually be not so much the “creation” of life from non-life, but whether that created life will exhibit the capacity to function, exhibit sentience, and even learn. Which, of course raises the question addressed in science fiction for years – What distinguishes machine from life when the machine replicates every known function of the life form?


  3. That’s a good question, Jeff–but one that I think that answers itself… and is probably not really ripe until such a state is being approached. Before then, it’s a hypothetical.

    FWIW, my own guess is that what we come to recognize as consciousness is a fundamental characteristic of matter. Not much there… but life provides it a means of developing more complex form, experiencing and interacting.

    So artificial life will presumably–if I’m correct–be imbued with consciousness… at least to some degree.


  4. Ogre, since we are now in a realm of metaphysical thinking that normally exceeds my poor brain, I feel free to fully explore the hypothetical. Sadly, language limits our ability to fully imagine. For me, the term “consciousness” carries inherent assumptions that I think we need to let go of. If consciousness is truly only awareness, then I can imagine that even the immaterial can be conscious. I see no reason to doubt that electromagnetic fields, for instance, could not possess consciousness.

    There may be no cognition, at least as humans would recognize it. There may be little common referents to understand emotion, logic, or material experience. Therefore, we may never be able to “see” the consciousness that exists in the immaterial.

    That’s where I would say we need the concepts of mind/soul. Perhaps only through these can we experience the sense of immaterial consciousness (aka spirit) that may abound in the universe. So, for me, spirituality is our engagement in that linkage; our attempt to connect to whatever exists beyond material existence.

    I’m usually not a fan of that current phrase “spiritual but not religious,” but in this case it makes sense. One can explore this realm through religious venues or not. I think that effective religious practice and community can help enormously.


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