It is difficult to get close to nature without some kind of spiritual response. Before we get into a debate, let me clarify terminology. As an atheist I feel discomfort with the word spiritual and its implications. I doubt the existence of a spirit world or anything supernatural. However, I know no better term to describe a certain enigmatic response which seems common to humanity, if not universal. Also, certain places, things and experiences have a quality best described as sacredness. Some understanding of spirituality may be essential to world peace and social progress.
Spirituality and belief are two separate things. People often cite spiritual experiences to explain their faith in things unseen. That is belief, but we need to return to the experience itself and acknowledge it is widely shared by people with conflicting explanations.
For me it brings a sense of awe, humility and intimacy with the universe. I am motivated to pursue this transcendent state but it frequently eludes me. As Annie Dillard said in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek , “I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam.” So I try to spend time with nature every day.
From a social point of view, the quest is worthwhile. Our interconnectedness is concerned with both nature and human society. This suggests an adaptive function to spirituality: motivating the individual to set aside personal gain for the benefit his or her community and local ecology. Meanwhile, a sense of higher meaning shields rational humans from despair when faced with the inherent, random tragedy of life.
Not everyone turns to nature, but many do. For me, the night sky or the sound of surf invoke a sense of communion with something greater than myself. Instrumental music, thoughtful lyrics or great architecture can have the same effect. Many places seem sacred to me: the dock at my family cottage, moonlight on Lake Erie and a particular old black willow that leans over the Eramosa River, to name a few.
What about you? What experiences do you consider spiritual? What things are sacred?