One answer to this question has been offered by none other than Sam Harris, author of “The End of Faith” who has encouraged more research into and practice of “spirituality.” Near the conclusion of “The End of Faith” Harris writes: “At the core of every religion lies an undeniable claim about the human condition; it is possible to have one’s experience of the world radically transformed. Although we generally live within the limits imposed by our ordinary uses of attention—we wake, we work, we eat, we watch television, we converse with others, we sleep, we dream—most of us know, however dimly, that extraordinary experiences are possible.”
Now, I’m not an advocate for the “spiritual” as I think the word itself has about as much baggage as does the word “religion,” but it is the default word (it seems) of our era for experiences and states of mind that trigger a sense of transcendence or maybe even a mild form of mania.
In Unitarian Universalism, spirituality and spiritual practice have been (in my opinion) increasingly incorporated into services and study. The Rev. William Murry, a humanist, has written “Reason and Reverence,” which while emphasizing naturalism is also Murry’s attempt to strike a balance between rationality and emotionalism, especially in regard to those feelings of awe or amazement that can overwhelm us, especially when we fully engage with the natural world. Murry writes, for instance, of contemplating the universe: “As a religious naturalist, I feel wonder and amazement at nature’s majesty, beauty, complexity and power; I feel joy and comfort among its trees or by its waters…”
I think that connection with the natural world can bring us many of the satisfactions of religious or spiritual practice. But I would also offer the advice (and warning) of E.O. Wilson, in regards to the deep needs that religion served in evolutionary development for “consecration of personal and group identity, attention to charismatic leaders, [and] mythopoeism”; Wilson says that these needs are “powerful, ineradicable, and at the center of human social existence.” He suggests that humanists and scientists recognize these features of the human personality for their complexity, mystery, and as “a source of energies that can be shifted in new directions” (see chapter 9 of “On Human Nature”).
There will always be a longing to give a name to communal experience where we can feel as well as think, enjoy a sense of transcendence that lifts us from the day-to-day struggle and tedium, and maybe find ourselves enraptured by joy or at ease and peace. These fellowships that we build with others, where we can share sublime experiences and enhance our lives are precious–but we can hike, go birding, write, paint, play music, perform in dance or theater, and maybe these communal activities are sufficient in the place of spirituality or religion.