But there are other experiences that, once removed from a religious narrative, the Atheist struggles to define. The term "spiritual" presents a special problem. By definition, it refers to the "spirit", a concept traditionally thought of in metaphysical terms. This need not imply that no such thing exists. Many concepts we find useful are descriptions of phenomenon that, while not taking direct physical form, are very real and indirectly observable. In philosophy, they are organized into different categories. For instance the concept of action is not a "thing", with physical form, but a description of a series of events that can occur. I suppose if one really wanted to be specific, all things are merely molecules in motion, and that an action could be thought of in similar terms, of molecular structure operating within a system of physical forces. So in the way that a pane of glass is actually a sheet of silica in gradual free-fall, a dance is merely an orchestrated series of motions involving an organized, organic body of molecules. Where pane of glass implies the actions of gravity, dance implies the set of neural instructions signaling muscular performance.
So what is a spirit? What is spiritual?
This is a question that perplexes the Atheist because, while the term has a specific meaning in a religious context, it explains a human experience that seems to lose much of its meaning when removed from that narrative. But it also seems to explain an experience that seems equally universal to human existence. To the religious, the spirit is everything; indeed without it, man's life would have no purpose. In the Atheist this question might provoke profound existential angst - if there is no God, there is no spirit, there is no purpose to life. Sartre hinted at this seeming paradox:
God is absence. God is the solitude of man.But once God is gone, is man really alone? If God was only ever a manifestation of human experience, could not human experience simply replace God? In this sense, God is merely a middle man between man and his quest for meaning. Man's conscious experience is one of seeing himself as connected, yet apart from the physical universe. There may be no more essentially human experience than that of grappling with one's place in the universe. The obvious antidote to this angst throughout history has been the mythology of religious narrative. Not only a rational explanation for the what and why of existence, it provides a framework upon which to hang all of the intangible feelings as well.
The concept of spirit can be thought of as describing this (categorically immaterial) process. A somewhat nebulous placeholder concept, like "mind" or "emotion" - it describes a fundamental reality the conscious mind faces. So while there may not be any such thing a "soul", or "spirit" in the religious sense, there is certainly a human experience that seeks to transcend one's corporeal existence and find a deeper connection to the larger universe. Implicit in this concept is a basic, ineffable incomprehensibility. There are obvious limits to conscious understanding. We encounter experiences in our lives that have real meaning for us, yet we have great difficulty explaining. Some of them are painful and tragic. Some of them are profound and beautiful. And we can adjust, orient our lives in order not only to avoid or to seek out such experiences, but also to understand them better alone or by sharing them with others.
Human culture is replete with activities designed to facilitate this sort of transcendence. Art, sport, ritual, celebration, ceremony, and of course sex, we create normative pathways in which to access states of consciousness that are otherwise inaccessible. If we think of spirituality as the degree to which our engagement in these activities facilitates transcendence, especially as a positive-sum progression towards greater knowledge or understanding of self and the universe, no matter how consciously articulated or synthesized, it seems just as useful in an Atheistic context as in a religious one.
So does an Atheist have a spirit? Can an Atheist be spiritual? To the religious, with faith in a strict dogma in which God is thought of as a very real entity, the answer must be no. However, my hunch is that to many religious people, this conception of spirituality is entirely sufficient to describe their own relationship with their chosen dogma and teachings. To this way of understanding, the conceptual meaning of God or spirit is less relevant than the actual human experience of transcendance - intellectual and emotional self-understanding and hyper-corporeal connection to the universe, in whatever traditional or non-traditional form it may take.