Atheist Spirituality?


Penguin PublishersAndre Comte-Sponville’s elegantly-written book, The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality, has occupied much of my thoughts and reading time these past few weeks as I try to grapple with his message. I find I need to re-read sections of it, perhaps more than once, to digest and weigh all of the ideas presented.

I’m more accustomed to the polarizing polemics of Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins, and their militant atheism; French philosopher Comte-Sponville’s reasoned and gentle approach quite threw me off guard. Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins may be right (and righteous) in their arguments, but they can be caustic and grating. Comte-Sponville – who also calls himself an atheist – is more conciliatory and willing to concede points to religion that the others are not, particularly in the areas of heritage and culture.

And in death, where Comte-Sponville says religion holds the better hand in dealing with mortality, offering “not only the possibility of consolation, but also a sorely-needed ritual…” that helps us humanize and even civilize death. “The power of religion at such times,” he writes, “is neither more nor less our own powerlessness in the face of the void.”

In the wake of the death of my own mother, mortality has been on my mind somewhat more than usual. Which is one reason, I suppose, I am turning to philosophy with greater frequency to try and make sense of the world.

Calling oneself an atheist has long been a form of rebellion: to challenge three millennia of society, to storm the ramparts of conformity. But only in the last century has that declaration been made without punishment or at least ostracism. No it’s almost chic to do so, like wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt.

Each generation has to find its own centre anew, and each older generation has to agonize over that choice. But what happens when the rebels become the establishment, when the challenge becomes the new conformity? Do we repeat the cycle again from the other side?

I recall my grandfather – a deeply religious, honourable man who I loved and respected – saying you catch more bees with honey than with vinegar. I wonder what he would think of Dawkins and his cohort’s acerbic style. Would he have better appreciated Comte-Sponville’s attempts at open discussion and dialogue? Would he have appreciated my own, sometimes ambivalent, views on religion and faith?

Comte-Sponville’s book is divided three main areas of discussion, before his conclusion:

  • Can we do without religion?
  • Does God exist?
  • Can there be an atheist spirituality?

Without wanting to spoil your reading of the book, the basic answers are: yes, who can know for sure? and yes. For an atheist, he seems undecided about some of the things writers like Dawkins are adamant about. But perhaps the better word is flexible or open-minded. Being irreligious is not synonymous with being an atheist and I sometimes wonder if he would better suit the former. Or even agnostic (on p.30, he calls himself a faithful atheist).

In his conclusion, he repeats a comment he wrote at age 16: “Either God exists, in which case nothing else matters, or else God does not exist, in which case nothing matters.” That might be a boldly statement for a teenager, but it’s too nihilistic for a mature discussion. He later concluded in a rather sophomoric, optimistic thought that, “Either God exists, in which case everything matters, or God does not exists, in which case everything matters.”

Neither is a valid statement about faith.

Whether one believes in a god or gods, what matters to people is seldom a universal ‘everything’ – it is more the mundane that matters than the cosmic. An unexpected parking ticket, stubbing one’s toe, part of a DVD movie that won’t play, a cat peeing on your shoe – such trivialities matter to us regardless of our faith. But whether we ascribe them to divine intervention or chance is a matter of faith. How we perceive external events is often the determining factor between those of faith and those without.

The book received a critical, but not hostile, review in the Australian Journal of Theology, in which reviewer John Dupuche (himself a Catholic priest) wrote:

Despite all its weaknesses, the values of the book are many. Principally it takes the reader beyond a crass materialism into something bordering on the mystical. The book has made me look at things without reference to thought systems, and so discover more clearly the unique wonder of each person and of each moment. Perceiving the individual free of the cloud of mental constructs, one begins to see more deeply and find that this person, this situation, is indeed not only profoundly beautiful but profoundly revelatory, leading to the depths from which this person has sprung, namely a Person from whom all persons spring. St Paul speaks about the glory of God being visible in creation (Romans 1). Has André perceived something of the glory of God without perceiving the God whose glory it is?

Dupuche also calls it an “…invitation to dialogue and discussion.”

This, I think, is possibly the highest praise any author of such a work could ask for. Not be be dismissed, or taken as immutable dogma, but rather to be a platform on which each perspective can find a place to be seen and shared and compared. In a civilized world, we would be eager to discuss and debate, not simply throw stones and call names as if we were all some petty local bloggers incapable of common courtesy. Social media strips the lesser of us of such civility.

Comte-Sponville recognizes early in his book the historical obligation we collectively owe to faiths since the Axial Age for creating and fostering a tradition of values that essentially civilized us. He doesn’t dissect each faith’s particulars, however, nor does he delve into the sordid histories of atrocities most religions hide (and justify) in their history. His point is that all people share common goals and beliefs in ethical and moral ideas regardless of religion; and often in spite of it.

In the introduction to his other book, A Small treatise on the Great Virtues, Comte-Sponville opens by saying…

If virtue can be taught, as I believe it can, it is not through books, but by example.

One does not need faith to lead by example, nor to be virtuous, although faith can also lead, but that can depend on interpretation. In his “Little Book” he argues that religion is not necessary for such examples; that civilization has evolved through the shared communion and fidelity to those common virtues, but he grants religion is share of the credit.

Comte-Sponville identifies nihilism as more a threat than fanaticism. We must believe in something, he says. He calls it fidelity; belief in the heritage of laws, culture, community, justice and compassion.

I’m not convinced it is the greater threat of the two. Nihilists generally don’t kill other people, kidnap school children to sell them into sexual slavery, destroy world heritage sites, or practice the abominable Sharia law. Nihilists seldom express the homophobic, misogynistic, xenophobic and misanthropic that extremists like the Westboro Baptist church do. Nihilists don’t attempt to force creationist claptrap and other pseudoscience into school curricula. Nihilists don’t bend others to their beliefs and slaughter them if they hesitate.

Fanaticism is a threat to us all, regardless of what religious colour it is painted. There is a remarkable similarity between ugly and intolerant fundamentalist ideologies, be they Christian or Islamic (one can barely distinguish between the Westboro Baptists’ and ISIS’s ideologies).

Still, nihilism is a pitfall we must avoid in order to retain some meaning, some value systems in our lives. As Geoff Crocker wrote in An Enlightened Philosophy, nihilism can deteriorate into moral decay and “a materialist self-centred consumer society.” In such a society we glorify money and its makers, giving more respect to banks and stock traders – even as they con and steal their way to the top – than we do teachers and doctors.

Both of Comte-Sponville’s books might be considered part of one larger life’s work: an attempt to define a practical moral and ethical philosophy for the modern era. We already have Buddhism for that, and it sometimes seems modern Western philosophers are trying to re-invent that wheel. Perhaps it’s because some Buddhist schools have the clutter of superstition and the supernatural mythology accreted to their teachings, that Comte-Sponville feels the need to rise into the secular stratosphere. But the movement towards secular Buddhism is also growing, especially in the West.

His contention that atheists can have a profound spirituality made me ponder the longest. In an interview, in answer to the question, “What is spirituality?” Comte-Sponville replied,

It’s the life of the spirit, especially in its relationship with the infinite, eternity, and the absolute. All religion elevates this, at least in part ; but all spirituality isn’t necessarily religious. Atheists, they also have a spiritual life : they inhabit, as they are able, their relationship finite to infinite, their relationship temporal to eternity, their relationship relative to absolute. This absolute, for them, isn’t a person, but the being or the becoming, the whole or nature, let’s say the immanent totality which contains them and surpasses them. They can ponder it, think about it, it’s what we call metaphysical, but also try it out, live it, and it’s this we call spirituality. We are open in the grand Open, as Rilke says. This opening, it’s the same spirit. Should I, because I am atheist, renounce all experience of eternity, the infinite, and the absolute? Certainly not. Many philosophers – for example Epicurus and Spinoza – have challenged the existence of a transcendental spirit, without renouncing the enjoyment of what Epicurus called ‘immortal rights’. It’s this I call a spirituality of immanence.

At first, I had been prepared to contest his notion of atheist spirituality as an oxymoron, but as I read, I came to appreciate Comte-Sponville’s perspective. Atheists are, of course, no less moral nor less ethical than any person of faith. Standards such as justice, civility and compassion are not limited to faiths. But spirituality?

Geoff Crocker wrote, on the Atheist Spirituality site, that

Without a spirituality, personal life and the societies we live in have only a materialist option. And indeed, materialism has flourished as technology has allowed a widespread increase in material standards of living. Our identity comes to depend on what we have or do, rather than who we are. Questions of our inner life are rare, overwhelmed by concern about the brand of goods we consume, or other aspects of our ‘image’.

I’m not sure I agree fully with that. It seems too polar; an either-or argument. Crass materialism is alive and well among people with faith as much as it is among the irreligious. I refer to the Dalai Lama’s comment, posted on the Canadian Secular Buddhist site:

“The cultivation of loving-kindness and compassion is not intrinsically a religious endeavor. It has really a much more general pertinence and general applicability. You don’t have to be religious or buy into a religious doctrine to do it. This is why I think it is important to develop techniques that are secular and not simply religious in orientation.”

In other words, secular Buddhism is a practical approach to life, without overt spirituality or religiosity, but rather a way to apply ethical and moral practice. But that doesn’t address the sense of wonder.

Freud writes, in the introduction to Civilization and Its Discontents, about his friend’s spiritual sense that confounded Freud:

…a peculiar feeling, which never leaves him personally, which he finds shared by many others, and which he may suppose millions more also experience. It is a feeling which he would like to call a sensation of eternity, a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded, something ‘oceanic.’ It is, he says, a purely subjective experience, not an article of belief; it implies no assurance of personal immortality, but it is the source of the religious spirit and is taken hold of by the various Churches and religious systems, directed by them into definite channels, and also, no doubt, used up in them. One may rightly call oneself religious on the ground of this oceanic feeling alone, even though one reject all beliefs and all illusions.

Perhaps the biggest difficulty is in the nature of our language. Words can have such emotional impact; can set the emotional stage for any discussion about issues. Can atheists have similar ideas about sacred and profane without a deity?

Albert Camus wrote,

The words that reverberate for us at the confines of this long adventure of rebellion are not formulas for optimism, for which we have no possible use in the extremities of our unhappiness, but words of courage and intelligence which, on the shores of the eternal seas, even have the qualities of virtue.

Another Camus quote (as yet unsourced by me, but referenced in the NY Times):

To misname things is to add to the world’s unhappiness.

Words like spirituality, sacred and profane carry weight in many contemporary value systems, and come laden with preconceptions about both religion and philosophy.

Comte-Sponville at times seems to wrestle with language (although this might be the result of the translation). He writes about “spontaneous mysticism” – the “mystical experiences of ordinary individuals who have not been classified as mystics in the traditional sense of the term.” That bothers me for its implied naiveté: many scam and con artists have successfully presented themselves as “mystics” and “psychics.”

Comte-Sponville talks about what sacred and profane mean to atheists, and while not entirely comfortable with the terms – English has a limited range of words for such concepts – I understand his approach, if not entirely agree with all aspects of it.

One of the main ideas Comte-Sponville discusses is immanensity: a “conception of the infinite” and “experience of the unknown.” Yes, I can understand that: any clear night when I walk my dogs and look up into the night sky, I feel that sense of wonder about the infinite void we travel through. Seeing the space station race across the sky only underscores the ‘pale blue dot‘ feeling of smallness and mystery.

Albert Einstein said:

The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed. It was the experience of mystery — even if mixed with fear — that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds: it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity. In this sense, and only this sense, I am a deeply religious man.

Similarly, Comte-Sponville asks,

Why would you need a God? The universe suffices. Why would you need a church? The world suffices. Why would you need faith? Experience suffices.

But neither suffice for everyone. For some people, a deity is required to make sense of it all. To give intelligent purpose to the universe. For some people it is not easy – and distinctly uncomfortable – to accept that there is no over-arching meaning to anything. That we live and die without a higher purpose, that death is final. We cannot all assume a Buddhist calm and resignation about the meaning of life.

It’s a book that makes me think, makes me want to discuss his ideas. I’m sure I’ll have more to say on it in the future.

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Ian Chadwick
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