The Spiritual Life of An Atheist

December 26, 2010

Spiritual Life of an Atheist: How Can an Atheist Practice Spirituality?

A recent reader made this query of the internet and found my blog.  I’m not sure I’ve directly answered this question yet so I am now.

Spirituality is unquestionably related in people’s minds to belief in the supernatural, the ethereal, the beyond-material.  I cannot speak for all atheists but I believe it is a fair bet that most of us are strict materialists, i.e., we don’t believe in any of the above.  To conclude that atheists also therefore don’t believe in or practice spirituality is not a far stretch.  And that may be true for some, if not many, atheists.

But a materialist worldview does not dictate a strictly rationalist approach to life.  Feelings are no less important for being generated by neurochemical reactions in our brains.  Inspiration is no less uplifting when understood as a physiological process.  Our consciousness is no less useful or powerful if it derives from a neuronal structure evolved over eons.  The Universe is no less astounding if it was generated by unthinking physical forces, rather than some undefinable consciousness-type force thing. 

Existence understood in purely material terms is no less awesome or beautiful or meaningful.  And human beings still have all the same problems to struggle with–how to cope with loss, aging, and death and how to treat each other and the other living beings we share our planet with. 

Just like there is no one way that believers worship, there is no one way that atheists confront the challenges inherent in the human condition.  Some atheists continue to go to church or synagogue, some practice a secular Buddhism, some Humanism, and some manage without any spiritual or philosophical practice, I imagine.

My own spiritual practice centers around a love of nature and knowledge and a commitment to a pragmatic compassion.  Given my cultural background, my spirituality undoubtedly has Christian-infused leanings.  For a while, I found a place in a Unitarian church that eschewed “God-talk,” focusing more on Emerson, Thoreau, and Twain, and introduced me to a mantra-based meditation technique.  I read some about Buddhism and then found my way to a structured vipassana meditation practice through a local Buddhist nun of the Chan school.  I have also sampled Zen meditation practices, courtesy of one of the many Zen centers in the San Francisco Bay Area. 

At the Buddha’s own suggestion, I have put aside Buddhist metaphysical beliefs (karma, reincarnation, nirvana, etc.) and focused on its spiritually sustaining practices.  In his poison arrow parable (also called “A Brief Talk to Malukya”) the Buddha himself suggested: “Whether the world is or is not eternal or the life force is or is not the same as the body, still there is birth, aging, death, sadness, regret, unease, depression, and anxiety. It is the destruction of all of this, in this very world, that I make known.” (Culamalukya Sutta; Majjhimanikaya 63, which can be found in Glenn Wallis’s Basic Teachings of the Buddha available at Basic Teachings of the Buddha (Modern Library Classics).)  Stephen Batchelor, a self-proclaimed Buddhist atheist, has written a couple of books on reconciling these two Weltanshauungs: Buddhism Without Beliefs available at Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening and Confession of a Buddhist Atheist available at Confession of a Buddhist Atheist.

I do not believe that humans are supernaturally elect beings, that some god with special plans for us endowed us with unparalleled consciousness.  That does not mean that I devalue the human spirit.  On our planet to date, humans are a unique expression of life.  To modify Carl Sagan a bit, we are a means by which the Universe can know itself. 

And by virtue of our very material, and no less spectacular for being so, consciousness, we all have choices to make about the kinds of beings we are.  Spirituality, for me, is about cultivating my better impulses, nourishing my better nature.  My atheist spirituality is founded in a deep appreciation for the privileged stance I have been granted for the briefest moment in our little corner of the Universe by the mechanical forces that be.

copyright 2010 S. Anne Johnson

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19 Comments »

  1. Interesting article and one which opens the door to a dialogue between the atheist and the theist. Perhaps, in our different world views, there are some things we can share. You might like to consider the teachings of Guru Nank from the Sikh faith simply because he synthesised some interesting practices that might support your own atheist spirituality, such as the community meal.

    Comment by UbiquitousRat — December 26, 2010 @ 11:39 pm | Reply

    • I am a firm believer that there is much atheists and theists do and can share–the first being our common humanity. I think all spirituality (as opposed to religion) is fundamentally founded in the personal struggle with what it means to be human. To my mind, religion is somewhat distinct from spirituality and in its institutional form can be a lot more about ego, money, and power than enlightenment. Thanks for the suggestion about Guru Nank. I will look him up.

      Comment by SAJohnson — December 27, 2010 @ 8:46 am | Reply

  2. Great article! Gretchen directed me to it on FB. It is good to re-define spirituality, and you are right in that it is not confined to only people who subscribe to theistic religions. I just finished reading “The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality” which validates this point. Sam Harris provides an excellent argument for atheist spirituality and even argues that it is rational at its core. Carl Sagan made a good case for non-theist spirituality as well, one of the best in my opinion.

    As I understand it, the human brain is wired toward spiritual experiences in various degrees, depending on the individual. For theists, this experience is derived by their belief in and devotion to gods or a god, their awe of this concept, its incomprehensibility, etc. It is just another form of emotional experience (calling it spiritual is just a euphemism to me). For non-theists, a similar experience is derived by the universe itself, its immensity, power, intriguing characteristics, etc…the awe of nature, its beauty and power, and ability to sustain and create life from within itself, its mathematical orderliness, and so on. For many scientists and philosophers in the age of enlightenment, god and the universe were really not that different. In fact, the universe, as a mathematical and rational entity, turned out to be much more interesting than some anthropocentric god invented by humans. God, to many of these thinkers, became the mathematical essence of the universe, or its prime underlying force, or electromagnetism. Whether or not this universe/god was sentient was more of a trivial point.

    No one invents the universe, its laws, behavior, its still unknown and mystical features, forces, and so on. It is real and requires no proof. For non-theists, that is a hell of a lot more powerful and awe inspiring, and spiritual, than man invented ideas of gods. But then, in merging the idea of this universe and of a god, this dichotomy is not as apparent. Hindus have almost achieved this. Buddhists are essentially atheists, so they have already achieved this non-theist and direct form of spirituality.

    Comment by Kris Hartung — December 27, 2010 @ 11:03 am | Reply

    • Compelling comment. I would be interested to know where Sam Harris makes a case for atheist spirituality. I have only seen some of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos television series. I have not read any of his books. Do you have a recommendation?

      Comment by SAJohnson — December 27, 2010 @ 11:35 am | Reply

      • For Sam, I would recommend The End of Faith. But for an excellent read that takes only 30 min or so, his Letter to a Christian Nation is outstanding and compelling. One thing I like about Sam is that he is a scientist and he supports a lot of his points with data. I believe is specialty if neurobiology or something similar.

        Comment by Kris Hartung — December 27, 2010 @ 5:05 pm

      • Oh, you meant books from Carl. I hear Demon Haunted World is is best work that would resonate with atheists. I have not read it personally, but know of it and have read comments on it. I am behind on my reading. There are just a ton of new books out there on atheism. The best I have read so far is “God: The Failed Hypothesis. How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist,” by Victor J Stenger. This is an awesome book. This is the first book I have encountered where someone (in this case a physicist) provides a direct and logical argument, using empirical evidence, against the existence of the Judeo-Christian god. His line of reasoning is really quite interesting, and I am surprised no one has used it before. Basically, rather than arguing blindly from a nebulous notion of God, he begins by defining “God”, as defined by the Judeo-Christian community in general. He basically uses the hypothetical-deductive method to deduce what facts we should be able to verify or discover if this definition were true. He then argues by counter-example to reveal that those facts not only do not exist, but are contradicted by other empirical data. In other words, the argument follows this form: “If p, then q; not q; therefore not p” – where “p” is the premise that God exists, as defined by Judeo-Christianity.

        Comment by Kris Hartung — December 27, 2010 @ 5:17 pm

  3. Spirituality?? Spirituality??? I want to scream. But not for the reason you think.

    See, I agree with you and what you’re doing. I agree with your Buddhism, I agree that rationality isn’t all there is, and that beauty, awe, and yes, mystery and such-like are vital to a good life.

    It’s that stinkin’ WORD that skeeves me! Please, please, find another word besides “spirituality”! (Salman Rushdie said that word should be banned for the next fifty years. I agree.) It’s a cult buzz-word (for some of us, our skin crawls when we remember how that loaded word is used to control and manipulate), it’s a weasel word, it’s a piece of sanctimonious bloviation that means so much it means almost nothing. You yourself said, “Spirituality is unquestionably related in people’s minds to belief in the supernatural, the ethereal, the beyond-material.” And when you stretch that rubber band word to go around atheist experiences, you drag all those other meanings in and you confuse people. The way Einstein did when he said “God” when he most definitely did NOT mean the theistic sky-daddy. Shame on him!

    Yes, I know Sam Harris uses that awful word. I wish that really smart and attractive guy would deep-six it and use his bright brains to find better words to describe what he’s doing.

    There was an essay published by American Atheist magazine that is now hard to find, unless you pay. I read it when it was free. “Why I am not Spiritual”, by Eller. He points out that these wonderful and uplifting and worthy experiences are HUMAN experiences, not experiences of spirits. Don’t sell humanity short by equating the best of our consciousness with spirits. Time for atheists to seriously dump that word and confine it where it belongs, in churches and AA meetings and televangelist shows.

    Keep the worthy experiences and perspectives, dump the word.

    Comment by Laurance — December 27, 2010 @ 5:10 pm | Reply

    • Sorry the word “spirituality” skeeves you, Laurance, but I must respectfully dissent from you and Salman Rushdie and Eller. Like many words, “spirit” has multiple meanings. They include, according to Merriam Webster: “temper or disposition of mind or outlook especially when vigorous or animated;” “the activating or essential principle influencing a person;” “an inclination, impulse, or tendency of a specified kind;” “a special attitude or frame of mind;” “the feeling, quality, or disposition characterizing something;” “a lively or brisk quality in a person or a person’s actions;” “a person having a character or disposition of a specified nature;” “a mental disposition characterized by firmness or assertiveness;” ” prevailing tone or tendency'” and “general intent or real meaning.” Humans can experience deep emotions, vivid, oceanic feelings, uplifting aspiration–all founded in our materiality. Spirituality best expresses my experience so I am going to continue to use it. Love means lots of different things too and can be abused and I’m not abandoning that word anytime soon either.

      Comment by SAJohnson — December 27, 2010 @ 9:57 pm | Reply

      • Looks as if we can agree to disagree. Or maybe agree in some way. You yourself note that “spirit” has multiple meanings.

        I, too, looked at the Merriam Webster dictionary and indeed found the meanings you cite. I also found “a supernatural being or essence: as a capitalized : holy spirit b : soul 2a : an often malevolent being that is bodiless but can become visible; specifically : ghost 2 d : a malevolent being that enters and possesses a human being”

        As for the related word “spirituality”, it, too, has multiple meanings, certain of which I do not wish to imply when speaking of these uplifting human experiences. M-W gives me one, “sensitivity or attachment to religious values”. And another one, “the quality or state of being spiritual”.

        Okey doke, so now, what’s “spiritual”? “of, relating to, consisting of, or affecting the spirit : incorporeal
        2a : of or relating to sacred matters b : ecclesiastical rather than lay or temporal
        3: concerned with religious values
        4: related or joined in spirit
        5a : of or relating to supernatural beings or phenomena b : of, relating to, or involving spiritualism”

        You point out – and I fully agree – that these excellent experiences, these sublime feelings, are all founded in our materiality.

        Exactly! Materiality! I’m fully with you there! And that’s precisely why I do NOT want to refer to these things as “spiritual”. They come from our materiality, and I’d like to find useful words to talk about them.

        Well, shucks, atheists are no more a monolith than any other group of people. You and other spiritual atheists will continue to be spiritual, and I will continue to look for other ways to talk and think of these things.

        Comment by Laurance — December 28, 2010 @ 10:53 am

      • Try to think of it this way, Laurance: I am attempting to reclaim a perfectly good word from certain dominant, but not exclusive, associations. Granted, people’s spirituality will vary as much as people do, so just saying you’re “spiritual” without more doesn’t tell a person much specific. But being “spiritual, not religious” has at least one potentially good implication–by inherently disclaiming the institutional nature of religiosity, it posits the individual as her own authority. Further, spirituality and materialism are opposed to each other only if one accepts the false dualism inherent in belief in a mind/soul/spirit separate from the body. I reject that dualism and believe that what humans have metaphorically called the mind/soul/spirit emanates from the material. Also, my spirituality is about more than just the capacity for sublime experiences. It is not a natural narcotic but a commitment to using those sublime experiences as inspiration to practice compassion and other values that improve our troubled world.

        By my blog, I am not telling anyone else how to describe themselves, never mind live their lives. I’m trying to explain how it is I do. So I am quite happy to agree to disagree.

        Comment by SAJohnson — December 29, 2010 @ 8:51 pm

  4. If I claim I have “spirituality”, it invites people to tell me why there spirituality is better. I’ll have none of it.

    “ATHEIST is really a thoroughly honest, unambiguous term, it admits
    of no paltering and no evasion, and the need of the world, now as
    ever, is for clear-cut issues and unambiguous speech.”
    -Chapman Cohen-

    Comment by raysny — December 28, 2010 @ 8:00 pm | Reply

    • “their” not “there”, good sign it’s bed time.

      Comment by raysny — December 28, 2010 @ 8:08 pm | Reply

    • I have been explaining my spirituality to people on this blog since the end of last May and I have not had a single person try to explain to me why their spirituality is better. My description of myself as an atheist who practices spirituality is thoroughly honest and straightforward and by making clear what I mean by spirituality, I am by no means being evasive. I believe that the material can and does give rise to the ineffable and simply referring to myself as an atheist materialist would be both unambiguous and inaccurate.

      Comment by SAJohnson — December 29, 2010 @ 8:28 pm | Reply

  5. By your writings, it sounds to me like you might be a Pantheist. It is a good thing, you’d be in good company. Take a look at http://www.pantheism.net. The home page discusses the Pantheist relationship to the word “spirituality”, e.g. “Is this Earth your true spiritual home?” or “Towards a naturalistic spirituality”. I see many of your views in common with the description of Pantheism.

    Comment by Roland — December 30, 2010 @ 12:49 pm | Reply

    • I tried to reply yesterday but wordpress wouldn’t let me: Thanks for the tip, Roland. From a brief review of the pantheism site, it does appear that my spirituality is quite in line with that of pantheists. But I don’t think I can sign on to any ism that embraces “theism” and the concept of “God.” I don’t think that the Universe and God are the same. I don’t think there is any such thing as God, and I personally don’t find God useful even as an acknowledged metaphor. My preference would be that we dispense with the use of the term “God” altogether. That said, I don’t have any beef with pantheists.

      Comment by SAJohnson — December 31, 2010 @ 11:34 am | Reply

      • The way you feel about “God” is the way that I feel about “spirituality”. If I use the word, the vast majority interpret the meaning in a way that I did not intend.

        Some feel that if I am spiritual, that I’m open to hear all about their brand of spirituality, maybe even coming over to their side. I find it far easier to not use the word. If I’m very happy, I don’t say that I’m gay either even though that’s still the first definition of the word in most dictionaries. I’m a Humanist, but if people ask, I say atheist because there is no ambiguity.

        Comment by raysny — December 31, 2010 @ 12:31 pm

      • I respect your decisions about how to represent your beliefs to others. With respect to the use of “God,” I do not ever use the word in relation to my beliefs because it does not represent anything about my practices or beliefs and so there is not even a minority that could properly interpret my intended meaning by its use. “Spirituality” on the other hand does have communicative value for me. I welcome hearing about others’ brands of spirituality. I have had the most engaging conversations about spirituality and values with a colleague who is a devout Mormon who knows very clearly that I am an atheist (and who I know opposes my right to marry–because I am very happy to be gay). I am an unabashed, unapologetic atheist–thus the title of my blog. Since an atheist theist is an oxymoron, I cannot see how people could reasonably perceive an ambiguity in my saying that I am an atheist with a spiritual life. Clearly, I have a non-theistic spiritual life.

        Comment by SAJohnson — December 31, 2010 @ 4:52 pm

  6. There’s no {reply} for me to click on, so it looks as if I have to start another post. SAJohnson (I’m a Johnson, too) writes, “Try to think of it this way, Laurance: I am attempting to reclaim a perfectly good word from certain dominant, but not exclusive, associations.”

    Are you “reclaiming” it? These religious and godly associations are a *major* part of the word, and I don’t know that you’re going to make them go away (or make people understand what you are saying), nor am I convinced that “reclaim” is the right word to use here (although I get that Ann Druyan is trying to “reclaim” the word, too). I don’t see how you can “reclaim” a word that was never taken away from you to begin with.

    Yipes! Who knows? Maybe the God-believers will end up having to “reclaim” the word back from the atheists if we insist too hard on being “spiritual”! (Did I say “we”? Yes I did. I used to be a “spiritual atheist” myself for quite a number of years until I shook my head and exclaimed, “What the hell am I doing, talking this gobbledegook? People think I’m talking about God, and that I’m a Believer, and I’m NOT!)

    “Further, spirituality and materialism are opposed to each other only if one accepts the false dualism inherent in belief in a mind/soul/spirit separate from the body. I reject that dualism and believe that what humans have metaphorically called the mind/soul/spirit emanates from the material.”

    I consider mind to be an epiphenomenon which emerges out of the dazzling complexity of the brain (but I could be convinced otherwise if I were shown genuinely valid and convincing evidence, which thus far I have not – faith won’t do). I reject the dualism, too.

    It’s the WORD I’m not willing to use. You can certainly try to “reclaim” the word, and once you succeed, the God-believers will have to “reclaim” it back from you. I’m saying that when you use that word, you confuse people. I won’t use it any more. I’d rather find better ways to talk about these things.

    “Also, my spirituality is about more than just the capacity for sublime experiences. It is not a natural narcotic but a commitment to using those sublime experiences as inspiration to practice compassion and other values that improve our troubled world.”

    I hope you aren’t telling me we gotta get spiritual or we won’t be good people.

    I’m not convinced there’s a connection. There are people who have had superb “spiritual” experiences but who remain unconcerned with other people and with the world around them. OTOH, there are people who have not had “spiritual” experiences but who are deeply caring and compassionate.

    Comment by Laurance — December 30, 2010 @ 6:27 pm | Reply

    • I don’t think spirituality is necessary for people to be good. But I do think most people who are morally heroic experience an inspiration and commitment that is almost necessarily spiritual. And there is no doubt that “spirituality” can be a very solipsistic experience. Spirituality is not a word for perfection or even perfectability. People will use and abuse it like they do all our other tools. Btw, to me being deeply caring and compassionate is a spiritual experience.

      Comment by SAJohnson — December 31, 2010 @ 11:31 am | Reply


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