The Spiritual Life of An Atheist

January 26, 2013

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: Transcendence Cross-Examined

The Buddha sits cross-legged, hands in lap, in peaceful equanimity in my backyard.  In other iconography, Jesus hangs pierced from his palms, in agony, on a cross.  Two radically divergent approaches to the same subject: human suffering.  The Buddha, unattached, has moved beyond pain and fear; both of which Jesus, crucified, is mired in.

As an atheist, the dogma built around either icon holds no appeal.  But the contrasting images are striking.  Not a single crucifix in my house, so as my backyard Buddha attests, I have favored, if never achieved, the beyond-it-all approach.  Recently I have begun to reconsider my choice.

Over 200,000 people were killed in a few moments in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.  They’ve just made a movie, “The Impossible,” about a tiny (Western) piece of that enormously painful cataclysm.

I have wondered: in response to abject suffering on such a wide scale, WWBD?

Before offering comfort to the survivors, would he first attempt to grasp the pain of their trauma?  Would he have any personal context for doing so?  The mythical Buddha was a prince who left behind his wealth, wife and child after being so shocked by the simple facts of individual aging and death.  After some years of self-inflicted suffering, the Buddha claimed to have found nirvana, which claim gained him a following, who surrounded him at his death at 80, a very ripe old age indeed for 400 BC.

The Buddha in equipoise makes a lovely garden statue.  I’m certainly not going to be hanging crucifixes around anytime soon, but I can see their appeal–Jesus, unlike the Buddha, feels your pain.

Real suffering may be something that cannot be sat through with a soft smile on your face.  Suffering should be engaged; and after it is endured, the psychological effects worked through.  Most likely quite imperfectly.


May 20, 2012

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: The Cup Is Already Broken

My dog Sarah is around 11.  That’s getting up there for a 45-lb dog.  She is an American foxhound I picked out at the pound 9 years ago.  An American foxhound looks like a cross between a beagle and a greyhound.  When she was young, she would run actual circles around me.  Hiking with her on leash for a couple of hours wasn’t sufficient exercise.  I used to let her off leash while I hiked and she would run up and down and around, adding miles to the already lengthy hike.  In my backyard, she would run laps so fast she was literally a blur.  She was up and ready to go at 5 am.  At the time, I was a bit overwhelmed, but I worked at appreciating her zest while it lasted because I knew I would miss it when she aged.  And here we are.  She prefers to sleep in mornings now, and she can no longer jog 3 miles with perfect ease.

I am glad that when she was young I was able to see the cup of her youth was already broken.  It helped me have the patience to enjoy her hyperactive ways, and the foresight to prepare me for her inevitable decline.

Buddhism has some really useful concepts and practices.  It deals directly with fundamental realities.  Everything is impermanent.  My youth.  My dog’s youth.  The present moment.  The present contains the potential futures, in all of which the cup will be broken.

Railing against the ineluctable is shouting into the wind.  But accepting what we know to be true is no easy task.  It takes dedication to insight over instinct.  It takes practice.

We do not naturally see reality as it is and we want things from reality it cannot give.  We have to retrain our minds and our reactions to better suit the actual situation.  Buddhism is immensely helpful in this regard.

Working on detaching from the longing for permanence, for what is not, is transformative.

copyright 2012 by S. Anne Johnson

May 13, 2012

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: Both Thumbs Up for “Religion for Atheists”

Alain de Botton’s “Religion for Atheists,” which has received harsh criticisms from the likes of David Brooks (the NYT review) and The Economist, is an insightful and moving treatment of wisdom without doctrine.  At the outset, de Botton dispenses with the most frequent subject of engagement for today’s vocal atheists–arguments with believers against the existence of God–and elaborates on the more fundamental question for atheists: So now what?

De Botton writes: “[T]he real issue is not whether God exists or not, but where to take the argument once one decides that he evidently doesn’t.”  (p. 11)  Although de Botton talks of “argument,” he sets his sights on a post-theistic discussion of proper nurturance of our quite material and mortal souls.  De Botton’s title for his first chapter “Wisdom Without Doctrine” frames his endeavor.

By pursuing wisdom, de Botton invokes an old-fashioned concept.  His is a contemporary exposition on the ancient (and somewhat out-of-mode) philosophical question of “the good life.”  Understood this way, de Botton is offering the opening voice in a Platonic-style dialog.  His work is an invitation to engage and, of course, disagree with but not dismiss the ideas he presents.  Taken up with the intended spirit, Religion for Atheists has much to offer.

De Botton is a lucid and incisive writer.  So, if nothing else, his writing craft is pleasing. His aphoristic essays provide many thoughtful nuggets to reflect on.  Challenging the commercialization of the public sphere, de Botton explains, “In truth, we are all fragile in our commitments and suffer from a weakness of will in relation to the siren calls of advertising, an ill-tempered three-year-old entranced by the sight of a farmyard play set with inflatable dog kennel as much as a forty-two-year-old captivated by the possibilities of a barbecue set with added tongs and hotplate.”  (p. 88)

The marketization of almost every aspect of secular society is a key concern.  De Botton is troubled that the secular world appears to be abandoning to the religious sphere all values except market ones.  He writes, “[W]e have allowed religion to claim as its exclusive dominion areas of experience which should rightly belong to all mankind – and which we should feel unembarrassed about reappropriating for the secular realm.”  (p. 15)   And later, “One of the losses modern society feels most keenly is that of a sense of community.  We tend to imagine that there once existed a degree of neighborliness which has been replaced by ruthless anonymity, a state where people pursue contact with one another primarily for restricted, individualistic ends: for financial gain, social advancement or romantic love.” (p. 23)

To counter the perceived secular trend toward ruthless pursuit of individualistic ends, de Botton reappropriates “agape”–an ancient Greek concept itself appropriated by early Christians to refer to the self-sacrificing love of God for humanity.  Refigured by de Botton, agape would mean an un-self-involved love of humanity by humanity.  An analog would be the Buddhist emphasis on all-embracing compassion.  To de Botton, we urgently need institutions designed to help cultivate this wide-armed love and compassion.  Why? Because we are fallen in our natures, fundamentally sinful in a purely secular sense.  Without corrective institutions, we tend to the selfish and venal and petty.

At the same time, even in the wealthy West, we suffer in our vulnerability and need mercy.  In his chapter “Tenderness,” de Botton details an imagined scene in a centuries-old chapel on a town backstreet, where a middle-aged man “shakes down his umbrella and steps inside . . . The man is exhausted.  His joints ache.  He feels weak, vulnerable and close to tears.  No single event has brought him to this point, just a run of minor humiliations that have cumulatively contributed to an overwhelming sense of mediocrity, superfluousness and self-hatred.”  With striking emotional insight, de Botton then outlines the subtle failures that have led this mid-life everyman to despair.  As a result, “He wants to fall asleep and be held.  He wants to cry.  He wants to be forgiven and reassured.  There is music playing . . . the aria ‘Ebarme dich, mein Gott’ from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. He searches for ideas he can cling to, but nothing seems solid.  He is unable to think logically and even making the effort to do so has become more than he can bear.”  In this state beyond reason, the tender image of the Virgin offers him solace.  (p. 166-167)

In this single, lyrical passage, de Botton captures a common, lived experience well-addressed by religion, which atheism/secular humanism, if they are to flourish, must find ways to fulfill, rather than rebuff.  De Botton lectures, “By contrast with religion, atheism is prone to seem coldly impatient with our neediness.  The longing for comfort which lies at the heart of the Marian cult seems perilously regressive and at odds with the rational engagement with existence on which atheists pride themselves.  Mary and her cohorts have been framed as symptoms of urges which adults ought quickly to outgrow.” (p. 173)

For the truth of de Botton’s characterization, one need only remember the American Atheist’s “You KNOW It’s A Myth” Christmas-time billboard campaign.  De Botton’s Religion for Atheists, while not perfect in all its particulars, is a powerful and much-needed antidote to the prevailing curmudgeonly atheist approach.

De Botton recognizes that our spiritual needs do not lapse along with superstitious belief, and atheism and secular humanism will never replace religion until the secular sphere is actually able to replace religion.  De Botton’s Religion for Atheists is a heartfelt and welcome engagement with this dilemma.

copyright 2012 by S. Anne Johnson

May 6, 2012

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: Animal Consciousness

I read lots of books about consciousness.  We humans take a great deal of pride in the fact of our unique consciousness.  We privilege our particular consciousness above that of all the other sentient creatures we share Earth with.  This is true of scientists and religious adherents alike.  From a scientific perspective, we are not just aware but are aware of our awareness and have used that exponent to craft a picture of the origin and scale of the Universe.  We are a way that the Universe has come to know itself.  Beautiful fact.

But while I am a great appreciator of human consciousness and its cumulative, collective powers, I’m less sure it deserves the exalted throne we give it.  My reluctance may stem from having taken the childhood game of “if you could be an animal, what animal would you be” to heart.  To this day, I love richly imagining the interior experience of other animals.  Favorites include an African elephant in a herd, with a thickened hide, ears that can pick up low-register vocalizations from miles away, huge, clumsy, dangerous feet, and a trunk that can caress, grasp, smell, breathe, and squirt water down my back and the back of my calf.  Yes, African elephants don’t have complex language, can’t do calculus, know nothing of the Big Bang, and probably can’t even recognize themselves in mirrors.  But to be honest, I might trade all of that for the lived experience of being an African elephant.

Elephants not your cup of tea.  How about dolphins?  If you need more specificity–I’ll pick spinner dolphins.   Living in pods, flying in the ocean, seeing sonically, continually chirping at each other, breaching the ocean surface to twirl, torpedoing after fish.  Kind of think a spinner dolphin’s phenomenal experience might beat having grammar, calculus, and a Big Bang theory.

And how many of us have come back from a hard day’s work to our lounging, contented, well-cared for dog companions and sincerely thought, “Well, that’s the life!”?

The fact is that there is an ancient, shared animal consciousness.  This is why we can experiment on rats so successfully.  This ancient consciousness may not be exponential but it is valuable to the animals who possess it, providing them with vivid sensory experiences and feelings about those experiences.  Yes, except for us, they didn’t develop sophisticated cultures or tool use or testable theories of existence.  But who wouldn’t, at least as a child, have considered living a day in their gargantuan feet, elegant fins, or pedicured paws a privilege?

April 21, 2012

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: Am I An Existentialist?

A friend asked me this question over dinner (with a lovely bottle of wine) at my favorite San Francisco restaurant when she was shocked to find out I am an atheist.  I had no ready answer.

Existentialism, like atheism, has an ugly reputation.  Something is really not quite satisfying about smiling through an eternity of uphill boulder-pushing, or hell being other people.  Is my experience like an absurdist Oscar the Grouch, occupying my dustbin knowing the game was always already played out?

I don’t believe in God or that people have any ultimate purpose, and I do not live in a state of existential despair.  It is only in having ever supposed that meaning comes from some external source that the erasure of that source entails the loss of meaning.  I never really believed in God.  I never expected my subjectivity to surpass death.  I never imagined people must have a divine purpose to have any purpose at all.  So I don’t feel cheated that these things are not true.  And as difficult as some of my life circumstances have been, they certainly have not been so unremittingly painful (and neither were Camus’) to feel that my mortal, hopefully 70+ years of sentience are a toiling condemnation.  In this regard, I am not an existentialist.

I do believe that individuals make their own meaning.  I think this is true even in religion.  Individuals choose to adopt or not the traditions and mores in which they are raised.  If the Catholic God does not suit them, they move to a Protestant one.  If the Lutheran God is not a good fit after a while, they may elect Quakerism.  Having tried a range of what Christianity has to offer, with a catastrophic life event thrown in for good measure, they may migrate to Buddhism.  Individuals have always made their own meanings–by embracing or rejecting or refining the available belief systems.  There are 7 billion subjects, each with her/his own tale, nattering about the Earth at this moment.  No single purpose from on high unifies us all.  In this regard, I am an existentialist.

What about morals?  Are there also 7 billion arbiters of what is moral?  Indeed.  Religion or no, each of us has always been the moral decider for our own life–by either embracing, rejecting or refining the prevailing communal moral code.  To myself, I reserve the ultimate moral judgment over my own life.  I acquiesce to the legal and social norms I agree with–or can at least tolerate.  I would break those I found unpalatable and accept the consequences without acknowledging society’s moral condemnation.  I claim both ultimate moral freedom and responsibility.  In this regard, I am an existentialist.

Minus the despair-inducing circumstances of the 20th century’s first half, existentialism isn’t so bad.  To the contrary, it is empowering.

copyright 2012 by S. Anne Johnson

January 16, 2012

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: Sustaining the Sacred

Atheist t-shirt: “Sacred cows make the best hamburgers.”

In our modern world, the concept of “sacred” has been secularized.  Merriam-Webster tells us that in addition to its expressly religious meanings, “sacred” also means: “devoted exclusively to one service or use (as of a person or purpose),” “entitled to reverence and respect,” “unassailable, inviolable,” and “highly valued and important.”

In the past, the concept of exalted significance and reverence was rooted in religious belief.  Value flowed from God’s order.  A tidy but untrue syllogism.  Without God, both order and value exist.  The sacred can as well.

Holding something sacred is a feeling, a state of mind.  We imbue the idea, person or relationship with special meaning and show it particular concern.  This idealization can be a powerful tool.  Treating something as sacred can sustain it through the quotidian pressures and vagaries of life.    Holding one’s marital vows and the relationship they ground as sacred, in a purely secular sense, can be a potent antidote to the inevitable desire for others.  Holding a value, like honesty or compassion, sacred can counteract the persuasion of momentary self-interest.

Ideals are not actually an outgrowth of a non-existent God.  They are visions we have for our selves in the world.  Embracing a sense of the sacred can aid in the striving toward that better self.

copyright 2012 by S. Anne Johnson

December 4, 2011

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: Talking Transcendence

Being a body can be a pain.  We catch diseases, have accidents, deteriorate with age, and ultimately stop all function altogether.  Being a mind can be a drama.  We are often guided by motives hidden to us, have opposing interests and wishes, and experience unpleasant feelings we can’t always control, even with focused attention.  No wonder the idea of transcendence is so attractive.  It suggests there are ways to overcome the commonly painful drama of being human.

I’m all for learning more integrity, patience, compassion, and perspective, aspiring to our better qualities, even living longer, healthier lives with the help of modern science.

I’m not so drawn to dreams of taming our tumultuous nature or dispensing with our corporeal selves.  And I don’t care at all for illusory immortality.

Ray Kurzweil wrote “The Singularity Is Near” (which I have not read and most likely will not).  The movie “Transcendent Man” was made about him.  (Available streaming on Netflix.)  Ray Kurzweil is by many measures a genius.  As a teenager in the 60s, he built and programmed a computer to compose music.  He has pioneered computer optical recognition and text-to-speech and other electronic technologies.  Ray Kurzweil is obsessed with overcoming what he feels are human biological limitations.  He wants humans to merge with machines and to become immortal.  He believes that attempting to transcend the painful drama of human existence through acceptance of the limitations of biology is the wrong direction to take.  Instead, we should attempt to overcome through challenging, perhaps even obliterating, the fragility of our flesh.  Kurzweil in fact believes that this convergence of man and machine, this “singularity,” is ineluctable.

What will we gain from this “singularity?”  Nanobots coursing through our cells, our brains supplemented by implanted bluetooth wikipedia, revived graveyard DNA clones with reconstructed consciousness.

Kurzweil describes his father’s death as “unbearable.”  Kurzweil’s personal fantasy is to regenerate his father’s genetic twin and download his actual father’s partially reconstructed consciousness into the clone.  Kurzweil perceives this as bringing his father back to life.  It seems he may have skipped class the week Frankenstein was taught in high school English.

Let’s get real.  Immortality, i.e., unending existence, is not possible.  Even if man were to merge with machine, what’s the longest your iPod battery has lasted? How many of us have owned a computer that didn’t experience a fatal hard drive error after a few years?  Terminator movies aside, machines aren’t indestructible.  Like us, they are subject to entropy.

Where will all the energy and other resources to produce, implant, maintain, update, and unendingly reproduce the enabling electronics come from?  How will we dispose of the waste created by millions, if not billions, of immortal man/machine beings?  What planet will all this immortality be taking place on, since our own planet will be experiencing lethal increase in the Sun’s luminosity within 1 billion years and its consuming the Earth as a red giant within 5 billion years?

Maybe Kurzweil thinks that within the next 1 billion years, we will have transformed ourselves into some kind of photon beings that stream their timeless energy around the Universe–the observable portion of which is presently 93 billion light-years across.

Does anyone really want to be immortal?  We are creatures with lifespans to around 100 years at best so far.  Can we truly conceptualize an ongoing logarithmic increase in our lifespans and everything that would entail?

Maybe Kurzweil didn’t mean literal immortality.  Maybe he just meant a really, really long time, like 1,000 years or 1,000,000 years.  How many of us want to live for 1,000,000 years?  Can we actually conceive of what it would mean to live to 1,000,000 years?  How many of the world’s now 7 billion people would have access to these really, really long lifetimes?

If immortality is not realistic, if we have to face the end of our individual existence at some point, why not now?  Why not focus on the quality of the years we have, rather than on avoiding death at all costs–even perhaps at the cost of our humanity itself?

copyright 2011 by S. Anne Johnson

November 27, 2011

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: Measured Optimism

The winters in the San Francisco Bay Area are about as mild as one can reasonably expect–outside of Southern California or a Pacific island.  But even in the temperate Bay Area, winter is not generally a time of expansive optimism.  We have the unpredictable rainstorms, truncated daylight (it’s pitch black by 5 pm), and even-mild-weather-impaired drivers to deal with.  If you do like snow sports, you have a long drive and often a traffic-jam-for-miles to look forward to.  In some ways, winter in the Bay Area better suits my mood.  I’m rarely one for rose-colored glasses.

My worldview is not supported by a sense of divine significance, nevermind purpose.  When I’m on my xc skis at the top of a curving hill with trees tight on both sides, evaluating whether its within my skill set, I have no prayers or mantras to invoke.  What I focus on is my practical strategy for stopping safely if I end up on the verge of out-of-control, and then I make a measured decision about whether to test my limits or to take off my skis and walk it.

This is my basic approach to all challenges in life.

I do not like fear to constrain me, but I also don’t like to take chances I think are more than I can reasonably handle or the consequences of which I’m not willing to suffer.  In judging the risks and consequences life presents, I do not feel the comfort of a special mission or guiding hand.  I am confronted with the reality of a fragile individual human body among the forces and vagaries of the natural and man-made worlds.  The good news is I still have fun.

From the viewpoint of magical optimism–the perspective that recites, “It’s ok.  It’ll all work out,” no matter the circumstance–my mindset looks quite a lot like pessimism.  But it’s not.  I don’t believe everything’s more likely than not to go wrong.  If that were the case, I wouldn’t be on skis at the top of a tree-lined, arcing hill in the first place.  But a lot of predicaments exist from which it does seem to me quite unlikely the desired end will result.

I do my best to sort the wheat from the chaff with a sense of measured optimism.

copyright 2011 by S. Anne Johnson

July 21, 2011

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: What Is Spirituality?

Accurately or not, we experience ourselves dualistically.  Our mind feels separate from, though interconnected with, our body.  Purposeful attention to this separate-seeming mind/spirit is what I mean by spirituality.  Belief that one’s mind is actually severable from the body is not needed to appreciate the importance of cultivating one’s spirit.

Religiosity and spirituality are not the same thing.  Religious people focused on rigid dogma and narrow self-righteousness, rather than caring self-cultivation, are not very spiritual.  Many spiritual people do not subscribe to any institutionalized beliefs.  Spirituality need not be scuttled along with theism or other supernatural beliefs.

Being a strict materialist does not mean that I approach my life mechanistically, treating my self as a mere organic machine with purely corporeal needs to be met.  Our minds are an outgrowth of our bodies that merit their own care.

We bring intent to this physical world.  We manifest this intent in our behaviors, which have tremendous impacts on our selves, the people around us, other animals, and our natural habitat.  How we shape this intent undergirds the trajectory of our lives and societies and, quite possibly, our planet.   Although many people shape their spirits with tools from religious, mystical or New Age traditions, adherence to such traditions is not necessary for spiritual practice.  All that is required is disciplined attention to one’s mental/emotional self and its relationship to greater existence.

copyright 2011 by S. Anne Johnson

June 5, 2011

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: Spiritual But Not Religious

I love glimpses of the enormity of nature.  Instead of unsettling me, as they reasonably could, they fill me with an unparalleled sense of peace.  The myriad pinpoints of other planets and stars in the night sky, the ancient depths of the Grand Canyon or heights of Yosemite Valley’s granite walls, the rhythmic crashing of the Pacific against the shore, the kaleidoscopic diversity of life, all soothe me.

Not that I don’t feel fear in the cold face of nature’s indifference.  I love nature, but I respect the limits of my skills in it, as I am well aware that it does not love me back.  I don’t need it to.  For me, it matters that I appreciate the universe.  I do not require it to appreciate me.

There is no word to express the feeling nature’s encompassing power inspires in me other than “spiritual.”  Nature is not, however, my God.  God is too small a word for the universe.  God bespeaks tradition, dogma, righteousness, intent.  Outside of humanity (and perhaps whatever other intelligent beings may exist in the great expanse), the universe embodies none of this.  It is all matter and force.  The waves pounding, the glaciers incrementally eroding, the distant suns radiating, genes randomly mutating.

I try hard to see as much of the universe as I can for what it actually is and us for what we are in it, to grasp as fully as possible the experience of being a part of yet different from the unfeeling matter and forces that created us, surround us, and sustain us.  That our feeling nature (and that of other animals) emerged from the mindless churning of particles and processes moves me.  For me, contemplating this fact results not in meaninglessness but a penetrating feeling of deep humility and compassion.  I have found that non-theistic materialism can provide sustaining spiritual power.

copyright 2011 by S. Anne Johnson

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