The Spiritual Life of An Atheist

May 16, 2010

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: No Grand Watchmaker Need Apply

Bill Maher is probably the most well-known anti-religionist.  A celebrity atheist activist.  (  I’m a fan–with just a few caveats.  One night on his weekly show, Real Time (, in dissing religion, Bill said something like, “And I don’t know what it means when someone says I’m spiritual, not religious.”  Well, I don’t think I know what each person who says that means, either.  I’m not quite sure what I mean, and that’s how I feel.

I am an unrepentant atheist.  Give me a definition or description of “God” and I can assure you that I do not believe in he/she/it, and that’s been true since I was a child.  I was 8 when I refused to go to church anymore and 11 when I announced to my mother that I didn’t believe in God.  Whatever “faith” is, I do not have it.

At the same time, except for jihadists, creationists, rapturists, and other haters, unlike my more famous co-anti-religionists (Mr. Maher, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens), I am not particularly hostile to “belief” or those who do “believe.”  I understand and respect the better impulses than can be manifested in belief.  Inspiration, joy, compassion, a sense of the sacred, comfort in the face of harsh realities.   A commitment to experiencing and cultivating these positive feelings is part of what I mean by “spiritual.”

Belief in a Grand Watchmaker beyond space/time and the laws of physics is not a prerequisite for devotion to transcendent values.  Buddhism, often identified as one of the world’s great religions, provides an example of such a possible practice.  The Buddha did not preach idolization of a god, but dedication to the practice of wisdom and compassion.  The Buddha also urged his fellow-travelers to reject blind faith.  ( (fn 68) )  That does not mean that Buddhism as practiced around the world has not developed aspects of religion, such as faith in some supernatural power(s).  The impulse to religious belief is deep in human nature.  Those of us who do not share in it are the outliers.

But resort to magical thinking is not necessary to commit oneself to experience awe or to practice transcendent values.  Empirical inquiry is itself a firm foundation for a spiritual, and wholly secular, practice.  In this blog, I intend to explore how that is done in my own spiritual life as an atheist.

Other References:

Sam Harris, The End of Faith, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. (2004);

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, Houghton Mifflin (2006);

Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great, Twelve Books (2007)

Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, Basic Books (2001)

copyright 2010 S. Anne Johnson



  1. Thanks for this. I used to believe that Buddhism is not inherently religious, but it seems this may be an idea that was used to popularise Buddhism in the West. ie Alan Watts and friends downplayed the god-focus of Buddhism. I heard a professor from a (secular) religious studies department here in NZ talk about this, saying it was a point of view that didn’t take Buddhism as it actually is seriously.

    Jonathan from Spritzophrenia 🙂

    Comment by spritzophrenia — June 20, 2010 @ 4:33 pm | Reply

    • There are so many different sects and approaches to practice, all of them adapted to their cultural milieu, I’m not sure there is a thing as “Buddhism as it actually is.” I have read some Thich Nhat Hanh and Dalai Lama, and neither talks much about God. But there is no doubt that as practiced by many, Buddhism can take on religious aspects. There is even Pure Land Buddhism which posits invoking the name of the Amitabha Buddha to enter heaven. But I have never read where Gautama Buddha ever required one to believe him divine in order to benefit from his teachings.

      Comment by SAJohnson — June 20, 2010 @ 9:17 pm | Reply

  2. I’m speculating about where this “spirituality, not religion” trope came from. I never heard it when I was young in the ’40’s, ’50’s and ’60’s. It wasn’t the heavy-duty buzz word it is now.

    I first heard, “It’s not religious, it’s spiritual!” in Alcoholics Anonymous in 1975. In those pre-internet days AA-speak hadn’t made it into common parlance yet. Spirituality, together with Serenity and Sobriety, was a big word.

    Did the internet contribute to the spreading of this meme? I wonder to what extent AA got this cliche going in the world outside the rooms. “Spiritual, not religious” is *everywhere* nowadays. And don’t think atheists are the only unexpected (Huh? Spiritual atheists? What the hell is that?) bunch of people to claim to be “spiritual”.

    Yup, fundamentalist, evangelistic Christians, too! I turn on the TV to see what the televangelists in Pittsburgh ( ) are up to, and a number of times I’ve heard that Christianity is NOT religion. Nope, it’s not a religion, it’s spirituality! Evolution is a religion, the Religion of Evolution, and so is science, the Religion of Science. And of course there’s the Religion of Atheism. Yes, atheism is a religion, unlike Christianity, so I’m told.

    But Christianity, it’s spirituality. No religion there!

    Comment by Laurance — December 29, 2010 @ 3:51 pm | Reply

    • Christianity is undoubtedly a religion. And people practice their religions in more and less spiritual ways. One of the most learned, centered, generous, loving people I have ever known was a Benedictine monk. Monasteries are really one of the only refuges for people drawn to a quiet life of contemplation and compassion. But the dogmatic, institutionalized, and exploitative aspects of religion represent the worst in people and are perfectly anti-spiritual–a wolf in sheep’s clothing, as it were.

      Evolution, science, and atheism are, of course, not religions–but the people who espouse them can be rigid, dogmatic, and arrogant in their manner at times, so maybe that’s what people are decrying.

      Describing myself as spiritual does not make me an advocate or an apologist for all things wrongheaded about religion or spirituality.

      Comment by SAJohnson — December 29, 2010 @ 9:08 pm | Reply

      • Of course I know Christianity is a religion! Of course I know Evolution, science and atheism are not, but that there can be dogmatic people.

        What I’m trying to explain is what a number of people think, and the fact that when we say “spirituality”, different people will understand different things, and not necessarily know what we mean.

        Comment by Laurance — December 30, 2010 @ 10:40 am

      • I tried to reply yesterday but wordpress wouldn’t let me: I understood your meaning, Laurance. Sorry if that was not clear. I think that people who are open to learning about what other people actually think will take the time to understand what I and other atheists mean by “spirituality.” People who aren’t really interested in other viewpoints won’t and would not even if we used a different word than “spirituality.” I like the word “spirituality.” It feels right for me. I am not attempting to impose its use on anyone else, and I think I am able to make my use of it understood for those willing to hear.

        Comment by SAJohnson — December 31, 2010 @ 11:32 am

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