The Spiritual Life of An Atheist

June 20, 2010

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: Managing the Downside of the Two-Sided Human Coin

As crazy as it sounds given the 24/7 bad news cycle, my heart harbors visions of human perfectability.  I catch sight of it in common moments of courtesy in the crush of a morning train, in the sublime recapitulation of a symphony, or in the tireless curiosity of a child.  My head talks me down from these flights with a bracing dose of what I know to be Janus-faced human nature.  An overgrown, yet neotinized ape, we are a predator with an evolved capacity for empathy.  At once loving and suspicious, cooperative and selfish, sentimental and coldly calculating, noble and vain.  Our minds can grasp so much but maintain a superstitious bent and are predisposed to misperceive risk and reward—sometimes catastrophically. 

Science provides evermore support for the proposition that human nature is a two-sided coin.  Just last week, Science Magazine published the results of a study that correlated intergroup aggression with oxytocin, the “love” hormone linked to orgasm, maternal bonding, romantic attachment, and intragroup trust (not to be confused with OxyContin, the designer opioid).  (See Carsten K.W. De Dreu, et al., “The Neuropeptide Oxytocin Regulates Parochial Altruism in Intergroup Conflict Among Humans, Science 328, 1408 (2010), available at  Of course, we protect what we love from perceived threat—violently if necessary.  When threat is misperceived, love itself can be perverted into an agent of destruction.

Some speak of humans as a virus, a blight on our beautiful island in the vast ocean of Space.  And since we made our “Great Leap Forward” cognitively and culturally around 50,000 years ago, we have left an ever-growing wake of waste and environmental destruction.  As the apex predator, we are our own worst enemy, with our domestic, ethnic, religious, and inter-nation violence.  I see all this—our terrible downside—and I still love us, a bit like a parent loves their imaginative, unruly child.

We did not fall from a state of grace.  We emerged from a state of nature just 50,000 or so years ago, imperfect but with a lot of promise.  Human perfectability is a mirage, but human improvement is not.  It requires that we acknowledge and actively manage our downside, that we consciously cultivate the better angels of our nature.

copyright 2010 S. Anne Johnson

Other References

Jared Diamond, The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal, Harper Perennial (2006). (

Helen Fisher, Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love, Henry Holt (2004). (



  1. Hi Saane (I hope I got your name right?)

    I am dubious about human perfectability, although it’s a lovely ideal.

    I came across your site via your comment on AtheistClimber. Great to see someone actually devoting a site to “Atheist spirituality”. It’s something I’ve written a bit about I call myself an open agnostic rather than an atheist, but hopefully you can forgive that 🙂

    Jonathan from Spritzophrenia

    Comment by spritzophrenia — June 20, 2010 @ 4:42 pm | Reply

    • I am not a true-non-believer. No need to forgive agnosticism. While I feel pretty confident that a conscious being/force beyond space/time and the laws of physics that takes some interest in human affairs does not exist, I don’t claim omniscience, so I could be wrong. Tolerance of diversity of belief and opinion that does no harm is one of the values I treasure, so agnosticize away. I’ll check out the Comte-Sponville book.

      Comment by SAJohnson — June 20, 2010 @ 9:35 pm | Reply

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