The Spiritual Life of An Atheist

July 25, 2010

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: Eat and Pray for Self-Love—The Problem of Contemporary Spirituality

Religious belief and spiritual practice have never been synonymous.  Some of the most ardent religious doctrinalists are some of the most unspiritual people you could meet.  Indeed, dogmatic belief breeds a certainty that is antithetical to spiritual inquiry and practice.  Self-righteousness stifles a sense of awe. 

At the other end, spirituality untethered from tradition or discipline presents its own challenges.   Contemporary Western spirituality is a bit like a buffet.  From a wide variety of offerings, you can select whatever piques your interest or pleasure at the time.  It is spirituality as comfort food, an aperitif to take the edge off, a pick-me-up for a wounded ego.  This is the least demanding approach to spirituality and is exemplified by episodic visits to ashrams, megachurches, etc.

The approach one takes to spirituality in this (post?)-post-modern world depends on the fundamental questions one is asking.  Why do I feel so bad and how can I feel better? Or, What is the human place in this enormous, complex, contingent world and how do we make sense of our struggles in it?

Of course, as an unabashed atheist, there is no structured spirituality for me to plug into.  So, I too could soothe myself with whatever decontextualized wisdom of the ages works for me at the moment.  And then I could feel better and move on.  But my spirituality has never been of this bent.  I have always wanted to know what it means to be, not just feel, good.

The works that accompanied my unbelieving adolescence were by Camus and Sartre.  The sunniest view of the human predicament they provided was of a smiling Sisyphus—a man condemned to the ceaseless, futile labor of pushing a boulder up a hill over and over and learning to enjoy the strain.  The darker side was that freeing oneself from the illusory constraints of religious absolutism and directly confronting our contingent existence in an indifferent world could lead to literally senseless crimes and/or existential nausea.  Not a very promising base upon which to build a spiritual practice, from which to explore the beauty and power of human aspiration in the face of unfeeling Nature’s majesty and harshness.

While Humanism attempts to launch itself as a sort of secular tradition, any roots of ritual and practice it may have are not deep.  There are no established traditions in which to experience ourselves spiritually from a fundamentally secular worldview.  “The New Atheists” do not provide any consolation on this point.  Christopher Hitchens may be many things, but a spiritual guide he is decidedly not.  No one is going to leave a sustaining church community anytime soon to follow his wry system of non-belief.  And the Hitch himself has had to concede that, even though religion purportedly poisons everything, the world would be a much poorer place without the literature inspired by authentic religious belief, such as the poetry of John Donne.  (See at 1:01:42.)

Without the anchor of a specific religious tradition, seekers can be prone to a self-indulgent sampling of whatever pleases them.  And there is no easy answer to the question of how a secular worldview can provide the spiritual sustenance found in religious traditions.  I have no secular guiding book or chants or hymns to refer to or to offer.  And to a great extent, our contemporary secular art and literature have been unhinged from any sense of common meaning, or larger metaphor, by the hyper-individualization of deconstruction.

For myself, many of the modes of expression of deep feeling in which I find spiritual sustenance have undeniably, often expressly, religious roots.  This is necessarily so because through the millennia humanity has most often expressed its deeper sorrows and longings in religious terms.  Dispensing with tradition is not necessary, or possible, or even ultimately useful.  One can relate to the feelings expressed, while understanding the specific religious images or background beliefs as metaphor.  

But individual spiritual practice in a predominantly secular age is not a license to inspired self-absorption.  Spiritual practice should not be about just how to feel better but an inquiry into how to be better in the world.

copyright 2010 S. Anne Johnson


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