The Spiritual Life of An Atheist

December 19, 2010

Spiritual Life of an Atheist: The Awkward, Necessary Marriage of Spirituality and Politics

A challenge I confront in my spiritual practice is a common impulse to retreat from the harsher realities.  This includes politics.   I do end up talking about politics quite a lot, so some may get the impression I am enamored of the intrigue.   But in reality politics fatigues me.  Our American political process is so unsanitary, sausage makers protest comparisons to politics as an insult.  (See “If Only Laws Were Like Sausages,” 

I have met many people with a genuine passion for politics itself, and I am not one of them.  To me, politics–as our collective moral decision-making process–is a necessary means to desired ends.  And the ends I wish for derive so ineluctably from my spirituality that politics and my spirituality are indivisibly, and uncomfortably, wed.  I pay attention to and participate in the truly ugly business of politics because I care deeply about the outcomes.  Will our children have access to sustaining public educations?  Will our country maintain the public availability of its most beautiful natural resources?  Will our economy provide sufficient livelihoods for the substantial majority of our citizens?  Will our leaders prioritize peace whenever possible?  Will we make more environmentally sound collective choices?

Given the most minimal impact one individual can have on these group decisions, I can feel like abdicating any role whatsoever.  But somehow I always screw together the will to inform myself on the issues, review the ballot in detail, and vote.  At times I make campaign contributions and even write my representatives.  And I discuss with others their viewpoints and concerns.  I am actually interested in hearing what other people, particularly those who disagree with me, have to say.   

No doubt, politically I am a liberal.  My liberal values are a direct outgrowth of my spirituality.  That is not to say that conservatives cannot come in a compassionate stripe.  Once upon a time, I was a social service worker in the Phoenix MSA, where even the social workers are Republicans, I learned.  They had no less commitment to the well-being of their socially marginal clients than I had.

My most spiritually exalted feelings are pure things–like a gifted colotura soprano vocalizing an exquisite high E.*  Politics, with its toxic ego and contention and unpleasant compromise, is more often like a farcical trombone blare–the equivalent of an orchestral fart.**

Voltaire famously wrote, “Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien.”–The best/perfect is the enemy of the good. As discouraged as one can get and as tempting as it can be, those of us with a spiritual bent cannot absent ourselves from political engagement.  We cannot let  visions of the ideal defeat realization of the possible.   



**I don’t have any youtubeable examples of this but Shostakovich uses the trombone to wonderfully distasteful effect in his opera, Lady MacBeth of Mtensk.

copyright 2010 S. Anne Johnson


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