A recent reader made this query of the internet and found my blog. I’m not sure I’ve directly answered this question yet so I am now.
Spirituality is unquestionably related in people’s minds to belief in the supernatural, the ethereal, the beyond-material. I cannot speak for all atheists but I believe it is a fair bet that most of us are strict materialists, i.e., we don’t believe in any of the above. To conclude that atheists also therefore don’t believe in or practice spirituality is not a far stretch. And that may be true for some, if not many, atheists.
But a materialist worldview does not dictate a strictly rationalist approach to life. Feelings are no less important for being generated by neurochemical reactions in our brains. Inspiration is no less uplifting when understood as a physiological process. Our consciousness is no less useful or powerful if it derives from a neuronal structure evolved over eons. The Universe is no less astounding if it was generated by unthinking physical forces, rather than some undefinable consciousness-type force thing.
Existence understood in purely material terms is no less awesome or beautiful or meaningful. And human beings still have all the same problems to struggle with–how to cope with loss, aging, and death and how to treat each other and the other living beings we share our planet with.
Just like there is no one way that believers worship, there is no one way that atheists confront the challenges inherent in the human condition. Some atheists continue to go to church or synagogue, some practice a secular Buddhism, some Humanism, and some manage without any spiritual or philosophical practice, I imagine.
My own spiritual practice centers around a love of nature and knowledge and a commitment to a pragmatic compassion. Given my cultural background, my spirituality undoubtedly has Christian-infused leanings. For a while, I found a place in a Unitarian church that eschewed “God-talk,” focusing more on Emerson, Thoreau, and Twain, and introduced me to a mantra-based meditation technique. I read some about Buddhism and then found my way to a structured vipassana meditation practice through a local Buddhist nun of the Chan school. I have also sampled Zen meditation practices, courtesy of one of the many Zen centers in the San Francisco Bay Area.
At the Buddha’s own suggestion, I have put aside Buddhist metaphysical beliefs (karma, reincarnation, nirvana, etc.) and focused on its spiritually sustaining practices. In his poison arrow parable (also called “A Brief Talk to Malukya”) the Buddha himself suggested: “Whether the world is or is not eternal or the life force is or is not the same as the body, still there is birth, aging, death, sadness, regret, unease, depression, and anxiety. It is the destruction of all of this, in this very world, that I make known.” (Culamalukya Sutta; Majjhimanikaya 63, which can be found in Glenn Wallis’s Basic Teachings of the Buddha available at Basic Teachings of the Buddha (Modern Library Classics).) Stephen Batchelor, a self-proclaimed Buddhist atheist, has written a couple of books on reconciling these two Weltanshauungs: Buddhism Without Beliefs available at Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening and Confession of a Buddhist Atheist available at Confession of a Buddhist Atheist.
I do not believe that humans are supernaturally elect beings, that some god with special plans for us endowed us with unparalleled consciousness. That does not mean that I devalue the human spirit. On our planet to date, humans are a unique expression of life. To modify Carl Sagan a bit, we are a means by which the Universe can know itself.
And by virtue of our very material, and no less spectacular for being so, consciousness, we all have choices to make about the kinds of beings we are. Spirituality, for me, is about cultivating my better impulses, nourishing my better nature. My atheist spirituality is founded in a deep appreciation for the privileged stance I have been granted for the briefest moment in our little corner of the Universe by the mechanical forces that be.
copyright 2010 S. Anne Johnson