The Spiritual Life of An Atheist

July 21, 2011

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: What Is Spirituality?

Accurately or not, we experience ourselves dualistically.  Our mind feels separate from, though interconnected with, our body.  Purposeful attention to this separate-seeming mind/spirit is what I mean by spirituality.  Belief that one’s mind is actually severable from the body is not needed to appreciate the importance of cultivating one’s spirit.

Religiosity and spirituality are not the same thing.  Religious people focused on rigid dogma and narrow self-righteousness, rather than caring self-cultivation, are not very spiritual.  Many spiritual people do not subscribe to any institutionalized beliefs.  Spirituality need not be scuttled along with theism or other supernatural beliefs.

Being a strict materialist does not mean that I approach my life mechanistically, treating my self as a mere organic machine with purely corporeal needs to be met.  Our minds are an outgrowth of our bodies that merit their own care.

We bring intent to this physical world.  We manifest this intent in our behaviors, which have tremendous impacts on our selves, the people around us, other animals, and our natural habitat.  How we shape this intent undergirds the trajectory of our lives and societies and, quite possibly, our planet.   Although many people shape their spirits with tools from religious, mystical or New Age traditions, adherence to such traditions is not necessary for spiritual practice.  All that is required is disciplined attention to one’s mental/emotional self and its relationship to greater existence.

copyright 2011 by S. Anne Johnson



  1. Wonderful post! I’ve been thinking about the universality of spirituality, even for atheists or non religious people. I’m not an atheist, but have been considering this topic and I appreciate your views.

    Comment by David Sanders — July 21, 2011 @ 1:33 pm | Reply

  2. Your post caught my attention. I wonder if being spiritual (based on your definition) does not contradict with being atheist. My understanding of atheism is not believing in a deity, there is nothing to give credit to or explain life with than ourselves. But, If we are not mere organic machines (like you suggest), is there something else that drives us and motivates us? If there is, isn’t this the same as recognizing that there is something greater than us, which we can call a deity, higher purpose, or God? I am just trying to understand your view. Thanks.

    Comment by Noel — November 27, 2011 @ 12:11 pm | Reply

    • Thank you for your inquiry, Noel. I think my point of departure is at the adjective “mere”. We are wonderfully complex organic machines capable of intricately structured societies, knowledge of the workings of the universe, and deeply rich interior lives and fulfilling interpersonal (and even interspecies) relationships. There is nothing “mere” about our potentials as organic machines. That said, there is a lot greater than humans. The planet, including the biosystem it supports, is greater than us, and it and other life forms on it will most likely survive us. The galaxy Earth is situated in is greater than us, as are all the other galaxies out there in the universe’s great expanse. Human beings are wonderfully complex organic machines, unique in many respects on Earth, but we are not the end-all-be-all of existence, and probably not the only intelligent beings in the universe (although we are not likely to have contact with others due to the vast distances of space). Humans, individually and collectively, can choose to have better and worse purposes. We can choose to try to mitigate our impacts on the ecosystem in which we live and to try to more peacefully coexist with each other and the other living beings on our planet, or we can consume resources and exploit each other without much concern for the consequences, including the suffering it inflicts on others. Choosing to walk the higher road does not require any belief in a deity or unifying spirit.

      Comment by SAJohnson — November 27, 2011 @ 1:38 pm | Reply

      • SaJohnson, so if humans are “wonderfully complex organic machines”, aren’t computers then the same as us, except that they have not been developed or evolved to our level yet? There are scientists that are trying to create artificial life, which technically means they could ultimately simulate and possibly replace humans. And if this is the case, we are their creators. And if this is also the case, maybe there are other beings higher than us that could have created us also. I just find this possibility intriguing.

        Comment by Noel — November 28, 2011 @ 4:37 pm

      • Noel, As types of machines, computers are similar to humans in certain ways. They are also very different from us, in that they are (for now at least) intentionally, mechanically constructed while humans are organisms emerged from a multi-billion year evolutionary process. There may be more advanced beings that created the RNA from which life on Earth evolved, but no other intelligent being directly created humans, as we have computers. Certainly it is conceivable that humans will create intelligent artificial beings that equal or surpass us in ability and maybe even self-reproduce, although not sexually. I am not prepared to concede, however, that there is not some articulable qualitative difference between organic and inorganic being. Do androids dream of electric sheep? Maybe we will find out. In the meantime, I’m going to continue to enjoy being human.

        Comment by SAJohnson — November 28, 2011 @ 5:55 pm

      • Your beautiful response to Noel prompts me to comment. I want to consume less, to create more, to work diligently toward a worthy purpose. Although cherishing the earth is one of the four pillars of my personal philosophy, in practice my relationship to our planet doesn’t mirror my aspirations. I consume as many resources as the average westerner. Actually walking the higher road day after sustainable day may not require any belief in a deity or unifying spirit, but it does require something. That something as yet eludes me. Your heart-felt framing of our relationship to our planet, to our galaxy, and to our universe resonates deeply and inspires me to continue pursuing change in my life. Thank you.

        Comment by Brandon CS Sanders — January 10, 2012 @ 12:07 pm

      • Thank you for your moving comment, Brandon. I’m certainly no saint when it comes to consumption or sustainability. I refrain from eating mammals, take public transit to work, drive a car with reasonable mileage, recycle and compost, try to remember to turn off lights when I’m not in a room, and take small measures to conserve water–and that’s about it. I agree that living one’s life in a manner radically different than the lifestyle promoted by the surrounding society does require something akin to the inspiration achievable through religious devotion. It eludes me as well. Strive on.

        Comment by SAJohnson — January 15, 2012 @ 9:33 pm

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