The Spiritual Life of An Atheist

January 16, 2012

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: Sustaining the Sacred

Atheist t-shirt: “Sacred cows make the best hamburgers.”

In our modern world, the concept of “sacred” has been secularized.  Merriam-Webster tells us that in addition to its expressly religious meanings, “sacred” also means: “devoted exclusively to one service or use (as of a person or purpose),” “entitled to reverence and respect,” “unassailable, inviolable,” and “highly valued and important.”

In the past, the concept of exalted significance and reverence was rooted in religious belief.  Value flowed from God’s order.  A tidy but untrue syllogism.  Without God, both order and value exist.  The sacred can as well.

Holding something sacred is a feeling, a state of mind.  We imbue the idea, person or relationship with special meaning and show it particular concern.  This idealization can be a powerful tool.  Treating something as sacred can sustain it through the quotidian pressures and vagaries of life.    Holding one’s marital vows and the relationship they ground as sacred, in a purely secular sense, can be a potent antidote to the inevitable desire for others.  Holding a value, like honesty or compassion, sacred can counteract the persuasion of momentary self-interest.

Ideals are not actually an outgrowth of a non-existent God.  They are visions we have for our selves in the world.  Embracing a sense of the sacred can aid in the striving toward that better self.

copyright 2012 by S. Anne Johnson

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5 Comments »

  1. I am rather anxious about the use of ‘sacred’ and ‘spiritual’ in atheist contexts…

    What we mean by “sacred, in a purely secular sense” is rather intriguing – but I fear that the use of spirituality-language often leads others to conclude that we imply some kind of belief which is related to having a spirit/essence, etc: I argue at http://dispirited.org that we need to wholly reject ‘spirituality’ as a way of talking about our non-religious beliefs – but a new terminology then remains our new challenge…

    Comment by DavidWebster — March 22, 2012 @ 4:16 am | Reply

    • I use the language that resonates with me emotionally. I find no difficulty in expressing my deeper experiences with language of the sacred. I am quite content to repurpose our existing language so a new terminology is not one of my challenges. An unrepentant spiritual atheist I will remain.

      Comment by SAJohnson — March 24, 2012 @ 12:26 pm | Reply

  2. That is interesting… I wonder how successful such a re-purposing can be when there is so much deployment of ‘spiritual’ and ‘sacred’ in contexts where it DOES imply the metaphysical reality of spirit? For example the Mind, Body, Spirit movements, the ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’ common usage, various mystics and monist pantheists, etc: given that use of Spirit, is not such re-purposing doomed to lead you to be persistently misunderstood?

    I agree we need a vocabulary to express our profound ethical experiences, our sense of awe and humility – but I feel (quite strongly! As http://dispirited.org/faqs/ shows) that we need a new way of expressing these, given that the previous occupants of ‘spiritual’ have yet, as it were, to vacate the linguistic premises…

    Comment by DavidWebster — March 25, 2012 @ 12:21 pm | Reply

    • I express what I mean by “spiritual” effectively using existing language. Since I have been writing my blog, I haven’t had a single instance of being misunderstood as someone with supernatural beliefs. So I have no concerns about being doomed to persistent misunderstanding. I am an individual, not part of a movement or group. If you want to use different language to express yourself, please go right ahead. I will continue to use the language that has meaning to me and successfully communicates my meaning.

      Comment by SAJohnson — March 25, 2012 @ 12:36 pm | Reply

      • I think it’s notable that you’ve avoided such confusion… And of course – if it works and is effective, it makes sense to persist. I do wonder about wider usages – but they are probably more related to the groups and movements you refer to…

        Comment by DavidWebster — March 25, 2012 @ 12:45 pm


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