The Spiritual Life of An Atheist

January 26, 2013

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: Transcendence Cross-Examined

The Buddha sits cross-legged, hands in lap, in peaceful equanimity in my backyard.  In other iconography, Jesus hangs pierced from his palms, in agony, on a cross.  Two radically divergent approaches to the same subject: human suffering.  The Buddha, unattached, has moved beyond pain and fear; both of which Jesus, crucified, is mired in.

As an atheist, the dogma built around either icon holds no appeal.  But the contrasting images are striking.  Not a single crucifix in my house, so as my backyard Buddha attests, I have favored, if never achieved, the beyond-it-all approach.  Recently I have begun to reconsider my choice.

Over 200,000 people were killed in a few moments in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.  They’ve just made a movie, “The Impossible,” about a tiny (Western) piece of that enormously painful cataclysm.

I have wondered: in response to abject suffering on such a wide scale, WWBD?

Before offering comfort to the survivors, would he first attempt to grasp the pain of their trauma?  Would he have any personal context for doing so?  The mythical Buddha was a prince who left behind his wealth, wife and child after being so shocked by the simple facts of individual aging and death.  After some years of self-inflicted suffering, the Buddha claimed to have found nirvana, which claim gained him a following, who surrounded him at his death at 80, a very ripe old age indeed for 400 BC.

The Buddha in equipoise makes a lovely garden statue.  I’m certainly not going to be hanging crucifixes around anytime soon, but I can see their appeal–Jesus, unlike the Buddha, feels your pain.

Real suffering may be something that cannot be sat through with a soft smile on your face.  Suffering should be engaged; and after it is endured, the psychological effects worked through.  Most likely quite imperfectly.


May 20, 2012

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: The Cup Is Already Broken

My dog Sarah is around 11.  That’s getting up there for a 45-lb dog.  She is an American foxhound I picked out at the pound 9 years ago.  An American foxhound looks like a cross between a beagle and a greyhound.  When she was young, she would run actual circles around me.  Hiking with her on leash for a couple of hours wasn’t sufficient exercise.  I used to let her off leash while I hiked and she would run up and down and around, adding miles to the already lengthy hike.  In my backyard, she would run laps so fast she was literally a blur.  She was up and ready to go at 5 am.  At the time, I was a bit overwhelmed, but I worked at appreciating her zest while it lasted because I knew I would miss it when she aged.  And here we are.  She prefers to sleep in mornings now, and she can no longer jog 3 miles with perfect ease.

I am glad that when she was young I was able to see the cup of her youth was already broken.  It helped me have the patience to enjoy her hyperactive ways, and the foresight to prepare me for her inevitable decline.

Buddhism has some really useful concepts and practices.  It deals directly with fundamental realities.  Everything is impermanent.  My youth.  My dog’s youth.  The present moment.  The present contains the potential futures, in all of which the cup will be broken.

Railing against the ineluctable is shouting into the wind.  But accepting what we know to be true is no easy task.  It takes dedication to insight over instinct.  It takes practice.

We do not naturally see reality as it is and we want things from reality it cannot give.  We have to retrain our minds and our reactions to better suit the actual situation.  Buddhism is immensely helpful in this regard.

Working on detaching from the longing for permanence, for what is not, is transformative.

copyright 2012 by S. Anne Johnson

May 13, 2012

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: Both Thumbs Up for “Religion for Atheists”

Alain de Botton’s “Religion for Atheists,” which has received harsh criticisms from the likes of David Brooks (the NYT review) and The Economist, is an insightful and moving treatment of wisdom without doctrine.  At the outset, de Botton dispenses with the most frequent subject of engagement for today’s vocal atheists–arguments with believers against the existence of God–and elaborates on the more fundamental question for atheists: So now what?

De Botton writes: “[T]he real issue is not whether God exists or not, but where to take the argument once one decides that he evidently doesn’t.”  (p. 11)  Although de Botton talks of “argument,” he sets his sights on a post-theistic discussion of proper nurturance of our quite material and mortal souls.  De Botton’s title for his first chapter “Wisdom Without Doctrine” frames his endeavor.

By pursuing wisdom, de Botton invokes an old-fashioned concept.  His is a contemporary exposition on the ancient (and somewhat out-of-mode) philosophical question of “the good life.”  Understood this way, de Botton is offering the opening voice in a Platonic-style dialog.  His work is an invitation to engage and, of course, disagree with but not dismiss the ideas he presents.  Taken up with the intended spirit, Religion for Atheists has much to offer.

De Botton is a lucid and incisive writer.  So, if nothing else, his writing craft is pleasing. His aphoristic essays provide many thoughtful nuggets to reflect on.  Challenging the commercialization of the public sphere, de Botton explains, “In truth, we are all fragile in our commitments and suffer from a weakness of will in relation to the siren calls of advertising, an ill-tempered three-year-old entranced by the sight of a farmyard play set with inflatable dog kennel as much as a forty-two-year-old captivated by the possibilities of a barbecue set with added tongs and hotplate.”  (p. 88)

The marketization of almost every aspect of secular society is a key concern.  De Botton is troubled that the secular world appears to be abandoning to the religious sphere all values except market ones.  He writes, “[W]e have allowed religion to claim as its exclusive dominion areas of experience which should rightly belong to all mankind – and which we should feel unembarrassed about reappropriating for the secular realm.”  (p. 15)   And later, “One of the losses modern society feels most keenly is that of a sense of community.  We tend to imagine that there once existed a degree of neighborliness which has been replaced by ruthless anonymity, a state where people pursue contact with one another primarily for restricted, individualistic ends: for financial gain, social advancement or romantic love.” (p. 23)

To counter the perceived secular trend toward ruthless pursuit of individualistic ends, de Botton reappropriates “agape”–an ancient Greek concept itself appropriated by early Christians to refer to the self-sacrificing love of God for humanity.  Refigured by de Botton, agape would mean an un-self-involved love of humanity by humanity.  An analog would be the Buddhist emphasis on all-embracing compassion.  To de Botton, we urgently need institutions designed to help cultivate this wide-armed love and compassion.  Why? Because we are fallen in our natures, fundamentally sinful in a purely secular sense.  Without corrective institutions, we tend to the selfish and venal and petty.

At the same time, even in the wealthy West, we suffer in our vulnerability and need mercy.  In his chapter “Tenderness,” de Botton details an imagined scene in a centuries-old chapel on a town backstreet, where a middle-aged man “shakes down his umbrella and steps inside . . . The man is exhausted.  His joints ache.  He feels weak, vulnerable and close to tears.  No single event has brought him to this point, just a run of minor humiliations that have cumulatively contributed to an overwhelming sense of mediocrity, superfluousness and self-hatred.”  With striking emotional insight, de Botton then outlines the subtle failures that have led this mid-life everyman to despair.  As a result, “He wants to fall asleep and be held.  He wants to cry.  He wants to be forgiven and reassured.  There is music playing . . . the aria ‘Ebarme dich, mein Gott’ from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. He searches for ideas he can cling to, but nothing seems solid.  He is unable to think logically and even making the effort to do so has become more than he can bear.”  In this state beyond reason, the tender image of the Virgin offers him solace.  (p. 166-167)

In this single, lyrical passage, de Botton captures a common, lived experience well-addressed by religion, which atheism/secular humanism, if they are to flourish, must find ways to fulfill, rather than rebuff.  De Botton lectures, “By contrast with religion, atheism is prone to seem coldly impatient with our neediness.  The longing for comfort which lies at the heart of the Marian cult seems perilously regressive and at odds with the rational engagement with existence on which atheists pride themselves.  Mary and her cohorts have been framed as symptoms of urges which adults ought quickly to outgrow.” (p. 173)

For the truth of de Botton’s characterization, one need only remember the American Atheist’s “You KNOW It’s A Myth” Christmas-time billboard campaign.  De Botton’s Religion for Atheists, while not perfect in all its particulars, is a powerful and much-needed antidote to the prevailing curmudgeonly atheist approach.

De Botton recognizes that our spiritual needs do not lapse along with superstitious belief, and atheism and secular humanism will never replace religion until the secular sphere is actually able to replace religion.  De Botton’s Religion for Atheists is a heartfelt and welcome engagement with this dilemma.

copyright 2012 by S. Anne Johnson

April 21, 2012

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: Am I An Existentialist?

A friend asked me this question over dinner (with a lovely bottle of wine) at my favorite San Francisco restaurant when she was shocked to find out I am an atheist.  I had no ready answer.

Existentialism, like atheism, has an ugly reputation.  Something is really not quite satisfying about smiling through an eternity of uphill boulder-pushing, or hell being other people.  Is my experience like an absurdist Oscar the Grouch, occupying my dustbin knowing the game was always already played out?

I don’t believe in God or that people have any ultimate purpose, and I do not live in a state of existential despair.  It is only in having ever supposed that meaning comes from some external source that the erasure of that source entails the loss of meaning.  I never really believed in God.  I never expected my subjectivity to surpass death.  I never imagined people must have a divine purpose to have any purpose at all.  So I don’t feel cheated that these things are not true.  And as difficult as some of my life circumstances have been, they certainly have not been so unremittingly painful (and neither were Camus’) to feel that my mortal, hopefully 70+ years of sentience are a toiling condemnation.  In this regard, I am not an existentialist.

I do believe that individuals make their own meaning.  I think this is true even in religion.  Individuals choose to adopt or not the traditions and mores in which they are raised.  If the Catholic God does not suit them, they move to a Protestant one.  If the Lutheran God is not a good fit after a while, they may elect Quakerism.  Having tried a range of what Christianity has to offer, with a catastrophic life event thrown in for good measure, they may migrate to Buddhism.  Individuals have always made their own meanings–by embracing or rejecting or refining the available belief systems.  There are 7 billion subjects, each with her/his own tale, nattering about the Earth at this moment.  No single purpose from on high unifies us all.  In this regard, I am an existentialist.

What about morals?  Are there also 7 billion arbiters of what is moral?  Indeed.  Religion or no, each of us has always been the moral decider for our own life–by either embracing, rejecting or refining the prevailing communal moral code.  To myself, I reserve the ultimate moral judgment over my own life.  I acquiesce to the legal and social norms I agree with–or can at least tolerate.  I would break those I found unpalatable and accept the consequences without acknowledging society’s moral condemnation.  I claim both ultimate moral freedom and responsibility.  In this regard, I am an existentialist.

Minus the despair-inducing circumstances of the 20th century’s first half, existentialism isn’t so bad.  To the contrary, it is empowering.

copyright 2012 by S. Anne Johnson

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

December 4, 2011

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: Talking Transcendence

Being a body can be a pain.  We catch diseases, have accidents, deteriorate with age, and ultimately stop all function altogether.  Being a mind can be a drama.  We are often guided by motives hidden to us, have opposing interests and wishes, and experience unpleasant feelings we can’t always control, even with focused attention.  No wonder the idea of transcendence is so attractive.  It suggests there are ways to overcome the commonly painful drama of being human.

I’m all for learning more integrity, patience, compassion, and perspective, aspiring to our better qualities, even living longer, healthier lives with the help of modern science.

I’m not so drawn to dreams of taming our tumultuous nature or dispensing with our corporeal selves.  And I don’t care at all for illusory immortality.

Ray Kurzweil wrote “The Singularity Is Near” (which I have not read and most likely will not).  The movie “Transcendent Man” was made about him.  (Available streaming on Netflix.)  Ray Kurzweil is by many measures a genius.  As a teenager in the 60s, he built and programmed a computer to compose music.  He has pioneered computer optical recognition and text-to-speech and other electronic technologies.  Ray Kurzweil is obsessed with overcoming what he feels are human biological limitations.  He wants humans to merge with machines and to become immortal.  He believes that attempting to transcend the painful drama of human existence through acceptance of the limitations of biology is the wrong direction to take.  Instead, we should attempt to overcome through challenging, perhaps even obliterating, the fragility of our flesh.  Kurzweil in fact believes that this convergence of man and machine, this “singularity,” is ineluctable.

What will we gain from this “singularity?”  Nanobots coursing through our cells, our brains supplemented by implanted bluetooth wikipedia, revived graveyard DNA clones with reconstructed consciousness.

Kurzweil describes his father’s death as “unbearable.”  Kurzweil’s personal fantasy is to regenerate his father’s genetic twin and download his actual father’s partially reconstructed consciousness into the clone.  Kurzweil perceives this as bringing his father back to life.  It seems he may have skipped class the week Frankenstein was taught in high school English.

Let’s get real.  Immortality, i.e., unending existence, is not possible.  Even if man were to merge with machine, what’s the longest your iPod battery has lasted? How many of us have owned a computer that didn’t experience a fatal hard drive error after a few years?  Terminator movies aside, machines aren’t indestructible.  Like us, they are subject to entropy.

Where will all the energy and other resources to produce, implant, maintain, update, and unendingly reproduce the enabling electronics come from?  How will we dispose of the waste created by millions, if not billions, of immortal man/machine beings?  What planet will all this immortality be taking place on, since our own planet will be experiencing lethal increase in the Sun’s luminosity within 1 billion years and its consuming the Earth as a red giant within 5 billion years?

Maybe Kurzweil thinks that within the next 1 billion years, we will have transformed ourselves into some kind of photon beings that stream their timeless energy around the Universe–the observable portion of which is presently 93 billion light-years across.

Does anyone really want to be immortal?  We are creatures with lifespans to around 100 years at best so far.  Can we truly conceptualize an ongoing logarithmic increase in our lifespans and everything that would entail?

Maybe Kurzweil didn’t mean literal immortality.  Maybe he just meant a really, really long time, like 1,000 years or 1,000,000 years.  How many of us want to live for 1,000,000 years?  Can we actually conceive of what it would mean to live to 1,000,000 years?  How many of the world’s now 7 billion people would have access to these really, really long lifetimes?

If immortality is not realistic, if we have to face the end of our individual existence at some point, why not now?  Why not focus on the quality of the years we have, rather than on avoiding death at all costs–even perhaps at the cost of our humanity itself?

copyright 2011 by S. Anne Johnson

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

June 5, 2011

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: Spiritual But Not Religious

I love glimpses of the enormity of nature.  Instead of unsettling me, as they reasonably could, they fill me with an unparalleled sense of peace.  The myriad pinpoints of other planets and stars in the night sky, the ancient depths of the Grand Canyon or heights of Yosemite Valley’s granite walls, the rhythmic crashing of the Pacific against the shore, the kaleidoscopic diversity of life, all soothe me.

Not that I don’t feel fear in the cold face of nature’s indifference.  I love nature, but I respect the limits of my skills in it, as I am well aware that it does not love me back.  I don’t need it to.  For me, it matters that I appreciate the universe.  I do not require it to appreciate me.

There is no word to express the feeling nature’s encompassing power inspires in me other than “spiritual.”  Nature is not, however, my God.  God is too small a word for the universe.  God bespeaks tradition, dogma, righteousness, intent.  Outside of humanity (and perhaps whatever other intelligent beings may exist in the great expanse), the universe embodies none of this.  It is all matter and force.  The waves pounding, the glaciers incrementally eroding, the distant suns radiating, genes randomly mutating.

I try hard to see as much of the universe as I can for what it actually is and us for what we are in it, to grasp as fully as possible the experience of being a part of yet different from the unfeeling matter and forces that created us, surround us, and sustain us.  That our feeling nature (and that of other animals) emerged from the mindless churning of particles and processes moves me.  For me, contemplating this fact results not in meaninglessness but a penetrating feeling of deep humility and compassion.  I have found that non-theistic materialism can provide sustaining spiritual power.

copyright 2011 by S. Anne Johnson

May 8, 2011

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: Justice Agnostic

By all accounts May 1, 2011 was a banner day for the United States.  A team of Navy Seals stealthily invaded Osama bin Laden’s personal compound in northeastern Pakistan and fatally shot him.  Following President Obama’s lead, near universal acclamation prevailed that bin Laden was brought to justice.  Rowdy crowds cheered in the streets because justice had been done.  The next night Stephen Colbert threw a “long-awaited We Got Bin Laden party,” exhorting his adoring audience into chants of “USA USA USA” and playing snippets of the triumphal at Dorothy’s killing of the Wicked Witch of the West. 

In the next segment, Colbert’s guest, the President of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass, soberly explained that “the only bad news with” bin Laden’s killing “is that it really won’t change things all that much” because since 9/11 terrorism has been franchised.  Other commentators have noted that the Yemeni Al-Qaeda is in ascent, while bin Laden’s branch has been on the wane.

The United States caused bin Laden to suffer the ultimate penalty for his lethal crimes against its citizens.  This tit for tat is what the more boisterous members of the nation were celebrating.  Tit for tat is not just a schoolyard tactic.  It is an ancient impulse and potentially powerful strategy against a committed adversary.  Failing to respond in kind can embolden an adversary to further attack because they believe they can act with impunity.  Countering this effect is the logic underlying mutually assured destruction as a deterrent to nuclear war.  When commentators heralded the killing’s puncturing of bin Laden’s mythology, they were alluding to his seeming invulnerability to retaliation.  Until May Day 2011, bin Laden appeared to be able to attack the United States without consequence.

Was finally evening up the score against bin Laden justice?  By the ancient measure of retribution, yes.  On this scale, the United States gave bin Laden his due. 

But justice weighed only on retribution’s scale is a thin account.  Retribution between well-matched adversaries can spawn an escalating cycle of tit for tat.  Responding in kind can spur an adversary to additional attack out of vengeance or to prove they cannot be outmatched.  This is why the Obama administration warned of the increased terrorist threat following bin Laden’s killing.  Retributive cycles are wars of attrition, with the possibility of no side feeling vindicated in the end due to the losses inflicted.  Was the notorious Hatfield-McCoy feud justice?  Is the interminable Israeli-Palestinian conflict justice?

To take the bold step of killing bin Laden in his compound, President Obama must feel confident that the United States and Al-Qaeda are not well-matched adversaries and that the United States can contain whatever retaliatory responses bin Laden’s killing inspires. 

President Obama’s presentation of the killing was equally strategic. In his announcement, President Obama invoked both justice and God, suggesting that not only might but also God was on the United States’ side.  No doubt bin Laden and his followers believed their bloody hands gripped God’s just sword.  Such invocations of divine justice are appeals to tribalism writ large.  The Obama administration’s decision to kill bin Laden was about geo-political strategy rather than divine right, and its public packaging similarly calculated.

Piling on the justice theme, a favorite media play was to interview a survivor of 9/11 about how the killing made them feel.  Most described a sense of closure, but some did not.  The off-script moments made the interviewers pause.  Justice brings a satisfied feeling, so the denial of closure undermined the storyline.  No follow-up inquiry was made. Perhaps the unobliging survivors longed for a richer justice than simple retribution, such as the restoration of peace, or felt the loss they had suffered could not be put right.  Is justice always, or even often, possible?

None of this is to say that the killing of bin Laden was not justified.  But that the United States was justified in killing bin Laden does not mean that his death itself constitutes justice.  Justice is a big word, much bigger than the death of one man.

copyright 2011 by S. Anne Johnson

April 24, 2011

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: Celebrating the Life Cycle

We’re a month into Spring and children are searching out dyed eggs in backyards today.  That’s fun, whatever your stance on Jesus’s resurrection or Eostre, the Saxon’s Great Mother Goddess.  Who doesn’t love longer, warmer days, budding roses, scents of jasmine, or a toddler with a too-large-basket on a treasure hunt?

Life is a cycle of birth, maturing, demise, and renewal.  Easter, with its life-cycle theme, brings to my mind William Cullen Bryant’s “Thanatopsis”–which, in an earlier age of decent public education, I was taught in 10th grade and have never forgotten.  Bryant wrote “Thanatopsis” sometime around 1811 when in his late teens. 

Some of the lines that move me the most are:  

. . .Earth that nourish’d thee, shall claim
Thy growth, to be resolved to earth again,
And, lost each human trace, surrendering up
Thine individual being, shalt thou go
To mix for ever with the elements,
To be a brother to the insensible rock,
And to the sluggish clod, which the rude swain
Turns with his share, and treads upon. The oak
Shall send his roots abroad, and pierce thy mould . . .

So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan which moves
To that mysterious realm where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged by his dungeon; but, sustain’d and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.

The complete poem is at

copyright 2011 by S. Anne Johnson

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