The Spiritual Life of An Atheist

May 6, 2012

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: Animal Consciousness

I read lots of books about consciousness.  We humans take a great deal of pride in the fact of our unique consciousness.  We privilege our particular consciousness above that of all the other sentient creatures we share Earth with.  This is true of scientists and religious adherents alike.  From a scientific perspective, we are not just aware but are aware of our awareness and have used that exponent to craft a picture of the origin and scale of the Universe.  We are a way that the Universe has come to know itself.  Beautiful fact.

But while I am a great appreciator of human consciousness and its cumulative, collective powers, I’m less sure it deserves the exalted throne we give it.  My reluctance may stem from having taken the childhood game of “if you could be an animal, what animal would you be” to heart.  To this day, I love richly imagining the interior experience of other animals.  Favorites include an African elephant in a herd, with a thickened hide, ears that can pick up low-register vocalizations from miles away, huge, clumsy, dangerous feet, and a trunk that can caress, grasp, smell, breathe, and squirt water down my back and the back of my calf.  Yes, African elephants don’t have complex language, can’t do calculus, know nothing of the Big Bang, and probably can’t even recognize themselves in mirrors.  But to be honest, I might trade all of that for the lived experience of being an African elephant.

Elephants not your cup of tea.  How about dolphins?  If you need more specificity–I’ll pick spinner dolphins.   Living in pods, flying in the ocean, seeing sonically, continually chirping at each other, breaching the ocean surface to twirl, torpedoing after fish.  Kind of think a spinner dolphin’s phenomenal experience might beat having grammar, calculus, and a Big Bang theory.

And how many of us have come back from a hard day’s work to our lounging, contented, well-cared for dog companions and sincerely thought, “Well, that’s the life!”?

The fact is that there is an ancient, shared animal consciousness.  This is why we can experiment on rats so successfully.  This ancient consciousness may not be exponential but it is valuable to the animals who possess it, providing them with vivid sensory experiences and feelings about those experiences.  Yes, except for us, they didn’t develop sophisticated cultures or tool use or testable theories of existence.  But who wouldn’t, at least as a child, have considered living a day in their gargantuan feet, elegant fins, or pedicured paws a privilege?


November 27, 2011

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: Measured Optimism

The winters in the San Francisco Bay Area are about as mild as one can reasonably expect–outside of Southern California or a Pacific island.  But even in the temperate Bay Area, winter is not generally a time of expansive optimism.  We have the unpredictable rainstorms, truncated daylight (it’s pitch black by 5 pm), and even-mild-weather-impaired drivers to deal with.  If you do like snow sports, you have a long drive and often a traffic-jam-for-miles to look forward to.  In some ways, winter in the Bay Area better suits my mood.  I’m rarely one for rose-colored glasses.

My worldview is not supported by a sense of divine significance, nevermind purpose.  When I’m on my xc skis at the top of a curving hill with trees tight on both sides, evaluating whether its within my skill set, I have no prayers or mantras to invoke.  What I focus on is my practical strategy for stopping safely if I end up on the verge of out-of-control, and then I make a measured decision about whether to test my limits or to take off my skis and walk it.

This is my basic approach to all challenges in life.

I do not like fear to constrain me, but I also don’t like to take chances I think are more than I can reasonably handle or the consequences of which I’m not willing to suffer.  In judging the risks and consequences life presents, I do not feel the comfort of a special mission or guiding hand.  I am confronted with the reality of a fragile individual human body among the forces and vagaries of the natural and man-made worlds.  The good news is I still have fun.

From the viewpoint of magical optimism–the perspective that recites, “It’s ok.  It’ll all work out,” no matter the circumstance–my mindset looks quite a lot like pessimism.  But it’s not.  I don’t believe everything’s more likely than not to go wrong.  If that were the case, I wouldn’t be on skis at the top of a tree-lined, arcing hill in the first place.  But a lot of predicaments exist from which it does seem to me quite unlikely the desired end will result.

I do my best to sort the wheat from the chaff with a sense of measured optimism.

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

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

March 27, 2011

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: Generosity and Cooperation Make Good Sense

We are beings imbued through evolution with a moral sense–a capacity to ponder and attempt to answer and even enforce our answers to complex questions of morality.  Evolution itself is an unthinking, amoral process that does not tell us what is a morally correct or incorrect course of action.  It explains how it is that humans, as social animals, have a moral sense and perhaps the rough parameters of that  sense.  Right and wrong are not Platonic forms suspended in a celestial sphere. They are value decisions we have to work out using our culturally refined moral sensibilities.  

The question of what is “moral” in any given circumstance is complex and reasonable minds can differ.  But some values are demonstrably more harmful (to ourselves, other individuals, society at large) than others.  Game theory tells us that we can create “win-win” situations through cooperation. Cooperative behavior begets trust, fostering a positive feedback loop of increasing trust and cooperation.

Cheating is sub-optimal because it prevents a “win-win” situation. You can trust others when you know they know they can trust you and you both know that the only way to the best outcome for both of you is to hang together. When you cheat against someone who can be trusted, you rob yourself of the best outcome you could have achieved for yourself.

But game theory also tells us that where we cannot trust our fellow participants, we are personally better off to cheat first. So, behaving in a cooperative manner is only “rational” under conditions of trust.  In the short-term, cheating can be in one’s “rational self interest”–if one believes that one is not likely to get caught or if caught, the benefit of cheating outweighs the cost of its penalty. But chronic cheating is not a very good long-term strategy because the more one cheats, the more likely one is to get caught and the consequences of getting caught repeatedly can be exile from the group. This of course assumes some order.

Conditions of distrust erode cooperation, creating a negative feedback loop of distrust and hostile self-interestedness.   There are many places in the world today where chronic cheating is a common strategy because there are not sufficient resources/institutions for catching and punishing cheaters. The living conditions in these places are undesirable and we acribe to them “lawlessness” and “chaos.”  After a certain tipping point, widespread, chronic cheating leads to living dystopias–a race to the self-interested moral bottom.  Think of the present day Congo.

The consequences for society of unimpeded chronic cheating and the terrible, disordered living conditions it fosters are a strong indicator that cheating is undesirable and chronic cheating is wrong.

The necessity for cooperation doesn’t come from a social contract. It comes from the inescapable fact of our social relationship to each other and the provable dynamics built into those relationships.  Our entire survival and reproductive scheme is based on belonging to a group. We call inveterate cheaters against the group “outlaws” and they become “outcasts.”  Because we live in social relationship with each other–not as a matter of theoretical contract, but as a matter of fact–good must encompass more than just consideration of one’s own desires and ends.

Maintaining cooperation in a society of strangers, such as the urban US, is a particular challenge.   There is no generally understood moral requirement to give a stranger aid.  Doing so is considered charitable, altruistic, heroic.  Even though giving a stranger aid is going above and beyond, there are good reasons to do so.  It may simply feel good.  Or you may recognize that society is better off if people are more often willing to give without expectation of direct reciprocation and you want to behave in a way that fosters the generosity and trust that benefits society.

copyright 2011 by S. Anne Johnson

March 12, 2011

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: When Mortality Stares Us in the Face

My heart is heavy at the loss of life and destruction from the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.  Before the earthquake hit, I was thinking about the subject of mortality because I learned earlier this week that a friend was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a rare and incurable blood cancer.

Mortality surrounds us.   We lose our grandparents and then our parents.  We lose peers.  We learn of close brushes with an early death–perhaps we experience one in our own lives, even if just the split-second veering from an almost certainly catastrophic car accident.  When we shelter pets, we sign up for the experience of having their deaths most probably precede our own, and if we love other animals a lot, we do this over and over again.

Some feel that, given ineluctable death, without God life is a cruel joke.  This is a framing problem, I think.  If one approaches life as an entitlement, it seems unjust when it is snatched away.  If one understands life as a time-limited privilege, death becomes a seriously sad but manageable fact.  In saying this, I am not advocating some stiff-upper-lip stoicism.  I am talking about a fundamental shift in thinking–and feeling.

The physical laws of our Universe which allow for life in the first instance also dictate its dissipation.  Under the second law of thermodynamics, i.e., entropy, things tend to disorder.  A good way to conceive of entropy is to think about an ordinary deck of 52 cards.  When you buy the deck the cards are ordered numerically within suits.  You drop the deck and the probability that it will fall into that order is infinitesimal.  That’s because there are exponentially more ways for the deck to be disordered than ordered.  So, ordering the deck takes a lot more effort than disordering it.

Ordered systems, such as living beings, are momentarily stealing order from the disorder through the expenditure of extra energy.*  Eventually however entropy will prevail, and we will all face the deaths of our pets and friends and family and ultimately ourselves.  This is not an easy fact, but neither is it cruel.  Life is in fact a privilege, not an entitlement, and we get the benefit of temporarily experiencing that privilege through the unique lens of our embodied human consciousness.  And what is death–that embodied consciousness’s coming to an end–like?  Most probably what it was like before your consciousness was born.  A great nothing.

None of this is to lessen the significance of the pain, grief and mourning we feel at loss.  Entropy hurts.  But it is possible without God to not rail against cruel fate or take pause in what dreams may come in the sleep of death.

*Metabolism is the biological mechanism that makes this consumption of extra energy possible in life as we know it.

copyright 2011 S. Anne Johnson

February 22, 2011

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: Meaning from Materialism

A recent reader located my blog by inquiring “what gives meaning to the atheist or purely material minded person?”  I think this question reflects a common concern that strict materialism* takes the joy, color, sense of purpose out of life.  The harshly absurdist take of existentialist atheists like Sartre and Camus did not do us materialists any favors in correcting this bad mis-impression.

The simple answer is that atheists by and large find meaning in the very same things that theists do–their family and friends, personal activities and accomplishments, contributions to their communities.  None of these depends on a belief in a god or soul or superstition.

I am confident that my consciousness is embodied in my brain and will cease with my corpus.  I do not imagine that I will be reunited in some ethereal form with loved ones or participate in the world in any way after my death.  My “extinctivist” position does not dampen my sense of meaning in life.  It may in fact heighten it, as my life–and the lives of others–are precious in their fragility and fleetingness.

I believe in no mandates from on high.  No God imbues my life with some special significance.  I fully recognize my cosmic inconsequence.  I am one of billions of humans that have lived and will live, and humans are just one of millions of species that have lived and will live on Earth.  Earth is not the center of anything, not even our own solar system.  I am one little being in one tiny corner of what may very well be an infinite multiverse.  None of this bothers me a bit.  My life is just as important to me and my friends and family and community regardless of my/our cosmic insignificance.

Truth be told, contemplating the vastness of existence exhilarates, not depresses, me.  I feel quite privileged in being able to grasp the magnitude of the cosmos and how its unthinking mechanisms likely work.  And I’m grateful that indifferent evolution vested others with the math talents to figure it out.

Having read a lot of popular science, I know I am not the only one who finds the view from materialism beautiful, astonishing, inspiring.  Creation is a marvel to behold.  Life is a dear resource.  Our incredible consciousnesses enable us to take it all in.  Belief in God or eternal souls or magical occurrences are not necessary to experience the wonder of existence or meaning in it and our individual lives.


*To be clear, by materialism I mean a non-dualist (i.e., no mind/body problem because mind emanates from body) philosophical stance that existence is physical and natural, not metaphysical and supernatural.  Materialism is an outgrowth of an empirical, or scientific, approach to life, which embraces knowledge based on perception and physical testing of our beliefs drawn from perception.  I decidedly do not mean materialistic in the common sense of what matters in life is money and fast cars.

copyright 2011 S. Anne Johnson

January 23, 2011

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: The Foibles of Our Evolved Minds

The other night, the tilted, orange-tinted visage of the full round Moon smiled down at me.  And I caught myself smiling back.  Of course I know the apparent Lunar facial features are meteor-caused craters, and I tried to will myself to stop seeing two eyes, a nose, and a subtle grin.  I could not.  Even though I knew the friendly, if somewhat blue, face was not really there, I could not help but see it.  There’s a name for this psychological phenomenon–pareidolia (finding images or sounds in random stimuli).  In more lay terms, patternicity. 

Patternicity is just one of a veritable laundry list of cognitive biases built into our accidental minds.  To name just a few:

  • anchoring/focusing effect—favoring a specific fact or value over others as or more pertinent
  • attentional bias—giving greater attention to emotionally salient facts
  • the availability heuristic—judging the likelihood of an event by how easily an example comes to mind
  • the bandwagon effect—believing something because many others do
  • belief bias—judging the validity of an argument by the believability of its conclusion, not the strength of its logic
  • confirmation bias—favoring information that confirms existing beliefs or conceptions
  • hindsight bias—seeing past events as predictable
  • illusion of control—overestimating one’s ability to control events
  • illusory correlation— seeing a relationship between events where none exists
  • illusory-truth effect—recalling a false proposition as true merely due to exposure to it
  • subjective validation—believing information correct because of its personal significance
  • superiority bias—tendency to think one is above average

In “Absence of Mind,” Marilynne Robinson laments: “The self is no longer assumed to be a thing approached with optimism, or to be trusted to see anything truly.”  To Robinson, the “privilege of human selfhood” is “foreclosed when the mind is trivialized or thought to be discredited.”  It is disquieting to learn that one’s mind is not built to perceive things as they really are, but only adapted over eons by random mutations to perceive things well enough to survive to reproduce.  Modern psychological knowledge sheds whole new light on Plato’s cave allegory.  Sharing the same mental foundations, we are prone to similar illusory causal correlations (“superstitions”) as chickens, which can learn to wrongly associate a look over a shoulder with receipt of food.  What a lucky glance! 

Recognizing our minds’ actual pedigree and their native tendencies and limitations may discredit subjective authority but it does not necessarily trivialize the positive capacities of our remarkable, albeit flawed, minds.  Contemplate for a moment the fact that our minds have developed means to uncover and, to some extent, correct for their own built-in imperfections.  Knowing our mental foibles does not have to diminish us—indeed, it can enhance us.

On the other end, some (including scientists who should know better) too deeply discount the power of our hard-wired cognitive tendencies when railing against the ubiquitous phenomena of religious and superstitious belief.  Even in the most secular of European countries, people who eschew all belief in a spirit, god or life force top out at 33%. (

Of course, I am not proposing that atheists are wrong because we are not on the bandwagon.  But I do believe that it is unrealistic, even unscientific, to think that the majority of people across the world and into the future are going to overcome the general native tendencies of the human mind.  “Faith” has been altered and even diminished over the past several centuries, but the idea that it is going to come to an end sometime soon is simply not supported by the facts.  

My perception of the Man in the Moon was not a hallucination.  It was an individual instance of a widespread trick of the mind.  Neither are mirages hallucinations; rather, they are commonly experienced illusions.  The facts strongly suggest that humans in general are wired toward religious belief.  Religious belief is more mirage than delusion.   When addressing the issues raised by religious belief, we rationalists might want to keep this in mind.

copyright 2011 S. Anne Johnson

December 26, 2010

Spiritual Life of an Atheist: How Can an Atheist Practice Spirituality?

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

December 12, 2010

Spiritual Life of an Atheist: Values Matter, Not Belief–Lessons From A Second Viewing of Avatar

Is it true that in all circumstances a purely secular worldview is preferable to a religious one?  In answer to this question, I offer the following thought experiment.

Imagine that we actually inhabit the world of Avatar.  You are Jake Sully.  The Americans attempting to colonize Pandora are strict secularists.  (This is not a far stretch since the Americans in Avatar never mention any religion of their own and laugh contemptuously when the commander says the “aboriginal horde” believes their sacred mountain is protected by “their deity”.)  The indigenous Na’vi believe in Eywa.  As the cultural anthropologist Grace understands (“I’m a scientist remember, I don’t believe in fairy tales”), Eywa can  be explained in purely material terms but this is not the way the Na’vi understand her since they are not as scientifically advanced.  So the Na’vi’s understanding of Eywa can be characterized as inaccurate and primitive.  Before your exposure to the Na’vi, you never encountered religious belief because all such belief had been eradicated from your culture through education centuries before.  You were taught that all religious belief was wrongheaded and could never promote the good.  When you first encounter the Na’vi, you are offended by their belief and believe it makes them inferior to the Americans.  You are clear that the Americans’ secular worldview is demonstrably more accurate than the Na’vi’s unscientific belief system.

Given this scenario, would you side with the Americans against the Na’vi based on an absolute preference for secularism over religious belief?

If you would not, then you agree with me that values, not belief, are the most fundamental determinant of the good.  In which case, you should make common cause where possible with believers who share your values.  You may in fact have more in common with them than secularists who do not.

In proposing this thought experiment, I am NOT suggesting that the Americans’ destructive militarism and consumerism in Avatar was the necessary result of, or could only have resulted from, a secularist worldview.  Certainly, the Americans could have a belief in their own God which spurs their rapacious sense of entitlement.  But such a religious belief would not be necessary for the Americans to feel entitled to consume Pandora’s resources at the expense of the Na’vi and Pandora’s exquisite environment.  Neither would the absence of religious belief inoculate against such a rapacious appetite.  The secular Americans could justify their destructive colonization, indeed attempted genocide, through a secular belief in themselves as a superior people and nation. 

The point is that the presence or absence of religious belief is not the determining factor of which way of being is preferable.

In proposing this thought experiment, I am hoping to make more clear to my atheist compatriots why I am not a rabid opponent of all religious belief–as the most hostile comments I receive seem to come from them.

On another note, the Avatar scenario can also dispense with crude utilitarianism as a moral framework.  I think it is implicit in the film that the Americans outnumber the Na’vi in population and “unobtainium” is key to the Americans’ survival on “their dying world.”  From a purely utilitarian perspective then, the Americans’ displacement, even destruction of the Na’vi, would be justifiable, even perhaps morally required.  As Mr. Spock famously said, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.  But on that point, I must respectfully disagree with the otherwise wise demi-Vulcan character.

And the moral of Cameron’s Avatar is arrived at not through reason but beautiful emotional exposition, and emotion, more than reason, I believe, is the foundation of moral judgment.

copyright 2010 S. Anne Johnson

Next Page »

Blog at