The Spiritual Life of An Atheist

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

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

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

April 3, 2011

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: The Longing for Real Connection

I watched a quite disturbing and excellent documentary the other day, The Secrets of the Tribe, about anthropology’s use of one of the last first-contact tribes on Earth in the 1960s, the Yanomamo.  One of the anthropologists who studied and lived with the Yanomamo, Ken Good, married a Yanomamo woman, had 3 children with her and brought her back to the U.S.  She ended up leaving him and returning to her village in the Amazon rainforest.  In the documentary, he said she told him, in essence, she did not like living within the walls of the nuclear family.  She missed waking up in the morning and being able to see all her fellow villagers from her hammock.

Living in such a physically open and close-knit community is difficult to imagine.  I grew up in a little town, not an urban setting, and I’m actually a fan of the single family home.  I like at least a 5-foot-setback’s worth of elbow room from my neighbors.  Having been raised with a particular amount of space and privacy, I would probably find life in a small, open village about as intrusive as the Yanomamo emigrant found modern suburban American living isolating.

When I was a kid, I knew almost all our neighbors.  A couple of older sisters, who my mother knew, lived down the street from each other, and I would go to their houses for milk and cookies sometimes–and to sell my lastest extra-curricular activity fundraising wares.  I was friends with both the girls who were my age who lived around the corner from me.

My mother still lives in the area I grew up, which is where she grew up, and where many people she grew up with still live or have returned to live.  As a result, my mother has relationships with people spanning 65+ years.  Such long-lived relationships are almost as difficult for me to imagine as a view of my whole village from my hammock.  My mother is a member of probably one of the last sustained-contact tribes in the U.S.

I have lived in the same house in the Bay Area for almost 12 years.  Many of my neighbors have lived here as long or longer.  I know some of my neighbors well enough to wave at them or maybe chat about the weather when we both happen to be out in our front yards at the same time, which is not very often.  No one spends time in their front yards.

In numbers, I feel confident that I know a lot more people than my mother does, even though I have lived just over half as long as she.  Living in the Bay Area and working at a large private law firm in downtown San Francisco for almost 13 years, I have come into contact with a lot of people.  (And that is not even counting grade school, high school (half spent in southeastern Louisiana and half spent in north central Louisiana), college in New York State, a 3-year interlude in Phoenix, and law school–the start of my now 16-year-long stint in the Bay Area.)  But the number of people I know really well is a handful, and the number of people I will have known for 65+ years will be zero.

I was not raised in a world where relationships were actual market commodities.  But I have worked in that world, and I think that world’s net is ever-expanding.  A recent independent film that satirizes this phenomenon is The Joneses, with David Duchovny and Demi Moore.  It wasn’t ever in line for an Oscar, but it is worth seeing.  It is an appeal for authentic human connection in an age where everything is about the sale.  It is ironic to watch Demi Moore, with her clearly plasticized (albeit still lovely) features, carry a movie with this message.

I have hated marketizing my relationships, to the extent I have managed to.  I don’t long for a return to the Edenic life of a small village without walls, but I do want to build relationships with people because they make me laugh or say insightful things or share my same quirky interests or just because.  And now I know I’m not alone in this longing, because someone has made a movie about it.

copyright 2011 by S. Anne Johnson

March 20, 2011

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: The Signal Importance of Joy

Delight, gaiety, bliss are some of the meanings of joy, according to Merriam-Webster.  Joy and pleasure and happiness are all related but all distinct too.  Joy is powerful in its spontaneity and often exuberant, even when quietly contained.  Pleasure can be joyful but also more measured, mundane.  Happiness involves some of both.    Deriving pleasure from life more often than not is necessary for happiness, but persisting in a state of joy would be quite impractical.  We must make do with passing moments of the heady stuff.  

Joy is undervalued in maturity.  Maybe as we age our brains tend to lose their easy capacity for joy, and part of growing up involves giving up that lack of restraint joy can bring.  We associate joy with childhood and perhaps childishness.  Our joys become our most private moments as adults.    But, however diminished, the capacity remains and can be cultivated.  In his Ninth Symphony, Beethoven–a world-famous curmudgeon–composed one of the most complex, exhilarating paens to joy ever penned.

Paradoxically, our pursuit of pleasure can itself be an obstacle to experiencing joy.  We can become freighted down with effort and expectation, the pursuit of pleasure rendered a source of fatigue, disappointment, suffering.

To me, joy is like a beacon rotating in a lighthouse, allowing you to set a course by the flashes you can make out in the fog.

copyright 2011 S. Anne Johnson

January 30, 2011

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: My Own Experience of Mindfulness

I am not a Buddhist.  In fact, I’m not much of a subscriber to “ism”s overall.  Mindfulness is an oft-used concept in Buddhism, sometimes also called present moment awareness.  From my experience, you can think of it as vivid presentness in being alive.  Language is quite inadequate for capturing actual experience, and these are all somewhat stilted words for an inexpressible, underlying state of mind.  But if you have experienced mindfulness, you can feel its absence and you most definitely welcome its reemergence.

I have practiced different meditation techniques and have developed my own variety of approaches, depending on whether I’m more calm or frayed or opti- or pessi- mistic at the time.  Presently, I don’t use mantras or mudras (although I have) and I don’t have officially sanctioned objects of meditation.  I have used my experience with formal meditation techniques to design my own self-tailored mental/emotional housekeeping.

Being in mindfulness is an exquisite privilege.  You get to experience what it is to be alive without your mind nattering on at you.  Buddhists refer to this nattering aspect of one’s mind as ego.  Experiencing one’s self in the world with one’s palavering ego faint in the distant background is a sublime, and not at all mystical, encounter.  And it is not an easy psychological state to maintain.  Thus, the meditative housekeeping practices.

The benefits of mindfulness are compelling.  No matter what your circumstance, you feel better.  Pain is less excruciating.  Fatigue is less wearisome.  Joy is less fleeting.  In a condition of vivid aliveness, questions about life’s meaning fade.  Enhanced empathy is a happy byproduct, and you feel less peevish and more patient.  I am confident that no one has committed harm from a state of mindfulness.

Jargon can be off-putting.  And mindfulness is not a condition that can be packaged and sold.  It is also not an escape from harsh realities.  Mindfulness does not diminish one’s awareness of poverty and crime and war and environmental devastation and just plain meanness in the world.  I’ve never entered a mindful state and become either Dr. Pangloss or Pollyanna. 

The image for my blog is a photo of my backyard Buddha statue.  I admire the statue not because I worship the Buddha but because he appears to me to be sitting in a state of mindfulness.  Seeing the image of mindfulness reminds me of how it feels and moves me both toward and deeper into it.

copyrigh 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

November 9, 2010

Spiritual Life of an Atheist: A Response to Marilynne Robinson’s Absence of Mind

In her new book, “Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self,” Ms. Robinson expresses more of a critique than an affirmative viewpoint,  although at moments she does hint at several viewpoints she appears to hold: there is a God as understood by at least her Christian tradition; “quantum mind” exists; and human “exceptionalism” invites divine explanation.  Rather than posit–and do the hard work of having to defend–these theses, she merely suggests their truth through her critique of “positivism,” or “reductionist (in the negative sense) materialism,” as exemplified by certain neo-Darwinists, socio-biologists, and evolutionary psychologists.  I have also read widely among these thinkers.  My shelves are lined with books by Dawkins, Dennett, Pinker, and Damasio, several of the main targets of her criticisms.  A warning: if yours are not, you may find Ms. Robinson’s book difficult to follow, since it is substantially more about what’s wrong with what they think than what it is exactly she thinks.

In critiquing these science “popularizers,” Ms. Robinson justly states: “[I]t is surely incumbent upon writers who undertake to shape opinion to resist the temptation to popularize in the negative sense of that word.  Vast and contentious literatures lie behind psychology, anthropology, and sociology.  But the popularizers in these fields now are highly regarded figures whom a nonspecialist might reasonably trust to deal competently with the great subjects their books take on, which include human nature and consciousness, and, with striking frequency, religion.”  Having read many of the authors Ms. Robinson targets, I agree that a frequent weakness in their writing is a too certain (almost ideological) presentation of their preferred explanations as established fact and a failure to recognize the continued debate in their fields about the points they prefer to treat as answered.  When reading these authors, one must be careful not to take their word as “gospel,” although that is decidedly (somewhat ironically) how they tend to present it.  But painting them with the same broad brush is a mistake. For example, Dennett, a neo-Darwinist philosopher, critiques the same socio-biologist Ms. Robinson does, E.O. Wilson.

Ms. Robinson repeatedly bemoans the preclusion of “metaphysical” thought by the modern scientific (which she seems to define as post-Newton) approach.  At the very end of Chapter 2, “The Strange History of Altruism,” she states: “Our conception of the significance of humankind in and for the universe has shrunk to the point that the very idea we ever imagined we might be significant on this scale now seems preposterous.”  Quite true.  But Ms. Robinson’s point seems to be that this fact should not be–that although Copernicus demonstrated over 400 years ago that we are not even the physical focus of our solar system, we should posit ourselves to remain at the teleological center of our vast 13.7 billion-year-old universe. Given the whiffs of “quantum mind,” Ms. Robinson exudes, I would not be surprised if Ms. Robinson is a fan of “biocentrism,” which is more properly denominated “anthropocentrism,” since other complex biological forms such as our beloved best friends, the dog, are not sufficiently cognitively exceptional to justify the universe’s existence by biocentrism’s way of thinking.

Ms. Robinson deigns to grant some “merits in certain circumstances” to positivism’s “exclu[sion] from the model of reality whatever science is (or was) not competent to verify or falsify.”  But she fails to identify which circumstances this positivist exclusion is appropriate for and which not.  I will venture my own opinion–all circumstances external to one’s own most personal sense of one’s self. 

Science is attempting to define that which is situated outside our most personal subjectivity.  In this endeavor, science has even breached the bounds of “the mind,” laying claim to the verifiability of our own self-narratives.  Although Ms. Robinson does not directly address this breach, she clearly disdains it in her dismissal of the neurological explanation of the case of Phineas Gage–the fellow who took a railroad tie through the front of his head in the 1800s and lived to tell about it.  Ms. Robinson suggests that the reported dramatic change in Mr. Gage’s attitude toward the world was due to the ongoing psychological trauma caused by his extensive injury, not the massive physical injury to his brain itself.  And maybe it was.  It is true that the medical technology did not exist in Mr. Gage’s time to properly diagnose his condition.  But Ms. Robinson also cannot disprove that a brain scan today may have indicated massive damage to the part of his brain responsible for control of emotion.  Further evidence of the fundamentally biological nature of Mr. Gage’s new behavioral and attitudinal challenges may have been provided by the failure of modern therapeutic techniques, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, to improve Mr. Gage’s functioning in any measure. 

It would be lovely to think, as Ms. Robinson seems to, that the mind has executive control over its own matter, but it does not–and the evidence for devastatingly physical causes for many cognitive and emotional impairments (Alzheimer’s is just one example) is irrefutable.  So, for example, while a person with Alzheimer’s may attribute their mental decline to any number of causes, a brain scan will reveal its true, and at this time untreatable and intractable, source.

Ms. Robinson spends the entire Chapter 3 on “The Freudian Self,” which is of at best purely historical interest as Freudian theories of human psychology and culture are largely discredited. And I think Ms. Robinson is being generous when she states that Freud rightly claimed the mantle of “scientist” for himself by the prevailing standards of his day.  Neither Freud nor Jung was very “scientific” in their methods–using themselves and their limited client populations as foundations for grand universal theories about human nature.  Ms. Robinson’s interest in Freud is most likely literally academic, as virtually no one outside the academy pays Freud any attention anymore.  So, unless you have some particular interest in understanding Freud in a briefly sketched historical context, skip Chapter 3 altogether.

Last, Ms. Robinson claims for “the religious” an experience that even an avowed atheist like myself has deeply felt: “For the religious, the sense of the soul may have as a final redoubt, not as argument but as experience, that haunting I who wakes us in the night wondering where time has gone, the I we waken to, sharply aware that we have been unfaithful to ourselves, that a life lived otherwise would have acknowledged a yearning more our own than any of the daylit motives whose behests we answer to so diligently.”  The poetic beauty of Ms. Robinson’s expression of individual yearning cannot be denied and should not be devalued, despite her inexplicable attribution to it of “religious” significance, as if atheist materialists such as myself are not haunted by such yearnings to live more authentically than our daily imperatives allow.

To state that I am an atheist materialist does not mean that I eschew all sense of the “spiritual.”  As I have explained in my blog, awe and aspiration are not the exclusive property of believers.  In response to Ms. Robinson, to that list it appears I should add “longing” as well.

You can watch Ms. Robinson discuss her book with Jon Stewart at

copyright 2010 S. Anne Johnson

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