Atheist Spirituality

by Luke Muehlhauser on November 18, 2009 in Reviews

I’m blogging my way through Sense and Goodness Without God, Richard Carrier’s handy worldview-in-a-box for atheists. (See the post index for all sections.) Last time, we examined the nature of emotion under the worldview of metaphysical naturalism. Today we look at Carrier’s take on atheist spirituality.

But first let me remind people of the purpose of Carrier’s book, and of this series. Sense and Goodness Without God is not a thorough defense of naturalism in the tradition of analytic philosophy. You will not find its pages filled with numbered propositions and copious endnotes. You will not find a balanced overview of philosophical perspectives, nor even a balanced overview of different naturalistic perspectives.

Rather, the purpose of Sense and Goodness Without God is to provide a brief sketch of naturalism for those who are interested to learn what the universe and the human condition might look like without everything being ruled by a Magical Dictator.

With that reminder in place, let’s talk about atheist spirituality.

Carrier thinks he is a very spiritual person:

When people talk about a spiritual life, they point to someone who has his mind on higher things, who is not obsessed with property or gain, and who is passionately devoted to a belief about the meaning of life and the path to happiness. But this describes any devoted philosopher. When people talk about a spiritual “experience” they point to the combined sensation of awe, inner peace, and enlightenment, which culminates in a reverence for life and nature, and a sincere self-reflection about these things and oneself. And yet that, too, is the experience of any true philosopher. I live a spiritual life, because I live a self-examined life of the mind, I care deeply about my beliefs, I care more about my ideals and human happiness than about material things, and I experience awe, inner peace, and enlightenment when I fathom human minds and the natural world.

And I can certainly resonate with that. I am not rich and I rarely think about money or gain. I am passionate about purpose, happiness, and morality. Every day I think about “higher things.” I regularly experience awe, peace, and enlightenment.

Meditation is a secular path to spiritual enlightenment. So is an appreciation of science:

By truly taking in the awe and nature of her complexity, many a scientist has had a spiritual awakening that had nothing to do with God, but everything to do with profound reverence and amazement in the face of tremendous beauty, fearsome power, and the unimaginable depth and complexity of space and time.

But however a spiritual experience transforms one’s life, this is no evidence that a religion is true:

Life transformation results whenever anyone pays more attention to an ideal than they do to the details of life… It does not matter whether that ideal is real or not, or how that experience is interpreted – hence Kamikaze pilots, Islamic suicide bombers, Marxist fanatics, the Heaven’s Gate cult, Jonestown, stories of powerful personal changes through Scientology, all these involve experiencing the transformation of lifes every bit as any other, such as Born Again Christians or Buddhists describe…

So what is atheist spirituality?

And so we have our recipe: natural meaning, justified faith, humble self-reflection, and the awe-struck pursuit of wisdom. Put these together, and true spirituality is just around the corner. No god needed.

Also see Andre Comte-Sponville’s Little Book of Atheist Spirituality.

Next time, we move on to section IV. What There Isn’t, beginning with Not Much Place for the Paranormal.

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Ben November 18, 2009 at 8:29 am

Your intro is getting longer and longer. hehe Note to self: skip over two paragraphs.

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Steven November 18, 2009 at 11:02 am

I like it. It’s funny though, because instead of considering myself atheist, my views of God have changed over the years to reflect many of the ideas that you would call secular. The wonder of nature and existence, etc. I suppose one person jettisons the language and another person reinterprets the language. Good stuff.

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Steven November 18, 2009 at 11:02 am

I like it. It’s funny though, because instead of considering myself atheist, my views of God have changed over the years to reflect many of the ideas that you would call secular. The wonder of nature and existence, etc. I suppose one person jettisons the language and another person reinterprets the language. I can understand both ways. Good stuff.

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Wes November 18, 2009 at 12:21 pm

This is an interesting Post. I find that I agree with Carrier on many of these things. However, as a Christian, I’d have to disagree on why I experience a sense of awe when studying nature or of thankfulness when seeing the great potential in the human person. I’m probably just an amateur philosopher but my sense of wonder about the world isn’t solely tied up in material things but in the metaphysical: things like goodness, love, sacrifice, joy, etc. My only confusion, and perhaps I’ll need to read carrier myself to find out, is how metaphysical naturalism provides a source for these realities?

Your blog is not the place to rattle on about why God makes the most sense of the human constitution, human morality, and human reasoning because I know you have different aims and obviously a different conviction on the nature and existence of God than do I. I’m just curious to know, as an atheist, if adoration is tied up in these metaphysical ideas, what makes them so enchanting given their purely mechanical origin?

Would this tie in to your desirism?

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lukeprog November 18, 2009 at 2:33 pm

Wes,

No, desirism is about morality.

I’m not sure what your question is. Are you asking how I can be in awe of the universe while understanding that it evolved mechanically?

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Wes November 18, 2009 at 3:04 pm

Yes, I understand desirism is about morality. I was thinking that since the absolutes that drive your ethical theory are from desires that those same absolutes might also have something to do with other metaphysical discussions.

My question is not so much how one can be in awe of the universe but why one would be in awe of the universe given the philosophical foundations of naturalism. After rereading my post I see why my question might seem unclear. My apologies. Let me rephrase the content.

That ideas exist and that human beings have an sophisticated way of expressing them is well evidenced. But, what makes this ideas so enchanting when they are all a result of mechanical evolution?

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Bill Maher November 18, 2009 at 3:14 pm

Luke, you should expand on atheist spirituality in a separate entry. I would love to see something on atheist Jews and Atheist Buddhists. These groups that embrace the positive things, like enlightenment and culture, and leave the dogma behind are very fascinating. :-)

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Rhys Wilkins November 18, 2009 at 4:09 pm

I think pantheist is a more accurate moniker for a spiritual atheist. If we are going to label people, let’s label them by what they DO accept, not what they reject. You would not call a Hindu a Greed Orthodox Rejectionalist would you? While it is accurate, it is not entirely relevant to their situation. The same line of reasoning goes for a person who does not believe in a personal God. Rationalist, naturalist, freethinker and PEARList (Physical Evidence and Reasoned Logic) are all good alternatives which seem more appropriate to describe people who lack a belief in a deity.

Also, if anyone is experiencing cognitive dissonance over how to live life in awe and wonder of the universe despite the fact it can all be reduced to mindless absurd mechanical processes, I suggest Unweaving the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins.

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lukeprog November 18, 2009 at 8:24 pm

Wes,

Awe and enchantment are subjective experiences, I suppose. To me it’s just absolutely awe-inspiring that this beautiful universe evolved by way of thoroughly mechanical processes.

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lukeprog November 18, 2009 at 8:24 pm

Hmmmm, good idea, Maher!

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Bill Maher November 18, 2009 at 8:44 pm

Wes, if you have not read Carl Sagan’s The Varieties of Scientific Experiences, I suggest you do. It shows how Sagan was a truly religious man and his religion was the beauty, awe, and humility generated by studying the Cosmos. I think if Michelangelo would have met Sagan, the Sistine Chapel would be covered in Pulsars, Nebulas, and Black Holes.

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Wes November 18, 2009 at 10:42 pm

Luke, that is a satisfactory answer. I appreciate your consistency. That is one thing I’ve enjoyed about your blog. While we may disagree on certain things, I have to congratulate you on providing a healthy place for discourse on the web between atheists and those of other persuasions.

Bill, I’ll add that book to the (already long!) wish list on Amazon. I appreciate the recommendation. Admittedly, I have not done very much reading on philosophical naturalism by actual naturalists and so any suggestions are helpful.

I can identify with Sagan’s awe of the cosmos. I suppose, as a Christian, I only add one more objective reality to her (the cosmos), which would be the existence of the God of the Bible. I’ll grant that this cannot be proved by studying the cosmos alone and I’ll even agree with Luke (as he’s written before) that just because it’s possible that doesn’t mean it’s probable. However, that’s where I land on the issue. And, from my position, there is much awe to be felt when one observes nature in her splendor, especially given our prized position as rational creatures.

Thanks to both of you for your helpful replies.

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Edson November 18, 2009 at 11:49 pm

“I am passionate about purpose, happiness, and morality.”

I am curious if these things are easily tenable under naturalistic assumptions of worldview. I guess the time of a major crisis in life is a determinant to know if objective purpose, true happiness and sense of morality, was all about talk show or truly reflect the life of an atheist who is intellectually convinced about the non existance of God.

My understanding of the things is that a belief in God is primarily useful to sustain us in tempting tough times. Christian spirituality -absolute confort after the loss of loved ones, a sense of hope against all odds or patience in a seemingly dark world we live in – personally, I just think is tenable only with the undelying assumption that there is God and this is not the only life there is to live.

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Rhys Wilkins November 19, 2009 at 2:39 am

I think spirituality without the assumption of a deity is much more profound, insightful, beautiful, mysterious, and awe inspiring then any mundane form of western monotheism.

Theism has an unfortunate effect of making spirituality appear shallow, embarrassingly anthropocentric, egotistical and frankly silly. The incessant joy of naturalism is seeing reality in its unbounded, majestic nature, feeling the secrets and the deep mystery of the cosmos reverberating playfully all around us, reaching out, longing to be discovered. Science provides this candle in the dark for us, and I for one, follow that candle earnestly, with a big grin on my face and a lab coat in the other,

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GungFu November 19, 2009 at 11:08 am

A fantastic video on atheist spirituality with audio from Alan Watts, animated by the creators of South Park.

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Jeff H November 19, 2009 at 8:15 pm

Edson: My understanding of the things is that a belief in God is primarily useful to sustain us in tempting tough times. Christian spirituality -absolute confort after the loss of loved ones, a sense of hope against all odds or patience in a seemingly dark world we live in – personally, I just think is tenable only with the undelying assumption that there is God and this is not the only life there is to live.  

Well sure, religion is often useful to help us through tough times. But hey, other people find alcohol or drugs to be a better option.

Of course, religion might be a healthier way to deal with grief, stress, crises, etc…but it says nothing about the truth of it. It just gives us reassurance that Daddy will make everything okay. I would argue, actually, that other pro-active methods such as taking up a new hobby, spending time with friends and family, or in the case of stress, taking time to relax and unwind, would all be better ways of dealing with difficult circumstances. At the very least, they’d be on par with religion. No need to invoke supernatural powers…it’s just human psychology.

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Becky November 22, 2009 at 11:14 am

I have been using spiritual messages to help me through tough times. Dr. Paul DeBell Dr. who has a degree in both medical and religion studies has written a great book titled, “Decoding The Spiritual Messages of Everyday Life: How Life Teaches Us What We Need To Know.” Messages teach you how to act on your beliefs in ways that are appropriate to your own character and unique life circumstances.

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Jack Carter August 1, 2010 at 9:13 am

i think that spiritual life is much more important compared to our earthly life.’–

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