January 22, 2008

Atheist Spirituality

English: View of the crescent moon through the...
View of the crescent moon through the top of the earth's atmosphere. Photographed above 21.5°N, 113.3°E. by International Space Station crew Expedition 13 over the South China Sea, just south of Macau (NASA image ID: ISS013-E-54329). Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Can an atheist be a spiritual person, and if so, in what sense? Is it meaningful to talk of atheist spirituality, or should the term be reserved for religious believers? This post may end up generating more questions than answers, but that seems fitting for a discussion of spirituality.

Let me get my bias out of the way at the beginning because it probably colors what I am about to say on the topic. I do not care for the word "spirituality" when referring to atheists. I have trouble getting past the "spirit" part of the word because I do not believe in spirits, souls, ghosts, demons, or anything else that is not part of the natural world. However, I recognize that my naturalism is not entailed by atheism and that other atheists are free to accept the reality of the supernatural. I also recognize that there may be some benefits in using the term to describe ourselves.

What is spirituality?

From what I have read in the field of the psychology of religion, I have learned that experts in this field lack consensus on the meaning of spirituality but generally agree on what it is not. Spirituality is not the same thing as religion, or even religious belief. One can be deeply spiritual while simultaneously rejecting anything recognizable as religious belief of religious practices. Moreover, not all religious believers are necessarily spiritual.

Many components of spirituality have been posited, and while consensus remains elusive, some of the more popular include vitality, connectedness, transcendence, and meaningfulness. One of the most commonly described experiences of spirituality involves a sense of one's interconnectedness to others and a dissolving of self-other boundaries.

Can an atheist be a spiritual person?

Absolutely. If we think of something like spirituality as ranging on a continuum from low to high, atheists can score at any point along the continuum just like anyone else. High scores would indicate someone who seeks spiritual experiences or who experiences the various components of spirituality, depending on how the measure functions.

Practically, we might see a spiritual atheist as highly empathic, aware of his or her connection to others, concerned with equality and social justice, regularly awed by the beauty of nature, etc. Such descriptors apply in varying degrees to all persons, theist and atheist alike. Being spiritual does not require one to believe in spirits, gods, or any other supernatural entities.

Take something simpler, such as the need for meaning, and think about some of your friends. Some are probably deeper than others in the sense that they enjoy thought-provoking questions even more than the answers. They are about the journey and find great pleasure in learning, debate, and self-exploration. Others are more concrete, less concerned with inner exploration about more concerned with action. They have little interest in reflection and want answers on which they can rely. They may have little tolerance for ambiguity or uncertainty. It makes sense that we all differ when it comes to how spiritual we are.

Do atheists need spirituality?

I think this question might need to be reframed in order to be both palatable and meaningful. Think of it this way: atheists (like everyone else) vary in terms of the importance of spirituality in their lives. Spirituality is vital to some atheists, and we could appropriately label such persons as needing spirituality. For others, the need for spirituality may be low enough that it would be hard to recognize it as such.

In all honesty, I am not sure where I would fall along this continuum. I tend not to think of myself as "spiritual," but I certainly find great meaning and purpose in experiences that others describe as spiritual. I have had many intense spiritual experiences in which I experienced connectedness, transcendence, and the like, and not all of them were drug-induced. I suppose I am a fairly spiritual person in many ways, but one who prefers to think of himself in terms of components such as empathy, meaning, and connection rather than "spirituality." Does that make any sense? Like I said, I have a bit of trouble with the label.

Should the secular community increase our focus on spirituality?

Probably. I suspect that very little is known about the importance and role of spirituality among nonbelievers, and the scientist in me thinks that improved understanding might be beneficial. To neglect something we do not understand well simply because we lack understanding makes little sense. We know that spirituality is important to a great many people regardless of their religious belief, and I think there is a large potential benefit from better understanding its role in our community. Discussing and potentially embracing an explicitly secular form of spirituality could make it easier for believers to imagine life without belief and could make our community more attractive for those who have come to doubt their faith.

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