December 20, 2006

Atheist "Spirituality"

A woman walking a prayer labyrinth
A woman walking a prayer labyrinth (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In the social sciences, it is common to distinguish between religion and spirituality. Questionnaires designed to tap these two constructs are fairly different in their content, and the attitudes of many scientists toward spirituality are often kinder than those toward religion. Thus, it is not surprising to encounter many people who claim to be "spiritual but not religious." They may do this for many different reasons, but some probably do so because they recognize that religion and spirituality are distinct.

Is spirituality an important part of life which some atheists are neglecting at our peril? There certainly are correlations between spirituality and various measures of well-being. Maybe we shouldn't be so hasty to dismiss these findings as little more than evidence that ignorance is bliss (although one could make that argument too).

According to this article in the American Chronicle (update: link no longer active), atheism is compatible with spirituality. Most definitions of spirituality agree that it has nothing to do with any sort of gods. Despite the unfortunate name, it isn't even about spirits or anything else necessarily supernatural. Rather, it is more about the perception of oneself in relationship to one's environment. A point made in this article is that atheists, even those of us who are also naturalists, can have spiritual experiences through nature.

I suspect every one of you has had experiences that would qualify. There have been many occasions where I have experienced a sense of awe of nature and the universe. Of course, I never felt the need to call these experiences "spiritual." That has always seemed to me to be an unnecessary layer of abstraction. I'd prefer to talk about my feelings of connectedness with other humans, awe of the cosmos, etc. than my spirituality.

If the article is correct, it might be healthy for me to reconsider. Framing our discussions in terms of spirituality (i.e., deliberately using that particular label) might be a good PR move. The author envisions a spiritual atheist movement having more success at wining converts from religion than any of our current approaches. He imagines that a sort of spiritual atheism would show the rest of society that atheists are not so different from our fellow humans. At the same time, he certainly is not suggesting that we stop being scientists, naturalists, skeptics, or atheists.
Whatever form this spiritual defense of naturalism takes, it must be unabashedly passionate about science and the scientific method of inquiry. With this must come a fervent skepticism of all things supernatural and a complete rejection of the concept of faith. Faith is the last recourse of the intellectually defeated. When you invoke faith, you admit your belief cannot stand on its own merit, for if the evidence compelled you to believe it, faith would be superfluous. The faith that allows you to believe in a personal, all-merciful God allows your next-door neighbor to believe an invisible dragon is living in his basement, or the fanatic on the bus next to you to believe that a martyr’s death (spectacularly accomplished by blowing himself, and you, to pieces) will send him straight to heaven and into the waiting arms of 72 sex-starved virgins. Either way, you’ve entered the realm of irrationality and, in many cases, severe mental illness. Faith and reason (and, by extension, religion and science) are as incompatible as trust and jealousy or joy and sadness, and it’s high time people of intellect stopped according them equal respect.
I couldn't agree more with the passage quoted above. I also agree with the author that atheists must continue working to dispel the myth that atheism is somehow immoral and meaningless. I believe that this myth, and the historical association of atheism with Communism, remain the most important obstacles to greater acceptance of atheists. While I am still not sure about the merits of using the "spirituality" label, I do agree that we should devote more time to providing examples of the meaning our lives have and how this is sometimes strengthened by the absence of religion.