Can an Atheist be Spiritual?
Can an atheist be spiritual? This question comes up a lot, and I think it is a fair and natural one. As one of the many who has traversed the difficult road out of Protestant Christian fundamentalism, I would like to offer my own answer to this question. In short: absolutely yes…. but it is important to understand just what a non-theist might mean by “spiritual”. Let me start by looking at how the word “spiritual” is usually understood.
For conservative religionists, “spirituality”, to the extent that they use the term at all, has to do with participation in a supernatural orthodoxy – things like adherence to official doctrine, official sacraments and rituals, being “saved”, revivals/worship, singing hymns, reading the Bible, one’s “walk with God”. Their spirituality is revelation-based. For them, it is God Himself who instructs us how to relate to him, and that is the only avenue seen as open to humans for “spirituality.” God, in short, tells you what the rules are; you either do it or you don’t.
Religious liberals (and, to some extent, moderates), by contrast, are relatively less sure about the next world and more sure about this one. Liberals generally feel that whatever we might know about “God” (however they understand that term) is necessarily filtered through human interpretation and thus, human experience. Thus they tend to accept the methods and findings of both science and the historical-critical approach to religious texts, and will likely see our views about God as at least somewhat (if not entirely) culturally-dependent. They usually have no problem seeing religious myth as myth – i.e., not tied to literal, historical fact – and can find it illuminating and valuable nonetheless.
For liberal Jews, for example, it matters less whether or not there ever was an actual Exodus, historically, and matters much more what the story of Exodus has come to mean and symbolize – and their spirituality is thereby tied to their lived experience of that meaning, through the Pesach (Passover) celebration. Human life and human experience are the necessary starting point for spirituality, for liberals.
What I propose here is that non-theistic spirituality, being obviously and necessarily naturalistic, is similarly rooted in human experience – in the thoughtful participation of human beings in this world, rather than an alleged supernatural world. It is therefore, I suggest, very closely related to the spirituality of religious liberals, as I have described. And this is relevant because religious liberals tend to write rather a lot about their experience, and have a well-developed language to do it in. So, by examining liberal religious spirituality, I think we can understand better what it might be for non-theists, and how non-theists such as myself might meaningfully talk about it – but in a way not requiring of any god.
So how do religious liberals describe their experience? In fact, they have given their experiences many names. Otto Rank referred to it as the “Numinous” and also the mysterium tremendum: a sense of awe, wonder, and humility before the “mystery of being.” Psychologist Williams James spoke of “ontological wonder-sickness”, describing similar sentiments. Freud (not, strictly speaking, a religious liberal, but I include him here anyway) experienced an “oceanic feeling”, an ego-dissolving sense of eternity. Jewish theologian Martin Buber based his existential philosophy on the “Eternal Thou”: an irreducible sense of “relationship” with a sublime Other that must be experienced in the first-person, rather than described in the third-person.
Christian theologian John Hick speaks of both “the Real”, the fundamental reality that lies behind all religious myth, and the “Unity of Reality and Value”, a delightfully clunky way of saying the world is fundamentally good. Paul Tillich famously coined the term the “Ground of Being”, as well as “ultimate concern”: spirituality is discovered in whatever we make most central and important to our lives. Mythologist Joseph Campbell describes spiritual experience with the phrase “Thou Art That”: a sense of connectedness and empathy with other living things. Reform Jewish theologian Eugene Borowitz suggests basic spiritual experience is a sense of awe and of goodness, similar to what I describe below, and simply calls it the Transcendent.
While I do not think all these experiences and exactly identical, I do think they share a family resemblance. I believe they share some commonalities in both the nature of the experiences involved, as well as their role in the lives of those who have them. And I suggest they can be seen as having three basic parts:
Splendor I suggest that the first thing common to most of these experiences is a sense of something, outside the self, that is experienced as grandeur, magnificence, or sublimity. The things that so inspire tend to be found in the natural world, and scientists in particular are often most eloquent on this score. For example, a serious study of the cosmos – galaxies and quasars and the Big Bang and the lives of stars – can evoke these feelings. Others, who have struggled to make sense of the fascinating weirdness of the quantum/subatomic world, have also felt this way. For some, it is the elegance and mathematical beauty of natural laws that are most moving. Or, speaking from experience as one with a background in biology, this sense of reverence can be stirred by the gorgeous, lush, messy richness found in the biological world, such as the ecosystem of a coral reef, or in the staggering complexity of an individual cell.
The emotions usually evoked by all these sorts of things tend to be described as wonder, awe, humility – or, often, just a kind of stunned silence. They make you want to speak in hushed, respectful tones (and yet, sometimes, simultaneously stand up and applaud!). Overall, this is a sense of something outside the self that is beautiful and/or sublime.
Goodness The second quality common to these experiences is best described as a sense of value. Somewhat closer to home, these experiences evoke feelings of goodness and worth that many people, even those not otherwise religious, seem compelled to describe as “holy.” It is a deep intuition of that which is most valuable in life, to humans, regardless of its scale. These would include things like human love, and human relationships in general. Having children, for many people, injects a seriousness into life that suggests the presence of this sense – for, as parents, there is little in life more important and more worthwhile than protecting and nurturing one’s children. Sex, the birth of a child, family, personal growth, and human compassion all can evoke this sense of a beauty, value, connectedness, and worth that is felt to be of greater significance than the individual. And equally, though perhaps more abstractly, human ideals such as democracy or justice are often felt to be self-evidently good in this way.
The feelings usually evoked by these sorts of things tend to be described as a sense of beauty, goodness or “rightness”, or of justification – that this is why life is worth living. Behaviorally, these experiences, when fully experienced, often make people want to weep. Overall, this is a sense of something, better than oneself, that is good.
Inspiration Importantly, spiritual experience does not stop with just the feeling of wonder and awe and goodness: these experiences are invariably felt to be inspiring. They make us what to do something. They both generate and shape the ideals of those who have these experiences. This spirituality, in other words, shows us what is most wonderful and beautiful and worthwhile in the world – and thereby makes us want to explore the wonderfulness of the world and to nurture that “goodness” that we find there.
For even as we become aware of what our ideals are, through having these sorts of experiences, we also become aware of just how far from our ideals we stand. We realize, for example, by studying the marvelous complexity of the natural world, just how much we don’t know – and we thus thirst to understand more. Or, we come to see the defects in the world, like child abuse and neglect, and we understand just how bad that really is – because we have seen just how beautiful and right a human child really is. Our spirituality thus fortifies us and demands of us ethical action, to right the wrongs, and create a better world. It calls us to be better parents and husbands and wives and friends. It calls us to be better, and to make the world better.
And there is nothing in any of this that demands or necessitates “God.” Many liberal religionists, of course, do believe these experience point to, or somehow emanate from, God. But it is not necessary to understand these spiritual experiences this way, and here is where non-theists can in good faith part company. “God” is an interpretation given to the experience – but is not the experience itself. If we can re-train ourselves to stop jumping to conclusions, or demanding to know what lies “behind” the experience, and simply attend to the experience itself, I think we will find all the joy and inspiration we need.
Thus, my understanding of non-theistic spirituality simply amounts to attending to the same things that move and inspire all sensitive people, religious or not. It requires only that you exist as a human being in the world, and take reverent note of the sublime beauty around you – in the marvels of the world, in the holiness of human relationships – and then use that inspiration to make the world better. “God” may be behind it all, or may not. For my part, at least, I do not find it makes any difference.
So here, then, is my formula for spirituality, be it theist, or non-theist: The world is good. Go make it better.