Can an Atheist be Spiritual?

June 25, 2008 at 1:18 am 46 comments

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.

- Richard

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Like Smoking, Atheism is a Health Hazard Experience God….Really?

46 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Reynvaan  |  June 25, 2008 at 4:03 am

    I like this sort of transtheistic spirituality. The last paragraph (and the small addendum) sums it up perfectly. It’s so authentic, human, and all-encompassing that it surpasses any need for a god or gods. For me it’s definitely the way to go after my break from Christianity.

    A very nice couple of posts, sir.

  • 2. Catana  |  June 25, 2008 at 9:54 am

    Anybody who’s trying so hard to find a way to reconcile spirituality and atheism is still dragging the tattered remains of their religion around with them. Letting go seems to be a problem for deconverts. It makes me grateful that I wasn’t brought up in any religion and had nothing to let go of, including the null category like spirituality.

  • 3. Cthulhu  |  June 25, 2008 at 10:10 am

    Richard,

    What a wonderful post. Just a few comments…

    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.

    That is one of the best descriptions of what I (and I stole this from Joseph Campbell) call transcendence. I have felt it many times in my life – when confronted by the natural beauty of our world, the cosmos and yes, the beauty of quantum theory. I have felt it the first time I came out of the tunnel and saw Yosemite valley the first time. I felt it the first time I understood the terrible beauty and power of a black hole. I have felt looking at some of the marvelous architectural creations of mankind. And it definitely did not need God.

    The world is good. Go make it better.

    What more can one say? That sums up my philosophy in 8 words. Thanks for taking the time to write this…I am going to share it with my family as soon as possible.

    Cheers…

  • 4. Cthulhu  |  June 25, 2008 at 10:15 am

    Catana,

    Anybody who’s trying so hard to find a way to reconcile spirituality and atheism is still dragging the tattered remains of their religion around with them. Letting go seems to be a problem for deconverts. It makes me grateful that I wasn’t brought up in any religion and had nothing to let go of, including the null category like spirituality.

    Don’t get caught by symbols…spirituality is a word that can mean different things to different people. I does not necessarily mean clinging to religion – to me it means finding something inspiring outside of yourself. When I see some of the marvelous things our universe contains it gives me a sense of immense privilege to be alive and be a part of the cosmos.

  • 5. Ubi Dubium  |  June 25, 2008 at 11:19 am

    Catana

    Anybody who’s trying so hard to find a way to reconcile spirituality and atheism is still dragging the tattered remains of their religion around with them.

    No, I think it’s more a matter of realizing that part of what keeps people in their religions is that they do have some elements that are valuable, whether or not they are connected to the supernatural. Like, for example, building community, giving children a sense of importance within the community, creating great art, inspiring a sense of wonder, feeding the hungry, or housing the homeless. Just because I have decided that there are no supernatural beings does not mean that I have discarded all those other things associated with church that I found valuable. De-converting involves deciding which elements of the religious experience were valuable in their own right, and should remain part of one’s life.

    For me, I realized that the best part of church was the music. Although I have totally abandoned church, I have now found a musical community to join. There I am at home, with people of many faiths, sharing a common passion. I certainly don’t consider this the “tattered remains of my religion”. It’s simply realizing that my passion for singing was a value I held for itself, and not just as a part of the “religion package”.

    For others here – a deep joy stemming from a sense of wonder and awe was one of the parts of their religion that had intrinsic value for them. Fortunately, it can be found outside of any supernatural system of beliefs. (Just watch Carl Sagan’s Cosmos for a good example.) An appreciation for a feeling of wonder and awe is not the “tattered remains of religion”. It’s just human.

  • 6. Justin  |  June 25, 2008 at 11:41 am

    I’m going to go with “no” on this one. As a Christian, the very notion of spirituality is the dominant theme within the Bible (i.e. the Bible is about spiritual strengthening in its paradoxes and stories). If an atheist is spiritual, then they are capable of faith, and, in my opinion, theist (despite no obvious profession in a God, it still indirectly implies something metaphysical).

    Granted, this is the result of how I define “spirituality”

    God Bless,

    Justin

  • 7. Joe Sperling  |  June 25, 2008 at 11:42 am

    Interesting thread. I went to an atheist church once and they were singing that Bette Midler song “God is watching us” but they changed the words:

    I am watching ME
    I am watching ME
    I am watching ME
    In the mirror.

    Then a dude got up, walked in front of the lecturn and said “today I am very thankful, unfortunately I have only me to thank.” Then everyone else did likewise. It was an extremely interesting service.

    Just kidding.

  • 8. TheNerd  |  June 25, 2008 at 12:01 pm

    If an atheist is spiritual, then they are capable of faith, and, in my opinion, theist (despite no obvious profession in a God, it still indirectly implies something metaphysical).

    I respectfully disagree. My spirituality is best described as humanistic, and I would have to say that there is nothing at all theistic about it. “Spirituality” is simply a quality pertaining to the human spirit, religion being the most common example, but not the only example.

    I am a Bright, and I experience much splendor, goodness, and inspiration from the awesomeness of the natural. My spirit soars as I consider the diversity of life on earth, the power of the forces of physics, and the beauty of human imagination.

    On a somewhat related note, this comic warmed my heart today: http://cectic.com/comics/162.png

  • 9. Frederick Polgardy  |  June 25, 2008 at 12:13 pm

    Fantastic post. The people you called out – Hick, Tillich, Campbell – are great examples of this kind of transcendental way of thinking. Emerson also comes to mind. All these thinkers unabashedly used the word ‘God’ to refer to this transcendent reality, but their god is no Big Cosmic Divine Person who creates and tinkers and meddles with the universe. Their notion of god is much more like the sense of unity one may perceive behind and through the beauty and elegance of the natural world, the laws of nature, mathematics, logic and reason, etc.

    People will of course believe differently about whether this unity exists, or whether to call it God (for the record, I do both), and that’s perfectly fine. But that’s a much different question than whether you believe in the god of the Bible, or any theistic personal god for that matter (once again, for the record, I do not). I don’t believe in a transcendent unity because there are gaps in nature that require a supernatural explanation, but precisely because there are not.

  • 10. SnugglyBuffalo  |  June 25, 2008 at 12:16 pm

    Joe, while I’m admittedly amused by the idea of an atheist church like you describe, I have to disagree with the point you seem to be trying to make there.

    God may no longer be the focus of my life, but that doesn’t mean I’ve replaced him with myself. Isn’t the whole order of importance in Christianity supposed to be God – Others – Yourself? If you knock God off the top, Yourself is still at the bottom.

    As for Justin, why must spirituality imply the metaphysical? As you say, this is just your definition of spirituality. I see no problem with an atheist experiencing “spiritual” moments that are completely disconnected from any sort of supernatural or metaphysical concept.

  • 11. The de-Convert  |  June 25, 2008 at 12:46 pm

    Here’s an earlier post writerdd did that’s related:

    http://de-conversion.com/2008/03/29/spirituality-without-superstition/

    Paul

  • 12. Ubi Dubium  |  June 25, 2008 at 12:50 pm

    Joe:

    Then a dude got up, walked in front of the lecturn and said “today I am very thankful, unfortunately I have only me to thank.” Then everyone else did likewise. It was an extremely interesting service.

    Just kidding.

    Well, I have been to the closest thing to an “atheist church service” It was an Ethical Society Meeting. Speeches were more like this “today I am very thankful, fortunately I have a lot of other people to thank”. The songs were about taking care of each other.

    I often hear christians joke about how empty “atheist church” would be. You should try it sometime. It’s only fair – we’ve tried yours!

  • 13. Joe Sperling  |  June 25, 2008 at 1:00 pm

    Snuggly/Ubi—

    I was just joking. I certainly do realize that because one is an atheist does not mean one is selfish and does not care about other people. It was in the same mode of joke I had made earlier when someone suggested a link, and when I clicked on it a site called “ATHEIST E-BAY” came up. I immediately thought, “what? Do you order something, then get an e-mail later that says ‘thanks for the payment, however, that item no longer exists”. Same vein of humor–not a real comment—just a joke. :>)

  • 14. SnugglyBuffalo  |  June 25, 2008 at 1:19 pm

    Oh, I know it was a joke. I admit, I chuckled when I read it (and was laughing with it, not at it).

    It did strike a bit of a nerve, though. As a Christian, I was all too familiar with the concept of putting oneself in God’s position. But even now I find the idea arrogant and want no part of it. Removing God from my beliefs has not set me in his place.

    So, with a “CHRISTIAN E-BAY” do you order something and get an email saying you’ll receive the item after you die, as long as you continue to believe the item exists? ;)

  • 15. Joe Sperling  |  June 25, 2008 at 1:36 pm

    Snuggly—

    Good one. :>)

  • 16. The de-Convert  |  June 25, 2008 at 1:37 pm

    To add to the sidebar discussion:

    My ideal service would be where I gather together all the people who have influenced and made a contribution to my life and thank them for what they’ve done for me. In addition, gather all the people I love and let them know how much they mean to me. Sing a few songs. Share a drink and a meal. Share kisses and hugs. Go home feeling as if I really showed appreciated to people who have actually done something for me. Sounds a lot better than singing adorations to an invisible friend.

  • 17. Joe Sperling  |  June 25, 2008 at 1:56 pm

    The de-Convert—

    I understand. But if you believe there is being who created all of those wonderful people, and provided the means for them to influence you and make a contribution to your life, you could go home feeling you really showed appreciation to the creator and the created at the same time. Kind of like Christmas is SUPPOSED to be. :>)

  • 18. David  |  June 25, 2008 at 2:19 pm

    Obviously if you’re thinking spiritually there is something missing in your athiest lifestyle that can only be filled by an understanding of christianity.

  • 19. Frederick Polgardy  |  June 25, 2008 at 2:43 pm

    Obviously if you’re thinking spiritually there is something missing in your athiest lifestyle that can only be filled by an understanding of christianity.

    Obviously? Christianity hardly has the market cornered on spirituality.

  • 20. SnugglyBuffalo  |  June 25, 2008 at 3:38 pm

    David, did you forget what blog you were reading? We all have that understanding of Christianity. It doesn’t fill any holes so much as drape a cloth over them to get us to ignore them.

    Seriously, at least Joe Sperling is trying to engage us, instead of spouting Christian platitudes.

  • 21. orDover  |  June 25, 2008 at 4:14 pm

    I don’t feel a need to be spiritual (i.e. seek out transcendental moments), but there are indeed times when I am completely awestruck and realize the great insignificance of my life and of this planet, which Carl Sagan called “a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.” It’s always that realization of how small I am, how small humanity is, and how small the world is that sets me off.

    Last weekend my husband and I watched Contact, and I was completely amazed at the opening scene, which managed to put into very clear perspective how small we all are. It begins with earth, and the radio waves emitting from it. It slowly zooms out, past the planets near us, and the radio waves get progressively older until they fade out altogether. The zoom continues until the arms of our spiral galaxy can be seen, and until that galaxy is nothing but a speck among hundreds of others. And so on.

    You can watch it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vGyq7d62oPQ

  • 22. Joe Sperling  |  June 25, 2008 at 4:35 pm

    David, did you forget what blog you were reading? We all have that understanding of Christianity. It doesn’t fill any holes so much as drape a cloth over them to get us to ignore them.

    Seriously, at least Joe Sperling is trying to engage us, instead of spouting Christian platitudes.

    David—-

    I happen to agree with you. Only Christianity can fill the void within. But I think what Snuggly is saying is that they used to be Christians, so they are fully aware of what it teaches, and they feel it didn’t work for them, or didn’t meet their expectations. Thus the statement “did you forget what blog you are reading?”—this is a “deconversion” blog—some may be atheists, but for the most part most here “used to be” Christians.

    –Joe

  • 23. PiedType  |  June 25, 2008 at 4:58 pm

    Thank you for this beautiful essay on non-theistic spirituality. I nodded many times as I was reading, feeling that someone, finally, had found the words to describe my feelings.

  • 24. SnugglyBuffalo  |  June 25, 2008 at 4:59 pm

    I guess my point is that it’s likely most of the atheists at this blog once believed exactly what David is saying. So coming here and telling it to us is rather… asinine.

    It would be like me telling an atheist-turned-Christian that there’s no evidence that God exists.

  • 25. The de-Convert  |  June 25, 2008 at 5:03 pm

    Joe,

    …Only Christianity can fill the void within…

    Let’s assume for a moment there’s is a God.

    So, in the total course of the history of the universe, 3,000 years or so ago, he choose the group of wandering nomads to be his “chosen people.” He gave them a large set of rules and regs to follow (much of which makes no sense) all to prove a point that they couldn’t follow these. He demanded them to kill all sorts of animals and offer their blood to him so he could overlook their “sin.” He also uses them to conquer and wipe out a bunch of “heathen” nations (many times including the cute little babies). If you were not a part of this small group, you were destined to hell.

    Then he sends Jesus to let his “chosen” people know that it wasn’t about the rules, regs, and sacrifice he put in place but about the heart. Jesus also got killed as the ultimate blood sacrifice. Now his “chosen” people are no longer his chosen people. They will join the parade to hell if they didn’t accept the new rules – Jesus as their personal lord and savior. Of course, now all the other people who were automatically destined to hell could be saved (you can call this progress since every non-Jew was destined to perish prior to 2000 years ago… think of all the poor early peoples who lived in south america for example).

    This is what you believe to be the answer to a “void within?”

    Paul

  • 26. morgangreenster  |  June 25, 2008 at 5:24 pm

    I consider myself sort of an athiest. When I start really believing in God all I start to see is a world full of hell. God would want us to be happy and not pessimists. I don’t believe so much in God becuase I want to be happy and make others happy. Religion has too much to say about evil. I won’t deny that there is evil out there, but a religious mindset actually, ironically gives evil more power.

  • 27. Joe Sperling  |  June 25, 2008 at 5:37 pm

    Paul—-

    I won’t pretend that I know all of the answers, or what an infinite God is doing. I know that man fell, and God could have just said “to heck with it”, destroyed Adam and destroyed the devil, and started all over again (I’m being very simplistic bordering on sacreligious), but he decided not to—only God knows the purposes of God. I don’t know (and this is a stretch I know) but it is possible that God was challenged by this fallen angel, Lucifer, about God’s character, his motives, and his love. God decided to let evil run it’s course, but also provide a way to save mankind from it’s effects. By doing so he would not only prove to man, but also to all of his angels, the fallen angels, and Lucifer himself, who He really is, and show forth his goodness and lovingkindness and judgment.

    So man continued on and lived through different “dispensations”. There was Adam through Noah, and the flood, then Abraham to Moses, under the Law in Moses, and then the appearance of Christ and the day of Grace which we live in right now. After this day of Grace is ended, there will be tribulation, then 1000 years under Jesus Christ himself in the Millenium. Each Dispensation has allowed man to live under a different type of Covenant, and under each one man has proven he needs God desperately.

    Often—-and these aren’t people who are Christians, or describing their conversion, you will hear a drug addict or someone who has hit rock bottom say—-”I needed those drugs—-I was so empty inside”. Someone said, I believe it may have been Augustine “God has set eternity in their hearts” and I believe this to be very true. Everyone is searching for something, or searching for who they are, because they can “sense” a void—-something that isn’t complete or right within themselves.

    When I became a Christian this void was filled. I have had my problems, continued to experience all the problems and disappointments that life gives us, but I know in my heart that I have found (rather he found me) something that I need not look beyond. When someone has tasted the best chocolate on earth, all other chocolates become meaningless—so after I came to know Christ, I have not sought after anything else to fulfill me. Of course, I am a man and have physical needs–so I’m not saying I am completely satisfied all the time. What I mean is that deep within my heart I have found the closest friend and the deepest friendship I could ever had. I say this very sincerely with all of my heart. And there are many, many other Christians also who will say the same thing.

    Only God knows his true purposes. One can find many reasons for not believing in him I suppose–they bring up wrath and hell, etc.—–but read the prophets, and the Psalms and the New Testament and see the number of times it says “because of the great LOVE he had for us”. The most famous verse of all John 3:16 says “For God so loved the world he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life”.

    The only way I can explain my position on this is to quote the Bible at times and explain from this spiritual standpoint. But you brought up several points Paul, and wanted to try to address them. You’ve probably heard it all before, but it’s hard to answer questions about a God I believe in, and Christianity, without using the source it all comes from—the Bible.

  • 28. SnugglyBuffalo  |  June 25, 2008 at 6:18 pm

    Interesting, then, that I have felt far more fulfillment and satisfaction in the relationships I have with other people than I ever had with God, even when I was at my most faithful.

    As I’ve stated elsewhere, I’ve never really felt a need for God. I believed in God because I thought it was truth, and now that I’m moving away from that belief I don’t feel any emptiness. I’m no less satisfied with life now than I was before.

    The argument that only God can fill that void rings pretty hollow for a person who feels no loss when God is no longer in their life, and felt no greater fulfillment when he was. Maybe some people have a need for spirituality, and for them I can understand why religion might fill that need. But this need is, quite frankly, rather foreign to me.

  • 29. Hugo  |  June 25, 2008 at 7:12 pm

    One of my favourite theists, “Real Live Preacher”, had this paragraph in a recent blog post:

    It’s a spiritual exercise to take a deep breath and try to let go of worrying about things you cannot control. I’m better at this at 46 than I was at 36, but still not there. One spiritual excercise that helps me deal with this kind of stress is to intentionally pay attention to little things. Okay, I’m on the side of the highway, so what can I watch and learn while I am here?

    Connects well with this post, and he’d agree. ;-)

  • 30. Joe Sperling  |  June 25, 2008 at 8:15 pm

    The argument that only God can fill that void rings pretty hollow for a person who feels no loss when God is no longer in their life

    Snuggly—-

    This is what I cannot understand when somone says they have deconverted. I know you have heard it before, and get sick of it, but this is what makes one wonder if the person who claims to have been a Christian really was one. Forgive me for saying that, but I am just being honest.

    You see, the greatest sadnesses I have ever suffered as a Christian were not that I might go to hell (though I did go through a horrible time when I thought I might have comiitted the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit–and this did fill me with great fear), but they were that God might cast me off or forget about me—-this didn’t bring fear—-but huge sadness, because I had experienced his great lovingkindness and sweetness, and I didn’t want God to leave my life because he was my dearest friend.

    These were simply episodes of faithlessness, but the sadness at the thought of God not loving me was more than I could bear. Think of a person that you love so deeply you could almost burst, and then the thought of them leaving you. God had blessed me with the deepest love and kindness, and the thought of Him not being around was unbearable. It has been this remembrance of HIs love that has always kept me from turning back, or turning away for good.

    So when you say you feel “no loss” it makes me wonder if you ever really knew the Lord. I’m sorry—don’t be angry for my saying that—-again, I am just being sincere. I wonder how I could ever turn away for good from someone who has been so loving and kind to me, and I just can’t imagine it—it makes me want to run all the more towards Jesus and tell him “Lord, please don’t ever let me fall—seeing you in Heaven will make all of this life, and all of the ups and downs, and trials and temptations all worth it. I know some scoff, but that is really what is in my heart. I just could never turn my back on such a friend.

    -joe

  • 31. Ubi Dubium  |  June 25, 2008 at 11:06 pm

    These were simply episodes of faithlessness, but the sadness at the thought of God not loving me was more than I could bear. Think of a person that you love so deeply you could almost burst, and then the thought of them leaving you.

    But for a real person that I love that deeply – I have evidence that they actually exist. I can see and touch and talk to them. I’ve never had any evidence for god – only the assurances of preachers and books that the love is there. For some de-converts, it’s like loving someone so deeply you could almost burst, then finding out the object of your love was only a character in a book after all. Disappointing. But it’s not the disappointment of “I’ve lost his love”, but the disappointment of “he was never real, so there was never any actual love to begin with”. But the emptiness from that kind of loss can be filled by relationships with actual people. (My daughter once had an imaginary friend that was so real to her that she threw a tantrum when that friend got left at the playground in the rain. She outgrew that kind of thing long ago.)

  • 32. Archie  |  June 25, 2008 at 11:24 pm

    De-Convert…. Now that’s a thought. The problem with it is the idea infers that the candidate was once converted. It’s kinda like saying, “I was an alcoholic, but not now since I stopped drinking.”

    One is either converter or not. Possibly, a better expression which communicates the event would be to say, “I am Exchanged”. I have exchanged my life for the life of Christ.

    You either are or you are not. If you are not, you never were.

  • 33. TheNerd  |  June 25, 2008 at 11:30 pm

    So when you say you feel “no loss” it makes me wonder if you ever really knew the Lord.

    Honestly, I had always been taught that God chose me, and that he loves me unconditionally, that my faith made manifest through my desire to please him would be enough proof of my continual status as his child. So when it finally hit me emotionally that there was no Christian God, what I felt most was “I’m not chosen? There is no great plan? No divine reward? I feel so… mortal.” Yes, it’s a let-down. But it’s a loss of the grandiosity of the supernatural more than anything else.

    I won’t dive into the “no true Scotsman” aspects of this (I’m sure someone else will). I simply know that the mind is powerful enough to experience emotions and convictions independent of reality, so greatly in fact that people can create their own truths, their own memories, their own physical stimuli even! A simple Google search on “false memory” can reveal as much. (One good site: http://www.fmsfonline.org/ )

    As I could ramble on for quite some time, I will instead summarize my thoughts on this topic as concisely as possible: If the mind can affect change in the body through a simple medical placebo (sugar pill), how much more can the mind affect itself through an emotional placebo (such as by creating a personal relationship with a deity)?

  • 34. SnugglyBuffalo  |  June 26, 2008 at 12:13 am

    I’ve never been very good at articulating my feelings, so you’ll have to bear with me. I suppose “feel no loss” is a bit misleading, as I certainly do feel the disappointment TheNerd mentions. But there’s no void in my life to fill. And with God suddenly taken out of the picture, no void has shown up. That’s what I mean by “feel no loss.” I guess a better way to put it is that without God, I feel no void appearing in my life. I believed in God with all my heart, prayed and “spoke with him” frequently, and believed he spoke back. Now I’ve taken a step back, and realized that it was “all in my head” so to speak.

    The thought of God no longer loving me would indeed have been devastating, and incredibly saddening. The realization that God doesn’t exist is different. Disappointment describes it much better, perhaps with the sadness one expects to accompany disappointment.

    Like I said, I have a hard time articulating this sort of thing.

  • 36. RIchard  |  June 26, 2008 at 1:51 am

    Thanks to everyone for the comments!

    Justin-
    “Granted, this is the result of how I define “spirituality””

    Ding-ding! If you necessitate that anyone who is “spiritual” has some intrinsic awareness of God, then if I claim to be “spiritual” then, well, I must have an intrinsic awareness of God. So, yes, I agree your conclusion follows from you definition. I just disagree with your definition. Thats my point. “Spiritual” for us non-theists can be the term used to refer to wholly this-worldly experiences, sans any metaphysical ontology.

    Re: thankfulness without God. I wrote a post on emotions as relates to de-conversion. The bottom line: emotions do not have to be logical. Thats what makes them emotions. Theres nothing at all inconsistent with *feeling* thankfulness for the good things in your life while not *thinking* there is a God. Havent you ever gotten mad at your computer? How much sense does that make? Heres the post:
    http://de-conversion.com/2008/01/30/youre-just-angry-at-god/

    Finally, re: a “void” without God. For a long time I struggled with this. I felt a “God shaped hole”, to borrow Bono’s felicitous phrase. But the void, I came to believe, was in reality just (“just”!) the loss of a fantasy. This is not meant to be dismissive! It was a fantasy I adored and lived for many years. And its loss was not at all dissimilar from the way many teens or children feel when, one day, they suddenly cease to see their parents as larger-than-life figures and begin to see them as very limited, very finite, 3-D human beings. Its a loss, sure enough, but what was “lost” was the fantasy, the wish, that something they (in a very real way) experienced and took for granted, no longer can be believed in. And, just as for teens, it means that there really is no one “out there”, bigger than me, smarter than me, looking out for me.

    This is a profound loss, yes. But, just as with teens, it is part-and-parcel of being human. It is the experience of what existentialists call “finitude” and it is, I believe, our salvation. (But thats another essay…. ;) )

  • 37. Quester  |  June 26, 2008 at 2:13 am

    One of the theological trends I enjoyed as a Christian was Creative theology. At the beginning of Genesis, we are claimed to be created in God’s image. The only image of God we have been given at this point in the Bible is that of Creator. Thus, to the extent that we create, we live out God’s image in our lives. Also at the beginning of Genesis, God inspires Adam (that is, God breathes the breath of life into Adam). To inhale is to take a breath. To release that breath is to exhale. To be inspired is to have received the breath of life. To release that breath is to expire.

    Even without a god, I can connect to this sort of “spirituality”. There is wonder, beauty, glamour, hope, awe, humour, honour and integrity to be seen and experienced all around, whether they are things, processes, relationships or experiences. These things can inspire me (fill me with the breath of life). I can respond to this inspiration with creation, be it archetypically artistic pursuits such as painting, dancing or singing, or other creative acts such as crafting an argument, planting a garden, raising a family or programming a computer.

    So here, then, is my formula for spirituality, be it theist, or non-theist: The world is good. Go make it better.

    I like that, a lot. Can I use that?

  • 38. Frederick Polgardy  |  June 26, 2008 at 9:36 am

    orDover -

    I love the opening scene from Contact. Pure genius. There are literally minutes of dead silence after the last sounds fall away… enough to really meditate for a moment on the enormity of the universe.

  • 39. Joe Sperling  |  June 26, 2008 at 11:26 am

    As I could ramble on for quite some time, I will instead summarize my thoughts on this topic as concisely as possible: If the mind can affect change in the body through a simple medical placebo (sugar pill), how much more can the mind affect itself through an emotional placebo (such as by creating a personal relationship with a deity)?

    The Nerd—

    I would agree the mind can do many amazing things. But I have mentioned a few times here already—what happened to me is beyond my explanation, and so very real, that there is no way to deny it. I won’t deny that I have had times of doubt, but a big part of getting out of the doubt is looking back and remembering that day, and the days following after my conversion.

    I really and truly had no idea who God was, or even what Christianity was at all. My Grandmother when I was a kid told me “the Lord is my Shepherd” and I would always think of a German Shepherd because I had no idea what she was talking about. (not to be sacreligious, but this was truly the case).

    Our next door neighbor met a girl who was a Christian, so he began to say he was one. I spoke with him very little, and though “what does he mean ‘a christian–I’m a Lutheran–I called myself Lutheran because that’s what my Mom said she was, though we never went to church, and she never prayed or taught about God.

    Now, this neighbor came to the door and I answered. He said “there is still time” and handed me a Gospel of John. I closed the door, threw the booklet on a table, and it sat there for 3-4 days. Finally, I came in one day from school, saw it sitting there and thought “oh, what the heck, I’ll give it a read”.

    So–I must enforce this—-I had no pre-concieved notion of God, or of an “experience” that was supposed to take place, or anything of that sort. As I began to read my interest was peaked, as I read of “eternal life”—of course, everyone would love to live forever! But it still all sounded like a “story” to me. But then I hit chapter 10 and saw these words “I know my sheep, and I call them by name”—and I do not know how to describe this—I heard no audible voice—but it was like someone was calling to me. All I said was “Jesus—I want to be one of your sheep”. And at that very moment the booklet changed from a story, and a “read” into a personal message to me. Many don’t have emotional experiences, but I literally experienced an embrace from the Father, and I KNEW I was accepted of Him.

    I felt the greatest joy imaginable, and picked up my guitar and wrote a song to Jesus called “Jesus how I love you”—now remember, only hours before I didn’t even know who the heck Jesus really was—and yet here, alone in my room, after reading a booklet, I am overjoyed and writing songs to someone, and experiencing such awesome peace and joy I cannot even describe it.

    I know—-this was MY experience. And due to this experience it took a long time for me to stop looking for more of this experience and to walk by faith. I learned that God will sometimes fill people at salvation with huge feelings of his presence, and then later remove them, so that we learn to walk by faith and not by sight.

    Now—-there have been many times when I have been filled with doubt, even bordering on despair, but I always remember God’s promises first—-and then always look back and remember that day—I think upon it clearly–and I remember that there is no way that I made that experience happen to me—just no way. God really and truly showed himself to me in a most marvelous way—and I always remember that comfort, and who He is—-I know that when there are clouds the sun is behind them—-and in my “experience” I may not “feel” God is there, but He is–He is as close as He ever was to me.

    I know all I can do is tell my story—kind of like the blind man telling the Pharisees “All I know is that once I was blind, but now I see” as they grilled him about how he was healed. In one day I was healed of Spritual blindness, and all I can say is the same thing “I remember once I was blind, but now I see–I do not know how it happened–it was a miracle—but I know for sure that it did happen”.

  • 40. Quester  |  June 26, 2008 at 12:52 pm

    I’m glad that happened for you, Joe. I’m glad you have an experience to hold onto in times of doubt, darkness and despair. I hope that this gives you hope and inspires you to continue growing and improving yourself and reaching out to others in compassion.

    But it seems this story is all you have as a reason to believe. It’s more than enough for you, and that’s great- for you. It’s all I had, too- my stories of God acting in my life. I thought I had external evidence. I was wrong. I thought I had a consistent message to cling to. I was wrong. I thought I could tell what God wanted. I was wrong. I thought God would act through my weaknesses and use my few strengths in furthering His will if I relied on Him alone. I was wrong.

    Take away the Bible, Joe. Take away the church and the church fathers. Keep the only thing you have which you truly know you have- your story. What does it actually tell you about God? God is a being you can not see who occasionally does wonders in the lives of those who desire to follow Him, in one guise or another, then doesn’t do anything else.

    Is there any reason to assume this god is more powerful than a leprechaun, or the tooth fairy? Any reason to assume this god is omnipotent, omnipresent, omnianything? Any reason to suspect anything about the afterlife at all? Any hint to God’s will for your life, in specific terms?

    No. There’s just the knowledge that, occasionally, cool stuff happens that we can not readily explain of our own resources.

    I’m glad it does.

  • 41. Originate  |  June 26, 2008 at 5:41 pm

    The world is not good… On the other hand the world is not bad. In the grand scheme of things there is no micro or macro bias as far as the universe is concerned.

    What you are feeling is the want to belong and fit in. We are all separated by our inability to truly connect with other beings. I have felt it and still feel drawn to it at times when I feel some sense of greater purpose or even when I feel completely alone. To me this does not correlate directly to any form or function of the word “spirit”. This is our own desperate nature to feel like we are a part of something so that we don’t have to feel so terribly small and insignificant.

  • 42. TheNerd  |  June 26, 2008 at 10:54 pm

    “I literally experienced an embrace from the Father, and I KNEW I was accepted of Him.”

    I find this to be amusing, because I recently watched a skeptic named Darren Brown “convert” an atheist to theism. She described feeling a literal embrace from a force, and “knew” there was a god. Then he caused almost everyone else in the room to feel the same “touch of god”. You should watch it, and know that your feeling isn’t unique to Christianity, or even to religion, but is common in all of us: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Sq-YUdq1OI

    Actually, I am sure I have linked to it before. So what I want you to do is watch this and its second half, and after you’ve watched them both, tell me how your experience is “more real” than theirs.

  • 43. Atheistic Spirituality: A Personal Note « de-conversion  |  June 27, 2008 at 12:46 am

    [...] 27, 2008 In my previous blog, Can an Atheist be Spiritual?, I showed how we non-theists can borrow, from religious liberals, what I think is a beautiful and [...]

  • 44. Joe Sperling  |  June 27, 2008 at 11:11 am

    TheNerd—

    I’ve seen what you are talking about. It is very questionable. But despite that, what I am talking about was far different than what the girl said about an “embrace from a force”—and again, I was completely alone in my room reading—I didn’t have anyone influencing me, or working on me emotionally.

    And I had to read through half the Gospel of John, ask Christ to come into my life, before this mircaulous change took place.

    I know I can’t convince you though—-all I can do is repeat what happened, and know, 35 years later it is still just as real today as it was then. Oh well.

  • 45. Dane  |  August 7, 2008 at 1:57 am

    stop and smell the roses

  • 46. Tiko  |  March 11, 2014 at 7:44 am

    Very well put, and I sympathize with your piotoisn. As you may recall in an earlier radio show, I expressed that I felt humanity is waking up from a patriarchal model of religion and government, and we are being called at this time to integrate a greater compassion for humanity into these arenas. To me spirituality is addressing the human spirit which I believe is not physical or at least not of a physicality that our five senses can perceive. I do not think of God as male or female, because that is thinking of God in human terms creating God in the image and likeness of us. I usually refer to God as It . I think of It as a metaphysical force or energy that causes things to grow, that beats our hearts, and breathes our lungs the Source of all Life, the Thing that creates life, the life-affirming force. But it is not outside ourselves, and we can never be separate from It. Just as there is a Law of Gravity, there are certain Natural Laws that improve our life if we live in harmony with them, and put us in a state of frustration if we don’t understand them. One of the Natural Laws is that the energy you put out comes back to you. I was addressing SJ’s comment of bringing out the good in all religions when I gave examples of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” He was speaking in the context of religions, therefore I quoted something that many religions have in common. That ancient teaching is an example of the metaphysical law that the type of energy you put out is what comes back to you and manifests in your life. The other teaching I quoted as being in common with many religions is to “worship only God and have no strange gods before Him”. The word “Him” is not my word, but what other religions teach. I believe this teaching reflects the metaphysical tenet to not believe in anything but the One spiritual Life Force as the Source of good in your life. In other words, looking to your rulers, your authorities, your investments, your job, or even your spouse for whatever good you are seeking is fruitless, although your good might just come from any of these avenues. But they are not the ultimate Source of our good, and therefore not deserving of giving away our spiritual power to these physical forms. Remembering that the Source of Life within ourselves is the source of all our good keeps our power within our own energy – what we are putting out. Interesting that you mention the desert god. My family is from Lithuania and I was raised with many of the pagan beliefs of Lithuania – a very rainy agricultural seaside region alongside our Catholic rituals. Lithuania was the last European country to be Christianized, and only accepted it after numerous onslaughts by the Crusaders. I definitely resonate with the pagan gods the ancient Lithuanians worshipped, which were basically Nature – Mother Sun and Mother Earth (it was a matriarchal society). Also, Fire was very sacred. I am named for the Goddess of the Underground – I guess that’s why I’ve spent my life in spiritual “excavation”. Thank you for your comment. Nijole

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Attention Christian Readers

Just in case you were wondering who we are and why we de-converted.

de-conversion wager

Whether or not you believe in God, you should live your life with love, kindness, compassion, mercy and tolerance while trying to make the world a better place. If there is no God, you have lost nothing and will have made a positive impact on those around you. If there is a benevolent God reviewing your life, you will be judged on your actions and not just on your ability to blindly believe in creeds- when there is a significant lack of evidence on how to define God or if he/she even exists.

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