Atheistic Spirituality: A Personal Note

June 27, 2008 at 12:44 am 26 comments

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 evocative language to talk about spirituality – without buying into the ontology that is tacked on to it. For my part, I consider myself a religious naturalist, meaning I do not believe in any supernatural being, but I nevertheless find religious language uniquely suited to capture and evoke that wonder and beauty and goodness – there is no better word than “holiness” – that I find in the world. In this post, let me briefly elaborate on my own experience (as the case study I personally know the best) about non-theistic spirituality.

When I left Christianity, I found I suddenly had to face the world without all the comforting illusions evangelical Christianity had provided for me. I was no longer “special” in that Christian sense – no longer one of the elect, who “got” the world as no other group did, who was destined for eternal glory. Moreover, I could no longer expect rescue or protection from life’s most painful truths: we are finite and vulnerable, we all die, we are all alone in the world, we are responsible for our own lives with no one to blame, that we must find our own meaning in life.

Yet it was exactly in that encounter with these existential “givens” in life – with the tenuousness and frailty of human life – that I, for the first time, saw its true value. For the first time I could see just how infinitely precious human life really is, how rare and wonderful true human intimacy really is, how important it is to nurture human growth and human potential, how unguarded and vulnerable we are – and hence, how responsible we are for each other. Precisely because our lives do not last forever and precisely because there is no one who will ever swoop in and make it all better, I saw that we have to live life to the fullest now, we have to take care of each other now, we have to treasure each moment now. Life is good. I felt that in my soul. But it is not perfect and there is much room for improvement. And since there may be no tomorrow, and there is no one else to do it – that means that we have to do it.

This experience reverberated throughout my life and inspires me even today. From the raising of my children, to the flourishing of my marriage and my family, to my work in mental health, and even to my predilection for gardening, all share a common inspiration, and a common goal based on that inspiration: I like to help things grow. For life is wonderful, the world is wonderful, but they are even better when living things grow and thrive. I have a deep sense of wonder and beauty in the natural world, and nothing leaves me awed like astronomy, but it is in the close-at-hand that I personally find most inspiration. Human relationships are holy. Nurturing human growth and human relationships is a centering principle in my life. Helping others grow by writing these essays (presuming I succeed!) is a part of that, too.

This, then, is my spirituality. In a way, it could be said that leaving fundamentalist Christianity was the most religious thing I’ve ever done.

- Richard

Entry filed under: Richard. Tags: , , , , , .

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26 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Walking Away  |  June 25, 2008 at 1:34 am

    Richard, I really enjoyed your post. It came at a moment when I was sitting here thinking back to how comforting it was to believe that God was there looking out for me, caring about the details of me life, etc. But it also felt empty and contrived…it never seemed real, it was more what was expected of me to believe that caused me to have that assurance. I don’t know if that makes sense.

    I agree that human relationships are holy, I hope to develop some soon with people in person, not just online. Its not as easy as it may seem.

  • 2. Blue Linchpin  |  June 25, 2008 at 5:00 am

    Beautiful post.

    I couldn’t agree more about “holiness” in the world. As an atheist/agnostic, I see much of the world as sacred and holy–nature, the innocence of children, freedom, love, etc. These words to me have no religious meanings–they are deeply spiritual and seperate from a god.

    You wrote what I couldn’t!

  • 3. the chaplain  |  June 27, 2008 at 2:05 am

    Another great post. Even though I still tend to shy away from the language of spirituality, I think my appreciation for life and relationships has been enhanced since I stopped viewing them through the lenses of Christianity. My experience was that those lenses distorted the views quite badly.

  • 4. Katinka Hesselink - spirituality  |  June 27, 2008 at 8:28 am

    Well put. I would call myself spiritual, or even religious (in a very liberal sense), but your post still speaks to me. Thanks.

  • 5. TheNerd  |  June 27, 2008 at 9:44 am

    A moving example of how powerful human spirituality can be. Thank you for sharing this with us.

  • 6. Zoe  |  June 27, 2008 at 9:58 am

    Enjoyed this. Thanks Richard.

  • 7. LeoPardus  |  June 27, 2008 at 10:11 am

    Just adding my voice to the so far unanimous praise. Very well written Richard. What you say here resonates strongly with my motivations as a scientist in the biomedical world. My professional life is dedicated to understanding diseases, seeking cures, and helping others understand those diseases and cures. It is holy in the same sense you express here.

    I note that you have a fine facility with words. Do you write for a living, or a hobby? If not, it just might be a calling for you.

  • 8. Blog Jumper  |  June 27, 2008 at 10:42 am

    I have a question.

    Without God, how can life have “meaning”?

    I know there is an almost immediate emotional response to this, but please think about it for a minute. Certainly there are things in a person’s life that can mean a great deal to that individual. I understand that the original blog here was indeed mentioning things that were important from an individual perspective. But like so many phrases in the English language, people can sometimes see a phrase or word and comprehend it in a different way than other people.
    The word in question is “meaning”. The phrase in question is “meaning of life”, or if you will, “life’s meaning”. “Meaning” implies “Purpose”. If there is something or someone you care a great deal for, then it’s probably important to you. But life itself, (or even a living thing itself) can have no “meaning” if it was not created for a purpose. If the universe (which obviously includes the existence of all life) is only the result of random chance, then it clearly has no purpose and therefore no meaning. Many people feel that they care a great deal about nature. But if everything (including this planet) is nothing more than a random cosmic accident, there is really no logical reason to attach an emotional value to anything.
    I hope this makes sense. I work nights and I have not been to sleep yet. I didn’t write this try to prove anything or to be an advocate for any ideology. I’m really just curious.

  • 9. orDover  |  June 27, 2008 at 10:55 am

    Why does there have to be meaning? I’m okay with random chaos. I embrace the uncertainty principle. I understand that from an evolutionary standpoint I am only here to mingle my genes with another to create a new and diverse set of genes to enhance the human gene pool. But having said that, if the universe lacks a specifically defined meaning, then that means we get to choose our own. In Richard’s first post on non-theistic spirituality he chose that his purpose in life was to make the world a better place. I think that contains much more goodness and meaning than the Christian answer to the meaning of the universe and of life, “to worship god.”

    Anyway, this post reminds me of how much I love Sartre.

  • 10. Ted Goas  |  June 27, 2008 at 11:10 am

    I agree with onDover. I have no problem with complete randomness. I am even OK with this as a possible explanation for the creation of life.

    Random chaos and coincidence. There may be a higher power behind it all, but does there have to be?

  • 11. Richard  |  June 27, 2008 at 11:30 am

    Blog Jumper – My short answer to your question is that I agree with the existentialists that meaning is created and chosen, not discovered or appropriated from some larger system, like fundamentalism.

    Its true that from the “larger perspective” of, say, God or the universe, there is no purpose. But my question is why do we care about any “larger” perspective inthe first place? Esp if we think there is no God, and since the universe so far as we know is not sentient, there is no “larger perspective”. It doesnt exist! So if there is no Gods-eye view, then our own limited, finite, imperfect human view is all there is.

    And, really, why shouldnt that be enough for us? There may be no “logical” reason, as you say, to attach emotional value to anything, but that misses the whole point of emotions. Thre are not logical. They are not trying to be. “Meaning” does not have to be the result of a deductive inference. It can be, at rock bottom, entirely emotional, and well, thats just the way we humans are. Ive made my peace with that — that was part of the deconversion process, for me. Anyway, thank for your thoughtful and respecftul remarks. I always welcome honest curiosity and honest questions.

    Leo – No, writing is is just a hobby, but I sure enjoy the heck out of it. I wish I had time to write more but, alas, with my “real” job and two little ankle biters running around, I have my hands full. Thanks for the complement!

  • 12. Griffin  |  June 27, 2008 at 1:06 pm

    Blog Jumper:

    What is it that frightens you so much about a life that isn’t given meaning by some outside authority? Are you so unable to find the beauty and joy in simply being alive that you must have a ‘goal’ for life assigned to you?

    Reading a great novel can be done because it is assigned and you will be tested and graded afterwards or because you simply want to have the experience of reading the novel. Either way, the ‘meaning’ of the novel is the same.

    As an atheist, I have accepted that my rejection of religion means that I have to work harder. I have to think about morality instead of just reading the rules and following them. I have to find my own meaning instead of being assigned that meaning by others.

    I find meaning in loving those close to me and also in helping those I don’t know. I find meaning in creating beautiful and useful things, whether they be a piece of art, a meal, or a feeling in another person. I find meaning in learning more about the world around me. No one told me to find meaning in these things. I think that if they did, the meaning would be gone.

    Also, I reject your equation of ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’ because ‘meaning’ is an non-literal construct while ‘purpose’ is a literal one. Our world is full of things that have meaning without purpose. We like to call these things art. Creation of things that have meaning without purpose is one of the great achievements of humanity. No other creature here on earth does that.

    Regardless, life is like a beautiful waterfall. It’s existence is not imbued by some arbitrary authority with ‘meaning’ or ‘purpose.’ Water flowing from one elevation to another may evoke an emotional response in a viewer (meaning) or be used to power a waterwheel (purpose) but that ‘meaning’ and that ‘purpose’ comes from within the viewer/builder, not from the waterfall.

  • 13. Cthulhu  |  June 27, 2008 at 1:22 pm

    Griffin,

    Regardless, life is like a beautiful waterfall. It’s existence is not imbued by some arbitrary authority with ‘meaning’ or ‘purpose.’ Water flowing from one elevation to another may evoke an emotional response in a viewer (meaning) or be used to power a waterwheel (purpose) but that ‘meaning’ and that ‘purpose’ comes from within the viewer/builder, not from the waterfall.

    Nice analogy.

  • 14. Blog Jumper  |  June 27, 2008 at 6:12 pm

    The point of my question was simply to understand what “meaning of life” was in reference to. That was mentioned in the original blog and I was simply curious to know what Richard meant. I have no issues with a person who believes that life holds no “greater purpose”. It doesn’t “scare” me in the least. I just wanted to understand the perspective because as I said, people can have a different opinion of what certain words and phrases mean.

  • 15. Carol Walczak  |  June 27, 2008 at 7:08 pm

    Richard, I relate to your post very strongly. When I freed myself from religion, I began to see myself and the world much more clearly, and began to find my true self. It is a brave soul who can take the responsibility for their life and decisions, without needing a god of some sort to make it all ok.

  • 16. Quester  |  June 27, 2008 at 7:52 pm

    For me, in a universe without a God, meaning and purpose need to be arrived at internally in life, since they are not applied externally. This does not mean that life is meaningless, but it does mean that life only has what meaning we choose to give it (all right, others can choose what our lives mean to them, as well, but you know what I mean).

  • 17. RIchard  |  June 27, 2008 at 10:24 pm

    Griffin — Extremely well said. And what a lovely analogy; Im going to remember that one. Thanks for your thoughts.

  • 18. Griffin  |  June 28, 2008 at 8:04 am

    Blog Jumper: “But life itself, (or even a living thing itself) can have no “meaning” if it was not created for a purpose. If the universe (which obviously includes the existence of all life) is only the result of random chance, then it clearly has no purpose and therefore no meaning.”

    While I rambled a bit in my first response, my reason for replying to you question was because I disagreed that something created without ‘purpose’ could never have ‘meaning.’

    Perhaps I would be better able to answer your question if you could explain to me why something that came into being without design (no purpose) could be by definition without meaning?

  • 19. Blog Jumper  |  June 28, 2008 at 9:48 am

    Griffin, I’m actually glad that you asked this in post #18 because I think we are operating with a slightly different understanding of the word “Meaning”. Normally, I dislike the use of dictionary definitions in blogs. But in this case, I need to so that I can explain where I’m coming from.
    Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary has 4 definitions for the word “meaning”. In the context of this discussion, the definitions are…

    “significant quality; especially : implication of a hidden or special significance”.
    and
    “something meant or intended”

    So from my point of view, an individual can indeed find things that are meaningful to them as you have said. But it can only extend to that individual. It is common for people to use the term in a universal way such as…”the meaning of life”, or “what’s the meaning of it all?”. When used in this way, it does imply that there is a universal meaning and yes, purpose. Do you see where this is leading? So an atheist can find things of meaning to them. But I was speaking to the “special, hidden, intended” use of the word “meaning”.

    If I posted anything offensive to anyone, it was not intentional.

  • 20. Obi  |  June 28, 2008 at 11:07 am

    The core, basic meaning/purpose of life is to procreate to (1) Ensure the survival of one’s genes and (2) Ensure the survival of one’s species. However as humans we’ve developed complex brains and complex social structures that allow us to interact with others and think on a “higher” level, and this level is what allows us to give meaning above this base meaning/purpose in our lives (I aim to become a cardiologist, for example), whether it’s consciously by one’s self (an atheist) or unconsciously by one’s self (a theist).

    Either way you look at it, we’re giving meaning to our own lives, the theist just isn’t aware that they’re actually the ones giving their lives meaning, and not some mystical external force.

  • 21. Blog Jumper  |  June 28, 2008 at 12:15 pm

    Obi, you said..”meaning/purpose of life is to procreate to (1) Ensure the survival of one’s genes and (2) Ensure the survival of one’s species”

    You know you might be right because it is logical after all, but I doubt we’ll ever see that on a “Hallmark” card. It’s rather lacking in the “warm and fuzzy” department. :-)

  • 22. Obi  |  June 28, 2008 at 12:58 pm

    Blog Jumper said, “You know you might be right because it is logical after all, but I doubt we’ll ever see that on a “Hallmark” card. It’s rather lacking in the “warm and fuzzy” department.”

    It would actually be biological, mate. And yes, I’d assume that science doesn’t mesh well with Hallmark gift cards.

  • 23. Lorena  |  June 29, 2008 at 12:24 am

    . If the universe (which obviously includes the existence of all life) is only the result of random chance, then it clearly has no purpose and therefore no meaning.

    I agree with others that purpose isn’t necessary; particularly, a purpose outside of ourselves.

    I know one thing: we are here. Since we are here, making this world and its people better for us and the future generations to have a pleasant, safe, healthy life seems plenty purposeful to me.

  • 24. RIchard  |  June 29, 2008 at 11:02 am

    One example I read somewhere (sorry, I cant source this) is the following: suppose it was discovered that human beings were placed here, as a species, by a superior, and malevolent, alien intelligence. Suppose we discovered that we were engineered by them with the sole purpose of creating a race of slaves.

    So, clearly, we have a purpose, in this example: to service an alien race. Is that suficient for us to say, then, that we have a “purpose?”

    To some of us, the forced choice of eternal service to a being who tourtures all who do not willingly serve it, or else the torture, is not much different than this. The “purpose” here is wanting.

  • 25. Griffin  |  June 30, 2008 at 8:41 am

    Blog Jumper:

    “So from my point of view, an individual can indeed find things that are meaningful to them as you have said. But it can only extend to that individual. It is common for people to use the term in a universal way such as…”the meaning of life”, or “what’s the meaning of it all?”. When used in this way, it does imply that there is a universal meaning and yes, purpose.”

    I’d be tempted to say that these people are either intellectually lazy or lacking in imagination. If you’re looking for a deep, hidden meaning, it’s up to you to go find one, not to sit around an lament that no one offered them a pre-fabricated set of ‘meanings’ to answer all your questions without asking them to do any work.

    Condemning them wouldn’t really be fair, though. All societies create an atmosphere that teaches its members, ‘it all has meaning.’ That meaning is almost always ‘religion’ and here in America, that ‘meaning’ is Jesus. It’s no surprise that people are looking for ‘meaning’ wrapped up in a bow. That’s what society tells us to do.

    It’s really a pretty heinous thing. It tells you that ‘meaning’ is out there in a neat little package (Bible) and all one has to do is accept it. The reality, however, is that an individual either deceives themselves into accepting that ‘meaning’ or has to find their own (personal) meaning after coming to the conclusion that Biblical ‘meaning’ doesn’t really add up.

  • 26. Obi  |  June 30, 2008 at 8:57 am

    On that note, I always say that an atheist is one who gives meaning to their lives consciously while a theist is one who does it unconsciously.

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Attention Christian Readers

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

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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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