Atheistic Spirituality: A Personal Note
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.