I have just read an article about a new television channel starting up in the USA, which is devoted to all things atheistic. The article also cited some data from the Pew Forum research centre, which states that 26% of American atheists consider themselves to be ‘spiritual’ – i.e.; a significant minority see no contradiction between a belief that no god or gods exist, and connection with a non-material, transcendent ground of all existence, such as has traditionally been included within the definition of the word ‘god’. To say one is ‘spiritual but not religious’ is something that makes sense, as does ‘spiritual agnostic’, but in the case of ‘spiritual atheist’ there is clearly some confusion about either one, or both, of the two operative terms employed.
I did a quick search for ‘spiritual atheist’, and found a couple of guides as to what atheists might mean when they say that they are also spiritual. The first definition, from the ‘Centre for Spiritual Atheism’ states that a.) ‘Spiritual Atheists do not believe in the existence of an entity external to the universe that supposedly created and rules the universe’ (thus subtly but significantly altering the classical definition of an atheist, such that it might be able to include at least Pantheism), and b.):
‘Spiritual Atheists believe that the entire universe is, in some way, connected; even if only by the mysterious flow of cause and effect at every scale. Therefore, Spiritual Atheists generally feel that as they go about their lives striving to be personally healthy and happy, they should also be striving to help the world around them be healthy and happy!’
Now, aside from the questions that this definition raises (e.g.; given that a transcendent Creator and Lawgiver has been rejected, what does it mean for the universe to be connected if there are no objective laws at all, let alone the law of cause and effect? What does it really mean to be happy if our ideas about goodness and happiness can simply be reduced to our own opinions?) this is very far from what most people would associate with the word ‘spirituality’. It seems that, for this group at least, spirituality has been reinterpreted in terms of the basic recognition that we exist, and are connected in some way with all other things in existence.
Another guide to how atheists can be ‘spiritual’ is from the ‘Thought Catalogue’, which, before listing five ways in which an atheist can feel involved in and with the world, provides the following disclaimer:
‘Though I dislike the word spirituality itself, mainly due to all its religious connotations, I understand the word’s significance. Spirituality is simply an adjective that is used to describe the search for one’s place in the universe.
No one wants to feel alone in life, and even if you are alone, being spiritual makes you feel connected to the world and other people in it. Atheists get that, and it is important, maybe even essential, to our species’ psychological makeup to feel this way. There are ways to feel involved with the world that do not involve mystic mumbo-jumbo however.’
So it seems that here we have an example wherein atheists have adopted the term ‘spirituality’ because it provides a vocabulary with which one can articulate a sense of the search for meaning in life, and again, a connection to the rest of the universe. It is also said that it is ‘important, maybe even essential, to our species’ psychological makeup’ to feel that life is meaningful, and that we are connected to something greater than ourselves. The problem of course is that if there is no God, there is also no objective source and grounds for any feelings of purpose and interconnectedness we might have, let alone any ideas about right and wrong, and so regardless of how important these feelings might be for our psychological makeup, they are illusory.
If such atheists are concerned at all about Truth then, they must face the problem that their worldview necessarily implies a meaningless universe, and that no amount of making ourselves feel ‘involved’ or ‘connected’ can change that. Perhaps this is what is at the root of the ‘spiritual atheist’ phenomenon – that, whilst these people understand perfectly well what the word ‘spirituality’ means, and are willing to adapt its traditional usage to make sense of their own situation, they do not truly understand what the word ‘God’ means.
I would suggest that for a great deal of atheists – not just ‘spiritual’ ones either – they are rejecting a combination of what they see as outdated or repressive moral codes, a sense that something ‘out there’ is a restriction on their individual freedom, and an association of institutional religion with the prevailing culture of their parents’ generation. By rejecting these things though, they throw the baby out with the bathwater, and reject the only thing that can guarantee that their feelings of meaning and interconnectedness are anything more than just self-mollifying fantasy. To experience life as meaningful is to point towards the fact that it has an ultimate meaning, and one which transcends our finite, mundane experiences – i.e.; it points to God.
A brief look at the five ways listed at the Thought Catalogue might help to illustrate this. They are, as follows – reflecting on the wonders of the natural world through science, reflecting on the overwhelming scope and grandeur of the universe, acceptance of our mortality, embracing freedom, recognising that we are not in control of the events of our lives. Now, to a certain extent, (and with some important qualifications, which will be evident from reading the article itself) a religious believer can reflect on these five things with immense profit, as they all point to there being a ‘bigger picture’ to our existence. The atheist however, if he or she is consistent, is committed to the position that these feelings of purpose, awe, etc, point to nothing at all. The feelings engendered are nothing more than a trick, and any suggestions of a meaningful world peter out into a universe cold and indifferent, whose only ‘law’ is chaos.
Perhaps there are those that really do see the implications of the rejection of God, and understand that this means that the universe is just a purposeless cosmic accident, within which we are only connected to one another by virtue of the fact that we are just as pointless as everything else around us, and in which the term ‘interconnectedness’ has, with all the rest of our language and thought, no essential meaning either. If some people recognise this, and still describe themselves as ‘spiritual’, I am at a loss to understand why. For all other ‘spiritual atheists’ out there though, I would recommend a reconsideration of what it is they think that they are rejecting, what they mean by meaning, and what their basic experience of a purposeful life really points to.