An Atheist on a Spiritual Quest


We atheists have spiritual needs, too, but we are unwilling to be hypocrites in fulfilling them. Most purported Christians (and followers of other religions) don’t live the life they would live if they really believed in their religion. If they really believed that hellfire or heaven for all eternity was the outcome of this brief life on Earth then they would wholly dedicate their earthly lives to locking in heaven. Most American Christians (and probably most religious adherents world-wide) don’t bother to reconcile their feelings, their brains and their actions – they just do whatever makes them feel good at each moment. They lack integrity.
     A less hypocritical alternative is to acknowledge that certain religious beliefs, such as the existence of God, are probably untrue, but that we would prefer to live in a world where they were true, so we will pretend that they are true as an existential choice. This gives us a pretty free choice among religions, since we’d choose based on spiritual and moral aesthetics. The major organized religions provide convenient packages of myths and morals, have been brilliantly developed by some of the best minds in history and have all been extensively market-tested in an evolutionary process that assures them wide appeal and potency. This approach still involves the hypocrisy of pretending to believe in an untruth, however, and I can’t get past that. It, too, lacks integrity.
     On the other hand, the spiritual alternatives provided by atheists are very unsatisfying. The focus is negative, as indicated by the word “atheist”; it means “not a theist” or “one who doesn’t believe in god.” Atheist literature is focused mostly on denying god or countering the arguments of those who believe in god. It’s very dry stuff, debunking with argument the beliefs that provide so much meaning and value for others’ lives. How do we get that kind of value for ourselves?
     What do we get from a religion? Four things, primarily: metaphysics, morality, mysticism and myth.

Metaphysics asks “what is reality?” and also asks whether there is anything to say about this beyond what is said by science. This question can be paraphrased: “do you believe in the supernatural?” If you think there are angels, astrology or God, for example, none of which can be explained by science, then metaphysics has a place in attempting to explain how they work. Religions are supernatural and come with metaphysics as a standard feature. I reject the supernatural so I don’t need metaphysics.
     Another variant of this question is whether the question is a matter of fact or belief. Fact: “Does God exist?” Belief: “Do you believe in God?” These questions have different underlying premises, and which one we ask depends on our position. The question begs itself, at least via the implication that the question matters. What does it matter what we believe? Does this have anything to do with the actual reality? Or is the actual reality irrelevant?
     It’s a matter of metaphysical taste whether we prefer there to be a higher power who controls the world in ways we can never understand. It absolves us of some responsibility, makes us more childlike. I prefer to be an adult, so I am a humanist. We seem a pretty poor race at times, but I believe we’re all there is, at least until we meet some aliens from another planet. For now we need to take full responsibility.

Morality, Values and Integrity
Morality can come from religion, when God supposedly tells us what we should and shouldn’t do. Ethics from the various religions are remarkably similar (“Thou shalt not kill,” for example). Some infer from these ethical similarities that religions are the same at some level, but there are such fundamental differences in other aspects (some eastern religions don’t include a personal god, for example) that this is untenable.
     There is a different reason why ethics are similar in societies and cultures around the world: ethical rules are part of the societal DNA that evolves as cultures compete with one another. The rules are part of the structure that lets everyone live and work together efficiently and compete successfully with other societies and cultures.
     Ethics are based on values, and we atheists must choose our values ourselves, in an existential way. Our moral values will be based on the balance we choose between individual and group needs. Most of my own ethics are based on egalitarian fairness (“what would it be like if everyone behaved like this?”). We don’t need a religion to make these choices for us; in fact, it’s childlike to leave these decisions to others.
     There are values we need to choose besides the ethical ones. What is important to me? If I were strictly religious, the answer to this would necessarily revolve around religion. Most religious adherents lack integrity in that their lives aren’t congruent with their values. My values are focused on life: intelligent life first (including any intelligent extra-terrestrials we may someday meet – why be parochial?), followed by other life based on its position on the scale of being (a porpoise weighs more heavily than a paramecium). In this weighing I give a strong premium to human life over other life, so I feel that human life preponderates over the totality of other life on earth. I value integrity very highly; for me this means living your values, “walking the talk.”

Some religious adherents seek a direct experience of God or transcendence. There are mystical traditions in all of the major religions, which involve detachment from the world, meditation, asceticism, fasting, chanting, etc. in order to bypass the ego and obtain a non-intellectual, unmediated experience of the divine. An example is being born again as a Christian, receiving Jesus into your soul.
     These experiences don’t lead to verifiable or objective truth. We can’t tell if another person is lying or misrepresenting what occurred, and there are plenty of psychological explanations for them.
Can atheists have this sort of experience? Yes, by doing the same things the believers do, e.g. meditation, since it’s really just a psychological state. Tai Ji Quan can be a moving meditation as well, if you’re an advanced practitioner.

We can do without metaphysics and it’s not that difficult to design our own morality, but we need myths; they are the essence of spirituality. Religions are based on myth: the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the enlightenment of Buddha under the Bodhi tree – these are myths. How can we, as spiritual atheists, use them?
     Does it matter that they are not true, in a literal sense? How important to religious adherents is their belief in the literal truth of their myths? I’m sure there is a range of answers to this, but there are many who know, in some corner of their brain, that myths such as the creation of the universe in seven days, the descent of all humanity from an Adam and Eve created in “God’s image” a few thousand years ago, Noah’s flood’s reduction of the animal population of earth to one pair of each species, can’t be literally true.      But once you start acknowledging these as myths and metaphors, where do you stop? Is God himself a myth (I think he is)? For anyone but a complete fundamentalist who believes in the literal truth of all the myths, there is a break in the fabric of belief at the point where the truths and the metaphors join. How can there not be the nagging worry that some of the “truths” are really myths? The fundamentalist believes it’s all true, the atheist believes it’s all myth.
We atheists have the possibility of the richest spiritual life because all mythology is open to us, and we can experience it fully as mythology without expecting it to be literally true. Myth is intensely human, and relates to human psychology on a deep level. Freud and Jung were great students of myth, and produced their own profound myths (ego, superego, id) in the guise of science. Our mathematics will likely be comprehensible to the extra-terrestrial races we meet in the future; our myths and spirituality will not be, because our psychology will be different from theirs.
     Science can be myth, and it doesn’t matter if it’s true. Some modern scientific theories, such as the big bang and Darwinian evolution, are of sufficient spiritual interest to qualify as myths. Just as valuable, in a spiritual sense, is outdated and disproven science. Alchemy is profound and far-reaching (Jung wrote a book on its relation to his psychology). Astrology systematizes the aspects and angles of planets and stars representing parts of the human psyche. The Chinese Book of Changes organizes human life into 64 possible states, and catalogs the myriad transformations of each state into others.
     The great world religions are amazing human creations, full of deep meaning, congruent in many ways. When I hear a religious leader claim that the universal monotheistic religions are different paths to the same spiritual point I believe this is largely true, but only from the atheist’s (or agnostic’s) point of view. If you believe that even a small part of the teachings of any of these religions is literally true, you’ll have to acknowledge that it contradicts the other religions’ teachings and you must view them as false paths.
     Outmoded religions are as valuable as outmoded science (sometimes the two are the same). The ancient Greeks had two religions. The first was the well-known Olympian one epitomized in Homer. It provided an elaborate and extensive mythology, largely literary, obviously not taken literally. Gods and goddesses were a more powerful version of humanity, with added powers and prerogatives, but the same weaknesses. The Olympian religion co-existed with an older animistic religion that added deeper mythic base to ancient Greek tragedies. Taoism in China evolved from a relatively primitive folk-religion into a very sophisticated and widely-practiced state religion with its own huge canon and alchemical science. It’s gone retrograde, and is once more practiced, with considerable disapproval from the Communist authorities, as a primitive folk religion.
     Art has always expressed myth, but that role has become more important in the modern world, now that myth has to reconcile with science. To take but one example, Doctor Faustus, Thomas Mann’s retelling of the Faust legend, itself a myth with myriad connections to diverse points within our western culture, is updated by Mann for modern times. The events in Europe during the last world war showed us that our culture, enlightenment and civilization are no bulwark against the worst parts of human nature, and modern technology gives us the power to carry out evil works with an efficiency and on a much larger scale than ever before. Is reading this book a spiritual experience? I think it is, because of its depth and intensity, but the new myth has a modern feel and expands the notion of spirituality. Art has often been based on myth, for thousands of years.
     Marxism is another example of a modern myth. Its doctrine of the historical inevitability of the proletariat winning the class war was once believed in by millions. Few of us feel this way now, but it’s still valuable as a myth. But is it spiritual?

What is spirituality for an atheist? The dictionary definition doesn’t help much: “concerned with the spirit rather than the body” and “relating to a church or an established religion.” We want to avoid most of this, but we can define “spirit” to be a certain part of our mind, and “spiritual” as relating to our values and to our psychological capacity for deep, perhaps even mystical, experiences in art and contemplation.
Our atheistic spirituality is a match for any religion’s.      I would even argue that it’s richer, since we can roam freely through the myths of religions and arts without being hampered by believing one of them to be true, to the exclusion of others. We can have a deeper and more meaningful life by freeing ourselves from superstition, but we have to do more work. Instead of passively accepting a ready-made religious package we must construct our own, deciding our values and seeking the meanings that matter to us.


Copyright © 2000 - 2007 by Dean Wallraff. All rights reserved.