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
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
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
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
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.