A Secular Approach to Spiritual, Moral and Psychological Practices
Brief Overview of the Book
Spirituality and religion are not synonymous, and religion has no monopoly on spirituality, or morality. Spiritual atheism seeks to discard the irrational beliefs and dogmatism of religion, while preserving and expanding its beneficial practices. Without invoking bogus spirits or fantasies of immortality, secular spirituality celebrates our consciousness and connectedness. It nurtures spiritual emotions such as awe, gratitude, humility, love, and existential joy.
Atheism is not a belief system; it is a statement of opposition. We must clarify what we DO believe in. But beliefs are cheap. The harder part is developing PRACTICES to put our beliefs and values in motion. If we reject religious visions, we must develop our own spiritual connections and moral practices, create our own meaning and purpose in life, and develop psychological practices to soothe and heal ourselves. The task herein is to spur atheists, and the many others who check the box “spiritual but not religious,” to explore and develop such practices.
Chapter Highlights from
PART I: The Intelligent Design of God by Man
Chapter 1. Genesis – How I got to the doorstep of this book; the logical case against religious belief; the therapeutic case for spiritual practices; God as a souped-up Santa; the bankruptcy of atheist or religious beliefs without practices; spirituality as connected consciousness; the responsibilities of atheists; grab the spiritual baby, then drain the religious bathwater.
Chapter 2. Spiritual Abuse and Religious Terrorism – The dangers of dogmatism, which feeds prejudice and intolerance, which fuels terrorism; the divine mission of the chosen ingroup; the Holy War exception to the prohibition of murder; crusades and inquisitions; the marketing of hell as soft terrorism; the basis of prejudice against atheists; the branding of atheists as immoral.
Chapter 3. Death Anxiety and the Birth of Immortality – Survival as our basic motive; predatory vs. existential death anxiety; death as the worm at the core of the human dilemma; the need for denial – the vital lie feeding the fantasy of literal immortality; consciousness outlives matter via the soul; existential dread/guilt fueling symbolic immortality; gratitude for life versus greedy lust for immortality; Ernst Becker and Irving Yalom.
Chapter 4. Anthropocentrism: Prejudice Hiding in Plain Sight – Our need to be at the center of the universe, as God’s favorite pet; narcissistic pride vs. humility as a species; our separation from our animal selves and from nature; the exploitation of nature; opposition to heliocentrism, evolution, and alien life; ingroup/outgroup thinking: otherness and dehumanization at the core of prejudice; overlapping prejudices: racial/ethnic, misogyny, and speciesism; flesh eating; the intelligence of plants; anthropomorphism in religion.
Chapter 5. The Build a God Workshop – Other human needs that beg for a god; the mind/body split; the primacy and immortality of consciousness; our need to belong, and to be loved and parented from above; eschewing or tolerating ambiguity; the easy download of morality, meaning, and purpose; projection galore; make Him invisible so He can’t be tested; promote blind faith over reason and curiosity.
Chapter 6. Beyond Reason – One God with many faces; parsimony applied to creation; the problem of infinity in time and space; the incompatibility of human suffering/injustice and an omnipotent, all-loving God; free will; faith as a flimsy epistemology; mystical experiences as evidence; possession and dissociation; the burden of proof for fantastic beliefs; scientific evidence versus the Bible.
Chapter 7. Darwin Destroys Creation – Darwin’s threat to anthropocentrism at the core of his threat to religion; challenging the cosmic pyramid of God, man, and animal; explaining complexity; natural selection versus intelligent design; creation of the Creator; unexplained gaps in evolution; holes in evolution don’t constitute proof for creation.
Chapter 8. Rebels and Heathens: From No to Yes – religious prejudice and the justification for atheists’ anger; but atheism is just an oppositional first step, so what do we replace it with?; the responsibility to build your own spirituality, cosmology, moral code, self-soothing, and meaning and purpose; types of atheists; beliefs are cheap, practices count; spiritual alternatives.
Chapter 9. Spiritual Atheism: A Celebration of Consciousness and Connectedness – Religion is just one form of spirituality; transpersonal psychology; autonomy and attachment; self-transcendence and the need for spiritual connectedness to the All; spirituality as shared consciousness, with or without disembodied spirits; existential awe and gratitude; the road ahead.
PART II: Building secular Spirituality
II A: Celebrating Consciousness
Chapter 10. The Nature of Consciousness – The awesome gift of awareness; matter vs. consciousness; brain and mind as interacting parallel systems; the mind as a data reduction filter; reality vs. subjective perception; our prioritization of rational, goal-directed thinking; progressive splits in identity; types of consciousness: shared, self, physical vs. mental, unitary vs. divided, conscious vs. unconscious, physiological correlates, daydreaming, dreaming and its functions, rational vs. intuitive; thoughts beget feelings; associational thinking; suspending thinking.
Chapter 11. Altering Consciousness – Chemical vs. mental and physical approaches; the psychedelic road to spirituality: value and dangers, gateway vs. destination; pleasure vs. satisfaction; craving and attachment; drunken monkeys vs. self-denying ascetics; the middle way; the bankruptcy of chemicals as a primary, default method for managing feelings or spirituality.
Chapter 12. Meditation, Mindfulness, and Control of Thinking – The process vs. content of thinking; distorted thinking; spontaneous flow vs. directed thinking; concentrative meditation: suspended thinking, restricted awareness, and breathwork; walking, eating, and body scan meditations; mindfulness as nonjudgmental attention to the present moment, increased internal and external awareness, and acceptance of pain and impermanence; loving-kindness meditations.
Chapter 13. Spiritual Awakening – Nature of mystical experiences; William James and Abraham Maslow; self-transcendence and self-actualization; introvertive vs. extravertive mysticism; savoring; spiritual emotions: awe, humility, gratitude, love, and existential joy; union with the All: regression or transcendence; spiritual awakening and crises; existential guilt leading to epiphanies; perennialist vs. common core theses; pure vs. cosmic consciousness; spiritual gateway practices.
II B: Connecting Inside and Out
Chapter 14. Inner Parenting: Secularizing the Power of Prayer – Prayer as projection and infallible divine downloading of our own internal wisdom and talents; positive impact of prayer; bogus research: intercessory prayer; activating the healthiest parts of self without divine camouflage; ego states, higher parenting, self-soothing and inner-child work.
Chapter 15. Attuning to Your Body – The mind/body split; possessing or being a body; alienation from the body due to abuse, disease, aging; compulsions as abuse of the body; turning toward the body via meditations; the relaxation response and calming the autonomic nervous system: yoga and its benefits; biofeedback, Tai chi, martial arts, physical exercise, progressive relaxation, dance, massage, sensate focus exercises; nutrition; fasting.
Chapter 16. Ecospirituality: A Question of Balance – Finding balance within adult/child, masculine/feminine, and man/nature dichotomies; reconnecting with childlike wonder and fascination, and counteracting desensitization; celebrating the fertility of women and nature; embracing human diversity and the interdependence of nature; humility as a species; the nature and cultivation of awe; stargazing.
Chapter 17. All You Need is Love – Romantic and social connectedness; love vs. infatuation; neurochemistry of love and lust; Pat Love and John Gottman: stages of love and research on marital failure vs. success; nurturing relationships; novel dating; the blame game vs. accountability and simultaneous change; unfair fighting; commitment; buildup to betrayal; the path to forgiveness; sex vs. affection; polarized parenting; enhancing family units.
II C: Morality Revisited
Chapter 18. Debunking Objective Morality and the Religious Monopoly on Morality – Moral integrity vs. compliance and avoidance of consequences; top-down vs. bottom-up morality; emotions and situations vs. intellectual and divine principles; religious vs. atheist behavior; distrust of atheists; moral outsourcing; good and evil as human inventions; subjective morality as a societal risk; Frans de Wall: primate cooperation and morality; Jonathan Haidt: moral foundations for liberals vs. conservatives; empathy and consequences; morality predates religion.
Chapter 19. Ungodly Morality: Listening to Your Own Conscience – The intersection of morality, spirituality, and mental health: attachment; the limits of moral instruction; John Bradshaw: ethics based on emotional and social intelligence; improving empathy; proactive vs. passive guilt-based morality; behavioral love; moral values, e.g., the Golden Rule; science as a new objective morality, or personal responsibility for bottom-up moral choices; focusing on differences vs. similarities.
Chapter 20. Managing Guilt and Shame – The difference between the two: behavior vs. identity; moral vs. codependent guilt; guilt and anger/blame as imported or exported responsibility; guilt as fuel for behavior change of excuse for self-trashing; toxic shame/humiliation vs. healthy humility; shame and secrets: a foundation for a false self, depression, and social anxiety; authenticity and intimacy.
Chapter 21. Meaning and Purpose – Using existential death anxiety and existential guilt as fuel; meaning vs. purpose, values vs. action; meaning vs. pleasure and happiness; Viktor Frankl: transforming suffering into meaning and purpose; giving as the coinage of morality; life has no inherent meaning/purpose – you find and choose it; spirituality and meaning as attachment to something larger than self, while purpose is acting on it; stage of life challenges.
PART III: The Psychodynamics of Everyday Life
Chapter 22. A Structure of the Mind – Mind vs. brain: biological reductionism vs. a two-way street; medication vs. therapy; negative feelings as positive feedback; changing feelings via thoughts and behaviors; therapeutic models; defenses vs. coping skills; contents vs. layers of personality; EWC zones of personality.
Chapter 23. The Wisdom of Vulnerability – Risks and benefits of vulnerability; emotions as input to protect long-term needs vs. short-term distress to be eliminated; healthy and unhealthy forms of emotion; anxiety = threat, sadness = loss, anger = injustice, frustration = violation of expectations; do you have a right to your feelings; owning feelings; shared vulnerability = emotional intimacy; interplay between partners’ personality zones.
Chapter 24. Am I Crazy? – Statistical vs. healthy normal; the subjectivity of criteria, and hidden imposition of societal values/biases; Thomas Szasz and the myth of mental illness; homosexuality and antisocial or schizoid personality disorder as mental illnesses; circular reasoning: abstractions as causes; criteria of craziness: loss of reality contact, loss of control over perceptions, beliefs, or behavior, extent of distress; mental health as a combination of opposite skills on various dimensions; normalcy as internal and external connectedness; the stigma of mental illness.
Chapter 25. Stress and Confusion – Biological roots of the term; Hans Seyle and common reactions to various stressors; Walter Cannon: homeostasis and fight or flight; the autonomic nervous system; cognitive factors in stress; stress as a product of arousal, aversiveness, and uncontrollability; personality impact on stress; what we control: power lies in focusing upon our internal response to an external stressor; confusion as opposite, conflicting feelings; tolerating ambivalence; identifying sources of feelings.
Chapter 26. Managing Sadness and Depression – Sadness and grief vs. depression; counteracting the behavioral withdrawal that maintains depression; exercise and nutrition; Aaron Beck’s cognitive triad: negative thoughts about oneself, the world, and the future; shorter yardsticks; learned helplessness; self-nurturance, affirmations, and loving-kindness meditations; mindfulness: nonjudgmental acceptance of setbacks, and being in the present; managing losses and grief.
Chapter 27. Managing Anxiety and Avoidance Behavior – The cure is worse than the disease: the impact of avoidance; anxiety = threat; “what if…” and the role of thoughts in fear; worrying and the Serenity Prayer; hyperactivity and lifestyle issues; the first thought is free; exposure and response prevention for OCD; mindfulness for anxiety; meditation, exercise, progressive relaxation; managing panic attacks; dealing with stages of social anxiety.
Chapter 28. Anger and Frustration – Anger as a healthy response to injustice or a character defense; anger as a secondary emotion concealing a vulnerable feeling; frustration vs. anger; frustrations as a discrepancy between expectations and reality; frustration plus blame = anger; E/R = F + B = A; the Serenity Prayer and the 20-30% rule for frustration; expect reality; indirect vs. direct anger; owning anger vs. blaming; catching anger quickly, dampening arousal; the myth that you need to get your anger out; identifying underlying vulnerable feelings; unresolved issues and transference; distorted thoughts; assertiveness; forgiveness.
Chapter 29. Trauma Recovery – Trauma-focused vs. symptom-focused therapy; PTSD symptoms; dissociation and DID/MPD; flooding vs. numbing; recovery skills: containment, self-nurturance, catharsis, integration and exposure; moving from victim to survivor; ego-state approaches; finding meaning and purpose in one’s trauma; resources.
Chapter 30. Positive Psychology – The disease model: health as the absence of disease; creating positive mental health; health benefits; strengths and virtues, e.g., gratitude, humility, awe, and authenticity; Martin Seligman; positive psychology in 12-Step recovery stepwork; resilience; approaching the negative while developing the positive; runaway happiology.
Chapter 31. Finito – Counteracting death anxiety and greed for immortality via gratitude and existential joy; counteracting anthropocentric pride via humility; mindfulness meditations for aging and impermanence; using mortality to enliven life; rippling, modes of transcendence; celebrating spiritual emotions; 40 spiritual and psychological principles; my gratitude list; goodbye.