From "No" to "Yes" - Spiritual Atheism - Blog#4 - 2 February 2019
Yes, atheism is a reasonable response to the emotion/need-driven fantasies and delusions of religions. It is a decent starting point, but it is not a destination, any more than adolescence is a destination in life. It is merely a departure gate for your spiritual exploration. As we discussed in our first blog, religion and spirituality are not synonymous. Spirituality is a much larger tent than religion, and there are many non-religious avenues toward spirituality. If you reject religion, you owe it to yourself (the development of your selfhood) to walk these roads, to find beliefs that suit you, and more importantly, to develop the spiritual, moral, and psychological practices that work for you. Atheism is not a belief system. It is a statement of non-belief in someone else’s belief system, literally, a-theism. It is a negative, divisive, and antagonistic process. Even if its content is accurate, its process is anti-spiritual. Spirituality is about shared consciousness and connectedness. When we criticize someone else’s beliefs, we are disconnecting rather than connecting with them. This may be necessary at first, especially if they are abusing us as heathens, terrorizing us with threats of hellfire, or sending airplanes into our skyscrapers. But it is then time to move on, to decide what values and worldview we do believe in. And even then, beliefs are cheap, and hypocrisy abundant. We are all part time hypocrites, when our practices diverge from our supposed beliefs. I myself am a Johnny-come-lately spiritual man myself, embarrassed that I spent so many years in spiritual adolescence, cutting down the religious chaff rather than cultivating the spiritual wheat.
But you do have a right to be angry. They damn you to hell for your beliefs, prioritize beliefs over practices, and shun you socially. Instead of “queer,” they call you “atheist,” and accuse you of being a narcissist. You are grandiose, denying God, posing as your own god, lacking humility. The irony of these accusations is that they are the ones who cannot practice humility by accepting our minor place in the universe, or gratitude by accepting the awesome gift of a limited lifespan. Of course you have a right to be angry. Anger is a normal response to injustice. This particular injustice involves shaming you, trying to silence you in order to prevent you from challenging their grandiose position at the center of the universe. Atheists are perhaps the most hated minority in America. Pew research polls have rated atheists barely above Muslims, a dubious honor in the post 9/11 era. Such polls indicate that in presidential elections, Americans would rather vote for homosexuals, marital cheaters, and people who have never held office (how’s that working out?) than for an atheist. Despite research to the contrary, atheists are seen as immoral, in part because religion is viewed as having a monopoly on morality. If you don’t believe in God and the Ten Commandments, how can you be moral? Research has shown that distrust, not mere dissimilarity, is central to prejudice against atheists. If you are distrusted, shunned, destined for hell, and seen as a heathen, how are you supposed to feel? In religious circles, atheists are the niggers of the spiritual world, and like other reviled minorities, have a right to feel angry regarding discrimination.
But anger hurts the source more than the target of the anger. Anger can motivate us to take action, but what action? And anger is divisive, whereas spirituality is about connectedness. If you become a spiritual gangster and overthrow the power of religion in your personal life, what is to be erected in its place? Rejecting delusion does not guarantee access to truth or wisdom, and rejecting religious moral authority does not answer questions of conscience or connect you to anything. You have removed a detour or an impediment to your path, but you have not constructed your own path. The task now is to develop your own form of spirituality, as well as morality, while forging your own identity. If you require a label to describe yourself in shorthand after rejecting their slur, “atheist,” you may prefer a term that identifies who you are, rather than who you are not, such as “secularist,” or “secular humanist.” Even the “humanist” part may be too anthropocentric for your taste, focusing excessively on the human portion of our vast universe. Focusing on one of the primary spiritual emotions, awe, Zuckerman (Living the Secular Life, 2014), prefers the term “aweist.” Perhaps because atheists vary so much in what they do believe, there is no single, accepted term that captures the essence of a nonreligious person who has developed his or her own system of ethics, spirituality, meaning and purpose, cosmology, and self-soothing techniques. Regardless of your moniker, all of these challenges become your own responsibility in the absence of a divine creator. But first you must move beyond the anger, beyond the opposition to their beliefs, beyond adolescent rebellion. The challenge is to transition beyond “No” and onward toward “Yes,” toward what you do believe in, and how to develop spiritual, moral and psychological practices that work for you.
But how do you do so? There are some templates available, some routes that others have traveled before you. Some of these paths are religious, yet atheistic. This may sound contradictory, because the word “religious” typically refers to beliefs in supernatural forces, creators and afterlives. But religion is a smorgasbord, and you can choose the tasty morsels from various religions while bypassing the junk food. Some eastern religions emphasize practices that enhance consciousness, while deemphasizing gods (though they sometimes espouse reincarnations on the path to nirvana). Buddhism in particular is less about beliefs than it is about practices that promote spiritual awakening. You might also find yourself interested in Jainism, or Taoism. Another option is Pantheism, which views the universe and nature as identical to God, with humans being part of nature, rather than above nature or exiled here until the afterlife. Thus, particularly if we restrict our definition of God to a creator, we can loosely view Buddhism, Jainism, and Taoism, and perhaps Unitarian Universalism, as atheistic religions, and we can certainly view Pantheism as a prime example of spiritual, if not religious, atheism.
So we have at our fingertips a few packaged spiritual options that largely steer clear of the two primary delusions of Christianity and Islam: an anthropomorphic god coupled with blissful immortality. Then we have the daunting, less traveled, but more personal, authentic path. You can develop your own eclectic form of spirituality, drawing from various sources without swallowing any one tradition whole. The issue, one way or the other, is to move beyond non-belief, or anti-belief, toward beliefs and values we can fully embrace, and practices which express them. We can embrace the “All” in our own unique way, and find a way to belong within it, and practice that connectedness, rather than remaining on the outside looking in.
Along the way, we face various tasks, which pop up as we discard the emotional benefits of religion. These tasks include management of death anxiety, gratitude for our short life, and development of our own meaning and purpose. While awaiting sufficient expertise in physics, we can acknowledge our intellectual inadequacy and adopt an agnostic stance regarding cosmology, accepting the origin of the universe as a beautiful mystery enshrouded in the complexities of infinity in time and space. No answer is better than a bad answer, at least intellectually. We also face the moral dilemma, of constructing our own moral guidelines in the absence of objective, God-given ethics. And finally, we have the psychological imperative, to develop practices that control our thought patterns, consciousness, emotions and behaviors in ways that enhance the bottom line, our satisfaction with life. Without prayer, we must learn to self-soothe.
If I can contribute to your path, check out Beyond Atheism – A Secular Approach to Spiritual, Moral, and Psychological Practices, available on Amazon 2/14/2019. You can review the chapter contents by clicking below the book cover here in edchandlerandbeyond.com. In the meantime, please take a few moments to share the key ingredients of your own path to secular spirituality, by adding to our dialogue below. Thanks for listening, and sharing.
Pew Research Center. (2009, May 7). Prayer in America. Retrieved from: https://www.pewresearch.org/2009/05/07/prayer-in-america/
Pew Research Center. (2014, March 13) Worldwide, many see belief in God as essential to morality. Retrieved from: http://www.pewglobal.org/2014/03/13/worldwide-many-see-belief-in-god-as-essential-to-morality/
Pew Research Center. (2014, May 29). Americans are somewhat more open to the idea of an atheist president. Retrieved from: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/05/29/americans-are-somewhat-more-open-to-the-idea-of-an-atheist-president/
Pew Research Center. (2014, July 16). How Americans feel about religious groups. Retrieved from: www.pewforum.org/2014/07/16/how-americans-feel-about-religious-groups/
Zuckerman, Phil. (2014). Living the secular life: New answers to old questions. New York, NY: Penguin. (BA: p. 32, 301-302, 346, 348, 357, 360, 584). Available on Amazon.com.
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