Secular Spirituality, aka, Spiritual Atheism - Blog#21 - 12 July 2019
Thank you for inviting me to share with you today. My main thesis today is that spirituality can be found at the intersection of consciousness and connectedness. So how did it come to pass that my consciousness is connecting with your consciousness on this sunny Sunday morning in June of 2019?
2019? Age 68? OMG! So right off the bat, here we have one of the primary spiritual emotions for you, perhaps the darkest one of all – death anxiety, the fear of annihilation of the self.
Wasn’t it just yesterday that I was sitting in St. Stephen’s Catholic Church, on Grand Island, New York, just upstream from Niagara Falls? I’d meet my teenage friends on Sunday nights for CYO, and bumper pool, in the basement of St. Stephen’s. The fellowship was good, but there was something else, earlier on Sundays. I was 13 years old, on the cusp of adolescence when the Beatles first came to the States. I loved music, so I was excited when guitars were introduced into one of our morning masses, especially when the Byrd’s Turn, Turn, Turn! was strummed and sung by my fellow teenagers. And then there was that special feeling in the midst of midnight mass on Christmas Eve, which I would later understand as spiritual connectedness.
But then I became too clever. I was always an amateur philosopher, and like most adolescents, I began wondering about the big picture, how we got here, and what our role and purpose is in the broad scheme of things. And I began finding holes in religious dogma. I went to Calasanctius, a Catholic middle/high prep school run by Piarist priests, who had escaped Russian domination in 1950s Hungary. Like the Jesuits that I admired at Marquette University a few years later, they taught you how to think, not what to think. My Headmaster spoke 8 languages, taught Philosophy of Religion, and reportedly practiced Buddhism on the side. I was introduced to epistemology, the study of what constitutes evidence for truth, and I began to contrast faith vs. science, as emotional versus rational approaches to truth. In the process, I found many more holes in religion.
I graduated from agnosticism to atheism as a freshman at Marquette. I eventually wrote my Master’s thesis on anthropocentrism, or man-centeredness, the supposition that mankind is the most important and central entity in the universe. I began to see the ways that death anxiety and anthropocentrism were primary motives for belief in religion, because they allow us to feel important in the grand scheme, and to deny the dreaded reality of mortality.
What I didn’t know was that I was throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I was travelling headlong into a spiritual void. I was throwing spirituality out with religion, because I’d swallowed the Kool Aid, the Christian claim that they are identical. You’re either for ‘em or against ‘em, good or bad, divine or Satanic in the eyes of conservative religion. Spirituality was religion. Fast-forward a few decades, and something was vaguely but surely missing. It was only when I realized that religion is only one form of spirituality that I found the escape hatch from my spiritual malaise. Eventually, five years ago, I began to write. The result is Beyond Atheism – A Secular Approach to Spiritual, Moral, and Psychological Practices. The current result, since spirituality is ideally experienced in the present tense, is me connecting my consciousness with yours this morning. But enough about my path to this particular moment. What does the baby look like after the bathwater is drained?
If we’re going to discuss secular spirituality, aka, spiritual atheism, we might begin by asking two questions: Why secular? and why spirituality? Let’s start with the less provocative second question. Why is spirituality important to most human beings? This question requires us to define spirituality, which invites us to distinguish between spirituality and religion. The word “spiritual” has had shifting meanings down through the centuries. It was coined by Apostle Paul to describe any entity under the influence of the Holy Spirit. It was later used in the Middle Ages to distinguish the spiritual side of life from the material or corporeal. But in recent decades, it increasingly refers to a personal connection with an entity greater than oneself, whereas “religion” refers to the more institutional, organized aspects of faith. For fundamentalists, “spiritual atheism” is a laughable contradiction in terms. For them, religion and spirituality are synonymous, and atheists are lacking each, to the point of damnation. They note that the word “spirit” begins the term “spirituality,” and they insist that you cannot be spiritual unless you believe in spirits and are infused with the spirit of God. But spirituality is a much larger tent than religion, and one can be spiritual with or without religion.
If so, we must answer the question, “What is nonreligious spirituality?” Before I provide my response, please allow me a brief philosophical digression. What are the primary components of our universe? Physicists will suggest matter, and perhaps energy, while psychologists and philosophers will be quick to add consciousness to the discussion. Matter is the tangible stuff that we see and feel all around us, whereas consciousness is invisible, but no less real. The mind and the brain are parallel systems. The mind harbors consciousness, while the brain is composed of matter. We process our existence in both our minds and our brains, simultaneously. If matter and consciousness are the two primary components of the universe, how are they related to each other? We certainly see plenty of examples of matter without consciousness, such as rocks and other inanimate objects. But what about consciousness without matter?
Spirits, such as ghosts, souls, gods and demons, are proposed as real entities, involving disembodied consciousness, that is, consciousness in the absence of matter. But what evidence do we have that consciousness can exist in the absence of matter? When brains die, minds seem to die with them, always. Death is the ugly underbelly of life, and is frightening because consciousness seems to disappear upon death. When our friends or relatives die, we mourn our loss, as we can no longer share consciousness with them. The solid data suggest that a mind requires a brain, and that consciousness is dependent upon matter, and does not exist without it. We are frightened by death, as it involves the annihilation of our identity and consciousness. So we propose spirits, such as souls, and immortality, so we, as well as our loved ones, can live forever as spirits, beyond the demise of our bodies. And we propose gods, whose consciousness supposedly existed before the creation of the material universe.
But if we don’t believe in souls, ghosts, or gods, we are left to face our own mortality, and the mortality of our loved ones: real and final mortality, not temporary mortality. And we are left with the dilemma of how to be spiritual without spirits. But why bother? Why is spirituality important anyways? Some neo-atheists delight in their rational destruction of gods, but neglect the reality that religions developed in part to meet the innate human need for spirituality. Atheism by itself is a negative identity; it focuses on what we oppose and don’t believe in, not what we do believe in. It is just a starting point; we then need to move from “No” to “Yes,” to what we do believe in. But more importantly, like everyone else, we need to move from beliefs to practices. It is ironic that atheists and various theists, be they Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, etc., all agree for the most part on how to behave. But then we war over what to believe, and violate our own moral guidelines as we target heretics with hatred, bombs, and threats of eternal damnation. Atheism is just a starting point, an adolescent statement of opposition that begs for development of positive beliefs and practices, especially practices.
So what is spirituality? My take is that spirituality has two components: consciousness and connectedness. It can be about spirits, but it need not be. Spirituality is a quest to connect with something larger than ourselves, and it is a celebration of our consciousness of the world and our presence within it. From the moment we are born, and are separated from our mother, we seek to reconnect. Yes, we want autonomy, but we also want attachment. We don’t want to lose our self, or our selfhood, but we want to connect our self to something beyond ourselves, including friends, a lover, and larger entities. Spirituality involves a search for that connectedness, with something much greater than our self, whether it be a religious god, or more secularly, the “All” of the universe.
So if we reject invisible, unproven religious spirits and supernatural zones, such as souls, gods, and afterlives, how do we develop nonreligious spiritual connectedness? How does one become a spiritual atheist? We do not need to believe in creation or a god to appreciate our gifts of life, love, and consciousness. We can celebrate our existence, and experience existential joy, that we are, without having to know why we are, or how we got here. The German philosopher, Martin Heideger, distinguished between the everyday and the “ontological” modes of existence. In the everyday mode, we marvel at how things are in the world. The complexity of a snowflake or the veins on the underside of a leaf, the infinite expanse of the universe, and the joys of love and intimacy are amazing wonders. But in the ontological mode, we appreciate the miracle of being itself, and stand in awe that things are. We appreciate existence and beingness itself, and our consciousness of it. We thereby experience existential joy: joy in our existence, and our conscious awareness of this gift. Spiritual atheism is not a contradiction in terms. As secular humanists and others know, one can be spiritual without being religious. We can pursue connectedness with the universe, humanity, life, and the “All,” and celebrate our consciousness, without weighing in on the origins of the universe or believing in life after death.
And we can pursue various spiritual emotions. We already mentioned the primary negative spiritual emotion, death anxiety. We might also note loneliness and isolation, meaninglessness and purposelessness, and existential dread – the fear of living an unfulfilled life. On the positive side of the coin, we can actively pursue positive spiritual emotions, particularly gratitude, humility, awe, love, and existential joy. Let’s briefly examine each of these positive spiritual emotions, and how our pursuit of them promotes spirituality.
We already touched on existential joy, which is closely connected to a second positive spiritual emotion: gratitude. We experience gratitude when we count our blessings for our gifts, particularly the major gifts, of life, consciousness, love, and the wonders of nature. We can take time to savor these gifts on a daily basis. And we can accept the limits of the gift, and have gratitude for our six or eight decades of life; or we can get greedy and insist on immortality, and a blissful one at that. The virtue of gratitude counteracts the sins of greed and envy. Acceptance of impermanence, of mortality, and gratitude for the gift of life, stands in stark contrast to the greedy demand for mortality.
Humility is a third positive spiritual emotion. Humility with self-esteem is the healthy middle ground between humiliation and narcissism. Think of a dimension, with humiliation at one extreme, and narcissism at the other. Humiliation is toxic shame. Shame and guilt are different; guilt is about behavior, while shame is about identity. Shame is more toxic than guilt, because it assaults our identity, which is far more threatening than mere guilt regarding a behavior. Narcissism reflects the sin of pride, and involves a lack of healthy shame, a delusion that our own behavior never stinks. In between these extremes of humiliation (toxic shame) and narcissism (lack of shame) we find the middle ground, the healthy combination of opposites, in self-esteem with humility. As individuals, it is best to see oneself as unique and special, yet at the same time, as a speck of sand in the vastness of the universe.
Moving from the individual to the species level, humans are clever and creative, but often clever by half, grandiose in our anthropocentric view of ourselves as the centerpiece of the universe, and as God’s pet species. As noted earlier, anthropocentrism, or man-centeredness, is a value judgment, a perspective on reality that positions man as the most important entity in the universe. As humans, we tend to narcissistically view ourselves at the center of the universe, second in importance only to God, who created us, or, from an atheistic perspective, we invented God to establish our own importance in the first place. By inventing a God who in turn views us at the center of creation, we cleverly assert our own importance, cloaked in a posture of humility at the foot of God. Indeed, from this perspective, it is ironic that the religious virtues of gratitude and humility are violated by the religions that promote them. Gratitude for the gift of life yields to greed for immortality, and humility yield to pride as the centerpiece of the universe.
Thus, anthropocentrism, along with death anxiety, are primary motives for religious belief, as we seek to be both important and everlasting. Humility, like gratitude, helps us appreciate our small but precious position amidst the expanse of the universe, which puts us on the doorstep of awe.
Awe is yet a fourth positive spiritual emotion. While awe can be inspired by various sources, including human creations, such as moving works of art and music, awe is more robust when inspired by nature. Nature is the focus of environmental spirituality. Eco-awe is connected to humility and gratitude, to our willingness to feel dwarfed by nature, and grateful for our short gift of life living within it: within, not over. Sometimes it helps to return to our early primal powers, as children. A childlike state of mind is more awestruck, curious, and filled with wonder than the adult mind, more present, less trapped in the future, more connected with the world in the moment. By necessity, we desensitize to familiar elements of our surroundings as we age, attending to the novel, the threatening, and the more demanding elements of our environments. Thus, it helps to periodically stand back, and recapture our ability to be amazed with the myriad wonders around us. Rachel Carson (1965) suggested an antidote to desensitization: “One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, ‘What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?’” (p. 59). We are more appreciative of the uniqueness of the world when it is novel to us. Phil Zuckerman (2014) searched for a label to describe his secular spirituality. He ultimately designated himself an “aweist.”
Spirituality is also an antidote to self-centeredness. It requires transcendence of the boundaries of self, attachment to something beyond and larger than oneself, humility regarding the small status of oneself amidst the awesome wonders of the All. Good reason why recovery programs for addicts include a strong spiritual emphasis. The path to addiction takes you into the depths of increasing self-centeredness, deceit, and manipulation of others. Embracing something larger than ourselves, whether it be God, the universe, life, humanity, family, or just the wisdom of the 12-step program, is an antidote to this poisonous self-focus.
We likewise transcend ourselves in love, as we share our consciousness while connecting romantically. Secure attachments, both as young children and as adults, are crucial to our psychological welfare. For adults, romance is the primary target for such attachment. At its best, love (as well as sex) is a spiritual experience, as we share our consciousness with a partner, selflessly but without sacrificing our autonomy. Thus, to develop our spirituality, we can deliberately cultivate various spiritual emotions, including, existential joy, gratitude, humility, awe, and love.
Spirituality also intersects with morality. Both involve connected consciousness. This connection, whether it be spiritual or moral, involves valuing another entity, living or not. We might feel a spiritual connection to the universe on a clear, starry night, but feel a moral obligation to protect our corner of it. Our connection to living entities is more robust, particularly with humans and other animals, and adds empathy to the equation. More complex animals experience pleasure and pain, and our ability to empathize, to put ourselves in others’ shoes and vicariously feel their pain or pleasure, is both a measure of our connectedness, and the core of our moral fiber. The more we connect to the other, the more we experience a spiritual attachment, as well as a moral imperative to take care of the other.
When we debate how to construct morality without God, and his divinely-revealed objective ethics, we are in a quandary. If ethics are not objective, and are not dyed in the wool of objective reality, handed down by God, what are we to do? Make them up? Exactly. This is why you have a conscience. Turn the volume up a notch, get in touch with your capacity for empathy and compassion, and you’ll know what to do. Doesn’t this allow everyone to do whatever they want? Yes, but don’t they anyways? Right and wrong, like beauty, is a human concept, that doesn’t exist independent of the human (or perhaps primate) mind. But we do have consciences, and a capacity for subjective ethics. When we consider our options, humanists are quick to join the debate. Greg Epstein advanced the humanist agenda as well as anyone. In Good Without God (2009), he noted that the primary weakness of modern atheism is its focus on discrediting religious beliefs, rather than the development of moral practices. He concluded that in so doing, “we’ve often produced a very heady atheism. But I believe in the heart of Humanism” (p. 175). This echoes my own starting point, that while beliefs are important, a primary focus on the falsity of others beliefs is bankrupt, as it ignores the importance of what you do believe in, and more importantly, neglects the wisdom that spiritual and moral practices have far more impact on happiness than beliefs.
Thus, secular spirituality, or spiritual atheism, is indeed a combination of opposites. It seeks to discard the irrational beliefs and dogmatic excesses of religion, while preserving and expanding on religion’s beneficial moral and spiritual emphasis (without the hypocrisy). It pursues the spiritual emotions touted by religions, without degenerating into anthropocentric pride or greed for immortality. It seeks a connection to something larger than oneself, without claiming that consciousness exists in the absence of matter. It is a celebration of consciousness and connectedness, without creators or afterlives. One can indeed be non-religious, but fully spiritual!
-Carson, Rachel. (1965). The sense of wonder. New York, NY: Harper and Row.
-Epstein, Greg. (2009). Good without God: What a billion nonreligious people do believe. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
-Zuckerman, Phil. (2014). Living the secular life: New answers to old questions. New York, NY: Penguin.
If you are interested in this and similar topics, check out Ed’s recent book, Beyond Atheism – A Secular Approach to Spiritual, Moral, and Psychological Practices, available on Amazon. Or explore his other offerings here at: edchandlerandbeyond.com Thanks for listening.