An awestruck atheist on secular spirituality

I have been wanting to write about this for a long long time. It’s a hard one to get right because firstly it’s super important, and secondly I’m not certain about what I mean to say.

Spirituality. Let’s start with only the word. The term is often considered the exclusive property of religion. Most atheists are hesitant to use it. I really think this is a shame. Why? Because it’s just a word at the end of the day. Words shouldn’t be monopolised. When they are, language becomes a barrier. Of all the conversations to build barriers around, those concerning belief are certainly the most dangerous. The discourse has to be open and accessible. It is essential that everyone can, and does, employ terms like spirituality, awe, wonder, freely. Conversations about the universe and life are tricky enough without us speaking in different languages altogether.

For the sake of progressive discussion, we all have to try and be clear on our definitions. Any Christian’s understanding of spirituality is bound to differ, if only slightly, from another’s, let alone a Buddhist’s or an atheist’s like me. Explaining your positioning on something as important as spirituality can seem a tall order. I think half of the time because we are uncertain of ourselves. But this only makes trying all the more important. You can’t hold an opinion, a belief, whatever you want to call it, without being able to justify it – to yourself.

So here’s the question, what does spirituality mean to me?

As an atheist, it has nothing to do with the supernatural. Rather the opposite, it’s about being truly in touch with the natural, ourselves and others. Spirituality is a quality that transcends our extremely limited primal senses, the faculties that allow us to physically interact with the world around us. It is still such a faculty – and certainly not a religious sensation – but the highest of faculties, the highest form of human sensation. I specify human, because as far as we know, you and I belong to the only species capable of wonder and existential curiosity. I believe this to be our most valuable, endearing, redeeming quality. Other species appear bound to biological urges, seeking basic, temporary satisfaction and contentment, in the form of food, sleep and sex. Spirituality is the deeper sense of well-being shared only by humans; the fulfilment of an inner peace, unrelated to physical health or prosperity. An inner freedom achieved through being conscious (that is to be aware rather than just awake) of our smallness within, but also oneness with, the universe.

Hubble telescope

That’s my poorly articulated, vaguely expressed understanding of spirituality. A kind of numinous sensitivity. But how does one try and attain this state? Obvious spiritual pursuits might be prayer or meditation. They share the same notion of turning within to seek understanding, blocking out our other senses, and the distractions they detect. But using my spiritual definition of awareness, smallness and oneness, I would just as equally propose that other activities can be spiritual pursuits, such as science or literature.

Science, like prayer, is an attempt to understand the universe. Its goal is to extend our knowledge and awareness. Its discoveries – the realisation that the sun does not orbit our earth – have humbled our species, forced us to accept our smallness. Science and religion do occasionally even arrive at similar conclusions. Buddhism teaches that everything is nothing and thus everything is the same. To many this appears an idealistic simplification. Modern science has made us think twice. I don’t claim to know a great deal (or even a small deal) about atoms, but I know that they are everywhere, and make up everything. I also know that every atom is 99.9% empty space. Adding one and one seems to indeed suggest that everything is very nearly nothing. Lawrence Krauss has a little more to say about the poetic nature of our universe, and the spiritual notion of oneness. He is like me, an awestruck atheist:

My final example of a spiritual pursuit is literature, something very dear to my heart. Outside the pages of the so called ‘holy texts’, you might not feel stories are capable of being a source of spirituality. But to me the world of fiction seems a perfectly reasonable way to seek an understanding of the seemingly incomprehensible. Reading has many similarities to prayer or meditation after all. It is a time you spend alone, separate from the physical world and biological urges. It is an activity that can translate meaning and invoke empathy, awe, wonder. Novels, poems and plays can change lives and perspectives. At their finest, they can have us reevaluate the world outside of their fiction. Who would deny that reading offers a very secular out-of-body experience?

So I’m a spiritual atheist – in my understanding of the word that is. How would you define yourself? Any attempt is going to first require pondering and navigating around an array of enigmatic terms: spirituality, god, soul, spirit, religion, consciousness, life, transcendence, faith, energy, awe…

I wish you luck.

 

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9 comments

  1. Bravo! It’s time to take back spirituality from the dusty tomes and ridiculous fables; the universe is awe inspiring all on it’s own!

  2. Gosh – a fabulous post my friend (if you don’t mind a total stranger addressing you so, as aspects of this post touch something humanly common.

    I’m a – well, not quite sure probably agnostic in that the sense of numinous is present – my definition for myself is Pantheist, as that numinousness is all around, and the connection between everything too.

    I agree absolutely with what you say about literature, which illuminates (the best does) the ‘is-ness’ of things, and of people, most profoundly – particularly literature written by people with poetic sensibilites . By which i don’t mean flowery language, I mean the ability to see the world fresh, the choice of language which is never casual, lazy or cliched, not is it innovative for the sake of innovation, but comes from an authentic, present place.

    The only thing i would add to your wonderful post is MUSIC and ART and also PERFORMANCE which can also all induce that collective awakening and awe. Perhaps music most of all

    Thank you Franklee for this inspiring post!

    1. Thank you for taking the time to reply! I definitely agree with you over the value of music, art and performance. I can really appreciate a pantheistic outlook, it’s the notion of a personal deity that I struggle with. Also, I’m loving this use of the word ‘numinous’. I definitely think it should feature in this kind of dialogue more often.

  3. Well written!
    I would call myself an “open atheist”, open meaning ‘eager to explore other religions’. I do read a lot about Buddhism lately (partly because it’s related to my ba thesis), but it also transcends into science and psychology. Since I have had taken part in a meditation class, I enjoy the term being mindful a lot more. It’s about the positive and empathic outlook on the world that I find the most interesting.

    Now I could go on and on, but I dislike typing in my phone 🙂

    1. Thanks for replying! Open-mindedness is definitely the best kind of mindedness haha. I think the great irony of all monotheistic religion is that it’s completely discriminative against all other beliefs, at least atheism treats every one equally! I would definitely like to learn more about Buddhism, and that meditation class sounds pretty cool.

  4. Hi Lee,

    As a spiritual atheist like me, you may find yourself at home at the Spiritual Naturalist Society — http://www.spiritualnaturalistsociety.org. We’re building a community of likeminded naturalists with a tendency to feel awe and reverence toward the natural world. We also welcome external article submissions, so if you ever feel like lending us some of your writer-of-some-kind chops, feel free to send me a message.

    Cheers,

    Jeremy Mattocks
    Editing Director
    Spiritual Naturalist Society
    http://www.spiritualnaturalistsociety.org

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