2012-06-19

What's Missing from Atheist Spirituality

I've read Andre Comte-Sponville's The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality. I've read a number of eloquent postings described as "atheist spirituality," and watched some lovely Youtube videos on spiritual atheism. These self-identified atheists have some beautiful and important things to say about the nature and function of spirituality in our lives.

But there's something missing. Several somethings.

One, how do you encourage spiritual experience in yourself? In the material I've surveyed, they talk about spirituality as an accident, a big whoosh experience that blows your mind. They talk about those rare moments. They don’t say anything about how to make them more common. They don't say what practices, what discipline, to take up.

I agree that when those whoosh experiences happen, they are an accident. You can’t make them happen. But there are things we can do to become more accident-prone.

The atheist spiritualists provide some hints. If the grand Tetons or waterfalls blow you away, then get yourself out to the mountains and to waterfalls more often. Yes, that’ll help. But if you go there all the time, you get used to it – it isn’t so reliably amazing.

We need intentional practices – a spiritual discipline: journaling, silence, study, and a group to meet with. We need friends along the path, we need to enlist the social side of brain and get it also tied in to the spiritual project, otherwise, we simply run out steam and motivation for the other practices.

Two, how do you integrate that whoosh experience into your day-to-day life? Over and over people have a kind of opening experience, and it feels great. Then it becomes a fading memory of a pleasant sensation.

If you have had such an experience, you learned something crucial about your oneness with the world in that moment. The moment itself, however, didn't teach you how to then live that truth in your life. It didn’t tell you how to remember the insight you learned so you could apply it to regular life filled not with infinte deep starry skies but traffic jams, unreasonable bosses, and pouting children

Three, how do you bring that spirituality effectively to the healing of the world? Spirituality is not just about ga-ga moments, nor is it just about integrating those moments into daily life so that you cope more calmly. Spirituality is about taking that upwelling of your heart’s compassion and turning it into action for others. We need organizations of people to do that – and to help us do it.

Four, I’m concerned about the thin-ness of this spirituality. The spiritual atheist writers have convinced me that their spirituality is very deep in that one moment of experience. But does the experience of the beauty carry over to the tragedy? I do not find in these folks who wax rhapsodic about spiritual experience but stay away from religious institutions, a direct addressing of life’s pain and suffering.

It's one thing to see the divine in a sunset. How about seeing divinity in cancer? Cancer is nature, too.

If you're using spirituality to turn your back on pain and suffering, or numb it with the aesthetic bliss of sunsets, then not only are you not religious, but you're only half spiritual. The spiritual path calls for facing and embracing the cancer too. Spirituality is about making our peace not just with beauty and wonder, and not even just with the challenging and annoying, but with the devastatingly grievous.

* * *
This is part 5 of 6 of "Atheist Spirituality"
Next: Part 6: "We Need Religious Institutions"
Previous: Part 4: "Reverence: Primal and Tribal"
Beginning: Part 1: "Back in MY Day"