We Need Religious Institutions

Atheist spirituality is an encouraging development. I'm always glad to see an interest in wonder, beauty, awe, and mystery. And gratitude. Especially gratitude.

Spirituality, though, isn't just about pleasant experiences of inspiring (usually) nature. It's about making our peace with quotidian annoyances, tragic loss, and every single moment of this dear life. It's also about living compassion for others, not merely a private enjoyment of sublimity.

Spirituality must be developed. Spiritual experience may descend upon one unexpected, in a great exhilarating whoosh, yet integrating that sudden awareness into all of one's life takes some work.

Spiritual development requires discipline: daily study of spiritual texts, daily journaling or prayer, daily silence, and an ongoing habit of calling yourself back to mindfulness. (For more on this, see the Lake Chalice series that begins here.)

The spiritual atheists say that spirituality doesn't require "God," or the supernatural, or religion, or religious institutions.

Lake Chalice has ventured before into alternative ways of understanding "God," and why neither "supernatural" nor "not supernatural" are helpful terms. (See the four-part series that begins here, as well as "Respond to WHOSE Love?" and "Parts of Speech, Parts of God.") Rather than repeat itself on "God," and "supernatural," today Lake Chalice turns to the other alleged who-needs-'em items: religion and religious institutions.

Spiritual development, for atheists or anybody else, requires a regular discipline. Spiritual development, for atheists or anybody else, also needs the resources of a community that embodies a tradition of practices and texts and the habits of using them to make meaning.

I know that religious community is difficult. I know that it would be so much easier if it didn't have people in it. But that's part of the challenge, part of the practice ground for working out your peace with all of life, even the difficult parts.

It's worth it.

For all their flaws and pettiness -- indeed, partly because of all their flaws and pettiness -- those other folks that you'll find in church, synagogue, temple, mosque, or sangha -- they will help you see your own flaws and pettiness. My congregation continues to help me see mine.

We can learn to grow spiritually -- in church, together -- if we do the work -- in church, together. Whether we are atheist or theist, we need religion. I don't mean the authoritarian religion. But our spirituality needs a community of accountability -- that is a place where we can account for ourselves to others. We need a place where we can sharpen and deepen our religious-spiritual insights: a place that will call us on our stuff, will hold up the mirror so we can see ourselves when we hit those places -- as we inevitably do on the the spiritual path -- where we can't tell the difference between genuine wisdom and the ego's love for deluding itself with a story about how wise we are.

There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself.

If I'm serious about spiritual depth, I need the humility to place myself in a relation of accountability to a long and rich tradition -- a tradition of many people who have wrestled with what I'm wrestling with, who have, like me, been fooled into thinking they "got it" and "had arrived" but who eventually came, through connection with a community of fellow spiritual travelers, to see through that delusion to a deeper wisdom.

We need places to do our work, whatever spiritual work it may be that is most important for your growth.

For some of us God is a part of spirituality. For others of us, God isn't. Either way, we need each other on the spiritual path: a community committed to deepening on the path together.


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This is part 6 of 6 of "Atheist Spirituality"
Previous: Part 5: "What's Missing From Atheist Spirituality"
Beginning: Part 1: "Back in MY Day"


  1. I'm confused. How can an atheist be spiritual? Doesn't that contradict what an atheist believes? I understand being "connected" with nature and self but I don't think an atheist would say it's spiritual .. I'm not sure really how they would address this but saying an atheist is spiritual is kind of an oxymoron. The saying does not really connect or truly affirm an atheists view of the world. For example, when I went through my atheist phase and I looked at nature I was awed and accepted it for what it was.. I didn't think it was connected to the divine or spirits.. it just was.

    1. Dear Health Promotion: Apparently more and more atheists these days are identifying themselves as spiritual, and have put some work into describing what spirituality means to them. Please do go back to part 1 of the "Atheist Spirituality" series ("Back in MY Day" -- link is at the end of the post above), and read also through parts 2-5. See what you think, OK? Thanks! -Meredith

    2. Thanks for the reply... I read the post and it's still confusing to me. I'm getting stuck on the definition, it seems like there has got to be a better word for it (the experience that atheists have when meditating etc.) . From my view I think that if you feel or think that there is more to this world we live in.. something greater.. some connectedness .. some "other", then that would theism of a sort. Atheism to me is being without God.. or spirituality. It's almost like your saying "I want to connect with God or whatever but I want to be an Atheist" I don't see how you can have it both ways. Again .. for me it comes down the definition. I'm not one to tell people what to believe but I think people should be honest with their own beliefs.

    3. Hi, Health Promotion, You're right that there's a semantic issue here. You're suggesting that the "spiritual atheists" are either misapplying the word "spiritual" to themselves or misapplying the word "atheist" to themselves. One of the ones I cited, for instance, speaks of "the divine." (You mentioned reading "the post" -- but did you have a chance to read all six posts in the "atheist spirituality" series?) If that qualifies him as "spiritual," does it disqualify him as "atheist"? I gather that the folks who identify as "spiritual atheists," understand "theism" to require not merely "something greater" and "other," but that this greater and other must be person-like (be a bearer of knowledge and desires). Since they regard the "something greater" as definitely NOT "SomeONE greater," they feel justified in identifying themselves as atheists.