Monday, December 27, 2010

What is Atheist Spirituality?

Atheist SpiritualityAfter a year and a half of writing on this seemingly oxymoronic subject, this question continuously arises. Although many past posts have attempted to clarify this concept, there has been constant development in my understanding.

How can there be an ‘atheist spirituality’? An answer can be developed through looking at the preconceptions we may have about the word ‘spirituality’. The word ‘spirituality’ is strongly, and unnecessarily, bound to ideas of religion, dualistic philosophies of transcendence, and dogmas demanding faith. In the modern era, spiritual practices have been largely institutionalized into formal faith categorizations. Spirituality has become the prime commodity of the religious institution. This association between religion an spirituality has become intensely entrenched in most modern cultures.

What about people claiming they are ‘spiritual but not religious’? Aside from increasing fundamentalism, there is a widespread lack of trust in religious institutions. The world is becoming more dichotomous; as fundamentalists become increasingly rebellious when faced with modern ideals. This influences modern individuals who are loosely religious to become sceptical of these institutions since they increasingly seen as being harmful. While continuing to practice spirituality on a personal level, many are disassociating themselves from religions which are developing a poor reputation. This personal belief or practice may still be entrenched in the dualisms of religion; therefore, it does not answer the question of an atheist spirituality.

What makes an atheist spirituality different? An atheist spirituality departs from the mainstream paradigm. It goes beyond ‘spiritual but not religious’ by rebelling against religious constructions. The philosophical shift from dualism to materialism can be illustrated by following historical ideas about the ‘soul’. Socrates can be noted as arriving at the necessity of the soul through questioning what is the user vs. the used. We may use a pen to write; therefore, the pen is the object (used) and the person is the subject (user). Socrates continues by asking: but isn't the hand used as well? and what about the eyes? Eventually, we may realize that everything on our body can be used – even our brains may be used to contemplate the process. This is where Socrates concludes that the user must be an immaterial soul. Fast forwarding, we can look at Cartesian dualism associating the soul with the ‘mind’. Descartes thinking-being of mind is the subject who acts on the objects of the profane bodies and earth. Fast forwarding again, we can see imminent conceptions of ‘God’ in the materialist philosophy of Spinoza. See his Ethics for extensive elaboration on this philosophical position. Deleuze, the most contemporary and my personal favourite, has written extensively on materialist philosophies of life; click ‘here’ to see a former post on Deleuze.

What does the materialist paradigm mean for ‘spiritual’ practice? This shift revolutionizes the dominate western conceptions of spirituality by changing all former definitions. The definition of ‘God’ is transformed into a pantheistic ‘God’ which Rickard Dawkins claims to be a “sexed up atheism”. Sin is no longer bound to transcendental judgment, but rather, becomes an individually autonomous ethics. Spiritual experiences of awe and wonder are no longer attributed to the presence of a divine entity, but rather, can be experienced through the glory of nature, evolution, and contemplating ones part in an infinitely unthinkable unfolding of life. Mystery of ‘God’ becomes the mystery of nature – a mystery which may infinitely extent its reach past our momentary understanding. Ritual becomes more than mere compliance for the sake of salvation, but a practice of affecting the mind-body (regarded as one) for the sake of happiness. Spirit is no longer the magic entity hovering somewhere in or around us, but rather, it is the human spirit: the spirit of love, joy, happiness, and peace. Although these virtues resemble those of Christianity, they are not seen as given by a God as a reward for good behaviour; rather, they are seen as virtues which come from within and can only be achieved in the present moment, not requiring a specific set of predetermined beliefs or rituals. Beliefs may be held, but are held loosely and not bound with one’s identity. Specific practices may be used, but their use is regarded as a way of changing one’s mental state. Mental states are also regarded as material since they rely on complex material interactions. An atheistic spiritual life is one of nomadic being, not clinging to fixed identity templates.

With all this said, openness to discovery may lead spiritual atheists in a multitude of directions. Since the joy is in the journey, future posts clarifying ‘atheist spirituality’ may differ from this one. Openness to experience is the way to ‘salvation’ in this search for spiritual complexity and life-fulfilling atheism.


  1. Why don't atheists move even further by letting go of the word "atheist."? That word only exist to differentiate between "theists" and those who are not. The word "atheist" is tied to theism. Why can't atheists move away from defining their identity as it relates to theists? An atheist is basically a non-theist, and hence it states what atheist don't believe in, but it says nothing about they do believe in.

    I wait for the day where atheists can explain their philosophy without having to mention that which they are not.

  2. I completely agree. I personally do not identify with 'atheism' for that reason. This blog's title uses the word 'atheist' in contrast to the word 'spirituality' as a mental stepping stone. I find the binary overly simplistic. It is difficult to portray the complexity of my position since it is filled with seeming paradoxes. It is understanding the paradox where the most depth is found. Engaging with the paradox allows the binary conflict to dissolve into one of peace. I am open to suggestions on alternate blog titles, but feel it is necessary to state the seemingly paradoxical title since it is recognizable in a cultural shift where atheists are looking for more, while 'spiritual' persons are becoming more skeptical.

    I as well wait for that day.

  3. Leave the name as is. It's functional, and easy to understand.

    I wrote up some additional thoughts that ended up too long to fit in a comment box, so I posted my own response on my blog, which you can read here:

    Excellent essay! I appreciated reading it.


  4. Spirituality ensues when God Almighty sends DIVINE RADIANCE into perception. This is a VISIBLE ENERGY that purifies the visual faculties, thus permitting dead functions in the soul to AWAKE. As there was a WAR IN HEAVEN and some of the Elohim [gods] fell to earth, those who sided with Christ will be reached. He said His Kingdom is not of this world, so spirituality allows ACCESS. Christ said: I SAY YE ARE GODS