Friday, February 09, 2007

Atheism, Religion and Spirituality

Many religious people talk about "spirituality". Many superstitious people talk about "spirituality". But there's nothing at all divine, supernatural or mystical at all about spirituality; and spirituality is all the more extraordinary for being natural and true.

Spirituality is all about love. Nothing mystical. Spirituality is just the same sort of love you feel for your wife, husband, spouse or significant other on Valentine's day. The same sort of love you feel for your children (or that children feel for their parents) on Christmas, Hanukkah, Eid, Kwanzaa or whatever holiday your culture encourages for everyone to be nice to each other. The sort of love you feel for your country or your tribe.

Spirituality is a connection to something larger than your own immediate material needs. It's about feeling good yourself just because someone else feels good, and about suffering yourself just because someone else is suffering. It's scary, because if you truly feel love then you will suffer too when the one you love suffers. But it's exhilarating, because the happiness and joy you feel when the one you love is joyous is like no other feeling.

What religions and cultures do is the most evil and terrible thing: They take this spirituality, this love, and tie it to some arbitrary rules and restrictions, and say that to love, to be connected to, depends on adherence to these arbitrary rules, because these rules, and thus spirituality, come from "god", or your sacred ancestors, or some such nonsense. And, towards those "others", who had some other set of nonsensical arbitrary rules drummed into their heads, our love, which rests on passion, is inverted and turned to hatred, and we feel joy and another's suffering, and suffering at their joy.

And all this evil is done by those who have no spirituality at all, no joy nor even hatred. They have only concern for themselves; they care for others only so far as others can serve them, their ego, their wealth, their power. They take joy neither in the happiness or suffering of others, no more joy than any person would feel for the rock itself if it were turned into a marvelous sculpture or annihilated into dust.

"When an ordinary man attains knowledge, he becomes a sage. When a sage attains enlightenment, he becomes an ordinary man."

There are two steps on the road to enlightenment. The first is to realize that love, that spirituality, comes from inside yourself, not, as the ordinary man believes, from god. This knowledge is necessary, but oh! the tragedy of so many philosophers, so many kings, so many priests who have gained only this knowledge and no more. Because, when freed from superstition, from "god", how like cheap sentimentality does love appear. Poor Nietzsche! ignorant and fearful of women, loved only by his sister, possessed of the terrible knowledge that there was no god, and therefore condemning love as weakness.

This knowledge, that there is no god, that one's ancestors, one's countrymen are ordinary people, grants one great power. Knowing that love is not true, and thus believing (falsely) that love is false, there is no constraint on how the sage can manipulate a superstitious populace. He can become a priest and manipulate those who love, and have been trained from birth to believe that it is the priests who provide us with love. He can become a king, and manipulate those trained from birth to believe that it is the king, the president, the chieftain who provide us with love of country and of tribe. He knows what a tawdry, worldly thing this love is, and is no fool to fall for it. And if the sage has a defect of will, he becomes a philosopher, howling his terrible truth or desperately trying to convince himself that such terrible truth cannot be true.

But how empty is such a sage. He is more than an animal, yes. But in stripping himself of superstition, he has stripped himself of love, and has become less than an ordinary man. And there is no going back. Once you know there is no god, you cannot again convince yourself otherwise.

The second step, to enlightenment, is even more terrifying than the first. To embrace love again is to become again an ordinary man. But without god, without superstition, without sanctifying the ancestors of your tribe or the founders of your nation, love means to love everyone, saint and sinner, citizen and criminal. It is to take into yourself all the joy of humanity, but all its suffering too, the suffering of billions, tens of billions. Poor Jesus! (fictional though he may be) wise at twelve, enlightened at thirty, and the suffering of all humanity on his shoulders. What else could he do under such a weight of suffering but die in the most painful way possible.

"After enlightenment comes the laundry."

There is a third step. Happiness and joy is. Suffering is. Even the enlightened person can just live. Laugh some, cry some, and sometimes howl at the unfairness of it all, but just live. And be, mostly, happy.


  1. I'm liking this...

    I think the reason a lot of people shy away from the word "spirituality" is because it has those two primary connotations that you've neatly identified: love and something "mystical" in the sense of perhaps an alternative belief system, or any number of them. Many people who are comfortable with spirituality in the first sense don't embrace it in the second.

  2. This was a beautifully written post... and I think the love-for-all you mention is very much in the vein of what Andrew Sullivan advocates as the value of his faith. If only he could manage to beyond the contigent cultural inheritance he's so attached to and see that it's the love that is of value - not the age-old traditions, not the sympathetic characters, and not the omnipotent executive who makes all that self-less love safe by guaranteeing it's significance.

  3. I think I'm in love with the Barefoot Bum. :)

    Thank you for this post.

  4. Nicely poetic but when one steps back and remembers that people have different definitions of the word "love", "god", "humanity" and "spirituality" itself...this post has no practical meaning.
    And that makes it kind of amusing to me...that an atheist who talks of mystical mumbo jumbo would post something as equally airy and emotional, with no concrete rationality behind it.

    Carl Jung, often accused of being too mystical, said in his autobiography that in all his experience, people who talk about love generally have no idea what they're talking about.

    I've been reading several posts of yours and I notice you talk about suffering once in a while, but it always seems to reference something distant...a "could happen" but generally seems to happen to other people. So I ask you this: what use is this flowery writing about love-for-all to a woman who has been gangraped and must now get an abortion? What use is it to someone born into abject poverty in a socialist regime, who struggles daily with hunger and malnutrition. What good is your proclamation of universal love for all, from your comfortable home in the United States, -to these people? Why should they care about your love? You talk the talk but how much do you walk the walk?

    I meet far too many people, both atheist and theist alike, who would rather pompously contemplate their navels and throw around philosophical names than actually get into the reality. While you brag about your love and compassion, other people are joining the Peace Corps or doing other things to actually SHOW their love. Ghandi and the Mother Teresa spent their lives DOING things for other people, not just pontificating.

    And there is the fact that atheists have yet to show anything for themselves as amazing as Tibet...beautiful monasteries, entirely peaceful, and inhabited by monks with a serious commitment to their faith. I remember reading about a monk who immolated himself in the face of Chinese authority, to demonstrate where his loyalty stood and how absolute that was. He inflicted upon himself, a very painful death, and even sat quiet and still as his body burned, until it gave up it's life. That's the sort of thing that shows how useless and empty postmodernism is...a pretentious, ungrateful philosophy for bored, wealthy people. Bleh.

    Talk is cheap. Without personal sacrifices and concrete works for the benefit of another, nothing anyone has to say about spirituality has any meaning or value. So I ask you: behind all this talk, where are your works?


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