Friday, February 16, 2007

Atheism and Spirituality

There seems to be some confusion out there about atheistic spirituality, that to be an atheist one must cut himself off from everything any theist has ever said about the human spirit and the human heart. The fallacy, I think, is to assume that all or much that is good and noble of the human experience really does come only from God, or belief in God; to reject God is to reject this nobility.

This is simply not so. I greatly admire and am profoundly influenced by the words of Paul:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
I Cor: 13:1-7
I like this quotation. I like it a lot. The difference between the atheist and the theist is, I think, that I believe Paul here because it makes sense; I don't have to attribute this notion of love to God to believe it. More importantly, I don't have to accept everything Paul says as the truth; Paul says much that I consider foolish, vain and unloving. No matter: I'm free to pick and choose on the basis of my rational mind and my human feelings, not on the basis of some divine authority.

Likewise I can admire others just as much, be just as profoundly influenced by them. For instance:
Many that live deserve death. And some die that deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then be not too eager to deal out death in the name of justice, fearing for your own safety. Even the wise cannot see all ends.
The Lord of the Rings
I can admire this wisdom even though it is spoken by a fictional character. I don't have to believe that Gandalf the Gray was real or that Tolkien was inspired by any God. I admire it because it is sensible.

Rationality and atheism does not mean cutting myself off from the richness of human culture and history, explicitly religious though much of it is. It means only that I can choose myself what to accept and what to reject. I can choose on my own rational and moral authority, and no one else's. I can accept the good, just because it is good. I can reject the bad, just because it is bad. I can keep the good and still strip away the specious and vacuous God part, just because "God" is specious and vacuous.

The theist seems to me to be in a much worse position. He can't say that he likes Paul's thoughts on love on the authority of his own judgment; he must say that he accepts Paul's thoughts because God tells him to. He cannot take personal responsibility for his own goodness; the theist's only virtue that is truly his own is submission to God's will.

But if the theist cannot take responsibility for the good, how can he take responsibility for the bad? If he himself cannot judge the good on his own authority, how can he judge the bad? If he must love because God commands it, how can he resist God's command to genocide, slavery, incest, human sacrifice, mass murder, and mopery on the high seas?

As an atheist, I do not reject anything good about human culture, human history or human society. All I do it cut away the layers of irrelevant bullshit and vacuous mysticism. I have no need for elaborate theodicy. I have no need for rococo hermeneutics to reconcile the arbitrary morals of a primitive culture with modern ethics, to reconcile a naive mythology with modern science.

I admire all that is good, whether spoken by "saints" or sages, ordinary people, fictional characters or even a barefoot bum.


  1. I don't think one has to be particularly an atheist to see things this way. Atheism can manifest itself in many different ways.

    But certainly, atheism provides a possibility of seeing things this way, because there is no lore, no dogma, no great teacher. Atheists, where ever they end up, do for their own personal reasons.

    Perhaps that's why atheism (and agnosticism and "who cares if god exists or not"ism) is considered even more threatening, or scary - because there's nothing solid to hold on to, or to judge. It's all personal. And when something is personal, people still try to lump it into a box and define it, in order to judge it.

  2. Tammy,

    To be honest, I don't think you have to be an atheist at all to see things this way. I know many people who profess belief in God whose spirituality is virtually identical to my own.

    I think belief in this sort of God is no more problematic than being a fan of a particular football team--so long as nobody tries to make me root for the Dallas Cowboys, of course!

    Self responsibility is always scary, but it's also a part of growing up. Just as economically and socially we (usually) become independent and self-directed, I think that we can do so spiritually as well.

    I don't mind (much) being judged, and I do in fact judge others. But I insist on being judged for who I am, not for whom I obey.

  3. tBB: consider reading the Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis. A little book that suggests why some things make sense across cultures, and why God might have something to do with it.

    In fact, there's a copy online

  4. Wonderful post.

    As an atheist, I do not reject anything good about human culture, human history or human society. All I do it cut away the layers of irrelevant bullshit and vacuous mysticism. ... I admire all that is good, whether spoken by "saints" or sages, ordinary people, fictional characters or even a barefoot bum.

    Reminds me of the Biblical principle to "Test everything; hold to the good" :)

    Zach A / Evolt


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