Saturday, June 26, 2010

Spirit and Atheism

As an Atheist, one is often forced to grapple with how to define one's experiences in the absence of a preconceived narrative.  So, for instance, what does morality mean without an appeal to religious text or authority?  Often times, the process of becoming atheistic itself created the alternative conceptual language.  For something as vital to daily existence as questions of morality, this was likely the young Atheist's early order of business: in the absence of God, morality must come from human emotion and intellect, and as such any original religious teaching was thus informed; morals are relative to human experience and can only ever be based in it.  This of course is somewhat more complicated than simply appealing to text, saying, "it is true because it is written."  But such mindless dogmatism isn't serious anyway, and true religious thinkers know that interpreting sacred texts presents its own complications.  Atheism, almost by definition (at least by its radical place in today's discourse), demands a degree of non-dogmatic critical thought from the outset.

But there are other experiences that, once removed from a religious narrative, the Atheist struggles to define.   The term "spiritual" presents a special problem.  By definition, it refers to the "spirit", a concept traditionally thought of in metaphysical terms.  This need not imply that no such thing exists.  Many concepts we find useful are descriptions of phenomenon that, while not taking direct physical form, are very real and indirectly observable.  In philosophy, they are organized into different categories.  For instance the concept of action is not a "thing", with physical form, but a description of a series of events that can occur.  I suppose if one really wanted to be specific, all things are merely molecules in motion, and that an action could be thought of in similar terms, of molecular structure operating within a system of  physical forces.  So in the way that a pane of glass is actually a sheet of silica in gradual free-fall, a dance is merely an orchestrated series of motions involving an organized, organic body of molecules.  Where pane of glass implies the actions of gravity, dance implies the set of neural instructions signaling muscular performance.

So what is a spirit?  What is spiritual?

This is a question that perplexes the Atheist because, while the term has a specific meaning in a religious context, it explains a human experience that seems to lose much of its meaning when removed from that narrative.  But it also seems to explain an experience that seems equally universal to human existence.  To the religious, the spirit is everything; indeed without it, man's life would have no purpose.  In the Atheist this question might provoke profound existential angst - if there is no God, there is no spirit, there is no purpose to life.  Sartre hinted at this seeming paradox:

God is absence. God is the solitude of man.
But once God is gone, is man really alone?  If God was only ever a manifestation of human experience, could not human experience simply replace God?  In this sense, God is merely a middle man between man and his quest for meaning.  Man's conscious experience is one of seeing himself as connected, yet apart from the physical universe.  There may be no more essentially human experience than that of grappling with one's place in the universe.  The obvious antidote to this angst throughout history has been the mythology of religious narrative.  Not only a rational explanation for the what and why of existence, it provides a framework upon which to hang all of the intangible feelings as well.

The concept of spirit can be thought of as describing this (categorically immaterial) process.  A somewhat nebulous placeholder concept, like "mind" or "emotion" - it describes a fundamental reality the conscious mind faces.  So while there may not be any such thing a "soul", or "spirit" in the religious sense, there is certainly a human experience that seeks to transcend one's corporeal existence and find a deeper connection to the larger universe.  Implicit in this concept is a basic, ineffable incomprehensibility.  There are obvious limits to conscious understanding.  We encounter experiences in our lives that have real meaning for us, yet we have great difficulty explaining.  Some of them are painful and tragic.  Some of them are profound and beautiful.  And we can adjust, orient our lives in order not only to avoid or to seek out such experiences, but also to understand them better alone or by sharing them with others.

Human culture is replete with activities designed to facilitate this sort of transcendence.   Art, sport, ritual, celebration, ceremony, and of course sex, we create normative pathways in which to access states of consciousness that are otherwise inaccessible.  If we think of spirituality as the degree to which our engagement in these activities facilitates transcendence, especially as a positive-sum progression towards greater knowledge or understanding of self and the universe, no matter how consciously articulated or  synthesized, it seems just as useful in an Atheistic context as in a religious one.

 So does an Atheist have a spirit?  Can an Atheist be spiritual?  To the religious, with faith in a strict dogma in which God is thought of as a very real entity, the answer must be no.  However, my hunch is that to many religious people, this conception of spirituality is entirely sufficient to describe their own relationship with their chosen dogma and teachings.  To this way of understanding, the conceptual meaning of God or spirit is less relevant than the actual human experience of transcendance - intellectual and emotional self-understanding and hyper-corporeal connection to the universe, in whatever traditional or non-traditional form it may take.


  1. I don't think anyone can be a pure atheist. If they are applying scientific rationalism then the possibility of a God is still pretty open. Even Dawkins only puts himself at 6 on a scale of 7. The believe there is no God in the universe requires a leap of faith as great as any Catholic makes. Sure, organised religion and holy books are bunkum but that doesn't disprove "God", whatever that is. Consider going Deist.

  2. Well, I tend to agree with that sentiment. Although I think belief in Jesus Christ as one's lord and savior requires considerably more suspension of disbelief than merely allowing that there may be some larger "purpose" to the universe that we have yet to discover any hint of.

    Much of the problem, I think, lies in the politics of language. In the sense that we're talking about a God anything like the traditional conception, according to mainstream religious tradition, I think you can safely say that there is compelling evidence that He does not exist. Sure, *anything* is possible, but that sort of makes it all meaningless anyway. On that front I'm entirely atheist. I think it is just as reasonable to say "I do not believe in [that kind of] God", as "I do not believe in fairy tales", etc.

    More interesting though, is the sort of pantheism that I think Dawkins is alluding to, following in the tradition of Einstein or other famous scientist skeptics who embraced the notion of universal beauty and symmetry that in some ways could be described as "God-like", yet entirely different than dogmatic religiousity.

    As a former skater, I always loved the line from a band called the Day-Glo Abortions, "My God rides a skateboard." For me, it brilliantly poked fun at religion while usurping its claim to transcendence through the (then at least) subversive sport of skateboarding.

    I guess for me embracing the mantle of Atheism allows me to do something similar - to completely throw away old-fashioned and (I believe) wrongheaded notions of self and the universe, appeals to the supernatural while at once maintaining that transcendence is still totally possible - indeed, important - without any appeal to a "God-like" notion. So in that sense I am indeed a-theistic. I have no use for the concept of faith or belief beyond reason. I could say I am agnostic, but it seems that is somehow dodging the question implied in the definition: Do you believe in God [you know, the one who is all-powerful and makes things happen, etc., etc.]? I like the idea of answering that question head-on.

    However again, it's so political. Who am I talking to and what am I trying to say? Considering the very real discrimination and ostracism non-believers face in general, I feel in a way I am standing up for something important.

  3. Good one. I understand(?) 2 of your main points are:
    1. If you're gonna be a deist then what's the point anyway?
    2.Being an arch-atheist is a better way to stick it in the eye of maniacal holy-rollers.
    If so, I see the logic there. We live in a society and everything we do is an interaction with people. So stance on belief is a semi-political issue? Shut the door and don't give the bible-bashers a look in? It's just I'd argue reacting to religious people either for or against them is letting them shape the argument. Wikipedia does Deism an injustice by not stressing that Deists don't see any idea of "God" as Charlton Heston in a white beard. The idea is that God is a Thing beyond any comprehension. Maybe it is just a universal algorithm or symmetry like you suggest. Almost definitely not sentient like a person.

    Which leads to point no.1 - So what's the point? I'm following Dawkins and going with intellectual honesty and scientific methodology (I think). Since I don't have an explanation how the Universe got here, I'll keep my mind open with an "x" in life's equation. This won't impede my sneering disdain for religion even though I see how important it was once to forming societies. Now we have a police force and government we can dispense with the witch doctors.

  4. You know what's funny, is I think from a rationalist standpoint the closest any of us can get to truly understanding the deepest "meaning" of the universe is through the study of physics, etc. So if the question is where did this all come from, how does it work, it seems the best answers are coming out of CERN, Fermilab and the theoretical physicists working on all the multi-dimensional stuff, etc. I think the concept of the Big Bang was as far as most of us have really been able to get our heads around any of it. But even then, it's totally weird and mysterious. I suppose you could insert any sort of hypothesis about a creator of sorts on the other side, but that just seems to make things massively *more* complicated!

  5. Yeah, but I lost a lot of faith in science when I saw legitimate arguments guffawed off the table without serious rebuttal. Established magazines like New Scientist arbitrarily deleting rationally argued posts (not mine!) simply because they went against orthodoxy. Scientists always claim the principle of "scientific objectivity" but they fail to mention their dependence on tenure, peer hiring or salary bonuses - e.g. if they get their genetic experimentation deemed "safe" and approved for production.

    There's the odd theory that the Earth is expanding, for example. It explains much and hasn't been disproven. (I give it a 20% chance of being true). But see how mocked and vilified anyone is for even discussing it. Sound familiar? Science is fast becoming the new R.C. Church with it's own, P.C. Inquisition.

    and then there's this:

    P.S. Don't get me started (too late!) on CERN. I've railed in many a post about what a funding feeder tube of wasted science it is. I mean, I LOVE Star Trek an' all but the science today is getting sus. Protons are being used in the device because they react to electromagnetic fields but they're not the core particle. Neutrons are. But they're impossible to deal with. So? Don't build the damn thing! Wasted money in a system becoming predicated to merely reaffirming status quo ideas and trucking in the research cash.

    If one even mentions researching electro-gravitic devices "serious" scientists will mock you. Why? From 1901 we went from The Wright Flyer to the SR71 Blackbird in 64 years. And since then? The Shuttle? Gimme a break.

    Or String Theory. A theory that cannot be tested - so it is an "idea" about as valid as The Holy Ghost. I could go on (and he often does...) I believe in science but not much in the organizations that control it today.