Three types of atheist spirituality (with an interlude)

The pope has just left from a visit to the UK, my home country, so it’s timely to think about some of the issues he has raised. One of those is the notion of spirituality and how important it is when leading our life. With this I can agree. However, the notion of spirituality is perhaps (for now) more simply and widely understood within the framework offered by Catholicism in particular and religion in general. But spirituality nevertheless exists for all humanity, whether they believe in a god or not.

This is because there’s little doubt to me that humankind is partly a spiritual being. That is – and I’m going to be a little imprecise here, since we need to start somewhere – we may experience glimpses into an unusual and powerfully emotive alternative reality; a sense of transendence or other-wordliness; we may feel awe or wonder; or, perhaps when times are bad, a longing to reach out to someone – something – greater than ourselves. I’m going to refer to these phenomena collectively as ‘spiritual’. How we arrive at them and what they mean for us is the subject of the three types of atheist spiritualism outlined below.

The recent growth of what has become known as ‘new atheism’ has sought to consider a spiritual life free from religious belief. For the three atheist thinkers here, atheist spirituality is not just a possibility, but an inevitability, and one that is core to human experience.

Sam Harris: consciousness and sustained introspection

The first kind of atheist spiritualism we find outlined at the end of Sam Harris’ infamous attack on religion, The End of Faith. If you thought that finding a section on spirituality in a book reknowned for its hard and unrelenting rationalism is incongruous, then you’re making the kind of mistake that reckons spirtualism must inculcate a supernatural diety. Harris is prepared for the error. He writes about the difference between ‘mysticism’ and ‘spirituality’. Mysticism, he tells us, is the brand of spirituality that depends upon the supernatural and is the one most readily associated with formal religion.

He suggests there there is an alternative and that is to be found in what he calls a rational, material, spiritualism. For Harris, this form of spiritualism is grounded in an exploration of human consciousness: the path to spirituality without mysticism is through meditation. He writes:

Investigating the nature of consciousness directly, through sustained introspection, is simply another name for spiritual practice.

The focus of such ‘sustained introspection’ includes a mediation on the notion of an individual identity, the ‘I’ which we call ourself. Harris argues that the notion of ourselves as subject (the totality of our body and mind, the lens through which we see the world) and ourselves as object (a person who exists with others in the world, the lens through which the world sees us) dissolves once given to prolonged and rigorous meditation. We fail, he says, to recognise thoughts as thoughts, one appearing after another, and instead use them to construct a sense of stable identity which is ‘the string upon which all our states of suffering and dissatisfaction are strung’.

For Harris, then, an atheist spirituality is based in personal meditation and reflection which aspires to a connectedness to the world at the expense of the disintegration of the self. One can feel the influence of Eastern thought on his ideas, and he acknowledges this directly. But he is equally careful to ground his ideas in rationalism and in an area in which the West has long been interested, including contemporary scientists: consciousness. Harris recognises that consciousness is mysterious, immense and ultimately unknowable. You can see why it appeals to him (and to us, perhaps): consciousness remains deeply sophisticated and a source of personal wonder that both ‘belongs’ to us but exists strangely outside of ourselves, too.

As such, the idea and experience of consciousness appears uniquely suited to rationalist spirituality. That such a seemingly unpromising physical material, that solid, slightly sagging and heavy-looking grey lump we call the brain, could produce an immaterial world we sustain and develop, populated by thoughts and feelings, love and grief,  inspiration and sensation. It is a spirituality that calls to mind the ineffable qualities of spiritual experience whilst being grounded in the most material of objects we carry around in our heads.

Atheist spirituality video: an interlude

For many, the possibility of a spirituality free from religion is found in the everyday – even prosaic – moments of life. The following short video describes one person’s experience of atheist spirituality.

Comte-Sponville: embracing the mysterious

The French philosopher André Comte-Sponville has devoted an entire, albeit shortish, book to the subject of atheist spirituality. Like Harris, he is interested in Eastern thought, but clearly grounds his work in terms graspable and familiar to a Western audience. He begins by telling us:

A society can do without religion in the restricted, Western sense of the word […] It cannot, however, do without fidelity or communion.

Unlike Harris, Comte-Sponville is comfortable with the idea of mysticism. For him, this means not a supernatural faith, but an understanding that some questions will always remain unanswered, that mystery lies at the heart of an atheist spirituality.

However, such reflections are not always readily found. Comte-Sponville echoes the notion found in Harris that we are often ‘locked up’, trapped in our own bodies and minds, ‘prisoners, in a word, of ideology and habit’; and this prevents us from having spiritual experiences. How does one escape this? For Comte-Sponville, it is the difference between the night and day:

This is something anyone can experience by looking at the night sky […] If the sky is very dark and clear, and you are in the country rather than the city, and you turn out all the lights, look up, and take the time to contemplate in silence… Darkness, which separates us from what is close at hand, bring us near to what is far away […] As long as the sun was shining, it locked us into the prison of light that is the world, our world.

It is only when free of the shackles of light (or thought, or self) that we are able to think about the immanent fact of our universe, of which we indissolubly a part, and which is: ‘our home; the celestial vault is our horizon; eternity is here and now’. To be spiritual is to open yourself to its possibilities.

Comte-Sponville recognises, too, the possibility of a painful spiritual experience. For some, like the philosopher Pascal, our acknowledgement that our lives are infinitely tiny compared to the vastness of space and time is a source of anxiety. Comte-Sponville thinks differently. For him, such grand perspectives are the source of inspiration and a direct route to spirituality. Our aim is to arrive at what Freud called (after Romain Rolland) the ‘oceanic feeling’. This describes that moment when we experience a sense of limitless interconnectedness; when we are in a ‘sense of indissouluble union with the great All, and of belonging to the universe (Freud)’. The metaphor aligns us with Harris’ meditators: we are ourselves but simultaneously connected with everything else, just as a single drop of water or a wave are unique but also ‘belong’ to the ocean.

Typically (and in the specific case of Rolland’s use) this ‘oceanic feeling’ is often described as a key element in the personal motive for sustaining religious belief. Finding it in Comte-Sponville’s short book is a touchstone, a small but striking reminder of a phenomena we find elsewhere in the work of many of those who think about the reality of an atheist spirituality: that the ways in which we think and write about, experience, share, remember and cherish spirituality may use the language of religion in some cases, but it never uses its supernatural beliefs.

Just like our moral life, the spiritual life does not need religion: such spirituality is not religion-less, but religion-free.