Sunday, September 10, 2006


Do atheists feel spiritual?

A friend asked me this week if I thought science could explain away spirituality. I didn’t think so. Science can’t explain how we think yet, much less something complicated like spirituality. But I did have my standard reply as to what spirituality is.

Spirituality is a feeling of connection to the universe which some people associate with a deity.

Let me critize my own definition a little. Sometimes I use“emotion” instead of “feeling.” Its probably close enough. But spirituality is not an emotion like fear or excitement. It’s more like intellectual satisfaction or surprise (as opposed to being startled) or wonder. Is there a big difference? Maybe not, but emotions strike me as something that can happen as an instinct or a reflex like fear or arousal. A spiritual feeling seems less primal and probably requires some knowledge or thinking process (“the light coming through that cloud reminds me of God” or “Look at those stars. I wonder if someone’s up there looking down on us.”)

"Connection with the universe" may be too broad. Probably "connection with the universe or nature or another person or people" would be better, but it wouldn't be very pithy, would it? "Universe" can subsume everything else anyway.

There might also be a little problem with the fact that “spirit” usually has something to do with a supernatural being. Still, you can have a feeling about something even if you don’t believe in it. If not, there would be no point in reading a novel or seeing a movie or play.

It’s like this. I don’t believe in Santa or a supernatural Jesus, but I often feel Christmassy because I like the lights, the music, the food, decorations and the whole Holiday thing. In short, those things give me a “Christmas spirit.” I don’t need to “believe” in any of it in any religious sense. I don’t believe in ghosts, but I still feel “spooked” watching “The Sixth Sense”. I use “God” as a metaphor all the time and even occasionally say “Jeeeesus Christ!” and more often “God Dammit.”

So, can atheists feel spiritual? Sure. They just don’t think that their connection to the universe is related to a deity. I love studying mythology, religions and ancient cultures. Sitting alone in Delos among the broken columns and the rows of lions, where Apollo and Diana were supposed to have been born, was a very spiritual experience. Walking in the shadows in St. Paul's Cathedral in London or through St. John's Cathedral in Manhattan gives me the same feeling. I feel that way on a river or on a lake too, mostly when I’m alone. I feel that way when I’m staring up at stars or sitting in a tree, which, honestly, doesn't happen a lot anymore. I feel that way reading The Lord of the Rings, which for me, is like stepping back into a mythological past.

Religious rituals, except for the music and funerals, and technology gives me the opposite feeling, but that’s for another blog.

Who cares whether atheists can feel spiritual? Some people might. I’ve been told lots of times that I can't or shouldn’t use religious expressions, or be interested in churches, that I can’t have morals or firm convictions, or even read The Bible just because I don’t believe in God.

I remember being blown away by a poll some years ago. The question was whether the takers would vote for people of various groups. It was nice to see that most Americans would vote for a woman, a black, a Jew, etc. These numbers were up around 90 % or higher, the best I can remember. Gays were somewhere down in the seventies. But the least likely type of person to be voted in would be an atheist. Only somewhere around 50 % of the people polled would vote for someone who did not believe in God.

Earlier this year I read “The End of Faith” by Sam Harris. To give it an unfairly brief summary: Religious people who are certain what is going to happen after death can be dangerous, particularly in a world of nuclear and other dangerous weapons. One passage he wrote really struck me, so I will reprint it in full here:

“Of course, religious moderation consists in not being too sure about what happens after death. This is a reasonable attitude, given the paucity of evidence on the subject. But religious moderation still represents a failure to criticize the unreasonable (and dangerous) certainty of others. As a consequence of our silence on these matters, we live in a country in which a person cannot get elected president if he openly doubts the existence of heaven and hell. This is truly remarkable, given that there is no other body of “knowledge” that we require our political leaders to master. Even a hairstylist must pass a licensing exam before plying his trade in the United States, and yet those given the power to make war and national policy – those whose decisions will inevitably affect human life for generations – are not expected to know anything in particular before setting to work. They do not have to be political scientists, economists, or even lawyers; they need not have studied international relations, military history, resource management, civil engineering, or any other field of knowledge that might be brought to bear in the governance of a modern superpower; they need only be expert fund-raisers, comport themselves well on television, and be indulgent of certain myths. In our next presidential election, an actor who reads his Bible would almost certainly defeat a rocket scientist who does not. Could there be any clearer indication that we are allowing unreason and otherworldliness to govern our affairs.”

If you read this passage and think either “that’s right, would not vote for one” or “that’s ridiculous,” then I guess you care about what atheists think and feel, whether or not you want to hear it.

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .