American Samizdat

Wednesday, August 06, 2008. *
To many, I suppose, especially to those with strong religious beliefs and those who cling to a prejudicial mythology, the term "spiritual atheism" is oxymoronic, even blasphemous. "Ridiculous", they would say, "How can you be both?". Interestingly enough, I think that many atheists think the same thing, rejecting notions of spirituality as "illogical".

In fact, as thousands of atheists, freethinkers, humanists, and rationalists have "come out" in recent times, mainly as a reaction to the powerful and nasty irrationality of religious zealots ("fundamentalists" is a mad misnomer - the zealots will have nothing to do with the fundamental teachings of Christ), too many, I fear, resort to the same reactionary ridicule and hate displayed by their now-"enemies".

I have this image: a crowd of crimson-faced religionists on one side screaming, "Tastes great!!" A rowdy crew of blue-faced non-believers on the other, taunting, "Less filling!!!"

I am neither an angry nor a militant atheist. I am not "against" god. How can I be against something that doesn't exist? I don't hate or vilify religion. I'm not "against religion", although its power to destroy and divide and deceive scares me. I'm not "anti-christian", I just don't have the time for that. Hate no longer energizes me. I'm not intending to convert anyone. I am anti-stupid, but stupid ain't really something I can do much about.

I simply do not believe in god. That doesn't mean I don't believe in anything, however. I personally reject nihilism as forcefully as I reject religion.

It is a mistake to insist that "spirit" and spiritualism presuppose the existence of a god or gods. Indeed, many atheists, myself included, have come by our atheism, at least in part, through our personal experiences of religions as decidedly non-spiritual or worse, as so co-opting and narrowing the concept as to stifle human spirituality.

I do believe in power and spirit that encompasses humans and everything else. I decidedly do not believe in "a Higher Power". However, to not believe in power and spirit greater than self, or even humanity, is insane. Only a crazy person would stand in front of a fast-moving train and think she can stop it through will-power.

Like all christians (and all humans, for that matter), atheists come in a lot of different flavors. As a group, we have as many different attitudes and prejudices and personalities as, say, christians or muslims, from raging, hating fundamentalism to gentle, caring, and giving altruism. I'm more likely to proselytize or vilify a nasty atheist than a gentle, non-Zionist jew.

In The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality, which I highly recommend, André Comte-Sponville says,
Is it a struggle against religion? No; rather it is a struggle in favor of tolerance, in favor of the separation of church and state, in favor of the freedom to believe or not believe. The spirit is no one's private property, nor is freedom.

I was raised a Christian. My feelings about this are neither bitter nor angry - quite the opposite. I owe much of what I am, or what I try to be, to the Christian , and therefore to the Christian (in my case Catholic) church. My morality has scarcely changed at all since my pious years. Nor has my sensitivity . . .[pp ix-x]
The essence of Comte-Sponville's work is to make a distinction between "faith" and "fidelity". And he very effectively makes the case that fidelity is the foundation of community . . .
It remains for us to explore what is meant by communion. Here is how I define it: To commune is to share without dividing. This may sound paradoxical. Where material goods are concerned, it is indeed impossible. People cannot commune in a cake, for instance, because the only way to share it is to divide it. The more people there are, the smaller each person's portion will be, and if one person has more, the others will have less. In a family or a group of friends, on the other hand, people can commune in the pleasure they take in eating a delicious cake together: All share the same delectation, but without having to divide it up! . . .[pg 15]
He goes on to say . . .
Faith is a belief; fidelity . . . is more like an attachment, a commitment, a gratitude. Faith involves one or several gods; fidelity involves values, a history, a community. The former calls on imagination or grace; the latter on memory and will . . .

Frankly, do you need to believe in God to be convinced that sincerity is preferable to dishonesty, courage to cowardice, generosity to egoism, gentleness and compassion to violence and cruelty, justice to injustice, love to hate? . . .[pg 22]
My definition of "spirituality" is quite simple and "old-fashioned": it is, "Acting from the consciousness that there is something greater than my Self, of which I am a part, and which is a part of me." Spirituality is present in a human to the degree that narcissism is absent.

Note that "acting" is the operative word here. It really just doesn't matter what I believe. It matters what I do. It is true that my beliefs inform my actions. But I have found that my actions inform my beliefs even more powerfully. If I suspend a belief and act for the common good, in spite of or even in contradiction to the belief, my belief is liable to change from a new experience. "You do what you do - you get what you get." As I say, simple.

Believe me, I'm no goody two-shoes. As some of you know, I've done my share of very nasty and destructive things. I've battled drug addiction, alcoholism, mental illness. Even sober and "sane", I've robbed, cheated, hated, manipulated, insulted, judged, betrayed. My (post-) political writing here is often cutting, sarcastic, condescending, and cynical. I'm frequently guilty of contempt and prejudice. Many of my actions are based in fear. I wish I was a better person. I'm no shining example. I wish I did better. And more and more these days, I do. I just do.

Here are the questions I must ask myself before I act: "What are the likely consequences?" "Will this be helpful?" "Am I being constructive or destructive?" "What other ways might I act that would be more helpful?" I won't always know the answer. I'll make mistakes. I'll do harm sometimes. Nature of the beast called "life".

One question I don't ask myself is, "Will doing this get me into Heaven?"

As you might have guessed, I have some deep concerns about how many of my fellow non-believers behave. Although I admire the intellect of Dawkins, Hitchens, PZ Meyers, and other visible, outspoken "leaders", I am too often put off, not so much by what they say, but how they say it. Michael Merritt, at PoliGazette, in "The New Atheism", shares my misgivings:
Has atheism become too radicalized and militant? Some people think so. After the jump, I’ll discuss why some atheists have become disgusted with the modern face of the movement, and talk about what I’ve seen in my own experience . . .

For the most part, I believe atheists are fine, moral people who simply do not believe in a deity. Despite what some social conservatives may try to argue, atheists can be upstanding citizens who contribute to society and follow the rules of that society. However, I don’t deny that many of the values we hold come from the Judeo-Christian tradition, though I’d argue a lot of these values can be found in other belief systems as well. For instance, “thou shall not kill” is pretty a universal value.

On the other hand, there does appear to be a new movement among some atheists that I think is anathema to the message of atheism. This group of atheists, who among their number seem to be a lot of young people around my age, believe that simply not believing in a deity is not enough. Rather, they feel that those who do believe are not only misguided, but must be ridiculed for their beliefs. Similar to some “prepare for fire and brimstone” evangelical Christians, these atheists may suggest that believers are either brainwashed or ’stupid’ for believing in a religion . . .
In his piece, Merritt quotes still another blogger named Freddie, writing "I am not you, atheism" at L'Hôte:
I don't believe in God, I guess, in any conventional terms, and I'm non-religious. But Jeezy Chreezy, the public face of atheism turns my stomach. It is an unrelenting, never ending foray into self-aggrandizement, debasement of one's opponents, and ridicule of things one doesn't believe in. If someone was a political commentator, and operated the way Meyers, Richard Dawkins, or Christopher Hitchens did, would anyone listen to them? No. As much as the success of the Ann Coulters of the world suggests otherwise, we largely understand that a basic level of decorum, mutual respect, and the assumption of good faith should under gird our national dialogue. Indeed, without these assumptions, the dialogue is not worth having . . .

The new atheism has made its challenge, then. And here is my answer. I don't believe in God, in any meaningful way. I am not a Christian or a Muslim or a Hindu or a Buddhist or a Jew, or whatever else you will. In questions of public policy I feel religion has no place, and rational discourse has to rule. I don't want religious artifacts in the public square, I don't want creationism taught in public schools, and I don't want any religion privileged in any way by government. I am, in most every way that matters, a natural ally of atheism.

But atheism has expelled me. It has expelled me because it has in its heart contempt and loathing and fear of the other. So I reject it. I don't reject all atheists; many atheist are uninterested in ridiculing the religious-- they simply want to be left in peace, and not have religion forced on them or on the law. That, to me, is a principled atheism, and one I am happy to coexist with. But this new atheism, this anti-theism, has only contempt at its heart, and I reject it as thoroughly as it has rejected me.
This is powerful stuff. As atheists, I hope we're listening to some of this and learning from our own mistakes as much as we think we're learning from others'.

Merritt ends his own essay with:
I also think that at its core, atheism is not a thing that you can equate with hate. However, the problem comes when some of the leaders of the movements, the Dawkins’ and Hitchens’ of the world, feel that religion is not simply wrong, but its followers are delusional.

In the end, the world would be a better place if these atheists could do what they often argue some religious people don’t: keep their beliefs simmered down into well reasoned arguments, and not troll-worthy bashing. For my part, saying that someone is delusional for having a belief in a deity is no better than a religious person saying that an atheist is doomed for an eternity of fire and brimstone. It certainly doesn’t advance intelligent discourse, and only spreads enmity.
Hear! Hear!

I have to admit that my nervousness about Dawkins deepened today. A few days ago, I spied and saved a link to an article on Dawkins' site called "Embracing goodness, without God". I didn't read it right away, but intended to include it here, by way of redeeming Richard. When I tried the link today, I got a 404. I looked around Richard's site - nary a bit nor byte. I tracked it down at its source, so you can read it here. But the mystery of its all too brief appearance Chez Dawkins remains.

Coming full circle, I must say that Merritt and Freddie embody Comte-Sponville's notion of spirituality - one too which we all may aspire. Or. Not.

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