Spirituality for Atheists Rev. John L. Saxon February 19, 2012

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Spirituality for Atheists

Rev. John L. Saxon

February 19, 2012

I’m afraid that Christopher Hitchens, the well-known journalist, author, and atheist who died this past December, would roll over in his grave if he heard that the subject of my reflection this morning is Spirituality for Atheists. (Pause.) But, fortunately for him and for me, he’s dead and can’t hear what I have to say.

There are of course, some people—atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins as well as many, if not most, people who are religious in the more traditional or orthodox sense of the word—who believe that spirituality and atheism are like oil and water—they just don’t mix: that atheist spirituality is an oxymoron or contradiction in terms.

Neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris who, like Dawkins and Hitchens, is one of the so-called “new atheists,” admits that “many … atheists consider all talk of ‘spirituality’ or ‘mysticism’ to be synonymous with mental illness, conscious fraud, or self-deception.” And like other “new atheists,” Harris is concerned that “terms like ‘spiritual’ and ‘mystical’ are [too] often used to make claims, not merely about the quality of certain [human] experiences, but about the [metaphysical] nature of the cosmos” or, worse yet, to justify certain religious beliefs that are not only irrational and false, but ultimately harmful and destructive of the well-being of human beings and the world.

But unlike Dawkins and Hitchens, Harris doesn’t believe that atheism and spirituality are mutually exclusive. Instead, despite his anti-religious sentiments, Harris believes that spirituality is an inherent and natural part of human experience and that there is “nothing irrational about seeking the [types of spiritual experiences] that lie at the core of many religions.” “Compassion, awe, devotion and feelings of oneness,” he says, “are surely among the most valuable experiences a person can have.”

And Harris isn’t alone. In his Little Book of Atheist Spirituality, André Comte-Sponville, one of France’s preeminent contemporary philosophers and a self-described atheist, writes that: “People can do without religion [and God … but they can’t do] without spirituality.” “Being an atheist,” he says, “by no means implies that I castrate my soul!” “The human spirit,” he continues, “is [the noblest part of what it means to be human, and, therefore, is] far too important a matter to be left up to priests, mullahs, or spiritualists.” We are, he says, “spiritual animals” and “not believing in God is no reason to amputate [the most important] part of our humanity.”

I agree with Comte-Sponville and Harris. Atheism and spirituality are not mutually exclusive. Spirituality for atheists is not an oxymoron or contradiction in terms.

It is possible to be “spiritual but not religious.” It is possible to be spiritual and not believe in God. It is possible to be an atheist and spiritual. (Pause.) Depending, of course, on how we define spirit, spiritual, and atheist.


In its most literal sense, the word atheist refers to someone who doesn’t believe in God, a God, or many Gods or someone who denies the existence of God, gods, and goddesses.

And so, the definition of atheist necessarily turns on the definition of God. “A nominal definition [of God] is necessary for [both] atheists and theists.” So it’s not surprising that when Albert Einstein was asked by journalist whether or not he believed in God, Einstein responded: “First, tell me what you mean by God and then I’ll tell you if I believe in him.”

To be an atheist, in the traditional sense of the word, is to deny that there is a God who exists as a supernatural, immaterial, omnipotent, omniscient, transcendent, person or being who created and controls the universe. And, in that narrow sense of the word, I’m an atheist (even though I rarely, if ever, call myself that).

But to be an atheist does not require denying the existence of the Absolute or the All in which we and all things exist. Nor does it require one to reject the idea of the human spirit. And it is entirely possible to define God as something other than a transcendent and supernatural being.

According to a 2008 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, at least a quarter of all Americans (and at least half of American Jews) believe that God is “an impersonal force,” not a transcendent being.

We don’t have to be limited by traditional definitions of God or spirituality.

So, when I use the word God, I mean that energy or spirit within the natural world that nourishes and sustains life and somehow calls us to greater wholeness, harmony, connection, community, justice, and love—not a supernatural Diety who answers prayers.

As Stephen Protero, author of God Is Not One, notes: “If you let the concept of God float a little bit, almost everybody is a theist.” And that’s why I don’t object (too much) to being called a theist.

Atheism and theism are in the eye of the beholder—or in the heart of the believer or nonbeliever. Atheists and theists come in all shapes and sizes and colors and one definition doesn’t fit everyone.


And the same thing, I believe, is true with respect to spirituality.

Each of us—whether we call ourselves atheists or theists—understands spirituality through our own eyes, through our own experience, and through our own beliefs. So, for each of us, spirituality will mean something different. And, for some, spirituality will have little or no meaning.

It’s important, though, for religious liberals, including Unitarian Universalists who identify themselves as atheists, to understand that spirituality does not have to mean believing in supernatural beings or forces: God, gods, angels or demons. It doesn’t have to mean believing in another world or life that is separate from or transcends the natural, material world in which we live. It doesn’t have to mean believing that we have an immortal, immaterial spirit or soul that is separate from our bodies and lives on after we die.

In fact, to me, spirituality doesn’t have anything to do with belief—religious or otherwise. It’s not dependent on or synonymous with religious belief. It is possible, as the 19th century German existentialist philosopher, Frederick Nietzsche, claimed, to be “a mystic and believe in nothing.”

Spirituality is about human experience and the practice of opening our human spirits to the larger life of which we are a part. To quote the Hindu philosopher, Krishnamurti: “We cannot give the wind orders, but we can open the window.” The Spirit of Life is the wind; our spirit is the window.


So, what could spirituality mean for atheists—especially those atheists who are Unitarian Universalists?

In the Gospel According to Webster, it is written that the primary meaning of spirit is that which animates or gives life to living things and that the English word spirit
is derived from the Latin spiritus, which literally means breath and is also the etymological root for respiration and inspiration.

Spirit, then, is what makes us (and, I would add, all living things and maybe so-called “nonliving” things as well) alive—that which gives life, nourishes life, and sustains life, just as our breath sustains the lives of each of us.

And we all know that there is so much that gives and nourishes and sustains our lives: the natural world in which we live; the families and communities to which we belong; music; art; beauty; connections; love.

All of these and more, I believe, are things of the spirit.

But spirit is also part of who we are, just as the air we breath in and out of our lungs is part of who we are. Spirit is not just the spirit of the Larger Life in which we live and move but also the human spirit that is a natural and inherent and necessary part of who we are and what it means to be a human being.

Some refer to the spirit within human beings as the soul. Others make distinctions between spirit and soul. And some, I know, don’t like to use either word when talking about human beings.

But, to me, the human spirit is real. Not a real thing. Not a metaphysical entity that is ontologically independent or separate from our bodies or minds. Not a material or immaterial substance. But rather a human capacity or function, just as real as human consciousness, intellect, emotion, imagination, and intuition.

That is what spirit means to me and what, I believe, it could mean to many people who call themselves atheists.

And spirituality, to me, is whatever truly and deeply and profoundly opens our spirits to Life.

Spiritual experiences are not only what the famous psychologist Abraham Maslow called “peak experiences:” those especially joyous and exciting moments in life that involve sudden feelings of intense happiness and well-being, wonder and awe, and, sometimes, feelings of transcendence, selflessness, and unity.

Spirituality can and does encompass such “peak experiences.” But, as Bill Murry, a Unitarian Universalist minister and humanist, writes: Spirituality also includes any experience that points beyond the mundane and superficial dimensions of our everyday lives to that which is, in some sense, deeper.

“Spirituality,” he continues, “refers to the longing for deeper and more meaningful relationships with others and with the natural world and to that dimension of our lives that deals with values, truth, meaning, love, integrity, and joy. It has to do with why and how we live.”

It is found in our experience of our everyday lives and the natural world in the here and now, but also, in the words of philospher Robert Solomon, opens us to “a larger sense of life.” It is, Murry says, “a way of being rather than a way of knowing: … a way of living an ordinary life in an extraordinary way.”

Or, to paraphrase Kennan Pomeroy, one of my classmates in seminary: For religious atheists, “spirituality is defined by the human and natural relatedness of life—in the inspiration [wonder, awe, and, even reverence] that human beings can find in the beauty and wonders of nature and in the varied acts of human creativity.”


In his Little Book of Atheist Spirituality, Comte-Sponville tells this story of his first mystical or spiritual experience. He was 25 years old and was walking with friends through a forest in northern France. Night had fallen. Gradually their laughter faded and the conversation died down. Nothing remained but their friendship, their mutual trust and shared presence, the mildness of the night air, the forest around them, and the sky above. His mind was empty of thought.

“And then, all of a sudden …. What? Nothing. Everything! No words, no meanings, no questions. A seemingly eternal sense of peace and infinite happiness. Above me,” he writes, “the starry sky was immense, luminous and unfathomable and within me there was nothing but the sky, of which I was a part, and the silence, and the light, and a sense of joy with neither subject nor object. Simplicity. Serenity. Delight.”

“My ego had vanished: no more separation or representation, only the silent presentation of everything. No more value judgments; only reality. No more time; only the present. No more nothingness; only being. There was no faith, no hope, no sense of promise. There was only everything—the beauty, truth, and presence of everything. And that was far more than enough!”

“It lasted only a few seconds. When I caught up with my friends, I said nothing to them of what I had just experienced. It was time to go home. My life resumed—or rather, continued to follow—its usual course.”

I envy Comte-Sponville. I long for that type of spiritual experience. And there are times when I’ve come close. The first time, perhaps, when I was nineteen or twenty, hitchhiking back from Boston to Alabama during Christmas break, stranded at 2:00 am on a back road in southern New Jersey all alone under the clear night sky, feeling small and yet connected to something larger than myself, feeling as alive as I had ever felt as I walked alone (and yet not alone) in darkness along the road and into the future with a sense of immense peace and excitement and joy.

And I know that many of you have had similar experiences, regardless of whether or not you chose to call them spiritual or mystical. Holding your newborn child for the first time. Sitting beside a dying parent. Listening to music that touched your soul. Walking in the woods. Standing beneath the starry night sky.


Sometimes we’re lucky (or blessed by grace) and these spiritual experiences just happen—unsought and unbidden.

But spirituality, I believe, also takes practice. Spirituality takes intention. It takes attention. It takes imagination and intuition. It takes learning how to turn off, at least for a while, the part of our brains that focuses on analyzing and categorizing and criticizing and dissecting the world and everything in it.

Spiritual practice involves learning to see with different eyes and even learning to “see” with our ears and our hearts, rather than our eyes.

Spirituality takes practice. And the good news is that there are countless spiritual practices—meditation, compassion, service, awareness, singing, drumming, dancing, and even prayer—that atheists as well as theists can use to open the windows of our spirits to the wind of the spirit of life that is always moving in and around and among us, even when we can’t hear or see or feel it. You don’t have to be a Zen master, guru, bodhisattva, or UU minister to be spiritual.


I realize, of course, that some Unitarian Universalists are uncomfortable or struggle with words like God and spirituality. And that’s OK.

I’m not interested in forcing anyone to accept my vocabulary (even if I could). If the words God, Absolute, spirit, or spirituality don’t work for you, don’t use them. And if there are other words that work for you, use the words that work for you.

Too often, though, I’m afraid that we Unitarian Universalists get too hung up on words and definitions and literalism, and I wish that we could somehow get beyond the words and, perhaps, find more common ground in our shared experience—since words are only imperfect symbols that point toward our shared experience of life.

Spirituality, according to Bill Murry, is an old word with new meanings—meanings that atheists, humanists, religious liberals, and even more traditional theists can embrace.

And spirituality, whether we call if that or not, is, I believe, a human capacity and a human experience shared by atheists, agnositics, and theists alike, by Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, pagans, humanists, believers, nonbelievers, and those who are entirely secular or nonreligious.

We are, I believe, spiritual animals. And, like Bill Murry, I believe that life is a spiritual journey and that, as human beings, we are always on that spiritual journey whether we realize it or not.

I am privileged that you allow me to walk that journey with you.

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