Two perspectives on spirituality without God
Some atheists find use for the word “spirituality” while others don’t. Atheism is a reasonable philosophical position, the appeal of the word “spirituality” is common, and atheists can justify their opinions on “spirituality” either way. Those who want to explore non-theistic spirituality will find it is a deep subject.
Here’s a couple perspectives on what atheist spirituality might look like. The first author is Christian and is discussing the capacity of each human to experience at least brief periods of unbelief. The second author is happily atheist.
Richard Kearney’s 2010 book Anatheism: Returning to God After God supports religious faith, but he suggests that faith needs to be repeatedly chosen and voluntarily embraced, which means that people need to make space for uncertainty.
He calls this moment “anatheism.” It may spring from “instants of deep disorientation, doubt, or dread, when we are no longer sure exactly who we are or where we are going,” whether out of boredom, grief, or “the ‘holy insecurity’ of radical openness to the strange.” It’s a gut feeling. Such “radical dispossession is felt by any human being who is deeply bewildered by what existence means.” It’s about “our originary affirmation of life, our primordial desire to be.”
Each of us has moments when we feel uncertain about absolutes. In these moments, we challenge “dogmatic theism,” and, in a kind of radical innocence, we leave the door open to new understandings. We engage in “existential listening.” We renounce “the illusion of Grand Revelations, be it of art, metaphysics, or religion” and refuse “any grandiose system that trumps the world of flesh and blood and denies the universe of little things.” It’s “a necessary purging of the perversions of religious power.”
It’s “open atheism” or “a-theism”: letting go of belief in God. It is, Kearney says, “a salutary moment of estrangement, a departure from God (à-dieu) that struggles with God (contre-dieu). It may thus allow the possibility of a return to a God beyond God (hors-dieu), a God who may come back to us from the future.” Our inner drive to reclaim our authentic being “invites us to start all over again, from the beginning. Repetition.”
First, our life affirmation “must be regrasped and reinstated.” Then, having begun to address the demands of existence, we can advance to discuss ethics and other obligations — specifically, the development of religion and faith, as Kearney sees it. “The task of ethics is thus the reappropriation of our effort to exist.”
When a person recognizes the problem of suffering and evil, religion “becomes not an invitation to another world but a call back to this one.” We humans are responsible to do something about suffering and evil. Even those of us who believe in God have to acknowledge that God cannot solve these problems for us. Progress isn’t inevitable, nor can we expect to be swept up in any “Grand Finale” to history; we have to do the work ourselves. Of course, we must not commit atrocities, whether we believe in God or not; and from a religious perspective, additionally, we should not commit atrocities in God’s name. (That, in Kearney’s view, should be “the worst sin of all.”)
André Comte-Sponville, while identifying as an atheist, wrote similar reflections in his 2006 The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality, except that he does not see returning to faith as an important or desirable goal. In addition to atheism, he also endorses naturalism (the rejection of the notion of the supernatural), immanentism (the rejection of the notion of transcendence), and materialism (the rejection of the notion of an immaterial spirit). He says that, for many people, these views “tend to converge.”
He defines the absolute as “the sum of all relations,” which is something that exists by definition and cannot be refuted. Atheists, he says, can acknowledge the existence of an absolute; they simply do not personify it as “God.”
Justifying the idea of atheist spirituality, he wrote (as translated by Nancy Huston): “Not believing in God does not prevent me from having a spirit, nor does it exempt me from having to use it.” The spirit, as he defines it, is the capacity to think, feel, desire, and imagine. It is the ability to hypothesize and refute hypotheses. Therefore, it cannot itself be refuted; it can only be acknowledged. (Here, he takes his cue from Descartes: I think, therefore I am.)
The spirit is openness to experiencing life. Humans are “finite beings who open onto infinity,” “ephemeral beings who open onto eternity,” and “relative beings who open onto the absolute.” Theistic religion is thus only one type of spirituality. We have equal access to this infinite-eternal-absolute regardless of whether we believe in “God” (whose identity and existence seems to be a separate question). When people talk about how they understand and relate to “the absolute, the infinite and the eternal,” they tend to use the word “spirituality.” That is the sense in which Comte-Sponville, too, uses that word.
Some atheists, of course, reject the word “spirituality” entirely. But for those for whom it has some appeal, these two books may add some light.