“Spiritual Atheistism” … what does that mean?


There is an article in the HufPo entitled , “On Being a Spiritual Atheist“. The title causes me to pause, what on earth does it mean?

  • Atheism is simply an answer to one question, the God one. That is the entire scope, anything else is something else.
  • The word “Spiritual” has always bothered me, what exactly is “spirit” what are you describing? Words such as “soul” and “spirit” are scientifically meaningless, they do not describe real things that you can actually measure or quantify.

So when I see both of those words combined, my immediate reaction is to think that it describes a truly weird combination. As best as I can grasp it, generally the term “Spiritual Atheism” is the absence of belief in the existence of “God”, defined as an entity external to the universe that created and rules the universe; but the presence of belief in the existence of “God”, defined as the personification of the universe itself, so is this what she is describing here, or is it something else?

It may also simply refer to Spinoza’s God, where you look up and feel a sense of awe when faced with the wonder of the universe itself.

Is it one of these, or is it something else? Lets see.

Looking beyond the actual title, what do I find? It is an article by , who is described as a UK based poet and freelance writer. “Ah”, I think to myself, “a poet”, so clearly we are not dealing with scientific terms but rather a metaphor, so perhaps in that context it can take on some meaning for a skeptic such as myself. She is also smart because I note that she  trained as a life scientist and has worked in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries for over twenty years, developing new medicines.

Anyway, she is writing about the 2011 UK census results …

with 25.1% now saying that we have “no religion” versus 14.8% of us in 2001. As ever, I’m completely on trend, having been an atheist for almost thirty years.

Well, that’s a good start, and then she dives in and tackles a rather interesting topic, without religion do non believers simply take the view of “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” Not at all, anybody with no belief knows that, but I suspect her target audience is those who do believe, and not only believe, but also hold the false view that those with no belief have not only no morals, but no reason to be moral. What she is actually getting at is to directly attack this concept as follows …

It stops you in your tracks, sometimes, being an atheist. You realise that there is no higher power for good, or evil, in this world, and that, excepting natural disasters, that it is down to us humans to do all the nice or nasty things that are ever going to happen. The fact that so many people do choose to do some good in the world, even though they have no religion, or only a nominal one, is thrilling. I expect we do it because it actually makes us feel good. Maybe because we are a successful tribe of social monkeys, our brains are wired that way.

The implication of St Paul’s letter to the Christians at Corinth, quoted above, is that if we don’t believe in God, an afterlife, and a reward in heaven or an eternity in hell, then we can do what we like, with impunity. For religious people, it’s best to keep the rules just in case. It’s a belief system underpinned by the ultimate threat. But when an atheist does a good thing, he or she does so for its own sake, not for any harp lessons in heaven. That’s why I think atheists are some of the most spiritual people I know.

Now that is indeed the core of it, Atheism is not something that stands by itself in complete isolation, it gets mixed in with other things as well such as Atheism+ or secular humanism. I do disagree with her thought that people with no belief do good because “it actually makes us feel good“. Actually no, the real reason is simply because we have evolved to have empathy for those around us, and not because it gives us an emotional tingle.

To be honest, people who are supposedly good or moral simply because they are afraid that a God will punish them are quite frankly rather scary, but if believers are truly honest about it, this is not actually the reason they manifest altruism. Some religious people are in fact charitable as a means to simply propagate their beliefs, but most humans, with or without belief will reach out and help their fellow-man, not because it makes them feel good, nor because some belief dictates that this is how they should behave, but rather because they have that very basic human quality … empathy.

So I get how she is using the term “Spiritual”, she simply means being a decent human being, but to be honest, it is not a term I would personally choose to utilize to describe moralled or principled, it is simply too fuzzy and vague.

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