As an atheist, how do I understand spirituality? How do I understand the religious inclinations of individuals?
Some sources have suggested that certain people have varying predispositions for the mystical or the spiritual.
For some people, "god" is reality - god exists for them and for them, he is indeed real. That is not necessarily a disconnect from reality -- for some people the mystical is as plain as daylight.
Then again, for schizophrenics, many things are also plain as daylight. But I'm not here to make that comparsion. I want to emphasize that this is a tough topic to negotiate: there are many complicated causes and effects of the practices of spirituality and mysticism.
Most of us are inclined to believe in the supernatural, for whatever reasons we may have, whether psychological, cultural, etc.
Some of us describe ourselves as "spiritual but not religious". Some of us are more accurately "religious but not spiritual" -- like a lot of people who profess that they're Christian or Jewish, etc. but rarely worship and only nominally think about and participate in their religion.
Some people really do have a self-proclaimed "spiritual" sense but don't believe in any particular religion, like Sam Harris. It would also be helpful to consider Carl Sagan's perspective on awe and wonder in our lives when considering this particular form of "spirituality".
I know a few friends (this is purely anecdotal) who have rejected Christianity but still felt in touch with a certain kind of "mystical sense" and became neo-pagan or polytheist/pantheist.
It seems from the way our psychology and perhaps our society has formed, that some people have a real need for religion or spirituality or mysticism in some variety. Now, I realize that it is highly debatable whether people actually "need" spirituality or mysticism. Do people need these things the way a drug addict needs drugs? Or the way a hormonal teenager needs sexual outlets? Or the way that a lonely person needs someone to talk to? I don't know where we should place the spiritual "need" in these categories. However, that uncertainty does not negate the existence of the "need" itself. As long as atheists refuse to address this base component of spirituality, most people will not understand atheism. Religion often serves as a proxy for many emotional attachments and states. Statistics may indicate that the non-religious are no less moral than the religious, but statistics are not enough to create understanding, or evolution would be far more widely accepted in American society than it is today. As long as atheists cannot or refuse to understand the emotional basis and implications of spirituality, people will not understand us.
I believe that this spirituality is an inner component of our psychology, and that each of us interprets this differently due to cultural and environmental influences. Some of us also feel this urge more strongly than others do.
Just because I believe that spirituality comes from inside of us, instead of from some external creator force, does not mean that I casually disregard it or see it as unnecessary to our lives.
There are many emotions and such within our minds that we feel, which may or may not be necessarily "true", but that we almost all acknowledge as perfectly valid feelings, such as love, anger, fear, etc.
I fully acknowledge that many urges which originate from inside of us are negative, and that perhaps spirituality is one of these negative urges which should be eliminated, controlled, or reduced. I understand this point of view. I do not know whether or not I agree with it.
I perceive spirituality as one more emotion we encounter in our existence, just as we experience fear, love, hope, anger, happiness, and many other feelings.
For me, spirituality is a perfectly valid feeling, but I have acknowledged that spirituality probably comes from within us, and also that each of us is especially prone to use confirmation bias to mold the perceptions we have of our internal spirituality so they conform to our culture's external sense of religious piety.
Craig Hogan speculated recently that our universe is actually a hologram, based on "noise" from the GEO600 machine. This is what I think about in terms of "spirituality".
My spirituality consists largely of a fond respect for the absurdity of our universe: if it is true that our entire universe is a hologram, can we honestly say that it is any stranger than, say, SpongeBob Squarepants living in a giant pineapple under the sea?
We human beings are all spiritual in many different forms: sometimes it is expressed through our love of religion, our love of a career, our love of nature, our love of humor, our love of family, our love of certain traditions, our devotion to patriotism or to sports or to politics.
Are other atheists so cocksure that they want to take a popular stand against the essence of "spirituality"? Yes, such an opinion may be valid; it may be correct for all I know -- but now it is suicide. When theists ask us why we can live our lives in a moral way, it isn't because they think we're evil -- it's because for them, spirituality is linked to all of these other positive values.
I agree that this connection is a profoundly negative one. But rather than focusing on a complete rejection of spirituality, it would be wiser and more efficient for us to shift the topic of spirituality away from the religious sentiments which divide us and towards the emotional sentiments which we all have in common.
I have nothing against Carl Sagan's or most liberal Christians' or Jews' or pantheists' spirituality. My problems lie with dogma. I have nothing against faith. My problems lie with blind faith.
I just want people to be able to make a knowledgeable decision about religion. Organized religion has claimed a place of unquestioned privilege in the realms of spirituality and morality which I strongly feel it has not deserved for much of human history. For me, it is long past time to reclaim morality and spirituality back from the vise grip of organized dogma.
I have no problems with individual religious experiences or even organized religion itself. My main frustration is with the monolithic oppression of dogma -- fundamentalism and ignorance devastatingly at work. That is the message atheists need to convey.
Atheists are not opposed to spirituality or morality -- not opposed to emotion or feeling -- not opposed to family or patriotism or service -- most atheists are opposed to the ignorance, prejudice, and anti-intellectualism which are strongly identified with religious fundamentalism and even many guises of so-called religious moderation.
Doubt, not dogma. Spirituality, not religion. Faith, not blind faith. Healing, not heresy.
The next segment more geared toward religious believers.
New SEP Entry on Cosmic Fine-Tuning
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