Spiritualism vs Religion

Religion vs SpiritualismSince I just used an Atheist Eve cartoon, I was reminded of another of her cartoons where she takes people to task for being “spiritual” but not “religious.” With all due respect to my fellow atheists, this kind of determined ignorance is the main reason that I feel queasy about self-identifying as an atheist. In the cartoon, one character says, “I’m a spiritual person, but not religious. Know what I mean?” And the other character (presumably Atheist Eve herself) says, “Actually, I have no clue what you mean. Do you?” I don’t believe this for a second.

I too have my problems with the whole spiritual crowd. Their thinking on spiritual matters is usually very sloppy. What’s more, it is very easy: they believe whatever they want. They are rarely constrained by the implications of their belief because they don’t take it seriously enough to consider the implications. On the other hand, they aren’t dogmatic. They are open minded enough to search for answers themselves rather than accepting pat answers from religious authorities. And here is the best thing about these people: I can talk to them about spiritual matters without getting a load of crap like, “We know God loves us because it says so in John 3:16!”

Regardless of one’s belief system, there is still one unanswered question, “Why does anything exist?” Now it is possible that one day this question will be answered by science. But atheists who claim that natural selection and the big bang answer it are being disingenuous. There is only one way to deal with the question: define it as unanswered and move on. But it is wrong to say that those of us who do want to think about the question are just the same as people who think that God impregnated a woman so the child could die for the sins of the world. To me, serious spiritual thought is an extension of mathematics. I think, for example, that Godel’s incompleteness theorems tells us something about the nature of systems. Existence is paradoxical, but then so is algebra. The point of thinking about ontology is to gain insight that allow us to ask better questions. I’m not really interested in answers because I don’t think any exist.

I understand that most atheists will object at this point. “But that isn’t spiritualism, that’s math!” they will say. Not at all. Regardless of how you go about gaining insights, it is still spiritual thought. It is true that the character in the comic doesn’t think this carefully about spiritual matters. But that just takes us back to the fundamental problem with most atheists: they are constantly arguing against the most childish religious beliefs. I realize these are the most common beliefs, but the net effect is to devalue atheism itself. “Hippy punching” does not a great movement make.

There is a very general question here: if my interest in ontological questions is not spirituality, what is it? My belief is that there is some kind of process that explains the nature the existence but that it is outside what we think of as reality. If you wanted to, you could say that I was interested in negative theology. But I don’t like the idea of theology—it implies intention, which I don’t accept. So I’m going to continue to use the word “spiritual” because that is broadly what people mean when they use the word.

Except that isn’t how many atheists want to define it. That’s fine, they can do whatever they want. But it isn’t good for the movement. It makes atheism seem like the mirror image of Christianity: just another dogmatic system. I know that atheists will go into fits on reading this, “But religion is based upon faith and science is not!” Yeah, right. Every human uses faith throughout every day without having much idea they are even doing it. And this is why atheists largely do come off as closed minded.

If we want to make inroads with theists, we need to understand why people quite understandably believe in God. There are questions that people have that religion, while mostly doing a terrible job, tries to answer. I am extremely interested in these questions and it amazes me that most atheists are not. But that in itself is fine. The problem is that most atheists want to dismiss those who are interested in these questions. The questions are valid and valuable. And they should be treated with respect.

The big question for the atheist movement is whether it is going to be like Protestantism. Is it going to break up into a thousand pieces over minor issues of thought? Because I’m inclusive. I certainly think that anti-ontological atheists are limited in their thinking, but I would never say they don’t belong. And in truth, no one is especially questioning my place as an atheist. But I think “spiritual” neo-hippies are good candidates for our movement. Atheists tend to confuse their beliefs with science. They aren’t the same. Just as religion and spiritualism are not the same. If sloppy thinking prevented atheists from being part of the movement, there would only be a handful of people in the movement.


Some may wonder why I don’t just use the word “ontology.” The reason is that most people I talk to have no idea what that word means. I have enough of a problem with people thinking I’m an ostentatious intellectual. I will admit, however, that “spiritual” is a difficult word. But it grounds any conversation in the right area without turning it into a discussion of dogmatic beliefs.

0 thoughts on “Spiritualism vs Religion

  1. I understand your conundrum. I think it’s a very positive thing that atheism is becoming more vocal and visible. I empathize with atheism and I’m all for it having seat at the table finally. But I can’t in all honesty say that I’m an atheist. I guess I fall into the "spiritual" category, but I’m not interested in having conversations with atheists about this because they all seem to be enraged by that word. I understand it’s vague and undefined and possibly even lazy, but the other option is simply to call myself a mystic, and that sounds a little bizarre. Also, when I have had conversations with atheists about my spiritual experiences, they tend to be very aggressive about defining them as "delusions" or "neurological blips" or "not real", which is very frustrating to me. It’s like they’re telling me I’m too stupid to understand my own experiences. Also, it’s exhausting.

  2. @Kristen – Exactly! Increasingly, I see atheists like I see libertarians (and they are very often the same people). It’s all too compartmentalized. The complexity of ontological questions are just defined out of existence. And like I said, that’s fine. What isn’t fine is to think of those of us who do not do this are a bunch of dolts.

    I like the idea of being an interfaith atheist. Of course, I’m not really the type to bring people together. As this article indicates, I’m pretty good at insulting everyone. But I really think that atheists could be more open minded.

    Even Dawkins admits that technically he is an agnostic. I wish more atheists would understand this. That gets back to the libertarian-atheist connection: I find both groups intolerably self-satisfied. But I’m largely in favor of the atheist project. But their idea seems to be that with a little education about Darwin and a lot of ridicule, they will convince the masses. Good luck with that!

    And yes: it [i]is[/i] exhausting. I also find it frustrating to deal with the very large blind spots of atheists. Not long ago I read Lawrence Krauss’ book, and I couldn’t believe how dense he claimed to be over and over again. It was studied ignorance. He claimed that he couldn’t understand the difference between "nothing" that allowed universes to pop out of them and "nothing" that did [i]not[/i] allow universes to pop out of them. Clearly, there are laws in the first kind of "nothing." And if "nothing" has laws, then it isn’t nothing. Of course Krauss is a scientist and what I’m talking about is more like pure math. But still, when very smart people claim to not get such a distinction, I think they are showing a faith based ignorance. They don’t get it because they predisposed to not get it. Ugh!

  3. Yes, the doctrinaire atheist who says "it is foolish to ask where matter and energy originated, they came from the Big Bang!" is not much farther up the Deep Thinker ladder than the Bible-thumper who says "it is foolish to ask where everything originated, Genesis tells us!" (Except that there is evidence for the first statement and none for the second, both display a lack of curiosity.)

  4. @Kristen: I am an atheist, and I will explain what I mean by that. I find the argument/evidence for the anthromorphic, theistic god lacking. I fail to reject the null hypothesis. I do not exclude the possibility of such an entity, though I doubt highly that one exists. And certainly the Abrahamic god is unbelievable. I have no hope for myself or anyone else if our universe is ruled by the monster Yahweh. I am not an anti theist. My emnity with religion is where it intersects with politics, particularly right wing politics in America. Now, I genuinely do not understand what you mean when you claim to be spiritual but not religious. Nor am I offended by it, merely confused. What is spiritual? The experience of the numinous is known to atheists. Is this what you mean by spiritual? Do you chant or meditate? I am unable to lose myself in these things. I look at people speaking in tongues or screaming their heads off at at a rock concert with the same question of "what is wrong with them?" And I am open to the idea that it is what is wrong with me.
    @Frank: Check out the Atheist channel at Patheos.com. Liberals, not libertarians. The debate about what caused the Big Bang is a fine exercise. But I care much more about defeating the conservative movement while we might still have time to save the planetary ecology for my grandchildren. And that means, among other things, inflicting pain and defeat on the Christian right until we break their will to fight.

  5. @Lawrence – I looked at the site briefly. It does look really interesting. There is a very tantalizing article about Christian "sincerity." I know [i]exactly[/i] what they are talking about!

    I pretty much agree with you. Although I think the great ontological questions are the most important thing for my inner life, I’m more concerned about the politics as you can probably see on this site.

    I probably give the impression that I think atheists are only libertarians. A very large chunk of them (maybe even the majority) are secular humanists, which is how I self-identify. But I have a hard time connecting atheism with politics. It seems very clear to me [i]in theory[/i]. I would think that everyone would believe that if this life is all there is that we should all work to make everyone’s life as good as possible. But a great many atheists (Especially the celebrity atheists!) have this idea that human society should be set up like some simplistic idea of natural selection. The truth is that humans have been helping each other for as long as we’ve been a species. It’s part of what makes us human. Others would have us believe we are alligators…

    Thanks for the link!

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