Since 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.