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Atheist Spirituality

Posted by spritzophrenia on February 11, 2010

Can you be an atheist and be spiritual? I came across philosopher Andre Comte-Sponville’s Book of Atheist Spirituality in Unity books yesterday. I haven’t read it yet, but I’d like to. [Edit: I’ve now read more, see this post]

Comte-Sponville is not the only atheist using words that we might expect of a religious devotee. As I wrote previously, Christopher Hitchens uses the word ‘numinous’ about certain experiences. Also see The O Project’s Spirituality for Atheists. I recall the sense of wonder Carl Sagan used to evoke in me as a youngster with his excellent Cosmos television series, and I’ve speculated on the non-theistic spirituality of Avatar.

Author Comte-Sponville has had a number of “spiritual” or “mystical” experiences involving a sense of “infinite happiness”, an “eternal sense of peace”, and the “dazzling presence of the All”. These experiences apparently lasted for only a few seconds but they were the “most beautiful moments of his life”. Is it valid to describe such experiences as “spiritual” or “mystical”? Comte-Sponville also writes about being so absorbed in an activity that we lose all sense of self or ego, and that this is a kind of ecstasy.

An amazon review writes

He considers matters of emotion, like the “oceanic feeling” and our response to the immensity of the Universe. These are often taken to be religious feelings, but Comte-Sponville show how they can be better and more coherently understood, and enjoyed, from an atheist viewpoint. He brings in Western philosophers, like Spinoza and Nietzsche, and Eastern philosophers, like Nagarjuna and Lao-Tzu, to bolster his arguments for an atheist approach to spiritual concepts and feelings like simplicity, unity, silence, eternity, serenity, acceptance, and eternity. He certainly left me feeling more serene, and with a more unified idea of what spirituality might mean for an atheist. His argument that religious spirituality involves a temporality that is not needed in an atheist spirituality is particularly strong, and there are many other arguments that reveal the depth and subtlety of his thinking.

Daylight Atheism commends “its approachable, open tone. Comte-Sponville defends atheism firmly, but gently. At times, as I said, I found him almost too conciliatory; but I think a believer would find this book very non-threatening, and might be led to read it and gain a better understanding of the atheist viewpoint.” Several commenters on other sites praise the book highly, one suggesting it should be read along with current works by Richard Dawkins, David Dennet et al.

I’m not convinced speaking of spirituality is useful in this context. By “spiritual” experience are we merely meaning something that is profoundly moving or perhaps emotional? Is this part of a cunning atheist plot ™ to appropriate spirituality from the religious domain? “Look, not only does your position not hold water, but we can also mimic the experiences you supposedly hold the key to”.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali wrote, “Andre Comte-Sponville has written a truly inspiring essay. Using logic that is thoughtful and profound, he makes it possible to see that human goodness need not be divinely inspired to be beautiful, and that the meaning of life comes from life itself. Many will find comfort in his assertion that love, trust and ethical behavior are possible without belief in the supernatural. This is an uplifting and timely tribute to Godless spirituality.”

I suppose spirituality could refer to anything ‘supernatural’ that doesn’t involve a god. I once knew an atheist who was a fervent believer in astrology, a system that I find rather absurd.


If you enjoyed this post you might also enjoy Mystical Experience in a Godless Universe, Nature Was Sacred and Atheist Spirituality : Real Poetry?


Are you a spiritual atheist? Is this a completely invalid category? What are your spiritual experiences like? What do they mean to you?

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13 Responses to “Atheist Spirituality”

  1. I don’t use the word “spiritual” either. But I do use the word “Mystical”. I am a mystical Atheist. I even use it in my “Atheist Description” scheme. But hell, words are only tools of mind manipulation. I am trying to get folks to understand what I experience or to move closer to a position I want them to hold.

    First, it is important to realize that blurred sense of self, ecstatic depersonalization, unity experiences and all such phrases do point to experiences some people have.

    Second, not a large percent of people have these. And I’d guess an even smaller number of atheists.

    Third, there are all sort of other odd mental states == hallucination, hearing voices, feeling your body get large or small, loss of sensation of time and many more. They are not the same as the unity experience. But like it, can be viewed by some as spiritual, some may apply the word mystical and some may just acknowledge a changed brain state.

    Our language for all this is not developed. We differ in how we value these things. All these factors make such conversations very twisted.

    Not to mention, while fighting the oppressive side of religion, atheist are torn about how much to use shared vocabulary.

  2. Romy said

    My father writes about this in his book, ‘The 5th Option.’ You would like it.

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  9. Rua Lupa said

    I have created a naturalistic path that in its foundation is atheist in its approach, yet allows for each individual to add on their own perspectives of the world in personal practice. Its Called Ehoah and it works well for me and apparently 80 others on Facebook too.

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