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From The Book of Atheist Spirituality

Posted by spritzophrenia on July 12, 2010

I think the reviewer who suggested The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality should be read along with the current offerings from Dawkins, Dennet et al was right. It’s fairly erudite, as one would expect from a French philosopher, but also readable, especially if one has a basic grasp of this field. I think believers as well as atheists would find this book worthwhile.

I won’t consider here whether he makes a good case for his question Can There Be An Atheist Spirituality?, especially as I haven’t finished it yet. I did find his writing enjoyable and stimulating so before the book goes back to the library I’ll drop in a few quotes:

As shown in the first chapter, we are finite beings who open on to infinity. It can now be added: we are ephemeral beings who open on to eternity, and relative beings who open on to the absolute. This ‘openness’ is the spirit itself. Metaphysics means thinking about these things; spirituality means experiencing them, exercising them, living them.

night sky

This is what distinguishes spirituality from religion, which is merely one of its possible forms. … All religions involve spirituality, at least to some extent, but all forms of spirituality are not religious. Whether or not you believe in God, the supernatural or the sacred, you are confronted with the infinite, the eternal and the absolute – and with yourself. Nature suffices. The truth suffices. Our own transitory finiteness suffices. …

To be an atheist is not to deny the existence of the absolute; rather, it is to deny its transcendance, its spirituality, its personality. It is to deny that the absolute is God. But to be not-God is not to not be! Otherwise we ourselves and the world itself, would not be!

Does the word absolute bother you? I understand. I, too, long shied away from it. Indeed, nothing prevents you from replacing it with another. Being? Nature? Becoming? With or without a capital letter? Everyone is free to choose their own vocabulary and I know of none that are faultless.

If we decide to take the word spirituality in its more restricted sense, we shall need to go further and higher: at its utmost, spiritual life verges on mysticism.

Here again, it too me a long time to accept the latter word. To my suspicious ears, it had a religious or irrational ring to it. Eventually, however, I was forced to acknowledge that it was the only word that fitted.

~ Andre Comte-Sponville, quotes from pp 136 – 141

Read more by me on this topic here.

Some music to help you feel spiritual? Carbon Based Lifeforms:


Agree, disagree, indifferent? What do you think?

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9 Responses to “From The Book of Atheist Spirituality”

  1. […] From The Book of Atheist Spirituality […]

  2. Iain said

    I had a pretty good argument about this with my tuesday night Church-based discussion group, “Espresso”. When we were discussing the night’s question, “What is religion?”, I mused about the possibility of Atheist Spirituality. They responded with fervent disagreement. Even though Christianity posits an infinite God, they certainly do not have an infinite understanding of the transcendent itself. In fact, I would argue they have a very restricted understanding of it.
    I can’t do any better in a positive sense. “About what one can not speak, one must remain silent”, said the philosopher Wittgenstein. I feel like I cannot speak about the transcendent in any meaningful way, and so I don’t. I like what Comte-Sponville says here, “Whether or not you believe in God, the supernatural or the sacred, you are confronted with the infinite, the eternal and the absolute – and with yourself. Nature suffices. The truth suffices. Our own transitory finiteness suffices.”
    Even the four horsemen (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens), in the first discussion DVD by the Richard Dawkins Foundation, admit that they do not want to rid the world of the numinous. I believe it was Phil Plait, who made the point that our amazing cosmos and infinite universe are more than enough majesty and wonderment for one person to handle without needing to be awed by the claims of earthly religions. Whether you take humanity’s religions seriously or not, I think that life would be very sad indeed if we didn’t also look to the sciences for awe, inspiration, and a connection to the numinous.

    • I’ve had one atheist fervently disagree there can be atheist spirituality too. I summarised what I think might be A C-S’s approach in a comment below, and if I’ve characterised him accurately, which is questionable, his ideas looks a lot less useful. As always Iain, a thoughtful and useful reply. Thankyou.

  3. Anne said

    “To be an atheist is not to deny the existence of the absolute; rather, it is to deny its transcendance, its spirituality, its personality.”

    I think he’s saying that nature proves there is something undeniable about there being purpose to our existence. And that without that “knowledge” or “belief,” however you see it, there is no hope. I’d welcome any feedback on that.

    • The word “purpose” is a tricky one. As he’s an atheist I suspect he’d have a problem with the idea there’s a purpose to our existence that is imposed on us from outside, even from nature.

      For myself, if I understand what you’re saying then I agree with you that there is no hope without something like this. Various others would disagree with me of course 🙂

      Regrettably, I’ve had to return the book before completing it so I’m probably not much help. I will get it again though, as it’s an enjoyable if deep read.

  4. I think he could be saying

    1. We can think about our place in the universe, and doing that feels amazing
    2. We have cool experiences that feel amazing, or mystical.
    3. I’m going to label those experiences “spiritual”.

    Traditionally “spiritual” has connotations of connection with something “outside” of nature, some other reality. So maybe all he is saying is “atheists can have cool experiences too”. Which sounds a bit weak when you boil it down.

    Disclaimer: Haven’t read the whole thing yet.

    • Iain said

      From the atheist perspective, that is all ANYONE is doing. I have heard more than a few times the notion that science (particularly astronomy or cosmology) can make you feel like you are connected to something greater than yourself and strikes within those who partake of it a deep sense of awe, mystery, and reverence. This is often described as “the numinous”. Others may feel the same way while contemplating art, meditating, viewing a sunset, sitting in a forest, or quietly walking through an ancient cathedral.

      If spirituality is connection with the truly transcendental than one could argue that true spirituality is impossible. That which is transcendent is, by definition, nothing which is immanent and therefore able to be experienced. If spirituality is simply an ORIENTATION towards the divine then, surely, such an orientation is possible for theists and atheists alike.

  5. […] the meantime, check out From the Book of Atheist Spirituality, an older post you might have […]

  6. […] understand the spiritual, in my atheist perspective, as Andre Comte-Sponville put […]

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