Atheist Spirituality vs. The Family Business

This Is It

Set aside the illusion of your past, the gossamer dreams of your future. Return to right now, this place: your body, your surroundings. After all, this is it.

The point was whimsically expressed by poet James Broughton:
This is It
and I am It
and You are It
and so is That
and He is It
and She is It
and It is It
and That is That

O it is This
and it is Thus
and it is Them
and it is Us
and it is Now
and Here It is
and Here We are
so This is It 
Atheist Spirituality

I recently became aware of a phenomenon called atheist spirituality, which may sound like an oxymoron, like jumbo shrimp or plastic glasses. Let me give you a couple samples. First, here’s Andy Walters describing "My Spiritual Atheism" on his blog:
"As a spiritual atheist, I mean that I reject the supernatural but affirm the reality and value of what most people usually mean when they say 'the divine.'... [The divine is transcendent love, and] Transcendent love is valuing others’ interests above your own.... Practicing respect, humility, compassion, and altruism, for example, is intensely gratifying.... It is the divine -- the part of me that “transcends” my ego.... Second, by “divine”, people also mean inner peace -- being unafraid of what is, has been, or will be.... When I experience it, I am flooded with a sense of “all-right-ness” with myself and my circumstances. Although it is a sense of acceptance, it does not rid me of the desire to better myself and my circumstances.... Awe is the final component of what people usually mean when they speak of the divine. Divine awe is a sense of utter astonishment and wonder at the mystery of existence...the degree of awe that can come from observing the mystery of existence.... For thousands of years, humans have mapped out the divine and many have explained it in terms of the supernatural. With the advent of modernism, however, that language no longer makes sense. But that doesn’t mean that the divine isn’t real -- it only means we need a different vocabulary to describe the same reality. I call it spiritual atheism." (CLICK HERE)
The second sample is from a video I found called, “My Spirituality as an Atheist”
"...I’d have to consider myself a spiritual person. I’m not talking about some ghostly, ethereal soul...inside my body.... I’m talking about the essence of human...: the action or ability to see beauty, to feel wonder, and to be in awe.... The Grand Tetons.... A pile of stars...still and perfect.... At times I can be so overwhelmed by the sensation of being alive that I cry or I laugh or I scream or I just breathe deeply. Being humble is simply the feeling of recognizing the reality of one’s small significance to a universe so massive. Being grateful to be alive doesn't require a person to be grateful toward.... I am one with the universe. I am as much the universe as a supernova: made of the same particles, governed by the same forces. I am genes that mutated randomly then were selected naturally based on their success in survival. And I love apple butter on a biscuit. I collapse in awe at the magnificence of this place.... I breathe appreciation for it all. I have to – with all my essence, with all my spirit."

Yup. "It is now, and here it is, and here we are, so this is it." There’s something very pure about each moment, just one chance to experience it: blossoms and sunshine and one morning’s journey together. This is it.

The Family Business

I’m the first-born child of rationalist humanist academic parents. I grew up and went into the family business: being a rationalist humanist academic. I was in fourth grade in a small town in Georgia when I first heard the word “atheist” – and asked what it meant. Shortly afterward, I decided I was one.

This was a scandal to my classmates. The scandal died down after a week or so, but from then on through high school I was “the class atheist.” Even so, apart from a few kids who were hostile, and a few others who undertook to try to save me, my classmates by and large politely ignored our differences of theological opinion. If there was a disconnect between us because of religion, looking back, I’d say the distance-making, the wall-building, came more from me than from them. As a child and teenager, my sad heart hardened and chose contempt as its protective strategy.

I was not the sort of atheist that went for “spirituality” – did not use that word for my experiences. Nor did I think in terms of sacred, divine, transcendent. Wasn’t so keen on awe, mystery, or wonder either. So what I want to tell you this morning is how I learned to stop worrying and love spirituality.

Strange Love

Some of you might remember Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 movie, “Dr. Strangelove.” It was a black comedy satirizing the prevalent fear of the time: nuclear bombs. How many of you have seen the movie? The subtitle was, you may remember, “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.”

Life sometimes hits like a bomb, blows up the world as we have known it: the loss of a loved one, traumatic tragedy. Bombs are fearful things: the nuclear bombs with which nations threaten whole populations, and the little explosions inside handguns that propel bullets for neighbor to kill neighbor, and all the varieties of in-between bombs that terrorize our hearts, that shake and sadden our souls.

Life also explodes in beauty: the birth of a child, the arrival of spring, an act of kindness.

How do we learn to ease the worry and bring love to the bombs we fear? How do we learn to stop worrying and love: everything; even the hard parts? It calls for development of such virtues as equanimity and compassion. Those are spiritual virtues – and even if they are entirely a matter of getting our neurons wired a certain way, the circuitry of spirituality draws on but is different from purely cognitive intelligence – draws on but is different from the emotional circuitry.

Native disposition – genetics – accounts for some of a person’s spiritual virtue. Can you cultivate the spiritual virtues beyond your native disposition? Maybe. Sort of.

But first, what is spirituality? To that question we will turn in Part 2.

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Spirituality"
See also:
Part 2: What Is Spirituality?
Part 3: What'll You Get Out of It?

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