Today’s post comes from Hailey Kaufman, who studies philosophy, biology, and religion at Webster University in St. Louis, MO. Her post advocates for the possibility of spiritual awakenings of atheistic communities, and she’s not talking conversion here folks! What Hailey offers us is a great deal of wisdom, and love, and intellect, on spirituality for everyone, regardless of their beliefs. You can find more of Hailey’s work on her Tumblr and her personal blog.
Coming from a community of a non-theistic persuasion, I notice a great deal of hostility toward the word “spiritual.” Most atheists with whom I spend my time never use this term, some making a strong attempt to avoid it. Even Tim Minchin, a fantastically intelligent musical comedian, whom I admire for his gift with words, has claimed he is not spiritual at all.
What bothers me is I can tell that he is. Look at his poem “Storm” in which he revels about the vastness and beauty of the corporeal world:
Isn’t this enough? Just this world? Just this beautiful, complex, wonderfully unfathomable, natural world? How does it so fail to hold our attention that we have to diminish it with the invention of cheap, manmade myths and monsters?…I am a tiny, insignificant, ignorant bit of carbon. I have one life, and it is short, and unimportant, but thanks to recent scientific advances, I get to live twice as long as my great, great, great, great uncleses and auntses. Twice as long to live this life of mine.
The last portion of “Storm” is a spirited piece of writing. Minchin obviously feels a deep connection with something larger than he is. Whether or not his worldview involves “spirits” certainly does not dilute that fact that he feels spirited about his existence.
I want to argue that the spiritual life is something every human deserves. It is a practice, a way of being, that should be pursued regardless of one’s belief in gods or the supernatural.
Writers and speakers like Pierre Hadot and Alain de Botton have argued the need for spiritual guidance and exercises even outside the realm of religion. Hadot writes that according to a Stoic-Platonic view of therapy, the spiritual exercise can be one of an array of practices. Attention (presence in the current moment), meditation (putting information into context with the big picture), intellectual endeavors (reading, writing, listening, research), and self-improvement activities are all, according to Hadot, ways to embrace one’s own spirituality.
De Botton argues that an atheism that simply rejects supernatural claims and stops there is “too easy.” The rejection should be just the beginning on a path to a more fulfilling, spiritual life. He suggests ways the secular world can “steal” from religious traditions in order to make the secular world more welcoming to spirituality – that is, more welcoming to ideas and exercises that enliven us at our very core.
De Botton holds that secularism should not be synonymous with stolidity. I would go so far as to argue that a fulfilled secular life cannot be without its spiritual moments. Think of the feeling you get when you lie out on a moonless night and survey the Milky Way above you. Think of the last time you felt a sense of awe, a stirring feeling in your gut that you’ve just witnessed something deeply important. Mysterium tremendum: a profound terror of the large and mysterious; mysterium fascinosum: a profound fascination with the large and mysterious.
These are not emotions reserved for the religious, nor should they be, and perhaps we should encourage them more actively in the secular realm. As complexly thinking and feeling animals, we each need a way to become orientated to our inner and outer environments, and that is precisely what spirituality is. A pupil of Epicurus, quoted by Hadot, puts the sense of the spiritual potently:
The walls of the world open out, I see action going on throughout the whole world…Thereupon from all these things a sort of divine delight gets hold upon me and a shuddering, because nature thus by your power has been so manifestly laid open and unveiled in every part.