The Spirituality of an Atheist

Do atheists have any spirituality? A certain internaut wracked his brain about this problem in a comment to one of our articles, and he was not alone. I used to get this question at various meetings and was met with astonishment when I asked for a definition of spirituality.

Spirituality seems to imply a soul. It is not mentioned in a passport, but if there were a place for it, in mine I would have to write: N/A. But can there be a soulless spirituality? An atheist has consciousness, but you may search and search for a soul. Moreover, he/she is skeptical about the existence of a soul in a believer as well, and this skepticism shades into irony or even mockery. Indeed, various investigations and measurements have been carried out, with nary a result.

If this spirituality, as some desire, should be associated with activities of supernatural forces or with some “dimension” of the psyche which differentiates us from the animal kingdom and therefore (for some unknown reason) comes from a being that is more intelligent than we are, then this type of spirituality is nothing more than a clumsy profession of faith and, indeed, an atheist has no business having it.

Spirituality based on a foundation of souls and ghosts requires a belief in ghosts. So, can spirituality acquire a more solid foundation? Maybe, but more about this later.

Let us consider another version of spirituality – spirituality as spiritualism. Here ghosts and spirits are even perceptible. We sit down at the appropriate table and with the help of an appropriate medium we cry: O spirit, speak to me! From a suitably spiritual wall comes a spirit visible only to the medium and sometimes even to the equally spiritual participant of the spectacle. This type of spirituality is profitable (but then, so are others). This is a spirituality connected to parapsychology, telekinesis, occultism and the like.

There is also an existential spirituality, the spirituality of philosophers and poets. Among the former it seems to be linked to elation about a thought, sometimes eschatological, sometimes narcissistic. Sometimes philosophers’ spirits jump out of their skins, sits beside them and wait for applause. A poet’s spirituality tends to be different; more often it is a product of sensual delight, sometimes caused by a muse’s bosom, sometimes by a sunset enhanced by a hangover.

The market for spiritual practices seems to be older than a creative attempt to give us some explanation for our raptures. Our internaut ponders whether an atheist can be capable of raptures, if he/she can love mama, refrain from biting off children’s ears and distinguish between good and evil. With a spiritual rapture he concludes that, no, never ever, because spirituality in his opinion is “the exchange of thought with a being of higher thoughts”. He continues with a slightly more intelligible text: “Atheism is empty and naked, it is a bird which pulled out all its feathers and is running around claiming that it flies, but you have to kick his ass for him to fly”. Apparently the thought of “kicking ass” makes him feel more spiritual.

Evolutionary psychology is not going to help in this discussion, because first you have to agree that evolution of life exists. Meanwhile the arguments of science cannot be accepted (what’s more, it is forbidden) because of a toxic spirituality.

I encountered the notion of toxic spirituality on “The Catholic Guide” website, where those inspired by the spirit of a St. John Bosco are writing about the regions of activity of contemporary evil spirits, listing: “Antrovis, Hare Krishna, Himawanti, Jehovah’s Witnessess, Raelians, scientology, Moonies, Heaven Family and Amway as well as psychomanipulative movements and groups and New Age ideology”.

I totally agree with the thesis of the said text, though I have a feeling that this list of vehicles of toxic spirituality is overly modest. I would put Islam in the most prominent place on a list of toxic spirituality. After all, both quantity and quality count, and Islam is a great religion and it’s spirituality is as toxic as Hell.

There is a double problem with toxic spirituality, for we have here two words fuzzily defined. Toxicity, when related to living organisms that really exist, is well defined. Not so well when it comes to toxic spirituality, i.e. poisoning something which is difficult to grasp with something which is equally difficult to determine.

As with mind so with spirituality – we know what a brain is, we can put it into a jar and place it on the mantelpiece, we know more and more about the brain, we understand better and better how it works. Not so with mind, and the question of how the mind works is not the same as how the brain works.

It is mind which seems to be a footbridge to spirituality. I can’t take a mind into my hand, but still it exists. We are dangerously close to the soul here. Can we talk legitimately about the mind of a dog, a cat, a mouse or a crocodile? There is a huge difference between the mind of a crocodile and that of a cat. A cat’s mind is capable of processing a much greater amount of information (which also translates into higher emotions like attachment, jealousy, and analytical ability). A cat’s mind is a wonderful computing machine but also a center of emotions. While the crocodile’s mind is limited to simple emotional reactions, to the need to “kick somebody’s ass”, a cat is more spiritual and is capable of slightly more unbridled calculation.

But let us return to the toxic spirituality. If we say, for the sake of argument, that the concepts of spirituality and mind are close to each other in meaning, that spirituality is merely (and exclusively) a product of the complex brain, capable of social bonds not based on instinct alone, then toxic spirituality leads to a scrambled mind.

A mind scrambled by toxic spirituality is worthy of study. Following the ideas of “The Catholic Guide”, we usually have psychomanipulation here which normally starts in infancy, is continued through the formative years, and maintained in maturity. In the case of Islam (as well as any other religion) it can lead to such strong faith in the afterlife that it triggers the desire to autodestruct in order to gain access to 72 imaginary virgins, waiting for a martyr dripping with blood – both his own and his victims’. In this case scrambling a mind by toxic spirituality attains the level of an absolute.

The spiritual interpretation of good is interesting here. Religions speak, quite in concert, about the divine (or spiritual) origin of morality. The holy books of different religions recommend, quite in concert, murdering infidels, and they similarly formulate the first and most supreme moral commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me”. Gods are tribal, therefore morality is tribal as well. To begin with, the order not to kill was related to a clan—a kinship group—so it was wrong to kill a member of the same clan and right to kill a member of a neighboring clan. (It was the same with stealing goods—material and living—like wives). The development of morality went in tandem with the development of a social organization and with the transition from a kinship society (i.e. clans) to a broader society based on an abstract kinship in which the “brotherhood” was symbolic. A spirituality which strengthened social bonds entered the phase of symbolic spirituality, i.e. it was based on symbols, usually simple ones and stemming from a totem in one way or another.

None of it would be possible without a language. Language plays a very special role in the history of spirituality. A myth about ancestors, based on a dream about ancestors, would not be possible without a way to describe that dream about ancestors. Animals dream just as we do, and anybody who has observed a dreaming dog knows that those dreams are often very complex. However, a dog who dreams about a huge menacing barking rabbit has no way to share his dream with anybody. A chimpanzee watching a film featuring an enemy whom he murdered after a hard struggle, is terrified.[1] But he can’t describe this experience to others. The presence of dreamed spirits becomes a social fact only when the dream is the subject of a narrative, which in a blink of an eye can become the subject of psychomanipulation. It is safe to assume that religious spirituality was begotten by a spirit and this spirit was the creation of a dreaming mind.

But is religious spirituality always toxic? It can be said that already on the clan-religion level religious spirituality could contribute to the reduction of the number of killings inside a clan and to raising morale in order to increase the number of killings (also rapes, plunder, and kidnappings) of other clans. The commandment by a symbolic supreme being gave a moral sanction to slaughtering inhabitants of a neighboring village, town, and—in time—country, while calling for (at least verbally) a toning down of cruelty inside one’s own society. Because we can observe fights between neighboring groups of chimpanzees in nature, we can tell that together with language and religion came the spiritualization of behaviors that also exist in the animal world.

Our internaut and other theologians try to convince us that morality comes from God and is transmitted orally by religious instruction. Divine instructions in the matter of morality are doubly dubious. First, there are serious reservations concerning their origin: do they really come from God (or gods) or from usurpers claiming that they recently had a meeting with God and industriously wrote down all His words? Second, the quality of those instructions gives rise to huge reservations of a moral nature, and theologians themselves generally do not recommend a too serious adherence to the purported words of God. (Sometimes it is recommended to omit commandments about gouging out eyes, beheading, cutting off hands, selling into slavery, stoning and the like.) Nonetheless, an intelligent interpretation of those divine commandments can lead to the conclusion that many religions promote similar moral directives and that they are also compatible with normal decency. Those are directives that recommend sympathy for a fellow human being, and empathy, co-operation, and help instead of enmity. This openness, or rather kindness towards another human being, is also thrown into the same ragbag of religious spirituality. If any religion really produced kindly humans, we could start wondering about it. (The successes of Quakers are very interesting here, but unfortunately their attempts to base a state organization on their moral system collapsed.)

The ubiquity of a positive assessment of moral norms appealing to sympathy, protectiveness, and friendship prompts us to look for patterns of those behaviors in nature. One of the most interesting instincts shaped by evolution is the maternal instinct. There is a strong correlation between the degree of an organism’s complexity and the development of the brain and the lengths of necessary parental care. The maternal instinct can lead to sacrificing one’s own life for one’s offspring in exceptional circumstances, and always leads to a long-term and dedicated sacrifice of one’s own interests for the sake of one’s children. Is the maternal instinct the “mother” of all other moral impulses? The matter is more complicated than that, but there is a great deal of evidence pointing to the fact that God got attached to moral questions very late indeed.

Adoptions are extremely intriguing in animal behavior. Among more developed mammals adoptions take place very often among relatives. But some absolutely stupefying adoptions also take place. The film about a lioness that adopted a baby oryx is well worth watching. The domestication of many species of animals most probably was not the effect of a divine plan but a consequence of the protectiveness instinct towards everything which is small and helpless. The observation of sexual selection in social animals also shows a peculiar competition between the attraction of naked power and the attraction of tenderness, co-operation and loyalty. Research shows that in many species brawn and brutality do not guarantee to the tough guys the greatest number of offspring, and character is often competitive with purely physical features. Researchers have also noted numerous cases of inter-species friendship in nature. (One of the most beautiful I have ever seen is a story about a friendship between an orangutan and a hound.)

Since spirituality is also associated with such emotions as friendship, love, and admiration of beauty, we can without difficulty prove that this type of spirituality manages perfectly well without religion, and that the tendency toward such behaviors (as well as toward cruelty) can be derived from biology. Evolutionary psychology tells us much more about the bases of morality than all the religions of the world. But if we assume that both kindness and cruelty are in nature, what was the role of religion in strengthening the positive assessment of those behaviors we judge as moral? The answer is simple: a complex one. They encouraged moral reflection and served as a tool to enforce social order. They strengthened equally behaviors we describe today as morally positive, as well as behaviors which are today morally abhorrent. They supported gentleness and they supported cruelty.

When I write “equally” it could be interpreted as a researched and measured phenomenon. No, we cannot quantitatively describe religious spirituality: was it, historically speaking, more often toxic or was it more often conducive to moral progress, reducing killings, violence, and promoting cooperation instead of fighting? But a claim that it strengthened good behaviors only is a plain falsehood.

If we base spirituality on a grounding of biology, if we connect it with sensitivity, altruism, friendship and co-operation, curiosity, and admiration for beauty, there is a place for spirituality without religion and without a belief in souls, ghosts and spirits.

We are still left with a question: can the spirituality of an atheist be toxic? Many believers think that it is toxic just because it is bereft of faith in God. Those I can only ignore. But let’s remember that atheism as such means only that I treat a God hypothesis as one that is very poorly backed up and with so small a probability that it is not worth bothering with. Here, though, atheism ends and its combination with other ideas, such as rationalism, humanism, and democracy begins, and so it can also appear in conjunction with totalitarian ideas, which can push it towards secular toxic spirituality.

Atheism, contrary to religion, does not insist on its moral superiority. An atheist’s spirituality manages without a soul and without ghosts, it takes advantage of the beauty our mind allows us to discover, but discovering our biological heritage – our tendency both to altruistic and cruel behaviors – we live in fear of having our minds scrambled by spirituality either based on kitschy religious instructions or kitschy little red books with the thoughts of Chairman Mao. We are threatened not only by the temptation of spiritual villainy but also spiritual obtuseness. The toxicity of barbaric spirituality restricts the possibilities of our perception and communication with others.

Atheism does not eliminate those threats, it can merely lessen them.


[1] Franz de Waal describes this situation in one of his books.

Translated by Małgorzata Koraszewska and Sarah Lawson

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