Danger: mind-broadening ahead
31 October 2014 20:58 (South Africa)
Opinionista Mandy de Waal

Spiritual. Atheist.

  • Mandy de Waal
Just because atheists don’t pray, don’t worship a deity, and don’t participate in religious rituals, doesn’t mean they’re not spiritual. Au contraire. By MANDY DE WAAL.

There’s this commonly held misconception that atheists aren’t spiritual. That if you don’t have faith, if you’re unconvinced of the existence of that deity the religious call “God”, or aren’t praying at some kind of altar, you’re devoid of spirituality.

Theists commonly think the word “spirituality” is synonymous with searching for meaning in life using faith as a vehicle. For others spirituality infers some kind of communion with an intelligent creator of the universe.

It’s curious for theists that people who reject the notion of a God can have a deep and intense spirituality. But they do.

Of course I cannot speak for all atheists. I can only speak about my own journey of abandoning God to come home to reason, logic, knowledge and truth, and from what I have learnt from the works of other atheists during my own journey.

The most terrifyingly beautiful truth for an atheist like me is that there is no bible; no afterlife; no opportunity for salvation; no forgiveness of sins and no guarantee of re-incarnation to have another shot at life. All that I have lives and breathes in this very moment, and it is entirely my own responsibility to create meaning and find happiness in this context and through what I create for myself.

It is a particularly moving and spiritual experience to realise that there is life, and there is death. And that time ticks relentlessly forward. It has, as Christopher Hitchens puts it, the effect of focussing the mind.

In the book version of the October 2010 Munk debate between Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens on whether religion is a force for good in the world, there’s an interview with The Hitch. At the time he was waging war with oesophageal cancer, and would live for another 14 months.

Canadian journalist Noah Richler asks The Hitch how he feels about facing his own mortality. “As Dr Johnson famously said of the death penalty, it concentrates your mind. It does do that. But then, I’d like to think, mine was fairly concentrated anyway.”

When rapture doesn’t figure in your “belief” system and there’s no proof to suggest that death isn’t final or absolute; when there’s acceptance of the brevity of time; the experience of appreciating mere moments and understanding how important it is to use them wisely can become quite transcendent.

This sharp focus creates the epiphany that in order to develop one must to acquire the very best knowledge and wisdom in a world that’s flooded with information, and where you will never have the time you need to get through the best of it.

When you relinquish the myth that life is inspired by an intelligent creator and come to appreciate a more scientific account of the origin of life, the universe and everything, one experiences a profound shift in responsibility.

Religion creates a framework where people can seek psychological refuge in what I would call delusion, in that they can abandon rigorous thought and sceptical enquiry. The religious hand difficult “thinking” and problems that are impossible to reason over to some intangible deity who’s “will be done”. It’s simply a matter of thinking WWJD? (What Would Jesus Do?)

Rational, free thinking atheists, on the other hand, are presented with the choice of taking responsibility for their own life without some predetermined template that dictates a ready formula for spirituality, values and morals. Like pioneers on the frontier, reason-loving atheists need to find their own way without a map. But fortunately there are incredibly wise people who have been that way before who can act as a compass of sorts.

The Canadian psychotherapist and former lover of Ayn Rand, Nathaniel Branden, has been of enormous value in growing my understanding of responsibility, and the relationship it has with self-esteem.

Branden defines self-esteem as having emotional, evaluative and cognitive components which largely exist beneath our conscious awareness and act as a context for thoughts, feeling and responses. He says self-esteem is that deepest sense of “who and what we think we are, what we are capable of, what we deserve, what is appropriate to us”.

Taking responsibility and growing self-esteem can be a spiritual practice, and Branden’s thinking is particularly useful for working on old wounds and destructive behaviour patterns that might sabotage ones experience of life.

Branden states that “self-esteem is built over time by the practice of choosing consciousness over unconsciousness; self-acceptance rather than self-disowning; self-responsibility rather than passivity, alibiing, or blaming; self-assertiveness rather than self-suppression; purposefulness rather than drifting; and integrity rather than self-betrayal.”

Fundamental to this practice of becoming responsible and growing self-esteem is the eschewing of self-delusion and a continual dedication to get as close to the truth as possible. This in itself is a spiritual practice, for to understand truth one must first determine what the truth means and how you would want to perceive it. Determining what truth is can set up a fierce internal philosophical struggle.

Fortunately, great minds like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle have done much of the thinking on this. My understanding is that truth can be verified by an objective reality, but determining the truth isn’t always easy because often people have significant interest in subverting or obscuring the truth.

Then there’s the matter that there are different kinds of truth. Finding the truth when matters are factual or tangible is easier because empirical truths can be tested, and there are proven methods for determining fact from fiction, like the method of scientific inquiry.

Discerning truth becomes infinitely more difficult in the field of morality where there are no external absolutes, even though people often mistakenly speak about “moral truths”. When it comes to moral matters like abortion, pornography and prostitution there are no comprehensive scientific tests to decide these difficult questions for humanity.

No scientist can determine how a human should live a good or moral life, so for thinking atheists who don’t have a predetermined set of rules, each day becomes a deeply spiritual experience because one has to live with a degree of uncertainty while grappling with life’s hardest questions.

Finally when it comes to shattering the myth that atheists cannot or do not live a spiritual life, Bertrand Russell offers the most overwhelming evidence to refute this fallacy. In July 1956, when Russell was 84, he wrote the prologue to his autobiography, an introductory chapter he called What I Have Lived For.

Russell writes, in what is perhaps the most spiritual piece I have ever read, “Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a deep ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.

“I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy – ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness – that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it, finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what – at last – I have found.

“With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.

“Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a hated burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate the evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.”

At my end I would hope to be able to echo Russell’s thoughts, particularly this last sentence which sums up the value in living a spiritual life as an atheist: “This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.” DM


* My thanks to Alasdair Cameron who helped me distil some of my thinking for this piece through conversation, and to my brother Sean Mathews who introduced me to my first intelligent atheist, The Hitch.

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  • Mandy de Waal
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Mandy de Waal is a writer who reports on technology, corruption, science, the media and whatever else she finds interesting. She loves small stories and human narratives, and dislikes persistent evangelists, bad poetry and the insane logic that currently passes for political rhetoric. Back in journalism after spending time in the corridors of corporate greed, de Waal has written for Mail & Guardian, Noseweek, City Press, Rapport, MoneyWeb, Brandchannel (New York) and a number of other good titles. She now writes for The Daily Maverick because it’s the smart thing to do.

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