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Can New Atheists Be Spiritual But Not Religious?

Think Christianly: Can New Atheists Be Spiritual But Not Religious?

Monday, September 13, 2010

Can New Atheists Be Spiritual But Not Religious?

As always, depends on how one defines the terms. A new article at USA today raises this as a possible way of bridging the gulf, though in reality, there is nothing new about it (see my podcast on "spiritual but not religious"). Here is a juicy place to start:

The old science-religion story goes like this: The so-called New Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, uncompromisingly blast faith, even as religiously driven "intelligent design" proponents repeatedly undermine science. And while most of us don't fit into either of these camps, the extremes also target those in the middle. The New Atheists aim considerable fire toward moderate religious believers who are also top scientists, such as National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins. Meanwhile, people like Collins get regular flack from the "intelligent design" crowd as well.

In this schematic, the battle lines may appear drawn, the conflict inescapable. But once spirituality enters the picture, there seems to be common ground after all.

Spirituality is something everyone can have — even atheists. In its most expansive sense, it could simply be taken to refer to any individual's particular quest to discover that which is held sacred.

Where to begin. Most people don't fit into either camp? hmm Seems that those are the only 2 camps one could ultimately be in. Either the universe is a random accident, along with all of the rest of life, morality, meaning, values, etc. or it is the product of some personal intelligence or God. Exactly what would be the 3rd option?

Notice Spirituality will provide the common ground and will save the day. So lets see what they mean by spirituality:

Spirituality is something everyone can have — even atheists. In its most expansive sense, it could simply be taken to refer to any individual's particular quest to discover that which is held sacred.

That needn't be a deity or supernatural entity. As the French sociologist Emile Durkheim noted in 1915: "By sacred things one must not understand simply those personal beings which are called Gods or spirits; a rock, a tree, a spring, a pebble, a piece of wood, a house, in a word, anything can be sacred."

We can all find our own sacred things — and we can all have our own life-altering spiritual experiences. These are not necessarily tied to any creed, doctrine, or belief; they grip us on an emotional level, rather than a cognitive or rational one. That feeling of awe and wonder, that sense of a deep unity with the universe or cosmos — such intuitions might lead to a traditional religious outlook on the world, or they might not.

Spirituality just means "feelings." and everyone has feelings right...even atheists have feelings. Now the quote by the sociologist is an interesting appeal to authority. Durkheim's point reduces to just things someone might think are important or special. Notice this BIG IDEA - "they grip us on an emotional level, rather than a cognitive or rational one." Bingo. We aren't talking about objective reality anymore. Spirituality is not cognitive or rational (because this involves words like "true" and "false"). We are talking about my subjective preferences - like flavors of ice cream. I feel this paper weight is sacred...I feel this big mac is the reason I exist. These are spiritual statements. Finally, feelings could even lead you to become religious (gasp!). But becoming a Christian or an atheist is then taken out of the realm of true or false, evidence, reason, experience all together. After all, Spirituality is unpredictable (presumably because our feelings and moods change so much...maybe the Whopper is the reason I exist).

Interestingly the article goes on to describe Dawkins in an interview where he talks about feeling wonder (there are those feelings again... they're everywhere!). But Dawkins doesn't want you to get carried away:

"But," Dawkins quickly added, "I would be very concerned that it shouldn't be confused with supernaturalism."

Of course Dawkins would be concerned if we were talking about anything real beyond (physics, chemistry, biology, and genetics). Thankfully, Chris Mooney, let's him off the hook because:

It doesn't have to be. Spirituality in the sense described above does not run afoul of any of Dawkins' atheistic values or arguments. It does not require science and faith to be logically compatible, for instance. Nor does it require that we believe in anything we cannot prove. Spirituality simply doesn't operate on that level. It's about emotions and experiences, not premises or postulates.

Thank heavens...of course this is only helpful if Dawkins is actually successful in his arguments (a point under serious dispute). Notice that faith here is redefined to mean "religious wishful thinking or emotions." And Spirituality doesn't even make any rational demands on us...this is sounding better and better, because the last thing I want to complicate my spirituality is thinking hard!

We are then reassured that spirituality just doesn't operate that way. Why? Because it is devoid of truth or reality.

Here is how the article concludes (with the header of "finally healing")

So no wonder that other New Atheists have made statements very similar to Dawkins'. For instance, Tufts University philosopher Daniel C. Dennett has remarked, "I have times when I am just transported with awe and joy and a sense of peace and wonder at, whether it's music or art or just a child playing or some other wonderful thing off of my sailboat, being amazed at the beauty of the ocean. I think that people make the mistake of thinking that spirituality, in that sense, has anything to do with either religious doctrines or with immateriality or the supernatural."

Sam Harris, author of the best-selling 2004 book The End of Faith, is another thinker commonly associated with the New Atheists. And he, too, embraces a secular form of spirituality. Harris is particularly interested in meditation and its effects on the brain, and has called for "a discourse on ethics and spiritual experience that is as unconstrained by dogma and cultural prejudice as the discourses of physics, biology, and chemistry are."

A focus on spirituality, then, might be the route to finally healing one of the most divisive rifts in Western society — over the relationship between science and religion. We'll still have our evolution battles, to be sure; and the Catholic Church won't soon give up on its wrongheaded resistance to contraception. The problems won't immediately vanish. But each time they emerge, more and more of us will scratch our heads, wondering why.

Dennett again is quick to distance himself from the supernatural...but for the believer in Naturalism...what is beauty?

Harris then proposes a spirituality that is unstained by cultural prejudices and dogma like science is. Really? Is he free from dogma and bias? The commitment to naturalism is fundamental for Harris et al (that is a philosophical commitment by the way, not a scientific one).

Finally notice how this article ends. Notice the assumptions 1) evolution is beyond dispute 2) Atheism is true. 3) But we still want to feel spiritual, so here is our proposal.

(the whole article can be found here)

So basically sacred spirituality (which is feelings unattached to truth) is the way forward? All of this assumes, that there isn't good evidence for God's existence which is not the case. (For a helpful place to start, see my new book with Sean McDowell here)

Also, Nancy Pearcey documents this sacred / secular split and how it is playing out in Total Truth.

As a Christian, let me say that I could be wrong. But Christianity is the kind of thing you could be wrong about...and so is atheism. But let's decide it by reason, evidence, and investigation, not creating a "sacred spirituality" to make us feel better. Truth brings healing and a way forward not wishful thinking.

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