The Soul of an Atheist

atheism_symbolDaniel Hart L’Ecuyer

In the pursuit of more unitive communication on issues of theology and spirituality, I would like to contest this particular statement made by Libby O’Neil in her recent article entitled -Why yes… I did just use math in my Christian Spirituality class:-

At its core, spirituality is just religion, which stems from the impulse for transcendence and comfort, stripped of the dogmatic principles that accompany most organized religions.

There are two basic definitions for the word spirituality. Libby’s interpretation of spirituality as a sort of optional comfort that only some people need seems to imply a preference for the stricter of the two: –Of or relating to religion or religious belief.

But there is another definition of this word, which is slightly more vague: –Of, relating to, or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.-

You could argue that this second definition’s reference to a nonphysical soul makes it essentially the same as the first definition—in other words, you could argue that to believe in a soul is to believe in God.

But I do not believe this is necessarily true—and, more importantly, I think this way of viewing spirituality is more divisive than it ought to be. The feelings religious believers associate with spirituality and the soul are not unique to religious people—these feelings are common to all humanity. You can call it something different—connection to the world, perhaps—but this serves only to divide, creating a wall where we could create a bridge. I strive to use the words connectedness and spirituality interchangably, because I believe the inherently good feeling of connectedness and unity with the world is at the heart of any and every spiritual belief.

In Libby’s words, we all have an -impulse for transcendence and comfort.- But can an enlightened atheist really abandon this impulse? And is this impulse really an unnecessary human weakness? The search for greater meaning in life is an essential human instinct—whether a person believes in God or not, we are always seeking out the meaning in things. It is impossible for a human being to truly believe that chaos rules the universe. Anyone who actively claims there is no meaning in anything—an idea with primitive echoes of Nietzscheism—proves himself wrong by saying so, because he has found meaning in the meaningless of life. At times, things do appear meaningless and chaotic and disconnected–but this is merely because we fail to understand, as when we first look at a Jackson Pollock painting and judge it meaningless and random. But his paintings are neither meaningless nor random. He was inspired by feelings and ideas any human being could relate to, and painted using consistent methods. But what if I knocked over several cans of paint accidentally and hung the accidental splattered canvas on a wall next to one of Pollock’s? Supposing it ended up looking quite similar, it would not be hard to find some rich fool who would find meaning in it anyway and buy it. In other words, we are always trying to find meaning in everything we see, and when we do fail to find meaning (as can happen in depression, for example), or succeed in not finding it for those so inclined, we doom ourselves to a life of misery. That is why people create gods out of natural forces and inspiring figures–to find meaning in life. As John Lennon said, –God is a concept by which we measure our pain.-

I do not believe in a supernatural power of any kind—in fact I think the very idea of anything supernatural is ridiculous. The supernatural of today is the science of tomorrow. But I still think of myself as a spiritual person. Why? Is it because I believe in a literal non-physical entity associated directly with religions I have no belief in?

No. For me, the soul is simply a metaphor for our subconscious identity, an idea I arbitrarily choose to believe in, a lens I choose to see the world through—and that does not make it any less meaningful. I can sense my own soul just as well as I could when I actually believed there was such a thing. How is that possible? Because at the core of all religious beliefs are basic feelings common to all human beings. So I can respect religion when it is simply used as a tool to perceive the world in a more positive way, and nothing more.

I believe this way of viewing the spirit is one simple way to promote world peace by using the word as a unitive rather than divisive tool. How can there be peaceful discussion between a Christian and an atheist if the Christian insists the atheist is devoid of this spiritual connection with God and thus cannot see the world’s beauty, and the atheist scorns the Christian’s teddy-bear spirituality and asserts he is above such mind games?

We’ve all been there—someone insults your beliefs, and in your insecurity, you resort to scornful and divisive language to defend your beliefs. It’s difficult to resist—to maintain respect for the common values of religious opponents while standing up for your own. But if we want to build a world of spiritual tolerance and understanding, we have to remember that our own personal dignity is far less important than even the smallest battles for peace, understanding, and justice.

Let us abandon the strictures of religious and philosophical authorities and unite in pursuit of the spirit.

-Unscrew the locks from the doors ! Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs !-

-Walt Whitman