I’ve been reading a book called “The Atheist’s Way: Living Well without Gods” by Eric Maisel. I recommend this book to anyone who has considered him or herself to be a ‘spiritual atheist,’ because I have found a concept in this book that has changed my mind about how atheists should address ideas of ‘spirituality.
In exactly the same sense that there have been religious existentialists, individuals who embraced existential ideas about personal responsibility but then leapt in the next breath to gods, there can be — and there are spiritual atheists or new age atheists, individuals who take a pass on gods but who imbue the word spiritual with special meaning.
Why would this happen?
He then goes on to describe the situation where an atheist is going about her normal daily business but is suddenly struck at the thought of the strangeness and somewhat incomprehensibleness of the brute facts of reality. Struck by questions like “Why is there something instead of nothing?” Or being overwhelmed at an amazing sense of connectedness with the rest of the universe, a feeling I have experienced many times while walking though the woods or laying out on a clear night gazing at the stars. I’ve had the same type of feeling in yoga class too, usually while chanting or in the Savasanna pose at the end of the class.
He goes on.
These are the kinds of experiences that cause many atheists to want to keep the word spiritual in their vocabulary. I think that this is a grave mistake, second only to allowing god-talk to stand unchallenged. It is better to stand consternated and not understand an experience than to commit our version of the supernatural error. It is far wiser not to sprint from a momentary feeling to a complete revision of our basic understanding of the universe. If we do not stand firm here — with ourselves — we are in serious danger of backsliding into inauthenticity. [bold mine]
I put that in bold because I think it is the crux of the issue. Since I’ve been an atheist I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about the word ‘spiritual’ but I stuck with it because I thought it was the only and best word there was to explain experiences like the ones I described above. Every now and then I would explain that I didn’t think there was anything supernatural about the events, just that they invoked an emotional and thoughtful response in me. These experiences were deeply meaningful to me, and pulled me out of the normal mundanity of life for just a few moments at a time.
They were meaningful. This, in fact, is the word that Eric Maisel recommends that we use for these types of experiences. Which is great for me, since I don’t have any reservations about the word ‘meaningful.’ It’s one that I can use and not feel I need to backtrack and explain that what I mean by it is not exactly what is traditionally meant by it. It’s one less mental tension in my life.
If you have any more questions about the concept, pick up the book and read it. It’s a good and inspiring piece, and it’s also fairly short as books go. I think that it is great that someone writes books like these for atheists in a situation where we have not had many examples and roll-models in our daily lives of how to ‘live well’ in the context of atheism.
EDIT: Another thing I thought of during the day today: Calling something ‘spiritual’ seems to endow it with a sense of virtue and ‘holier-than-thou’ feeling that ‘meaningful’ does not imply. That sense is not necessarily deserved–that something fills you with a special and inspired feeling doesn’t necessarily mean that it is virtuous. The ‘holy man’ does not deserve a halo for just sitting around uttering more or less inspiring words. The activities that we label as ‘spiritual’ are not necessarily better or more important than anything else we do. Just an observation–anyone else get what I’m talking about?