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An Atheist Rapt in Awe.

The lower trunk of an ancient cedar; the width of which is twice the outstretched arm spans of the author standing before it.
Author with Ancient Cedar photographed by her husband, Vancouver Island, BC Canada

Without the kind invitation of Graham Pemberton to dialogue about Spiritual Atheism, this article would not have come into being. It began with an apparent irregularity which begged my explanation. As an atheist scientist I am fully participatory in Jung’s synchronicity. It is one of the most transcendent gifts I receive; welcoming serendipity, gratitude for vast vistas and the insatiable curiosity to forge meaning. Transcendence is that which is beyond ourselves but does not necessarily imply a source such as a deity. Likewise spirituality is not limited to religious thought or practice. Non-exhaustive, common descriptors of Transcendence include; The Ineffable, The Un-namable, The Un-caused Cause and The Ultimate.

By being a non-dogmatic non-evangelistic atheist I hope to remain open, lucid and tolerant in the face of irreducible Unknowing. Any offense taken is unintentional. “We cannot give orders to the wind, but we must leave the windows open. The Absolute is the wind; our spirit is the window”, -Krishnamurti in André Comte-Sponville’s Little Book of Atheist Spirituality.” p.196

Our minds have evolved to seek meaning giving us reproductive success in adapting to changing environments. By discerning correlations, seeking connections, mirroring inner and outer realities within randomness our interpretation of the cosmos is rich and productive. To be curious and believe there is purpose to be found are great motivators to sojourn. If believing is another of our senses, some of us may have been raised as atheists, some may be either born without faith or through experience become blind and deaf to faith in deities.

“It is possible to do without religion but not without communion, fidelity or love. In these matters, what we share is more important than what separates us.” -Andre Comte-Sponville p.65

“Over and above intellectual fashions and opinion trends, everything seems to suggest that religion and irreligion are destined to live together for a long time to come. This is not necessarily a problem. Only sectarians and fanatics should be bothered by it.” -Andre Comte-Sponville p.65

We seek commonality through creative interpretations of Biblical myths based on modern psychology. These stories are highly relatable, require no explicit Omnipotence and their messages are poignant and universal. As an example Jordan Peterson asks us to consider within our own psyche the presence of all 3 characters in the parable of the Prodigal Son; the id as rebel hedonist and the brother as ego; faithful, resentful and envious. Finally, we also host the heartbroken father; the superego of reconciliation. Allegorical readings of ancient texts answer those who yearn for “perennial” meaning without compromise to the supernatural.

Before addressing 5 contentious points may I situate us within a universal ocean of believers and non-believers.

“When there is nothing to wish for or regret we may enjoy oceanic moments, the experience of the eternal present, bedazzlement and plenitude.”- Andre Comte-Sponville p.164

As we explore an atheist’s perspective on the spiritually laden concepts of existence, powers and principalities, conscience, conduct and free will, may I underscore both the wholly satisfying understanding and immutable mystery my universe holds. I am no longer burdened by cognitive dissonance as a result of a good god ignoring suffering and an angry father sacrificing his innocent son, enacting an incantation of absolution for the innate (original) sin of man. My universe is safe from the whims of unseen non-material influences.

“The eternal silence of these infinite spaces reassures me.” p.150

“Atheist spirituality can be described as a spirituality of fidelity rather than faith, of action rather than hope and living rather than fear or submission. These involve not so much our relationship to the Absolute, the Infinite, and the Eternal as our relationship to humanity, finitude and time.”-Andre Comte-Sponville p.140

And now firstly, The Unknowable is exclusively that.

Secondly, The Omniscient is unresponsive to our questions or requests in any reliable, reproducible way.

Thirdly, lesser deities (Deva’s and angels etc) are categorically silent. Their resemblance to and interest in humans along with alleged summon-able powers are inconsistent with both science and The Un-nameable, but rather emanate from the vivid imaginings of necessity. Of course, like the saints, these regents of the Ultimate are approachable, petition-able and caring. A Spiritual Atheist finds no evidence of such superhuman intermediaries. However if there were to be an Unintelligible Mystery, how could dubbing down to lower realms of sub-deities either detract from nor add to the Definitive Substance of the Universe?

Fourthly, science, in part by using functional brain scans to study psychopathy, has made a start toward understanding the conscience, the directing inner voice, the seat of empathy and how we deliberate about what is right, true and necessary. In an earlier response I outlined ethics is the systematic examination of the facts, values and duties that underpin our decisions. I suggested that we have evolved a desire to be well thought of which becomes sealed with authenticity as we seek to be worthy of others’ praise. If the inner and outer motives match, the talk becomes the walk of integrity.

Anatomic and functional alterations in the brain are found in tragic cases of people with recalcitrant criminality, brain injuries, those suffering with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and frontal lobe dementia to name a few. We claim a strictly biologic basis for good and “evil”.

Fifthly, independent of belief in God, humans have the capacity to discern what is fair and fitting and then act within rationally defensible standards of conduct. Codes of behaviour are largely innate, but also internalized through neurally mediated indoctrination by fanaticism, culture and religion. In times of war acts are justified on the basis of collective benefit that would otherwise be prohibited. Homo Sapiens are the ONLY species that punishes non-cooperators. (Marc Hauser in Moral Minds). These strong disincentives (oft violent) are distinct from jousting for food, territory or mates. Homo sapiens have the ultimate tool to force reluctant fearful members into large scale cooperative efforts such as building pyramids, operating gas chambers and being the first to invade neighbours.

Are atheists, by having no fear of judgement day, less motivated to be kind, generous, altruistic or advocate for the vulnerable?

Empathy involves aligning ourselves with another’s need and acting specifically to solve the problem, often with no promise of reward or reciprocation. By contrast altruism in the lower animal kingdom is usually motivated by reciprocity and expressed within kin groupings which boosts those related genes. Pure altruism gives without getting back; donating to a charity without being a acknowledged, except perhaps to your accountant. Do humans have a monopoly on god-given empathy and goodness?

The dominant male silverback gorilla watched a bird hit the plexiglass pane and fall to the ground. He picked up the stunned bird and unsuccessfully attempted to launch it from his palms. Then he tried to give it flight by opening its wings from the top of a tree to no avail. He guarded the bird from curious juveniles all day neglecting his own needs for food or water until the bird flew away on its own. -Frans de Waal “Primates and Philosophers; the Evolution of Morality.”

Spinoza; “Virtue is not a duty but a liberation, not an ideal but a plenitude, not as asceticism but a joy. It is life in action and in truth.” -Andre Comte-Sponville p.195

Fifthly, let’s turn to enigmatic “Free Will”. Four decades ago neurophysiologist Benjamin Libet captured an interesting phenomenon during the enactment of a thought. As electrical activity spreads through the brain on its way to the extremities they meet a gate of sorts. Before the point of no return there is a split second opportunity for the brain to exercise power of veto, to prevent the perpetration of the signal to become action. “The Free Won’t”. (Jay Ingram Theatre of the Mind. P 115.) This is a glimpse of how we may block both consciously and unconsciously, an action with a second thought thereby modulating the output from our brains. The paradox of Free Will, for example in overcoming the compulsions of addiction, will keep philosophers working tirelessly for untold generations.

“Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of our own mind.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson

I welcome any comments both formative and conforming.

Health, Happiness and Harmony for us and ours.

An Atheist Rapt in Awe. was originally published in ILLUMINATION on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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