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On Spiritual Truths

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Can there be a marriage between Atheism and Spirituality...atheism in it's purest since is a belief in no Gods, yet some beliefs are ascribed to it such as believing "spirituality" is bunk etc... can there be a heightening of language or a doing away with previous connotations?


Even if you view spiritual or transcendent experiences as natural/material does that make it any less important?




One day, you will find yourself outside this world which is like a mother’s womb. You will leave this earth to enter, while you are yet in the body, a vast expanse, and know that the words, “God’s earth is vast,” name this region from which the saints have come.


—Jalal-ud-Din Rumi

Many of my fellow atheists consider all talk of “spirituality” or “mysticism” to be synonymous with mental illness, conscious fraud, or self-deception. I have argued elsewhere that this is a problem—because millions of people have had experiences for which “spiritual” and “mystical” seem the only terms available.

Of course, many of the beliefs people form on the basis of these experiences are false. But the fact that most atheists will view a statement like Rumi’s, above, as a sign of the man’s gullibility or derangement, places a kernel of truth amid the rantings of even our most gullible and deranged opponents.


Consider Sayed Qutb, Osama bin Laden’s favorite philosopher. Qutb spent most of 1949 in Greeley, Colorado, and found, to his horror and satisfaction, that his American hosts were squandering their lives on gossip, trivial entertainments, and lawn maintenance. From this Dark Night of Suburbia, he concluded that western civilization was so spiritually barren that it must be destroyed.


As is often the case with religious conservatives, whatever ignorance and “death denial” didn’t explain about Qutb, sexual frustration did:


The American girl is well acquainted with her body’s seductive capacity. She knows it lies in the face, and in expressive eyes, and thirsty lips. She knows seductiveness lies in the round breasts, the full buttocks, and in the shapely thighs, sleek legs—and she shows all this and does not hide it.


(Sayyid Qutb,
The America I Have Seen: In the Scale of Human Values
, 1951)


These are not words of a man who has discerned the limits of romantic attachment. Being terrified of women, and yet as concupiscent as bonobo, Qutb is widely believed to have died a virgin. We can feel his pain. Needless to say, his puritanical attachment to Islam allowed him to make a virtue of necessity: What a relief it must have been to know that the Creator of the universe intended these terrifying creatures to live as slaves to men.


But Qutb was not wrong about everything. There is something degraded and degrading about many of our habits of attention. Perhaps I should just speak for myself on this point: It seems to me that I spend much of my waking life in a neurotic trance. My experiences in meditationsuggest that there is an alternative to this, however. It is possible to stand free of the juggernaut of self, if only for a moment.


But the fact that human consciousness allows for remarkable experiences does not make the worldview of Sayed Qutb, or of Islam, or of revealed religion generally, any less divisive or ridiculous. The intellectual and moral stains of the world’s religions—the misogyny, otherworldliness, narcissism, and illogic—are so ugly and indelible as to render all religious language suspect. And I share the concern, expressed by many atheists, that terms like “spiritual” and “mystical” are often used to make claims, not merely about the quality of certain experiences, but about the nature of the cosmos. The fact that one can lose one’s sense of self in an ocean of tranquility does not mean that one’s consciousness is immaterial or that it presided over the birth of the universe. This is the spurious linkage between contemplative experience and metaphysics that pseudo-scientists like Deepak Chopra find irresistible.


But, as I argue in The Moral Landscape, a maturing science of the mind should help us to understand and access the heights of human well-being. To do this, however, we must first acknowledge that these heights exist.




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I share the feeling that atheism is too broad a term for shunning all spirituality. Perhaps multiple labels are needed, or a new label.


I was reading a book yesterday that points to a purely physical evolutionary path for "why we think the way we do", so perhaps the feelings about spirituality are woven in with that. I wonder sometimes if concepts like the third-eye are real ways of perceiving subtle energy fields that we developed over the eons, but are mostly not used anymore, or not needed for survival now. I know three women that seem to have their shit together mentally, rather brilliant actually, but are practicing mediums. They see, hear, and smell what they say are spirits of the departed, angels, spirit guides, and so on. None of that directly involves a deity, so the term atheism doesn't apply to those that think it is all hooey. Skeptic is usually what I hear applied to those that are ...skeptical. Perhaps these women might have better use of certain abilities that are part of human evolution, or maybe it is all hooey, but convincing hooey for those involved. Hell, we all once thought Jesus was the king of the universe.

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I'd like to think there is a possibility of some kind of atheist spirituality, but it depends on whether the atheist is also a materialist, and on how you define spirituality.


Terminology-wise, I've recently decided my beliefs ("what is", the nature of reality) are atheist materialist, but my spirituality (the "now what", or the best way to live) is humanist. Humanism is not the logical result of atheism, even if a lot of atheists are humanists. Humanism represent a vision of what could/should be that does not contradict my understanding of what is.


In some sense, my being a materialist does mean that there are many aspect of spirituality that I reject, in the sense that I do not think that every experience of "something other/bigger than me" is a connection to an external reality. I do, however, value those experiences as a positive and uplifting. There may not be a "something out there" to connect to, but we can choose to create a community who acts like there is. So we are forming a connection to something we've chosen to create, not to something that exists apart from us.


As for psychics and ghosts and such... I'm not sure. I've known enough people with some experiences of the "supernatural" that I either have to call a lot of my friends lairs/deluded or accept that there is something going on. Much of seeing auras and telepathic-like experiences in person might be explainable by humans just being a whole lot better at cold reading than we give ourselves credit for (and if so, those are a great set of skills to develop in order to function better as a social animal). It is certainly consistent with materialism that humans can pick up subtle cues from each other that don't get directly analyzed by our consciousness and manifest as accurate gut feelings, or even as a visual aura. All of the weird experiences I personally have had could fall in this category.


For things like ghosts, one of my friends says the "ghosts" he sees aren't actual spirits of people, but rather an impression or shadow left behind by someone feeling strong emotion. I've never felt much of those things myself, so I never know whether he's got an overactive imagination or there's something real there. There has been at least one experience where two people I know who are "sensitive" have had similar uneasiness with the same location, so that's more believable than one anecdote. Though I'm not sure how much of that is explainable by one person feeling it and the others picking up on it even if there's nothing there. Or maybe it's not a spirit they're sensing, but some subliminal bad smell or other sensory input that triggers a sense of danger. So it could be real, just not supernatural. I don't know. Every experience I've been around to observe has been so... vague, it's frustrating to know what to believe.

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