Friday, August 8, 2008

Spiritual Atheism

There is no God worth praying to--How can anyone find comfort in a God who would allow literally billions of people, including infants, to die of horrendously painful diseases such as cancer?

Yet, a secular spirituality informs nearly everything I do:

-- As I supervise my assistant, I feel an almost sacred responsibility to make her worklife as rewarding as possible--after all, she's giving me some of the best hours of her life.

-- As I decide what projects and clients to take on and what to write about, I feel a secular spiritual obligation to choose the things that would make the biggest difference in the world.

-- As I decide what to buy, I remember that, even though my individual contribution is trivial, it's cosmically right to live lightly on the earth, to leave it better than when I entered it.

-- That I have a secular spiritual obligation to enrich the lives of everyone I meet, from the Comcast repairman to my wife. With her, that often includes staying out of her way, so she can fully flower and enjoy, although it also includes giving unwanted advice when I feel the benefits of doing so outweigh the liabilities.

Someone asked me, "How is spiritual atheism different from people whose motivation is to make the world better?" The reason I do the things I do go one step beyond "trying to make the world better." My core motivation is more universal--cosmic, if you will--a responsibility to make the biggest possible impact during the time I am alive. Simply because that's just in the cosmic scheme of things.

One liability of spiritual atheism: I rarely have what I call "Christian glow"--those Christians who walk around with an beatific look on their faces. Spiritual atheism usually doesn't make me feel good. It just feels like the right way to live, an obligation.

19 comments:

Mark said...

Marty,
This is wonderful and given what you have written, looks like I am a spiritual atheist as well.
What's the difference between your definition of spiritual and just having a deep core of humanity in the way you care about and reach out an into others?
Mark

Marty Nemko said...

Mark, it's a subtle difference: The reason I do the things I do go one step beyond making the world better. My core motivation is a more universal--cosmic, if you will--responsibility to make the biggest possible impact during the time I am alive.

Anonymous said...

I like this post. I think it illustrates well that you don't have to believe in a higher power to try to be a good person. You can also do absolutely horrible things, supposedly in the name of God.

Even as I grew up in a very religious household and schools, I never understood why people needed God to make them be good people. Can't you make that decision on your own, or at least with the help of real people around you?

I guess not. That's why most of us think we need a God that may or may not exist to tell us what to do.

Dave said...

For spiritual atheists, life has no purpose and no meaning. It also has no direction. For those with a providential worldview, life has all of those things. That was the great thing about Puritan America. The Puritans felt they were a part of something much larger than themselves. Their purpose was to build God's kingdom on Earth; a beacon to all of the other nations. Institutions such as Harvard, Kings College, and Yale were founded for that purpose. It's no different for modern-day America. We always hear of 'providence' and 'destiny' in US presidential speeches, which goes to show that the providential worldview has never left us. Those words originated from Puritan-era sermons. I have read some myself.

It's what makes America great.

Dave said...

"I never understood why people needed God to make them be good people. Can't you make that decision on your own, or at least with the help of real people around you?"

Anonymous,

Sure I can. If someone were to develop a mathematical model that proved there wasn't a god, I'd still be the same person I am today. The fact that those who know the answer are dead strengthens the case for believing. God has given me the gift of reason and I use that gift...because uncertainty is all the more reason to believe. That is where faith comes in.

As for pain and suffering and a god that does nothing about it: Is AIDS divine punishment for gay sex? It's possible. Are ALL bad things necessarily God's will? I don't think so.

Marty Nemko said...

I disagree with Dave's comment. One can derive profound meaning from trying to do what's right without believing in a deity. In fact, I believe that when a person behaves well because he fears God or wants to please him, he feels LESS meaning: because his motives come from an external source rather than from an internal feeling that that is how you want to live your life.

And by the way, any God who would punish someone--let alone with a horrible disease like AIDS--for having sex with a person of the same sex is not a God I'd want to pray to.

Dave said...

"In fact, I believe that when a person behaves well because he fears God or wants to please him, he feels LESS meaning: because his motives come from an external source rather than from an internal feeling that that is how you want to live your life."

Dr. Nemko,

Isn't this only the case with legalistic religions? Islam and Judaism come to mind. Islam is very legalistic and that is why many non-Muslims see Islam as a political ideology rather than a religion. Christianity is a mystical religion. The Holy Spirit is INTERNAL. It is working inside of you. The Eucharist (when you partake of the body and blood of Christ) is central to that divine mystery. 'I and Thou', as Martin Buber put it.

Allow me to share a quote from Father Daniel Berrigan, SJ: "The world says it only needs itself, needs contacts only with its deepest instincts, in order to run its own version of providence. Empirically it cannot of course be proven or disproven that the world has resources to heal its own wounds and to arrange its own future. And Christianity at its best has not been overly interested in proving anything about itself, or the character of its mission in the world. It has announced a mystery: the divine gift, forgiveness, hope, eternal life."

Also, wouldn't you agree that the 'idea' of the existence of God is, in and of itself, more important than whether or not God actually exists? This was floated by a clergyman at Manhattan's Riverside Church in the 1930s. I can't remember his name.

Marty Nemko said...

If you want to define God as a benevolent spirit within yourself, fine. But once you start bringing in the mumbo-jumbo about Eucharist (body and blood of Christ), we part company.

Dave said...

"How I hate this folly of not believing in the Eucharist, etc.! If the gospel be true, if Jesus Christ be God, what difficulty is there?" --- Pascal

Hey, it was good enough for him...


What do you think of Baroque composers who composed music for the glory of God? J.S. Bach, Antonio Vivaldi (aka The Red Priest), George Frederic Handel, etc.?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iJKi1Nd1dhw

Were they crackpots?

Anonymous said...

"Christianity at its best has not been overly interested in proving anything about itself, or the character of its mission in the world. It has announced a mystery: the divine gift, forgiveness, hope, eternal life."

"Also, wouldn't you agree that the 'idea' of the existence of God is, in and of itself, more important than whether or not God actually exists?"

These statements leave me feeling skeptical. With many people questioning the existence of God and with several other religions in the world, I would think that Christianity would benefit from proving not only the existence of God, but also the necessity of religion.

The existence of God, I think, is more important than merely the idea of his existence. If it was somehow proven that he doesn't exist, Dave might be the same person afterward, but how would everybody else that spent their lives believing and having faith feel? They may not be nearly as accepting.

And being a good person and doing well in your life and the lives of others is ultimately more important than either one. Anybody can do those without proof of anything, only the belief that doing so is a better way to live.

By the way, I must say that I appreciate being part of a relatively calm discussion about religion. Most of the time it's anything but.

Marty Nemko said...

There was much more ignorance of science in Bach and Handel's era. So even great musicians were subject to the nonsense of religion.

Today, very few of our great composers write work "to the glory of God."

And indeed the vast majority of our most brilliant people in all areas, especially our leading scientists, do not pray to a God.

Religious people often claim that Einstein believed in God. But read his writings and it's clear that he believes that he's in awe of the unknown, but not that there's some God worth praying to.

Marty Nemko said...

I so agree with Anonymous's appreciation the calm tenor of the debate. The thoughtful and respectful comments of both people who agree and those who disagree with me motivate me to keep blogging.

Dave said...

Anonymous,

The French worker priests were Berrigan's prime influence when training to become a priest. So, his thoughts and feelings are a reflection of his experiences with them and the poor.

I have to say that I also find myself asking those same questions raised by Dr. Nemko. My great grandfather and my grand uncle survived Dachau. I was there in 1990. I saw the ovens and I could almost smell the scent of death there. How could God allow this to happen to the Jews -- God's 'chosen people'!?

However, as a finite being, I must live with the fact that there are things I will never be able to understand. A finite being cannot fully understand a being that is infinite. I run into theological questions: If God is all powerful, how can we justify the existence of Hell? If God is all good, then how can an underworld be a part of the equation? David Hume asked these questions. If he couldn't figure it out, then I will not be able to figure it out either.

I, of course, do not interpret historical events soley with a providential worldview -- in the sense that God is responsible for all events throughout human history. I think to do so would be an intellectual travesty. The existence of Israel could be a part of God's divine plan, but I would not say that the events of 1948 and 1967 are necessarily a result of divine intervention.

Miriam Weinstein said...

Buddhists, particularly "engaged Buddhists" don't have a diety involved in their decision to leave the world better than they found it, to treat others well, to live compassionately. It's called living a dharmic life.

I don't know what is universal or cosmic about wanting to make a big impact. If one is going to make a good big impact, that is a good thing. The actual desire to make a big impact can be attributed to some pretty horrendous people who have lived on this planet. Anyway, who is comparing? We try to live right. Some people find it easier to do this with a scriptural basis and in a community of believers, some do it based on their own inner compass. As for you Marty, being Jewish, I'd say the ethic of "tikkun olam" or "repair of the world" is well and alive in you - regardless of your disavowal of God. You can take the boy away from Judaism, but you can't necessarily take all the Judaism away from the boy (or man as the case may be.)
Smiles.

Dave said...

"The existence of God, I think, is more important than merely the idea of his existence. If it was somehow proven that he doesn't exist, Dave might be the same person afterward, but how would everybody else that spent their lives believing and having faith feel? They may not be nearly as accepting."

Anonymous,

Sorry, I forgot to answer you on this one. I said I wouldn't change as a person because my values and morals wouldn't change. Morality is absolute. Values are subjective, but many Christian values are universal values.

As for coming to terms with the truth about God: It would certainly be a difficult thing to stomach. I can't answer that question. Many of us are afraid of dying. So, I think we would be occupied with thoughts of whether or not an afterlife existed in some form, or if 'the end' was the common grave. I'm sure many would never accept the truth.

Anonymous said...

You ask good questions here.

Whatever guides your way, I haven't any doubt it is right.

Strangely enough perhaps, you are an answer to prayer. I doubt I am the only one. So while you don't know him, I firmly believe God knows you.

--a believer (but usually irritable, not beatific type)

Grace said...

As a spiritual atheist, one has this cosmic obligation to make a difference. It's about seeing a bigger picture - recognizing our insignificance but understanding that with enough drops, you can still fill a bucket.

As I Christian, I don't think that our motivations really come from different places. I also feel obliged to make the most of the one life I have on this earth (even though I believe that life is eternal). And not because God commanded it. My faith is motivated by love, which I believe is of God. And this causes me to act in love.

Mr. Nemko, please don't distrust all people of faith, and I will try to be open to atheists. There are cuckoos around, on both sides of the God issue. Thanks for the good discussion.

Marty Nemko said...

Oh, I do not distrust people of faith. What I said is that clerics, in selling the existence of God, are--to use your term "snake oil salesmen."

There are many highly trustworthy people of all faiths.

And of course the New Testament's message of love is most worthy too.

Serge said...

While there is a lot of ambiguity about what the word "god" implies, there is less confusions about the belief in life after death.

I don't believe in life after death, neither have I wished it be true. My finite life makes everything so much meaningful in my life. Anytime I experience minor or major misfortunes in my life, and get depressed over it, I only got to think that it will all be soon over, and I can carry on.

Thus paradoxically the thoughts of personal mortality cheer me up. It helps me deviate my attention from myself as an economic entity which can fail or succeed, to myself as a biological and existential entity, who no matter how much will fail or succeed will eventually end up disappearing forever.

As a type A personality, I love succeeding and getting recognized for my success, but when I fail I can always put things into the existential perspective.

Protestant work ethics, stemming from Calvinism, implies that people work long & hard, even in the work they dislike, since by achieving material success & raising a big family through their sweat and blood they prove as worthy and “saved”.

Rejecting the belief that this life is a dress-rehearsal for another life, I reject the idea of sacrificing self for unfulfilling work in this life only to enjoy the next life.

Instead I believe people should focus on experiences rather than material possessions. And when choosing the material possessions to buy, individuals should focus less on status, and more on ability of those possession to deliver a great experience (e.g. big and comfortable bed for a good night sleep (less than $1000); a decent movie projector with a 90 inch plus screen & quality surround sound to watch all the great movies at home as they were intended to (less than $1500); an appealing mp3-player to listen to the enriching audiobooks and podcasts on the go (less than $300))

You normally don't need a middle-class income to get many enjoyable experinces, however you do need a middle-class income to raise a family decently.

And while the experience of a family can certainly be fulfilling, in the absence of a way to make a middle-class income without working more than 40 hours a week at an unfulfilling or only somewhat fulfilling job, opting out of having children might prove wise. Unless of course one’s biological instincts to carry on one’s progeny are too strong to make one truly happy without children. And then of course having less children, will allow one more time to enjoy the life and one’s family before one’s end.

 

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