Thoughts on the Spirituality of Atheism

C. George Boeree


I am an atheist.  This may not seem to particularly qualify me to talk about spiritual matters.  I believe it does, and uniquely:  I see atheism as a sort of minimalist spiritual perspective, one that has stripped away so much of what we usually think of as spiritual -- the supernatural -- that the essence of spirituality can be seen more clearly.

People will ask me:  Don’t you believe in God?  No, I don’t.  Jesus?  Buddha?  I believe that both were men of great charisma and insight -- but neither was a god. Don’t you believe in anything?  Of course I do.

I believe in two things above all:  Nature and love.  Nature is all-powerful.  Love is how I understand the good.  It might have been nice to believe in God, often defined as all-powerful and good, but combining the two like that has always posed too much of a contradiction for my poor mind to believe in.

It’s the old problem of evil:  If he’s all-powerful and all-loving, why does he then permit evil?  If you want to get specific, why does he allow innocent children to suffer (and they do suffer, don’t they?).  Me, I have nature -- which I hold in great esteem, but which is clearly not loving -- and love -- which is good but clearly not all-powerful.

What about an afterlife?  No, I don't believe in that either. You mean you think we just die and that’s it?  Yes, that’s right. So how can you stand to live?  Life is enough.  It has to be -- it’s all there is.  But then what’s the meaning of life?  The meaning of life is in the living of it.

Our lives are such small things.  Sometimes we think we need something grand to make them worthwhile -- like eternal life in paradise, or great success, or intense experiences.  Or we feel we need a grand philosophy or religion to give our lives meaning.  But that’s just not true.

It’s the little happinesses of life that give it meaning.  Some laughter, some conversation, good food and a little sex, satisfaction at a job well done, a walk on the beach, making a difference, even if its a small difference, seeing your children become happy, healthy, productive adults, washing your car, a game of cards, a good movie, a beer....  God (if you’ll pardon the expression) is in the details.

So just lay back and enjoy life -- sounds pretty hedonistic!  Perhaps, if your idea of hedonism includes doing your best and loving others. Then what's the difference between an ordinary life and meaningful life?  Attitude!

The world is so incredibly rich, so incredibly complex, that it can overwhelm us.  We retreat from the richness of life and love into the semi-conscious state of the workaday world.  We retreat into roles and rituals and habits and defensiveness and alcohol and television....  We sleep-walk through life, and miss the good stuff.

And life is hard.  Very hard for many people.  Nature is what it is, does what it does, whether we enjoy it or not.  And people, while capable of love, often don't show it.  So we close our eyes and hearts to protect ourselves.  Perhaps we even grow a thick layer of callus over our inner-most selves.  But if we close our eyes and hearts, again we miss the good stuff.

This is why we need to face our problems instead of hiding from them, accept anxiety and sadness and even pain as inevitable parts of life, rather than pretending that we can only be happy when life is perfect.  If we shut down when unhappiness comes our way, we may not feel as much pain, but we are no longer open to the small, good things of life that make it meaningful.

So we just have to buck up and deal? In a way it does all come down to that.  You can't do it alone -- you need God's help!  That would be nice -- but that kind of help doesn't seem forthcoming! It seems like you are asking a lot of a people all by themselves.  But we aren't all by ourselves.

We aren't as alone as we think we are, each of us locked away in some soul-walnut.  I believe that consciousness is only occasionally restricted to one person's mind.  Most of the time, it lies somewhere between us.

If you are playing pool with a friend, and you are really concentrating on the game, for a little while the two of you are actually sharing consciousness -- he sees what you see and you see what he sees.  When you make love with someone, you become lost in each other, lost in the passion of the moment, and share consciousness.  When you raise your children, you pass on your values and dreams and quirks, and every now and then they will see the world through your eyes, and you through theirs.  I’m not talking about e.s.p. or psychic phenomena here.  I’m just suggesting that we never lived in such separate egos in the first place.  We all learn to believe we are isolated, but we aren’t.

That's how love works:  To love means to realize that you and the other person aren't entirely separate, that his or her needs and feelings are yours. It is looking in someone's eyes and seeing yourself.  And that provides us with one more source of meaning!

Okay.  So you have some meaning in your life.  But you don't have ultimate meaning, do you?  No.

Ultimately, as far as nature is concerned, my poor atheist philosophy says it makes no difference if we shut out both good and bad or experience both good and bad fully -- six of one, half a dozen of the other.  Love or don't love?  It doesn't matter to nature.  But with open eyes and hearts we do find meaning, even if it isn't glorified with the title of "ultimate."

I have no desire to convert anyone to atheism.  It seems rather absurd to try to convert someone to nothing!  But I do think that, even if we put away our various and complex religious belief systems, the possibility for a fulfilling life remains.  Perhaps the possibility is even enhanced.


"The Laughing Philosopher"
Democritus, by Antoine Coypel (1661-1722)


© Copyright C. George Boeree 2001

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