Paper delivered to the Felkin College, SRIA
Fra. J. C. Allan Io, 2010
The question of the existence or otherwise of Atheist Spirituality would, I suggest, have been an anathema to the founders of Rosicrucianism; but, so would many of the topics studied by the colleges of our order today. Suffice it to say there are many paths one may tread on the journey of spiritual growth and the wise man would do well to discount none of them.
Imagine if you will a debate which starts with the leader of the affirmatives rising and opening with “The idiots on the negative side are stupid enough to argue ......”. And yet, on what some might argue is the greatest question facing Man, this tactic is often used.
In the King James Version of the Bible (Psalm 14.1) we read:
“The fool hath said in his heart,
There is no God.
They are corrupt,
they have done abominable works,
there is none that doeth good.”
However, by analysing what is said in the psalm, and with reference to Romans 1, it is obvious that the Hebrew word fool is taken to mean one who is morally rather that mentally deficient.
On the other hand, our good friend, Brother, the Reverend Doctor James Anderson wrote in his Constitutions of 1723;
“A Mason is oblig'd (sic) by his Tenure, to obey the moral Law; and if he rightly understands the Art, he will never be a stupid Atheist nor an irreligious Libertine.”
This raises an important question; is morality dependent on the belief in God? Buddhists and Confucianists are certainly moral people (with exceptions, like all societies), but their faith is not built around the belief in a monotheistic God. From this fact alone we can clearly state that both the biblical and Anderson’s Eurocentric, Judeo-Christian propositions are untrue.
A more important question arises from the atheistic belief, namely, does spirituality depend on the belief in God? Or, more importantly to me as one beginning my spiritual quest, does it depend on the strength of my faith?
To explore this issue we need to tidy up some terminology. Albert Einstein was once asked “Do you believe in God, Professor?” To this he correctly replied “First tell me what you mean by God, and then I’ll tell you if I believe in him”. This discourse is written from a perspective whereby the writer has always functioned within the framework of Western society, ie. Judeo-Christian monotheism and therefore any reference to the Atheist refers to somebody who has developed their beliefs in a similar context. As such many of us would accept that by God we mean an eternal, spiritual and transcendent being, both exterior and superior to nature; one who consciously and voluntarily created the universe. He is assumed to be perfect, omniscient, omnipotent, infinitely kind and just and, as the Creator, is not himself created; He is the enactment and personification of the absolute.
Does God exist?
Neither science, nor any form of knowledge, (if by knowledge we mean the communicable and repeatable result of a demonstration or an experience), can answer this. We do not know nor can we know, at least not in this lifetime.
Do we need faith in God?
The Atheist, raised in the western tradition where he has based his belief on the rejection of Muslim, Judaic and Christian dogma, is one who believes that the God defined above does not exist and he will probably base his belief on one or more of the following reasons:
1. The weakness of the opposing arguments, the so-called proofs of God's existence, primarily the so-called “Ontological”, “Cosmological” and “Physico-Theological” arguments.
2. Common experience: if God existed, he should be easier to see or sense.
3. A refusal to explain something one cannot understand by something one understands even less.
4. The enormity of evil in the world.
5. The mediocrity of mankind supposedly created in the image of God.
6. Last but not least, the fact that God corresponds so perfectly to our wishes that there is every reason to think He was invented to fulfil them, at least in fantasy; this makes religion an illusion in the Freudian sense of the term.
I am not about to enter into a discussion of merits of these arguments except to note that nobody can dismiss them as foolishness.
Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov allegedly stated “If God does not exist then everything is allowed”. Such thinking can only lead to sophistry and nihilism. The dominant figure of the post-modern age, Freiderich Nietzsche rephrased this in his Posthumous Fragments as, “Nothing is true, everything is allowed”.
Of course the first proposition is logically untenable, if “nothing is true” then neither is the proposition. (Not A therefore A). The great threat in the second part is a moral one. The Atheist builds a double rampart against these temptations, opposing sophistry with rationalism on the one hand, and nihilism with humanism on the other. Taken together these two ramparts have been known since the eighteenth century as “The Enlightenment”.
To the Atheist the gospels and particularly the story of Jesus remain virtually true and certainly relevant – I say virtually for he would have problems with miracles and prophecies and at least three days of the story of Jesus; Good Friday, Easter Saturday and Easter Sunday. Jesus himself preached more about the relationships between men than he did of God or the after-life, viz., The separation of Church and State (“Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s”), universal humanity (“Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these, ye have done it unto me.”), valuing the present moment (“Take therefore no thought for the morrow, for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself.”), freedom of spirit (“The truth shall make you free.”) and the parables of the good Samaritan and the Sermon on the Mount.
The wisdom of the gospels is not denied to the Atheist so the question that remains to be answered is whether or not his “foolish” or “stupid” belief that God does not exist precludes him from spiritual experience.
He would argue that ethics derive not from faith (in God) but from the value that allows societies to be cohesive – fidelity. Faith is a belief; fidelity is a commitment. Faith involves one or several gods; fidelity involves values, a history, a community. Faith and fidelity can go hand in hand – this is piety. However they can also come separately and this is what distinguishes impiety (the absence of faith) from nihilism (the absence of fidelity).
In the Hymn to Charity, in the First Epistle to the Corinthians, Paul invoked what came to be called the three theological virtues – faith, hope and charity. In the Kingdom of Heaven, Paul tells us that faith will pass, we will no longer need to believe in God, we will see him. In Heaven hope will also pass as, by definition, there is nothing more to hope for. Only charity (love) will remain.
The atheist argues there is no need to have faith in the existence of heaven; it is here now all around us. It is up to us to inhabit the material and spiritual space (the world, our bodies, the present) in which we have nothing to believe and everything to learn, nothing to hope for but everything to do (for those things we can change) or to love (for those we cannot).
To sum up so far; it is possible to live without religion but not without communion, fidelity and love. (And yes my Masonic friends it is fid-el-i-tee, not fi-del-i-tee).
In its broadest definition, spirituality can be said to include virtually all aspects of human life and spiritual is more or less synonymous with mental or psychic. But this definition has become somewhat obsolete and when today people speak of spirituality they are usually referring to a rather limited part of our inner life, although it can touch upon the limitless – that part which involves the absolute, the infinite and the eternal.
We are finite beings who open upon the eternal; ephemeral beings who open on to eternity, and relative beings who open on to the absolute. Metaphysics means thinking about these things; spirituality is about experiencing, exercising and the living of them. The Atheist does not deny the absolute; rather he denies its transcendence, its spirituality and its personality. In other words he denies the absolute is God but rather that which exists independently of any of any condition, relationship or point of view.
This metaphysical stance, in its various modes, is known as naturalism, immanentism or materialism. It generally follows from this stance that nature is the totality of reality, there is no supernatural, and it exists independently of the spirit which does not create it but rather was created by it. We can designate the sum total of everything that exists or occurs as the All.
Far from precluding spirituality this puts it firmly in its’ place which while not the first place from the universe’s point of view it is certainly the highest place from the point of view of man.
So, can there be atheist spirituality? By looking at the three theological virtues of Christianity the Atheist would argue that his is a spirituality of fidelity rather than faith, of action rather than hope (cf. Christian monasteries or Eastern martial arts), and of love rather than fear or submission. Thus the Atheist would argue that he faces the start of his spiritual journey with the same attributes as a person of Christian religion but in a slightly different form.
It would seem to this neophyte that there exists a “Law of spiritual potential” which might be crudely stated as;
“The spiritual potential of an individual is directly proportional to their ability to suppress or eliminate the ego (or self)”
To look up at night sky in silent surroundings is to be at one with both immensity and immanence. Do we perceive the universe or the multiverse? We cannot know and this is called mystery. It is the immensity that begins to reduce our ego in size and relevance and allows us to enter the state when immanence dominates – we become the All, or the All becomes us.
There is no distance, the furthest distances of the universe are within our grasp; there is no time; creation, the eons, the future and destructions are all laid before us; there is no dimension; quantum physics, metabolism, the rush of fluid in the xylem of a plant stem and cosmogenesis are all there for our view; there is no good or evil, at best artefacts of man, there is simply the perfect freedom of the All. It is a state characterised by absolute silence and the same over-abundant joy.
Freud described the dissolving of the ego as an “oceanic feeling”, a “sense of indissoluble union with the great All, and of belonging to the universal”. Experiencing this journey the atheist will ask “Why do you need God? The universe suffices. Why would you need a church? The world suffices. Why do you need faith? Experience suffices”.
The fact is that this experience is felt by people on every continent and in a wide range of intellectual and spiritual contexts; the feeling belongs to no one religion or philosophy which is as it should be for obviously spirituality is too important to be left in the hands of the priests, the mullahs or the “new age“ spiritualists.
The sense of beatitude that can be felt in the All puts the concepts of life and death into perspective. Andre Comte-Sponville sums this up in his words “Death can deprive me only of my future and my past, which do not exist. The present and eternity (the present therefore eternity) are beyond its reach. It can deprive me only of myself. Thus it will deprive me of everything and nothing. All truth is eternal ... death will merely deprive me of my illusions”.
And so to conclude; is my spiritual potential limited by my faith or my ability to suppress my ego (or self)? My research suggests that the latter is the case. The religious, I feel, suppress their ego by comparison to the immensity of their God, the Shamans by chemical and induced trance methods, but it would seem that there are many paths to the top of the mountain and the journey can be learnt with application.
Anybody who ascends significantly up the mountain to a spiritual life is gaining some of the ultimate experience of existence and if his method does not require of him a belief in God then he is merely a fellow traveller, hardly a “fool” or “stupid”.
Comte-Sponville, A. The Book of Atheist Spirituality (Translated), Bantam Press, London, 2008