Dousing the Constant Fire?

November 5, 2011 at 2:18 pm 4 comments

A couple of months ago I discovered Point of Inquiry, the internet radio show/podcast of the Center for Inquiry. It’s an oasis in the desert of uplifting secular audio that’s (not) out there.   Go find it–there’s a lot there for us–a true resource.

I’ve been working my way backward through the audio archives there.  One program that caught my eye was the episode named “Spirituality: Friend or Foe? – Adam Frank and Tom Flynn.” Adam Frank takes a somewhat similar position to my own–that there can be secular spirituality, something that’s fulfilling to the human spirit.  That’s great and gives us an avenue worth pursuing.

Unfortunately, I’m goaded into writing about Tom Flynn’s position. He says this dabbling with the ideas we call spiritual puts those of us who are asking these questions in a domain that can’t be called “hard atheism.”

This I have to wonder about.  I’ve taken Jennifer Michael Hecht’s test (Doubt, a History…) and I am fully and 100% hard atheist according to her test.  I didn’t have a single answer that wasn’t materialist and atheist. So is Jennifer’s test incomplete or somehow faulty?  I don’t think that’s the case, but certainly I might not be objective since I’m one of the defendants in this case.

It’s not coming through here, but I was really downed by Tom Flynn’s words.   I wish the talks could have been reversed so that the upside could have been the last thought, but it couldn’t be that way.  Without the introduction of the idea of some sort of secular spirituality the topic wouldn’t have had a starting point.

Chris Mooney, host for that episode, argues in the general direction of Adam Frank and that there might be a secular way to accomodate a sort of scientific spirituality–awe in the presence of the universe and it’s wonders, for example.

Flynn says we confuse the issues when we say we are atheist and materialists and then say we are spiritual.  (You might note that my thesis that we are “spiritual” because we evolved into religiosity [I’d call it a sort of spiritual drive or need] might be a special case that does overcome that problem and clears up the impasse that the language seems to hold).

Flynn says the average person thinks “spirit” means God and disembodied souls, and in the U.S., there is a spiritual order to the world.  Further, that we (godless) defeat our goal for rational understanding of the world and misrepresent our world view when we use that language.

Flynn goes on to say the average person thinks they’ve just caught us in an inconsistency or being hyp0critical.  And that we, too, need something trandscendent (acutally, Flynn calls it ectoplasm–a Ghost Buster reference?)  to get us through the night.

Chris Mooney says the word spirituality may be undergoing change.  Flynn says it hasn’t completed that change and that he’d like the language dropped altogether.  If not, society will assume that we, too, need an “invisible” means of support.

Flynn says he thinks Sagan, Einstein, Asimov might all be called religious humanists.  When he was trying to find his way, he examined their thoughts, but when they spoke of this awe in high blown terms he moved on looking for purer atheists.

Flynn says the “spiritual” language is unnecessary.   It is rather loose language that we need to clean up and state more clearly.  Flynn does offer that if we mean what we say by that language, then we certainly have a right to say it that way.

Mooney asks what is the appropriate way to address the explanation of meaning in our lives.

There is no big “M” Meaning because we don’t believe there is such meaning out there.  That each of us finds our own way to determine the meaning of our lives.  And that such an effort is far superior to an imposition of an external meaning upon our lives and world (I took quite a bit of license with the latter, but I think it is consistent with what Flynn said).

Flynn says there’s a lot of lore in religious circles to the effect that there are no true atheists because everyone needs something transcendent in their lives.    Flynn says there really are atheists and it is us and we need to be recognized, that we do exist, and that we need to set an example to show that we can lead good lives.

I can see both side’s points.

What do you think?

Entry filed under: atheism, atheist, freethought. Tags: , , , .

Poetry as atheist spirituality, maybe any spirituality Affirming motto In God We Trust is the religious equivalent of marking territory

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Mike Lewis  |  November 10, 2011 at 11:51 pm

    I can see both sides too. I generally avoid describing myself as “spiritual” because of the word’s sacred/religious/supernatural connotations. But language is fluid and evolving, and perhaps one day the word will be widely used with connotations of non-supernatural transcendence, just as one of the widely understood meanings of “spirit” is “enthusiasm.”

    • 2. douglasfalknor  |  November 12, 2011 at 9:52 pm

      It must have been in Mooney’s interview of Frank, I think Mooney said he was using the word “sacred” in place of spiritual. That seems worse to me for all the reasons in the long post above. In addition sacred has it’s own baggage. Some of the short definitions from online dictionaries: Holiness, perceived as associated with the divine, for the worship of a deity.

      Spirituality does have baggage, too, but as it turns out, spirituality is not an actual response to any extant deity or supernatural realm, but rather the product of a mind programmed to reward itself with the neurochemicals of pleasure. Could the only difference between nonbelievers and believers be that believers can’t know that their minds are playing tricks on them? Can believers be believers if they know that their minds were preprogrammed for spirituality genetically by natural selection, then culturally primed with local religious content, how to experience it, what it means.

  • 3. Jeremy M.  |  April 29, 2014 at 2:37 pm

    Mr. Falknor,

    I just sent you a message through Goodreads as well as Facebook (it probably wound up in your “Other” inbox) inquiring about posting this piece as a Spiritual Naturalist Society article. Quite frankly, I’m surprised we don’t already have you in our community! Forgive me if I’m wrong — I did a search but didn’t see you there.

    I sent you my email address. I would love to hear back from you at your convenience.

    Thank you very much!

    Jeremy Mattocks

    • 4. Douglas Falknor  |  July 11, 2014 at 8:39 am

      I think I agree with naturalism. It seems like we have to define our words to know what we are saying. Is this spiritual naturalism on the natural or supernatural side of that divide?


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I write for agnostics, freethinkers, atheists and humanists. In my nonfiction, the purpose is the celebration of our noble human spirit. The general pursuit may be Evolutionary Theology, though believers seem to populate that field (so maybe it's evolutionary Humanism). By looking at who we are and where we came from, we can derive much meaning, and perhaps more importantly, understanding, as well as some sense of where we could go.

Religion is God’s Way of Showing Us it’s Earlier in Human Evolution than We Thought

This title is an upcoming book at the publisher's now. I'd like feedback on this title. It's meant to make people think and feel something. And to hint at things for both believers and non- on multiple levels. The book is of a wider scope, though, one which is ultimately a way to grasp more meaning for ourselves. Believers are always telling us our lives don't have meaning without a god. We often counter that it's more meaningful to be looking for our own meaning than to be arbitrarily ascribed it by an imaginary supernatural being. Ultimately, and this is what I think is unique about this book, you'll see how we can be just as spiritual in our own way. Since we've inhertited a capacity for religion (some more than others) as an evolutionary adaptation, believers and non- are both potentially spritual in the same way--but it is an earthly, secular spirituality in which we all can share.

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