Reviewing Steve Antinoff’s SPIRITUAL ATHEISM
If you trapse around this blog any, you may notice terms like spiritual atheism, authentic spirituality, ennoblement of the human spirit. These same concepts are explored at some length in Religion is God’s Way of showing Us it’s a lot Earlier in Human Evolution than We Thought. (Abbott Press will bring this book out for me in a month or two.) And so, the book Spiritual Atheism had been on my radar for some time.
After a few preliminaries from various writers and philosophers discussing the implications of God’s death, Antinoff introduces us to the Zen concept of a koan, a paradox stated as a terse dilemma. Antinoff offers us a great one, “[T]he koan burning within the West, in western culture as a whole and in its individuals, has been given its most fundamental expression by Dostoyevsky, in the mouth of his great character Kirilov in the novel The Devils. ‘God,’ says Kirilov, ‘is necessary, and so must exist… Yet I know that he doesn’t exist, and can’t exist.’
“These lines first spoken in 1873 will plague us for the next thousand years. They form the koan that cannot be walked away from.” Antinoff goes on to point out that this state of affairs leaves us dissatisfied and restless.
“The nonexistence of God does not diminish human beings’ spritual need, mortal, finite human beings, unable to be satisfied in what is mortal and finite, long for the infinite. The most important question for the spritual atheist, therefore, is whether it is possible to acheive the infinite, to transcend our finite, mortal condition in a world without God.” Or so Antinoff says.
“Nonetheless,” he says, “the death of God constitues a pivotal moment for the West. For Neitzsche” [who pronounced God dead for western civilization], “God was the subconscious projection originating in the depths of the human need for spiritual preservation, the ‘antidote to practical and theoretical nihilism.’ The untenability of God forces the insufficiency of the finite, the insufficiency of the human, to center stage.”
Spiritual atheism seems to come out of a much darker place for Antinoff than it does for me. He quotes quite a few observations on the inevitability of death from many religious traditions and points out our basic existential anxiety (the anxiety that because we exist, because we are alive, we will die).
OK. We’ll grant him his historical perspective on the loss of God as a touchstone of sprituality. BUT if we take a much longer perspective, say over evolutionarily deep time, we can see greater cause for celebration. Humankind’s rising. Yes, we’re out there, exposed. We always were. We took a detour into religion. It may have been necessary; we may never know. Now we are humankind emerging. We are becoming. It’s a continual process of improvement with no upper limit.
Antinoff then explores through other thinkers how our consciousness was foisted upon us and not of our choosing. He says this gives us a spiritual loneliness that can’t be overcome by love or sex as evidenced, he says, by the divorce rate. Neither, Antinoff says, can artistic or creative accomplishment overcome this loneliness even when transcendence is the goal of such art.
As a prelude to Part 2 of Spritual Atheism, Antinoff sums up that the individual is his own obstacle when he paraphrases twelfth century Zen master, Wu-men, “to attain the ‘wonderous awakening’ the barrier without a gate must be passed through. The barrier is not an object. The barrier is he or she who seeks to pass through the barrier–the ‘I.'”
At this point, Antinoff takes up in Part 2 his painfully slow development of his thesis that Buddhist enlightenment is the answer to the impasse and our eternal (or not) stuckedness as beings who can go nowhere. Among his ideas for a way forward is this: with no God we must have an atheistic religion.
Antinoff considers meditation as a path at some depth and how it deals with our intractable spiritual delimmas. He talks about the mystical peak experiences that he says are possible despite widespread belief to the contrary, but warns that having that ecstatic peak isn’t a true obtainment of enlightenment even if exciting and entertaining.
Obviously any writer can take his book anywhere he wants to go, but I was disappointed in where this one went. I was hoping it would be all that spiritual atheism could be, all that it might encompass. It does develop an origin of spiritual atheism, and follows a line of reasoning that leads to a narrow path. That path is the authors earnest prescription for way forward and a destination, and although, it leaves me ambivalent, it might serve others well.
Entry filed under: freethought.