Archive for January, 2014
Dayton Freethought members clashed over definitions at a recent gathering on the topic of spiritual atheism. More definitions flew around the room than one might have expected.
Surprisingly, the most significant clash was over the meaning of the term atheism. With respect to the definition of atheism, it’s true that it literally means there is no god. We found in discussion, however, that a number of members of Dayton Freethought who claim the title atheist for themselves also have a range of beliefs with respect to a spiritual realm or at least some energies that go beyond strict materialism. I think some who call themselves atheist could also be said to be agnostic about a spiritual realm.
A number of folks in attendance stated that atheism means a person doesn’t believe in anything spiritual. At least, technically, though, some atheists evidently can and do believe in something overtly spiritual. Who’s right? These spiritual atheists can stand on the technical interpretation of the definition of atheism to prove their case.
Still, there has been a common usage of atheism that not only negates any god, but anything nonmaterial as well. I think in much of western culture, atheism has meant materialism. I checked the usage of the word with a number of major writers on the topic of atheism and believe they do mean atheism in the sense that negates anything spiritual. Reading their work to get the context showed it to be consistent with materialism. That was my use of the term and many others at the Dayton Freethought meeting.
Now to complicate this further, writers like Steve Antinoff, Spiritual Atheism, (and myself) talk of a spiritual atheism that does not imply a spiritual realm, supernatural beings or events, or anything nonmaterial.
I’ll speak only for myself. I talk of the traditional sense of atheism consistent with materialism. Given a material world with no supernatural realm, no spooky events, no energies that arise from nonmaterial sources, I parse the word “spiritual” in two ways:
1. This null set of things that believers meant, but that do not exist, and therefore, I set aside as indicating nothing in the real world.
2: (Given the absence of a spiritual/supernatural realm, we potentially are all equally spiritual. It’s all natural and a product of human minds, culture, and genes.) Spiritual in this sense, is the sense of what is real and what takes place within and between humans in the real world. This is what makes us feel a certain spiritual nurturance has taken place. Some call it life-affirming. Others might call it ennobling the human spirit.
What makes me think I have the right to use the word spiritual in this latter sense? Well, because of the reality that spirituality must conform to. I think it is a response we make to an inborn drive for spiritual fulfillment. Not exactly a God Gene, but still a certain drive, one that sponsors religion.
Our rockstar atheists, Dawkins & Dennett, don’t think religion could have ever had benefits to humankind to the extent that it would have become an evolutionary adaptation. Many scientists in the most relevant fields do believe religion is in our genes for several reasons.
1. Universality. Religion is in every culture on earth now and across time as far as we can tell. Universality is the hallmark of a significant evolutionary adaptation.
2. Conversely, No cultures unmarked by religion have survived to the present whether winnowed by competition among groups or by simply not making it through cataclysmic population bottle necks, Mount Tobu eruption, etc.
3. People treat their religions as if vitally important. They’re tenacious about their beliefs and often organize socially on that basis alone.
4. Twins reared apart. Identical twins reared in households with differing levels of religious exuberance match their twin’s religious interest, practice, and activity rather than that of the families who raised them.
(Too involved to fully develop here, I do develop that thesis in my book, see it at this link: http://www.amazon.com/Religion-Showing-Earlier-Evolution-Thought/dp/1458208931)
At any rate, if all the spirituality the world has ever known has occurred as natural phenomena in response to our desire for it supported by our genes, then all actual spirituality has come from within us alone. Every religiously inspired accomplishment by believers, Michelangelo’s David and ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, every cathedral ever built, and anything inspired by a god or any object of worship all come from the same organic source potentially within every human. No dreamed of or contemplated god or saint or spiritual being was at the root cause of the spiritual experience. Though believers may have made these accomplishments inspired by thoughts of such beings, no such beings exist, therefore, any spirituality or spiritual events are of a secular, worldly nature and, arguably, possible for anyone to have.
Would such a spiritual drive be sufficient for that inspiration? Believers and nonbelievers alike enjoy neurochemical rewards for a number of thoughts and actions. That’s the payoff for religiously and secularly inspired accomplishments. Like our artistic and academic achievements, religio-spiritual accomplishments bring neurochemical rewards, pleasure, and/or loftly, uplifting feelings. (See any article on the mutation about 25,000 years ago that doubled the dopamine receptors in the brain.)
So the drive to achieve the spiritual and the reward for achieving it, are all we have. Dopamine, serotonin, and other neurochemicals released internally to give us the reward for that.
Through the use of this filter that we have applied, we have eliminated the misunderstood origin and aspects of spirituality and left us with only the garden variety of spirituality—only what could have occurred in a material world. Why consider this paler version of spirituality? Because we have it. Our genes drive us toward it; we need it. Our psychology, our brains, and our neurochemistry are structured to reward it. Ultimately, when religion is understood and tamed our secular spirituality will serve us well.