Who has the right to define spiritual atheism?

January 5, 2014 at 4:10 pm 3 comments

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.

Entry filed under: freethought. Tags: , , .

“Why can’t we all just get along?”? Writing yourself to the spiritual place you want to be in.

3 Comments Add your own

  • […] Who has the right to define spiritual atheism? […]

  • 2. William Cundiff  |  July 23, 2014 at 2:32 pm

    I just discovered your blog, which is why this comment may be late. I’ve never met anyone who knew a universally accepted definition of spirituality. I’ll add my personal favorite here: Spirituality is simply part of the broad range of human experience and not exclusive to religion. It seems to me that the best way to learn about spiritual experience is to watch a sociable dog: They live in the moment, love unconditionally, know the value of play, never consume more than they need, and express gratitude exuberantly. What could be more spiritual than that? All that could easily be part of our everyday experience if we would only let it.

    • 3. Douglas Falknor  |  July 25, 2014 at 9:29 am

      True that definitions range amazingly widely. It seems based in a person’s worldview/vision of reality. If that person thinks there is an underlying supernatural realm his/her definition may be vastly different from those (of us) who don’t. Some nonbelievers have the same definition of spirituality as the religious, but then rejected spirituality as nonexistent or impossible in a material universe.

      Your parameters and mine may have more in common. Still, I would say the “dog” should experience some spiritual nurturance or at least seek it, though, point taken about the graceful life philosophy the dog seems to operate under.


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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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