A few weeks ago, I gave a presentation at a Sunday morning service of the Unitarian Universalist Community of El Paso, TX, where I'm a member. The title was "Atheist Spirituality", and it was very well received. The following is an outline of the service, including the full text of my talk, approximately as-delivered. (I do have a tendency to ad-lib here and there.)


Atheist Spirituality
A talk given at the Unitarian Universalist Community of El Paso, TX by Joseph Knapka, August 30, 2009
Opening music: Imagine (John Lennon, performed by JK and the congregation)
Opening words: Hubble Ultra-Deep Field video
Inter-generational story: Tea With God, by Susan Moon
Offertory music: Whitney Music Box Explanation: (show screen-capture image)

The Whitney Music Box is a demonstration of how simple rules can lead to complex and beautiful behavior.

Each dot is associated with a single note on the piano keyboard; there are 88 dots corresponding to the 88 piano keys. The dots travel in concentric circles, and each dot's note sounds when it crosses the horizontal line. The largest dot completes one circle in three minutes; the next-largest dot circles twice in three minutes; the next-largest circles three times; and so forth. Over the next three minutes, many beautiful and complex visual patterns will appear, and every possible type of musical chord containing middle-C will be played.

http://wheelof.com/whitney/index.php?var=v5


Hi, I'm Joe, and I'm a member of the "evidence-based community".

The first thing I want to say is that this talk is not about critiquing religion, or Christianity. If you're a visitor here, you might be very surprised at the title of today's presentation. We're a very accepting group. All these people have shown up today hoping that I'll have something interesting to say about atheism and spirituality, and I share that hope!



I'm not a scientist, but a curious and interested lay person. I have twenty years of experience as a computer programmer and software architect (with apologies to any real architects in the congregation). I’m also an atheist. That is the philosophical stance that gives me a sense of my place in the universe, and provides spiritual meaning to my life. Not that different, at least in that sense, from what “believers’” beliefs do for them. What I'm going to talk about here is, what "atheism" and "spirituality" mean, and what can the phrase "atheist spirituality" mean?


I used the phrase “evidence-based community” above, because the process of testing belief against evidence is a core principle of my worldview, and a critical factor that distinguishes it from religious world views. Of course, people can disagree about the nature of reality, even in the presence of evidence; as in the story of the blind men and the elephant. However, that should not dissuade us from attempting to discover truth. Evidence tethers speculation to reality. The blind men, by pooling their resources and knowledge, and letting go of whatever interpretation to which they are most attached, can arrive at a much better idea of the truth of "elephant-ness".

Here are some definitions:

a•the•ist

n. One who does not believe in the existence of God or gods.

That's all. Asserting the non-existence of gods is not a necessary part of atheism. A typical atheist asks for evidence for whatever religious claim is being made, and is invariably disappointed.

We are all atheists with respect to 99.99% of all the various gods humanity has ever cooked up. There was a period of time, for example, when essentially all educated Westerners believed in Zeus. There are lots of gods that nobody here believes in. An atheist simply extends that skepticism one god further.

spir•i•tu•al•i•ty

n. 1. The state, quality, manner, or fact of being spiritual.

Well that's not very helpful. But here are some definitions of "spiritual", that do not involve God (since those that do are clearly not relevant to my topic):

spir•i•tu•al adj.

1. Relating to or having the nature of spirits or a spirit; supernatural.

2. Of or belonging to a church or religion; sacred.

3. Of, concerned with, or affecting the soul.

4. Of, relating to, consisting of, or having the nature of spirit; not tangible or material. [...]

I'll address these in order:

Definition #1. Relating to or having the nature of spirits or a spirit; supernatural.

For me, the notion of the "supernatural" is logically incoherent. If a god existed, it would be part of the world and would act within it, and the evidence of those acts would allow us to kick-start a scientific study of divinity; just as physical evidence resulting from human acts gives us a means to investigate the nature of and motives for those acts.

While atheism per se does not require this, I personally am a philosophical materialist. That means that I think everything that happens, from the motion of atoms and stars to the thoughts you all are having as you listen to this talk, has a material cause and effect, and is in principle amenable to empirical investigation. (Even if we do not have adequate tools to investigate all those phenomena, at the moment.)

This doesn't imply that we can know or understand everything! The universe is a huge and complex thing, and we are very small and limited investigators. There is more than enough mystery in the natural world to keep us wondering and investigating and discovering throughout the lifetime of the human species. When we think we know the final truth, or even when we think we know that we can't know it, we are -- I'm going to go out on a limb and say "invariably" -- we are invariably wrong. (Except in mathematics!)

In 1876 the physiologist Emil duBois-Reymond said this about "the riddle of matter and force": "We cannot know." 29 years later, Einstein put duBois-Reymond in his place by laying the foundations for relativity and quantum mechanics. Today, though, there are still fundamental thorny questions about physics that we don’t understand, and physics is arguably the simplest and most straightforward of the sciences. When we get to something really complicated, like neurobiology, there's a veritable feast -- a bottomless cornucopia, in fact -- of questions, and answers that lead to further questions.

Definition #2. Of or belonging to a church or religion; sacred.

First I'll address the part about "religion", which means this:

re•li•gion n.

1.

a. Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe.

b. A personal or institutionalized system grounded in such belief and worship.

Atheism is not a religion. Atheists do not believe in a sentient creator. There is no central authority governing atheists. We are all free to evaluate claims and evidence, and sometimes, like the blind men with the elephant, we disagree about the implications. That being the case, the notion of an institution grounded in atheist belief and worship is misguided at best.

(When I originally wrote that paragraph, I used the word “absurd” in place of “misguided”. My partner, reviewing it, said, “You’ve heard of the Chinese communist party, right?” Point taken. But the CCP is not an evidence-based institution. Replacing “god” with a benevolent dictator or a book of blindly accepted political principles does not change the basic nature of a faith-based and un-questioned social institution.)

The second part of this definition of "spiritual" is "sacred". The idea that "nothing is sacred" is not a necessary consequence of disbelief. I take "sacred" to mean: worthy of appreciation, having intrinsic value, evocative of a sense of connection to the larger universe. Beetles in the Amazon whose DNA might contain the key to curing lymphoma; galaxies whose light, having left its source in the earliest aeons of the universe, reach our eyes after billions of years in transit, and hold the key to understanding those early moments; my daughter's delight when she found a new litter of kittens in our garage. These are things that, for me, are "sacred". "Everything is sacred" seems to me a more respectful, and logically equivalent, position, than "nothing is sacred". We don't usually think of, say, a chunk of wood [thumps lectern] as being sacred, but why not? The same rules of reality are in play everywhere, from the nuclei of the atoms in this wood, to the galaxies we saw in the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field video. This strikes me as fundamentally wonderful.

In the sermon entitled "The Gifts of Judaism", which we watched this past spring, Rev Christine Robinson of 1st UU in ABQ pointed out that the idea of "science" only began to make sense under the light of monotheism. If you have a different god for each little principality, the rules of reality can change depending on where you happen to be. If there's only one God, though, you can expect the rules to be consistent everywhere, and then it becomes possible to investigate nature in a systematic way. But once you've got to that point, as I noted above, it's a short step to asking: why assume any entity is out there changing the rules on us? (For example, by performing miracles.)

It is tempting to say that we must take at least one proposition on faith: the idea that the same rules do apply everywhere, have always, and will continue to do so. This is called "uniformitarianism", and it means that when we observe some phenomenon here and now, we can assume that whatever rules govern that phenomenon apply equally across all space and time. But if this principle were false – if the rules did change, or were doing so today – we would be able to observe the consequences of those changes. And so far there does not seem to be any evidence that leads us to doubt that the rules of reality are consistent.

[Note: Since I gave this talk, I realized that I can conceive of scenarios where the rules could change quite dramatically without our noticing. I'm still thinking about these issues.]

Definition #3. Of, concerned with, or affecting the soul.

Daniel Dennett wrote in his book "Freedom Evolves": "Yes, you have a soul, but it's made of millions of tiny robots."

In other words, yes, there is something special about us. We have self-awareness, an ethical sense, the most complex and diverse social structures of any species on Earth. And yet, all that complexity arises from the interactions of a myriad of small, simple systems, following mechanical rules -- specifically, neurons, the cells that comprise our nervous systems. We don't understand how all that works, yet, but we are making progress. I could talk about this particular topic at great length, since it is closely related to my profession and it fascinates me endlessly; but I think it would be better to save that discussion for another time. The Whitney Music Box, that we saw earlier, is another manifestation of this same idea, that simple rules can lead to wonderfully complex behavior. That's another thing that seems profoundly amazing to me.

Definition #4. Of, relating to, consisting of, or having the nature of spirit; not tangible or material. [...]

Some things are intangible and immaterial: ideas. And ideas are central to my sense of spirituality. The work of science is to bring our ideas closer and closer to a precise representation of reality -- even if the goal itself is ultimately un-attainable (and I take no position on whether that's the case). We have the general outlines, today, of the process by which simple universal systems (a primal cloud of hydrogen atoms engendered by the big bang), acted upon by simple universal forces (mainly gravity), produced (in this order) stars; planets; heavy atomic elements; complex organic chemistry; systems that can store, utilize, and reproduce chemical information; the complex life we see around us; primates; human beings; cities; skyscrapers; and space shuttles. The fundamental laws governing our reality constitute the deepest connection we share.

This emerging story tells us, also, that we are composed of the same atoms that are created in the hearts of stars, and that with every breath we stand a good chance of breathing in some atoms that were once breathed by Moses, or some australopithecine, or a dinosaur. And that all humanity shares a common ancestor who lived as recently as 5000 years ago, making us all distant cousins – you, me, GWB and Kim Jong Il.

We are complex and wonderful systems arising from that aeons-long process. As such we also experience emotional and social connections to other people. These are also intangible and immaterial, but they profoundly affect our behavior. One implication of non-belief in gods is that if we value those connections, it is up to us to care for them. Rather than praying for an ailing friend to get better: best to go visit them. Rather than accept earthly injustices in hopes of a perfect existence in the hereafter, better to make this life as just, loving, and meaningful as we can, since it’s the only one we get. There's a lot more to say about that; perhaps in a future service on humanism.

To summarize: when I say "atheist spirituality", I mean an appreciation for the fundamental wonderfulness of the universe.

I'd like to close by reading a poem. It's by Ellen Bass, and its title is "Ode to the God of Atheists".

[I don't want to reproduce the poem here, for fear of violating the author's copyright. It can be found at the Sun.]

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Comment by Joseph Andrew Knapka on September 30, 2009 at 11:22am
Hey John,

Sorry if I was a little defensive there :-)

I think I just can't see my way to using the spirituality term. It seems to confirm a bias that theists latch onto. By saying we atheists are spirtual we allow thesits to say this confirms that we are denying the obvious. To them it becomes obvious that we are not thinking properly and that we are denying what we really are. They think we are simply confused theists.

I can sympathize with that position. Terminology is definitely a problem when talking to theists. Some words are hot buttons that start any dialogue off on the wrong note.

If I can use a term like "spiritual" as a wedge (hah hah, oh the irony) to open a dialog with theists, I'll do that. But I will then use that opening to clarify what I really think and believe.

I have the impression that many religious folks think that non-belief in the supernatural sucks all the wonder and joy out of life. That couldn't be further from the truth, and by elucidating my views on that topic, I hoped to tempt some of my co-congregationists closer to the atheist side of the fence. (A lot of them are already leaning over and picking the flowers.)

It's likely I'll do some further talks at UUCEP about topics of interest to me. (For example, I'm working on a presentation right now entitled "Can Machines Think?", which I'll probably give early next year.) And to all of those discussions I will bring my core beliefs: it's about evidence, about what we can know; not about what what we believe or would like to be true. But that doesn't reduce the sense of wonder and joy that accompanies the journey. The real world is fascinating on its own terms, and there are deep oceans of questions to be asked and answered.

So I guess, yeah, I'm just claiming that we have feelings :-) But those aren't trivial.
Comment by Joseph Andrew Knapka on September 30, 2009 at 10:06am
I'm not claiming that there "must be something supernatural". If you read my post, you would see that I specifically deny this.

The original presentation was directed toward an audience with widely varying levels and kinds of religious belief. There are liberal Christians, pagans, buddhists, Jews, and atheists with varying levels of gnosticism in the UUCEP congregation. I wanted to do a talk laying out the core of my philosophy, without alienating anyone in that audience. That's why I chose the title I did -- calling it "Why All You Religious People Are Just Wrong" would have been a tactical error.

That's not to say I was trying to deceive anyone. Honestly, I wasn't even aware of the exact definition of "spiritual" before I wrote that presentation, and I sort of expected it to have something to do with feelings of connectedness with society and the natural world. But without cherry-picking or just inventing a definition on my own, I didn't find such a definition. I was already committed to the title, though, so I went with the definition I found, and engaged it in the course of my talk.

Also -- as a side issue -- why the dismissive attitude toward "feelings"? They are, after all, the content of our experience. They constitute a major part of our reasons to act and believe as we do. It seems to me that trying to understand our emotions -- even if they're "irrational" -- is a useful exercise. Among other things, it might help us understand and engage those who are opposed to evidence-based reasoning, conclusions, and policy for primarily emotional reasons.

I put "irrational" in scare quotes because we have the emotions we do for good reasons -- we wouldn't have the capacity to emote if that capacity weren't somehow useful to us. It's true that not all characteristics need be adaptive, but emotionality is a hugely important and influential aspect of the human psyche, and if it were maladaptive, I'm pretty sure we wouldn't have it. In other words, there is certainly an underlying evolutionary logic to our inherited catalog of emotional reactions, even if it doesn't always "make sense" in terms of our reasoning about whatever problem is immediately at hand.

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