Is It A Waste Of Time For Atheists To Care About Spirituality?

Badger3K objects to my suggestion that rationalists should “take back” spirituality from the peddlers of woo and faith:

Spirituality has always been associated with religion, superstition, and woo (including the new age bs). There has never been anything to “take back” – it was always their word to begin with. If you feel awe, say it was “awesome”, or any of a hundred other words. Why bother with a vacuous word such as that?
If someone (anyone) could get the word to mean something concrete, perhaps then we might have a starting point, but throwing more irons into the fire into a turf fight over such a gobbledygook word…don’t we have better things to do?

My point is that the things people talk about as “spiritual” are durable and cross-culturally present parts of the human psyche. It is not a waste of time for serious ethically interested people to consider ways to help people fulfill those basic longings in ways that are rational.

Just because for a long time in human history people have bound up their attempts to fulfill these parts of their nature with a lot with a lot of woo, superstition, authoritarianism, dogma, and gobbledygook does not mean that’s the only way to take seriously all the potentially valuable longings, practices, and value judgments associated with spirituality in people’s minds.  Spirituality is a broad category for organizing all these desirable things.  It is a big enough concept, one people are emotionally committed to because it has absorbed so many good things they long for, that it is worth fighting over as a general concept and rubric for understanding all these feelings and practices that they are not likely to abandon.    To relate to them we should indeed fight for the basic concept that what they are calling “spiritual” is a set of real experiences that can be affirmed but that there is nothing supernatural or superstitious that needs to be involved for them to be explained or to be meaningful.

These are significant parts of human nature. They can have excellent, richly rewarding expressions. They can also connect us to certain kinds of (non-supernatural, non-superstitious, non-woo, non-faith-based) actual truths and actual means to happiness.  And when the vast majority of human beings crave some kind of spiritual experience, truth, meaning, and connection to each other and to things larger than themselves, if atheists ignore> this and say we “have better things to do” we are essentially consigning the majority of people to only irrationalistic, faith-based, woo-prone, superstitious, authoritarian institutions and scam artists as their only recourses to meet needs they feel deeply.

Too many people I talk to balk at atheism because they reflexively assume and have been told that in atheism precludes holding onto the parts of themselves that long for meaning, connectedness, passion, awe, wonder, gratitude, transcendence, sacredness, ritual, and the numinous. The atheists and the rationalists give them no practices for unifying and harnessing all these feelings and related value judgments about the world.

And so they judge that if these desires are natural, good, healthy, life-enhancing, and in some way truth-conducive (and those feelings and some practices based on them, in fact, are) and if atheism has no place to acknowledge any of this but only to ignorantly and contemptuously dismiss it all crassly as gobbledygook, then they conclude (falsely) that atheism is not really more truthful overall than more purportedly spiritual outlooks on things.

And they are more inclined to give credit to the faith and woo peddlers who at least seem to understand that they have spiritual needs and longings.  (And this is even worse when they come across morally relativist or morally anti-realist atheists who make them conclude that they need faith for morality too and judge that the trade off of a few implausible beliefs is a small price for all these practical gains!)  Of course, some people just turn to Buddhism, where atheism and spiritual practices have long shown themselves to be compatible.

Not everything true and valuable can be quantified. Atheists should not succumb to scientism. We should not expect human beings to embrace rationalism if it means cutting off all recognition of truly valuable “spiritual” aspects of themselves and precludes them from adopting deliberate practices which help them cultivate this side of them.

If we want Christianity, Islam, Oprah, and all the other charlatans selling bullshit as spirituality to lose their influence, we need rationalistic accounts of the true causes and value of spiritual experiences and practices and ideologies consistent with good philosophy and science for cultivating that spirituality. We need this almost as much as we need to promulgate the vast and rich amount of insight we already have into secular means for appreciating moral truths and practicing effective ethics.

No valuable part of human nature should be ceded to irrationalism, faith, dogma, woo, authoritarianism, or superstition. I don’t care how long these things have dominated a part of the human spirit, they do not deserve any part of it.

Now, maybe the only point you are driving at Badger3K is that we “have too many irons in the fire already to start another turf war,” as you put it.  But as far as I am concerned, we should be on offense everywhere we can, we should be building constructive atheist accounts of all the parts of people’s lives that they care about and presently feel dependent on religion for.  I say ceding any turf only means losing that part of the struggle.  And to cede as large a part of human experience as “spirituality” to faith and to woo is to just surrender in one of the primary battles.

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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