(Editor’s Note: The following review was solicited and is written in accordance with this site’s policy for such reviews.)
Summary: A quiet, thoughtful, non-polemical book. At times Comte-Sponville comes close to conceding more than he should, but his positive evocation of atheism is a much-needed effort and may be appealing to theists grappling with the first stirrings of deconversion.
Andre Comte-Sponville’s The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality is a unique book. Though written by an unabashed atheist, it shows considerable sympathy for religion. It also expresses a view of spirituality that I suspect many atheists will find strange, though I personally see much to recommend in it. Comte-Sponville describes himself as a “Christian atheist”, which sounds paradoxical but which he explains is meant as a parallel to “atheistic Jew”. Like secular Jews, he sees himself as coming from a particular religious heritage, one in which he no longer believes but which nevertheless shapes his cultural associations and his outlook on life.
The book has three sections, of which the first is titled “Can We Do Without Religion?” In both the individual and the societal case, the author asserts, the answer is an obvious yes. What we cannot do without, he explains, are communion and fidelity: in order, our sense of connection to others and our moral obligations toward them, and our sense of connection with the past and our respect for the traditions and institutions that have come down to us. I appreciated that he goes to great lengths to explain why an atheist can be a moral person, and that in fact there is no reason why an atheist would not be.
The second section, “Does God Exist?”, considers and refutes several classical arguments for the existence of God, and provides several reasons to believe the opposite. Though Comte-Sponville doesn’t go for the jugular, he presents these arguments fairly and competently. He says that these arguments “by no means constitute a proof of God’s nonexistence” (p.131), but that he personally finds them convincing, and insists “on the right to express them publicly and submit them to others for discussion, as is only natural” (p.132).
The final section, “Can There Be An Atheist Spirituality?” will probably be the most controversial among atheists. Comte-Sponville argues that the answer to the title question is yes, there can be a genuine spirituality without belief in God. He describes the characteristics of mystical, transcendent experience – the sense of oceanic bliss, of interconnection with the universe, and a sense of serenity and acceptance in which nothing is lacking or refused – and says that there is nothing necessarily supernatural about any of them, and that atheists, including himself, can and do have these experiences. “All religions involve spirituality… but all forms of spirituality are not religious” (p.136).
There were a few things I didn’t like about this book. One is that Comte-Sponville, at times, gives religion too much credit. For instance, he says that “there are more saintly people among believers than among atheists” (p.22), and that he wishes God did exist (p.124). In most cases, he goes on to qualify these statements with fuller explanations (for instance, he says the fact that God fulfills so many human longings is good reason to be skeptical, not to believe), but the fact remains that these passages are likely to be quoted by religious apologists as “evidence” that even atheists endorse some of their claims. It would have been better if he had worded these passages in ways not as susceptible to misinterpretation.
That said, I did like this book’s defense of atheist spirituality. I’ve said myself that atheism is compatible with a genuine sense of spirituality, one that recognizes the awe and wonder of life and the mystery of existence without the baggage of supernaturalism. Like Comte-Sponville, I believe that transcendent moments of joy are not the property of religion, but the common trust of humanity.
The other good thing about this book was its approachable, open tone. Comte-Sponville defends atheism firmly, but gently. At times, as I said, I found him almost too conciliatory; but I think a believer would find this book very non-threatening, and might be led to read it and gain a better understanding of the atheist viewpoint. For stirring a rousing sense of atheist pride, or issuing a call to arms against the dangers of fundamentalism, this isn’t the book you want. But for believers feeling the first stirrings of deconversion and seeking a gentle introduction to atheism, or for new atheists who want to know if atheism can provide the positive things they’re used to getting from religion, it just may be the right book for the job.