Book Review: The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality

(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.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • mike

    … that he wishes God did exist …

    Do you wish that God really existed? Depends on which God I guess. I wouldn’t expect to find many commenters here who are bummed that there’s no Yahweh. But, do you wish some kind of god existed? Having only thought about it for a few minutes, I think a god who brought us into existence directly in a heaven would be pretty nice…

  • Christopher

    I don’t doubt that something akin to “spirituallity” can be formed without a deity, but why in the hell would one want such a thing? “Spirituallity” is just a ploy to get individuals to conform to collective thought – a nightmare for anyone that takes his own personal sovreignty seriously! I left religion to get away from that tripe, not to form my own brand of it and market it to the gullible public.

    And as for wishing that a “god” existed – it seems to me like this fellow has a desire to live his life under something else’s control: fuck that! Even if I had reason to believe such a thing called “god” existed my first instinct would be to kill it and leave its throne vacant (better no ruler than an omnipotent one), not look to it for fulfillment…

  • Brad

    Christopher, you seem to assume things like “spirituality” are always nothing more than sociological artifacts that emerge and self-perpetuate in social orders. Why can’t we speak of personalized spirituality? I think I see more in “spirituality” than just a conformist ploy – I see it as a way of being honest with one’s self. It may include many things – like personal connections to other people, or freedom derived from personal sovereignty that supersedes (what some would call) weak human dependencies. Basically, I define spirituality by simple analogy: personality is to person as spirituality is to spirit. (For the record: this is not intended metaphysically.) In this sense, everyone has a spirituality.

  • Virginia

    I do have a friend, ex-Christian, who still wishes “God” exists, but then it is NOT to be the “Christitan God”. This friend of mine and myself, experienced the kind of atheistic spirituality, that is the awe and wonder towards life, the feeling of an true authentic self, nterconnection with the universe, and a sense of serenity and acceptance in which nothing is lacking or refused, a sense of completeness.

    I believe that Comte-Sponville’s book may be “threatening” to Christians in another senses — yes it doesn’t weld a sword to theism or particularly Christianity, but the very idea of having spirituality WITHOUT God is glaringly threatening to the core of Christianity — their belief that spirituality must be with God and only God.

  • http://www.synapticplastic.blogspot.com InTheImageOfDNA

    To second what has already been said – I tend to think of spirituality as a deeply moving or affecting experience. It doesn’t have anything to do with the supernatural. Believers find the reified concepts of deities and spirits to be moving. Atheists don’t because they realize such ideas don’t have substance beyond what people give them. Atheists are certainly these capable of experiencing the same thing, just not incited by religious concepts.

    This business about wanting god to exist is something that I can’t readily fathom. I find the whole concept so multifaceted and contradictory as to be nearly without the meaning that it would require to actually exist. I would find myself asking: “Well, what do you mean by ‘god?’” “Whose idea of ‘god’ are we to use?” “Certainly you don’t mean that cranky character ‘bible-god’ do you?” “Since ‘gods’ as we now know them are simply invisible agency projected onto the world with glossed over anthropomorphic and cultural qualities, is it even possible to formulate a coherent ‘god’ idea since by their very nature are unique to some extent to each and every individual mind?”

    Thanks for the review Ebon. I had looked at this book over on Amazon and had passed over thinking that it might contain too much new-agey stuff for my taste. I’ve revised that judgment now.

  • Virginia

    To InTheImageofDNA: This business about wanting god to exist is something that I can’t readily fathom. I find the whole concept so multifaceted and contradictory as to be nearly without the meaning that it would require to actually exist.

    Well, i read a few articles of how human psyche relates to Christianity, and how human being tries to find fulfillment of their deep yearnings in a God — the “parent” who gives them “unconditional love”, “protection” and “promise”.
    I gain a lot of understanding about this kind of yearning — perhaps I acquire that kind of maturity till today.

  • Virginia

    I have doubts about C-S’s approach — that is the soft tone way, maintaining respect to religion — though I have not read the book. I think our society with it’s long history of religiousity, still find it uncomfortable to confront religion, or at least assertively declare religion with terms that are more negative (but rightly describe what it is, i.e. superstition).

  • Christopher

    brad,

    Christopher, you seem to assume things like “spirituality” are always nothing more than sociological artifacts that emerge and self-perpetuate in social orders.

    Think about it – the one thing that all brands of “spirituality” have in common is the idea that man should be part of something greater than himself. Whether that thing is a religion, nation or generic “universal brotherhood of man” makes no difference: the intent is to get he individual to sense some obligation to those outside himself and his own. That alone makes the idea repulsive to me.

    Why can’t we speak of personalized spirituality?

    Sounds like a contradiction to me.

    I think I see more in “spirituality” than just a conformist ploy – I see it as a way of being honest with one’s self. It may include many things – like personal connections to other people, or freedom derived from personal sovereignty that supersedes (what some would call) weak human dependencies.

    This sounds nice, but it also sounds more like psychology than “spirituality.”

    Basically, I define spirituality by simple analogy: personality is to person as spirituality is to spirit. (For the record: this is not intended metaphysically.) In this sense, everyone has a spirituality.

    That’s an interesting definition, but it’s not one that’s commonly used or understood – I’d say that what you call “spirituality” would not be recognized as such by too many others.

    Besides, this whole idea of “spirit” (whether used in the literal of metaphorical sense of the word) has long since lost any meaning to me – as something only has whatever “spirit” some one else ascribes to it, it only has any meaning to the one ascribing it. When all is said and done, a thing (be it person, place or inanimate object) is simply that: a thing.

  • Stephen

    I really wonder whether it is a good idea to use the word ‘spirituality’ at all. It is an extremely vague word without any generally agreed meaning. I’ve seen it used to refer to aspects of a persons own religion; to religion in general; to belief in any supernatural beings outside of organised religion; to belief in a sort of deist god; to ghosts; to any sort of positive emotion. I’m pretty certain that many people who use it don’t really have any idea what they mean. But I think it more often than not is used to imply a belief in some sort of supernatural being.

    If we want to refer to feelings of awe and wonder, then let’s call them that – unless someone has a better word.

  • ChristineS

    …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.

    While I found the rest of this post interesting, I don’t know if I agree with this statement. I don’t much like the idea of censoring oneself or even changing the way you express a belief on the grounds that someone might misinterpret it or misuse it. I understand the concern, and I think I’ve read a few religious apologists who have referred to this book as a sign that atheists really want to believe, but I don’t think that that threat is worth censoring oneself. We can’t effectively argue if we’re always afraid of how our words might be misconstrued.

    Other than that, an intriguing review– I might pick up this book next time I’m at my local bookstore, if only to flip through it.

  • Mathew Wilder

    On wishing god existed: I agree with Mikhail Bakunin, “The first revolt is against the supreme tyranny of theology, of the phantom of God. As long as we have a master in heaven, we will be slaves on earth.” I can’t remember where he wrote it, but Camus has similar sentiments, writing in effect, if there is a god, he has made a mess of things, and we humans must tear him from his throne.

    I do not wish there to be a god (if that word, ‘god’ even means anything, which I really don’t think it does. Even believers have no idea what they mean when they say ‘god’ or ‘god exists’). God claims all seem to entail belief in an aferlife, and it seems to me – and not just to me – that any sort of other life, especially “eternal life” devalues this life. To quote Camus, (who was almost single-handedly responsible for my deconversion, because of his book The Plague, which crystallized the Problem of Evil for me – which is why I reference him so frequently): “If there is sin against life, it consists in hoping for another life and in eluding the implacable grandeur of this life.”

    On atheist sprituality: I don’t like the word ‘spirituality’ because it has too many overtones of religion and the supernatural. Can atheists (or perhaps one should say, naturalists or humanists, since there are certainly non-theistic supernatural beliefs) experience beauty, love, awe? Of course. I think we should use those words, though, and not ‘spirituality’, which is somewhat loaded. I also agree that it makes atheists seem like they wish for a church, or religion, or “faith-community” in which to belong.

    Also, can someone explain to my why I need to include [title=""] in my [a] tag in order for it not to cut out half my post and make the rest into a hyperlink?

  • Christopher

    Mathew Wilder,

    On wishing god existed: I agree with Mikhail Bakunin, “The first revolt is against the supreme tyranny of theology, of the phantom of God. As long as we have a master in heaven, we will be slaves on earth.” I can’t remember where he wrote it, but Camus has similar sentiments, writing in effect, if there is a god, he has made a mess of things, and we humans must tear him from his throne.

    Damn straight!

  • Virginia

    I don’t quite agree that spirituality is really that undesirable — if in a way we can topple the monopoly of the word by theist / Christians, it is a kind of success — that we atheist can experiece awe, joy, transcending experience, wonder etc. — equal or exceed that of theist/Christians but minus the bigotry God part.

  • http://southernfriedskeptic.blogspot.com SouthernFriedSkeptic

    The feelings of awe and wonder, oneness with the universe, etc…Sagan often just referred to them as numinous feelings. Numinous is often given as a synonym for spiritual, but can also refer to aesthetic sense and feelings of awe or wonder. I don’t think spiritual or numinous are words that should be conceded to the religious. These feelings do exist. I hope everyone here has at some point had that sense, whether gazing at the stars and considering the scale of the universe and one’s own relative size by comparison, or wrapping one’s mind for the first time around the concept of DNA and it’s implications that all life on Earth share just a few molecules as their basis despite its apparent diversity. Even watching a special about stars or or our sun and getting caught up in amazement both at the frightening power and mesmerizing beauty of those burning giants. What better example of mysterium tremendum et fascinas can there be? It is usually a term describing moments of religious experience but boils down to a sense of awe and wonder combined with a sense of fearsome power or overwhelming magnificence. Many religious people consider these experiences as evidence for a divine presence. I am not willing to concede that to them, but cannot deny that feelings like this are sometimes generated in the mind in the presence of psychological triggers. When we have these experiences through secular stimuli, we should not deny the feelings, nor attempt to rename them, but should confront the argument for a divine presence with examples of the same experience without any appeal to the divine.

  • BJ

    I don’t think the word “spirituality” is meaningful or useful outside the context of religious practices. Awe and wonder work just fine for me. Would I not have to buy into the idea of “spirit” to be spiritual? I can be gobsmacked and get an endorphin rush by contemplating the wonders of the universe but I don’t think that makes me spiritual.

  • http://ddjango.blogspot.com ddjango

    I am an atheist. And I think that anyone who needs to say “fuck god” or “fuck religion” or “fuck spirituality” may be in a great deal of pain. Rage and rigidity only drive people away, as religion has driven me away.

    “Spiritual”, like “liberal” or “progressive” or “terrorism”, has become another battered word with a thousand interpretations.

    What many of my fellow atheists fail to see is that the non-existence of god does not mean that the position is vacant for a human to fill. If anyone doubts that, I suggest going down to the interstate, stepping in front of a speeding 18-wheeler, and will it to stop. Tell me how it works for you.

    I loved Comte-Sponville’s book.

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    What many of my fellow atheists fail to see is that the non-existence of god does not mean that the position is vacant for a human to fill.

    Huh? Is there any evidence that any atheist here or elsewhere thinks they can will a truck to stop?

  • Polly

    @Matthew Wilder,

    Also, can someone explain to my why I need to include [title=""] in my [a] tag in order for it not to cut out half my post and make the rest into a hyperlink?

    I’m not sure what you’re trying to do. But, if it’s a hyperlink, then I use

    some label”

    Ignore all the quotation marks> I just needed to add something so that my example wouldn’t get posted as a hyperlink to Blah.

    HTH

  • Polly

    Aw man, it screwed it up. It didn’t look like that in the preview pane.

    Oh well. Suffice it to say, I never need to use title.

    Just a href = http:\blahblah.htm in angled brackets, and then a label and then open another angle bracket with /a and then close bracket.

  • bbk

    I’m just reading the book now, looking for a positive portrayal of spirituality, but I can’t help getting a sense of sophistry here. There is just too much anecdote, argument towards authority, and otherwise unsubstantiated claims that string together much of Comte-Sponville’s argument. Maybe I’m just not intelligent enough to figure out the deeper meaning of the author’s point, but some of the sections seem entirely vapid.

  • http://www.askvijay.com/Definition-of-Spirituality/ Vijay Kumar Jain

    True… Spirituality is path travelling which human beings reached their true inner self… their soul atman… the spirit within! Realizing self… realizing god one finally reached stage of enlightenment (termed kaivalya jnana in Hinduism) and finally salvation (moksha)!

    God Almighty could only be reached via path of spirituality… never religion… path of rituals! Path of spirituality was best travelled following teachings contained in sacred Bhagavad Gita of Hinduism… foremost of all sacred scriptures existing on mother earth!

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    I approved the previous comment just for amusement, if anyone was wondering.