Book Review: The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality by Andre Comte-Sponville

I recently finished Andre Comte-Sponville‘s The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality.

This book came out last year and it is now out in paperback. If you haven’t read it yet, it’s definitely worth picking up a copy. I finished it over the course of a few lunches and found it to be inspiring and enjoyable.

As a rule, I rarely write anything in books. (Somehow, I feel like I’m defacing the book if I write anything in the margins.) However, reading through this essay, I was underlining/highlighting all over the place and picked up useful conversation topics every page or two.

Several parts of the book stood out to me.

The author talks about how atheists try to make up for religious occasions they must let go of when losing their faith. Sometimes it works (atheist weddings, anyone?) — other times, we fail. Like when we hold atheist funerals:

… But where death is concerned? Technically, of course, it is possible for funerals to be a purely civil affair; burials and cremations per se do not require religion. A moment of silence and contemplation could suffice. Silence and tears could suffice. Yet it must be admitted that they rarely do; a nonreligious funeral almost always seems flat, artificial and impoverished — like a poor copy of the original…

(Did he just compare us to cheesy Christian media?)

There was this excellent (lack of) connection between religion and morality:

… A good deed is not good because God commanded me to do it (in which case it would have been good for Abraham to slit his son’s throat); on the contrary, it is because an action is good that it is possible to believe God commanded it. Rather than religion being the basis for morals, morals are now the basis for religion…

The optimism is the kind you never see in atheist books. Like in this description of why anyone should embrace Humanism — it’s not the “life of nothingness” some people make it out to be:

No one can deny that much about the human condition is appalling. But this is no reason to stop loving life — just the opposite! All trips end eventually. Is that any reason to renounce undertaking on and enjoying it? You only live once. Is that any reason to spoil the single life you do have?… it is a powerful reason to go on paying the utmost attention to life, peace, justice… and our children. Life is all the more precious for being rare and fragile. Justice and peace are all the more necessary, all the more urgent, because nothing can guarantee their ultimate victory. Humanity is all the more moving for being alone, courageous and loving…

What about that Humanism, anyway?

A religion of man? Definitely not. What a sorry god man would make! Humanism is not a religion; it is an ethics (which includes our responsibilities toward other animal species). Man is not our God; he is our neighbor. Humanity is not our church; it is our demand…

After making the case for atheism, the author moves on to talk about “atheist spirituality.”

It’s this section where the author gets overly-philosophical. It wasn’t my favorite part of the book, but in short, Comte-Sponville says there is an atheist spirituality that is independent from religion.

It’s not a dealbreaker, though.

The book is not anti-theist (the author even mentions how he wishes there was a God — alas, there’s no good reason to believe that) and, in many ways, it gives plenty of credit (perhaps too much) to religion for what it has done for the world.

It’s an easy-to-read book, filled with exuberant passages, that stands in stark contrast to other writings on the subject which rip down anything and everything connected to religion.

In case you’re interested, fellow blogger Ebonmuse also wrote a review of this book recently.

(This review was solicited by a publisher; however, the opinions expressed are my own.)

  • Kate

    Thanks for posting this!!! I received a copy two days ago from a friend. I, also, have been compulsively underlining and highlighting passages all over the place – however, that is my nature so I’m not sure it’s distinct to this book. BUT (like when I read your book) I keep thinking, “Yes, yes!!! That’s just how I feel, only more eloquently stated!” :)

    And too funny…you quoted the passages that I also highlighted. :)

  • TheDeadEye

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    I haven’t read the book, so I’m at a loss exactly which occasions an atheist would need to let go of… Almost all of the popular religious holidays have been replaced by better secular versions (Christmas and Easter for example). And I doubt many atheists will miss Good Friday and Ash Wednesday, lol.

    And concerning weddings and funerals, the loss of a minister and any mention of god or heaven isn’t exactly a big deal. I hate long boring religious weddings anyway. :P

  • http://www.otmatheist.com hoverFrog

    How is an atheist (or humanist) funeral a failure? My mother died a few years ago and wanted a humanist service. Not believing in any sort of afterlife or god she, and her children, wanted a service free from the paraphernalia and ridiculous trappings of heaven that are common for traditional funerals. She wanted a way to say goodbye and to celebrate her life, not false promises of meeting in some wispy spirit realm.

    Sadly we asked a vicar to preside over the service and he highjacked it and preached directly against our wishes.

    My father in law died 6 months ago and this time we got a lovely woman to perform the service. She was funny and interesting and talked about Erwin in a way that was engaging and honest. I say honest because that was very important to us. My children obviously missed their grandad and wanted some sort of explanation for death. The recounting of a full life from childhood in East German, a brief stint in the Army during WWII, POW in Texas and then England and jobs in bomb disposal and the electricity board as well as his marriage and children, homes and hobbies, everything. It all helped them to feel a connection to him again so that they could say goodbye without any lingering worries about hell or ghost hood.

    It was a funeral with stories and tears but also with laughter and fond memories to remind us about the best of a man that we’d never see again. Far from being “flat, artificial and impoverished” it was a clear superior to the false hopes of a religious ceremony while still allowing those who wished to cling to that hope.

    You could almost call it spiritual.

  • J Myers

    Daylight Atheism just posted a review of this book as well.

  • http://exploringourmatrix.blogspot.com/ James McGrath

    I also did a review comparing this book with some by the “new atheists”. I think that, precisely because Comte-Sponville doesn’t feel the need to deny that religion has ever contributed anything positive to the world, it makes his vision all the more powerful.

  • J Myers

    Ummm…. guess I’ll read your entire post before I comment next time.

  • sc0tt

    a nonreligious funeral almost always seems flat, artificial and impoverished — like a poor copy of the original…

    Contrast a non-religious funeral with a religious ceremony where virtually no one in attendance is religious.

    This happened with my wife’s grandfather; there were about 20 family members and friends, none of them ever went to church but it was a small town and they needed a speaker and the funeral home owner asked the local preacher to do the service. He said some nice things about grandpa (though they didn’t know each other) and then he preached at us for a half an hour, even “guaranteeing” that heaven was ours for the asking. I’ll take flat and artificial over annoying, but I’d rather have a slideshow and buffet or something.

  • stephanie

    I need to pick up this book, but it sounds like it’s pretty much up my alley.
    I disagree about atheist funerals though. My good friend died last year, and the officiant was wonderful. She recounted my friend’s life with anecdotes many of us had contributed and then opened the podium to anyone assembled who wanted to contribute. People slowly filed up and added touching tributes of their own which I found very cathartic.
    I think the difference is that while both (should) celebrate a life lived, a proper atheist funeral then says goodbye, while a most religious funerals can’t because of that belief in an afterlife. Personally, I think it’s healthier that people move on after rather than holding on to empty promises.

  • David D.G.

    Regarding funerals and the excessive intrusion of preaching into them, I wrote about that in a small blog here: http://www.atheistnexus.org/profiles/blog/show?id=2182797%3ABlogPost%3A56416, if anyone is interested. (Sorry, I don’t know how to properly make a short link here.)

    I agree, there is no need to invoke religion or even overt spirituality in a funeral service; a memorial should be about the person for whom others have gathered to mourn (not about spurious “afterlife insurance”), and there is no reason that a secular service can’t deliver exactly that.

    ~David D.G.

  • Mat Wilder

    I don’t get why anyone would wish there was a god. First, the idea that god entails an afterlife is false. Second, if there were an afterlife, it would be dreadfully boring. Given infinite time, we would almost certainly at some point, wish (for long periods) that we did not exist. A real afterlife would completely de-value this life.

    I also don’t think we lose anything by our becoming atheists. I abhor ceremony and ritual, and am glad it is not part of my life. I have no desire for funerals or weddings or whatever. If you want to be with friends or have a party, do so! You don’t need some excuse stolen from religion, just without the religious beliefs attached, to do so.

    I think of Unitarian Universalists here. They have all the form and appearance of a church, but without the substance of beliefs. I just don’t get it. Why bother with services and rituals that are basically religious, just without supernaturalism?

    That is what I, and I think many other atheists, are trying to get away from. Pining after the trappings of religion seems to give validity to the common religious criticism that atheists need religion.

    I dislike the term “spirituality” because of its supernatural connotations, and furthermore, I think, like Dawkins and Sagan, science can fill our lives with more wonder than religion ever could. No need for anything more than that.

  • Kate

    I think of Unitarian Universalists here. They have all the form and appearance of a church, but without the substance of beliefs. I just don’t get it. Why bother with services and rituals that are basically religious, just without supernaturalism?

    Community – the opportunity to gather with others who share a desire for rational thought. I wish I’d been brought there as a kid…I didn’t get as much of an education ABOUT religions from just my agnostic parents. UU kicks asss.

  • Mat Wilder

    Community – the opportunity to gather with others who share a desire for rational thought. I wish I’d been brought there as a kid…I didn’t get as much of an education ABOUT religions from just my agnostic parents. UU kicks asss.

    But why the ritual and ceremony? You can have community without those. Why not just hang out and drink coffee and chat? Or have a book club, or a lecture series? Why mimic religion, with “ministers” and naming-rituals, etc? It’s like all the superstitious practices, without the superstitious beliefs.

    The rituals and ceremonies are part-and-parcel of religion. They’re not just for show, but they supposedly achieve something. Like Communion is eating Jesus, or baptism is cleansing from sin. It seems to me that, for example, everyone sitting facing the same direction listening to someone pontificate decreases the likelihood of individual thought, since the point of things like that is to make you part of the herd. You listen and almost get hypnotized, and by following the actions, you become more enmeshed. Yuck!

  • Kate

    But why the ritual and ceremony? You can have community without those. Why not just hang out and drink coffee and chat? Or have a book club, or a lecture series? Why mimic religion, with “ministers” and naming-rituals, etc? It’s like all the superstitious practices, without the superstitious beliefs.

    I think for a lot of people, it’s comforting to have that ritual only with the “religion” removed. There are groups within ours, like a humanist group, and others that do philosophical book clubs, etc. There are groups that do coffee and attend lectures and honestly, it is almost like a lecture series some days – the “sermons” are so diverse and thought-provoking.

    I did an atheist group for awhile. There were about 5 of us. I like the larger UU community, even though we all may *gasp* sit and face the same direction for one hour on Sundays. Here’s a wild thought…I sit in a large room and face the same direction when I attend our departmental colloquia at Duke University all the time. Do I get “indoctrinated”? Hardly.

    So yes, I sit with a bunch of people and we all face a speaker. But then at coffee hour afterward I can join conversations with the Ph.D. people about recent fMRI studies of interest or politics, or anything. I can walk up to the minister and tell him he’s full of crap, should I so please. And he LIKES that sort of stuff. He likes questions and thoughts and comments and challenges.

    It’s like the groups you described, only larger in number. And as for ritual…we may light a chalice, but no one’s sitting there thinking “WOW MAGIC IS HAPPENING LOLZ”. It’s just a more organized way of doing things. And between the African drum group one week, the local Rabbi chanting Jewish prayer the next week, the choir another week, the guest ministers almost twice a month…I truly never know what I’m going to get when I show up on Sunday mornings.

    No one’s forcing you to like UU. Really – I could care less if you ever show any interest in us, or ever visit. But really – to be honest, we’re not someone you need to attack. We’re a positive force in the world. Your energy is better spent attacking a Southern Baptist church.

  • http://ddjango.blogspot.com ddjango

    “Ritual” does not equal religion. Sitting around gabbing while drinking wine is called “partying”. Thank you, Kate.

    PZ: you need to listen and read a LOT of things before you comment. You might learn something.


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