Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Living life as a spiritual atheist


One of things I thank my father for is introducing me to the beauty and wonder of nature. I remember, as a young boy, accompanying my father to his work on some weekends, where he showed me the many gadgets and instruments in his lab. To a young and enquiring mind, the visits to this magical room of test tubes, centrifuges, and colourful chemicals was awe inspiring and amazing. It was here where I was shown the counter-intuitive properties of mercury, the metallic liquid in which metal balls would float, and how two inert metals, when mixed together in powder form, would suddenly burst into flame.

But the instrument that was my favourite was a small glass vacuum chamber. My father, who was always willing entertain his kids with the lab equipment, would fill the chamber half-way with water, seal it, and then turn on the vacuum pump. As the air was sucked out of the chamber, the water inside, to my utter amazement, started to boil – at room temperature! And I asked my dad: why is this boiling without any heat?

When I’ve come across mystery, I’ve always asked such questions. How do clouds form? What is lightning? Why are plants green? Where did we come from? These questions have always flowed out of me, like an excited bubbling brook, from the intense wonder that I have always had regarding the universe and our place in it. I guess one of the reasons why I eventually left religion is that the answers it provided to some of these questions seemed somehow weak and unsatisfying, always wrapped up in mystery and riddles, forever out of reach of human intellect. And the answers that science provided – through fields such as physics, chemistry and biology – have always instilled a sense of empowerment within me, a sense that I could, as a simple human being, grasp – to some extent – the world around me. As I’ve written before, the beauty of nature is awesome, and a source of great inspiration, but understanding how nature works has been, for me at least, even more incredible.

Could I be so brave as to label this wondrous sense of nature, together with the tool of my understanding – science – as a form of spirituality?

How can an atheist be spiritual, you may ask?

Well, I would reply with a question: does a person have to believe in the supernatural to be spiritual?

Carl Sagan, who was an atheist as well as a scientist, wrote in his book, The Demon-Haunted World (page 32):

Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in the immensity of light years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or of acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Lurther King Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.

As an individual who has always found meaning in understanding, empowerment through knowledge, and excitement in detail – this is how I feel. Finding out how nature works has been incredibly enriching for me. And as my father, standing over that vacuum chamber, began to tell me the story of water molecules and how they react under different pressures, I started my journey to the realisation that for me, I don’t need the supernatural or a form of mysticism to provide me with meaning in life or a sense of spirituality. As the cartoon above illustrates, nature is all I need, and nature is enough.

15 comments:

CyberKitten said...

Excellent post! *Loved* the cartoon too...

Jason Hughes said...

LOL! The cartoon was great!

Your words beautifully captured what it means to be a "spiritual atheist," insomuch as such a thing can be said to exist... :D

Kevin Parry said...

Hi CyberKitten and Jason

Thanks for your comments.

The cartoon is from Atheist Cartoons, at http://www.atheistcartoons.com/ Some good stuff there.

All the best
Kevin

CyberKitten said...

KP asked: Could I be so brave as to label this wondrous sense of nature, together with the tool of my understanding – science – as a form of spirituality?

Its a good a word as any.

KP asked: How can an atheist be spiritual, you may ask?

That would depend how you defined spirituality of course.... [grin] BTW I've just started reading 'Spirituality for the skeptic' by Robert Solomon which you might find interesting.

KP asked: Well, I would reply with a question: does a person have to believe in the supernatural to be spiritual?

No. Like you I am fascinated by all things natural (see my post today). Sunsets, waves breaking against the shore, thunderstorms, pine forests and much else besides take my breath away and leave me feeling energised and somehow more complete, more centred, more a whole person. If that's the spirituality you're talking about then count me in [grin]

Anonymous said...

Kevin,

You do an excellent job of relating your perspective through your words. Thank you for using this post to clarify your viewpoint on this matter; it appears to be shared by others as well.

I agree with Cyberkitten's statement that an athiest can be spiritual, but that it depends on how one defines "spirituality." Sagan seems to equate it with emotion or, as worded in the quote you shared, a "soaring feeling." This is certainly a different (or at least narrower) definition of spirituality than a religious person would hold, so I think it is important to note that when athiests say they are spiritual, they don't mean the same thing that people of faith mean when they use the term.

I also wonder if you might clarify something you shared in this post (since I am not a longtime reader of this blog and may have missed some past context): you said, "I guess one of the reasons why I eventually left religion is that the answers it provided to some of these questions seemed somehow weak and unsatisfying, always wrapped up in mystery and riddles, forever out of reach of human intellect. And the answers that science provided – through fields such as physics, chemistry and biology – have always instilled a sense of empowerment within me, a sense that I could, as a simple human being, grasp – to some extent – the world around me."

This comment on its own seems to unnecessarily segregate faith in God from reliance on accurate science. But, if one views God as the creator of the laws of science (conceding that He miraculously transcends these laws on occasion), wouldn't God then have in fact used science to provide the answers you were looking for? In other words, why does the fact that science satisfies some of your curiousity about the natural world mean that there is no God?

phil

Kevin Parry said...

Hi Phil

First, I want to apologise – I accidentally deleted your comment when I tried to delete a draft version of mine. I’ve reposted yours, and my response is below. I hope I do justice to the points you have raised.

Phil wrote:
In other words, why does the fact that science satisfies some of your curiousity about the natural world mean that there is no God?

I’m not arguing that God doesn’t exist, just that God is not a good explanation for natural phenomena. Throughout history, supernatural gods were invoked to explain things that we didn’t understand, from rain, lightning, to even disease and death. As we have discovered natural explanations for these phenomena, all types of gods has been pushed further and further into obscurity. I don’t need to invoke the supernatural to explain why water boils at room temperature in a vacuum, for example. Science provides natural answers, and if we already have a natural explanation to why something works, why add God?

What is also frustrating about using God as an explanation is that it doesn’t satisfy curiosity. If we ask specific questions about why things in the natural world are as they are, invoking God as an answer leaves us pondering, unsuccessfully, God’s motives for why he created things the way he did. We are left with no answers, because many of God’s motives remain a mystery.

But, if one views God as the creator of the laws of science (conceding that He miraculously transcends these laws on occasion), wouldn't God then have in fact used science to provide the answers you were looking for?

I acknowledge your point here, that it is possible that God has used science to provide us with understanding, and that God, although he is not responsible for everyday events, created the universe in which these events occur. But this line of thinking assumes that there is a God to begin with, and that he was the creator of the universe. These are assumptions that I don’t hold. I think the atheist and theist are on equal ground when it comes to the beginning of the universe, we just don’t know how the universe came to be, but it’s only the theist who (again) invokes a god as the cause. There are a whole lot of possible causes to how the universe could have come about. At present, we just don’t know for sure, so as an atheist, I’m content to say: “I don’t know”, until further information is in.

It is also telling observation that apologists spend much time arguing for God from areas of knowledge where we don’t yet have all the answers. We don’t yet know how the universe came to be; it must be God, then, argues the apologist. We don’t yet know what consciousness is; that proves we have a soul, argues the apologist. We don’t know how the first life formed on earth; thus a intelligent creator must have been responsible, argues the apologist. It seems as if faith in God’s existence depends in part on human ignorance.

Thanks for your comments.

All the best
Kevin

Anonymous said...

Kevin, you answered my question precisely. Thanks for clarifying your viewpoint. Also, in your response, you asked a question to which I will provide at least my personal perspective.

You asked, "Science provides natural answers, and if we already have a natural explanation to why something works, why add God?" In my view, one reason (perhaps among several) that God would still be relevant is that His purposes are beyond the realm of simply answering questions to satisfy our questions about the natural world. I was not looking for answers to these types of questions when Christ drew me to Him in faith, but now that my faith is in Him, I do see confirmation of His hand within the natural world. The empiricist mindset of this era would rather start with an individual's observance of natural phenomena and attempt to uncover God by eliminating all other possibiities, but as you said, we will never be able to arrive at God through that method alone because there will always be unknowns (and therefore, the possibility of explanations other than the existence of God). The only way that we could eliminate all other theoretical explanations for natural phenomena is if we were omniscient. So, while I believe the reality of God can be discerned from creation (Rom. 1:20), God has also specifically revealed Himself by pursuing an active relationship with humanity. God does not leave it up to us to "figure Him out" on our own, because on our own, we will reject Him and seek another explanation.

I understand this is not necessarily an apologetic viewpoint, and yourself and probably many readers of this site will disagree with it. That's okay. It is not my intention here to convince anyone of my viewpoint through argument, but simply to give a personal answer to your question through the eyes of faith. Thanks again for your response to my question.

phil

CyberKitten said...

phil said: It is not my intention here to convince anyone of my viewpoint through argument....

I think *that* would be a very tall order.... [grin]

P3T3RK3Y5 said...

loved this post.

loved the Sagan quote too.

i surely experience this as well when reading e.g. Brian Greene's book 'The Elegant Universe'.

interestingly, from what I understand, Brian is trying to get to the truth of God, not through the truth of any particular religion - but through the truth of science. i like this idea.

Laughing Boy said...

How can an atheist be spiritual, you may ask?

Atheists can be spiritual. It's materialists that, by definition, can't be spiritual—unless they're also post-modern, in which case definitions aren't meaningful. :-)

CyberKitten said...

LB said: Atheists can be spiritual. It's materialists that, by definition, can't be spiritual—unless they're also post-modern, in which case definitions aren't meaningful. :-)

That really depends on what you mean by 'spiritual'. I certainly regard myself as a materialist - and yet I feel a sense of awe when I look up into space and see the Milky Way... Is that a 'spiritual experience'?

Laughing Boy said...

...is that a 'spiritual experience'

By 'spiritual' I mean "of, relating to, consisting of, or affecting the spirit" By 'spirit' I mean an incorporeal substance. Materialists don't believe in incorporeal substances so it follows that they don't believe in spiritual experiences in that sense.

I acknowledge that the word is commonly (and perhaps properly) used in a broader sense, e.g. team spirit, smells like teen spirit, etc.

CyberKitten said...

LB said: By 'spiritual' I mean "of, relating to, consisting of, or affecting the spirit" By 'spirit' I mean an incorporeal substance. Materialists don't believe in incorporeal substances so it follows that they don't believe in spiritual experiences in that sense.

Then by that definition Materialists (including myself) cannot have spiritual experiences.

I guess that I shall just have to continue to have awesome experiences instead [grin]

Laughing Boy said...

:-)

Please do!

CyberKitten said...

I'm actually dipping into a book called 'Sirituality for the skeptic' ATM. I'm sure you'll be interested when I do a review of it.