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The Book of Atheist Spirituality Paperback – 11 Sep 2009
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"Comte-Sponville presents big ideas with masterful and witty clarity. For those who prefer Kant to cant, this refreshing little book is perfect." (Publisher's Weekly (starred review))
Can we do without religion? Can we have ethics without God? Is there such thing as 'atheistic spirituality'? In this powerful book, the internationally bestselling author Andre Comte-Sponville presents a philosophical exploration of atheism - and reaches startling conclusions. Atheists, Comte-Sponville argues, are no less interested in a spiritual life than religious believers. But by allowing the concept of spirituality to become intertwined with religion and dogma, humanity has lost touch with the nature of a true spiritual existence. Using rigorous, reasoned arguments and clear, concise, and often humorous prose Comte-Sponville draws on both Eastern and Western philosophical traditions to propose the atheistic alternative to religion, based on the human need to connect to each other and to the universe. In doing so, he offers a convincing treatise on a new form of spiritual life.See all Product description
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The first of the book's three chapters ends with a fascinating and subtle disquisition on Faith (which is not Knowledge), Hope (which implies rejection of what there is) and Charity or Love (which is truly the greatest and most imperishable of these three).
In the second chapter Comte-Sponville explains why he does not believe that God exists (even though a belief in a powerful, just, loving and merciful God would fulfil his own `deepest longings'). He does not claim to KNOW that God does not exist - nobody, he says, can really KNOW whether God exists or not: Faith or Conviction cannot be Knowledge. But he disclaims the title of agnostic: agnostics will say that their reasoning does not allow them to come down on one side or another. Our author, however, is clear that his reasoning has led him to the BELIEF (which he does not claim to be KNOWLEDGE) that God does not exist.
Comte-Sponville then proceeds to examine many of the traditional arguments for the existence of God and explains why he finds them logically flawed. Since some of these arguments and their refutations are philosophically quite technical, this chapter is of necessity a little more technical than the first chapter. But some of his refutations are wonderfully eloquent and he coins many neat aphorisms (all stylishly translated by Nancy Huston). Arguments, especially anthropomorphic ones, like God deliberately `concealing himself', are shown to be absurdly lacking in credibility. But if, on the other hand, we define God as being stripped of all qualities we might attribute to Him (the via negativa), then God is so inconceivable that nothing justifies any conceptions we may form of Him.
In his third, frequently rhapsodic chapter Comte-Sponville shows that you can be an atheist and still acknowledge and experience the spiritual side of life. For him it is primarily rooted in the sense of wonder at the world (he refers to it as the All or the Absolute) in which we have our being; in allowing us to experience the silence of contemplation, the silence of sensation, the silence of reality. The sense of union with the All can be experienced whether you believe in God or not. He beautifully describes one such mystical experience in his own life, and he quotes many descriptions by other people from East and West. This is a very demanding concept of the spiritual life, described by a handful of exceptional thinkers and achieved, if at all, only rarely by the ordinary person.
If I said at the beginning that I identify only with his first two chapters, it is because I miss in this third chapter a recognition of a much less rarefied form of the spiritual life, which I see in the character of personal relationships, of ethical values and of aesthetic experiences, none of which I would call mystical, but which take you out of yourself into a world of deeper meaning. This, too, can be experienced whether you believe in God or not. But Comte-Sponville specifically says that morals as such or beauty as such have nothing to do with the spiritual life as such; for him, if I understand him aright, the spiritual life is the experience and acceptance of an All in which relative and subjective concepts like good and evil, beauty and ugliness, justice and injustice, past and future have no meaning. In the world in which we live, these opposites, relative as they are, exist and need to be acknowledged and acted upon to the best of our lights - but that, for Comte-Sponville, has nothing to do with what he considers to be spirituality.
The second part of the book details rebuttals to the classical arguments for the existence of God. These include the Ontological argument, the Problem of Evil and Pascal's Wager. Nothing too much new here. He does offer some interesting arguments to counter 'free will' suggesting that if 'concealment' of God (we don't get absolute proof) is a requirement to free will, then we are freer than God - for He may be concealed to us; but we are not to him. We are even freer than the prophets and the believers. This seems odd and turns 'free will' on its head. He does a reasonable job of explaining the other rebuttals but I think there are simpler and clearer explanations available in something like Russell's "Why I am not Christian".
The third part of the book deals with the central premise of the book: Atheist Spirituality. This is where things get problematic. What I think he is trying to say here is that the feelings of mysticism, serenity and wonder are all very possible for the atheist. But unless you live in some Christian bubble that's hardly an Eureka? So I am struggling to see the major point here. To me, it is all obvious you don't need a God to experience wonder. Instead of just admitting the obvious or telling us something new, Compte-Sponville goes to great lengths with difficult to follow prose and obscure arguments to argue why the atheist can achieve spirituality. At times things don't make much sense. For example, he says: "If everything is real, everything is necessary". That sounds like a non-sequitur to me!
The majority of his discussion regarding Atheist spirituality comes across as stuck between somewhere esoteric discourse and mumbo jumbo. Perhaps this is because the book was originally written in French and it just didn't translate very well. I don't know?
Compared to Dawkins or Hitchens, Compte-Sponville uses a kid gloves approach when approaching religion. He describes himself as a "faithful Atheist". He acknowledges his place within the specific history of the "Greco-Judeo-Christian values of the Western World". He states his respect for Pascal, Leibniz, Bach, Martin Luther King Jr. This is good, sometimes Dawkins and Hitches can be too aggressive. However, it has to be remembered that the central premise of this book isn't an argument for atheism but an argument for atheist spirituality. This should have been a interesting and thought provoking. But it was obscure, overly complicated and recondite.
I did get something from this book and the author makes some very good points but he does stray too simplistically into the hackneyed old undergraduate chestnuts of 'if there is a God why is there evil' and skims over the First Cause arguments in a very amateur way which is disappointing, although it is a short book and it's not done in as facile a way as say Dawkins manages most of the time. So worth a look if this concept intrigues you, just don't expect any particular ground-breaking insights.