on 3 November 2010
This is definitely not the sort of reductionist atheism that is promoted by Dawkins et al. In fact, this book is a fascinating insight into a more holistic and philosophical atheism - probably a style of thinking more commonly accepted by the majority of quiet-living atheists and agnostics. And as a Christian I'd say it's a good book because of the clarity it gives on a way of thinking which is, in some ways, alien to me. That won't stop me from critiquing it though, and I acknowledge he makes many valid criticisms of Religion.
The chapter order in itself is enlightening: 1. Can we do without religion? 2. Does God exist? 3. Can there be an atheist spirituality? (You'd think, wouldn't you, that to settle the issue of God's existence might come first?) Of course, the assumption in chapter 1 is that God does not exist, but the motivation in this writing is to repel religiosity. Yet having discarded this irritant religion, the author knows he needs something spiritual in his life. There is great pathos in this book; very touching, very human.
The first few pages of chapter one are taken up with defining 'religion', before deciding that it is the imposed dogma and implied obscurantism of received religion that the author really dislikes. So, he concludes that he wants fidelity without faith; he yearns for true community and understands how religion binds people together, but obviously cannot accept the superstition and blind faith associated with much religion. In fact, from the outset he is very ambiguous about the eastern religions (Buddhism, Taoism, Confucionism) but really has monotheism in mind - especially his own childhood catholicism. But how does he construct meaning and purpose once God has been discarded? How does he substantiate his need for fidelity and community? He reviews the nihilism of much atheistic thought (Neitzsche) but dismisses it for its sophistry and negativity. He stares into the bleak hopelessness of Lucretius, Camus and Gide before finally admitting that his pragmatic approach to life is one of 'Cheerful Despair'. Pascal, Kierkegaard and Kant were right - 'there is no way for a lucid atheist to avoid despair'. But rather than drown in that despair he should embrace it - i.e. live life to the full, experience it while you can. Most fundamentally we should love one another. And in the final pages of chapter one he praises the man Jesus for his teaching and his life, but concludes that all that separates him from a Christian is those 3 days between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. The author accepts the label, `Christian Atheist' in the sense of upholding Christian ethics and values (well, the ones he agrees with anyway) without adhering to its founding principles.
In terms of the flow of the book, I'd say Chapter two, 'Does God Exist?' is optional. He makes his arguments and justifications in a very thoughtful way (though of course I don't agree with many of his precepts or his conclusion!). But how refreshing it is to find an atheist who admits his BELIEF that God does not exist. Thankfully he doesn't even attempt to join-in with the potty, pseudo-intellectual shouting of the likes of Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins. He has a balanced view of fanaticism - whether religious or atheistic - unlike those New Atheists. For me personally, this chapter is the least informative, rehearsing as it does the well-worn arguments. It is enough to accept that we all have reasons for believing what we do. He bemoans the fact that his stance is sometimes confused with agnosticism, but you can see why that should be with his light-footed discussion of the arguments. At the end of the day, he chooses his belief and plots his life course accordingly. Such is the freedom we all have.
So to the final chapter, and the one for which I originally purchased the book. How can there be such a thing as Atheist Spirituality? It became clear in the first chapter that the author, whilst rejecting the idea of a personal God, is crying out to hold on to his own sense of 'being' and 'personhood'. Far from a reductionist materialistic atheism, this sees spirit as the emergent 'mental' or 'psychic' self. He's naturalistic (there is no supernatural) and the spirit comes from the natural. So, he denies the ontological independence of spirit: 'Nature exists before the spirit that can conceive of it.' For a Christian, this is a key to understanding his viewpoint - having discarded the One who defines Spirit, he redefines Spirit in new terms (new to a Monotheist, that is, not new for Eastern religions). So Spirit is the epiphenomenon of the working brain. Reason only got us as far as `Cheerful Despair' so we now leap, as it were, from the building to the scaffolding and find that Spirituality in its own right is a wonderful phenomenon - at least for some people some of the time. It is this leaping embrace of what rationality would describe as dream-like (at best) or delusional (surely that would also apply?) that I still cannot get my head around. It is one thing to say that 'spirituality' is merely a figment of our brains' imagination, but it is quite another to then pivot your whole purpose and philosophy of life about that figment.
All that exists is All that matters - and spirituality may not be the chief importance in the universe (the capitalised All), but it is the chief importance to man. So, he is a kind of pantheist, even using the term 'panontological proof'. You can see why he had to reach despair before he could get to this point. Not that I say this in ridicule, but it is a long journey for the western mind to take. We are IN and OF the world; spirit is part of nature.
`Spirit' is therefore a term to describe his sense of personhood. He talks of mysticism (`Everything is mysterious') and of the immanence of being (we are part of the All, we exist within it). Our worries and our egos are demolished (contextualised?) by the All of the universe. So he finds an appreciation of the universe, looking up into infinity of the night sky, to be soothing - because he himself (his ego) becomes nothing in relation to All. As other reviewers have noted, he talks of mystical, spiritual experiences, where he finds great personal meaning in the sense that he is in union with something so much greater than himself. It is interesting how he constructs this kind of self-supporting Spirituality which has left Reason so far behind (which it had to). But for a Christian where reason ties so closely with spirituality it is a difficult concept. (I say 'ties closely' because the gospel describes the historical God-Man dying on the cross for my salvation).
He links readily into Zen, Haiku, the Swami and meditation; embracing their mystical nature and relating to their actualisation by experience not simply by thought or word. `When it claims to know the absolute, reason can only fail.' Rather, let's rejoice in the `oceanic feeling' so common across the globe, in those with religion and those without religion. He goes on to describe his own Mystical Experience in his mid-twenties as the `most beautiful moment of my life, it was the most joyous, the most serene...intellectually it proved nothing, yet I could not pretend it had not happened.' Strangely, within moments he was back with friends but said nothing to them (- and I wonder what that can possibly mean.)
As always in these discussions, you have to be careful about the meaning of words. For example, Hope is seen as a great symbol of failure. It is associated with forlorn wishing and dissatisfaction with the present. The future is strikingly referred to as `not existing' (as too the past) because All that exists is the present - an eternal present - not simply `today'. It is difficult to get your head around when so many expressions are used with different meanings. (As a Christian I would see 'hope' as a positive expectation and confidence - themes which cannot get a look-in here because there is no basis for any hope and hence its forlorn uselessness).
Throughout the book, I am disturbed by the incessant detachment from anything real, everyday and (strangely) personal. For example, Love is rightly valued highly, above faith and hope, but we never hear of the demonstration of love between people (unless you count his occasional comments on sex). For all its denial of the ego, this book is dismally self-centred (though that would be strenuously denied by the author perhaps). Spirituality becomes a series of tricks to enable ME to let go of the worries of being me so that I might be happy. Happiness is a key goal in all this. MY happiness. `I can testify that being an atheist is in no way an obstacle to having, enjoying and rejoicing in a life of the spirit - up to and including the extreme experience in which it silently culminates by vanishing.' Yet these are mere moments spread fleetingly over a lifetime, `For most of us, such moments remain extremely rare...Enough, however, to give us an idea and a foretaste of such a life, to illuminate it, guide it and become its goal...' (I trust this is no glimmer of hope though?)
It is fascinating that atheism can inhabit such extremely different worlds. I mean, what would Dawkins make of this? As I said at the beginning, I think this type of spirituality is probably more common than the reductionist atheistic bleakness that attracts the media attention and sells many bitter anti-religious books. However, Comte-Sponville is a brilliant thinker and doesn't settle for vague thoughts. He follows things through and develops ideas, exploring different perspectives and sensitively seeking to understand and interpret the struggles of humanity.
The author view's his stance as a belief (with some reasons). I can rejoice in his freedom to make that choice, but personally see it as a tragic waste. To dismiss the true concept of hope is anti-human. If you want a Christian rebuttal to this little book you could read Francis Schaeffer who has already followed the philosophical threads that lead to this place.