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This book deserves to be read by non-believers and believers alike for it's intelligent analysis of the subject, and its elegance. Though arguing as an athiest, Andre Comte-Sponville is not hostile to religion, indeed has a lot of respect for it and for believers. His take is, essentailly, that unbelief is as important as belief and his arguments centre around three essays which cover a large amount of ground in just under 200 pages.

The first, "Can We Do Without Religion?" looks at where religion draws some of it's strengths from. His conclusions centre around religion as a way of life, which he states is the most important thing it offers. Yet, he also points out that these, like morality and communality are not exclusive to religion. He is also realsitic about how both religion and unreligion have been used to justify atrocities.

The second, on whether there is a God, looks at traditional arguments for the existence of a deity. These are presented clearly, without heckling. They are arguments that both believers and non-believers need to ponder on when reaching their position, as are his arguments as to why he cannot believe in a God. Most of these arguments are not new, but the account of them, could not be bettered. Believers are are unlikely to be offended by them. As Comte-Sponville states, the only agenda he has here is the right to voice his view point.

The final essay looks at the posibility of an athiest spirituality. He draws on Eastern Spiritual texts, pointing that they are less dependent on conceptions of a god. He looks at forms of spiritual experience, and describes some of his own experiences in this area and argues that this is "not God." This may well be the most personal aspect of the book. It suggests that it is a persons attitude to and experience that leads to faith or athiesm.

A fascianating exploration of these issues that doesn't skip difficulties. This book argues the case for athiesm well. Agree or disagree, readers will emerge with a better understanding of their faith or unfaith from reading this book.
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on 14 November 2008
It is a great shame that the one and only review of this book is so negative. I found it intelligible, intelligent and illuminating so wanted to balance things up a little. I am sure that it would be enjoyed even by those who haven't studied philosophy because the concepts the author discusses are well explained and elucidated. He has a far gentler approach than your Hitchens or Dawkins, whilst still managing to get his point across. And whilst there can be no doubt in the author's own committed atheism, he can nevertheless appreciate that there are positives in believing religion and even goes as far as to say that he might wish he believed in a God. If you want to read longer, more erudite and even more positive reviews look the book up on Amazon.com.
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on 25 November 2008
The first two chapters are a fairly swift canter through the arguments against the existence of God, and for the idea that we do not need a God to find meaning in existence. Dawkins covered most of this territory with great verve in 'the God Delusion', but it is good to see another approach from this most lucid of French philosophers. The third chapter on atheist spirituality is quite remarkable, and goes beyond Dawkins. It deals in depth with matters of spirituality that cannot be dealt with in a scientific, empirical manner. For instance, he considers matters of emotion, like the "oceanic feeling" and our response to the immensity of the Universe. These are often taken to be religious feelings, but Comte-Sponville show how they can be better and more coherently understood, and enjoyed, from an atheist viewpoint. He brings in Western philosophers, like Spinoza and Nietzsche, and Eastern philosophers, like Nagarjuna and Lao-Tzu, to bolster his arguments for an atheist approach to spiritual concepts and feelings like simplicity, unity, silence, eternity, serenity, acceptance, and eternity. He certainly left me feeling more serene, and with a more unified idea of what spirituality might mean for an atheist. His argument that religious spirituality involves a temporality that is not needed in an atheist spirituality is particularly strong, and there are many other arguments that reveal the depth and subtlety of his thinking. This is a must buy for anyone wondering if, or how, an atheist can be spiritual.
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on 25 November 2009
I could not put this book down once I got into it. The author discusses the arguments extraordinarily lucidly. He makes a compelling case for spirituality without religion which is both fresh, and is grounded in philosphical discussion by previous writers over the centuries. What to me really separates this book from those by the likes of Dawkins et al, is that Comte-Sponville is far less strident in his critique, does not appear to view religion as a completely bad thing in itself. It's just not for him. He describes an alternative and more helpful way forward whilst not losing that which makes us human and special. I found this book a wonderfully clear discussion of fundamental ideas that I had struggled with for a long time. A brilliant and challenging read.
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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.
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on 31 December 2010
This book in split into three parts. Firstly, there is an analysis of what religion is and if we can live without it. This part is excellent. Compte-sponville de-constructs the various aspects of religion and raises some very valid points. For example, even though it is easy to replace some aspects of religion, for instance wedding ceremonies; it is not very easy to replace other aspects. A non religious funeral seems: 'flat, artificial and impoverished - like a poor copy of the original'.

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.
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on 13 August 2014
I enjoyed this book and it's well written and constructed but I felt at the end of the day it was both a little hollow and struggling to define spirituality without actually mentioning the 'G' word, which at the end of the day, no matter how you define God [cosmic mind, universal consciousness, Divine Being etc] and spirituality [however you wish to define that too], it inevitably leads back to an acceptance of that first premise. Now there is a strain in secularism trying valiantly to tackle this problem and offer 'atheistic' moral and spiritual frameworks [Alain de Botton is another along with Comte-Sponville having a good stab at this] but at the end of the day to this reviewer anyway, it seems like so much squirming around trying to redefine human experience that has been established and well recorded for millennia, purely to avoid any consideration of there possibly being a God, which is taken as a subjective, personal first position rather than one based in any reason, and, subsequently all else must flow from that.

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.
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on 24 February 2010
Let`s start by saying that I am not an atheist. This is a very impressive book and should bring a blush to the cheek of Dawkins, Hitchens et al. Here is a serious attempt to first relate modern atheism to its christian roots, second to provide a Godless image of humanity that doesn`t reduce us to meme-plagued "third chimpanzees".
What I admired most about it was his unflinching acceptance that being an atheist means living a life without hope.
If you like this book, take a look at a few other continental philosophers with similar views - Zizek (The Fragile Absolute)The Fragile Absolute: Or, Why is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For? (Wo es war), or Badiou (St Paul)Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism (Cultural Memory in the Present)and relish the difference between them and our anglophone pigmies.
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on 17 June 2014
The world is full of religious fueled violence, this beautiful book offers a glimpse of what humanity should aspire to, what a better, happier world we would live in. This book deserves to be a best seller.
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on 7 October 2012
This is a book that should be read by believers. Atheists, Agnostics and anyone who wants to expire secular spirituality. It is thought provoking, challenging, and inspiring. Whatever your belief system, you owe it to yourself to read this. At the very least it will help you to be more tolerant of others.
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