Atheism and the “S” Word

Today’s article by guest writer Douglas Falknor

Spirit levitation
(cc) Louish Pixel

A couple of months ago I discovered Point of Inquiry, the internet radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry. It’s an oasis in the desert of uplifting secular audio. Go find it – there’s a lot there for us.

I’ve been working my way backward through the audio archives there. One program that caught my eye was the episode named “Spirituality: Friend or Foe? – Adam Frank and Tom Flynn.” Adam Frank takes a somewhat similar position to my own (and to the Spiritual Naturalist Society’s! – ed.) – that there can be secular spirituality, something that’s fulfilling to the human spirit. That’s great and gives us an avenue worth pursuing.

Unfortunately, I’m goaded into writing about Tom Flynn’s position. He says this dabbling with the ideas we call spiritual puts those of us who are asking these questions in a domain that can’t be called “hard atheism.”

This I have to wonder about. I’ve taken Jennifer Michael Hecht’s test (Doubt, a History) and I am fully and 100% hard atheist according to her test. I didn’t have a single answer that wasn’t materialist and atheist. So is Jennifer’s test incomplete or somehow faulty? I don’t think that’s the case, but certainly I might not be objective since I’m one of the defendants in this case.

It’s not coming through here, but I was really disheartened by Tom Flynn’s words. I wish the talks could have been reversed so that the upside could have been the last thought, but it couldn’t be that way. Without the introduction of the idea of some sort of secular spirituality the topic wouldn’t have had a starting point.

Chris Mooney, host for that episode, argues in the general direction of Adam Frank and that there might be a secular way to accommodate a sort of scientific spirituality – awe in the presence of the universe and it’s wonders, for example.

Flynn says we confuse the issues when we say we are atheist and materialists and then say we are spiritual. (You might note that my thesis that we are “spiritual” because we evolved into religiosity, which I’d call a sort of spiritual drive or need, might be a special case that does overcome that problem and clears up the impasse that the language seems to hold).

Flynn says the average person thinks “spirit” means God and disembodied souls, and in the U.S., there is a spiritual order to the world. Further, that we godless atheists defeat our goal for rational understanding of the world and misrepresent our world view when we use that language.

Flynn goes on to say the average person thinks they’ve just caught us in an inconsistency or being hypocritical, and that we, too, must need something transcendent (which Flynn calls ectoplasm – a Ghostbusters reference?) to get us through the night.

Chris Mooney says the word “spirituality” may be undergoing change. Flynn says it hasn’t completed that change and that he’d like the language dropped altogether. If not, society will assume that we, too, need an “invisible” means of support.

Flynn says he thinks Sagan, Einstein, Asimov might all be called religious humanists. When he was trying to find his way, he examined their thoughts, but when they spoke of this awe in high blown terms he moved on looking for purer atheists. Flynn regards the “spiritual” language as an unnecessary, rather loose language that we need to clean up and state more clearly. Flynn does offer that if we mean what we say by that language, then we certainly have a right to say it that way.

Mooney asks what is the appropriate way to address the explanation of meaning in our lives.

There is no big “M” Meaning because we don’t believe there is such meaning out there. Each of us finds our own way to determine the meaning of our lives. I’d go further and say that such an effort is far superior to an imposition of an external meaning upon our lives and world – I think this is consistent with Flynn’s perspective.

Flynn says there’s a lot of lore in religious circles to the effect that there are no true atheists because everyone needs something transcendent in their lives. Flynn says there really are atheists and it is us and we need to be recognized, that we do exist, and that we need to set an example to show that we can lead good lives.

I can see both side’s points.

What do you think?


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The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.

Douglas FalknorDouglas Falknor was born into conservative Protestantism in Bible Belt, Ohio, then in his teen years came the questions of doubt. Falknor sought, and still seeks answers, in a lifelong study of anthropology, philosophy, and religion. Falknor has said he is a spiritual atheist and offers evidence for the evolutionary origins of spirituality and religion in his book, Religion Is God’s Way of Showing Us It’s a Lot Earlier in Human Evolution Than We Thought. This post was originally published on Falknor’s blog, Secular Holy Man, under the title “Dousing the Constant Fire?”

5 thoughts on “Atheism and the “S” Word”

  1. Thanks much Douglas!

    Flynn doesn’t seem to understand the enormous importance of using language in ways that inspire reverence and allow our minds into a disposition of awe and a sense of the sacred. Nor does he seem to understand that certain truths are more accurately communicated through such language than using technical terms. Spiritual practices are a tool for cultivating perspectives and attitudes that transform how a person approaches life. Through these practices, one can become better at handling life’s challenges and access truer, deeper forms of happiness and harmony with reality, which is what spirituality is really about. If one does not get that practical mechanism of how spiritual practice is not mere entertainment, but a method of personal transformation, then it is entirely expected one would have Flynn’s view of spirituality and spiritual language as extraneous.

    Further, these views are often highly focused on (or distracted by) the culture wars; namely that portion where one is concerned about what others may think (how horrible it would be if someone accidentally thought I wasn’t a materialists for a few minutes until they read further!). Yet, spiritual naturalists are not mainly driven by such concerns when it comes to our practice.

    Rather, the driving force behind our spirituality is the fact that we are on a personal quest to cultivate mindfulness, compassion, and wisdom in ourselves and fully embrace all that it means to be a human being – and there simply is no better word to capture that connotation and tell others about the kind of person we are. It would be far more palatable to us if someone accidentally thought for a moment that we believed some minor thing of little importance (like a deity for example) for a few minutes, than it would be for them to get the impression that we didn’t appreciate the sacred, or the role of spiritual practices, or humility, or the importance of universal loving-kindness – or, worst of all, if they got the impression that our disagreement with their personal beliefs was the most important thing about us or more important than our shared love and humanity with them.

    Every tradition has its own unique set of terms and version of words commonly thought of differently among those of other camps. For example, compassion means something a little different in Christian doctrine than it does in Buddhism. Forgiveness works differently in Judaism than it does in Catholicism. Enlightenment in Islam is totally different than in Taoism. There is no getting around these subtle distinctions in understanding any tradition, and it should be no surprise if someone wanting to explore Spiritual Naturalism might have to investigate what we mean by the terms we use either. Our aim is to build our own positive body of spiritual wisdom and we can never achieve that while trapped inside the lexicon of the existing dominant tradition. Will people be unaware? Yes, and that is the calling of our work.

    The s-word *is* in a state of transformation as Mooney mentioned, and this is because naturalists haven’t abandoned it. The very fact many people do still mistake its meaning is one reason why our mission is important. It is only through such action that the transformation of the word can continue. Here in the Society, we view it as a settled matter. We are done with the debate and are moving on to build such spiritual practices. To that end, we have dropped the quotation marks, which indicate some ‘almost’ form of the word. Quotation marks are ironic for us because in our view, the only genuine spirituality is one that is compatible with reason and reality. Those other forms of the word, which are based on unproved claims and promises, alleged powers and entities, are more appropriately called by the quotation marked form of “spirituality”.

    Thanks so much for bringing up these important topics! 🙂

    • Exactly. I’d much rather be momentarily confused with someone who believes in pixies or whatever than with a nihilist or a solipsist.

  2. Flynn’s position doesn’t make much sense to me, although I can see why people would find ambiguity in the word “spiritual” if they are accustomed to thinking that a person is either religious or not. Daniel conveys what for me is the main point, that spirituality is more than just awe at the cosmos but is the search to find, and live according to, meanings and values in one’s life that are not obvious, that may not be the same for everyone, and that reflect what one believes is one’s place in something larger. I can’t think of a better word for all that than spiritual (without quotation marks).

  3. Wow, I’ve never before heard someone defend their point by saying how much better they are at scientific rationality than Carl Sagan and Einstein. That is just beautiful.

    And New Atheists wonder why everyone considers them arrogant narcissists.

    Basically, Flynn seems to be arguing that if atheists use the word spirituality, people might not realize how superior and rational and clever we all are. His less-holy-than-thou puritanism is solely based on appearances; it has nothing to do with science.

    Honestly, is there any less scientific notion than that an idea should be abandoned because it’s too nuanced and might confuse the proles?


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