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The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality, by André Comte-Sponville

The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality
by André Comte-Sponville
212 pages
Genre: Nonfiction/Philosophy/Religion

This book has changed my life.

Really. I was mellowing out on my own, I think, but Comte-Sponville's approach to atheism is inspiring and reassuring--it has inspired me to follow his example of kindness, and reassured me that atheist spirituality is indeed possible and worthwhile. For as he says, "Atheists have as much spirit as everyone else; why would they be less interested in spiritual life?" (xi) And since I find myself utterly incapable of summarizing this book, I will proceed to quote liberally the various highlighted and bookdarted parts. I marked it up permanently, folks. It takes a lot for me to willingly desecrate a book like that. And this is not a real review; it's probably the closest I've ever come to preaching, in fact.

Comte-Sponville seeks to answer (or rather, discuss) three fundamental questions:
1. Can we do without religion?
2. Does God exist?
3. Can there be an atheist spirituality?

To begin with number one: "God, by definition, surpasses us. Religion does not.... God is reputed to be perfect. No religion can ever be so." I think those of any faith can agree with these statements, which make a crucial distinction between deity and religion. Comte-Sponville chooses to define religion as "any organized set of beliefs and rituals [generally] involving the sacred, the supernatural[,] or the transcendent [and] specifically involving one or several gods, [uniting] those who recognize and practice [the religion] into a moral and spiritual community" (4). (Remember that "all theisms are religious, but not all religions are theist" (3)--this definition is specifically worded to be inclusive of nontheistic religions.)

And the conclusion of this long-winded introductory definition (which I have condensed): "people are different." As he proclaims, "I'm an atheist and happy to be one. Other people, most likely the majority, are equally happy to be believers." The problem with this happy-world ideal, of course, is extremism on both sides and the innate wish to convert others to one's own faith. I am certainly guilty of this longing, as much as I have been the unwelcome target of conversion attempts; after all, someone you care about is wrong and your natural instinct is to correct. But true religious tolerance means suppressing those instincts. (6)

Religion's greatest strength is not mortality/immortality but proof against death. "The perspective of hell is less disturbing than that of nothingness." Incidentally, many contemporary Christians apparently read Hell as a metaphor--"only Heaven... is to be taken literally." Whereas atheists must accept mortality and "try to get used to the idea of nothingness"; having a nihilistic bent, I welcome the void, but I'm in the minority there. (7) Comte-Sponville goes on to discuss mourning and the death of not oneself, but one's loved ones. As he says a reader once told him, "I believe in God because life would be too sad without him" (10). And I respect that; I wish for it oftentimes, when life is tough and I have only myself to rely upon.

"To commune is to share without dividing" (15), and it is communion--not necessarily religion--that creates a community. "Sacred" is also redefined as "the existence of a value that is or seems absolute" (18; emphasis mine). Atheist/agnostic morality is relative, but each moral is absolute in one's own mind. In any case, "an ethics does not make a religion" (18); "no society can do without communion" (18-9), but "all communion is not religious" (19).

Fidelity, too, is important--I personally think most important, for "fidelity is what remains when faith is lost" (21). Comte-Sponville says that "renouncing a God who has met his social demise...does not compel us to renounce the moral, cultural, and spiritual values that have been formulated in his name"; that has not been my experience because my childhood was largely uninfluenced by religion, but it is true for much of the contemporary West. "Faith involves one or several gods; fidelity involves values, a history, a community" (22).

In Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novel The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan says, "If God does not exist, everything is allowed." And Comte-Sponville responds, simply, "I will not allow myself everything...either morals are autonomous or they do not exist at all." Which to me is a more sensible approach to morality; if it stems from an outside source, is it truly moral?

"Happiness is not something to be hoped for but something to be experienced here and now....You can hope only for what you do not have" (51). This was a truly new thought for me, and the essence of it--to live always in medias res--is something I want to embrace. I've chosen to do so through Transcendentalist applications, but that is not the only way. "If Jesus did not rise from the dead, does this make his murderers right? Does it render his message of love and justice null and void?"--and whether or not an afterlife exists, what we do know exists is "life before death" (65; emphasis original).

The second chapter proceeds to directly address and argue for atheism. "I do not claim to know that God does not exist, but I believe he does not exist" (69; emphasis original)--this is Comte-Sponville's statement of faith, one that applies to myself as well. Though I am not a philosopher, I read with interest his objections to the ontological (definition loop), cosmological (existence loop), and physico-theological (intelligent design) proofs. And then he talks about the classic clockmaker argument! I recall, with amusement, a scientific simulation of how the blind watchmaker makes a watch--it demonstrates that randomness can indeed lead to order (89).

Another central argument, brought up by nearly all branches of Christianity, is perception. God is not meant to be proven but to be experienced. And perhaps other people take joy in their personal experiences with God; me, I agree with Comte-Sponville in saying regretfully that "no matter how wide I open [my eyes and my soul], what I see is the world and what I love is humanity" (94). And if God is hidden--"stubbornly hiding" (95)--then why does He hide? Comte-Sponville refutes the argument that concealment is for the freedom of humanity, for then humanity would be both freer than God and freer than His prophets (e.g. Abraham). To the contrary, logically there should be "less freedom in ignorance than in knowledge" (97).

Why, then, should one believe in the opposite argument of nonexistence? One common atheistic argument is the existence of evil--as Comte-Sponville puts it, "banality of evil [and] rarity of good [...]. God, even while allowing us freedom and imperfection, would have come up with a better ratio" (114). It is not so much evil's presence but evil's overwhelming presence that contradicts the existence of a benevolent higher being.

The more deeply philosophical argument is one of reverse psychology, almost. God is perfect, loving, just--the "absolute dream" (124), and for this very reason He should be an object of suspicion. "Why should I prefer for God to exist? Because he would fulfill my deepest longings" (124)--but "a belief so strikingly congruent with our longings" is often invented to fulfill those longings (125). "God is too desirable to be true; religion is too reassuring to be credible." These are not reasons to stop believing, necessarily, because much good comes from the reassurance of religion and the psychological barrier against evil (e.g. defined, absolute morality); but they are reasons to disbelieve if one wishes.

"Religion is a right, and so is irreligion." Comte-Sponville, of course, has decided upon the latter. He summarizes his reasoning succinctly in a list; the first half is why he does not believe in God, and the second half is why he believes that God does not exist (someone more sophisticated than me can explain the distinction, which I inherently comprehend but cannot pass on).

1. The weakness of the opposing arguments, the so-called proofs of God's existence.
2. Common experience: If God existed, he should be easier to see or sense.
3. My refusal to explain something I cannot understand by something I understand even less.
4. The enormity of evil.
5. The mediocrity of mankind.
6. Last but not least, the fact that God corresponds so perfectly to our wishes that there is every reason to think he was invented to fulfill them, at least in fantasy; this makes religion an illusion in the Freudian sense of the term. (131)

Finally, the third and last chapter of The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality discusses atheist spirituality itself. Here it becomes even more difficult to summarize the book (and as you may have noticed, I already omitted some major sections of the second chapter). Comte-Sponville discusses the concept of immanensity, "a conception of the infinite" and "experience of the unknown" (144). The universe is composed of "serene darkness," an eternity that simultaneously dismays and reassures the miniscule human observer; but "when you feel 'at one with the All,'" there is no need for anything more. "Why would you need a God? The universe suffices. Why would you need a church? The world suffices. Why would you need faith? Experience suffices" (150). He also describes a curious personal experience of "spontaneous mysticism" (151), of "infinite peace" (156), of a truth not contained but containing (157). He struggles to describe it and I struggle to reconstruct that description, so I shall stop trying. Go read the book already.

I will conclude with a brief discussion of morality. "Only reality is absolute; all value judgments are relative" (180). This relative morality is nevertheless opposing to nihilism and aestheticism; "morals are only human" (181). "To believe in God is to believe in an infinitely loving and thus infinitely lovable truth. To be an atheist [...] is to think that the truth loves neither us nor itself. [...] But who said we could love only what loves us in return?" (204).

"Love, not hope, is what helps us live. Truth, not faith, is what sets us free" (206).

I am cutting wood
I am drawing water
How marvelous
(qtd. in 196)

Page 206, the final page: "Eternity is now."

And that's all I have to say--not very much, given the alarming ratio of interjection to quotation. Oh, except this: go read the actual book, because it is incredible.



January 2011



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