Atheist Spirituality

I have been thinking about atheist spirituality because of a lecture I recently heard by Alain de Botton. Unlike many Christians, I don’t see any contradiction in terms. When I was younger, it seemed to me merely a matter of finding one’s affinity, as follows:

  1. I could know my affinity already and assent to it
  2. I could discover my affinity and assent to it
  3. I could be searching for my affinity and therefore assent to none, or assent only provisionally
  4. I could have surveyed all possible affinities and decided that I have no affinity, and therefore cannot assent to any
  5. I could know my affinity and, despising it, refuse to assent to it
  6. I could reject the notion of affinity altogether

This paradigm may seem familiar, as it can apply to different kinds of psychological situations. Here I use it solely in reference to spiritual affinity; that is, formation of identity.

The first case is acceptance of a cultural identity without self engagement. It may be common, but I reject it out of hand as not requiring reflection.

The second case is the happy coincidence of personality and situation normally called certain belief.

The third case is agnosticism or cautious acceptance, which are really the same state of mind.

The fourth case is misanthropy. The sixth case is like it but rooted in ignorance rather than arrogance.

The fifth case is the sad condition of the conflicted soul who resents the world for imposing unseemly demands. This, I later realized, is the condition I sought to avoid by honestly reflecting on possible affinities.


6 thoughts on “Atheist Spirituality

  1. Regarding “atheist sprituality” (or lack thereof) – allow one non-believer to set out what I hope is a coherent position.

    Viz: Ever since Plato, it’s been the fashion in religions to regard the spirit or soul as something separate from the rest of you, maybe alive before you were, definitely alive after you’re gone. Socrates explains this in the account of his last day, the Phaedo, hankies out please. The idea, elaborated throughout Plato’s writings, was a stroke of genius indeed, employed to great effect in subsequent mysticisms – but no more.

    Stripped of mysticism and broken down into its component parts, “spiritual affinity” can readily be understood:

    “Spirit” is mind, no more and no less; self, if you like. It brings with it a concept of “identity” (who am I? who are you?).

    “Affinity” is a need, natural and universal, to be part of some social grouping; which is to say, to belong. Among other advantages, this provides a quick definition of one’s identity – in particular a way for others to “place” you. For example: “I am English (actually English/Catholic Irish, but southern English by upbringing and residence), educated, middle-middle class.” In social situations this is usually all I need. (Luckily in this country with its accent-based class system you don’t need to explain such things, as most of them are crystal-clear the moment you open your mouth.)

    In a spirit of inquiry, I will review the marking scheme:

    Q. How do you feel about your spritual affinity? Check one only.

    A1. I know my affinity already and assent to it

    M1. Rejected. In accepting a cultural identity without self engagement, the candidate has not ackowledged the need for reflection.

    Comment: Are we not condemning this candidate for asserting an identity which to them is completely obvious, and which may indeed be valid?

    A2. I have discovered my affinity and assent to it

    M2. Accepted. The candidate displays the happy coincidence of personality and situation normally called certain belief.

    Comment: Oh it’s belief now is it? Would a non-religious identity, as seems to be acknowledged as a viable option in the previous question, need to be “discovered” in this way?

    A3. I am searching for my affinity and therefore assent to none, or assent only provisionally.

    M3. Accepted. The candidate displays agnosticism or cautious acceptance, which are really the same state of mind.

    Comment: Schedule a re-test in which A2 only will be accepted.

    A4. I have surveyed all possible affinities and decided that I have no affinity, and therefore cannot assent to any

    M4. Rejected; the candidate displays arrogance, with misanthropic tendencies.

    Comment: Disallowed under current legislation (in the UK anyway), as it excludes atheists. I quote from the Equality Bill, 2009: “The Bill adds extra groups of people to the Equality Duty… People without a religion or belief, or people with a religion or belief.” I’m not sure if this got through before the change of government, as it could have left agnostics in a tricky position.

    A5. I know my affinity and, despising it, refuse to assent to it

    M5. Rejected. The candidate is conflicted, resenting the world for imposing unseemly demands.

    Comment: Treat this candidate with sympathy, offering to schedule a series of re-tests. Both A3 and A2 MUST be seen, in that order.

    A6. I reject the notion of affinity altogether

    M6. Rejected. The candidate is either ignorant of the term “affinity”, or sees no need for such a concept.

    Comment: Happy them!

  2. The framework itself is agnostic, insofar as it doesn’t presume the nature of the affinity. So, a non-religious affinity can be read into it, for example: sexual orientation, college major, love partner, career. Likewise, a spiritual affinity could be non-religious.

    Distinguishing culture from affinity is a peculiarity, perhaps, of my unrooted upbringing. I have a particular prejudice against accepting a cultural identity uncritically. The question of where I was “from”, posed to me frequently by rooted people, always irritated me as a child. Later I learned that my cultural identity was American military (aka, “The Fortress”), whereas my affinity was not.

    Distinguishing spirit from psyche is perhaps Platonic, but my perspective on it at this point is naturalistic. If the notion of “self” is absent from the mind, there is still a perception of affinity, which may retroactively be called a spiritual sensibility by the romantic idealist. (This may be veering dangerously close to a Hegelian notion of spirit, so hopefully I will not go over the cliff.)

    I think my marking scheme is not tendentious, though it does tend to privilege affinity. However, affinity is not a code-word for “religion”, but rather a sign of humanity. To that extent, it deprecates a depressed, autistic, or sociopathic point of view. I don’t think it should be used as a clinical tool, since those tendencies are not necessarily bad.

    Here is a clarification of the categories:
    1. This is a “valid” choice only if one assumes no inquiry is undertaken, and is certainly normal in most societies. I added this in an attempt to be comprehensive, but really it is like the opt-out or disqualifier question that a survey asks at the beginning. The answer has no specific religious meaning, insofar as it is situational.

    2. A religious or non-religious identity need not be discovered in this way, but it presumes a suspended inquiry with positive empirical results. It is “belief in an affinity” insofar as it involves “acceptance or conviction of the existence or occurrence of something” (OED I.5.b). It is not the same as “belief in God”, although that might be inferred.

    3. This is the normal state of an inquiry in process. No definite choice is made.

    4. This presumes a finished inquiry with negative results. I call it misanthropy because affinity is humanistic; and I call it arrogant because a thorough survey of humanity is impossible. Nevertheless, my judgment relies on a modern ideal of information exchange. I agree that my judgment is antithetical to an ideal civic religion, in which the state delimits what can be known, and will not protect what it does not know.

    5. This presumes that the inquiry was suspended due to emotional distress over the result, or was never begun. The model is an alcoholic, abused, or grieving person. The world is evil to them, and their sense of “self” is damaged or stunted. The sympathetic response would be to not require any inquiry of them.

    6. This is actually a tautology, since the inquiry is cancelled because the object of inquiry is not known. This one was also added in an attempt to be comprehensive.

  3. I see that “spiritual affinity” is a technical theological term that I wasn’t aware of.

    I was using “affinity” in the sense of OED I.7, “Liking for or attraction to a person or thing; natural inclination towards something; sympathy and understanding for something.” However, I.6.a could also apply: “Similarity of characteristics or nature; resemblance; common ground.”

    I already knew that “spirit” had a technical theological meaning, but I thought “spirituality” was diluted enough. I meant to use conjugates of “spirit” as in OED II.8.a, “A particular character, disposition, or temper existing in, pervading, or animating, a person or set of persons; a special attitude or bent of mind characterizing men individually or collectively” or II.10.a, “The essential character, nature, or qualities of something; that which constitutes the pervading or tempering principle of anything.” So, “spiritual” connotes such an intangible organizing principle.

    Note that I equated “spiritual affinity” with “formation of identity.” That is to associate a discovered “affinity” with an “identity” that is formed; the intersection is “cultivation”, a deliberate individual act. In contrast, one finds that “culture” is an amorphous collection of complex interactions that are said to form the individual identity; whereas this might be true, I am pretending that the individual is capable of directing this influence rather than accepting it en bloc.

  4. Perhaps I mis-read “affinity” as “affiliation”, but that is how it came across. I think I was thrown by the idea of having an “affinity” for something metaphysical and therefore non-existent. Affiliation, say belonging to a church congregation, was an easier concept to handle.

    Affinity to me is a purely psychological concept, as is belief. You just have them, like a cold, and they don’t need to be explained logically. On further reflection though I’ll allow affinity, even for God, but not spiritual affinity.

    You see, we anti-Platonists are practised in spotting metaphysical entities. Spirit II.10.a sounds like just such a one. The word “essential” is the giveaway here, as it is derived from essentia, the “what it is” of a real thing wherein it partakes of its Platonic Ideal; in this case its “spirit”. “Intangible” clinches it: Spirit II.10.a is metaphysical.

    My point here is that as Spirit II.10.a is metaphysical and therefore non-existent it can’t have any affinities, as “spiritual affinity” would require. So it is not Spirit II.10.a that has the affinity, it is you. If the affinity is for something equally metaphysical, i.e. God, that is perfectly all right – it works as psychology, even if the object of the affinity isn’t actually real.

    I’d question though whether things of this nature – identity as well, which is clearly a close relative of affinity – can be consciously willed or chosen. A person proclaiming such a choice would immediately invite psychological investigation, for instance in relation to any defence mechanisms which might be operative, without any suggestion of an abnormal or pathological condition of course.

  5. I was just using the OED to find some kind of common ground. I don’t actually derive much meaning from its definitions.

    I have a different, non-Platonic notion of essence. I agree that a Platonic essence is not discoverable, or if it were, it would not be universal. I don’t have much use for metaphysics as a mode of reasoning; but maybe I touch on it without realizing it.

    I agree that “spirit’ does not have an affinity; the affinity in question is of a “spiritual” nature. It is a psychological perspective, surely.

    I do claim as a fundamental principle that affinity is discoverable, and thus can be cultivated through modification of conditions, which includes the will. Identity is obviously formed circumstantially, but the perception of it is dependent on the individual capacity for reflection; and the development of it as an intangible conception can, again, be cultivated through a modification of conditions.

    I don’t really know what it would mean to suggest that affinity or identity are not dependent on conscious [rational] acts of perception or conception. Perhaps the best model would be the relationship between my cats.

    That is to say, I think that the process for humans involves a rational will not used by animals; and a man may seek affinities contrary to his identity, or may form an identity contrary to his affinities.

    Your example of identity was problematic for me, since if I try to follow the same pattern, I would have to come up with this: “I am American (actually English/Scottish/German by genetic heritage, with a Polish Catholic step-family, but military by upbringing and by residence as a child), educated, middle-middle class.”

    Yet, all of this is absolutely false now, because in fact I have no ethnic or geographic identity, since both of my parents despised their ancestors and the place where they grew up. They raised me to spit on religious people as fools and thieves; and, inadvertently (as a result of the military lifestyle), to hate provincialism and heritage. I can pass for “educated” to someone who is not (because I use multi-syllable words), but in fact I have a subpar formal education by any metric. Economically, I have not lived “middle class” since I left home in 1983; according to federal government statistics, I am part of the lower class. Socially, my accent, clothes, home, car, and church are distinctly midwestern lower class.

    I will have to go back to my mentors on the subjects of identity and essence, in order to clarify their meanings.

  6. Thanks for the details Dave – I’m sorry if my writing was a little tendentious, in spite of disclaimers – do keep up the quest!


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