Atheism and the “S” Word
Today’s article by guest writer Douglas Falknor
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?
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 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?”