Sermon: “Spirituality and Secularism”
August 05, 2011Spirituality and Secularism
Sermon to West Hill United Church
Sunday, July 31, 2011
Atheism and spirituality may seem like an obvious
contradiction. But in fact Sam Harris, who is often regarded as one of the most
aggressive of the new atheists, is quick to point out the role of the spiritual
experience in the life of one who doesn't believe in god or gods.
In a YouTube video entitled "Sam Harris on Misconceptions About Atheism" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rLIKAyzeIw4 ) he says:
It's often imagined that atheists are in principle closed to spiritual experience. But there's nothing preventing an atheist from experiencing self transcending love, or ecstasy or rapture or awe. There's nothing that prevents an atheist from going into a cave for a year or a decade and practicing meditation like a mystic. What atheists don't do is make unjustifiable claims about the cosmos on the basis of those experiences. There's no question that disciplines like meditation and prayer can have a profound effect on the human mind.
Sam Harris is a big fan of Buddhism. Another such fan is C. George Boeree, a professor in the psychology department at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania where he teaches the philosophy of psychology
I'd like to quote at length from an article he wrote entitled "Thoughts on the Spirituality of Atheism" (http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/atheism.html):
I am an atheist. This may not seem to particularly qualify me to talk about spiritual matters. I believe it does, and uniquely: I see atheism as a sort of minimalist spiritual perspective, one that has stripped away so much of what we usually think of as spiritual – the supernatural -- that the essence of spirituality can be seen more
I believe in two things above all: Nature and love. Nature is all-powerful. Love is how I understand the good. It might have been nice to believe in God, often defined as all-powerful and good, but combining the two like that has always posed too much of a contradiction for my poor mind to believe in.
What about an
afterlife? No, I don't believe in that either. You mean you think we just
die and that’s it? Yes, that’s right. So how can you stand to live?
Life is enough. It has to be -- it’s all there is. But then what’s
the meaning of life? The meaning of life is in the living of it.
Our lives are such small things. Sometimes we think we need something grand to make them worthwhile -- like eternal life in paradise, or great success, or intense experiences. Or we feel we need a grand philosophy or religion to give our lives meaning. But that’s just not true.
The world is so incredibly rich, so incredibly complex, that it can overwhelm us. We retreat from the richness of life and love into the semi-conscious state of the workaday world. We retreat into roles and rituals and habits and defensiveness and alcohol and television....
sleep-walk through life, and miss the good stuff. And life is hard. Very
hard for many people. Nature is what it is, does what it does, whether we
enjoy it or not. And people, while capable of love, often don't show
it. So we close our eyes and hearts to protect ourselves. Perhaps
we even grow a thick layer of callus over our inner-most selves. But if
we close our eyes and hearts, again we miss the good stuff.
This is why we need to face our problems instead of hiding from them, accept anxiety and sadness and even pain as inevitable parts of life, rather than pretending that we can only be happy when life is perfect. If we shut down when unhappiness comes our way, we may not feel as much pain, but we are no longer open to the small, good things of life that make it meaningful.
We aren't as alone as we think we are, each of us locked away in some soul-walnut. I believe that consciousness is only occasionally restricted to one person's mind. Most of the time, it lies somewhere between us. If you are playing pool with a friend, and you are really concentrating on the game, for a little while the two of you are
actually sharing consciousness -- he sees what you see and you see what he sees. When you make love with someone, you become lost in each other, lost in the passion of the moment, and share consciousness. When you raise your children, you pass on your values and dreams and quirks, and every now and then they will see the world through your eyes, and you through theirs. I’m not talking about e.s.p. or psychic phenomena here. I’m just suggesting that we never lived in such separate egos in the first place. We all learn to believe we are isolated, but we aren’t.
That's how love works: To love means to realize that you and the other person aren't entirely separate, that his or her needs and feelings are yours. It is looking in someone's eyes and seeing yourself. And that provides us with one more source of meaning!
Okay. So you have some meaning in your life. But you don't have ultimate meaning, do you? No. Ultimately, as far as nature is concerned, my poor atheist philosophy says it makes no difference if we shut out both good and bad or experience both good and bad fully -- six of one, half a dozen of the other. Love or don't love? It doesn't matter to nature. But with open eyes and hearts we do find meaning, even if it isn't glorified with the title of "ultimate."
To be fair, much of what I've been telling you is probably a minority opinion among my community. Most would likely answer that the term spiritual is so vague and ill defined as to be impossible to answer. If spirituality is a kind of subjective experience of the mystery of the universe or an emotional reaction one gets to the wonders of life, that's easy to accept. On the other hand, a god-centred spirituality is less likely to find favour with atheists.
The website About atheism.com has some interesting insights along these lines. It concludes as follows (http://atheism.about.com/od/atheismquestions/a/Spirituality.htm):
If an atheist is wondering if it would be appropriate to use the term "spiritual" when describing themselves and their attitudes, the question that must be asked is: does it have any emotional resonance with you? Does it "feel" like it conveys some aspect of your emotional life? If so, then it may be a term you can use and it will mean just what you "feel" it conveys. On the other hand, if it just feels empty and unnecessary, then you won't be using it because it just doesn't mean anything for you.
So where do I come down on all this spirituality stuff? Last year I spoke here I talked about the poetry of science, about the awe and wonder that gives my life meaning that I get from studying and exploring the natural world. But I also commented on the interconnectedness of all life and of life with the rest of the natural world. This comes closest to spirituality for me.
I'm also fascinated by the self organizing principles that seem to be at work in the universe which, as Paul Davies describes in the reading we had earlier, seems to suggest the universe has an inherent ability to move towards greater complexity and innovation even in the face of the overall increase in entropy and disorder. Ironically, these truths about physical reality which pull me towards a sense of the spiritual are the same truths which simultaneously tell us that in the long run the universe is bound to a slow and final heat death. All forms of matter and energy will in end get turned from useful to useless, providing us ultimately with that same universe becoming barren, inhospitable and devoid of life.
That finding a sense of the spiritual from the imminence of the natural world must also come with such a seemingly pessimistic realization might be ironic, but I think what it does is force each of us into a personal existential decision. We each need to decide how to interpret this dual understanding and how to use it, either to reject the spiritual outright, or to re-interpret it to give our own life meaning.