Bonus book

Every month I make sure to take a look at the atheist section in my local bookstore. About a year ago it filled just one shelf; before the holidays, it had spread onto three; today it is covering four. Half a shelf of the paperback edition of The God Delusion was flanked by four or five copies of several other recent and popular books, and the remaining shelves were filled with single copies of a large number older books. Although I purchase a lot of books online, I like to buy books on atheism, science, and skepticism from my local store in the hopes that they’ll be encouraged to stock more books on these topics. Here’s what I picked up today:

The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality by André Comte-Sponville

I hadn’t heard of this book before, but the subject matter is of interest to me. As someone recently said of Richard Dawkins (sadly I can’t recall where I read this), I am an atheist but very religious because I probably think about God more than the Pope does. I’ve noticed that there are two kinds of people: those who are interested in spirituality and those who are not. I am in the former group, even though I no longer think of spirituality and the supernatural as being tied together. As Christopher Hitchens, one of the four horsemen recently said, “If we could find a way of enforcing the difference between the numinous and the superstitious, we would be doing something culturally important.” This book makes a contribution toward that goal.


Donna Druchunas is a freelance technical writer and editor and a knitwear designer. When she's not working, she blogs, studies Lithuanian, reads science and sci-fi books, mouths off on atheist forums, and checks her email every three minutes. (She does that when she's working, too.) Although she loves to chat, she can't keep an IM program open or she'd never get anything else done.

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  1. I think understand where you're coming from, but picking at my unabridged dictionary:

    If numinous only had the definition of: appealing to the higher emotions or to the aesthetic sense

    and spiritual: of, relating to, or coming from the intellectual and higher endowments of the mind : INTELLECTUAL, MENTAL — contrasted with animal

    8 : highly refined in thought or feeling

    …I would be OK with those words as an atheist, but both are too loaded with religious and supernatural meanings that I avoid them. So, I have to ask what spirituality means to you or anyone who says they are spiritual.

    I notice a reviewer said: "The title of the original French book is "L'Esprit de l'Atheisme" ("The Spirit of Atheism"; why was it changed?)."

    I dislike the way foreign book and movie titles are often translated. And I too wonder about those decisions.

  2. Yeah, experiences and contemplations that have been so dominated by religion and woo that it's hard to find unambiguous language to discuss them.

    So far it seems the strategy is using pairings like:

    Rational Mysticism, Naturalistic Spirtuality, Naturalistic Pantheism, etc.


    Quasi-religious term paired with "Non Spooky Disclaimer" -LOL

  3. Ooh – this is something I've been wondering about for a while, and I've not seen much written about it. The whole "spirituality" side of human nature is definitely an important one, as well as being fascinating to start unweaving the rainbow and exploring where some of our ideas about these things arise.

    Denhamon might be onto something, but I can't help thinking that labels like that kinda just sound like the same old insubstantial religiosity as ever, masquerading as something scientific or reason-based. Hmm. Damn language. We might need some new words.

  4. I don't think we should abandon language to fundamentalists and other religious folks who want to own words for their own purposes. It's one thing I agree with Michael Shermer about.

    When I asked Shermer about his use of the terms "soul," "spiritual," and "purpose driven life" in his pamphlet The Soul of Science, here's what he said:

    I purposefully chose those words because they have deep meaning to everyone and I don’t want to relinquish them to religious people alone, and I don’t want to invent some lame new word to describe myself (e.g., “agnoatheispiritualist”). But more importantly, I want to show to religious and nonreligious people alike, that when we are talking about being “spiritual” we are actually talking about the same thing—transcending ourselves and finding awe in things that are bigger and beyond us. And that it is no threat to religion and, on the contrary, it is complementary to religion to find spirituality in science. Science can be transcendently spiritual for religious people as well. If God created the universe, what difference does it make whether he did it 10,000 years ago or 10,000,000,000 years ago? To an eternal being, an extra six zeros is meaningless. And if God created the universe, what difference does it make how she did it? A quantum foam fluctuation or the spoken word?


  5. Well, actually, I've always thought that Carl Sagan consistently displayed a kind of Scientific Spiritualism in his works. Finding the workings of the cosmos to be nouminous in and of itself, wirthout having to resort to superstition was something that I always admired about him.

    I personally try to shore up such a sense of wonder with threads of Stoicism, Epicureanism, and a dash of Zen-style.

    I'm pretty sure we already have lots of scientists and skeptics out there whom we could describe as deeply spiritual.

    Perhaps we need, as rationalists, to take the term "Spiritual" and redefine it to suit reality– sort of the way the Woo-Woos try to appropriate aspects of Quantum Physics, or Biology.

    Anyway– I'm buying this book.

  6. writerdd quotes Shermer:

    If God created the universe, what difference does it make whether he did it 10,000 years ago or 10,000,000,000 years ago? To an eternal being, an extra six zeros is meaningless. And if God created the universe, what difference does it make how she did it? A quantum foam fluctuation or the spoken word?

    I was once deeply moved by arguments of this sort, and I used to think they'd be effective rhetoric, but now I wonder: doesn't it just remove God from human affairs by six orders of magnitude, and aren't people smart enough to realize that? Doesn't it matter that this kind of God sounds more like a physicist's parody of a Monty Python sketch?

    "And the number of the fundamental forces shall be four, and four shall be the number of the forces. Five shall not be the number of the forces, and the number of the forces shall not be counted as three, excepting that one goes on to count four. Six is right out. . . ."

    Doesn't it matter that we're telling people to read Genesis as a mad metaphor, a gluttony of symbolism representing something which wasn't even imagined when Genesis was written? Doesn't it matter that we've put all religions on the same footing, because doing the same amount of violence to the interpretation of any other holy text will also bring that story into alignment with science?

    I know a good many people identify as "Christian" while effectively holding as inspired only, let's say, a few verses in John and the book of Ecclesiastes. But they're not the problem.

    (Oh, everybody look at the grumpy atheist who had to walk in the rain. Let's give the grumpy atheist a cookie. . . .)

  7. Did you have to walk in the rain, Rav? If not…I'm afraid you get no cookie. You see, I'm a grumpy atheist who agrees with Blake, and I did NOT go out in the rain today, so I am withholding cookies from myself. Damn these strict rules.

    But yeah, on the subject at hand…I actually DO cede words like "spiritual" and "soul" to those who use them in line with their more common meaning. I've always been conscious of separating awe and wonderment from words like those, and I also like to be precise with my words to lessen the number of people who mistake my meaning.

    I'm simply NOT a spiritual person. During my transition from Catholicism to Atheism I went through a phase of "spiritual but not religious" where I wasn't yet ready to abandon the trappings of that magisterium, as it were. Now that I've become more or less comfortable without the supernatural, I don't continue to feel the need for spirtuality.

    Maybe I'm heartless, or maybe I'm playing with semantics. But to use an example favored by Neil deGrasse Tyson, when I'm met with the concept that all of the iron in my blood was, at some point, forged in a supernova, I don't think what I feel is "spiritual." I describe it as "cool!!", in the same way I'd describe learning a new trick in a video game or that a friend is about to have a child. And "cool!!" is more than enough for me :)

  8. Writerdd said: I don’t think we should abandon language to fundamentalists and other religious folks who want to own words for their own purposes.

    Maybe not, but those are words that they've "owned" for a long time, even etymologically speaking. "Breath of life" or Latin's "of the wind." Simply of spirits, the supernatural and that which can't be seen. My concern is in daily language where someone would assume the supernatural, though they don't always, at least if they know me. I don't want to make up a lame word either.

    Shermer: transcending ourselves and finding awe in things that are bigger and beyond us.

    This I can relate to and it's why my mother once long ago refferred to me as spiritual despite my atheism: I think she read my poems and notebook scribblings where I wrote about Nature. In Denver I recall writing about the grandness of the mountains and how my problems seemed so small in the scale of time, and so on, after a serious break-up (I was more poetic in my notebooks.) I would often write things while sitting next to rivers; I wrote a poem for school that essentially exalted the Sun, that if replaced with the word God, would have seemed downright religious. (It was not a pagan-like worship of the Sun, just a paean to an object.) In these senses I was certainly looking above and beyond myself to some greater force – Nature and all it entails. However, I was often accused by my fellow Catholic students as being pagan or some sort of druid (lol). There was no sort of worship on my part – I simply found comfort, solace, curiosity and metaphor in the natural world. I was also interested in the human mind.

    Perhaps denhamon's suggestion of "Naturalistic Spirituality" would be most fitting. I'm currently reading Sagan's The Varieties of Scientific Experience and I get that feeling from him, too, as Rav mentioned.

    And that it is no threat to religion and, on the contrary, it is complementary to religion to find spirituality in science.

    Ok, this I don't like because science is a tool. I don't *believe in* science. I believe that science is the best tool or method to collect and organize information to better understand the natural world. I'm not playing semantics, but I wouldn't find spirituality in science any more than I would in art, history, or any human endeavor. Those things are not transcendent of ourselves, though they may provide meanings and implications that could be so. Time, for example, is something much bigger and beyond our control. Our better understanding of the nature of time is awe-inspiring (at least to me). It's not the science per se, it's *time.* (Scientists made it more awesome as with studying Saturn, supernovas, etc.)

    Because of the loaded word and the "atheism is a religion" nonsense, I'm cautious. I'm tired of saying "atheism is not a religion" and I don't want to say "spirituality doesn't mean supernatural." So, I'm wary of combining the two. However, I know with my mother, who uses religious language daily, that it somehow made her feel better to think of me as a 'spiritual atheist.'

    I had to walk in the rain today, so I want a cookie too. :-)

  9. I think it's always safer to avoid using loaded words if alternatives are usable in the context.

    For instance, when arguing with fundies, I try to always use the word "hypothesis" in favor of the more colloquially used "theory", because it would only further confuse the issue they're already so confused about.

    I also try to avoid using the phrase "I believe", and instead use "I think" or "in my opinion". The same thing goes for terms like "soul", "spiritual" and being careful with words like "energy" for example, or "positive/negative".

    It takes a bit longer to compose your thoughts, but it also allows you to compose them in such a way they can no longer be misunderstood by a stubborn woo, or thrown back at you in a way you didn't intend them.

    That said, I'm sure plenty of atheists will utter things like "Oh god" or "holy [something or other]", but that's just a result of the pervasiveness of religion in western (well, really any) culture.

    As far as being spiritual goes, I'm not even sure what that means. I might be spiritual, I might not be. While I like to discuss and think about things like the soul and spirit, the subject bores me easily too.

    I have done a lot of thinking about the universe when I was a teenager, although less so now. And back then, some of that skirted religion and god, the supernatural, etc…

    Along the way god and the supernatural just dropped out of those thoughts for the simple reason they unnecessarily complicated matters. Okham's razor did its job.

    For what it's worth though, I still like nothing better than that feeling you get when your mind seems to flip over while trying to wrap your head around a concept like the infinity of our universe :D

  10. From the reviews, it seems that spirituality is not separated from supernaturalism in André Comte-Sponville’s book. Writerdd, have you read the book yet? Does the author believe in souls or other such supernatural things? If he does, than this would be greatly disappointing to me. I think we need more books on naturalist spirituality, not just atheist spirituality. Naturalist spirituality is something I find much more interesting than the broad term of atheist spirituality, because if spirituality is under the banner of atheism, it still leaves room for plenty of superstition and unnecessary supernatural nonsense. Please, let me know if the author ends up arguing for supernatural beliefs as an atheist. Thanks.

  11. sturmunddrang, I haven't finished the book but he definitely states that the spirit is the brain, nothing more. I haven't run into anything that indicates a belief in the supernatural so far.

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