COBEMany spiritually inclined people describe atheism as ‘sterile’ or ‘dry’. They believe that science has stripped the world of its mystery and left only bleak logic where once there was wonder.

But who are these “spiritually inclined” people? What does it mean to be inclined towards spirit? I believe they are people seeking meaning. They are people who wish for their lives to have a purpose. Unsatisfied with mere existence, they are looking for a deeper meaning in their lives. To borrow a phrase from Afaggdu, they are those “who look between the cracks of the normal, the profane and the everyday for the sacrality of tradition and its great hidden depths.”

Some people appear to be satisfied by quite trite and shallow answers to these questions. Some people apparently feel the need to seek a purpose but are then happy to accept any purpose proffered them. Those that fall for L. Ron Hubbard’s science-fiction religion believe that their purpose in life is to escape the evil psychic influence of the extraterrestrial tyrant Xenu. (Really, they do.) Literal-minded Christians find a purpose for their life in the worship of a magic carpenter. (Really, they do.) I can’t decide which is funnier, or perhaps more depressing. Muslims with their magic pederast are in much the same ballpark.

I don’t recognise anything spiritual in these superficial cults. I don’t see people with a need for something deeper. These are not people who “look between the cracks of the normal” – these people are just cracked. Many of them were brought up that way and have never questioned what they were taught. Others may have felt that uncanny feeling that there’s something more to life, that disturbing sense that their everyday life is meaningless and just not very important, that strange tug that pulls people away from the quotidian and towards the mysterious, but they accepted the first cult they came across and smothered the unquiet.

Others find meaning in less overtly religious settings. Instead they devote themselves to a political party, or a conspiracy theory, or to environmentalism, or to innumerable other ‘isms’ – all with much the same result as joining a more obvious cult.

But others have devoted themselves to science. Far from finding it dry or sterile, they can conceive of nothing more wondrous than uncovering underlying principles that govern all reality. What could be more mysterious than the inner workings of reality itself? What could be more marvellous than to perceive the universal laws? One only has to hear a great scientist’s rhapsody on nature to realise that, for them at least, this is where meaning is to be found.

A scientist is exactly the sort of person who looks between the cracks of the everyday. A scientist always wonders ‘Why?’ Why does this happen? How does this affect that? What happens if I do this and why does it happen? This continual quest for answers, this eternal desire to uncover mysteries, strikes me as considerably more ‘spiritual’ than the petty and bizarre cults that absorb so many others.

I find it strange that what began as a driven, spiritual quest to read the “Book of Nature” is now considered to be dead, dry and sterile. However, I suspect that the answer lies in a misunderstanding of the scientist’s desire to uncover mystery. For it is the mysterious that engenders wonder. It is in the presence of the awesome that people undergo a ‘religious experience’. So they see the scientist’s desire to unveil mystery, to explain through calculations the mechanisms behind the mysterious, as an attempt to strip the world of its wonder, to remove the capacity for awe.

But this is a mistake. For the wonder that a scientist experiences is precisely the wonder engendered by his discoveries. If you condemn a scientist for wondering how things work, you might as well condemn all religious and spiritual endeavours as similar attempts to “explain away” the object of their practices. Einstein’s description of the purpose of his scientific explorations – he hoped they would bring him “closer to the secret of the Old One” – would not seem out of place in an initiatory text.

I think, perhaps, that it is the final goal of science that repels people. The Holy Grail of physicists is the reduction of all physical laws to a single Theory of Everything. This idea that everything might be explained, that everything might be reduced to a few logical rules, again scares people that the mystery of life might be lost. Or, at least, it turns people against science as they believe its ultimate goal, whether feasible or not, is abhorrent. But, as with any Grail Quest, it is the seeking that matters. The ultimate goal of most seekers is just the same: if it were actually achieved, there would be nothing more to do, and no more mystery. That scientists explain this in an easily understood manner is their only mistake.

Furthermore, many scientists think that the greatest mystery of all is that fact that scientific endeavour appears to work. The universe really does appear to work according to regular laws and, furthermore, those laws are amenable to human reason. This is amazing. As Einstein wrote, “The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible.”

But then Einstein was a great man, wiser, perhaps, than some of the current crop of militant atheists. Perhaps it is the intolerant dogmatism of Richard Dawkins and his ilk that turns people so vehemently against atheism and, by association, against science. But atheism was not always expressed in such a manner. Atheism has been just as deep and sincere as any religion – if Dawkins is to be the standard bearer of atheism then a fair equivalent would be Oral Roberts or Jerry Falwell on the side of religion.

In an article bemoaning the propensity of contemporary Christian clerics to ignore traditional Christian teachings in favour of environmentalism, Brendan O’Neill wrote:

Christian teaching was once concerned with man, meaning and morality, with questions of free will, inner life and human destiny. As it happens, atheists, at least progressive ones, were concerned with exactly the same things. The chasm-sized difference between atheists and Christians occurred over the question of whether the moral meaning of man came from within or without; whether, as some atheists believed, the purpose of humanity was to be found within humanity itself; or, as Christians believed, humanity achieved meaning only through an external deity, God.

Where Christian morality granted man a diluted form of free will – underpinned by the idea that, yes, we make free choices, but God is the ultimate arbiter of our destiny – progressive atheists emphasised complete free will, arguing that only through full freedom of thought and a human-centred morality could humans remake the world in their own image and according to their own needs and desires.

Whatever you may think about the goals or morals of atheism, it is as valid a spiritual path as Christianity. Indeed, I would rank atheism along with Christianity and Islam as the three great monotheisms of today. I am not a fan of monotheism, so it follows that I am not a great fan of atheism either, but I much prefer sincere, thoughtful atheism to the spiritless cults of modern Christianity or fundamentalist Islam. Also, science works.

Published in: on January 2, 2008 at 12:00 am  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Amen.

  2. Hi, Good article.Im not always sure what atheism really means but I’ve always thought there was a close, paradoxical alliance between atheism’s criticisms of orhthodox religion and esoteric spirituality’s criticism toward the same. Whether you be attacking a contrivance that masks and denies the reality of non-existence, or whether you be attacking an idol that is the distortion of a genuine article, only I think makes a difference once you’ve got beyond the point of sharing a common assault.’only through full freedom of thought and a human-centred morality could humans remake the world in their own image and according to their own needs and desires.’I dont see this as incompatible with my understanding of theism at all, alrgely I suppose because I dont see God and man as fundamentally distinct.And besides, obviously only an insecure being would mind people doubting his existence, so theists objections towards atheists are perverse, and suggests a pretty weak God.regards

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