5 Ways Atheism Can Be Spiritual

It is often thought that atheists have no spirituality. That all atheists care about is making religious people feel stupid, and that there is no more to life than understanding complex interactions between matter. That feeling connected or involved in the universe is solely the privilege of the faithful. I disagree with this.

Though I dislike the word spirituality itself, mainly due to all its religious connotations, I understand the word’s significance. Spirituality is simply an adjective that is used to describe the search for one’s place in the universe.

No one wants to feel alone in life, and even if you are alone, being spiritual makes you feel connected to the world and other people in it. Atheists get that, and it is important, maybe even essential, to our species’ psychological makeup to feel this way. There are ways to feel involved with the world that do not involve mystic mumbo-jumbo however.

1. Understanding Life

Science as a whole is a woefully-neglected subject in public schools, and it is a shame, because of all disciplines, it can be the most spiritual, especially the study of biology.

All species on earth were at one time connected, we all share certain common characteristics passed on through eons in our DNA strands, and we are just one link in a chain whose future is uncertain. Think of how mind boggling it is that for about 150,000 years human beings, no different than you and me, walked the Earth with other human-like species. Or how incredible it is that we share a common ancestor with both a dragonfly and a grapefruit.

To know evolution is to know the story of life on earth, and to know the scientific story of life is to feel connected to the world as you never have before.

2. Understanding the Stars

There are more stars in the universe than grains of sand on Earth. That is a stupefying number of stars. The size and scale of the universe are unfathomable, and the age is beyond comprehension. There are stars in the universe whose size is a million times bigger than our sun, which is the size of about a million earths. If the study of biology makes us feel connected to the world, the universe reminds us of our place in it, and our past in the stars.

Everything that exists was forged in the furnace of a star, which is the only place hot enough for atoms to merge and combine to form new elements. All the elements that make up your body came from a supernova, which means you, and everyone you love, and everything you see is connected not only with each other, but with the entire universe as well.

3. Death

Most people live their entire lives trying to deny that they will die. Some people don’t really live their entire lives trying to avoid their ultimate fate. Death is the great equalizer, and it will come to us all one day. There is no escaping it, and really, very little that can be done to postpone it.

When you die, your body decomposes back into various elements which are consumed and used and put back into the earth, which will be blown up eventually by the sun, and scattered across the universe. Embracing the idea that you will die also becomes liberating. Once someone accepts that their death is inevitable, they begin to lose tolerance for doing something they hate doing.

Frederick Douglass wrote in his memoirs that when he was a slave he was terrified of being whipped, until one day he struck a white man. Knowing the penalty for hitting a white person was death, Douglass spent a few days living in terror of what would happen next. While he wasn’t killed, his brush with death changed him forever. He realized that as a slave his days were numbered anyway, and that one day soon, he would probably die a violent death. Once he accepted this his condition became intolerable. He lost the fear of dying in pursuit of living.

Accepting that one day you will die is a key factor in deciding to really live. To grab your life, and decide, this is what I am going to do, is the key to happiness.

4. Embracing Freedom

Once one acknowledges that death is inevitable, there are only two choices. Live life as you want to, or just wait it out. I think the most spiritual way someone can spend their life is embracing all the challenges of pursuing your dreams, not kneeling in front of some altar. The freedom to use the brief time you have to exist is a freedom that no one can deny you.

Whether you want to be a chef, a doctor, or a pornographic film maker, the choices you make are entirely yours, and you have all the power to create make your life into a work of art, unique and totally yours.

5. Lack of Control

Paradoxically, the more control one gains over one’s life, the more one realizes the less control one has over events. True spirituality with the universe recognizes that randomness plays a large part in our day to day lives.

Being spiritual means not fighting these changes that cannot be fought, such as a relative dying in a freak accident, losing one’s job because of the economy, having your face ripped off by an angry chimp.

Change is the only constant in life, and it is embedded in the laws of physics. To be a part of change is to be a part of the world, being changed is existing. Struggling against change is struggling against the will of the universe. TC mark

image – cristapper

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  • Louisa

    I love this. It’s a beautifully written piece, well done. :)

  • http://thestrangerblog.com/ Michelle (The Stranger)

    Thank you for this Ben. I couldn’t agree more. I usually reject associating myself with any particular ideology/movement/affiliation, but I make an exception for atheism. If anything, it’s liberating.

    Just a friendly correction: “Though I dislike the WORD spirituality itself”

    • http://twitter.com/cassie_wallace Cassie Wallace

      And “altar,” not “alter.” =

    • Vaibhav

      Your using the word “I” soo many times itself is self defeating. Stop thinking about I and then U will like the word spirituality.

      • http://thestrangerblog.com/ Michelle (The Stranger)

        I can’t even tell if you’re trolling or not.

        Did you even READ the article? If you did you would realize that I was correcting a typo that Ben made (in the second paragraph, too). It’s kind of insulting and ridiculous that you’re commenting on an article you never bothered to read.

        P.S. *You’re, *You

      • Vaibhav

        Ahh! i did not know you were supposed to proofread the article! 

        I am sorry! 

  • Nishant

    This is all so true. And science is the real way of understanding it. Agreed!

    A problem with most religious discussions is the polarising and unknowledgeable view they have of atheism. This is exacerbated by how easily any fool calls himself an atheist, without understanding how much responsibility it is to be one!

  • http://www.facebook.com/cbartnik Caitlin Bartnik

    Perfect. Thank you for putting many of my feelings into words!

  • Andre

    The word “spiritual” is now one of those terms that really doesn’t mean anything anymore.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002190548103 Tim McEown

      I tend to disagree. while words can lose their communal value by overuse or abuse, their intrinsic value is mediated by the complexity and context individuals ascribe to them. And I think the author of this piece did a really useful job of creating a non-denominational context without stripping the word of any real meaning. ‘Spirituality is simply an adjective that is used to describe the search for one’s place in the universe.’

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002190548103 Tim McEown

    One of the sad truths about life in North America is that pieces like this are almost an anomaly –they’re so rare. But today there’s a piece about Hitchen’s and then this one. And they were both thoughtful and sharp. Neither a polemic or even particularly aggressive it expresses the value of open inquiry and a vibrant intellectual engagement with the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. Nice work.

  • PINK

    Atheism is more religious than most religions.  Paradox, but truth.  And that’s not a compliment towards atheism. 

    • Michaelwg

      Please explain.

  • Cocobirdi

    You could have included a new heading under Creation.  What more miracle could you want than that a few million years’ worth of happy accidents made us?   The notion that we are created on purpose seems like such a pale cop-out after the miracle that we even exist BECAUSE we are accidents.

  • Lauren

    In order for atheism to be true, everything must be material. In order for something to be “spiritual” in nature it must be immaterial or intangible. Therefore atheism cannot be “spiritual” since under this belief system the whole universe is viewed as being composed of matter, with no supernatural element involved. You’d do more justice for your argument to avoid fundamentally changing the definitions of words as you see fit. I understand you realize it was not the best word to explain your point, but the word does not simply imply a “search for one’s place in the universe” as you simply want to redefine. All “religious” connotation aside, spirituality is inherently immaterial, thus atheism cannot be spiritual.

    • JS

      I don’t see how atheism must be defined as being purely material. I’m sure that everyone can (and will) define it as they see fit, but I think this is talking about atheism as specifically the rejection of the ideas of deity and religion. You don’t need a deity or a religion to see life as being interconnected, or to believe in immaterial ideas. I like to think that, even without the existence of a God, life itself is beautiful and a bit magical in it’s own right. 

      • Vincenttreglia

        What this guy said…^

        These are just words. However you define them is subjective. I think the message is clear and bigger than words. Great piece.

    • RyanW

      a·the·ism    (th-zm) KEY 

      NOUN:
      Disbelief in or denial of the existence of God or gods.The doctrine that there is no God or gods.
      As Inigo Montoya said… You keep saying that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. 
      The denial of disbelief of a God does not mean you deny or disbelieve that there is a form of sentient energy that resides within everyone whose religious counterpart would be a soul. 

  • Winchesteracademy

    This really has little to do with ‘atheism’ as an ontology.

    • Michaelwg

      Atheism in and of itself as an ontology would look like this “_____________________”

  • http://twitter.com/Amphx AnnamariaPhilippeaux

    Absolutely loved it. Hope to see more from you!

  • Anonymous

    Coke Talk, is that you?

  • atvt

    As a thoughtful atheist, I really appreciated this piece – well done.  The world spirituality is indeed a little fuzzy, but I think it is possible to feel legitimate interconnectedness with one’s world and the people in it without resorting to the supernatural.  First of all, man survives by being a social creature, so the mental bonds that pull people together are part of our very genes.  Beyond our place in the natural world, our place in the great tapestry of mankind is another important element of spirituality as well. 

    Spirituality, no matter how conceived,  is one of the most delicate, personal, and complex capabilities of the human mind.  I find it awe-inspiring to contemplate that we, as a species, are capable of experiencing this sense of connection and place; for me, that’s spiritual.

  • Waicool

    belief in nothingness is by definition spiritual.

  • Michaelwg

    As an Atheist who spent 8 years in Religious Indoctrination School, I loved this piece. Atheism is truly freeing, my knowledge of science is so far beyond what it was, and it is far more amazing than anything I believed before, there is beautiful Truth in it, no faith necessary. It’s not that Atheism in itself has any meaning whatsoever, it’s just a definition we get pigeonholed into because of all the religious cults around us, if they didn’t exist, we’d all just be “People.” Someday i hope. “Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has” —Martin Luther

  • Gevurtsraminer

    I love all 5 things you list. I don’t think it needs to be called “spiritual.” They are awesome independent of labels.

  • The Gordis

    This is an awesome piece.  I’d love to read more from you!

  • annie

    I’ve always felt that the outlook of an atheist had the potential to be equally as spiritual/poetic as that of any religious person. Look at Neil DeGrasse Tyson. I don’t know whether he’s an atheist or not, but it doesn’t matter because everyone, religious or not, would benefit from looking at the universe this way, by believing that it’s already beautiful and wonderful just the way we have empirically found it to be.

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