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.
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.