Atheist Spirituality

Leonard Sweet is a prominent, albeit controversial, Christian leader and thinker.  Last night he posted this observation on Twitter:

lensweet athiest spiritual

No doubt there have been many ways to use the term “spirituality” and not use it in the religious sense.  I am hearing a tone of consternation and concern that if the statement is true, Christianity loses something that has been held as unique by many in the faith community.  Yet, having read Dr. Sweet’s writing I can certainly say that he is not naive enough to think that spirituality is solely a Christian construct, nor is it necessarily religious in its nature or its practice.

There are decidedly many qualifiers to that statement.   Not only do we have to ask what he means by “most atheists” but also what the word “spiritual” means.

Here are some things to consider:

  1. Is this statement true?  (I suppose you would either have to be or know an atheist to answer!)
  2. What does “spiritual” mean?  Can a person use the term like “God” in other contexts to mean other things (i.e. in the spirit of Einstein)?
  3. Is spirituality fashionable?
  4. Is this statement basically offensive, whether you are athiest or Christian?

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About Aaron Gardner

Aaron is a counselor and student of the Bible, passionate about sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. He lives in central Indiana with his wife, one-year-old son and their two dogs. View all posts by Aaron Gardner

16 responses to “Atheist Spirituality

  • charles Puskas

    Yes, “spiritual” atheists tend to mine judeo-christian resources for what they like but not give any credit to their sources or ultimate source!

  • Aaron

    Are you saying that atheists are more “Christian” than they would like to admit?

  • Shamelessly Atheist

    I gotta say, whenever I hear someone describing themselves as spiritual I interpret that to mean they are calling themselves a ‘flake’.

  • Aaron

    I agree… it seems to be indicative of the PAP (permanent agnosticism in principle) position. Dawkins does not even consider to be a legitimate position when it comes to matters regarding the exisitance of God. It as if the person wants to have the best of both worlds, but not side with either. A very precarious position to maintain!

  • Rakehell

    Sometimes (most times, actually), I am of Shamelessly Atheist’s opinion that a nonreligious person who describes themselves as ‘spiritual’ is something of a flake. However, there are many times when I have been so overcome with joy, awe, humility or wonder that it brought tears to my eyes and my heartbeat to a frantic crescendo. I tend to think of that as emotional overload, but couldn’t that just be a synonym for a spiritual moment?

    Maybe not. Maybe I need a better definition of what a believer means by spirituality before I can even consider the question properly.

  • Sabio Lantz

    Words are just words — they are manipulation tools.
    So, if you want to take away someone’s influence, grab their words.
    Blacks did this with “nigger”.
    Homosexuals did this with “fag”.
    Or you can go the other way, grab the other teams sacred words like:
    “Spiritual” or “God”
    Here I challenged people to come up with an Atheist definitions of “God” so that an atheist, should they ever desire, could say, “Yeah, sure, I believe in ‘God’.”

  • Rakehell

    Sabio: Words are a tool of communication. They can be used to communicate either rational, dispassionate thoughts or raw emotion.

  • Nathaniel

    I am not in the least bit “spiritual”, especially not in the usual sense of the word. I haven’t met a single atheist who professed him or herself to be spiritual. I highly doubt that “most” atheists want to have anything at all to do with any sort of spirits or ghosts.

    Of course the word spirit or spiritual itself can be used many different ways, but as long as it involves physical manifestations of sheets floating in mid-air, or non-physical entities influencing the physical world, I very much doubt many atheists want anything to do with it.

    Not that I’ve experienced. However, I do live in Sweden, so I don’t think I’m able to answer for Americans.

    To me, yes, I am a little bit offended. Just a tiny bit. To claim that I dismiss God but that I’m still “spiritual” implies that I’m an atheist only because I’m “angry at God”, or some such explanation. That’s just not true. I don’t believe in God because I see no reason to think he exists at all, which is the exact same reason why I don’t believe in ghosts, ghouls, spirits, souls, auras or anything else related to “spirituality”.

    Honestly, I don’t think a “Christian leader” should be making any sort of statements regarding what atheists believe. He should know enough to realize that atheists are individuals, and are grouped together by nothing more than their non-belief in deities. Whatever else they believe usually has nothing to do specifically with atheism, even though they might use the same reason for those disbeliefs.

  • Cally

    Shamelessly Atheist: I do have to write that you make me laugh out loud! Flake, reminds me of dandruff……

  • Doc Bill

    I think that’s one of the stupidest Tweets I’ve ever read! This weekend I observed and Tweeted that “most Christians now think that avocados are a Sacred Fruit.” It’s true! I Tweeted it!

  • Tom Sims

    Aaron – It is interesting that they would claim it. Most of the atheists I know (and I know more than most preachers) don’t say that they are spiritual in conversations with me.)

    I would say that they are spiritual because we are all spiritual. That is simply the way that I approach people – as folks who are far more than they appear to be on the surface whether they buy into that or not (“wherefore henceforth know we no man after the flesh”) That is a theological conviction of mine based upon my own belief system. As such, I would not ask other people to acknowledge that about themselves and would respect their right to decline the characterization.

    I think that “spiritual” is more than creative, artistic, ethereal, or human, but I do not believe it is necessarily heavenly minded. It is more like being eternally significant, capable of relationship with God, and one whose life cannot be fully explained by the laws of physics. If someone wants to call themselves “spiritual,” that is fine. If they want it to describe one of the aforementioned characteristics, that is also fine.

    In both Greek and Hebrew, the term, “spirit” is interchangeable with wind and breath as well as with the undefined and undefinable essence of what a person is. “Soul” is another such word, really meaning the totality of one’s personality, life, and identity.

    Paul talked about, “Those of you who are spiritual,” acting in a certain way and I suspect he was referring to spiritual sensitivity, tuning, and orientation.

    I think Len Sweet was reporting, pondering, and musing in his article, not grouping people or making sweeping statements about them. His survey statistics just don’t match my anecdotal experiences.

    I do think that “spirituality” is fashionable in some circles. That has upsides and downsides for Christian communicators.

    I am not easily offended by what people say or believe. Ideas are ideas. As long as we can discuss them, we don’t need to be overly sensitive. It is an interesting discussion.

    Thanks for introducing the subject and inviting responses. I doubt that I have added much to it, but it gave me an opportunity to think at my keyboard and interact around the issue.

  • Boz

    For the statement “most athiests now claim to be ‘spiritual”” to be true, there would have to be at least two reliable surveys. One showing that at some time in the past less than half of athiests claimed to be spiritual, and a second showing that recently more than half of athiests claim to be spiritual. Without this (or similar) information, Leonard Sweet is lying.

  • Berlzebub

    Personally, I don’t consider myself spiritual in the “disconnected embodiment of self” way. I can see using “spiritual” as an analogy, but overall the term is so overused as to become meaningless in everyday conversation. I actually agree with what others (and as you noted, Dawkins) had to say about it. Atheists who claim to be spiritual seem to be hedging their bets, or at least unable to make up their minds.

    That being said, I’d be interested in finding out where Mr. Sweet got his information. Is it actually atheists he’s talking about, or does it include agnostics and other non-religious persons.

  • Aaron

    @ Boz and Berlzebub

    Agreed… I am also curious about where he got this information, or if it is a personal impression that he has. I have invited him to give that insight via twitter and facebook, but have received no response.

    @ Tom Sims

    I have definitely seen that spirituality has been fashionable. I could say that Len Sweet’s perspective may be much more true for agnostics, but again that seems to be what others have called “fence-sitting.” I respect what Dawkins says about the issue: there is a God or there is not; being on the fence is not a position one can really sustain. I think that the spirit of Revelation 3:16 applies here.

  • Renier

    I think the distinction would be, as some people note, by what is meant by spirituality. If is is a term concerning a “spirit”, as defined by many religions, then a “spiritual atheist” is mostly a contradiction in terms. If spirit is meant as a love for life, the ability to stand in awe at something greater than us (aka the universe), appreciation for art etc, then it might make more sense.

    Wiki: “Spirituality is matters of the spirit, a concept often (but not necessarily) tied to a spirit world, a multidimensional reality and one or more deities. Spiritual matters regard humankind’s ultimate nature and purpose, not as material biological organisms, but as spirits or energy with an eternal relationship beyond the bodily senses, time and the material world.”

    Is the sense, the concept of a “spiritual” atheist is probably just stupid.

    But spiritual atheist may be compatible (to a degree) with ideas like “[wiki]connection to a reality beyond than the physical world and oneself, which may include an emotional experience of awe and reverence.” and “Spirituality may also include the development of the individual’s inner life through practices such as meditation […]”

    On the other hand, I should note, that I have met “atheists”, though only a few, who are critical about gods but not critical about New Age nonsense such as healing crystals etc. I suppose such atheists might be happy to call themselves “spiritual” though I would have used a different definition for them that might not sound polite.

    charles Puskas wrote: “Yes, “spiritual” atheists tend to mine judeo-christian resources for what they like but not give any credit to their sources or ultimate source!”

    What utter nonsense. You might as well say: “Yes, “spiritual” Christians tend to mine Greco-Sumerian resources for what they like but not give any credit to their sources or ultimate source!” – and the latter might have been closer to the truth.

    Nathaniel wrote: “To claim that I dismiss God but that I’m still “spiritual” implies that I’m an atheist only because I’m “angry at God”, or some such explanation.”

    It does not imply that.

    Boz said: “Without this (or similar) information, Leonard Sweet is lying.”

    I share that impression.

    Harris in one of his lectures (cannot remember the name) talks about the human brain, meditation and life changing experience. It might be worth listening to if one really needs to consider a “deeper” or “spiritual” position. I’ll see if I can track the name of the lecture and post it here.

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