Sunday, January 31, 2010

Can there be an atheist spirituality?

When an English translation of The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality by French philosopher André Comte-Sponville was published, the title naturally made some waves among atheists. Atheist spirituality sounds like an oxymoron. In fact, anytime I've heard or seen discussions on this topic, somebody always says that such a thing is impossible because spirituality refers to the supernatural by definition. For the record, this is not a review of the book per se, just a general discussion of the idea of atheist spirituality. When I finish the book, I'll post a review.

So, is Comte-Sponville radically redefining his terms, or is there another explanation? While it's admittedly not a definitive source, I checked the dictionary that comes with my computer. Naturally, spiritual was defined as relating to the spirit (duh). So what does this dictionary mean by spirit?
The nonphysical part of a person that is the seat of emotions and character.
Further definitions do refer to supernatural entities, but as you can see, this one does not. This definition doesn't imply anything about the nature of this entity. It's entirely possible that these are all brain functions or their byproducts. Actually, the word in that definition that has the most quibbling potential is nonphysical. If that word really bothers you, just replace it with intangible.

In this sense, spirit is something people deal with all the time, regardless of religion or irreligion. Yes, it refers to ethical standards, but it also refers to a general perspective on the world and how to interact with it. As you can probably guess, spirituality in this sense is of great interest to me. So the answer to the question, "Can there be an atheist spirituality?" is "Yes, definitely." You could argue that spirituality is a poor word choice, but that's an entirely different discussion.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Why is this atheist blog different from all other atheist blogs?

Since officially putting up the Scarlet A, I've wondered what I could do to distinguish this blog from the other atheist blogs out there. Unfortunately, I don't belong to any special group that could lend me particular insight into this sort of thing. I don't have any special expertise in philosophy or the natural sciences. But even a cursory reading of my previous posts hints at what I think is sparsely-populated territory in the freethinking blogosphere.

Many who have left religion compare their experience to abusive relationships, and sadly, this is often based on actual abusive experiences. But at some point, it becomes counterproductive to wallow in victimhood, and if nothing else, it gets tiring after a while! If you are in such a situation, eventually you have to ask yourself, "OK, so all this happened. What comes next?"

That's what interests me. Once you've made mincemeat of the ontological argument and can refute creationist talking points blindfolded with one hand tied behind your back, how do you go about living your life? After you throw out the Ten Commandments, what do you put in their place? What process do you use in such choices?

As you may have guessed, I don't think there's necessarily a single set of answers that applies to all people in all situations. But I think it might be possible to find general principles that at least apply to most people in most situations, and equally importantly, to understand the occasions when such principles don't apply. I also think it might be possible to help people devise a framework for constructing meaning in their lives.

Most importantly, I'm interested in the discussion on these topics. If I had to sum it up in one question, it would be, "What constitutes a life well-lived?" For starters, it's perfectly reasonable to wonder what I mean by "a life well-lived," and I'll probably elaborate on that in future posts. I fully expect to discuss ideas from across the theological spectrum. If someone I vehemently disagree with on other issues says something insightful on the topics relevant here, I'll gladly mention the idea and credit that person.

Naturally, I hope you will join me and participate. If you've got a thinker whose ideas you'd like to discuss, suggest away!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

That's how I roll

This blog has been added to the blogrolls of:
Yes, I realize that I didn't do anything special to merit this, but every bit helps! Thanks, guys!

Coming soon: why is this atheist blog different from all other atheist blogs?

Monday, January 18, 2010

Non-religious disaster relief

I don't need to tell you about the suffering that continues in Haiti because of the earthquake. If you specifically want to help in the name of a non-religious organization, the Richard Dawkins Foundation has combined their efforts with several other freethought organizations to raise some money for disaster relief. Details are available at a website they've set up, Non-Believers Giving Aid. The donations will benefit Doctors Without Borders and the International Red Cross (despite its name, the Red Cross is actually a secular organization).

Over at Beliefnet, Rod Dreher takes issue with the tone on the website, but he does at least appreciate the efforts. I cannot tell you how glad I am to see these efforts out there. I hope they're able to raise a lot of money this way. For my part, I had already donated via the text message thing before hearing of this, but if this becomes a standing thing, I'll try to remember and promote it for future efforts. For anyone who has yet to donate, what are you waiting for?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Status report: Yet another atheist blog is officially born

Note the new decoration in the right column.

On a friend's recommendation, I read Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth, which is a graphic novel about the life and work of British mathematician/philosopher/logician (yes, he was that damn good) Bertrand Russell. Logicomix also shows the influence Russell had on other prominent figures such as Ludwig Wittgenstein and Kurt Gödel. If you're remotely interested in this sort of thing, I highly recommend checking out Logicomix. If you're really interested, you'll naturally want to read the writings of the main characters themselves.

Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem states that no logical system can be both consistent and complete. This implies that any complete system will require axioms that cannot be proven within the system itself. The Incompleteness Theorem was a huge blow to Russell and many of his colleagues, who had spent the last few decades trying to formulate a mathematical system based on absolute certainty. Gödel had now shown that such a system was impossible.

For a long time, I had suspected as much on some level, and of course, many of history's great thinkers have hinted at it. Sources as diverse as Socrates and the Kena Upanishad (like most of the Upanishads, the author or authors are unknown) advise skepticism of anyone who claims certain knowledge of absolute truth.

I think one of the things that leads people to say, "Atheism is just another religion," is the certainty that some atheists seem to insist on in their tone--for instance, when someone says directly or indirectly that religion has never produced anything of value and has nothing to offer people today. That's a pretty dogmatic-sounding statement, dripping with certainty and more than a little smugness. I don't think that atheism is just another religion, but I would say that there are those who treat it the same way some devout believers treat their beliefs.

Another implication of all this is that I probably won't be able to find a single group that has what I'm looking for. Previously, I've been known to agonize that there's something wrong with either me or the group when I'm not getting along with them like I'd hoped. For instance, if I didn't like the tone of one of our atheist meetups, I'd ponder the "trouble with atheism," or worse, fear that I was some poseur intellectual lightweight. Now I'm starting to think this distrust of certainty might be all right.

In fact, for the time being, I'm going to continue visiting the Vedanta Society, too. I think they have a lot of interesting stuff to say, philosophically, and I get a sense of humility and community that I haven't gotten too many other places (I wish I could say I got this from freethought-related groups, but this is not the case). Also, what I've seen of their writings so far tends to display a keen understanding of how people work. Many belief systems, religious and otherwise, have bred disaster out of their failure to account for this.

Actually, if I had to describe my belief system, naturalistic pantheism (I'll probably elaborate on this in the near future) would come closest, but since there's no community for that in my area, I have to make do with what I have. It might happen that I can practice Vedanta in a pantheistic way.

But there are things I have in common with the most militant atheist, too, like the lack of belief in anything supernatural and the desire to keep religion out of government (and science classes!). And by the definition espoused by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion, I'm at least a de facto atheist. So, up goes the scarlet A.

Scientific Education

A fun graph...

My status update is forthcoming, but as soon as I saw this, I wanted to share it.

Source: Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal via Friendly Atheist

Friday, January 15, 2010

Useful tools in a spiritual search

In all my encounters with Vedanta, everyone from Swami Vivekananda to the Resident Minister at my local Vedanta Society says I shouldn't accept anything they teach without investigating it for myself. At no point has my skeptical behavior been discouraged or criticized; in fact, the Resident Minister encourages me to ask her questions all the time.

But every group looks good to its own people and its own literature. I think when researching a group (of any kind, not just religious), it's also worthwhile to see who its enemies are and what they have to say. My parents encouraged me to read authors I disagree with from time to time (you may have seen the recent Friendly Atheist post on the subject). I might refine my perspective on an issue, or at least learn how the opposition thinks.

Regarding religious groups, the Advanced Bonewits' Cult Danger Evaluation Frame by neopagan Isaac Bonewits is a good starting point. Basically, if a group seems awfully concerned with perpetuating itself and taking over your life, you might want to think twice, or as many times as needed for you to run the hell away.

For information on specific groups, visit the Ross Institute's Controversial Groups Archives. Rick Ross is an expert on cults and is probably most well known for his "deprogramming" work, which is basically helping people break out of cults. He has used some methods in the past that I wouldn't advocate, but his website is an excellent clearinghouse of information on controversial groups. Note: a group's listing on this site doesn't necessarily make it a cult per se, and I don't think Ross is trying to say it is. But if certain scary patterns of behavior seem to emerge from a group, well, you've been warned.

Next time: an update on where I am in my search.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Merry New Year!

If you think the title is a mistake, first, shame on you; second, go see Trading Places already.

In the Ramakrishna movement, January 1 is known as Kalpataru Day. According to Hindu tradition, Kalpataru is a wish-fulfilling tree. Of course, no known physical tree has this property, but that's not really the point. In fact, most of the stories about Kalpataru illustrate that people getting what they want does not always truly benefit them.

Anyway, the significance of this date in the Ramakrishna movement is that it was the day in 1886 when Sri Ramakrishna revealed himself to a group of devotees as an avatar, an incarnation of God on earth. He had already been quite ill with throat cancer, and in fact, he passed away later that year on August 16. In most of the days leading up to January 1, Ramakrishna couldn't even get out of bed. But on this particular day, he felt well enough to get up and walk around a bit. Since India was still under British rule at the time, January 1 was a major holiday, so many of his lay devotees had come to see him.

Prior to this, whenever someone called him an avatar, Ramakrishna would ignore such claims. But on this day, he asked one of the devotees, Girish Chandra Ghosh, what made Girish want to tell people that Ramakrishna was an avatar. Girish bowed at Ramakrishna's feet and said that even the authors of great Hindu epics such as the Mahabharata (which includes the Bhagavad Gita) and the Ramayana could not sufficiently express the devotion that Girish felt for his guru.

Ramakrishna responded, "What more need I tell you? I bless you all. May you all be illumined!" This was the first time he had embraced these ideas. He went into ecstasy after saying this, and when he came out of it, he touched each of the devotees present, and they had their own ecstatic experiences, including visions of their Chosen Ideals (although Hinduism is famous for its many gods, most Hindus choose one to focus on, which is the Chosen Ideal, or Ishta Devata).

Although the name Kalpataru Day has stuck, most in the movement seem to find it somewhat inaccurate. Notice that these devotees did not receive anything material. But some say that Ramakrishna helped transmit his own fearlessness (which I'll discuss further in a future post) to these devotees. Whether he actually did it by touch or the devotees were just so moved by seeing their guru is irrelevant.

At any rate, this is obviously an important day in the Ramakrishna movement. In fact, the celebration held by the Vedanta Society was at the main Hindu temple, as the Vedanta Society's grounds would not have been able to hold everyone who came.

Brief aside about the Hindu temple: they were having their own event today, a big worship of Ganesha (he is often invoked for beginnings). The temple and parking lot were packed, and I thought, This must be a small taste of what going to India would be like. Crowded, chaotic, and leave your shoes in the lobby. That said, the temple workers were friendly and helpful. I think I got sprinkled with a bit of water from the Ganesha worship on my way out.