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.


  1. I am about halfway through this book myself. I am thoroughly enjoying it so far. As a musician and creative artist I've long wanted to reclaim the work 'spirit' from the supernatural. I also think Comte-Sponville makes excellent arguments about our ethics and duty to our fellow beings.

  2. Thanks for your comment! I, too, am enjoying what I've read so far. I'll probably have a full review up sometime next week. To me, it's kind of a shame that many freethinkers freak out about anything remotely spiritual, whether that particular term is used or not. I guess it goes to show that no one is completely immune to irrational fears!