Spiritual Atheism

2005-04-11

According to this article, philosopher-mathematician Frank Ramsey once expressed the following thought about the scale of the universe (quoted in Our Final Hour by Martin Rees):

I don't feel the least humble before the vastness of the heavens. The stars may be large, but they cannot think or love; and these are qualities which impress me far more than size does... My picture of the world is drawn in perspective, and not like a model drawn to scale. The foreground is occupied by human beings, and the stars are all as small as threepenny bits.

I find Ramsey's thought congenial (Ramsey was a teacher of Jacob Bronowski, another thinker whose insights I appreciate). Coincidentally, today I received an email message from one Soren Sorenson, proprietor of a website called Spiritual Atheism (who presumably contacted me because on my homepage I call myself a spiritual atheist). Soren's site defines spiritual atheism as follows:

Spiritual Atheists reject the presentation of God as the LITERAL creator and ruler of the universe and, instead, recognize and understand God as the physical, psychological, and spiritual PERSONIFICATION of the eternal and infinite universe itself.

Well, I'm not that kind of spiritual atheist! To put it prosaically, I'm simply a nonbeliever who happens to appreciate the spiritual aspects of life.

It is difficult to talk about such matters (perhaps religion is an area in which I self-censor), but I'm going to try anyway. (My apologies to readers if these thoughts seem too poetic, flighty, or just plain crazy. I write this stuff for myself, not for you. ;-)

I agree with Ramsey that the universe is vast, but not divine. I think that if there is divinity, it is a spark that shines outward from within human beings, and does not come into human beings from outside (whether from the universe or from God as the creator of the universe or as a personification of the universe). Indeed, I tend more toward some thinkers in the gnostic tradition, who held that human beings created god in their own image.

I am a nonbeliever. (I don't usually call myself an atheist, since most atheists are quite militant, whereas I am not militant about my lack of belief.) I don't believe in a god, in any "person" (however defined) who in some sense created or represents the universe. I think there is a sense in which human beings -- the entities that most deeply instantiate the psychological, intellectual, mental, and spiritual potentiality of life, especially of conscious, sentient life -- are divine, can be divine, or at least have divine aspects. I think that early human beings were uncomfortable with this divine spark within themselves -- it is quite presumptuous to think that you are divine! -- and so they externalized the sense of their own divinity outward onto other entities (trees, rocks, mountains, etc. in the early form of theism called animism), then eventually focused that concept into monotheism and the personal god of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Yet I don't believe in any such God. To me, the great challenge is talking about divinity and spirituality in a purely secular way. We have no experience with a secular language of divinity. When we use terms like "divine" and "worship" and "spiritual" and "godlike", we are familiar with them only in relation to something higher than humanity, even something higher than nature or reality. But I think there is nothing higher than reality, and that human beings are the highest things in reality. But as we say in English, "it's lonely at the top" so we created these things called gods (in more recent thought, a single God) to sit above us. Yet this "god" is an abstraction from the essence of what is divine in human beings, not something other than or apart from human beings.

There is nothing divine about the physical extent of the universe. Awesome, yes. Divine, no.

There is no psychological aspect to the physical universe itself -- it is not a conscious entity in any sense. There is a psychological aspect to many living things, and that is to be valued deeply as one of the precious aspects of life.

There is no spiritual aspect to the physical universe, and there is no spiritual aspect to lower life forms. Spirituality comes with language, concepts, communication, self-reflection. Human beings are spiritual beings. Spirituality can be seen as precisely the highest potential of the psychological aspect of living things. It is here that I would locate the divine. Not in gods, but in human beings.

So, radical as it may seem, I assert the exact inverse of the Christian idea that "God created man in His image" -- for I think that human beings created the idea of god in the image of their highest potential.

Untimely meditations, indeed.


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