Spiritualism Among Atheists, Part 2 (archives)
With no overarching structure dictated by a religious belief, atheists' own beliefs are probably about as diverse as they can be. AB.net is taking a look at our spiritual beliefs. This is the second in a four-part look at spiritualism among atheists. Part One was about the perception of spirituality. Find it in the archives, Spirituality Among Atheists, Part One (now in the archives).
Atheists and Spirituality: Do you need to believe in a deity to be spiritual? Although atheists don't believe in God or gods or the devil or any other deities, they emphatically do not view themselves as mere biological machines. Nor do most of them see themselves as just animals at the mercy of their biological needs. They have all the accouterments that go with spirituality: they love, they hate, they do good and bad deeds, wonder about how the universe began, investigate biology or unexplained phenomena out of curiosity and truth seeking. They find transcendental or uplifting experiences in soaring music, sunsets, stark canyons and comforting meadows, shared humor and interests, and so on, they have a rich inner lives which include wondering about the nature of their own being and the possibility of having a non-physical existence. Sadly though, in the public forum, religions have pretty much appropriated the whole spiritual field. So powerful and dominant and pervasive and ubiquitous are religions in every world society, that even as advanced brain imaging begins to crack the door to spy on human brains in the act of thinking or reacting to various stimuli, you can almost feel the careful tentativeness in most reports where they even remotely border on or explore those areas of thought which have a connection to spiritual thoughts and feelings, lest they offend some church or religious group. So let it be said here that even though AB.net does not set out to offend any church or religious group, it feels no such constraints as the popular press; it believes it's time for atheists to pry the concept of spirituality loose from believers' tight grip and assert our own spiritual identities and treat them with the respect they deserve.
What do we mean by the term?: It helps for the purpose of talking about it, to set out the meaning of "spirituality" as AB.net intends to use it. At least one dictionary gives a primary definition of it as: "of the human spirit or soul." Look up "spirit," and you find a long list which in no way limits the meaning of the word exclusively or even primarily to matters religious in nature. Instead it describes spirituality as relating to a person's mind or feelings or animating principle as distinct from a person's body. This is a definition that AB.net can accept and work with.
Finding the "Soul": AB.net also looked up the dictionary meaning of "soul," and found it described as the spiritual, or immortal, element in a person; a person's mental, moral or emotional nature. There is more to the "soul" than a dictionary definition though. The current dualistic notion of soul views it as an essence which is somehow separate from the physical body, but this so called Cartesian notion formally began fairly recently, with the writings of the 17th century philosopher Rene Descartes. In fact psychologist Paul Bloom argued in his book "Descartes' Baby" that the idea of a mind-body separation is literally hard-wired into the brain and points to how readily children accept physical transitions as in frog becoming a prince, a mind leaving its body to explore other places, and how relatively hard it is for people of this age to view the soul as a result of brain activity. In earlier times, to Christians and pagans, the soul was seen more as a vital energy which entered and became one with the body at the moment of first life, and it was thought to both shape and be shaped by its owner, a somehow much more personal view which melded the experiences of the flesh with mental reasoning and the mysteries of the supernatural. In the 4th century it was described by one theologian as a "living mirror" which could be focused upon God. In the 7th century, Maximus the Confessor saw it as a boundary between material and spiritual reality, which suggests perhaps a foreshadowing of the dualism of Descartes.
How do atheists view notions of immortality? In considering the above definition of soul, AB.net is first and absolutely dedicated to fostering an atheist identity which is moral in nature. A person's mental and/or emotional nature, whether atheist or not, is hardly difficult to accept as a contributor to the definition of soul. But the notion of immortality in the above definition is a tricky one for atheists.
There are atheists who accept the notion of a soul but not the "immortal" part, for them it is solely a creation of our living, thinking brains which ceases upon death and is no more. Yet even in this no-nonsense notion of the soul AB.net finds a case to be made for a different type of immortality: You could argue, for instance, that having lived and affected others and perhaps advanced the state of humanity in some way, even if by contributing nothing considered significant or having only small original ideas or thoughts that become part of the family's own story of itself, still these live on in the collective consciousness and contribute to the forward force (or evolution) of collective humanity. In this interpretation, the great advances, the "aha" moments, are built upon the groundwork laid before by small ideas and thoughts. Thus we gain a tiny, if anonymous, portion of immortality through the mark we leave which gives later thinkers the base to build on or the ladder to reaching that brilliant jump forward. This doesn't seem far fetched if you consider that we today are qualitatively different than our ancestors. Except among the relatively few deeply emotionally disturbed and disaffected, regressions into the chaos of war are historically temporary, not a way of life; most people once they surmount the turbulence of puberty and youth, yearn for peace, not war. Even the reasons for wars have changed, and within the theater of war, civility often returns or survives within islands in the war zone as soon as it's able. Contrary to the thesis of some, AB.net finds the state of civilization quite robust and quite deeply ingrained and thinks it would be very unlikely for it to all fall apart upon the sad and horrific attacks of backward looking people like al Quaida. Even after the depredations of attempts at ethnic cleansing, even the more primitive societies try to get back to a state considered "normal." Normal is not war, nobody wants it to be. We have a need for civilization, and for behaving in a civilized way. The ignorance and chaos of the distant past is not what any reasonable person wants.
In contrast to those atheists who see the soul's existence as inextricably tied to and a product of their physical body, other atheists readily accept the idea of a soul with at least a touch of the immortal to it. How they see that soul covers a multitude of notions and beliefs, some of which parallel religious concepts but without the need for god as the originator or source of same. Ask an atheist how he or she believes the soul originated if not from god, you would probably be referred back to the notion of it being formed by the fact of your own existence and the workings of neurons within the brain. (AB.net also wants to ask of believers, how do they think their hypothetical god got his or her or its own soul, assuming that their deity has one?) But many atheists also still want to think that death isn=t the end of these mentally complicated beings with individual identities that we have become. After all, we spend so much of our life energy becoming and perfecting these identities. What a waste it seems, for all that experience and existence and learned or developed wisdom to just extinguish like a gutted candle flame upon death of the body! Scratch on individual atheist beliefs as to the existence and nature of the soul and its purpose and its immortality, and you find notions of everything from reincarnation wherein a life force upon death seeks a new host, to it being simply a force of energy which may or may not retain its individual cohesiveness and form and uniqueness in some way after death.
As to the nature of a soul, and its disposition after death, that's not something we are ever likely to be able to prove one way or another, since, despite claims to the contrary by some, nobody has ever certifiably returned from death to tell about it. Not even Harry Houdini, the great and accomplished magician who had promised his wife he would try to communicate from beyond the grave, could do so. If even he, with all his tricky knowledge, couldn't, its safe to assume it's likely an impossible feat. That still doesn't mean that if we have a soul which somehow survives physical death, that it does not continue to exist in some form. AB.net doesn't purport to know, it is however interested in investigating other atheist beliefs in connection to atheist spirituality. It also finds inability to discover a final answer quite liberating - this means that all possibilities are and always will remain open as to what really happens to a person's personality and "soul" upon death! Armed with this thought, you should make up or take up the notion that you like best and hold it and take comfort from it. If it's based in decency and defensible moral values why should anyone be able to tell you your belief is not the right one?