Believers, Atheists, and the Unexamined Life

Exploring both ends of the spirituality trap.

At some point, many of us come to believe that there is more to life than merely satisfying our biological needs, indulging in superficial pleasures, or chasing after status — that there is something more worth striving for, something deeper worth tapping into. That we should be here now, fully, in the present moment. That there are other, wiser ways of framing events and experiences, different perspectives that could profoundly transform our lives. That it is both possible and good to experience a sense of transcendence or universal love. That the sense of self is an illusion; that our experience is not something happening to us — it is us. That boundaries and separateness are figments of a particular point of view, and that seen another way everything is connected, big and small. The lived exploration of these ideas is, for lack of a better term, what spirituality is, and many of the keenest insights and peak experiences in the human condition can be found therein.

The Spirituality Trap

One mistake so often made, however, is treating spiritual experiences as evidence of the supernatural, be it the divine origin of certain books, the ability of the mind to survive death without any technology, the existence of creator gods, a cosmic intelligence, deities, spirits, the afterlife, and so on. People can have experiences so blissful, euphoric, mind-altering, or transcendent as to radically transform their lives. It can cause one to see the world from a different perspective, to see more beauty and wonder in everything, to feel a different way about mundanities they took for granted, to realign their priorities, to be present, more connected, or more loving. It cannot, however, grant one knowledge about the external world. It cannot demonstrate that Jesus once turned water into wine, or that Muhammad once flew to the moon on a winged horse, or that Shiva replaced Ganesha's head with that of an Elephant. It can't tell you that grandma is waiting for you in a better place, or that the butterfly outside your window was a mailman in its previous life, or that there is a god. It can't prove to you that the age of the universe is different from what cosmologists calculate, or that the laws of nature can be violated.

Any particular unevidenced claim about the world might be true. But experiencing a profound mental state can never serve as reasonable validation for it — not to the world, and not even for you. You can say your partner is the most beautiful person in the world, and that although it's not an objectively true fact, it's true for you. But you cannot stretch that sentiment to say that you are in communication with ghosts, or that you know heaven is real, and that that's true for you. That's dishonest. A claim about your own subjective emotions or opinions which is self-contained inside your mind can be true for you, but not an objective claim about the outside world. Those are either true or false (and this cannot be circumvented by a Deepak Chopra-like misunderstanding and misapplication of quantum mechanics).

This is the trap that religion exploits, and that religious people too often fall into. If atheists can be accused of throwing the baby out with the bathwater regarding spirituality, believers can likewise be charged with raising the bathwater as though it were a second child. Part of the marketing genius of religion is that it's a package deal. It's an ideological fruit salad you purchase based on the meaning, community, and spirituality visible on top, and along with it you get the honeydew and cantaloupe of absurd factual claims, and outmoded, repressive, bigoted, and sometimes barbaric ethical systems.

This spirituality trap doesn't merely affect believers. It affects atheists and agnostics too, not by ensnaring them, but by repelling them; by causing them to keep too much distance and leave too wide a berth. The fact that believers intertwine spirituality with religious faith and dogmatism has given non-believers the understandable impression that spirituality or the contemplative life is nothing more than religious sentimentality or superstitious mumbo jumbo. And yet many such people celebrate the pursuit of knowledge and understanding. Few, I'd venture, would disagree with Plato's famous dictum, attributed to Socrates during his trial, that "The unexamined life is not worth living." And yet many are seemingly content to leave vast swaths of their own minds — the most complex things in the known universe — to go experientially unexplored. I once made this point to an atheist friend in conversation, who insightfully responded:

"It seems most atheists don't want us to bother with metaphysics at all, as though it belongs to religion. There is still much to be explored in metaphysics in the absence of god, still much to be explored in the mind in the absence of a soul. It is strange that there is something rather than nothing, it is strange that we think and feel at all. I think many atheists fear these questions because acknowledging what a mystery they are makes religious folks feel like their non-answers are more credible than our lack of answers."

I have been an atheist for nearly 15 years, and this is not an anxiety I have ever felt, but it is one I have often observed in my fellows. And this gets at a deeper issue which goes beyond atheists and has infected nearly every domain of thought. It's this aversion we seem to have toward ideas, possibilities, or even entire subject matters, not because of their merits or lack thereof, but because of their implications. The logic goes as follows:

“X can't be true or have any merit, because if that were the case, it may lend credence to Y. I don't like Y, and a stronger Y might mean a weaker Z, and I am invested in Z. So X must be false.”

This is fallacious thinking. And it causes us all to miss out.

The Goldilocks Zone

The Goldilocks Zone of the human experience is to explore the depths of spirituality without being led into false belief or abandoning reason and evidence. Too many theists carelessly gulp down the pit along with the fruit here, and too many atheists incorrectly regard the whole fruit as poisonous. Humanity has a thirst for something beyond the mundane, and it goes well beyond the need for meaning, or explanations to the cosmic questions. We yearn for a more fulfilling, connected, transcendent way to be. The basest of us may be content to live lives of mindless hedonism and indulgence (insofar as it can be attained), but many of us want something more. We must not however make the mistake of filling this void with bullshit. And if the large majority of us who have this spiritual yearning do not seek it intelligently, that’s exactly how we’ll end up — filling the void with faith-based beliefs, religious doctrines, or worst of all, political ideologies.

Atheists seem particularly at risk for turning to politics to fill spiritual voids, often without realizing they are doing so. The more convinced you become that spirituality is not a genuine human need, or not a need you yourself have, the more oblivious you’ll be to what you start unconsciously using to satisfy it. And if you kid yourself into thinking you’re some kind of Nietzschian Superman above it all, you may just end up the most cultish and pious of all.

Religion, and its attendant dogmatisms and irrationalities, has long been the only game in town for those seeking spirituality. This is not because religion is required for such things. It is merely a consequence of organized religion’s millennia-long monopoly over human thought which has entrenched an association of religion and spirituality so firmly rooted that people to this day simply don’t realize that one can be had without the other. Religion, dogma, and faith are not needed to cultivate a greater sense of presence, love, and connectedness, nor to experientially explore consciousness and the inner workings of the mind. There is no aspect of spirituality, as I have defined it here, that requires believing something without evidence, or joining any sort of group, or adopting any pretentious affectations.

So how does one toe this tightrope? A good place to start is by becoming interested in your own mind, but there are many paths to spirituality. And if you prefer a different term than “spirituality”, use that instead, don’t get hung up on terminology. There is no one way to go about it. But there are wrong ways. If you find yourself spending large sums of money, wearing special costumes, swallowing dogmas, or accepting extraordinary claims on little to no evidence, you’re doing it wrong. Spirituality should not come at the cost of mortgaging our reason and rationality, and so, too, the reasoned life should not exclude spirituality as a precondition.

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