Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Little Book of Atheist Spirituality

Comte-Sponville, Andre. The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality, translated by Nancy Huston. New York: Viking Press, 2007.

Table of Contents:
I - Can We do Without Religion?
II - Does God Exist?
III - Can There Be an Atheist Spirituality?
Conclusion: Love & Truth
Suggested reading

If I were going to advocate a concept such as this, I would consider it rather differently, but this book could be considered a bridge between religious spirituality as normally understood and atheism. I was not particularly thrilled with this book, but I will highlight its most noteworthy features.

Digression: On 7 February, I attended a talk by a Unitarian minister on his book on naturalistic spirituality. His advocacy of a naturalistic spirituality got quite a bit of resistance, from an allergic reaction to the word itself to a resentment that someone would forcibly attribute a quality to a person who vehemently denies possessing it, to the unnecessary labelling of common experiences. My objection was that the word, if not precisely definable, should at least point to something reasonably clear and concrete instead of constantly being used as a nonce word as a cover for not thinking or saying anything at all.

Only chapter III of the book now under review is of any interest. I will summarize the concepts contained therein, but actually the only part of it that piqued my intellectual interest can be found on pp. 136-8. There the author discusses a finite opening to the infinite, opposes spirit to religion, affirms an absolute but denies transcendence, favorably treats the cousin concepts of naturalism, immanentism, and materialism, and asserts that nature is an uncreated totality that of necessity precedes the emergence of spirit. Materialism denies the ontological independence of spirit from nature. Spirit is only thinkable when nature precedes it. While this doesn't delineate just what is meant by spirituality, I like this philosophical groundwork.

For some reason, I don't really care about the author's characterization of spirituality itself, but I will outline his concepts. I should first mention that he quotes various philosophers throughout the book. For some reason I noted Wittgenstein on mysticism and a reference to Spinoza on p. 141.

The concept of "Immanensity" is introduced (a neologism which apparently fuses immanence with immensity.) My handwriting is nearly illegible, but I wrote something about the spirituality or experience of the immense . . . the experience of the infinite, which is not conceptual . . . the tranquility of the All as the polar opposite to the ego. (p. 144)

The author surprised me by claiming that there is nothing particularly religious about the oceanic feeling discussed by Freud and Romain Rolland. (150) Camus' novel The Stranger is discussed on pp. 152-3. Freud is mentioned again on p. 154, Spinoza on p. 158. The experience is further characterized on pp. 156-7.

Other concepts explored are mystery, plenitude, simplicity (self-forgetfulness, Zen), unity, eternity, "eternullity" (neutralizing temporality & living in the moment), ataraxia (from ancient Greek philosophy), serenity (living without hoping), acceptance (the a-morality of nature, Nietzsche's amor fati, the relativity of value judgments), independence. All of this comes from the author's examination of his own experience.

Mysticism is opposed to faith. The mystical path to atheism is a logical, perhaps inevitable progression. Monotheistic revealed religions are very distrustful of mysticism, because their God tends to dissolve in the process. (190-1)

My handwriting is legibility-challenged, but I wrote a phrase like "religious spirituality", which makes no sense. In any case, in discussing the notions of interiority and transcendence, the author reveals that he is sick of all this. One should seek not to dwell on interiority, but escape the self, open oneself to others and to the world. Hence he stresses the notions of immanence and openness. (197) Husserl and Sartre are mentioned (198).

So much for chapter III. In the Conclusion, the author claims that love goes with relativism. (204) He affirms love, joy, the temporal experience of eternity, humanism as opposed to nihilism.

The selected bibliography is diverse. I noted a couple of authors representing a materialist position, i.e. LaMettrie, and Karl Marx's doctoral dissertation.

All in all, I can't say I find the author's perspective objectionable for the most part, especially as a characterization of the experience he has had or would like to have, but I am also indifferent to it. My priorities are elsewhere.

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