2014: The Year of Atheist Spirituality?
December 18, 2014
Several years ago, while on vacation, I bought a quirky little book by the French philosopher André Comte-Sponville entitled The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality. Though I knew no work quite like it, the idea the author developed, that atheists can and somehow must be spiritual too, was not new. Another French philosopher and atheologian named Comte--Auguste Comte (1798-1857), father of positivism and sociology--had long ago founded the Religion of Humanity. This alternative faith, or perhaps faith alternative, was intended to supply the social benefits of traditional religion in the positivist utopian societies of tomorrow.
Tomorrow has apparently arrived, minus the utopian bit.
I dropped by my local big-box bookstore here in the heart of America's Bible belt to find a book on how to help cats get along with each other. While there, I stumbled across the end cap of recommended titles from the science and mathematics section. Among the offerings were Sam Harris's Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion and Edward O. Wilson's The Meaning of Human Existence. Both develop a similar idea, that atheists like them who believe God, free will, and the soul are illusions can be just as spiritual as those much-despised religious nuts they seldom tire of dismissing but apparently can't help imitating.
Speaking of religious nuts--specifically the ones who argue America was founded as a Christian nation--well, oddly enough, the "science and mathematics" end cap offered a counterpoint to that perspective too: Matthew Stewart's Nature's God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic. Stewart argues America was founded by people trying to liberate us from the tyranny of George III and God above. That he's at least partly right is more than some evangelicals are prepared to admit, but the curious thing to me is how important some people on both sides of the debate think it is to make their case.
But perhaps the most telling title of the lot was The Mathematics Devotional assembled by Clifford A. Pickover. It offers a devotion a day for a year, each one spread over a single glossy page. The top half of the page is a psychedelic picture of some sort (usually a fractal), equally suitable for mathematical meditating or dropping acid. Beneath the picture, birthdays of celebrated mathematicians are listed like feast days and followed by a center-justified quote of mathematical interest, served up for the inspiration and enlightenment of the religiously devoted.
Whatever spirituality these theorists conjure to satisfy their cultic fetish, the strange spirit of Comte is lurking in the shadows, complete with there own dogmas, grounding myths, and alternative canon of saints and devotional calendar to enhance spiritual formation.
Wisdom surely mocks these attempts at a godless, sinless, graceless, and soulless spirituality. The very need of their advocates to do something to satisfy their impulse to worship and find some sort of transcendent meaning to life, while refusing to direct their awe Godward with gratitude, betrays them. They sense the universe is more than matter and we are more than biology and the whole cosmos points beyond itself. They have a profound and justly stirred sense of awe, but fall short of referring it to the most awesome of all, settling instead for meditating on artificially-colored photos of fractals and praising the puny genius of creatures who, for all their brilliance, get it wrong more often than right.
That idolatry, and what it does to us, is the testimony of that end cap to our stubborn, divine-image-bearing humanity. Ironically, it vindicates the gospel as Paul unpacked it in Romans and Calvin in the Institutes. Following their lead, Reformed theologians have long predicted that naturalism and secular thought in general would fail us, leading to desperately spun spiritualities and a re-mystification of nature, while most atheologians predicted just the opposite.
2014 may mark the dawn of Comte's tomorrow, but the day we are waking to is just what Reformed thinkers expected it to be. Don't be troubled: keep on believing; and keep on preaching Christ till that far better day breaks.