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Spirituality versus superstition

The Book of Atheist Spirituality

Spirituality is usually shorthand for believing anything rather than nothing. But can spirituality be completely divorced from religion and superstition?

Damian Thompson   |  23 Oct 2008

How often have you heard someone say: "I'm not a religious person but I am deeply spiritual"? In my experience, this is a reliable indication that I'm about to be bored senseless.
What it means is: "I'm not religious, but I am deeply gullible, a sucker for New Age fads - and picky about food." Such people are closer to being pantheists than atheists. They deify the planet, the cosmos, "Native American wisdom" - and themselves.
Spirituality is usually shorthand for believing anything rather than nothing. But can spirituality be completely divorced from religion and superstition? The French philosopher André Comte-Sponville thinks it can.
The Book of Atheist Spirituality rejects all claims of the supernatural. Spirituality of every variety is entirely contained within nature; he believes that the "mysteries of the universe" are not evidence of the existence of God or gods, but of the inevitable limits of our knowledge.
The English edition of this book is subtitled "an Elegant Argument for Spirituality Without God". That sounds conceited, but I'm sure the publisher is to blame. Comte-Sponville, uniquely for a fashionable French philosopher (his A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues has been translated into 25 languages), comes across as a modest bloke, anxious not to offend believers.
His demolition of the traditional "proofs" of the existence of God is indeed elegant. So is his alternative to supernatural belief, in which the Buddha (who, it is easy to forget, was an atheist) shakes hands with Spinoza, Wittgenstein and, less predictably, Jesus and St Augustine.
At the heart of Comte-Sponville's argument lies a redefinition of spirituality: we are spiritual animals, he says, by virtue of our ability to reflect on the infinity of nature and to act on those reflections with love. Love will remain when faith and hope have passed away, he says, which has a familiar ring to it.
According to Augustine, one of the reasons love is greater than faith and hope is that neither of the latter two will be necessary when God reveals himself. Comte-Sponville's reasoning is different, and less easy to follow, but he cites Augustine with admiration and gratitude. And that in itself is important.
The Book of Atheist Spirituality will do more good than harm. Christians are unlikely to read it or, if they do, lose their faith as a result. Its target market is the fast-growing constituency of young, middle-class atheists or agnostics who have absorbed from Richard Dawkins and Philip Pullman a patronising disregard for the Christian heritage of the West.
Comte-Sponville tells them to uncurl their lips. He sees "a degree of stupidity" in contempt for religion.
Since it is both man-made and ineradicable, in his opinion, it is silly to detect in it some unique wickedness - and even sillier to try to turn the sins of the Inquisition (it's always the sins of the Inquisition, never those of Muslim Spain) into an argument against the existence of God.
He adds: "Humanity is far too weak and life far too difficult for people to go round spitting on each other's faiths."
Or theor own. Between the Monster and the Saint, the new book by Richard Holloway, is subtitled "Reflections on the Human Condition".
And very gloomy reflections they are, too, untouched by anything resembling Christian orthodoxy, though the former Bishop of Edinburgh's tendency to show off lends them a comic quality: this is a man who cannot leave a note for his milkman without quoting Schopenhauer.
Holloway takes his usual sombre view of humanity, offering as examples of our depravity the death camps of Nazi Germany and - tick - the Bush administration's war on terror.
He also deplores mankind's conception of eternity, suggesting that "the invention [sic] of the human soul was the worst thing that could have happened to the other creatures with whom we share the Earth".
Our belief in our own immortality has created not just the toxic fanaticism of the suicide bomber but also "the centuries of abuse that revolved round capturing and saving souls through the religious missions".
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