When I was in college and did a lot of LSD (that’s ok to admit these days, right? I mean, it was more than 20 years ago), I gained a real appreciation for the beauty and complexity of the world around me. I was a cognitive science major, and already had a deep appreciation for computational complexity and the profound nature of systems theory: the way large swarms of simple interacting parts could give rise to patterned behavior, the way that simple evolutionary programming rules could produce programs and robots of amazing complexity, the astounding computational power of neural networks.
But while on LSD, that intellectual understanding was transformed into a strong emotional sense–a feeling of awe. I would watch flocks of birds move in the sky, or the pattern of ivy growing on our red brick house on the fraternity quad, and I would be filled with joy and amazement! All of this pattern, all of this complexity, is the product of billions of amazingly simple rules of interaction operating together! And I am part of that complexity, intimately connected with all of the things around me! I am a part of this glorious dynamic pattern that is the universe. Experiencing the universe this way was stunning, and beautiful, and from time to time it brought tears to my eyes.
Once the drugs left my system, that emotional appreciation for the universe still remained. Oh, sure: drugs can exaggerate your feelings and make you attach emotional importance to ridiculous things. Anyone who has experimented to any degree with hallucinogenic drugs has had the experience of thinking, “I’ve just had the most profound thought ever!” and writing it down, only to find the next day that the piece of paper says “Caramel birds, and the thing that goes whoosh. Colors, too!” (or something equally senseless).
One of the lessons that artificial neurochemical stimulation can teach is that the parts of the brain responsible for feeling enlightened and the parts of the brain responsible for being enlightened are… well, completely separate and unrelated to one another.
Nonetheless! That powerful sense of wonderment at the “magic” and mystery of the universe, the sheer beauty and power of mathematics and patterns, never left me. It has given me a strong emotional attachment to the mathematics and mechanics of the physical universe around me, and a very personal appreciation for the vastness of the human mind.
The feeling of wonderment
This is an article about spirituality, but I decided to start out talking about emotions because emotions are what most people talk about when I ask them why they feel “spiritual but not religious.”
I’ve had many of these conversations, trying to find out exactly what people mean when they describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious”, and more specifically trying to discover what the word “spiritual” means to them. Honestly, it’s tough to delve deep into this issue with people without coming off a little bit like a dick. There’s only so many times you can say “But why do you think that?” before they need to go to the bathroom to “freshen up”, or leave you to refill their drink at the bar.
But on those occasions when people do play along, the conversation usually ends up at feelings. People have strong feelings of purpose, strong feelings of beauty, strong feelings of morality, and strong feelings of design. And it is on the basis of these strong feelings that these people–people who otherwise have completely rejected the trappings of structured religion and traditional theology–will hedge away from simple atheism.
“No, no!” they will say, “I’m not an atheist!”
“I feel beauty… so I’m spiritual.”
“I feel purpose… so I’m spiritual.”
“I feel wonder and mystery… so I’m spiritual.”
“I feel like the universe is vast and great… so I’m spiritual.”
I started out this story by talking about emotions, because I wanted to let you all know: I feel beauty, purpose, wonder, and mystery, as well. I also feel that there is a deep and powerful interconnectedness in all of nature. I sometimes feel that the entire cosmos is vast and great and larger than myself. I even feel that it can be viewed as a gigantic complex dynamic systems with multiple-hierarchical feedback loops that almost certainly bear resemblance to those systems that we describe as having consciousness!
But I’m still not spiritual.
The myth of the boring atheist
I have a suspicion about many of you: you people who claim to be “spiritual but not religious.” I think you are secretly like me. I think you don’t believe in unicorns or gnomes or souls or gods, but you want to be open to a feeling of awe about something greater than yourself in the universe. You want to be open to a feeling of majesty and wonder.
And you think that being an atheist would cut you off from being able to feel those things.
This is partly because many people think of atheists as being boring and unemotional. They imagine mechanical, robotic, Spock-like people saying things like “that is illogical” and “rationality is the only way to truth.”
And to be fair, lots of atheists do fit that stereotype: robotic voices and all.
Now, I’m not the first person to point out that we need better atheists in the public spotlight. There was even a recent CNN special in which some overly academic-sounding atheists pontificated about the fact that we need more diversity among publicly visible atheists. But whether it’s the obnoxious mockery of Bill Maher or the mechanical-sounding drone of your local atheist Internet Commenter going on about which logical fallacies everyone is guilty of, the most well-known atheist voices tend to not be a particularly empathetic lot.
Which is a shame, because there are many of us who are filled with wonder, and passion, and emotion. There are many of us who love deeply, and cry when we see a gorgeous sunset, and say WOW ISN’T THAT THE MOST AMAZING THING?! when we experience a perfect view from a mountaintop, or a particular pattern of frost on the windowsill.
There are also many of us who have a deep and profound respect for history, culture, and symbolism. Many cultural anthropologists are atheists. You will not find those atheists parroting the mechanical stereotypical lines about how “religion should simply be abolished” or “all rituals are conformist nonsense”.
Many of us revel in the beauty of long-standing rituals and meaning that can arise from history and culture. Many religious rituals have a deep and profound connection with the body, and with the inner workings of the human mind: certain actions, sounds, and words resonate with human beings for a reason. We should not deny or decry physical and symbolic rituals.
I, for one, would never want to get rid of “religion” wholesale… even if I believed such a thing were possible. This is a lesson that my mother taught me years ago: religion is deeply entwined with what it means to be human, and you don’t just “take it out” without thinking hard about what will go in its place.
Don’t get your “spirit” in my “natural”….
Now you might say to me: If you gasp with a sense of awe at the power and vastness of the universe, you feel that the universe is a large system that manifests some properties of consciousness, and you even have a respect for religious symbolism and the importance and value of ritual practices….. then why the hell don’t you describe yourself as spiritual, Greg????
The answer is simple: I don’t believe in the supernatural.
Or as I like to call it, “spiritnatural” … since it really isn’t all that super.
To me, this goes beyond merely not believing in gnomes, dragons, souls or gods. It means I don’t believe in “fate”, and I don’t believe in “ultimate purposes“. I don’t believe in substance dualism or “cosmic energy” or magic… well, except in the psychological sense of ritual wonderment that we create for ourselves.
I’m not opposed to using some of the fancy-pants spiritual language, from time to time in casual conversation, by the way. But when I use those terms, I probably don’t mean the same thing that you do when you use the words, if you consider yourself “spiritual.”
For example: I can use the term “purpose of life”, but when I say it I’m not talking about some external spirit-being or “cosmic force” driving us, intentionally and deliberately, to a desired end. I simply mean that life is about creating purpose, and in a lot of ways I believe that the entire function of life is the creation and fulfillment of individual purpose. To me, that’s the “purpose of life.”
Similarly, I believe in “karma” and “good vibes”, but it has nothing to do with cosmic woo-woo energy or some kind of ultimate ephemeral moral “balancer” in the universe. No: I believe in “good vibes” in the purely mechanistic and socio-psychological sense: when you are a good person who behaves in an appealing way, then good people will be drawn to you and will do nice things around you. It’s not mysticism, it’s just basic psychology.
And you can, too!
Here is the real reason I’m sharing this with you today: If you consider yourself “spiritual but not religious”, I’d like you to take a moment and just absorb–meditate on, if you will–this image that I’ve described of the happy, joyous atheist who is filled with wonderment and a feeling of connection to the universe. That type of atheist is real. And it could be you.
Now, you might sincerely believe in gnomes or unicorns or reincarnation or “cosmic energy”; and if you do, I wish you well and I have no desire to change your mind!
But I think many of you who call yourselves “spiritual but not religious” are secretly like me. You don’t believe in the supernatural at all… you are simply afraid to let go of the words and the trappings of spirituality because you are afraid it will cut you off from a feeling of wonder and purpose that is greater than yourself.
So if you are the type of person who hedges when it comes to supernatural claims… if you are the type of person who says, “I believe in reincarnation if by that you mean some kind of energy moves between living things” or “I believe in God if by that you mean some kind of thing or force that exists in the universe somewhere somehow“… if you find that you want to hang onto wonder and mystery, but can’t quite get yourself to embrace the supernatural, then my message is for you.
You can be an atheist, and still feel all of those things. Being an atheist doesn’t have to mean you end up a miserable bitter drunk like Christopher Hitchens was, or a lunatic bitch like Dawkins.
You can be wide-eyed and filled with mirth and joy; you can be astounded at the great mystery and magnificence of the universe; you can care about the power and importance of emotions, symbols, traditions; and you can feel overpowered with the incomprehensibility of it all…
All of that, and you can still call yourself an atheist.
Don’t be scared. It’s ok. I promise.