By Doug Marman
Previously, I wrote about The Difference Between Spirituality and Religion.
Here’s a quick summary: Followers of religion look to outer forms for worship—whether a holy book, a savior, a sacred place, or God.
Seekers of spirituality, on the other hand, look more to inner experiences as the source of their inspiration. These can be simple feelings of a connection with life, or a deep sense of wonder that changes how we see the world.
This difference leads to a surprising conclusion: Spirituality and atheism are not opposites.
Religion and atheism are clearly at odds with each other. Atheists openly reject the existence of God. They see deities as myths created by human beings. Most religions, however, say that belief in God or a higher power is crucial.
These positions are polar opposites. How can spirituality escape this age-old battle?
The answer comes from what causes the conflict between atheism and religion: It springs from differing beliefs.
Belief, however, is secondary for those who walk the spiritual path. Inner experiences can occur at any time and change our relationship with life. So, it’s more important to stay open and listen inwardly to the purpose hidden in the present moment. Planting a flag in the ground to demonstrate our belief can limit our abilities to catch life’s subtleties.
All of this means that spirituality-minded people can, at times, find themselves aligned with atheists in surprising ways.
For example, both atheists and spiritual seekers agree on the importance of searching for truth and that each person should come to their own conclusions about God and the meaning of life. The personal quest to understand is too important to settle for simplified answers passed down by others.
Traditional followers of religion disagree. Their teachings are built on practices and doctrines that have been tested and proven by thousands of people, over the centuries. They see their teachings as timeless, originating from a divine source.
As a result, religious belief often leads to the perception that there are outsiders and insiders.
This is an idea that both atheists and those who follow their own individual spiritual path oppose. However, they have different reasons for rejecting the idea of outsiders and insiders.
Atheists claim that the religious emotion of being on the inside—the feeling that they are “the chosen ones”—is irrational and based on superstitious thinking. Atheists want to have nothing to do with being in such a group.
Spiritual seekers agree that we shouldn’t be sorting people into outsiders and insiders, but for a different reason: Everyone can experience a spiritual connection with life. Neither birth nor belief are the deciding factor, because we all have this inner link. It’s only a matter of becoming aware of it. Therefore, those who follow spiritual paths often feel closer to the founders of religion than their followers, because the founders went beyond religious traditions to make contact with a deeper truth.
In other words, spiritual freedom is more important than being right, to those who follow their own path. Belief can trap and limit a person’s consciousness just as much as it can open new doors. Even objectivity and logical thinking can be way too limiting for the human spirit.
This unexpected alignment between atheism and spirituality is not just a theory. It’s real.
In her book, Science vs. Religion, Elaine Ecklund describes the surprising results of the largest study of scientists and what they really think about religion.
“Since surveys of scientists’ religious beliefs began nearly a century ago, no one has produced a study as deep and broad as Ecklund’s. Perhaps its most surprising finding is that nearly a quarter of the atheists and agnostics describe themselves as ‘spiritual.’”
Ronald L. Numbers, Professor of the History of Science (On the back cover of Ecklund’s book.)
“Rice University sociologist Elaine Ecklund offers a fresh perspective on this debate in “Science vs. Religion.” …
“Fully half of these top scientists are religious… Even among the third who are atheists, many consider themselves “spiritual.” One describes this spiritual atheism as being rooted in “wonder about the complexity and the majesty of existence,” a sentiment many nonscientists—religious or not—would recognize.”
Josh Rosenau, Washington Post, May 30, 2010
Indeed, the sense of wonder is a spiritual experience.
However, another startling turn of events that recently occurred even better illustrates the ties between atheism and spirituality. Sam Harris, an outspoken critic of religion and well-known atheist, surprised even his own followers when he published “Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.”
“Harris…describes [his book] as ‘by turns a seeker’s memoir, an introduction to the brain, a manual of contemplative instruction, and a philosophical unraveling of what most people consider to be the center of their inner lives.’ Or, perhaps most aptly, an effort ‘to pluck the diamond from the dunghill of esoteric religion.’”
Maria Popova, BrainPickings, September 15, 2014
Sam Harris has a moment of awakening that came from an inner experience. This changed his perspective on spirituality:
“It would not be too strong to say that I felt sane for the first time in my life. And yet the change in my consciousness seemed entirely straightforward… I had ceased to be concerned about myself. I was no longer anxious, self-critical, guarded by irony, in competition, avoiding embarrassment, ruminating about the past and future, or making any other gesture of thought or attention that separated me from him. I was no longer watching myself through another person’s eyes.
“And then came the insight that irrevocably transformed my sense of how good human life could be. I was feeling boundless love for one of my best friends, and I suddenly realized that if a stranger had walked through the door at that moment, he or she would have been fully included in this love. Love was at bottom impersonal—and deeper than any personal history could justify.”
The key to spirituality is inner experience. Connecting with the presence of life can change us in deep ways. Belief isn’t necessary. In fact, the spiritual path often begins with doubt.
Spirituality and atheism are not opposites. In fact, they have more in common than you might think.