Ed Smiley's Reviews > The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality

The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality by André Comte-Sponville
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Jan 01, 2010

really liked it
Read from January 01 to 14, 2011

** spoiler alert ** Though not exactly a spoiler, this review contains numerous quotes from the book. This book meant a lot to me, so I want to do it justice by putting some effort into this review.

I said facetiously this is perhaps one of those books that will piss off everybody. By this I meant that although his stance is not conventionally religious, and that he clearly does not believe in theism in any way, some of his ideas will seem familiar to sympathetic religious people. For rigid religious fundamentalists, they will probably think it insidious. For some atheists, any concept of a unitive experience that cannot be pinned down into the most trivial mechanical reductionism, is a surrender to the darkest forces, and is one short step away from burning heretics.

Let me lay my cards on the table.

I could best describe myself as a mildly spiritual but not religious atheist, a non believer in a supreme being. (I use the term spiritual in a more general sense, as he does, and with no intent of conveying organized religion, dogma, or belief in the supernatural.) That sort of thing tends to make one feel very peculiar. Talk about cognitive dissonance! So this book was very personal for me.

Unfortunately atheism is a philosophical stance that "can't get no respect", at least in heavily religious countries like the United States--and, oddly, I have been assured that Rodney Dangerfield was an atheist. I don't understand why some people of some particular metaphysical persuasion are so upset that decent generous people hold the opposite opinion (this holds true for militant atheists too). Right now, as I write these words we seem torn apart by intolerance.

Comte-Sponville is absolutely frank about his views and absolutely tolerant and fair. He writes, "Remember the good Samaritan. He was neither Jewish or Christian. We have no idea what his faith was or what he felt about death. All we know is that he showed compassion and charity. And Jesus explicitly told us to imitate him, not a priest or a Levite." Somebody called this book a "masterpiece of atheist apologetics", and I only wish I had invented the term myself. (Atheists can be moral, and not plagiarize!)

I think many people of good will will find that this book is very congenial, regardless of their own beliefs. Comte-Sponville writes, "Among the people who had come up to chat with me after the lecture was a rather elderly Catholic priest...'I came up to thank you,' he said. 'I enjoyed your lecture very much.' Then he added, "I agreed with everything you said.'...I couldn't help adding,"still Father, I must admit it surprises me...I don't believe in God or the immortality of the soul.' 'Oh,' said the elderly priest with a benevolent smile, 'those are such secondary matters.'"

The book is divided into three parts. The first part is a discussion of the three cardinal virtues for atheists. The second is a discussion of reasons for believing and not believing in God. The third is a discussion of the unitive experience from an atheist perspective.

(I know that's kind of boring to say aloud, but, gentle reader, you wanted to know more about this book, so it must be said. )

The three classic Christian virtues are Faith, Hope and Charity. The greatest of these is Charity, or Love. Comte-Sponville agrees that Charity, love, compassion, is the greatest virtue, but he cannot accept, faith or hope, as they entail unfounded belief. So instead of Faith, he proposes Fidelity, being faithful to decency, toleration, and ethics. Instead of Hope he proposes Action. He interleaves this discussion with a fascinating and respectful gloss on Augustine and Saint Thomas.

He then discusses classic arguments for the existence of God, and offers arguments for the nonexistence of God. Many believers and non-believers alike are pretty agreed that such metaphysical arguments are pretty hazy. He agrees, but it seems to me such arguments serve not to prove anything, but to lead to understanding of what it would be like to believe something, or not believe something--and, as he points out, the burden of proof is on existence.

The existence of God proofs, such as the ontological proof, the first cause, and the argument from design are probably already familiar to the reader. So I won't go into them here. (And the ontological proof clearly proves something, just not what it is supposed to--maybe existence exists)

So let me summarize the three non-existence arguments. I gave them nicknames, I stress that he was too dignified to do so, but I will call them by my nicknames. First, what I call the Deadbeat Dad Argument: the loving father that hides from his children--they never get to see him. Second, the Sh*t Happens Argument: what is called in dignified circles the Problem of Evil: he has a very interesting discussion of this in relation to Simone Weil, and one approach which is to lessen God's omnipotence. The third argument is what I call the Just So Story Argument--immortality, salvation, etc.--is it too good to be likely?

And then, he discusses atheist spiritual experience--and this is what caused some controversy, or as he said, "Is there such a thing as atheist spirituality?...Whether or not you believe in God, the supernatural or the sacred, you are confronted with the infinite, the eternal and the absolute--and with yourself."

Let me first tell a little joke. Tom Lehrer once made a joke that he felt like a Christian Scientist with appendicitis. Perhaps this is what it is like when we have a mystical experience. But perhaps it is not the spiritual emergency it appears to be.

Comte-Sponville, although not conventionally religious in any way, is too honest to avoid complicating things by bringing this up. He describes a personal experience:

"We were walking. My mind emptied of thought.... And then, all of a sudden... What? Nothing: everything! No words, no questions, only--a surprise. Only--this. A seemingly infinite happiness. A seemingly eternal sense of peace....Yes, in the darkness of that night, I contained only the dazzling presence of the All. Peace. Infinite peace! Simplicity, serenity, delight."

What he expresses is a kind of being-at-home-in-the-world, but he stresses that it is for him, an acceptance of what is, not a flight to what is not, what he humorously calls "cheerful despair."

Religions interpret such unitive experiences in their particular ways. However, he goes on, "Reality suffices. Why subject it to anything else?...Ascetics leave it. Wise men take it....neither hope nor regret...."

As someone who has been deeply moved at times by the very experience of being in the world and my relation to it, a nonrational, but not irrational sentiment, and yet accepting no religious tradition, I am pleasantly surprised to hear him articulating ideas close to those of my own.

Because doing a book like this right in this small scale is so very difficult, and I wanted this book to do it well, I had very high standards, and for me it was somewhere between 4 and 5 stars.
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Reading Progress

01/01/2011 page 30
13.0%
01/06/2011 page 154
69.0% "This is a quite interesting little book, integrity, open minded, loving, and broad. And yes an atheist can have a spiritual experience."

Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by Ed (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ed Smiley This is perhaps one of those books that will piss off everybody.

I am pleasantly surprised to hear him articulating ideas close to those of my own.


message 2: by Ed (last edited Jan 07, 2011 10:27PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ed Smiley "Remember the good Samaritan. He was neither Jewish or Christian. We have no idea what his faith was or what he felt about death. All we know is that he showed compassion and charity. And Jesus explicitly told us to imitate him, not a priest or a Levite."


message 3: by Ed (last edited Jan 07, 2011 10:37PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ed Smiley "Among the people who had come up to chat with me after the lecture was a rather elderly Catholic priest...'I came up to thank you,' he said. 'I enjoyed your lecture very much.' Then he added, "I agreed with everything you said.'...I couldn't help adding,"still Father, I must admit it surprises me...I don't believe in God or the immortality of the soul.' 'Oh,' said the elderly priest with a benevolent smile, 'those are such secondary matters.'"


message 4: by Ed (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ed Smiley "Is there such a thing as atheist spirituality?...Whether or not you believe in God, the supernatural or the sacred, you are confronted with the infinite, the eternal and the absolute--and with yourself."


message 5: by Ed (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ed Smiley Comte-Sponville, although not conventionally religious in any way, talks frankly about having mystical experiences:

"We were walking. My mind emptied of thought.... And then, all of a sudden... What? Nothing: everything! No words, no questions, only--a surprise. Only--this. A seemingly infinite happiness. A seemingly eternal sense of peace....Yes, in the darkness of that night, I contained only the dazzling presence of the All. Peace. Infinite peace! Simplicity, serenity, delight."

Religions interpret such unitive experiences in their particular ways. He goes on, "Reality suffices. Why subject it to anything else?...Ascetics leave it. Wise men take it....neither hope nor regret...."


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