Does Atheism Preclude Human Spirituality?
"Hello Sage, I apologize for dropping in without asking for an appointment. I brought my atheist friend, Heathen, along. We need you to arbitrate an issue between Heathen and me. I argue that an atheist can be spiritual under certain circumstances. I even dared to suggest that he is spiritual, an assertion he fiercely objects to," said Quester.
"I knew that you were coming, Quester. You need some more practice yet to block the leak of your mind more effectively. Your thoughts are all around me. You do not surprise me, showing up without making an appointment. I welcome you though — as always, for a hearty chat; and pleased to meet you, Heathen. Let me hear the issue, Quester," said Sage.
"Is it not perhaps the other way around? Should we not ask whether religion is compatible with spirituality? We can ask a slightly different question that Heathen might find more fitting. The question is this: is religion instrumental in achieving spirituality?"
Sage, rephrasing the question suggests, he is proposing that religion should be shaped and molded so it nurtures human spirituality. If so, does he mean to imply the home domain of spirituality is not religion? Even more controversial proposition would be to suggest that spirituality may flourish outside of religion.
"I see your point. So, how do we approach the issue? What do you suggest," asked Quester.
"Let us follow our practice, and get an agreement on the meaning of the ideas that we are about to explore. It always improves productivity if we share our understanding of the concepts we work with during debate, and agree on their use," advised Sage.
What does it mean to be religious?
"First, we have to agree on what ideas are we relying on as we deliberate our issue. We have two ideas, namely being religious and being spiritual. I think we need to describe only these two notions," proposed Quester.
"I want to add being human as the third concept, and atheist as the fourth one that we should describe and agree on their meaning. If a person is not spiritual nor religious, that person is still human, and may or may not be an atheist," offered Heathen.
"I agree with you, Heathen. I propose we start with describing what do we mean by being religious. Would one of you describe then the important characteristics of being religious? If I told you that Peter is religious, what are his personal traits that you think belongs to his character," asked Sage/
"You did not tell me what is Peter's religion. Is he Muslim, a Jew or a Christian? Do I need to know that? I have a friend, Miriam, who is a Jew, and I know Mohammed who is a Muslim," asked Quester.
"Do you think it matters to know the religious organization when we want to decide whether a person religious or not? I just looked up Peter's record, by the way; he is a Christian," answered Sage.
"My view is that we do not need to know whether a person believes in a Christian god, in Allah, or Jehovah. What is the distinguishing characters of being a Muslim atheist, a Christian atheist or a Jewish atheist," asked Heathen?
"I agree with you, Heathen. If someone does not believe in Allah, or Jehovah but believes in a Christian god, that person is not an atheist," added Quester.
"How would you then describe the concept of being religious, Quester," asked Sage, wanting to move the discussion along?
"I can try. A person is religious if she/he subjects to an organization that dedicates itself to preserving some ancient records. These records can be written words arranged into holy books. Followers treat these books as being holy by virtue of their source, since men with privileged access to a god, wrote them. This organization then upholds the right to promote its doctrines, and be the genuine source of presenting and clarifying the meaning of these sacred records," said Quester.
"I want to add that religious organizations go further than just interpreting sacred books. They use moral — sometimes even physical, coercion to enforce their norms on people in societies. There could be sever effects for those who violate the rules," added Heathen.
"We can move on. Can I ask you Heathen to describe the notion of being atheist? You can also illustrate and characterize what does it mean to be human," asked Sage.
What does it mean to be atheist?
"To be an atheist one simply has to refuse to believe that there is a super being as Christians, Muslims and Jews imagine it. The stories that are recorded in the Bible, the Koran and the Torah, were invented centuries if not thousands of years ago. The thick fog eons sew, stitch and hem around them just make them more 'authentic'. The original events certainly made a decisive impact on social and political lives of contemporary people. However, the teachings of these sacred books changed with the intent to make them more readily applicable to the lives of the faithful throughout the centuries. As a freethinker, I view these teachings outdated and inaccurate interpretations of some truly worthy and noble ideas," ended Heathen.
"Do you have a proof that this is what happened," asked Sage.
"Well, we all know the effect passing time has on the quality of memory and our ability of recalling events. The existence of various versions of these holy books, the contradictory interpretations - all support my assertion," responded Heathen."Have you considered to become an agnostic, Heathen," asked Quester.
"I did, and rejected the idea. I cannot imagine that a god can be hateful and revenge-thirsty, taking sides in human conflicts, helping to kill the other side, the 'enemy'. I do not have doubts that such a pitiful creature cannot create a cooperative, loving Universe where all beings can evolve. I am convinced that such gods cannot exist. There is no room for doubts in my mind. I am not agnostic for this reason," explained Heathen his position, getting slightly agitated.
"Next I describe what does it mean to be human. There are a few traits that make us human. We are self-aware, self-conscious beings. Our mind has an inexhaustible appetite to know more. Our mind is innately curious, wants to explore the world around us, so we create our sciences. Human beings can act compassionately with love. These are some of the preconditions that enable the human race to build societies. Our love for harmony and beauty provides motivation to create art. Our ability to form value-driven decisions and commit our resources to their attainment, is another critical aspect of being human," finished Heathen.
"I agree that our Mind, Heart and our Will are the fundamental human abilities we relay on to develop our personal and social life. I do not have anything else to add," said Quester.
What does it mean to be spiritual?
"We are now in a position to describe spirituality. I volunteer to do it. Here is my description of what does it mean for a human being to be spiritual?
One is spiritual if human values guide and motivates one's actions through out one's life. The most important human values are:
1. Allow the human mind unconstrained freedom to explore and create knowledge.
2. Seek to advance harmony and beauty when dealing with other humans, with animals, plants and inanimate matter.
3. Carry out purposeful actions that knowledge supports, and love motivates, has the intent to serve others, and respect the dignity of all involved.
Consider these examples: John is a mechanic, proud owner of an auto repair garage. He has a family with two children; loves his wife, and works hard to save for his kids' education. He does not think much about god, and does not belong to any religion. Therefore, religious people feel an unease when they meet him. Rose, on the other hand, observes all the rules of her religion, goes to church every Sunday, and on other occasions too, according to her religion's dictates.
Tell me whether Rose is more spiritual than John, in your assessment? We start with you, Quester," directed Sage.
"I am puzzled, Sage. You defined what does spiritual mean, but never mentioned spirits? Rose spends a lot of time talking to spirits in her church. I would guess on these grounds that Rose is more spiritual than John who doesn't even believe in spirits or god," reasoned Quester.
"Well, Quester, I see a few issues with your reasoning. You added a criterion to be spiritual by asserting that talking to spirits will transform one into a spiritual being. You also added the notion that going to church regularly and believing in god is spiritual activity. You ignored — it appears, all the criteria of being spiritual that Sage proposed," commented Heathen.
"I have to agree with what Heathen has to say, Quester. I cannot accept your reasoning. I ask you Heathen to tell us — in your judgment and based on the criteria that I put forth, who is spiritual: John or Rosal?" Sage was curious what Heathen had to say.
"I am not going to judge who is spiritual, Sage. I am going to tell — applying the description that you want me to use, who can claim to be spiritual? John spends his waking hours carrying for his family with love, using his skills and know-how to provide service to others. He loves his work and business. On the other hand, all I know about Rose that she loves to go to church and listen to sermons, and perhaps converses with spirits. I infer that — according to our criteria, John is spiritual, but I cannot comment on whether Rose is spiritual," ended Heathen.
Heathen, the spiritual atheist.
"Well done reasoning, Heathen; I agree. May I ask you what do you do for a living? You never told me that." Sage wanted to know.
"I am an astro-physicist," answered Heathen, suspicion started to surface in his mind about the direction Sage is going to take him.
"Do you love your work," asked Sage.
"There is so much to explore! The Universe is orderly and yet it always has a surprise for our mind. When we think we know it all, a new irrelevant-looking measurement, a signal forces us to reconsider our understanding. I am working on an instrument that will be able to measure the wobble of the Milky Way black hole's spin. I suspect, it has a bearing on the lifespan of the galaxy," said Heathen with excited pride in his voice.
"Thank you Heathen. Your work is most interesting. I ask you a favor: based on the definition we used to decide who is spiritual and who is not, prove to us that you are not spiritual. Can you do that," asked Sage.
"If you do not expect me to talk to spirits than I agree that I am spiritual," ended Heathen.
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