Toward a More Nuanced Understanding of Secular Spirituality

Atheists such as myself look at the world and wonder, Why does religion have such power over men's minds--power that has been used for both good and evil? Those of us who refuse to dismiss the phenomenon as a form of madness continue to search for a common thread that can both explain the beliefs and behaviors we observe and maybe -- just maybe -- offer something positive to non-believers.

What I've distilled from this exercise over the past four decades is something many call spirituality, which I define as the satisfaction of our yearning for a transcendent intimacy that connects us with our fellow man while reconciling us to the reality of our own impermanent existence.

Describing spirituality in purely secular language -- that is, without invoking an immortal soul, an afterlife, an astral plane, or supernatural beings -- is challenging. It is challenging because religious proselytizers, mystics and philosophers have spent thousands of years doing precisely that. As a result, the fruits of their labor have become so entwined with our language that one is literally left at a loss for words because all the good ones are taken.

And yet, can we find a way to live a life of reason without cutting ourselves off from the joy and inner peace that, as our eyes tell us, can be had through the exercise of spirituality? We cannot deny that this joy exists, nor pretend we don't yearn for it, nor hide from the fact that yearning for something does not make it true. So we ask ourselves: Can this yearning ever be satisfied without resorting to mysticism, irrationality, or mind altering substances?

I believe it can. But to get there we have to come to grips with the relationship between love and death, those twin gateways to spirituality.

We are the only creatures cursed with the knowledge of our own mortality, a fate that many religions claim to have conquered. It is hardly surprising that the promise of life after death is the most successful product ever sold without registering a single customer complaint. By promising eternal life, packaging it with a moral code, and administering it through a system of traditions and rituals that memorialize the cycle of life -- including birth, coming of age, marriage, and death -- established religions have become the largest and most long-lasting economic enterprises ever constructed.

Unfortunately, this religious package deal has sometimes incorporated a virulent propensity to sow hatred and intolerance, to divide and destroy, with a recklessness that has been surpassed only by the nation state. Too many times, when god or country has commanded the subordination of the self offering an escape from individual responsibility, man can become monster -- leading to pogroms, inquisitions, witch hunts, honor killings, holy war, jihad, and countless other atrocities.

And so, many of us choose to walk the path alone. We look to art, music, and community for such spirituality as we can find. Until a few of us face that confluence of love and death that has, thankfully, become rare in the modern world.

Losing a child is an experience that cannot be communicated in words. Only a person who has suffered such a tragedy can understand the deep yearning for the opportunity to reunite with a lost loved one. It is an experience that used to be all too common, before antibiotics and modern medicine. It is now so rare that very few can say "I know." Thanks to these modern miracles, we have moved from a society in which virtually everyone had to deal with the loss of a child to one in which more and more people never get around to having children at all. Is it any surprise that religion is losing its grip?

I have a precious recording of my late son that I listen to from time to time. Coming as it does from beyond the grave, there is no way other than spiritual to describe the thoughts and emotions that well up listening to his words. Memory, sadness, pride, love, despair, acceptance--they all come together in a transcendent emotional state that cannot be approached through reason alone. And yet it is a real place, just as he is real, immortalized not in some imagined afterlife but in the loving embrace of my own consciousness. It is both a painful place to visit and a needful lonely solace, a solace bathed in tears whose cleansing gives strength to continue through the years.

Atheists can seek common ground with the religious in this spiritual place. We can agree to disagree about the reality of supernatural beings; it is pointless to argue. We can compare and contrast moral codes in ways that sometimes spill into the political arena, causing conflict and division. But we can all share our yearning for spirituality in ways that increase rather than diminish mutual respect and understanding. Yes, even atheists.