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Spirituality Without Ghosts

April 13, 2015
Posted at 6:02 pm

For anyone interested in what we authors do between story postings, here's the text of a lay sermon I delivered to a local UU (Unitarian-Universalist) church on Atheism and Spirituality.

Spirituality without the Ghosts

This is partially intended as an 'alternate religions' overview, but it also strikes at the heart of religion by addressing the universal need for spirituality, whether one believes in God or not. Essentially, spirituality is more central to humans than to a belief in God.

Atheism is a funny thing. We're a very small group and almost invisible. It's not an organized belief, just a collection of people who don't subscribe to other religions. The only atheists most people know of are the 'avowed' types who have a chip on their shoulder and vent about religion. But for the rest of us, we've learned to keep quiet.

I casually mentioned my beliefs in a family discussion at my sister's several years ago, and my brother-in-law has never treated me the same since. He keeps giving me these 'lost soul' stares, so we learn to keep quiet. However, like many minorities, you often don't realize how many there are until you meet them one-on-one.

In preparing for this talk, I had a couple people ask, "Are you Vincent? The one speaking about atheism?" When I confirmed I was, they continued. "We need to talk. I'd really like to hear it, but I can't be there that week." Each of those people wanted to talk about being atheists. There's no gaydar for nonbelief, so unless you scratch the surface, you'll never know how many there are. Heck, even with the surveys which ask your religious affiliation, most people tell the pollsters what they want to hear. Since we know many religious people respond worse to atheists than to competing religions, we don't speak up.

It's been said that everyone believes in Christianity for one reason-the salvation of their souls-everyone comes to atheism for their own reasons, which are uniquely their own. In my case, I'm like most preachers' kids. They either become ministers themselves, or they turn their back on the belief of their fathers. Victor essentially assembled his own belief system from various sources. My sister attends church regularly, and Copy, my eldest brother, would have been religious, but like many gays of that period, turned his back on organized religion after multiple churches rejected him because of his homosexuality. I went whole hog, though. While I can't speak for atheists as a whole, I came to atheism for one simple reason: I just can't accept the existence of the soul.

My choice has little to do with religion, the battle of faith over science, but over the fact that over the last two millennia, no one has ever detected any principals in physics which support the existence of the soul. Just as there's no God particle, there's also no fundamental particle for the spirit to hang its hat. There are no wavelengths which supports the transmission of spiritual communications, no everywhere-in-the-universe particle, and no transparent cells. What's more, if a person's soul is pure spirit with no ties to our earthly coil, there's no physical basis for them to process memories, form thoughts, evaluate experiences or perceive anything occurring in the universe around them. In short, with no physical presence, even if they did exist, they'd be empty vessels, less solid than the air around us.

While that's not a siren's call to atheists everywhere, once you abandon the concept of spirits, the entire premise of religion collapses. Without ghosts floating around you've got no heaven, with no heaven there's no eternal afterlife, and without a giant granddaddy of all ghosts, there's no God ruling the universe to create life, meaning and order. As much as you might appreciate those things, there's nothing to base the belief in them on. It's not so much I'm anti-religion as I simply can't buy into the concept. It's like when you read a book: you skip over a few typos here or an incorrect punctuation there, but you hit one statement which-for whatever reason-stops you dead in your tracks and spoils the entire story-despite it not being a major issue for anyone else.

Now, without a belief in God, you'd think I'd put religion as a whole aside. But it goes deeper than that. Not only do atheists live in a theist world, but there's still the basic human need to find meaning in life.

I ran into this head-on while writing a series about a young man, paradoxically an atheist leading a religious movement. It wasn't autobiographical, but I liked the challenge of a nonbeliever struggling to adapt to a situation not of his choosing. But as I neared the conclusion and needed to tie the story elements together, I discovered I needed certain unifying themes to drape them from. To guide me in this, I wrote a series of parables. Since this character didn't believe in a deity, he couldn't dictate what people believed, but could tell his followers how to lead moral lives.

It had been a while, but my father was a Naval Chaplain and frequently worked with parables, so it wasn't really a stretch for me. But once I strung together a few crude parables expressing this character's core beliefs, the conclusion of the story congealed. Essentially, I found a theoretical hook to hang his fledgling theology on.

What I faced is what many of us do. We all search for meaning in our lives. I was trying to tie all the elements of the story into bigger themes about life, much as everyone tries to explain their lives in larger themes of the universe. That reflects why I attend the Unitarian-Universalist church. I want to deal with the bigger issues in life: what makes men behave badly, what's in the inner nature of man, and what it takes for us to rise above our baser instincts.

In short, spirituality has little to do with spirits.

Instead it's our attempt to wrestle with the larger issues in life. At one time, those two ideas were one and the same. If you dealt with the nature of man, you talked about their souls, their spirit. However, as we've come to understand more, we've broadened our understanding of how things relate to one another. We've developed the fields of psychology, sociology and anthropology, not to mention comparative theology. But we've never invented a better word for this basic drive in man.

In short, it's an age-old question: how can atheists be moral if they don't fear a vengeful god?

Recently, these questions have been changing. At a recent event in Baton Rouge, of all places, they held an event they called 'Joie de Vivre: To Delight in Being Alive', the initiation of an organized atheist church. Sam Harris's new book, "Waking Up", describes the famous atheist's "walk in Jesus' footsteps" to the site of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. He asks which came first, the belief in God or man's quest for transcendence. Sam argues we all have these 'transcendent experiences', but only the religious make a big deal about their significant to remember them. But, as these events show, that doesn't mean atheists don't value them.

Another recent event paired Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York with comedian Stephen Colbert, reflecting the importance of spirituality (and humor) extends beyond theology discussions. The event was staged by a Catholic Priest who wrote "Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life." In fact, Sam Harris argues, in another book, that much of atheism rests on Naturalism, that only science can explain life. But when we experience nature, we don't think of science but are instead struck dumb by its beauty. In short, the experience isn't scientific, but spiritual.

A 2012 survey by the Pew Religion and Public Life Project found that 20% of those polled claimed to not be religiously affiliated, yet nearly 37% said they were "spiritual" but not "religious". That single group is greater than atheists, Jews, Muslims and Episcopalians combined (at least in America).

All these events show there's a real hunger for a spiritual life among those with few ties to the Devine. They want to view life with a spiritual filter; without the wrapping papers of faith, religion and God.

Instead of believing in spirits, I believe in good and evil, morality and right and wrong. As silly as it seems, I prefer to believe in fate, even if I know there's no rational explanation for it. I like to believe that good things happen to good people, and that even when bad things occur, we emerge as more complete people, rather than as crushed, diminished goods.

Humanism provides an alternate path, but humanism seems overly specific. It focuses on the goodness in humanity, but diminishes our desire to connect with nature and to believe-even when it defies logic-in the interconnectedness of fate. It isn't that humans need to believe in magic, but we need something bigger than ourselves. In Universality that's the totality of human experiences, in Humanism it's our collective good, in Unitarianism, it's the central themes spanning the different strands of Christianity.

To put this need in more practical terms, look at recent events. When we observe that global temperatures are rising and storms are becoming increasingly worse, we strive to form a coherent story so we can determine how to respond. If burning fossil fuels increases carbon, then if we reduce the carbon, we can control global warming. In the same way, if we understand what causes humans to rise above their sinful nature, then we can emulate and encourage that behavior. Prayer and faith are our attempts to control our essential natures. It's an attempt to account and control fate. If God controls everything, then by applying to him for help, he'll guide us in doing the right thing.

Without this desire to control our fates, we're left adrift, cascading from one horrendous event to the next. Whether your religion is Christianity, Buddhism, Humanism or Science, we all want a way to grasp life's ultimate meanings so we can steer through the obstacles in life. By focusing on what moves us forwards, we can concentrate on the positive directions in our lives, making us-at the very least-much easier to deal with than someone who continually complains.

What I'm proposing is that we, as humans, need to focus on spiritual matters regardless of our religious affiliations. And we don't need to do it by drawing a line in the sand, daring anyone and everyone to cross over it. If we're wrong about one aspect of our lives, we can still contribute in other ways. But since we don't base our every action on the will of an almighty ghost, we're freer to screw-up. Instead of assuming we're always right, we choose to do the correct thing while being less judgmental of ourselves and others when we don't measure up. Which sounds a lot like what Christianity teaches.

We also need to be willing to accept the wisdom of others unlike us. Rather than surrounding ourselves with others who repeat the same things, we need other people's experiences to shake up our world view every now and again. If you only talk to those who agree with you, you'll never grow as a human.

Finally, we need to grasp life with both hands and hold on for the wild ride that it is, rather than waiting for a beautiful life in the future which may never come. We need to embrace life and those sharing it with us, rather than planning on enjoying them at some undefined point in the future. What's more, we need to accept that we're not always going to be the exact same person. Our inner spirits at fifty is vastly different than what it was at twenty, which isn't what it'll be at eighty. We don't quit living when we retire. Instead, we experience a different life as changed people. Our entire approach to live and how we respond to events changes. Frankly, this conceit of permanence is for the birds, because it keeps us from accepting our human frailties.

For a rebuttal, see the following (Warning: Atheist Joke included).