Embracing the Unholy Spirit

Bill Cooke

The Book of Atheist Spirituality, by André Comte-Sponville (London: Bantam, 2008, ISBN 978-0-593-06139-8) 212 pp. Cloth $19.95.

Alister McGrath must be so embarrassed. Within months of the appearance in 2004 of his book The Twilight of Atheism, where he exulted over the demise of atheism in the modern world, a major new wave of atheist thought blossomed forth. From all around the world, people from different specialties and perspectives gave voice to their lives free from the transcendental temptation. In response to this outpouring, a stock set of epithets arose in response. The words most frequently employed were reductionist and arrogant. Even within the humanist movement, one can expect to see criticisms of this sort. In most cases, the only new atheists cited are the “big four:” the two D’s (Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett) and the two H’s (Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris). Generally, it is the two H’s who are most vulnerable to these criticisms. But the new atheist phenomenon is much broader than this. As well as the perspective of the physicist Victor Stenger, one could add Tamas Pataki’s intelligent (and distinctly nonreductionist or arrogant) work, Against Religion, and the equally worthwhile short work, Irreligion, by the mathematician John Allen Paulos.

But perhaps the most interesting of the new expressions of atheism is The Book of Atheist Spirituality by the French philosopher André Comte-Sponville. It’s not much more than an essay: the two hundred pages of my copy could easily reduce to about half that if produced in ordinary paperback form. The work is divided into three sections. The first examines the author’s attitude toward religion, which is strongly critical without being feverishly so. Part 2 goes over his six main reasons for being an atheist. The third part opens up the question of whether we can plausibly speak of an atheist spirituality and if so, what it might look like.

The first two parts are well reasoned, brightly written, and generally unexceptionable. Comte-Sponville’s racy style allows us to canter lightheartedly through gloomily barren things like the nihilist tone of postmodernity or the ontological argument for the existence of God. But differences of tone and emphasis notwithstanding, he is not saying anything dramatically different from the other new atheists.

It is the third part that causes this book to stand out. What can be meant by talking of atheist spirituality? Comte-Sponville does all the right things here to defuse prejudices and fears. He urges us not to get unduly hung up on vocabularies, none of which are free from faults. He is also quick to put distance between spirituality, as he uses the term, and navel-gazing narcissism, which is often how I conceive it. He rightly draws our attention to the ancient Greeks, Buddhists, and Taoists as people who can think in terms of spirit or spirituality without inferring anything religious. To immediately equate spirituality with religion is to concede the whole realm of metaphysical speculation and identification to those with a supernaturalist agenda. And this would be a mistake. Atheists, no less than monotheists, need to have a coherent view of themselves and the universe. The atheist view will be harder and colder than the snug anthropocentrism of monotheism with all its consolations and delusions. But it needs a view, nonetheless.

Sometimes Comte-Sponville skirts too close to the rocks. As well as spirituality, he speaks of the absolute and of mysticism at various points. He is quite clear about their being grounded in the material, but once these words get bandied around, I begin to twitch. But it’s to Comte-Sponville’s credit that I saw this as my problem rather than his. The challenge was for me to stop twitching and read with an open mind. After all, he is giving expression to something atheists have understood for centuries: the immeasurable immensity of the universe and our total, utter irrelevance to it and the challenge that poses to our sense of importance. Religion shamefully panders to it by telling us that whatever created all this is interested in our welfare while at the same time assuring us of our humility. It is no wonder this brilliant recipe has been successful for so long. Atheists cannot resort to this alluring temptation, and Comte-Sponville does a good job in giving voice to how we get our heads around the reality of the situation. Reiterating atheists from Lucretius to Bertrand Russell, Comte-Sponville knows that “the contemplation of the immensity that contains us makes us all the more aware of how puny we are. This may be wounding to our ego, but it also enlarges our soul, because the ego has been put in its place at long last” (p. 147). This is very true and forms the kernel of the positive contribution atheism can make, when packaged properly, to changing people’s perceptions in the dark decades that loom ahead. Our species can no longer afford the breezy anthropocentrism that monotheistic religions disseminate.

Comte-Sponville’s foray into spirituality, heavily influenced by Eastern thinkers, may well remind readers of Sam Harris’s excursion down the same path in The End of Faith. There is not much to choose between the two in terms of their conclusions, though I personally prefer Comte-Sponville, both for the way he expressed it and for following on the heels of more sophisticated analysis and criticism of religion than Harris managed. It is worth noting that, with respect to recognizing our smallness in the context of the universe, Richard Dawkins has, for many years, said much the same thing, but he is regularly denounced as arrogant. Dawkins’s only crime in this respect appears to be the different vocabulary he uses to express this “oceanic feeling” that Comte-Sponville talks of. For myself, I am happier with the more down-to-earth way Russell and Dawkins express this feeling, but Comte-Sponville has done the best job so far of presenting a case for atheism using the language of mysticism and spirituality. His familiarity with Indian and Chinese thinkers is also a refreshing change.

As atheists, we need to avoid stiffening with a sectarian shudder when one of our own uses language with which we are uncomfortable. Any form of expression of an essentially atheist world view is good enough for me, and The Book of Atheist Spirituality is the best so far to do so in language I myself might not use.

Bill Cooke

Bill Cooke is a senior editor of Free Inquiry and a historian of atheism and humanism. He holds a PhD in religious studies and teaches philosophy and religious studies in Warrington, United Kingdom.

The Book of Atheist Spirituality, by André Comte-Sponville (London: Bantam, 2008, ISBN 978-0-593-06139-8) 212 pp. Cloth $19.95. Alister McGrath must be so embarrassed. Within months of the appearance in 2004 of his book The Twilight of Atheism, where he exulted over the demise of atheism in the modern world, a major new wave of atheist …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.