Atheists Attack Atheist Article

By Chris Mooney | January 6, 2011 7:54 am

As noted earlier, I’ve recently done a Playboy article that advances the case for an atheistic, scientific spirituality devoid of supernatural belief but not devoid of feeling.

To my surprise, the piece is now being attacked for being pro-religion. But if you read it, it’s clearly about liberating us from religion, and says many of the same things that leading atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris say about non-religious spirituality!

On Al Jazeera, you may recall, Dawkins discussed the “frisson in the breast” that he feels when contemplating “the beauty of the universe, the complexity of life, the magnitude of space, the magnitude of geological time.” He says this feeling could be called “spirituality”–but “I would be very concerned that it shouldn’t be confused with supernaturalism.”

My article perpetrates no such confusion. It is clear throughout that we’re talking about spirituality without religion, e.g., “a growing number of nonreligious researchers,” “a prevalence of spirituality detached from traditional religion,” “Einstein saw no reason to believe in a personal God or the supernatural,” “[Darwin] ultimately concluded he would have to remain an agnostic with respect to God,” etc. And most of all, this passage:

Therefore, rather than vanquishing religion, modern science might have helped to unleash the human spirit and free it from traditional religious constraints. The result? At least for some, the need for spiritual fulfillment can now be satisfied outside the context of supernatural creeds. And the sacred, which is the object of the spiritual quest, can now be found in nature and in a search for an understanding of it.

Thankfully there are some atheists who do see what I was saying–and its resonance: See here. Reading my article correctly, Camels with Hammers notes that it “effectively shows that atheistic spirituality and religiosity are possible without any need for the baggage of ungrounded belief.”

But as one e-correspondent pointed out, the coolest thing of all is…I’ve apparently gotten some people to read Playboy for the articles!!!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Religion

Comments (42)

Links to this Post

  1. The Semantics Of Spirituality – Camels With Hammers | January 6, 2011
  1. Ld Elon

    People say God doesn’t exist, yet i just mentioned God, and, you know what it means, therfore God exists.

    I understand it much the way you have put it in your artical, yet i have proof of the existence of our father.
    It is above.

  2. Ld Elon

    The space i see, is a set of cubes, unfilled but with stucture, that stucture is the known unknown, that which is the fill, is known.
    The grid is vast far and wide, and ther are many boxes, waiting to be filled.
    When the grid is complete, Man will be complete.

  3. Chris Mooney
  4. Jim

    Wow, did the Timecube guy just show up on your blog? That’s kind of awesome.

    I am myself religious, but I don’t prosletyze my atheist friends because msot of them have this idea of spirituality, this idea of something that is greater than they and that they find important, and I don’t have the right to tell them that their notion of spirituality is wrong just because it doesn’t have a supernatural core.

  5. William R. Dickson

    The problem is that “spirituality” is just a really bad word for what you (and Dawkins, and any atheist) is talking about. It’s rooted so strongly in the dualist concept of a supernatural spirit that, in my opinion, it just can’t be separated. “Spiritualism” is, to me, a nonsense word. We need a better one that both carries a useful meaning and doesn’t carry a ton of woo baggage.

  6. Chris Mooney

    @5 I disagree. Well, I agree that the word has supernaturalist etymological roots. But it is being redefined in our culture and denuded of these prior connotations. And it’s the word everybody knows. That isn’t going to change. So I don’t think there is any point in arguing for using another word. The battle over what word is going to be used was long since decided in my opinion.

  7. Chris

    I used to subscribe to Playboy for the articles… then Hef started filling the pages with silicone and I couldn’t bear seeing my altered compatriots anymore… regardless- I am a lifelong atheist, and totally get Dawkins type of spirituality.. for me being in nature is a *religious experience*… but I have never gone for any type of god story at all… just because we use logic doesn’t mean we can’t also have some of the gooey feelings still- we just don’t give them personalities.. ;D
    Some atheists seem to be scared of said gooey feelings- mistaking them for religion.. for me-they are more human awe and enjoyment of our surroundings- knowing that any mysteries will be eventually be solved- the wait is frustrating but part of the story.. ;P

  8. gc

    Spirituality, religion, even science are all terms that are used, re-used and abused to refer to a wide range of human thought and behavior.

    Spirituality-without-god/supernatural is not the same as spirituality-with-god/supernatural. Instead of whacking away at these enormously huge concepts with little tiny single word hammers prone to misunderstandings, authors and groups should be inventing new terminology. Richard Dawkins is especially adept and sometimes humorous at inventing new terminology and definition to escape ambiguity in his books. Perhaps spiritual experience is just too ambiguous to use when describing a non-supernatural aesthetic experience?

    Authors and groups should be clear in defining terminology or create new terminology and definitions rather than continually use, re-use and abuse old, emotionally primed, overloaded terminology ambiguously. Unless, of course, the purpose is to be ambiguous.

  9. It’s worth iterating that Sam Harris enthusiastically encourages spirituality in his famous attack on religion “The End of Faith”. Spirituality and blind religious faith can be two different things.

  10. BobG

    @Ld Elon

    People say Thor doesn’t exist, yet i just mentioned Thor, and, you know what it means, therfore Thor exists.

    People say Santa Claus doesn’t exist, yet i just mentioned Santa Claus, and, you know what it means, therfore Santa Claus exists.

    People say the Tooth Fairy doesn’t exist, yet i just mentioned the Tooth Fairy , and, you know what it means, therfore the Tooth Fairy exists.

  11. Jim

    You might as well stop using words like providential, ghastly . . .

    And it’s not as though a non-supernatural use of the word “spirituality” is new. That use goes back a few hundred years.

  12. William R. Dickson

    Chris, I don’t think it is being very successfully redefined and denuded of its supernatural connotations. If it were, I don’t think you’d have seen the reaction to your article that led to this blog post. Hell, there’s a whole stink going on right now about the “spiritual fitness” assessment being used by the armed forces that in no small part revolves around the fact that both the test authors and the atheist service members who object to the test see spirituality as an inherently religious, supernatural concept.

    Sometimes etymology is just something interesting to know about a word, but in this case, I think it’s very closely tied to the meaning most people attach to it.

  13. Ewan Macdonald

    Mooney, there’s another word everyone knows, and it’s “dishonest.” Pretty soon they’ll know “framing” as well, and then you’ll be out of business.

  14. Dave

    I knew someone once who had shelves filled with philosophy from which she could endlessly quote–and no faith in the works of any. I could never understand why she would bother except to look for loopholes.
    I’m a simple man, satisfied with a detective novel or ever-changing subjects in which works I have no absolute faith or true understanding of any depth no matter how much I learn, medical and biological sciences. I’m a science agnostic.

  15. Mark

    This is a perfect example of why I no longer read Pharyngula. I used to be a frequent visitor, but PZ has gone off the deep end with the anti-spirituality stuff. One can be atheist and spiritual at the same time. Carl Sagan is the classic example, and I would put PZ’s friend Richard Dawkins in the same category.

    If there’s a better word, I would welcome it, but until then I think the challenge is to better define what “spiritual” means. If everything is either material or spiritual, then all the great achievements of humanity are spiritual – invention, creativity, discovery, the scientific method, art and music, etc. Supernatural views, including much of traditional religion, are a very tiny little piece of a very large field. Defining spirituality as religion is like defining a house as a nail – it’s part of it, but only a very small part.

  16. Jerry Coyne

    It’s pretty clear that your article was written not specifically to promote religion but, as P.Z. and I emphasized, to effect a rapprochement between faith and science, i.e. to promote accommodationism. That’s why Ecklund’s study was mentioned.

    To say that it was written to “liberate us from religion” seems truly bizarre, especially in light of this sentence from your piece:

    “Doherty is among a growing number of nonreligious researchers who view scientific inquiry itself as a spiritual quest—a trend that has the potential to dramatically upend the idea that science and religion must be in conflict.”

    Now, truly, how can THAT be construed as helping liberate us from religion? People who want to liberate us from religion don’t write articles trying to bring religion and science together in a big group hug!

    Really, Chris, either you’re backtracking, being disingenuous, or you were deeply confused when you wrote your piece, and didn’t have a good idea what you were trying to say. And doesn’t it bother you that you tout yourself as a great communicator of science, when at the same time nearly everybody (according to you) misunderstands what you say?

  17. Chris — don’t be surprised.

    Christians like myself have been told that we’re not “real” Christians by the fundamentalists because we don’t accept the literal truth of the Bible, etc. Because we stray from their very strict philosophy. They think we’re basically anti-Christians, the devil in sheep’s clothing, etc., because we do things like accept evolution.

    Now atheists like yourself are being told that you’re not a “real” atheist by your own fundamentalists. It’s part of the game. When there’s a philosophical contest like this, there are extremely strident ones at the very end of the spectrum who have become so convinced that their position is pure, that they believe anybody who deviates from it is basically the enemy.

  18. Mark

    Jerry @ 16

    If you view religion and spirituality as purely based on supernatural beliefs, then your argument makes sense. But religion does not have to be based on supernatural beliefs, and pure science is a great example of a spiritual quest – a desire to understand for the sheer joy of knowing. You might be interested in a different view of religion from the current President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, Peter Morales, titled “Religion without Belief” I believe that he later retitled it “Belief is the Enemy of Religion.”

    If you’re not familiar with it, UU is a modern-day religion – it dispenses with all the supernatural beliefs and focuses on principles which nearly all people have in common.

  19. TTT

    Rob @ 17: don’t fall into the trap of thinking that anyone who is in the “middle” of an issue (especially a middle as defined only by themselves) cannot be a fundamentalist. If that’s the outcome you are dead set on achieving and you never stop talking about how only centrist compromise (again, self-defined) can advance true understanding or whatever, you’re just as fundamentalist as anyone who says you’re wrong. SEE ALSO: Lieberman, Joe.

  20. Ewan Macdonald

    Mark, all this misses the point that “spirituality” still has in the public mind connotations of religion and supernaturalism. The number of people who take “spirituality” in Chris’ sense is extremely small. Sam Harris would be one of them and the UU guy you cite seems to be another. But they represent a tiny, tiny minority, and to lump this minority in with people for whom religion *is* belief is, as Jerry says, either muddled or disingenuous.

    Face it: virtually nobody is a Unitarian, hardly anybody agrees with Sam Harris, and playing word games with their version of “spirituality” to apply it to the population-at-large’s is serving nobody but Chris in this instance.

    Accommodationism relies on dishonesty. It is a busted flush. Everyone capable of clear thought can see this.

  21. Words are important. Particularly in science. The more specific we are, the more scientific we are. Vague words lead to bad science and potential misunderstandings.
    I’m of the belief that “spirituality” is both vague and loaded. It may serve as a verbal Trojan horse within which can ride bogus ideas and sentiments.
    You wrote:
    “But it is being redefined in our culture and denuded of these prior connotations. And it’s the word everybody knows. That isn’t going to change. So I don’t think there is any point in arguing for using another word. The battle over what word is going to be used was long since decided in my opinion.”
    Um, language continually evolves. How do you know that the battle over the definition of “spirituality” has long been decided, for now and forever?
    And why, pray tell, do we today speak of gay rights vs. homosexual rights? Why hasn’t “homosexual” been successfully denuded of its prior connotations? Easier said than done.
    It seems to me your science&religion writings evidence a concern for social diplomacy over science.
    Personally, I disagree with the use of the word “spiritual/spirituality.” Not because I don’t experience wonder and awe in my life. But because I care about language use. I likewise take exception to scientists using the word God in their prose (see my 360skeptic blog post, “Freethought Musings: The Political Necessity of an Abstract God.”) Not because I am a militant atheist on a crusade against any and all things non-empirical. But, again, because I care about clear, and fully honest, communication.

  22. Jim

    @19 First of all, fundamentalism is still, by and in large, defined as being dogmatic adherence to a religious belief and intolerance towards the secular. If you argue that atheism can be secular, you’re kind of arguing that it’s a religion, which I don’t think is your intent.

    If we broaden the definition to refer to any system of thought that requires dogmatic adherence to a set of tenets, then can we make allowance that there can be a middle between “Religion is the ultimate evil” and “Religion is the ultimate good” that consists not of dogmatic adherence to a set of tenets, but of a dialogue about what those tenets are and whether or not they are useful?

  23. Egbert

    Mark Said: One can be atheist and spiritual at the same time

    You can be an atheist and religious too, or an irrational atheist, or a dishonest atheist. That’s why we need to select out the religious, spiritual, disingenuous and irrational atheists from the rational and honest atheists. Emotions are emotions, let’s not dress them up as metaphysics or as reasons to find meaning or purpose in life. That is the same old language of religion.

  24. Michael De Dora

    @Curious Wavefunction, you wrote:

    “It’s worth iterating that Sam Harris enthusiastically encourages spirituality in his famous attack on religion ‘The End of Faith.’ Spirituality and blind religious faith can be two different things.”

    I agree with you, but it’s also worth reiterating that atheists gave Harris tons of flak for that.

    @Chris Mooney, you wrote:

    “Doherty is among a growing number of nonreligious researchers who view scientific inquiry itself as a spiritual quest—a trend that has the potential to dramatically upend the idea that science and religion must be in conflict.”

    My issue with this argument is: how can the spirituality you detail upend the idea that science and religion conflict if such spirituality is *not* religion as it is commonly practiced?

  25. Chris Mooney

    Michael that point is developed here

    My Playboy and USA Today articles really go together as one complete thought. thanks.

  26. Michael De Dora

    Thanks Chris. I’ll read that and get back to you, if necessary.

  27. Tulse

    Chris, in your USA Today article you write:

    “A focus on spirituality, then, might be the route to finally healing one of the most divisive rifts in Western society — over the relationship between science and religion.”

    But if the kind of spirituality you mean doesn’t include the supernatural, how is that rapprochement supposed to work? The disagreement between science and religion is not whether there are things in the world that produce a sense of awe and wonder and connectedness (after all, there are any number of pharmaceutical agents that can produce those feelings) — the issue is explaining the source of those feelings. And it is here that the chasm exists between science and religion. Saying that the two groups share kinds of feelings does nothing to resolve the ontological issue at the heart of the conflict. It’s slight of hand, nothing more.

  28. Chris Mooney

    @27 same link applies

  29. Ewan Macdonald

    That was the link he was referring to, Chris – and you don’t address it. You simply repeat the (correct) assertion that a feeling of what you like to call “spirituality” doesn’t rest on the supernatural. You say,

    “Spirituality in the sense described above does not run afoul of any of Dawkins’ atheistic values or arguments. It does not require science and faith to be logically compatible, for instance. Nor does it require that we believe in anything we cannot prove. Spirituality simply doesn’t operate on that level. It’s about emotions and experiences, not premises or postulates.”

    But, again, this doesn’t come close to bridging the gap between science and those religions that *do* necessitate belief in the supernature and *do* claim certain facts about how the world is.

    You are quite simply evading the question. And that’s to say nothing of your wordplay about things “sacred” to us in that same article. Is this another word whose definition you’ve triumphantly planted your flag in, to mean something that the vast majority of its users wouldn’t identify with?

  30. Tulse

    Chris, I honestly don’t see any actual argument in the USA Today article beyond “both scientists and religious have experiences they label as ‘spiritual’, but that word doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing to both groups”. That is hardly convincing. As I said above, the disagreement is not over “emotions and experiences”, but precisely over “premises and postulates”. The mere fact that atheists and religious both experience awe is no more a path to reconciliation than the mere fact that both experience sadness, or pain, or boredom. If you are going to strip the notion of “spirituality” of a necessary supernatural component, and reduce it simply to feeling, then what precisely is the foundation of the alleged common ground?

  31. Screechy Monkey

    I’m struggling to see what the point of the USA Today article is.

    The article takes great pains — which I appreciate — to emphasize that you’re using “spirituality” to mean something distinct from religion or supernaturalism generally. Having established this, the final paragraph begins with “A focus on spirituality, then, might be the route to finally healing one of the most divisive rifts in Western society — over the relationship between science and religion.”

    In other words, the rift between science and religion would fade if fewer people are religious (because they have become “spiritual” in a non-religious, non-supernatural sense that even the Gnuest Gnu Atheist would approve) .

    That sounds suspiciously like what Gnu Atheists have been advocating all along: challenge religious and supernatural beliefs so that, among other things, they stop interfering with science. But somehow I doubt that’s what you mean.

  32. Mark

    Egbert @23

    You say “Emotions are emotions, let’s not dress them up as metaphysics or as reasons to find meaning or purpose in life. That is the same old language of religion.”

    Certainly there are emotions that fall within my definition of spirituality, such as joy and awe. But the points I mentioned, including discovery, invention, art, creativity, music, etc., are not emotions. Do you have a better word that encompasses all these aspects of humanity, but excludes the supernatural? For now, I’m using “spirituality”.

    And while I agree with you that there is no inherent meaning or purpose in life (i.e. no divinely inspired reason for existence) I think that on a personal level we all want to find a meaning or purpose in our lives, kind of a “the world should be a better place because I lived” type of meaning. This often involves how we treat other people and our environment, and the values we teach to our children. If you don’t call this “spiritual”, then what do you call it?

  33. George Faulkner

    I think Chris is correct here and I’m probably as much of an atheist/naturalist as anyone. The real enemy is not religion but some of its historical baggage: “faith” (as Sam Harris brilliantly argued), oppressive behavior justified by faith, closed-mindedness, authoritarianism, egotism, otherworldly escapism, etc. Religion may have started in a phase of human evolution with much of this supernatural baggage, but it is and remains a relatively unique social institution with other benefits. Borrowing from the late expert on mythology, Joseph Campbell and others, I think religion performs 4 important functions and can continue to do so in a naturalistic framework:
    1. articulating and constantly updating a comprehensive, provisional ontology or view of what is real and how do we know that (which is beyond what experimental science itself can do and which is what many scientists do when not writing for peer-reviewed journals).
    2. promoting an ethical creed based on that philosophy, including a moral education for children (which cannot be left to public schools or even most parents who lack the resources and discipline).
    3. offering a path to personal fulfillment, enlightenment, peace (or whatever we want to call it), and a collective vision for society (utopian goals), which even helps inform public policy
    4. practices and rituals to connect people as a community and to promote individual peak or mystical experiences or sense of wonder, which often are life changing.

    One other practical reason for not targeting religion as such, is that, as the ministers, like Michael Dowd and John Shelby Spong are demonstrating, many better-informed people within religious traditions are becoming much more receptive to a naturalistic view and pushing their traditions to move ahead with them. Criticizing religious movements or institutions of all kinds is more likely to turn off these individuals and create even more of a reaction against those “cold-hearted” scientists. Taking the critique against religion to its logical extreme, one might expect anti-religionists to e against any seasonal celebrations, like New Year’s Eve/Day, Thanksgiving, the coming of Spring, coming of age rituals, marriage, etc. all because they had origins in supernaturalism and don’t encourage purely rational, Spock-like behavior.

    It’s all in how you define religion” and the anti-religion atheists are defining it too narrowly, in fact using a definition that is itself unscientific, as many sociologists would claim.

  34. Chris Mooney

    I want to thank everyone for the good comments and reasonable tone here. I’ll have more soon.

  35. Jean Kazez

    I’m not sure I’m convinced you can substitute science for religion, and get all the same “spiritual” satisfaction. The science of religious experience seems to say otherwise. In Jonathan Haidt’s book “The Happiness Hypothesis,” religious experience (at least the kind people have in churches, etc.) is characterized as essentially social. It’s a matter of feeling “elevated” by being in a group where everyone has feelings of reverence, gratitude, love, and so on. That’s not what people get from doing science. (It’s equally true, of course, that the satisfactions of science aren’t all obtainable through religion). It might very well be that the closest substitute for religion (for the skeptic) is actually some social activity like working together on a cause, or even going to a concert. This is good news, because these social experiences are available to all, and there are a lot of people who want scientists to do science, but aren’t particularly attracted to it themselves.

  36. chris y

    There’s really very little point in paying attention to the Sparts of the sceptical movement these days, because they no longer really speak to anyone outside their own claques. Shame, really. People like Myers and Coyne used to be good communicators of actual science to the public, and it’s a pity to see such talents vitiated.

  37. TTT

    @37: isn’t the whole point of complaints about those awful Gnu Atheists that they keep writing these popular books that stir up the public? Dawkins in particular speaks to a very broad audience, and in a tone hardly different from that of the here-venerated Sagan’s “Demon-Haunted World.”

  38. vel

    if people mean feeling say feeling, don’t say “spirituality”. If you do, you seem no better than the theists who try to redefine words to make themselves feel better. What was the necessity of using the word “spirituality” if you didn’t mean having to do with some “spirit” or “soul”? Why keep using that word when it has connotations and denotations that are completely theistic/supernatural?

  39. Sili

    Christians like myself have been told that we’re not “real” Christians by the fundamentalists because we don’t accept the literal truth of the Bible, etc. Because we stray from their very strict philosophy. They think we’re basically anti-Christians, the devil in sheep’s clothing, etc., because we do things like accept evolution.

    Well, if you believe – as you must – in the literal truth of

    And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds (æons), Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; […] who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man; he was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried, and the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; from thence he shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

    then how can you leave out the “by whom all things were made” and “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.” bits and say that they’re not supposed to be taken literally?

    Now atheists like yourself are being told that you’re not a “real” atheist by your own fundamentalists.

    Who has said that Mooney is not an atheist? As far as I know he does not believe in any gods or other supernatural beings. That’s all it takes to be an atheist. I fail to see what’s “fundamentalist” about that.

  40. Egbert

    Mark @32,

    I think that if we are to have any coherent discussion, then we need to understand that the word ‘spirituality’ has connotations with religion and the supernatural. Your meaning of the word spirituality is not the same as other people who use the world spirituality.

    As for the idea that people are in need of some kind of quest for meaning and purpose, then perhaps that is true for people who fall into psychological nihilism or pessimism, but not for those with a healthy emotional and psychological outlook on life.

    Words like ‘awe’, ‘wonder’, ‘joy’ are good enough descriptions for what a person is feeling, but to call them spirituality is to begin to make such feelings incoherent.

  41. Physicalist

    We might want to take into consideration the US military’s test on spirituality when deciding whether it’s independent of religion.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs.For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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