We are living in a time when Atheism is becoming an increasingly popular belief system for many people around the world. While the likes of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris are looking to expose religions for their apparent hypocrisy and cause of violence and many of the world’s problems; the renowned French philosopher, André Comte-Sponville, author of A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues, seeks to educate people about a less antagonistic form of Atheism which he refers to as an Atheist spirituality.
André Comte-Sponville has very little in common with Dawkins, Hitchens or Harris, for he is not out to challenge people’s beliefs and make them convert to reality and science. He respects everyone’s religion and/or beliefs, for they are always entitled to them. He just believes, like many of us, that all the religions of today are simply not true. However, the ideas of being a good person in a lot of the world’s religions are to be admired and used.
The book is split into three parts, and in the first, “Can We Do Without Religion?,” he dispels the idea that religious people are often a proponent of the idea that morality cannot exist without religion; Comte-Sponville takes his time in explaining that this is simply not true. While it is possible to be without religion, there are three key elements that exist in religion, and that we as human beings also have instilled within us: communion, fidelity, and love.
Comte-Sponville says that “it is possible to commune with something other than the divine and the sacred” and that “no society can dispense for any length of time without communion.” As people in this world, we simply need to be around and with other people, it is what makes us human, and what makes our civilization exist, but also run relatively smoothly. No religion is necessary here, but the communion with other people is key, to exist in this world.
With regards to fidelity, Comte-Sponville says, “Fidelity is what remains when faith has been lost.” This is where our “moral, cultural, and spiritual” values come from as people of this world. The automatic and common sense understanding of what is good or bad, right or wrong; to feel bad when causing someone (be it another person or another animal) pain and discomfort makes one feel bad also. While these important values of society are often part of the foundation of religions and have so been instilled in us, the religion is not required.
I don’t believe in God or anything akin to a supernatural deity, but I know that stealing and causing pain to others is wrong, and would make me feel bad whether I want it to or not.
“Love is more precious than hope or despair,” Comte-Sponville says, as he discusses how most religions seem to have a driving hope for the future, for something to happen, for one to eventually die and ascend to heaven, or whatever the afterlife beliefs may be, and this is often coupled with a requirement to do certain things in this life to a creed written in a book long ago. But then why is the saying “you only live once” also so true and often used? We are people, we are alive now, and this our life, existing right now. It’s not about what happened before, or what is going to happen; these cannot be changed and affected; the now is all we can control. The love is for humanity as a whole, to love each other coupled with communion and fidelity, to marvel at how far we’ve come and what we’ve accomplished.
Comte-Sponville ends this section with: “Is there life after death? No one can say. Most Christians believe there is. I do not. There is life before death, however. On that much we can agree, at least!”
In the second part, “Does God Exist?,” Comte-Sponville discusses this with three arguments that led him not to believe in God:
1) The weakness of the so-called proofs of God’s existence,
2) If God existed, he should be easier to see or sense,
3) His refusal to explain the supposed existence of God by the Bible and automatic faith, which he understands even less.
The other three arguments which led him to believe that God does not exist are:
1) The existence and enormity of evil in the world,
2) “The mediocrity of mankind,”
3) That God seems to fulfill our dreams and wishes to such at degree that it seems apparent he was created to fulfill them in every way; “this makes religion an illusion in the Freudian sense of the term.”
While Comte-Sponville does say that the above reasons do not completely rule out the possibility of God’s existence, there has yet to be anything beyond the parameters of the reasons mentioned above, best summed up with: “Religion is a right, and so is irreligion.”
In the final part, “Can There Be An Atheist Spirituality?,” Comte-Sponville discusses a spirituality separate from beliefs, faith, or religion.
It was here I was shocked to discover something I’d been doing for most of my life.
Atheist spirituality, for Comte-Sponville, is a love, respect, and appreciation for the world and the universe in its completeness, infinity, and entirety. He best illustrates this in a specific moment in his life when he was out camping with some friends and while walking a trail at night, he stopped momentarily, looked up, and studied the many millions of stars in the infinite black universe; coupled with this was the communing with nature in the forest, and for a moment he experienced a sense of euphoria and complete happiness; an ecstatic joy that he had never felt before.
Having spent many moments of my life in similar ways, whether it be studying the magnificent night sky, or appreciating a collection of beautiful clouds on a sky-blue day, or admiring the tessellation of colors on the trees, leaves, and sky background. It makes one stop and realize the incredible complexity of reality and all the millions of details that have been seemingly miraculously (though that can be explained by science) brought together to produce something so breathtaking.
There are similar ideas in the Buddhist and some of the eastern religions. Comte-Sponville says that a similar experience can be received from a particularly moving piece of music, and in this way – coupled with the communion, fidelity, and love – one once again marvels at the incredibility of humanity.
André Comte-Sponville does not seek to convert those of religious belief, or to turn Atheists against those beliefs and people. Everyone is entitled to believe what they want; what we have to respect is the right to this, and that it is our choice as human beings, and not our choice to tell others what to believe. Comte-Sponville tells a story about a lecture he was giving once on godless spirituality and afterward was approached by a Catholic priest who came to thank him and tell him that he’d very much enjoyed his lecture. Comte-Sponville’s response was, “‘Surely you can’t agree when I say I don’t believe in God or the immortality of the soul!,’” where the priest responds with, “‘Oh . . . those are just secondary matters!’”
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Originally written on February 9th 2008 ©Alex C. Telander.