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This blog is the work of an educated civilian, not of an expert in the fields discussed.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

"atheistic, scientific spirituality"

Chris Mooney blogs about science matters and has in the past tried to form a centrist position in regard to conflicts with science and religion -- atheism without the [or as much of a] sharp edge, perhaps.  He referenced an article recently of his printed by Playboy of all places.  It promotes (I kid you not) an "atheistic, scientific spirituality" that is "devoid of supernatural belief but not devoid of feeling."  Mooney dealt with the subject in an op-ed:
Spirituality is something everyone can have — even atheists. In its most expansive sense, it could simply be taken to refer to any individual's particular quest to discover that which is held sacred.
Some people had negative responses since "spirituality" has a religious connotation.  But, what does "religious" even mean?  I raised the question before and it still seems that many people use it in an artificially narrow sense.  For instance, Daniel C. Maguire in Sacred Choices (examining positions on contraception and abortion in ten major religions) argues that religion is the very response to the sacred. In other words, Mooney is furthering a form of religion.  Danger Will Robinson!!!!  But, why must "religion" only include faith in some "God" that many who may not call themselves "atheists" deep down don't really believe in?

As seen in the last link and other places, the "conscience" and the like has from the beginning been an important part of what freedom of religion meant in this country, down to the first draft of the Religion Clause of the First Amendment.  It is quite true that originally "conscience" was tied to some belief in God, usually a Christian version, but at times one with deistic connotations.  Just as other constitutional matters have developed richer meanings, a deeper meaning of religion is possible.  It also can be that a parallel right to be guided by something other than religion is a protected liberty,* but I don't think that's necessary:
At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State.
I think such things is what "religion" is all about, it being more than mere philosophical or ethical guidelines on some level, and the added "awe, wonder, reverence" [Maguire] and other emotional components that "spirituality" and "sacredness" bring to mind only would underline the point.  But, one again need not go all the way.  The important thing is that it often is that the core of why religion plays such an important part in someone's life does not rest on the existence of God or an afterlife, since that is just the source and reaffirmation of the ultimate truths and sense of the sacred that guide their lives.  It is sort of a "chicken or egg" question on some level, but "God tells me so" is true even if "God" is an anthropomorphic construct. 

If this is true "atheistic" is somewhat unnecessary.  Again, it is on the level that there are common understandings, and "God" is usually understood to be an actual person, not an idea, though it sometimes is discussed in such a vague and symbolic way that it's hard to see why.  And, "spirituality" is somewhat of a metaphor, since there is not actually a physical "spirit" involved.  The word is used that way enough times for this too to be a bit silly.  The "spirit" of the law (contra the literal meaning) is a common example.  Should all so practical atheistic scientists not use it in that sense too?  Next up, worrying about saying blind people "see" the truth and so forth.  Yes, the language is somewhat biased toward believers of a literal God.  So be it.

[Update: As usual, things are not as complex as they may at first appear, and "hard" is more correctly "sometimes seems hard." The ordinary acceptance of an actual deity as well as a perhaps natural (in various senses of the word) tendency to be able to accept concrete as compared to symbolic entities leads "God" to be used in a certain way. This is so even as God seems to become more and more distant as a real true blue person into some sort of vague force, 'spirit,' that can be more bland and forceful than uses constructed beliefs to guide you.]

Anyway, I think Mooney has his heart in the right place here and is addressing what truly exists, even if the language makes it a bit tricky to put it in the 'right' words. 


* There are various ways to deal with the issue. First, you can say "religion" means the common understanding of God and afterlife and that opposition to it is part of freedom to settle on for or against. Second, conscience [and so forth] can be deemed an important liberty on its own, in part since it is so important to the first. Finally, "religion" can be defined broadly.