Thursday, September 25, 2008

Depth but not depth - a look at atheist spirituality

Does the concept of atheistic spirituality sound hollow or flimsy to you? Does it sound substantive? In a recent episode of the televised medical drama House, the eponymous lead character and his team of fellow diagnosticians were attempting to solve a case involving "cancer but not cancer". That is, something which in some ways acted like cancer but which did not give the usual tell-tale signals of cancer. I hate to give out spoilers to those who may have recorded the episode, so if that is you, come back after watching it.

Go on. Take your time. I don't mind waiting.

Better? The problem and the solution seemed like it might be apt in considering the exploration of spirituality and how this is connected to atheism. In the episode of House, several people who received transplants from the same organ donor suddenly start dying of traumatic organ failure. The link is obviously the donor, but donors are screened for diseases, which the team verifies were correctly ruled out. Cancer, when it metastasizes, can go global and affect a variety of tissues and organs. But there were no typical tumors found in any of the dead recipients. The remaining live recipient also shows no abnormal masses. The donor had no signs of cancer either. It isn't cancer. Yet none of long shot alternative diagnoses, for which the show is famous, pan out. So it has to be cancer, but it isn't cancer. They are looking for something then that "is cancer but not cancer".

It turns out the cancer was stem-cell cancer. The stem cells would randomly land in areas where growth or healing was occurring and differentiate partially into the type of tissue in their immediate vicinity. But because they weren't fully differentiated, they couldn't actually do the work of they tissue type the were mimicking. They were also structurally weak, so that when the organ or tissue came under any kind of pressure, it ruptured, leading to the death of the patient. That is, the cancer cells weren't a problem right away because they weren't spreading or forming tumors and in general the surrounding tissue was picking up the slack. But when the critical moment came, the poser tissue wasn't up to the job.

Turning back to spirituality, various sacred traditions speak of depth. Of existence being more than what tends to breeze by our senses. This depth includes an orientation towards what the theologian Paul Tillich referred to as the object of Ultimate Concern. He was clear though that terms like object were misleading. He also referred to this as Being, or the ground of existence. Hence rather than being an object alongside of other objects, he was talking about that which unites all of existence - that from which existence springs and to which it flows. To use a Buddhist analogy, the water (ground of being) from which we see waves (phenomena) spring. Quoting Tillich from The Shaking of the Foundations,

"The name of infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of our being is God. That depth is what the word God means. And if that word has not much meaning for you, translate it, and speak of the depths of your life, of the source of your being, of your ultimate concern, of what you take seriously without any reservation. Perhaps, in order to do so, you must forget everything traditional that you have learned about God, perhaps even that word itself. For if you know that God means depth, you know much about Him. You cannot then call yourself an atheist or unbeliever. For you cannot think or say: Life has no depth! Life itself is shallow. Being itself is surface only. If you could say this in complete seriousness, you would be an atheist; but otherwise you are not."

(emphasis added)

There are those who either claim to be nihilists when it comes to such depth or whose arguments about existence and meaning leave room for nothing else, even if they do not explicitly acknowledge it. For everyone else, even if they claim to be irreligious or aspiritual, they act as if there is depth, even a depth they don't consciously claim to believe in. Then there are those who quietly or loudly proclaim a belief in such depth, but who give no other evidence of such a conviction. The true nihilists, whatever label they may outwardly wear, seem to be a really small minority given how a majority of humans live. It is likely then that many self-professed atheists are simply prejudiced against the language of the sacred. However, they believe in an intelligible reality which appears to contain some kind of regularity. They are impressed with what is sometimes referred to as the horizontal dimension, stretching forward into the future, back into the past, and out into the distant edge of the furthest galaxies. But many are less aware or concerned with the vertical dimension - the eternal present in and beyond all the phenomena of time and space. Moreover, in their rush to be "not" theists, they tend to present their beliefs as the opposite of what theists discuss. Hence, even though it need not be a part of the atheists' assumptions of a Godless universe, they include notions such as "the world has no ultimate meaning or order" or "the universe is a cold and cruel place". Apparently while these qualities are not acceptable to assume in a Godless universe, other qualities (i.e. intelligibility, order) can be assumed to be possible without God because they are more obvious to the casual observer.

That brings us back to atheist spirituality. On the one hand, this can refer to those profess atheism but who also have desire to seek what Tillich's expressed as depth. Being allergic to religion, they attempt to find ways to reconcile the standard atheist notions of no ultimate meaning and a universe with only the superficial appearance of an underlying pulse or greater pattern with the search for their own personal connection to the attributes of someone who recognizes depth in themselves and the world of which they are a part. This can be frustrating - like trying to reinvent the wheel without wanting to believe in roundness. Then there are those who essentially believe in the kind of depth Tillich describes without assuming that it must be limited to any culture or religion's conception of God or a Higher Power. However, in such cases they may cease to think of themselves as atheists in the commonly understood sense and try to locate some term to describe their orientation that lies outside of the conventional representation Atheist vs. Theist or Agnostic.

In any event, if we momentarily take those who consciously sense and respond to such depth out of the atheist column, even if they object to being removed, then the difference between atheism and everything else becomes much clearer, as does the notion of atheist spirituality. Nihilism and spirituality are antagonists. If you try to fill that gap or longing for depth with Yoga, Buddhism, Quakerism, Humanism, or something else but are still rooted in a nihilistic frame of reference, then what results is "depth but not depth". The same is true for those who claim a depth they don't really know or grasp, their shallowness hidden under a facade of religiosity. Like the poser cells in the transplant recipients, it may look good but it isn't doing anything of true value. Folks may not notice because other aspects of their lives are picking up the slack. But when that critical moment comes...


  1. One of your best posts ever. Don't bother thanking me for the Tillich quote or the Tillichian phrasology which is clealry words I use all the time. The fact that you this stuff is worth thinking about is thanks enough! ;-)

    come on Tonto, our work is done here.

    hi-yo Philosophy, away!

  2. Yes, you are correct, I should credit you with throwing Tillich in my general direction on a regular basis. Thanks Joe! :^D


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