Sunday, May 27, 2012

Spiritual care for the hurting or seeking atheist

Atheist stickers.
Atheist stickers. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Just please.

I am not going to advocate proselyting to atheists. Nor am I going to  attack, insult, belittle, or cast blanket aspersions against people who identify as atheist. I have a great deal in common with and much sympathy for those who do not profess a belief in God. I have commented before on the decline of manners and increased intellectual lassitude or ineptitude among some minority of people identifying as atheists on message forums and blogs. The ones who at times turn to the same over-generalizing, trivializing of others, lazy or dishonest quote mining, and other tactics often employed by hard-core proselytizing  religious fundamentalists.

What is the point of behaving like the very religious people who love to mock and ridicule the philosophy, ideas, and lives of atheists?, I wondered. I asked if this was a real trend and if so what might be behind it.

Some people like to use terms such as "atheist fundamentalist" or "new atheist" to loosely refer to such people. For reasons that should become clear, I think a more apt term is shallow atheist.

Now I've lectured on deviance and one of those lectures was on atheism, and we came to a sympathetic understanding of why those who feel stigmatized and persecuted might try to neutralize this feeling by reversing it. By over-generalizing about, demeaning, and belittling religion and religious people. By questioning their morals, their certainty, and even their sanity in order to establish the atheists' own. No, WE are the decent people. The ones who have logic and knowledge and facts on our side. We are the ones who are free of delusion.

Now, sometimes this is because someone is still shaking from having left a form of fundamentalist religion or is constantly being harassed because they live in a community that doesn't trust or tolerate those of a different or of no religion. That doesn't justify bad behavior, but it can explain a good bit of it.

But what about those who never continue to heal and get stuck in the mentality that all religion is the same and its all one very narrow thing? Who never move on and instead continue to need to feel better about themselves through crude and offensive slights and put-downs of anything remotely associated in their minds with religion?

Or those who may or may not have never really felt persecuted (even if they may have felt slightly awkward on occasion) over their atheism and who see it as a hip, misunderstood social identity for smart people and iconoclasts? The ones who are too cool in their own minds to ever have anything to do with those backward and outdated fools who are remotely connected to whatever might be associated with religion or spirituality?

Still aren't sure of whom I speak?

These are the people who leave comments on a social media posting by someone such as the Dalai Lama claiming he is a snake oil salesman or a fool, opining that religion is stupid, or reflecting on how many suckers there are in the world (as supposedly attested by his popularity).

And what did the Dalai Lama do to deserve this? Did he say non-Buddhists are doomed and should convert? Did he say non-religious people are despicable and offensive?

In fact, he has said and written that all people desire happiness and that you don't need religion to be happy or to benefit from basic practices cultivating mindfulness and compassion. In fact he recently wrote a book titled Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World.

The point here isn't to stand up for the Dalai Lama. He's been called worse by those with much more power and authority. The point is that there are some really rude people out there who by default end up representing a certain variety of atheism to the world.

There are many reasons people might behave this way, from trolling for attention to being highly superficial and uninformed about anything concerning religion other than their own self-satisfied ignorance. It would be easy to dismiss this kind of behavior in such a quick fashion.

I think that for quite a few people there is more going on. For many people, leaving religion can be a traumatic thing. I have had the occasion to observe the reaction to such an event on the part of atheists both as sympathetic to the difficulty yet sure that religion and spirituality are nothing but toxic--just different flavors of the same poison---and that with enough time the mind will simply heal itself.

There are two problems with this that come to my own mind.

One is that spirituality, whether as part of or only peripherally affiliated with organized religion, is intrinsic to the human experience. It is natural, not an aberration. If you want to think of spirituality in strictly naturalistic terms, then use the image of the more holistic and intuitive aspects of conscious awareness arising from the right side of the brain. A more balanced and integrated consciousness is a good thing. (And no, spirituality isn't just for theists and other types of religious people.)

When the links to the supporting social and cultural structures tied to an individual's personal psychological construction for spiritual awareness and growth are severed, that is, the spiritual impulse will seek a new source of inspiration and expression.That new source may be a different form of religion, a recognition of spirituality based on an eclectic mix of religious insights and practices (i.e. "spiritual but not religion" as well as "New Age"), and a denial of a stereotyped idea of spirituality that instead draws in a secular fashion from nature, the arts, etc (a form of humanism).

The other problem is that this transition can be fraught will pain, confusion, and difficulty. Just leaving a religion isn't enough to ensure healing. Neutralizing feelings of guilt, shame, or fear through anger, bitterness, or arrogance might initially be signs of a necessary underlying process but staying in that mindset isn't healthy and it isn't enough either. Becoming imbued with caustic and dismissive attitudes and adopting victimization as a permanent rather than a temporary aspect of ones social identity is not just unhelpful it is harmful. It is also one of the sources of the shallow atheist. (And let me quickly interject that not everyone who is hurting or seeking in their atheism has passed through or is stuck in  the shallow variety.)

Not every atheist has this problem.

Just to be sure you caught that: Not every atheist has this problem.

This isn't about some blanket characterization aimed at painting all atheists with the same brush as hurting and in need. But atheism does have its own collection of sociological and psychological underpinnings and patterns, and atheists are affected by them and the broader human condition every bit as much as people who see themselves as just spiritual or as religious.  The same human needs are pitfalls are present. Ignoring them is unwise and potentially destructive.

So why aren't there programs for atheists by atheists or others who accept and respect their non-theism which acknowledges a form of basic spirituality as a healthy and natural human need? (If there are such programs out there please correct me and help publicize them. I can only think of the accepting nature of the Unitarian Universalists to include atheist and agnostics, but I don't know of an actual outreach program or ministry tailored to such atheists.) Is it really just a case of what I previously described as an allergy some people have to anything sounding vaguely religious? That discomfort on the edge of awareness that feels, Oh no, if I even talk about that kind of thing I might get religion cooties and become a mindless moron.

How are people who leave traditional religion for some form of non-theism or non-belief supposed to recognize, accept, and find ways to fulfill this spiritual need if the very idea is something that is denied or ignored at best or trivialized and despised at worst? Mature atheists and atheist organizations do well to take this seriously and to help people feel open about their choices.

Maybe some of these seeking atheists would eventually realize that they want to become "spiritual but not religious" or become a nominal Taoist or Buddhist or maybe even dabble on the outer edges of theism, such as pantheism or pandeism. Maybe they are looking for a more robust humanism, or perhaps they might benefit from joinung a Unitarian Universalist congregation (or the equivalent for those outside of North America).

How might these people feel about such needs and potential interests given some of the anti-religious and anti-spiritual propaganda promoted by official and unofficial atheist organizations? I doubt that these groups wish to cause harm or further tension, and I believe that at times they operate from the conviction that just lumping all "religion" together and getting people away from "it" is the most important and useful thing they can do.

I propose they can and should do more, and that it is an ethical and responsible course of action for those who have the welfare of everyone, especially non-believers, at heart.

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  1. The argument I've seen again and again, when other atheists question my support of religion, is that encouraging open and accepting, liberal religious traditions enables the fundamentalist religious groups. To me that's like saying that encouraging good scientists enables evil, mad scientists.

    I've heard of atheist and agnostic groups that encourage spirituality, but I'm not much of a joiner, so I haven't really investigated any of them.

    Two atheist blogs that frequntly delve into spiritual matters:

    Camels With Hammers



    I think you might appreciate some of the posts and discussions they each have.

    1. Thanks for the suggestions.

      I am not really talking just about liberal or progressive religions, but your point is a good one. The problem is that too many atheists have such a limited view of what religion is that their approach can become counterproductive. Here is a rough sketch of something I'm planning to post about soon to show what I mean:

      Right-Brain consciousness = holism, poetic sense, and creative response.

      Left-Brain consciousness = reductionism, literalism, and logical analysis.

      Spirituality = emphasis on Right-Brain experience and a focus on the now, sublime emotional states, non-judgmental, open to possibilities.

      Anti-spirituality = emphasis on Left-Brain experience and a focus on the past or future, reactionary emotional states, judgmental, fearful of differences.

      Mystical/Contemplative Religion = embraces spirituality and shares impressions in artistic and poetic forms, seeks balance.

      Fundamentalist Religion = anti-spiritual tendencies, attempts to interpret mystical and contemplative expressions through Left-Brain analysis, seeks domination.

      Mainstream Religion/Liberal Religion = attempts to reconcile tendencies and history of a sacred traditions including their more mystical and fundamentalist aspects, tend to lean more towards spirituality.

      Mainstream/Conservative Religion = attempts to reconcile tendencies and history of a sacred traditions including their more mystical and fundamentalist aspects, tend to lean more towards anti-spirituality.

      If the spiritual impulse in inherently human, it is surely a good thing to guide its expression toward healthier and more beneficial forms.

      (And one could also map spirituality and anti-spirituality onto to different forms on non-theism as well.)

  2. Sounds like a fascinating post.

    I only used liberal as an example because many atheists would actually find quite a few allies in liberal religious traditions, if they would only stop writing them off.


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