Religion & Philosophy

Strange bedfellows: atheists and new agers and Christians, oh my

CATEGORY: ReligionWeekSome time back I queried my network of Facebook friends with a tricky question: is it possible to be both spiritual and atheist? The discussion thread was intelligent and beyond fascinating, yielding a wide range of answers. There was a yes or two, a no or two, and quite a few it depends and qualified maybes.

Ultimately I think it all came down this: what do you mean by “spiritual”?

For my part the answer is yes, but the yes hinges on a definition of spirituality that privileges a deeper view of Humanism, at once insisting on the primacy of evidence-based reason and acknowledging the limitations of the evidence available to us at this point in history. Also, quantum physics seems to turn everything we think we know inside-out, so I’m finding that a measure of ambivalence keeps me sane. Ish.

The more interesting revelation, though, and one that is confirmed by my experiences with a wider circle of friends and acquaintances (and others whom I don’t know personally, but have indirect experience of via things they have written or done or said), has to do with how much people on either extreme end of the question have in common. If you surfed through my Facebook timeline and got to know all of my friends, you’d quickly realize that just about everyone falls more or less into two buckets: hardcore New Age/neo-pagan/alternative spiritualists and hardcore atheists.

At a glance, you wouldn’t think these two crowds would have much in common. On the one end, you have around-the-bend tree-hugging, crystal-wearing, Tarot-reading, reincarnating, skyclad hippies. On the other you have a cohort so rabidly opposed to anything they can’t prove mathematically that they make Swift’s land of the Houyhnhnms look like a Yahoo invasion of Woodstock. (If you’re going to have fun with stereotypes, you might as well go all-in, and I enjoyed the hell out of those last two sentences.)

But if you actually get beyond the surface, the truth is that they have a lot in common, and given the country’s contemporary Christianist hegemony, atheists and alternative spiritualists turn out to be close political and cultural allies.

In one sense, summing up the commonality is fairly simple: in practical, operational terms, each is largely defined by its opposition to conservative Christianity. Atheists reject it on the grounds that there is simply no evidence for it, and in doing so position themselves counter to its cultural and institutional spawn. Spiritualists reject the paternalism and power-seeking dominionism of Christianity, while nonetheless feeling the pull of an intuitive power that they cannot explain rationally.

While the two groups still have plenty to argue about, their disagreements with each other are things that can be argued amicably over a good microbrew, whereas their disagreements with the Christian majority are more focused on very real policies emanating from a selective, self-serving and overtly corrupt canonization of “God’s will” aimed at suppressing dissent and getting the non-believers in line. Specifically, the back of the line.

This is macro and collective and aggregate. At the personal level, I’ve noticed some more things.

  • Both groups tend to be politically progressive. While there are some atheists who are economically Libertarian, both are typically extremely liberal socially and there can’t be more than five or six New Age Republicans in the whole country.
  • Both groups are chock full of people who are open-minded and intellectually curious. They might believe things intensely, but as a rule they can theoretically be convinced by reason and evidence.
  • Both are innately Humanist. Many spiritualist strains see divinity as being manifested within the human spirit, and for atheists, actualization is inherently human-centric since there is no power “out there.”
  • Both groups tend to be empathetic and relentlessly committed to the greater good. It’s hard to offer up a scientific definition of the term, but a vast majority of the atheists and spiritualists I have met are good people. They care about others, they’re kind, they’re generous, and they’re willing to invest themselves in leading others to knowledge and/or enlightenment.

Now, please don’t take all this as meaning that a) all atheists and spiritualists are great people, and b) all Christians are hateful bastards. Neither is true by a long shot. I’m merely describing a general collective tendency I see, and I know any number of Christians who are exceptions to every negative rule I offer up here. Perhaps a more detailed and accurate taxonomy would further divide Christians into social conservative and social justice camps. In that view, you can neatly lump the social justice segment in with atheists and alternative spiritualists.

When I think about the very best human beings I have known in my life, a solid 99% of them fall into one of the non-social conservative camps, and the thing to understand is that I generally love and respect them for mostly the same reasons. While they have radically different cosmological views, at the core they’re all driven by a belief in human potential that elevates those around them.

A refreshing change from those who’d impose a narrow, distorted view of a primitive millennia-old tribal war religion on the rest of us, huh?

8 replies »

  1. If we believe absurdities, we shall commit atrocities.

    New Agers and the like may be more fun than Christians or Muslims, but I can’t take them seriously so long as they continue to conflate fantasy with reality.

    In like manner, if I let myself believe anything on insufficient evidence, there may be no great harm done by the mere belief; it may be true after all, or I may never have occasion to exhibit it in outward acts. But I cannot help doing this great wrong towards Man, that I make myself credulous. The danger to society is not merely that it should believe wrong things, though that is great enough; but that it should become credulous, and lose the habit of testing things and inquiring into them; for then it must sink back into savagery.
    –W.K. Clifford, The Ethics of Belief

  2. To me the more instructive distinction than between atheists and believers is between those who believe in a personal God (a supreme being) and those that believe instead in non-personal greater intelligence, or higher power. (Second group includes me.)

  3. Nice distinction. I phrase it as an intercessionary god, one who intervenes in daily activities. It’s much easier to believe in higher powers than on an intercessionary god. As I have pointed out numerous times, we athiests believe in the invisble hand and evolution, both of which are higher powers that produce intelligent results. If you remove the personal requirement, then god becomes easier to swallow.

  4. I’m rather surprised, Samuel, at the suggestion that tree-huggers are “round-the-bend”, given the latest evidence ( that the practice may be good for one’s physical health… quite aside from any spiritual benefits that might accrue. And in view of its long Taoist pedigree it may be a little unfair to associate tree-hugging (as a spiritual practice) primarily with New-Agers. 😦

    As for rushmc’s comment that New Agers “conflate fantasy with reality”, that seems to be too much of a generalisation; and in any case, whose definition of reality?… as Samuel has reminded us, in the light of quantum physics, ‘reality’ is rapidly becoming something of a non sequitur!

    • I’m rather surprised, Samuel, at the suggestion that tree-huggers are “round-the-bend”…

      Ummm, that was pretty obviously me joking and having some fun with stereotypes. The hint was in the sentence that began “If you’re going to have fun with stereotypes….”