Andre Comte-Sponville: The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality

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Comte-Sponville, Andre. The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality (New York: Viking, 2007)

Brief does not equal either shallow or narrow, as French writer Comte-Sponville packs a great deal of thought into this small-format book of just over 200 pages. Its three chapters ask (and attempt to answer) three important questions: Can we do without religion? Can we have ethics without God? Is there such thing as "atheist spirituality"? His answer to all three questions is a resounding "yes!"

In contrast to Americans such as Sam Harris, Comte-Sponville feels no need to attack believers, preferring instead to explicate his own position in a non-confrontational manner. As he writes:

I have too much affection for the believers among my loved ones to wish to offend them in any way. Disagreement among friends can be healthy, joyful and stimulating; condescension and contempt cannot. (p. 77)

What is there to be condescending and contemptuousness about? What exactly is religion? These two passages on the etymology of religion make a useful point:

Many authors, beginning with Lactantius or Tertullian, claim that the Latin religio (whence, of course, religion comes from the verb religare, which means "to bind" or "bind back." This hypothesis, often presented as simple fact, leads to a specific conception of religious reality--religion, it is claimed, is what binds people together. (p. 13)

Many linguists believe, as did Cicero, that the word derives not from religare but from relegare, which means "to contemplate" or "to reread." In this sense, religion is not, or at least not primarily, what binds, but rather what is contemplated or reread (or reread in contemplation)--namely myths, founding texts, teachings (Torah in Hebrew), a body of knowledge (Veda in Sanskrit), one or several books (biblia in Greek), a reading or recitation (Koran in Arabic), a law (dharma in Sanskrit), a set of principles, rules or commandments (the Decalogue in the Old Testament)--in a word, a revelation or tradition that is at once ancient and still relevant, accepted, respected, interiorized, both individually and communally. This is where the two possible etymologies can converge: Rereading the same texts, even individually, binds people together. (p. 19) [emphasis added]

In this sense, the "civil religion" of Americanism, evidencing a reverence for the Founders and their writings, is what truly binds our nation together--not Christianity, Judeo-Christianity, or any other name for the same form of supernaturalism. Writing from the more secular France, and not having any "Christian nation" claptrap to debunk, Comte-Sponville expresses something similar on a personal level:

I sometimes like to describe myself as a faithful atheist. I am an atheist, since I believe neither in God nor in any supernatural power, and yet I am faithful, since I acknowledge my place within a specific history, tradition and community, namely the Greco-Judeo-Christian values of the Western world. (p. 30)

I would have said "Greco-Roman values," but his point is well taken. Comte-Sponville writes for himself, and shies away from drawing conclusions beyond his experience. The following passage, written about a hike in the woods, resonated very strongly with me:

Above me, the starry sky was immense, luminous and unfathomable, and within me there was nothing but the sky, of which I was a part, and the silence, and the light, like a warm hum... [...] It was as if a perfect chord, once played, had been indefinitely prolonged, and that chord was the world. (p. 156)

I had a similar experience once: during a dark night of unsurpassed clarity, I stood slack-jawed in a remote campsite, staring upward in awe at the dazzling brilliance of the Milky Way. Contemplating its beauty and immensity was at once humbling and invigorating--even spiritual, if you prefer. The latter third of the book is a little too "woo woo" for my taste, but is still a worthwhile read for the personal mini-epiphanies from which Comte-Sponville formed his atheist spirituality.

For a different take on Comte-Sponville's book, check out Siamang's live-blogging posts at Off the Map: eBay Atheist (the first two are here and here).

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2 Comments

Thx for the tip. This looks to be interesting. I've had experiences for which I'm sure there's a spiritual component. While Harris' offense comes in his attack on moderates (and he does imply a good point about eventual tribalism), he seems to soften up with regards to the spiritual. He confesses the quandary. I don't know if what I've experienced is epiphenomenal or other, but I know it had substantial value, and continues to do so in my delightfully atheist existence.

"Empathy neurons" seem to point the way to a purely physical reason for the sense of spirituality. For us atheists, then, is this simply a case of language being inadequate? And if so, are we arguing about angels on the head of a pin?

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