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On Spiritual Atheism

By Ben-Peter Terpstra - posted Tuesday, 17 May 2011

A newspaper reader is puzzled. “Julia Gillard said ‘we all pray for Kevin Rudd’s speedy recovery’. Who the hell does an atheist pray to?” It’s a fair question. For the record, I hold the position that all men - consciously or otherwise – believe in some higher power. And, if one has faith in the media-created “rational man” then one is more faithful than Saint Paul. This idea of the soulless human is science fiction, and more fiction than science. Still, it’s an attractive myth because some seek to stand apart, to see themselves as enlightened beings, above primitive religious needs.

Julia isn’t a lonely case. According to one underreported 2008 U.S. Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life survey, 21 per cent of atheists expressed at least some certainty of belief in God or universal spirit, and 10 per cent admitted to praying on a weekly basis.

Nor should we be surprised to learn that more “than 20 per cent of atheist scientists consider themselves to be ‘spiritual,’ according to a Rice University study.” From the Religion News Service: “The findings, to be published in the June issue of the journal Sociology of Religion, are based on in-depth interviews with 275 natural and social scientists from 21 of the nation’s top research universities.” The two in ten study refers to atheist scientists who acknowledge their spirituality. Like Oscar Wilde’s deathbed conversion, this is an issue campaigning journalists are afraid to touch. Scratch beneath the surface, and you’ll find that all men make spiritual-sounding noises, from Catholics to self-styled New Atheists. 


For example, recently, believers are unwilling or unable to see the deeply spiritual side of Christopher Hitchens. The fact that the former British-based author chose to immigrate to a Christian-majority nation was no coincidence, however. Moreover, critically examine Hitchens’ writings and what emerges? Consider the following statement in Hitch-22 A Memoir (page 401): “When I am at home, I will only enter a synagogue for the bar or bat mitzvah of a friend’s child, or in order to have a debate with the faithful.” Later on, Hitchens who enjoys complaining about his supposed religious duties too much, states, “When I am traveling, I will stop at the shul if it is in a country where Jews are under threat, or dying out, or were once persecuted.”

Atheism isn’t great, or convincing. So, when atheist Hitchens says he’ll attend “children’s bar mitzvahs” for his friends “without insisting on the polite reciprocal condition” we’re witnessing victim-based performance art. If you don’t like participating, then why participate or encourage? If you’re unhappy, leave, go, scat. But he’s attracted, my guess. A subconscious spiritual longing? Or, a sign of theological guilt? Perhaps both. Historically, at least, atheists have launched numerous attacks on Judaism and therefore Jews. Moreover, they’re often the loudest friends of discredited warming prophecies.

It’s hard to miss the evangelical fervor in loud atheists too, especially their “confession rituals” after they’ve allegedly sinned. As the religious-sounding atheist Spencer Case confessed in The Humanist: “I confess—with not a little embarrassment—that I have felt the pull of comfort offered by the theistic worldview and occasionally yielded to it.” And atheist Case is confessing to…? I’d submit that many religious-sounding atheists view made-for-television atheists as high priests and/or their fellow atheists as faith comrades, the priesthood of all unbelieving believers.

“Watching Sam Harris at a packed Kensington Town Hall last night, it was obvious that he fits squarely into the American tradition of religious leaders who preach liberation from religion into something they call science,” observed Andrew Brown at The Guardian: “He is Mary Baker Eddy for the 21st century”! 

Even over at the just-as-leftwing Nation, Jackson Lears cradles the view that, “Harris is as narrow in his views as the believers he condemns.”  And not without a good many reasons. “Belief in scriptural inerrancy is Harris’s only criterion for true religious faith. This eliminates a wide range of religious experience, from pain and guilt to the exaltation of communal worship, the ecstasy of mystical union with the cosmos and the ambivalent coexistence of faith and doubt,” contends Lears.

Yet, “there is one religious practice Harris does admit to tolerating: Buddhist meditation, which allows one to transcend mind-body dualism and view the self as process. Only the wisdom of the East offers any access to this experience of self, Harris insists, as he tosses off phrases plucked at random from a Zen handbook” (wink, wink, nudge, nudge). For Sam Harris is a very good atheist. Just ask your local Zen master.


August 2, 2010, and another critical-thinking reader: “I wonder to whom or what Julia Gillard was praying, since she tells us she has no god.” He wasn’t alone. 

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About the Author

Ben-Peter Terpstra has provided commentary for The Daily Caller (Washington D.C.), NewsReal Blog (Los Angeles), Quadrant (Sydney), and Menzies House (Adelaide).

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