Spirituality for Atheists

By Sean Crawley

Being an atheist I have a tendency to balk at any mention of the word spirituality. Gods, life after death, souls, angels, fairies, crystal healing, higher levels of consciousness – the whole cornucopia of faith-based stuff that gets lumped under the banner of spirituality seriously grates with my rational mind and inevitably triggers the old bullshit detector. But what other word is available to describe those moments of awe and wonder and the sense of oneness or connection with the universe that we all experience from time to time?

A Spiritual Experience may hit us when: we look up at a night sky full of stars; or when we feel a deep emotional response to a piece of music; or when we experience the joy of love and connection with another human being. These are all real and deeply personal. Even simply contemplating the mystery of consciousness can be a moving and profound human experience – no assistance from the drug industry required! No need either for the conjuring of complex supernatural entities or phenomena.

Nature has given us the ability to have a natural high, and I would argue it is for a good reason. Those fleeting moments of bliss, inner peace, calmness, focus, clarity, being in the zone – or however else you describe spiritual experiences – are so nourishing to our personal and collective wellbeing that throughout all of history, and spanning all cultures, humans have discovered and created a multitude of practices to increase the frequency, intensity and duration of them.

The problem is we lose some of the depth of the inner spiritual experience when we try to communicate it to the outer world of our fellow human. What we do is invent a faith-based language to represent that experience – but in the process of communication we unavoidably lose some of its raw quality.

This is a small price we pay for engaging in Spirituality – the social practice of communing with others on matters of deep spiritual experience. How does religion relate to spirituality? Once we collectively go on a spiritual journey as a species, it is not a great leap to move from spirituality to formalised religion – with a whole heap of unwanted side effects.

Spirituality and Sustainability

So what is non-religious grassroots spirituality – spirituality without complex systems of faith? We all know it is a core human practice, yet we rarely give thought as to what it actually is. I would argue that there are two aspects. The first is that spirituality is the sum total practice of what we humans collectively do to communicate and share with each other how to have and remember a personal inner spiritual experience that inspires the personaland gives hope to the social. Spirituality is actually a compassionate activity where we wish others to have the same beautiful moments of spiritual experience as we have had.

Secondly, spirituality ought to be a vital component that underpins our considerations of the world and our place within it. It is about our deep connectedness to the world. Without a deep and genuine spiritual awareness of the interconnectedness and beauty of all things, even our most well intentioned actions as individuals and as a species are liable to fail in the long term. It fails because we try to act upon the world as if we can compartmentalise it, when it is actually totally interconnected and related and inseparable.

What has spirituality got to do with shifting the world towards a more sustainable and just future? Is such a wish even possible?

Spirituality has as much to do with change as does politics, technology, science, art and ethics. It could be argued that spirituality is perhaps at the very core of change. You may cringe at sayings such as “to change the world you have to change yourself first”. I know I do, and there is a good reason: we don’t change ourselves in isolation. Getting out into the real world and doing some good is just as important as working on yourself, so change happens simultaneously – within and without. In our individualistic society there is often too much focus on changing just the individual and leaving the system untouched.

Change is needed in the way we currently deal with energy, the economy, the environment, and justice to name a few.  Our collective footprint on the planet is of utmost consideration. But the reductions in the footprint of the citizens of the overdeveloped world will never occur sustainably until those individuals become deeply aware that they are connected to the larger collective of humanity and nature as a whole. So, for example, simply switching energy sources from coal to solar is pointless unless we realise that the quantity of energy we consume is also of great concern – then we can have a legitimate discussion about what source of energy we should adopt.

In the human race to get ahead, spiritual practices have become commodified, corrupted or simply relegated to the sidelines. This is inevitable in a world dominated by material gain driven by competition. A true spiritual life, by virtue of its nature, flourishes in an environment of co-operation, moderation, generosity, peace, justice and equality. In stark contrast the modern paradigm of capitalism and “free” markets is built upon competition, resource depletion, greed, war, injustice and inequality. Capitalism has turned us into passive material consumers – it is high time we stood up to it and started producing some good in this world. As the Beatles poetically put it: “The love you take is equal to the love you make”.

Unfortunately, various ‘save the world’ groups and individuals have so far been unsuccessful at slowing down the trajectory toward collapse. The apparent and abhorrent ease with which many well intentioned intelligent people and global organisations have become corrupted by power, money and status is a sign of how spiritually bankrupt our civilisation has become. The human race to get ahead economically is all-pervasive, and the wellbeing and salvation that a spiritual existence has to offer us has been lost. The ideology of material wealth for all – driven by never-ending growth and technological breakthroughs – is the bullshit story that has brought us to the nightmarish upside down world that we find ourselves in today. It permeates everything.

The resulting mad and panicked race to get ahead is damaging the health of our minds while it degrades the planet upon which we depend. In fear we mindlessly push forward and wonder why we burn out, why children suicide, and why every second person you meet is on anti-depressants. Meanwhile, the so-called ‘success’ stories of human achievement stand proud upon their pedestals and proclaim that if only we dream bigger and work harder we will climb to the very top of the ladder.

Sadly, by and large, we believe them, and while we set our noses to the grindstone with increased vigour we punish ourselves for not being successful enough.

Spirituality is not about getting ahead; it is about sharing with each other the simple joy and gratitude centred upon the wonderful reality of being a small but legitimate part of something huge, complex and beautiful – the universe. It is not about some unattainable enlightenment or pinnacle of human achievement. A spiritual experience hits us in those all-too-rare moments when the endocrine system and nervous systems get neatly into sync, freeing us from that incessant monkey chatter that traps us within the confines of an artificial world of words and numbers. When we become totally absorbed in simply being, we experience unforgettable joy and timelessness.

Spirituality is engagement with the world

The time for spirituality to re-emerge as a central dimension of human existence is well overdue. One of the biggest misconceptions about a spiritual life and practice is that it is all about detaching oneself from the real world. Some gurus may emphasise accepting the world nonjudgmentally in a way that suggests everything is perfect as it is. This is a misunderstanding or corruption of the real meaning of detachment, and not at all what I am talking about here. Denial or ignorance of worldly affairs as though they don’t exist or don’t matter is insanity – a major contributor to where we find ourselves today: on the brink of collapse.

True spirituality is exactly the opposite: it is about engagement. Contemplative practices remind us of our connection and interdependence to everything and that we all have a responsibility to act mindfully in all that we do. Sure, meditation or prayer may require switching off for a while, but the whole point of switching off is to enable us to find within ourselves the wisdom and strength to deal with reality.

Tree of contemplative practices for Sean Crawley article

The tree of contemplative practices diagram above outlines the scope of contemplative practices that exist – a useful resource for the non-religious among us. In celebration of diversity, some of these practices will appeal more to your unique self than others.

I encourage you to step off the not-so-merry-go-round of modern life and honour your own wellbeing; take the time to find the peace and clarity that spiritual practice can offer us. You will be better for it – and so will the world at large.

One comment

  • Three blows meant a child, twice three a woman and thrice three a man. After a pause the years were counted out at approximately half-minute intervals. The word teller in some dialects becomes tailor, hence the old saying “Nine tailors maketh a man”.

    The Day.

    I stare at the wet leaves
    Of the Camellia bush,
    In the patio..In the rain.
    As I take in with my eyes,
    I stir the cup of tea.
    The spoon chimes on the porcelain;
    I mind the strikes;
    “Nine tailors maketh a man”
    So much to see out in the patio.
    But nothing to absorb.
    Just the everyday…
    I will forget the vision,
    But will remember the peace.


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