There’s no question that one of the challenges we atheists face is to show that life is not empty and meaningless without God. For some odd reason, believers have a hard time believing that – without God – we’re not here merely to survive, but to really live and affirm the awesomeness of existing.
You don’t have to look far to find websites, blog posts and youtube videos that show atheists just as capable as any believer of feeling all the wonder, awe and majesty the universe has to offer. A run in colorful crunchy, fall leaves, or a hike up a majestic mountain with indigo sky backdrop generate the same connectedness with nature that our believing brethren so easily attribute to deities. Peering across galaxies through the eyes of Hubble give us all a feeling of grandeur, and an impression of our own insignificance that is simply beyond words.
But, in the course of trying to find those words, “spiritual” often gets called into action. Spiritual is a powerful word with no apparent equal – no seemingly adequate synonym that captures nature’s power to inspire. It’s no wonder so many of us call ourselves “Spiritual Atheists”.
But, in my opinion, it’s a problematic label to use because it comes loaded with religious connotation – and I think that goes directly against what we want to accomplish. No matter how hard we try, using spiritual to attach feelings of wonder, awe and amazement to our atheism is wrought with difficulty. This is because the word is not, in the minds of most, tied to nature. No, most people associate it closely with spirit/the Holy Spirit/God. And if that’s not enough to convince you, a quick google will show a theistic bias firmly embedded in how the word is most often defined.
Try as we might, I think these theistic connotations are impossible to avoid and, by trying to call ourselves spiritual atheists, we are setting ourselves up for a lifetime of frustration – it just muddies the waters.
With this problem in mind, I think we need to seek out a better, less religiously affiliated word.
I visited the Skeptical Seeker’s blog where I learned that, in The Atheist’s Way: Living Well without Gods, Eric Maisel thinks the right word might be “meaningful”. Meaningful? Really? That word seems far too generic for me. It’s simply got too much latitude to be useful. All kinds of mundane things can be meaningful. Having a favorite color can be meaningful. Enjoying the taste of coffee can be meaningful. Reading an xkcd comic (go look – it’s a good one) can be meaningful. But do these things hold as much meaning as the awe we feel in pondering the immensity of the universe? I think not …well, except maybe in the case of xkcd comic.
So, no, “meaningful” just doesn’t cut it for me.
When challenged with this line of thinking, Christopher Hitchens likes to talk about the numinous. While I can certainly see the word’s appeal (sounds kind of nummy), I think it suffers from the same issue we have with spiritual – the only difference being that most people don’t know what numinous means. However, that problem is easily remedied with another quick googling where another theistic bias quickly becomes apparent. Do we want to try and redefine another word? Personally, I think trying to do so just seems like another headache.
So, no, I don’t care for “numinous” either.
But, I still think we’d benefit from a secular cousin to the word, and I think I may have found one.
I like sublime. Why? Well, because it seems to describe what we mean when we are tempted to use spiritual! The very first paragraph at wikipedia really grabs your attention by defining sublime as:
…the quality of greatness or vast magnitude, whether physical, moral, intellectual, metaphysical, aesthetic, spiritual or artistic. The term especially refers to a greatness with which nothing else can be compared and which is beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement or imitation.
In philosophy, the sublime gets its legs from aesthetics – the branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of beauty, art, and taste, and with the creation and appreciation of beauty – another definition from wikipedia.
Doesn’t the definition of sublime fit nicely with the curious awe we often feel? Don’t we really mean that we have a profound appreciation for the beauty, greatness and magnitude of nature and the universe?
So, yeah, the sublime works for me. From now on, whenever I speak of things that strike me with a sense of wonder, awe, amazement and connectedness, I’m going to call that the sublime. And whenever I’m challenged for a secular equivalent to spiritual, I will instantly shoot back with the philosophically rich concept of the sublime. I’ll say, “Aha! You’re talking about our godlessly sublime universe!”
Or maybe I’ll just say nature kicks ass.