Spiritual Atheism: Good Idea With a Bad Label?

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.


  1. I think sublime is a good word for it. It’s good to have a variety of different words to express what we mean…with slightly different connotations to each word. :)

  2. Just found your site when looking for the “Spirituality as an Atheist” video. I have been an atheist for about ten years now. Purely for intellectual reasons. I asked a lot of questions about religion as a child, and did a lot of research as an adult. I was lucky in that my parents weren’t “churchy” people, so I wasn’t raised in church. I’m 46 and live in small-town north Georgia, USA – heart of the Bible Belt. I have lived here all my life. While I’ve had an “evolve fish” on my car for years, I’m only lately “coming out” about my non-belief (I live in a BAD area for atheists) but with much of the rhetoric lately, I feel the need to make others aware that non-believers do exist, and most of us are happy, well-adjusted people. Theists, especially fundamentalist Christians, think they “own” the American South and expect no one else have an opinion, much less to be publicly vocal about it. I’m trying to change that. Like you, I don’t “evangelize” atheism, but if they start it, I’m going to finish it, or at least make them aware that I have an opinion. :-) I’m enjoying your blog!

  3. Marylynne says:

    I love this! I think conversation about language is important. I read a blog (don’t know which one – it was late and I was Stumbling) about how our language hasn’t really evolved to have philosophical discussions. That’s why we usually find ourselves in dead ends when talking with people of faith and they “move the goalposts” when we make a point. One example was to try to explain the difference between the smell of oranges and lemons to someone from Mars who had no reference to Earth smells. Can’t really do it – our evolutionary history did not call for the need for precise distinctions of smells or thoughts of philosophy or belief, so we just don’t have the vocab or concepts to communicate clearly.

    Language is really all we have – the basis of our relationship to and understanding of the world. Since language is evolving and humans do have the ability to construct new concepts, I think it is really important to talk about this.

  4. Hi! I really love your blog, specially this post. I agree too about sublime, it’s the perfect word for the way I experience the world.

  5. I prefer to say that I am a self-actualizing naturalist. Self-actualizing suggests the aesthetic, sensual, loving, rational, reasoning, philosophical, philanthropic, etc. of humanism and of the individual. Naturalist, of course, implies the rejection of the supernatural but the appreciation of the natural. Emotions such as love and awe are natural phenomenon because we are natural, physical beings.

  6. First, thanks for suggesting sublime. I hadn’t been using that, and now I’m going to. However:

    I think that sublime works when describing an experience, but “spiritual atheist” can’t really be replaced with “sublime atheist.” Self-actualizing is reasonably good (thanks Jimrs) but this doesn’t necessarily imply the same things.

    When I need to give a quick description of myself I’ll typically use “spiritual atheist” or “pagan atheist.” Either one strikes a person as being an oxymoron, and most people react to that with interested questions, which I am happy to answer.

    It opens up possibility for people – the idea that someone could enjoy the culture and activities of a religion without any literal belief.

    I am also fond of describing experiences as transcendent.

    I think we’re still missing a clear, concise term that conveys “I am an atheist who enjoys sublime/transcendent/spiritual experiences, and thinks they are worth pursuing.”

  7. Yes we are missing a clear concise term.

    Religious people do think very strange things about us.

    What is more awesome than nature and the Universe? No one knows how/why it came about, and in my opinion it is blasphemous against the awesomeness of the Universe to make stuff up about it and claim it as “Truth”.
    What is more awesome than treating people kindly because you know it’s the right thing to do, instead of out of fear of going to hell? And we know it’s the right thing to do because it’s pure logic to know that if we don’t want to be killed/have our stuff stolen/etc, then other people would not want that either. Common sense.

    I’ve read religious people asking the ridiculous question, “why do you atheists bother to get up in the morning?”
    Reality is much more awesome and makes much more sense than their make-believe. And we know that we only have a limited time here and want to make every moment count, while they believe they live on forever in their afterlife.

    The fact that everything came about naturally is much more awe-inspiring than claiming some always existing god Shazammed it all here supernaturally.

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