Atheists Are Spiritual, Too

As a nonbeliever, I know that science--indeed, anything that generates a sense of awe--can be a source of spirituality.

BY: Michael Shermer

 
Science and Spirit

Reprinted with permission from Science & Spirit Magazine.



I am an atheist. There, I said it. Are you happy, all you atheists out there who have remonstrated with me for adopting the agnostic moniker? If "atheist" means someone who does not believe in God, then an atheist is what I am.



But I detest such labels. Call me what you like-humanist, secular humanist, agnostic, nonbeliever, nontheist, freethinker, heretic, or even bright. I prefer skeptic. Still, all such labels are just a form of cognitive economy, a shortcut into pigeonholing our fellow primates into tidy categories that supplant the deeper probing of what someone actually thinks and says.

When asked if I believe in God, I reply, "No." When queried on the God question, I simply say, "I don't believe in God." No far-left rants, just simple answers. But the bottom line is what we all know: In America, atheists are associated with tree-hugging, whale-saving, hybrid-driving, bottled water-drinking, American Civil Liberties Union-supporting, pinko commie fags hell-bent on conning our youth into believing all that baloney about equal rights and evolution. I'm not one of those bastards, am I?



Well, technically speaking, yes, I am. I think biodiversity is a good thing and that we have been rapacious in our treatment of the Earth, although I also think the environmental movement has greatly exaggerated our condition and that nature is a lot more resilient than most environmentalists believe. I don't mind eating cows and fish, but dolphins and whales have big brains and they're cool, so I don't think we should kill them. I drive a sport utility vehicle because I haul around bicycles, books, and dogs, but as soon as there is a bigger hybrid, I'll buy it. The only thing bottled water is good for is the bottle; science tells us most tap water is just fine. And although I am a libertarian heterosexual who is about as unpink as you can get, I believe people should have an equal opportunity to be different. As for evolution, it happened. Deal with it.



I don't know why the God question is so enmeshed with all of these other social issues, but it is. It shouldn't be. It's OK to be a liberal Christian or a conservative atheist. I am a fiscal conservative and a social liberal. I don't think there is a God, or any sort of anthropomorphic being who needs to be worshipped, who listens to prayers, who keeps a moral scoreboard that will be settled in the end, or who cares one iota about who wins the Super Bowl. There is no afterlife. We just die, and that's it.



Which is why what we do in this life matters so much-and why how we treat others in the here and now is more important than how they might be treated in some hereafter that may or may not exist. If we knew for certain that there is an afterlife, we wouldn't have great debates about it, and philosophers over the millennia wouldn't have spilled all that ink wrangling over it. Since we don't know, it makes more sense to assume there is no God and no afterlife, and act accordingly. That is, act as if what we do matters now. That way, we'll think about the earthly consequences of what we are doing.



I am sick and tired of politicians, and just about everyone else, kowtowing to the religious right's hypersensitivities and politically correct "tolerance" for diversity of belief-as long as one believes in God. Any God will do-except, of course, the God who promises virgins in the next life to pilots who fly planes into buildings. Those of us who do not believe in God have had enough of this rhetoric. In America, we are supposed to be good and do the right thing not because it will make us rich, get us saved, or reward us in the next life, but because people have value in and of themselves, and because it will make us all better off, individually and collectively. It says so, right there in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights-products of a secular eighteenth-century Enlightenment movement.



It doesn't matter what God you believe in, which religion you adhere to, or even if you don't believe in any God and are nonreligious. If you want to live in the United States, there are rules about how you must treat other people. Religion and politics should be treated as Non-Overlapping Magisteria, or NOMA, in paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould's apt model for religion and science. "Non-Overlapping" means that religion is private and politics is public. If you want more religion, go to church. If you want more politics, go to the Capitol. Don't go to church to politick, and don't go to the Capitol to preach.

With this confessional, then, it may surprise you to learn that I was once a born-again evangelical Christian who attended Pepperdine University (a Church of Christ institution) with the intention of becoming a theologian. Although living in the Malibu hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean was a motivating factor in my choice of college, the primary reason I went to Pepperdine was that I took my mission for Christ seriously. I thought I should attend a school where I would receive serious theological training, and I did. I took courses in the Old and New Testaments, Jesus the Christ, and the writings of C.S. Lewis. I attended chapel twice a week-although, truth be told, it was required for all students. Dancing was not allowed on campus, as its sexual suggestiveness might push already-inflamed hormone production into overdrive, and we were not allowed into the dorm rooms of members of the opposite sex. Despite the restrictions, it was a good experience; I was a serious believer, and thought this was the way we should behave.



But somewhere along the way, I found science, and that changed everything. When I discovered that a doctorate in theology required proficiency in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and Aramaic, knowing that foreign languages were not my strong suit (I struggled through two years of high school Spanish), I switched to psychology and mastered one of the languages of science: statistics. In science, I discovered that by establishing parameters to determine whether a hypothesis is probably right (like rejecting the null hypothesis at the 0.01 level of significance) or definitely wrong (not statistically significant), it is possible to approach problems in another way. Instead of the rhetoric and disputation of theology, there were the logic and probabilities of science. What a difference this difference in thinking makes.



The spiritual side of science
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