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


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The switch to science, however, was only one factor in my deconversion. There was also the intolerance generated by absolute morality, the logical outcome of knowing without doubt that you are right and everyone else is wrong. There were the inevitable hypocrisies that arose from preaching the "ought" but practicing the "is." (One of my dormmates regularly prayed for sex, rationalizing that he could better witness for the Lord without all that pent-up libido.) There was the awareness that other religious beliefs and their adherents existed, and that all of them were equally adamant that theirs was the One True Religion. And there was the knowledge of the temporal, geographical, and cultural determiners of religious beliefs that made it obvious to me that God was made in our likeness, and not the reverse.

By the end of my first year in a graduate program in experimental psychology at California State University, Fullerton, I had abandoned Christianity and stripped off my silver ichthus, replacing what was for me the stultifying dogma of a 2,000-year-old religion with the worldview of an always changing, always fresh science. The passionate nature of this perspective was espoused most emphatically by my evolutionary biology professor, Bayard Brattstrom, particularly at a local bar where his after-class discussions went late into the night. This was the final factor in my road back from Damascus: I enjoyed the company and friendship of science people much more than that of religious people. Science was where the action was for me. But from where would I get my spirituality?

Spirituality is a way of being in the world, a sense of one's place in the cosmos, a relationship to that which extends beyond ourselves. There are many sources of spirituality; religion may be the most common, but it is by no means the only. Anything that generates a sense of awe may be a source of spirituality-art, for example. Consider the 1889 post-Impressionist painting 'The Starry Night' by Vincent van Gogh. It is a magnificent swirl of dark and light, punctuated by stars, with the sky and land delineated by horizon, and the infinite vastness of space hovering over humanity's tiny abode.

Van Gogh painted the conflict between body and soul, between objective and subjective, and between outer and inner experiences. As he told his brother, Theo: "I retain from nature a certain sequence and a certain correctness in placing the tones. I study nature so as not to do foolish things, to remain reasonable-however, I don't mind so much whether my color corresponds exactly, as long as it looks beautiful on my canvas." In fact, van Gogh described 'The Starry Night' to his brother as "an attempt to reach a religious viewpoint without God." Read "spiritual" for "religious."

'The Starry Night' is awe-inspiring art, but it is the product of centuries of scientific discovery, coming after Nicolaus Copernicus displaced us from the center of the cosmos; after Johannes Kepler discovered the laws of planetary motion; after Galileo Galilei discovered the moons of Jupiter, mountains on the moon, and sunspots; after Isaac Newton united celestial and terrestrial physics; and after Charles Darwin put us in our proper place in nature's ancestry. No one, especially not an emotionally volatile post-Impressionist painter like van Gogh, could look up at the night sky and not be daunted by the vastness of the minuscule portion of the galaxy we can observe from Earth (about 2,500 of the more than 100 billion stars in the Milky Way).

As magical as 'The Starry Night' is, van Gogh painted it decades before astronomer Edwin Hubble expanded our universe by orders of magnitude with his observations from the 100-inch telescope atop Mount Wilson in Southern California. On October 6, 1923, Hubble first realized that the fuzzy patches he was observing were not nebulae within the Milky Way galaxy, but were, in fact, separate galaxies, and that the universe is bigger than anyone imagined. He subsequently discovered through this same telescope that those galaxies are all red-shifted-their light is receding from us, and thus stretched toward the red end of the electromagnetic spectrum-meaning that all galaxies are expanding away from one another, the result of a spectacular explosion that marked the birth of the universe. It was the first empirical data indicating that the universe has a beginning, and thus is not eternal. What could be more awe-inspiring-more numinous, magical, spiritual-than this cosmic visage? Darwin and the geologists gave us deep time. Hubble and the astronomers gave us deep space.

Since I live in Southern California, I have had many occasions to make the climb up Mount Wilson, a twenty-five-mile trek from the bedroom community of La Cañada up a twisting mountain road whose terminus is a cluster of old telescopes, new interferometers, and communications towers that feed the mega-media conglomerate below. As a young student of science in the 1970s, I took a general tour. As a serious bicycle racer in the 1980s, I rode there every Wednesday (a tradition still practiced by a handful of us cycling diehards). In the 1990s, I took several scientists there, including Gould, who described it as a deeply moving experience.

And most recently, in November of last year, I arranged a visit to the observatory for British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, the other great bard of life's history. It was during his trip to Los Angeles on a book tour for his just-published opus,

The Ancestor's Tale

, itself a source of scientific spirituality in its 4-billion-year pilgrimage to the dawn of evolution. As we were standing beneath the magnificent dome housing the 100-inch telescope, and reflecting on how marvelous-even miraculous-this scientistic visage of the cosmos and our place in it all seemed, Dawkins turned to me and said, "All of this makes me proud of our species."

Herein lies the spiritual side of science-sciencuality, if you will pardon an awkward neologism (but one that echoes the sensuality of discovery). While the Chartres cathedral may be stirring for some, Mount Wilson Observatory is inspirational to a much broader base. Scientific discoveries, after all, belong to everyone.

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