Steven Waldman

Steven Waldman

The Spiritual Atheists

posted by swaldman

atheism.jpgThe revelation a few weeks ago that 21% of atheists say they believe in God confused those of us who took the term to mean someone who, well, doesn’t believe in God. It seemed a bit like saying 21% of women are men.

I probed the Pew Religious Landscape study a bit more and found these equally intriguing statistics:

  • 21% of atheists believe in miracles
  • 18% believe in life after death

It seems that this group — let-s call them the Spiritual Atheists — does not believe science holds all the answers. Some phenomenon defy rational explanations, some beliefs cannot be proven.

Another set of statistics seems to indicate that the Spiritual Atheists actively attempt to find meaning in their lives beyond the purely materialistic or mechanistic:

  • 18% of atheists meditate weekly
  • 37% feel deep sense of wonder about the universe weekly
  • 28% deep sense of spiritual peace and well being weekly

It may be that these confused results stem from a certain atheism chic. Though atheism is still highly stigmatized in much of the country, there are undoubtedly pockets of America that find it intellectually glamorous. Perhaps some of the Spiritual Atheists dislike organized religion but wanted to be a part of some group, and this one came close enough.

But I suspect it shows something a bit deeper than that. The growth of atheism in recent years is more a full rejection of religion than it is a full embrace of science. For the Spiritual Atheists, not everything can be explained rationally. They know that the religion of their childhoods doesn’t explain it but they haven’t given up on the idea that supernatural mysteries play a role.

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Charles Cosimano

posted July 8, 2008 at 12:13 pm

Buddhism. You don’t need a god to be spiritual.

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posted July 8, 2008 at 12:56 pm

We already have a word for Spiritual Atheists, they are agnostics. Saying that the atheists believe in god is like saying that those who do not believe in the deity of Jesus are Christians. Either you do or you don’t, you can’t have it both ways.

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Karen Brown

posted July 8, 2008 at 2:26 pm

Not really. Agnostic means a person who doesn’t know (or doesn’t think it is knowable) if there is a God. An atheist is one who doesn’t believe there is a God.
One can be an agnostic and be a theist (acknowledge you don’t know, but believe nonetheless) or be an agnostic atheist(same as above, but don’t believe). They are not different categories of the same thing, they are different answers to different questions. Atheism- Do you believe in any Gods or not. Agnosticism- Do you have knowledge or experience of God(s).
As for life after death or miracles, the only thing required (and if they include this, they aren’t atheists, they just don’t know what the word means, which is hardly uncommon) to be an atheist is to NOT be a theist. Namely, a person who believes in a God.
That has nothing to do with what else you believe in. You can believe in, or not believe in, anything else.
This includes miracles, an afterlife, including heavens and hells, angels, demons, Bigfoot, alien abductions, or the second shooter on the grassy knoll.

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Ronald D.Bauer

posted October 26, 2008 at 10:52 pm

I am glad we do have atheist in the world because of not knowing or believing is a blessing in disguise and having a unique thinking process may give them greater reasoning skills instead of looking at things through a spiritual path.

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posted October 28, 2008 at 2:45 pm

They must be Deists, like our founding fathers.

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posted November 4, 2008 at 5:06 pm

Not a Christian God, nor a Islamic God. I have read a lot of the Bible, but do not confuse reading and learning with beleiving. I for instance, have read and learned about the history of McDonalds. The McDonald brothers sold hamburgers, Ray Kroc sold blenders to them. They made a transaction. And Kroc bought McDonald’s and transformed it into what is today. And while I eat at McDonald’s, I do not beleive its healthy for me. Eating a Big Mac and fries with all that salt, its cholesterol building junk food. I’ll gain weight. Thus its good to know Allen Ginsberg’s Howl character Molouch is a deity that comes from the Bible in which it consumes people as offerings. How else would you know what Ginsberg was talking about? Yet, after learning it does not make you a beleiver just because you picked up the good book as a reference book. That’s down right arrogance to think otherwise.

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Your Name

posted December 2, 2008 at 1:39 am

I don’t believe so called athiests really believe, or not believe what they say they believe. Deep, deep, deep inside they know that there is a creator. I believe they have a problem with religion. Heck I’m an evangelical Christian and even I sometimes have a problem with religion. My faith is grounded in a secure relationship with the Creator through Jesus Christ. “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible power and divine nature have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse’. (Romans 1: 20)

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posted December 3, 2008 at 9:41 pm

As one of these “spiritual atheists”, the phenomenon isn’t new at all.
Meditation, yoga, et. al. has been touted as great spiritual exercise… as well as good stress relief. Many atheists do this without having any sort of belief at all.
And of course 37% of atheists feel a great sense of wonder for our universe *weekly*. What belief doesn’t?
There’s a lot of ignorance about atheists, even though I identify more as a pantheist I can still identify as an atheist. There are some answers science hasn’t found yet, and yet more that science never will. Most atheists however base their beliefs on science. There is indeed a way to be spiritual without believing in God.

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posted December 23, 2008 at 5:13 pm

Your Name:
I believe you are projecting your own experience of faith onto atheists to say that “deep down they know there is a creator.” I am an atheist, and I know no such thing. It is quite possible that you cannot imagine NOT believing in a creator, but it is a fallacy to assume that atheists are just believers who haven’t seen the light yet. To do so is to be disrespectful.

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David Miller

posted February 5, 2009 at 11:37 pm

I think the article above dealing with the atheistic worldview shows that many people take a cafeteria approach to their worldviews (take aspects from various major worldviews like Christianity, atheism, etc, ) and unfortunately these same people are not very informed consumers. An atheist who believes in God is an oxymoron.

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posted February 17, 2009 at 4:53 pm

Atheist just means that someone doesn’t believe in a god, god(s), goddesses… dieties in general. Some atheists do believe in supernatural possibilities like ghosts and reincarnation but don’t believe that there’s a diety, or CEO, in the sky, in charge of it all.
On earth there are 6 billion people but there isn’t one person on earth in charge of everyone, with a plan, for everyone….so it is possible that there may be some reality other than this life but that it just “is” what it “is” without a head honcho responsible for it. –We mortals always like to think there’s somebody in charge even if there isn’t.

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Your Name

posted February 19, 2009 at 9:19 pm

I am an atheist and I meditate weekly. It makes me feel connected to the universe and think thoughts beyond minds comprehension, that just take my body away from past present and future. I don’t need a higher power injecting false reason into my mind and soul to experience the life that we can create through medation and opening your third eye.

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posted February 22, 2009 at 10:26 pm

“Spiritual Atheist”? Maybe this is a use of the word “spiritual” that I haven’t encountered before. But as long as it doesn’t entail an entity that exists separate from the human body, well… ok. I’ll see where it goes. As for the word “atheist”, the word in it’s roots is self-defining. Atheism is the absence of a belief in any god. Anyone who calls themselves an atheist, then professes a belief in a god, is simply confused or ignorant of the facts.
In the interest of disclosure, let me say here that I am an atheist. As atheist as any honest, rational, thinking human being can be. When I let go of my belief in a god, I also let go of any belief in an afterlife, along with any other irrational beliefs that I might have been clinging to. It is my sincere opinion that for the vast majority of those skirting the issue of accepting atheism, the fear of a permanent death is the last barrier to accepting the truth. The prospect of saying goodbye (forever) to everyone you have known, as you pass into oblivion, can be a little unsettling upon first examination.
I understand this fear well. Irrational though our behaviour can be, in the face of this truth, the fear itself is not irrational. It is a predictable and rational response to the stripping away of an immensely comforting ‘little white lie’.
Back to the topic at hand… Let me address the points the OP raises, one by one. I think I’ve already addressed the question of 21% of atheists believing in a god. It is simply, by definition, not possible.
As for 21% of atheists believing in miracles; one would need to create a radically different definition of the word ‘miracle’ in order for this to be true. If by ‘miracle’, you really mean phenomena that haven’t been fully scientifically categorized yet, then ok. It’s a corruption of the english language and a real stretch, but if that’s the only way you can present it, well alright. As far as bona fide miracles in the original intent of the word… an atheist would no sooner believe in such delusions than to offer up his or her first-born for christening.
18% of atheists believe in life after death?! Uh… well, not unless it involves in cryogenics, cybernetics, or the passing of intelligence to machine life. And these ideas are really in the minority, at least for now. As for the standard religious presentation of a worry-free romp through the heavens with the deity of your choosing; accompanied by all your relatives and friends who shared a belief in the same invisible man (or woman) as you, well… Atheists have a lot of light-hearted fun with this concept. But it’s not something we believe in. Actually, our interpretation of the word “belief” is probably a bit different from that of most theists.
18% of atheists meditate weekly? Sure. What would be so unusual about that? Meditation hardly requires a belief in a god. A belief in one’s self, perhaps. The benefits of meditation are well known to atheists, and have been for some time.
37% of atheists feel a deep sense of wonder about the universe weekly. You bet your sweet star cluster we do. If this figure is truly accurate, I feel sorry for the other 63% who don’t feel a deep sense of wonder about the universe. The universe, and many of our fellow humans along with it, are an almost limitless source of inspiration. True, some humans inspire only fear or contempt, but that is the minority. I believe most humans have an immense capacity for good. The universe too, has some very scary aspects. But they are vastly outweighed by the potential for wonder and inspiration. And on that topic, some of these scary threats from the universe have presented us with good reason to throw off our illusions and start cooperating with one another. Our first test is a mere 20 years away. It will be, uh, interesting to see if the theists show their allegiance first to self-preservation, or to their mythology.
28% of atheists feel a deep sense of spiritual peace and well being weekly.
Now the figure presented, I can’t comment on. I also wouldn’t use the word ‘spiritual’. I would more likely express it as ‘inner’ peace, or ‘personal’ peace. Using the word ‘spiritual’ just muddies up the waters. But… as I said before, if that’s the best you can do, I’ll grudgingly allow it -for now. As I say, I can’t speak to the number cited. But, I know that I feel a deep sense of inner peace daily. Unless there is some kind of emotional strife or turbulence going on around me, or if I am sleep-deprived, or physically ill, I feel a deep sense of inner peace and well being every day. It has been like this for me since the day that I let go of my belief in a god. I am now more at peace than I’ve ever been.
Living a life free of beliefs and superstition has been very different from how I imagined it would be. As a blossoming non-believer, a few things very quickly became clear: life, in all it’s forms, took on more value immediately. As a believer I was unaffected by the abortion question. As an atheist, I believe very strongly in the value of these little lives. Never in a million years did I ever think I would take a pro-life stance. I guess life has it’s little surprises for everyone. Just for the record, yes, I am a strong advocate for birth control. Just as I am a staunch advocate of human rights. Comes with the territory, I guess. I feel differently about the death penalty now, too. While I feel there are instances where it is appropriate, In the majority of cases, I would opt for life imprisonment. My interest in preserving this planet and of passing something of value to future generations has become almost an obsession with me. I no longer stumble through life counting on a make-believe ‘big cosmic daddy’ to clean up my messes. I treat myself and the world around me with a lot more respect.
It took a long time and a lot of personal questioning to reach the point where I am today. Over 55 years of life, to be precise. After 55-plus years wandering through the carnival that is religious belief, I finally found inner peace and mental freedom, by (as Julia Sweeney so eloquently puts it) “letting go of god”. It wasn’t an abrupt, decisive event. I got my first hint that all was not well in ‘invisible-sky-buddy-land’ when I was 9 1/2 years old. And if my parents, grandparents, church elders, and the ‘conspiracy of circumstance’ had not terrorized, traumatized, and beat it into me so severely, I likely would have come to this awakening long ago. Still, I am amazed when I hear of adolescents professing long-held atheist positions. Are they really that advanced? Was I really that socially and mentally suppressed?
I won’t lose any sleep over it, but I suppose the OP might have a point about the growth in atheism being more attributable to a full rejection of religion, than a full embrace of science. I have witnessed younger atheists proclaiming their disdain for religion, yet provide no compelling scientific or logical reasons for a move to atheism. The problem with embracing atheism as an extension of fully rejecting religion is that it leaves you with nothing to build on. Hopefully, as they mature they will come to embrace science and rational thought more fully. If not, they may find themselves lost in the darkness of ignorance and instead embrace nihilism. Let us hope not. That is a woeful path indeed. And truth be told, a departure from the things that make atheism so great in the first place.

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posted April 10, 2009 at 6:35 pm

I find it as confusing as you do that 21% of atheists believe in God — but it is fairly intuitive to me that one could be a spiritual atheist. Rejecting the idea of God (or identifying as atheist via some other route) does not mean, as you point out, that one has rejected everything in favor of the materialistic and mechanistic.
The Network for Spiritual Progressives uses “the word ‘spiritual’ to include all those whose deepest values lead them to challenge the ethos of selfishness and materialism that has led people into a frantic search for money and power and away from a life that places love, kindness, generosity, peace, non-violence, social justice, awe and wonder at the grandeur of creation, thanksgiving, humility and joy at the center of our lives.”
This framework of spirituality accommodates spiritual atheists.

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Mason Colbert

posted May 5, 2009 at 7:46 am

I am an atheist, but nonetheless I am very spiritual. I have read the Tao Te Ching and mediate quite often. I also feel on bright sunny mornings a very spiritual happiness inside me. I am full of awe and wonder at the beauty of the universe and the happiness oen can find in a small measure of peace.
I am an atheist, but I am spiritual- as I like mysteries and have hope, but doubts.

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Your Name

posted July 1, 2009 at 3:22 pm

Sentient_traveler is right on the button with the assertion that it is ontologically impossible for 21% of atheists to believe in god(s). What this figure tells me is that there were some VERY serious problems with the methodology of this survey ;)
As for 21% of atheists believing in miracles and 18% of atheists believing in life after death, I do disagree with the aforementioned poster, though the survey Mr. Waldman cites (or at least this particular interpretation of it) has already blown its credibility with me, and should be taken with a grain of salt. It’s certainly possible to have an afterlife without a god, and, as the primary definition of the term is “an effect or extraordinary event in the physical world that surpasses all known human or natural powers and is ascribed to a supernatural cause”, it is at least plausible that one may have miracles without a deity being involved.
I myself believer in neither gods, afterlives, or miracles, but that’s just me. We atheists don’t have a Pope or anything, so we all just speak for ourselves.

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posted July 23, 2009 at 2:23 pm

“The growth of atheism in recent years is more a full rejection of religion than it is a full embrace of science.”
I’m getting a wee bit tired of the notion that science and religion are at odds. They’re not.

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posted November 25, 2009 at 2:38 am

I am a spiritual atheist. (That is, if I must put on a label!) Look, if you think of god for what it is, humanity’s creation in reaction to the unknown, even the scriptures can be useful to an atheist. God is simply a concept – the sum of all things known and unknown – not some superbeing. I’m an atheist but I do not believe that humans can measure or even detect everything that is around us. Ghosts, miracles, etc., may indeed have explanations that science has yet to discover (although, I highly doubt they will be divine explanations.)

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posted December 6, 2009 at 4:13 am

I think a lot of folks confuse agnostic with atheist. I consider myself to be an agnostic Buddhist hedonist (took me awhile to come up w/ that) and I’ve been accused several times, mostly by holy rollin’ bible thumpers, of being an atheist. I love to reply “Oh yes it’s the rage among us atheists to study Buddhism and seek enlightenment.”

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Kayla M. Abbott

posted December 16, 2009 at 1:18 am

Many people are confused with this topic as well as I. But I Consider myself an Agnostic Athiest because i don’t believe in God but, i can’t claim to know God doesn’t exist. But i do feel spiritual in a sense and i think many can have this spirituality with out believing in a God. some think to be Spiritual you must believe in a God.
“For some people, it involves a variety of very personal things like self-realization, philosophical searching, etc. For many others, it is something like a very deep and strong emotional reaction to “wonders” of life — for example, gazing out at the universe on a clear night, seeing a newborn child, etc.”
This is a quote from another site about the topic of Spiritual Atheism. But I agree and the way i see as well it is knowing your true inner self in a sense besides what is mentioned in the quote above.

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posted March 9, 2011 at 12:00 am

I think there is a lot about higher dimensions we don’t fully understand but it’s not *divine* answers that are going to be found.
I firmly believe a lot of us have probably took a wrong turn in our past life reducing us in rank from those higher dimensions but what’s important is our ability to deal with being human which is not being able to control what’s around us or we will become control freaks so instead we need to have ego checks.

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posted May 26, 2011 at 10:08 pm

I like it very much, thank you

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posted June 15, 2011 at 2:10 pm

considering miracles can mean something as mundane as the birth of a child it’s not that impressive that atheists believe in them.

unless you can show what the survey question are, reporting on the answers is kinda pointless.

how was god defined. do you mean a theistic god or a pantheistic one? or maybe you’re talking about somebody who is helping build a mud. i was a god on a space themed mud back in the day.

what do you mean by spiritual? does your definition require a belief in supernatural or metaphisical entities/constructs? or does spirituality mean a sense of connection to the world around you?

and why do you find it surprising that atheists would engage in things like meditation?

it’s kinda like you’re blown away by the fact that atheists are in fact human beings that do human things. i mean really. religious people have the same brain biology. all of your religious experiences are completely obtainable without the existence of god, so don’t be surprised that atheists have found non-religious way of obtaining them. i personally have felt more awe and wonder (ie: probably triggering the god experience part of my brain) from learning about the cosmos than i ever did learning about bronze age mythology from a bunch of adults who took it as literal truth.

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posted June 15, 2011 at 2:23 pm

Define “miracles”
1. an effect or extraordinary event in the physical world that surpasses all known human or natural powers and is ascribed to a supernatural cause.
2. such an effect or event manifesting or considered as a work of god.
3. a wonder; marvel.

I see it as a wonder and a marvel that we are able to have this conversation at all, considering that most people could not even conceive of the technology to make this possible less than 100 years ago. Wow. That is a miracle to me. I am amazed and overjoyed by complexity and intricacy of our universe and the natural world. And just because I can or do understand it does not make it any less miraculous to me.

Or define “life after death.”

I am not so full of myself or ego centric to think that life will not go on after I die. I am pretty darn certain it will. And just as dead stars live on in me, so too will I be transmuted to go on to live in other forms. It does not require a spirit or soul for me to see aspects of who I am and what I have done may well live on after I die.

So the problem appears to be with the methodology of the survey itself. If those terms are not clearly defined it is perfectly appropriate for an atheist to agree with those concepts.

As for the rest of the statistics, when did taking time out to set aside distractions and inwardly reflect still one’s mind for a while or feeling a deep sense of wonder about the universe automatically equate with a belief in god or a lack of embracing of science?

My suggestion? Crack out a copy of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series (I think it is on Netfix OnDemand) and which the way he talks about the universe. You cannot claim the man does not embrace science. Yet there he is talking about the universe and science with the same sense of awe and amazement that most attribute to having a religious experience.

This is what it means to be a spiritual atheist to me.

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