Can you be an atheist as well as spiritual?

I had an appointment with my psychiatrist yesterday and he is always full of stories and knowledge of current events. My three-month med check-ups are always interesting. Yesterday he informed me that Harvard has hired an atheist chaplain.

How does that work?

My psychiatrist explained that it’s possible to be an atheist and also spiritual.

I don’t consider myself spiritual but maybe spirituality has a different meaning to everyone. I guess if I had to define it, I would say spirituality is feeling connected to nature and the world around you.

What do you say? Does spirituality require a higher power? Are you spiritual? What does that look like for you?


  1. Katydid says

    I would define spirituality the way you do, so to me a spiritual person would think about the effect of their words and actions on everything around them–human, animal, and natural.

    This is the polar opposite of a lot of Christianity, which seems to want to destroy everything around them.

    For awhile, right out of college, I went to a Unitarian Universalist church. The pastor was a self-proclaimed atheist and the weekly sermons tended to focus on a topic (e.g. “The Golden Rule”) with readings from several religions across many timeframes. They also hosted a monthly Pagan gathering where everyone was welcome to attend that usually consisted of music and dancing. They also had a twice-monthly presence at a soup kitchen, where random church members signed up to go help. When I moved away, there were no nearby UU churches so I can’t speak to them in general.

  2. John Morales says

    Atheism is not synonymous with naturalism; spirits aren’t gods; ‘spiritual’ is often used to mean ‘psyche’. One should bear in mind that theism only refers to belief in theistic deities, there are many other categories of religiosity other than theistic religions.

    Part of the mainstreaming of atheism has been the rise in secular churchiness (cf. James Croft, cf. Greg Epstein) which aims to provide the social and mental benefits of religion without the supernatural bits. Aping churches, in other words.

    Each to their own, but not for me.

  3. Allison says

    Does spirituality require a higher power?

    No, especially not the sort of “higher power” people in Western society usually mean.

    For me, spirituality is about having a sense of something beyond what we see and touch, beyond our everyday understanding and conventional perspectives. We get a taste of that when we experience beauty, or nature, or anything which impresses upon us that we are just a part of something larger than ourselves. My sense of morality, of what is right and wrong and proper and improper is based on a sense of what aligns with the spiritual order of — well, I guess you could say “the universe.” For example, my objection to the way humans are and have been trashing our environment is based not just in the way it comes back to bite us, but also in a what I’d call spiritual sense that the animals, the plants, even the rivers and mountains are worthy of respect as much as we humans are. (And when people describe it as a “rape” of the natural worlds, is that not a spiritual image?) Oddly enough, even though my work and much of what I do is in science and technology or mechanical things, I find myself often guided by a sense of how things should be that isn’t based in the usual engineering guidelines.

    When I describe my spirituality or the spiritual basis for my judgements, I do find that I frequently use religious language, because it’s what I grew up with and there’s a poetry there that I don’t find many other places. I will say (to myself, at least), “we are all God’s children” to express that we are all responsible for one another and must respect and care for one another, without in the least imagining that there is really a “God” who has created or sired us or whatever. I think of doing awful things as “harming one’s soul,” and sometimes call it “sin” because of a spiritual sense that doing evil chips away at what makes us human, and if we keep on doing it, we will have cut our humanity off, sort of like sawing off the branch you are sitting on. And I frequently have the sense of having been “guided” in my life — that however random the events of my life may have seemed at the time, in retrospect it feels like there was a kind of logic or purpose to them to make me who I am.

  4. brucegee1962 says

    I’m a big fan of the 19th century Romantic poets. They wrote a good deal about a specific emotional state — Wordsworth called it
    “that serene and blessed mood,
    In which the affections gently lead us on,—
    Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
    And even the motion of our human blood
    Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
    In body, and become a living soul:
    While with an eye made quiet by the power
    Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
    We see into the life of things”
    I would define it as “a state of emotional exaltation that comes from feeling oneself to be a part of a larger whole.”
    You don’t need to believe in anything nonmaterialistic to experience this emotion. Sure, it can come from religion, but also from nature as you say, or music, or art, or architecture, or oratory, or just a really good rave.
    I think an emotion this important deserves its own name, and I’d love to steal “spirituality” back from the goddests.

  5. StonedRanger says

    I have never gotten a satisfactory explanation (for me) as to just what it means to be spiritual. I dont think I am spiritual so it looks like nothing to me. And everyone who has tried to explain what being spiritual means to them has given me a different definition of the word. Now when people try to tell me how spiritual they are, I just nod and smile.

  6. DrVanNostrand says

    In my opinion, the use of the term “spiritual” among atheists and agnostics is like you describe. We’re feeling the same type of connection to the world around us, nature, other people, and even non-human animals. There’s a major difference in that we’re not attributing that feeling to gods, but I think it’s a very normal human feeling, and that feeling is probably part of the reason that so many people felt the need to invent gods in the first place.

  7. atomjz says

    I think so! To me, spirituality is just the deep awe and humility felt when recognizing just how little we understand about anything. As a physicist, I get this deep feeling of wonder deep inside when considering certain niche, dark-horse theories, like that reality is actually running on para-consistent, quantum, or otherwise multi-valued logics that we can’t possibly hope to have any intuitive understanding of. Realizing that the observable universe may just constitute approximately 0% of what exists in the greatest ontological sense?… doesn’t get much more spiritual than that! Spirituality can mean anything to anyone; we don’t have to believe in deities to feel these things.

  8. Bruce says

    Here’s a bit from the Wikipedia on Greg Espstein. Read the whole for more info.

    “Epstein began serving as Humanist Chaplain at Harvard in fall 2005,”

    So Epstein started as a Humanist (non-theistic) rabbi, got the job of Humanist chaplain (not necessarily atheist) 16 years ago, and got promoted to senior chaplain leader after all this service. So all reasonable, and roughly what you heard.

    Let’s think what chaplains do. They talk to their attendees and say uplifting things and sometimes give advice. Some of them claim to be doing this through supernatural magic, but Greg makes no such claim. Why should being an inspiring speaker be any harder for those who don’t claim to be doing magic? After all, no preacher anywhere is actually hearing from anything supernatural.

    There’s nothing wrong with NOT hearing voices, even though such claims are traditional in that business.

  9. another stewart says

    I guess that you (like me) are a physicalist. But you can be an atheist without being a physicalist.

    I don’t know how much animism actually lacks gods among the other spirits, but I do find animism without gods conceivable. Or you could believe in karma and reincarnation without a belief in any god.

    As for Harvard having an atheist chaplain, chaplains have a counselling/pastoral care role as well as a religious one. I assume that Harvard’s atheist chaplain performs the counselling/pastoral care role for those students who are not religious, or at least affiliated with a religion with an associated Harvard chaplain.

  10. sonofrojblake says

    Fly a paraglider up the side of a cloud. Get between the sun and the cloud. Look across, or likely down, at your shadow on the surface of the cloud, ringed by a perfectly circular rainbow. Feel the silence and connection to the air around you and to the mountain sized collection of water droplets in the air next to you. Look down at the ground, six or seven thousand feet or more below you. It needs no supernatural explanation, but “spiritual” is a reasonable word for how it makes me feel.

  11. brucegee1962 says

    Just an aside to say kudos to the OP and FtB commentariat — this is one of the more interesting and insightful threads I’ve seen here.

  12. ashes says

    I had a shitty day yesterday and waking up to all of your wonderful comments this morning made me forget all about it! Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. I think we should revisit this topic sometime. 🙂

  13. Owlmirror says

    This is a bit late, but:
    There is a book by Jennifer Michael Hecht called “Doubt: A History”. As she discusses how philosophers, even in ancient times, expressed doubt in the dominant religions, she also discusses how these philosophers talked about facing life’s challenges without reference to God or gods. She uses the umbrella term “graceful life philosophies” to refer to this sort of philosophizing.

    You might want to peruse the Wiki page I linked to, or if you like audio, here’s an interview with her on the show On Being. There’s also a transcript if you prefer reading.

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