What is the purpose of life? It is to find meaning. [Viktor Frank]
The title is not a misprint. Everyone, including atheists, should be spiritual. It doesn’t matter if we agree or not because we are all spiritual to a certain extent. The alternative to spirituality is hedonism. In reality, we seek both. But the proportion matters.
The way that I mean spirituality has nothing to do with New Age spirituality, mysticism, religion, spirits, ghosts, God, or souls!
Spiritual means when we use our imagination to transcend the here and now and worldly (materialism, praise, etc.) things.
To be sure, this post is about the study of happiness. Happiness is about getting what we want. Although happiness and experiencing meaningful things are different things, meaning-making contributes to our happiness in the long run. We do many meaningful things, such as believing that atheism is accurate, having relationships with others, and pursuing our long-term goals in life. These all contribute to happiness. That said, the kind of happiness that fulfills our immediate needs and wants, such as food or getting praise from others, is fleeting. This is where spirituality comes into the picture. Spirituality is about obtaining meaning out of life in a certain kind of way—in a way that transcends our immediate needs and wants. An example of a spiritual activity is realizing our deep connection to nature or that we all originated from the plains of Africa so we derive meaning and satisfaction from this.
Above, when I say the alternative to spirituality is hedonism, this means that if we are not spiritual—deriving meaning from things that transcend our immediate needs and wants—then we are only making ourselves happy by gratification. I would argue that this is a shallow life indeed. Atheists, however, do not have the luxury of having religion. They must seek their own meaning out of life.
At Its Core, Spirituality Isn’t About God
Spiritual is used often without most taking the time to ask what it means. I have heard many in an attempt to not appear one-dimensional claim that they are spiritual but not religious. Presumably, this means they ponder the deeper questions but don’t follow strict rules. If we are materialists and do not believe in the soul or the spirit, we are free to throw out any references to the immaterial. Religion has a restricted view of spirituality because it must include belief in God. Here is a Catholic’s view:
Spirituality is living the mystery of Christ, becoming like him, being filled with grace and the Holy Spirit. It applies the Gospel to Christian Life. A spiritual person will attempt to make every action and interior thought align with the Gospel.
This definition is problematic if we are materialists and do not believe in the divinity of Christ. Astute observers, however, have noted that there is something common in all forms of spirituality, which exists within every culture. Spirituality is anything that transcends the ordinary and brings meaning to our lives. This is more inclusive. Atheists, like everyone else, have a yearning for things beyond themselves. This is important because happiness in itself is not enough to live a satisfying life. Although we can conclude this for ourselves, we need some evidence. We can turn to researchers who shed new light on old concepts.
Meaning Can Help with Happiness
Transcendence is the highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to others in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos. [Abraham Maslow]
The definition of spirituality has two parts to it: transcendent and meaning. When we say something is transcendent, we mean that it goes beyond worldly things like status attainment, materialism, and self. When we transcend normal awareness, we are not in a judgmental or adversarial state of mind but rather see others for what we have in common with them. Transcendence means that we recognize that we are a smaller part of a greater whole, say part of a community or the human race. It gives us that sense of awe and oneness when contemplating our relationship to nature or recognizing that we all ultimately came from, say stardust.
Whatever we do to be spiritual, it must be meaningful to us. Meaning is derived from doing, thinking, or belonging to things greater than ourselves and often reflects our identity and values (i). Values are about how we should behave. If we think about it, values mostly serve our own interests. In order for meaning to transcend the self, then we need virtues. Virtues are values that serve humanity. The virtues that are found in all cultures include gratitude, humility, forgiveness, hope, wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance. If we follow these virtues, we experience meaningful life events by connecting with and helping others.
Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desires are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided. [Roy Baumeister]
Notice how the ego is absent from virtue. The ego wants to advance, satisfy its needs and wants, and seek praise. Happiness can fuel the ego because it is about getting what we want. When researchers study happiness, it is broken down into the presence of positive feelings, a lack of negative feelings, and life satisfaction. Short-term happiness is often in conflict with meaning-making. For example, suffering hinders happiness, but we reflect afterward and make meaning out of it. We learn from suffering, can assist others with our experience, and it becomes part of “our story”. In the long run, meaning can bring us happiness and satisfaction.
Acquiring Truth Is a Spiritual Pursuit
According to Maslow, self-transcendence brings the individual what he termed “peak experiences” in which they transcend their own personal concerns and see from a higher perspective. These experiences often bring strong positive emotions like joy, peace, and a well-developed sense of awareness (Messerly, 2017).
Hopefully, we are thinking about what we do that goes beyond our careers and satisfying our needs and wants. I am satisfied with doing what I enjoy for its own sake, which is pursuing truth and knowledge. This may seem like a selfish activity, but it is not entirely. Thinking and feeling, which is what we do when we acquire, share, and reflect upon truth, are verbs. Although our society believes that we have to produce to be of any use, there is much benefit to oneself and others when we acquire truth and knowledge (ii).
If we read about the human condition, for example, then we will gain knowledge that can serve a purpose. When we learn how human nature works, then we will develop realistic expectations towards others and ourselves. We can show acceptance and understanding instead of fear and judgment. Part of engaging in meaningful activities is to connect with others, which is only possible if we show empathy. We further connect with others when we share our knowledge, which can inspire and enlighten us.
But does the pursuit of truth and knowledge qualify as being spiritual? I certainly transcend the here and now and become deeply satisfied, even moved, when I gain insight. Whenever I obtain insight, I make sure it integrates nicely with my background knowledge. If it does not, then it is ad hoc. I may have to alter my framework to get a fit, but when it fits, eureka! I recall time periods when radical insights caused shifts in how I view myself, others, and the cosmos. Through time I have refined those ideas, always vigilant for a more accurate model to make sense out of the world. For me, these insights often occurred after misfortune.
For many, suffering can entail failure, rejection, or depression. I have obtained satisfactory answers for why these things have happened to me and why they happen to us in general. When we understand how things work, this allows us to more easily accept suffering or to mitigate it. When we suffer, we create meaning from it. We do this by understanding how it ensues, making it purposeful, and then weaving a narrative out of it. For example, depression is the body retreating from a failure to get what we want. It occurs when attempts made to advance or to be sufficiently valued are thwarted; our endeavors become a “failed struggle”. The body withdraws until we get on a more fruitful path. This explanation is meaningful, and it gives purpose to our suffering.
Are We Missing Something Without God?
Yes, I think we are. I think God, amongst other things, helps us to cope when we are powerless and to face death. I, however, explained earlier that truth and knowledge are virtuous to me. As far as I can tell, a personal God is a human creation, who acts as a sort of father-like attachment figure. Until there is evidence or good reasoning for his existence, I cannot compromise my virtues (iii). I cannot get myself to believe in something that is likely untrue. As Bertrand Russell said, “Either something is true or it isn’t. If we cannot tell if something is true, then we should suspend judgment. If it is true, then we should believe it.” Psychologists have known for decades that we function best when we approach life realistically. For some, God is still needed to help them cope.
My Grandfather became an atheist when he asked why would a benevolent God allow his daughter to suffer from a terminal disease. But in his last days, he became religious, especially after my grandmother died. If we can imagine aging to the point where people who we love and miss disappear, where we would do anything to hear their voices one last time, knowing that they exist in heaven must be comforting. I do not know how I will cope when loved ones perish, or when I find myself alone in assisted living with strangers. In these events, I don’t fault people for seeking support from God who supposedly has their best interests.
There is no place, however, for the atheist to go, no refuge for when life is nearing the end. When we belong to a religion, we share values, which bind us in a significant way. We can admire religion for creating a sense of belonging while catering to the sick and paying tributes to the dead. On the other hand, religion claims to provide the why while science provides the how (v). It touts to provide meaning and answers to why we are here and what happens after death. Their answers turn out to be unsatisfying and wrong. There is no evidence for an afterlife and the why question is poorly construed. We have no ultimate cosmic purpose.
Thus, it is our responsibility to create meaning out of life. If we are going to make meaning, then why not find meaningful pursuits that society holds in high regard. This will not only increase our happiness, but if we act virtuous, we can focus on maximizing the flourishing of everyone. We need only ask ourselves how we want to be remembered, smug and self-centered or altruistic and purposeful. Since atheists do not have an extensive network of non-believers—no central “church”—it is dire for them to be spiritual.
Addendum & Notes
Here’s an example of creating meaning out of death. If we reflect on the fact that we, the people that we love, and the meaning we’ve created will cease to exist one day, this can bring suffering. Tyson has made meaning out of this by giving death a purpose. Its purpose is to make us have gratitude for life, to create a sense of urgency for moral behavior, and to live a satisfying life.
It is the knowledge that I’m going to die that creates the focus that I bring to being alive; the urgency of accomplishment; the need to express love; now, not later. If we live forever, why ever even get out of bed in the morning? Cause you always have tomorrow. That’s not the kind of life I want to lead. [Neil deGrasse Tyson]
i). Researchers view meaning as two separate parts—a motivational part or purposeful and a cognitive part which allows us to make sense of what we do and integrate it into the past, present, and future.
Years of research on the psychology of well-being have demonstrated that often human beings are happiest when they are engaged in meaningful pursuits and virtuous activities.” Indeed, when we are deeply engaged in an activity that is in accordance with our best self, we often report the highest levels of life satisfaction. [Todd Kashdan]
Meaningful pursuits are done for a purpose say to pursue our long-term goals. These goals are best chosen to be what society chooses as noble to assist it in becoming a source of pride. We can still gain meaning from activities that have value to us, which often occur when we do them for their own sake and not for the outcome. But it can also be about derived meaning in which we make something purposeful. I gave an example of how we by understanding how things work, say experiencing depression, give it a purpose and no longer make it feel like we suffered for no reason at all. Tyson derived meaning as well from above.
ii). Be warned though since when we acquire knowledge, there is a risk of us becoming smug, as in we know something that others don’t. We must approach gaining knowledge with humility because the job is never done.
iii) My bookshelf and Kindle are filled with dozens upon dozens of theist and atheist arguments for or against God. If we view the evidence neutrally and suspend our own biases, it is difficult to come to any conclusion other than non-existence. Over seventy percent of philosophers are atheists. I am inclined to think that they know the stock arguments all too well. Seventy percent is a huge number considering the population purports atheism to be around 10%. A proportion of seventy percent of a sub-population of people who devote themselves to truth and knowledge all reaching the conclusion that God doesn’t exist is quite telling.
iv) I have other personal reasons for not liking the idea of a God. For example, bringing God into the universe as an explanation seems to make a mockery out of truth and knowledge. Belief in God also trivializes, as well as makes it inexplicable, why there is unnecessary suffering amongst many people (even animals) across the globe. I am not talking about suffering from failure, rejection, or depression. If these issues are not pervasive and grave, then they are tolerable, and we grow from them. On the other hand, there are many people that get inflicted with diseases that cut their lives short and they never get to recover and weave meaning out of their experiences.
v) Theology and science have traditionally been thought of as different spheres of knowledge, each answering their own questions. They have their own epistemology—how we know what we know—and constitute different metaphysics—what is the ultimate nature of the cosmos. The problem is that they overlap and the claims that theology makes can be tested through the scientific method. Prayer, for example, is about God changing the course of affairs in the universe. This represents a valid domain for science. Repeatedly, however, prayer has yielded statistically insignificant results, which means that any observed effect in the prayer group compared to the control group was due to chance and did not represent a real effect.