Atheism and Spirituality

Late last year I volunteered to participate in a research study on psilocybin-occasioned mystical experiences.  I completed an online survey and later was interviewed by the principal researcher in a more than hour long semi-structured zoom interview. In the survey, I had answered a question on religious affiliation with “Atheist”. During the interview, the interviewer expressed surprise that I practiced Zen meditation as she equated atheism with a materialist philosophy.  I in turn was surprised at her assuming that a spiritual practice implied a belief in God or gods, particularly as my practice was to a large extent within a Zen Buddhist context, which does not treat the historical Buddha as a god or invoke concepts of gods.

I refined my thoughts on this topic in several online discussions, where I found both religious believers and some other atheists were very hostile to the idea that an atheist could have a spiritual practice. And I noticed that some of the atheists who did say they were spiritual, defined “spiritual” in terms of experiences like the enjoyment of a sunset or a moving piece of music, or the feeling of being part of nature.  

In the last few days, I have read Sam Harris’s 2014 book, Waking Up: Searching for spirituality without religion and found he articulated far better than me almost the same views that I had arrived at. Like me, he noted that when he refers to meditation as a “spiritual practice,” he gets substantial criticism from fellow skeptics and atheists who think that he has committed a grievous error.  To many of these people, the word spiritualism has become synonymous with premodern superstitions and beliefs, particularly in supernatural beings.

Harris explains that he does not share their semantic concerns:

“there is no other term — apart from the even more problematic mystical or the more restrictive contemplative  —  with which to discuss the efforts people make, through meditation, psychedelics, or other means, to fully bring their minds into the present or to induce non-ordinary states of consciousness. And no other word links this spectrum of experience to our ethical lives.”

Those who do try to embrace both science and spirituality tend to make one of two mistakes. Scientists and some atheists assume that spiritual experience equates to “a grandiose way of describing ordinary states of mind- parental love, artistic inspiration, or at the beauty of the night sky”. For example, Einstein’s awe at the order in nature captured in its physical laws is often described as though it were some sort of mystical insight.

In contrast, new age thinkers like Fritjof Capra and Deepak Chopra tend to draw connections between altered states of consciousness and the strange reality uncovered at the frontier of modern physics by theories such as quantum physics, relativity, string theory. These scientific theories and their interpretations are claimed to validate and justify various metaphysical claims. As Harris summarizes, “in the end, we are left to choose between pseudo-spirituality and pseudo-science.”

Few scientists and philosophers have developed strong skills of introspection – of disciplined close examination of their own consciousness through meditative and related practices. But various Eastern religious and philosophic traditions have developed sophisticated techniques for exploring the first-person experience of consciousness. As Ken Wilber has pointed out in a number of books, particularly The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion, at the heart of these traditions is a set of instructions to examine consciousness for yourself and empirically test the truth of claims made. Of course, these traditions have often developed an accretion of mythic and cultural interpretations. And although these meditative techniques tell us nothing about the structure of the universe, or its origins, or the existence of meta-beings, they do confirm various truths about the human mind and consciousness, particularly that our conventional sense of self is an illusion, and that our thoughts play an important role in how we experience reality. See also my earlier post on secular Buddhism.

The experience of “no-self” is accessible in principle to anyone prepared to honestly do the work with an open mind. It is often interpreted in religious terms and in terms of established mythical religious systems, but in principle there is nothing irrational about it.  People of every tradition have the same sorts of spiritual experiences and again Wilber has been a indefatigable cataloger of these commonalities across “mystic” traditions within every religion. He and Alan Coomes have also elucidated how no-self and non-dual states of consciousness are interpreted and reported in terms of the overall stage of consciousness of the experiencer and the cultural and religious context in which they live. Christians, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, Buddhists and psychedelic voyagers can all experience “enlightenment”, no-self, universal love, ecstasy etc, and often interpret them in terms of and as support for their traditional beliefs. But these beliefs are incompatible, so the actual experiences must be pointing to some deeper and singular reality.

Sam Harris describes the subject of his book as an examination of the experience of “no-self” as a clearer understanding of the way things are:

“Deepening that understanding, and repeatedly cutting through the illusion of the self, is what is meant by “spirituality” in the context of this book…….. a true spiritual practitioner is someone who has discovered that it is possible to be at ease in the world for no reason, if only for a few moments at a time, and that such ease is synonymous with transcending the apparent boundaries of the self. Those who have never tasted such peace of mind might view these assertions as highly suspect. Nevertheless, it is a fact that a condition of selfless well-being is there to be glimpsed in each moment.”

Harris argues, as I do, that all religions and spiritual practices are addressing the same reality and that any view of consciousness and the cosmos that is available to the human mind can, in principle, be appreciated by anyone.  Wilber has used this same insight to argue that because all religions are products of human minds grappling with the same reality, the nature of that reality can only be described by those components of religious thought or experience that are common to all religions. So mythic accretions cannot be literal truths about reality, though they may well address in metaphorical terms fundamental aspects of human psychology and existence. Additionally, not all religious traditions understand our spiritual potential equally well, or encourage spiritual growth or provide effective tools for exploring it. In fact, mystics in the monotheistic religions have tended to be labeled heretics and persecuted or killed. And this is not confined to earlier less enlightened times, it continues today.

Harris has a more intensive background in meditative disciplines than I do. His are mainly in the Theravada and Tibetan Buddhist traditions. He was fortunate to meet and practice with a Vipassana master in the Theravada tradition and a Dzogchen Tibertan master who were both exceptionally skilled in guiding students effectively with minimal demand to take on the mythic religiosity of either tradition.  I also found two Zen teachers, one Australian and the other Japanese, who were similarly focused on effective practice and realization with minimal need to take on Buddhist religiosity. In my encounters with both Theravada and Tibetan Buddhist teachers I found more emphasis on Buddhist beliefs and dogmas than I was comfortable with. So these disciplines with typical South Asian elaborate metaphysical systems have never appealed to me the way Zen does with its emphasis on direct experience here-now.

Like Harris, I see my meditation practice as spiritual practice and am not shy about seeing that as completely consistent with atheism.  To those that say atheism implies materialism, I would respond that thoughts and consciousness are not material, but they exist and in fact I have more direct and irrefutable experience of them than of material objects (perhaps I am only a brain in a vat). Whether or not thoughts and awareness itself are emergent properties of complex material systems such as the human brain is not relevant, they themselves are not material. Unlike those who equate spiritual with supernatural, I do not consider anything that is real to be supernatural. I realize that is not how others may understand the term, but to me the word supernatural is equivalent to non-existent.

In the Zen tradition, there are a number of words used to refer to various states of consciousness. These include samadhi, kensho and satori and these may be used in various ways. I use samadhi to refer to the meditative state of resting as the witness, as conscious awareness in which perceptions and thoughts come and go and are simply witnessed without getting caught up in them.  In lengthy periods of samadhi, awareness of the body and of time passing can drop away. One is largely resting in the present moment here-now. It can often feel very blissful.

Kensho refers to the state in which the witness also drops away. The witness disappears- there is no body, no mind, no self, no other, no subject, no object. Not even the object of your attention exists. This is a state of non-dual consciousness, also referred to in Zen as “body and mind dropped away”. Kensho can be a small glimpse or opening, or a somewhat larger taste of non-dual consciousness. A profound kensho is referred to as satori, the classical enlightenment experience of the type described in many tales of historical Zen masters. The 13th century Zen master Dogen Zenji described Buddhist practice in the following famous quotation:

To study the Buddha way is to study the self.
To study the self is to forget the self,
and to forget the self is to be enlightened by the 10,000 things.
To be confirmed by the 10,000 things is the dropping away of body and mind,
and the body and mind of others.
No trace of realization remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly

Returning to the question of spirituality, I would  define it as follows. Human beings consist of body, mind and spirit. Body is fairly self-explanatory, and mind refers to perceptions, thoughts, feelings and normal conscious awareness. Spirit refers to what remains when body and mind are dropped away. From direct experience I know that what is left (non-dual consciousness) is something, not nothing, and that something can be a life-changing experience. I will let Harris have the last word:

“Investigating the nature of consciousness itself- and transforming its contents through deliberate training- is the basis of spiritual life…. having done so, we will say that spirituality is not just important for living a good life; It is actually essential for understanding the human mind.”