Friday, 4 December 2015

Comte-Sponville: non-dogmatic, faithful, atheist mysticism


1189 words, 6 min read

Avvenire, the Italian daily affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, has published a very interesting piece yesterday by the French atheist philosopher André Comte-Sponville, entitled “The atheist believes … But does not know whether God exists.” As I started reading it, I was immediately reminded of an enriching exchange with some atheist friends of mine - especially SC - after I wrote a very negative review of Dawkins’ The God Delusion some three years’ ago. SC, at the time, presented a new type of atheism to me, which acknowledges its belief in there being no God, as opposed to the New Atheists’ argument for that position following directly from rationality. Reading Comte-Sponville’s words made me immediately recognize that same position, and I would like to share an English translation of it with you here:
““Religion” and “spirituality” are not synonyms, nor should they be put on the same level. These two concepts function instead like species and genus: religions are a certain species, or several species, of the genus spirituality, but from among the many possible, some of which do very well without any personal God, indeed without any form of transcendence. [... S]pirituality is [simply] the life of the spirit.

Etymology speaks clearly: the two words, “spirit” and “spirituality”, derive from the Latin spiritus, which refers first of all to vital breath and, in second place, to inspiration, genius, wit, esprit. Now, atheists, as far as I know them, have no less spirit than others. Why should they have less spirituality? Why should they care less about spiritual life? As for me, I have always been interested in it. That’s how it was at the time of my youth, when I was a practicing Christian; but since I stopped believing in God, spirituality interests me even more, which might seem paradoxical and leads us to the heart of our subject. Those who have a religion, also have the spirituality that characterizes it. But how about those who do not belong to a religion? They seems devoid of spiritual resources, especially in the West. Even more reason to think about it. I summarize my position in one sentence: I am a non-dogmatic and faithful atheist. Why atheist? This is the simplest question: I do not believe in any God. Let’s not dwell on the reasons for my not believing; doing so would take me far away from the theme of my argument here, which is not metaphysics, but spirituality. Why a non-dogmatic atheist?

Because I obviously recognize that my atheism is not knowledge. How could it be? No one knows, in the true and strong sense of the verb “to know” whether God exists or not. It depends very much on the question that is addressed to me. If I am asked: “Do you believe in God?”, The answer is very simple: “No, I do not believe.” But if someone asks me, “Does God exist?”, the answer is necessarily more complicated, because, for intellectual honesty, I must begin by saying that I know nothing about it. Nobody knows. I say in my book, if anyone says, “I know for certain that God does not exist,” you are not dealing with an atheist, but a fool. The truth is that I do not know. Likewise, if you meet someone who tells you: “I know that God exists,” he is a fool who has faith, and who, foolishly, confuses faith with knowledge. But in the confusion between faith and knowledge I see a double error: a theological error, because in any respectable theology (at least in Christian theology) faith is a grace, while knowledge can not be; and a philosophical error, because it confuses two different concepts, that of belief and that of knowing. In short, I do not know if God exists or not; I believe that he does not.

A non-dogmatic atheism is an atheism that admits its own status as a belief, in this specific case a negative beliefs. Being non-dogmatic atheists is to believe (rather than to know) that God does not exist. But why a non-dogmatic and faithful atheist? A faithful atheist because, as an atheist, I remain bound with every fiber of my being to a number of values - moral, cultural, spiritual - many of which were born in the great religions and, in the case of Europe, the Judeo-Christian one (unless one wants to deny their history). […] Being an atheist doesn’t mean that I have to turn my back on 2000 years of Christian civilization or 3000 years of Judeo-Christian civilization.

Because I no longer believe in God doesn’t mean that I refuse to recognize the greatness, at least human, of the Gospel message. A spirituality without God is a spirituality of loyalty rather than of faith and of love in action rather than of hope. I could stop here, but I would be left with a feeling of not having touched the essentials. I said earlier that spirituality is the life of the spirit. Fine. But if the word is taken in such a broad sense, every human phenomenon ends up falling under the umbrella of spirituality: morality and ethics, of course, but also science and myths, the arts and politics, feelings or dreams. All this belongs to the spiritual life in a broad sense (in its cognitive, mental or emotional dimensions), to the life that, for clarity, you could define as psychological or mental (from the Greek psyche and the Latin mens, two words that can also be translated by the word “spirit”, but in semantic terms very different from those derived from the Latin spiritus). Now, it is not at all these areas that you think of when it comes to spiritual life.

It is better to take the word “spirituality” in a narrower sense (although, paradoxically, a more open one), making it a sort of subset of our mental or psychological life. The definition I propose is the following: spirituality is the life of the spirit, but especially in its relationship with the infinite, eternal, the absolute. This meaning seems to me to conform to its use and tradition. Our spiritual life is our finite relationship with the infinite, our temporal relationship with eternity, our relative relationship with the absolute. Thus defined, spirituality, at its must extreme, culminates in what is usually called mysticism.”
In an earlier interview, Comte-Sponville expands on what he means by “the absolute” as follows:
“This absolute, for them, isn’t a person, but the being or the becoming, the whole or nature, let’s say the immanent totality which contains them and surpasses them. They can ponder it, think about it, it’s what we call metaphysical, but also try it out, live it, and it’s this we call spirituality. We are open in the grand Open, as Rilke says. This opening, it’s the same spirit. Should I, because I am atheist, renounce all experience of eternity, the infinite, and the absolute? Certainly not. Many philosophers – for example Epicurus and Spinoza – have challenged the existence of a transcendental spirit, without renouncing the enjoyment of what Epicurus called ‘immortal rights’. It’s this I call a spirituality of immanence.”