The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality by Andre Comte-Sponville is a well-written foray into God-free mysticism and spirituality. Less an assault on the edifice of theism than a gentle admonition, The Little Book is not a place to go for polemics. Rather, Comte-Sponville expresses his ideas with the sympathetic firmness of a wizened elder who knows that he may be trespassing on a deeply held belief, assuring the wavering person that there is meaning to be found in a universe devoid of God.
I have few in the way of criticisms, and some of them may stem unavoidably from the necessarily deep and heady subject matter. Comte-Sponville is apparently an extraordinarily erudite man, as he adorned this work with references to Freud, Pascal, Leibniz, and a wealth of other scholars. In the span of one paragraph there were quotes from Angelus Sileus, Simone Weil, unnamed haikus and Zen masters, and Krishnamurti. His ability to draw on a wealth of resources is no doubt one of his strengths, but at times the book began to feel like learned bricolage, and I grew weary of yet more quotes from this or that heavyweight thinker. That said, I never felt like the tone was pretentious or deliberately confusing.
Furthermore, I found myself scratching my head at certain passages near the end of the book, in which Comte-Sponville really digs into his views on mysticism. Since I’ve never tried my hand at describing powerful spiritual experiences, I won’t denigrate someone else’s efforts. Regular emotions are difficult to describe, to say nothing of the rare states of mind which can genuinely be spoken of as mystical or transcendent.
Though I occasionally lost the narrative and I felt like it was too sanguine about religious belief, The Little Book is a welcome accompaniment to the atheist literature.
The book is divided into four parts. In the first Comte-Sponville attempts to analyze what religions are, irrespective of whether or not God exists, and discusses the aspects of religion that we can’t do without.
A religion, on his view, is “any organized set of beliefs and rituals involving the sacred, the supernatural or the transcendent (this is the broad sense of the term) and specifically involving one or several gods (this is the restricted sense), which beliefs and rituals unite those who recognize and practice them into a moral and spiritual community”. He notes that there are non-theistic religions, as well as religions which began as philosophies and became religious over time, but doesn’t get into the details. I think the thrust of his characterization is fair.
There are two things society definitely needs which are often sought from, but don’t require, religion. These are communion and fidelity. Communion is defined as a deep and lasting sense of cohesion. Where laws and force fail, cohesion provides a bedrock upon which to build a civilization. Instead of religion, atheists have the option of building communion around internalized values like freedom, justice, and peace. This process of internalization stems from fidelity, which he conceives as a sustained contemplation and re-reading of shared ideas and texts. Again, there is no reason to presume that everyone must read religious texts, or that they must take them seriously as descriptions of reality. The atheist might nominate great works of poetry, art, music, and philosophy for inclusion in a shared canon which contains ideas that should be reflected upon.
The latter half of this section is spent decrying the twin evils of sophistry (the denial of truth) and nihilism (the denial of meaning). The book asserts that the sentence “nothing is true” itself claims to be truth — if nothing is true, then that includes the sentence “nothing is true”! Ergo, it’s meaningless. No system of knowledge is absolute, but it is obvious that progress has been made.
The book in its entirety can be thought of as refuting nihilism. No compelling argument for moral realism is ever offered, however, which I find rather surprising. Comte-Sponville just claims that we shouldn’t be raping people because it’s beneath human dignity. Lots of atheists claim that humans can be good without God, but fewer of them offer strong, comprehensive moral theories. The book would’ve been considerably strengthened if it had offered such a theory, I think.
As with “religion”, the Comte-Sponville’s sets up the following nominal definition of God as “…an eternal, spiritual and transcendent being, both exterior and superior to nature, who consciously and voluntarily created the universe.”
His case against God comes into two stages. In the first, he addresses what he sees as weaknesses with philosophical arguments for the existence of God. In the second, he notes that, in addition to these weakness, there seems to be little in the way of positive evidence for him either.
Since he doesn’t venture too far into philosophical thickets in discussing these proofs, I won’t either. The Ontological Proof fails because you can’t just define things into existence, and saying that something exists doesn’t add anything to our concept of it.
He doesn’t address the Cosmological Argument in a way that I feel is very strong. There may just be things that are unexplainable, he says, like why there is something rather than nothing. But even if we were to grant that there is a unmoved mover, we wouldn’t have any way to know that it is God.
Finally, the argument from design fails because the universe doesn’t seem to bear the imprint of a designer. He spends time dissecting the clock analogy. True, if we were to find a clock in the desert, we’d assume it was designed. But then, clocks don’t give birth to other clocks, and they don’t change. The analogy, he concludes, is a poor one, and that’s before we factor in all the waste and examples of bad design that we find in nature.
Beyond all this, though, even more trouble remains. Comte-Sponville muses that, if God wanted to have a relationship with each person, he wouldn’t spend so much time in silence. Moreover, invoking God as an explanation basically amounts to making sense of one mystery by reference to an even greater mystery! Add to this the fact that there is prodigious amounts of evil and suffering in the world, and the universe begins to look very much like one that wasn’t designed by an omnipotent, loving God.
I’m necessarily leaving a lot out of the analysis, and I don’t want to make it sound like his arguments are shallow and unsophisticated. They aren’t, and they deserve to be pondered.
It is, ironically, this section of the book about which I have the least to say. I recommend purchasing it for an in-depth discussion, but Comte-Sponville’s account of mysticism, as I read it, amounts to the feelings that accompany the dissolution of the self. For brief, joyous moments, the world, and time, drop away, and a person can be at one with the all-encompassing vastness of the universe, perceiving no difference between themselves and reality. He gives various characteristics like “immanensity” and “plenitude” to this feeling, but it ultimately boils down to there temporarily no longer being a “you” standing separate from reality.
Many of my atheistic fellow travelers think little of mysticism, but I am sympathetic to those who pursue it outside of religious faith. Having read this book, I wonder if there might not be ways of more reliably fostering such experiences. Meditation is an obvious answer, of course, but maybe there are others that I just don’t know about. Either way, I found the book enlightening and easy to read. I would recommend it to anyone who is de-converting, or anyone who is interested in the spiritual side of naturalism.