What is Atheistic Spirituality?
What is Spirituality to an Atheist?
While there are some Eeyore Atheists out there who poo-poo the idea that atheism and spirituality are compatible (primarily since it is associated with religions and supernatural belief systems), others practice some forms of spirituality in their lives. While the atheists do not like "magical thinking" or beliefs for which there is no empirical, scientific evidence, the word "atheist" simply means "non-belief in God", and does not by itself exclude belief in other supernatural things. Furthermore, atheists are divided into two camps; agnostic and firm atheists. A firm atheist denies that the possibility that a God could exist, whereas an agnostic, which are the majority of atheists, believe that there is a possibility, however slim, because the human capacity for knowledge is very limited. They're saying they think there is probably no God, but they don't claim to know it, hence the term "agnostic" meaning "without knowledge".
Even with firm atheists, there are some benefits to spiritual practices as taught by certain religions, and also a great deal of personal benefit can come from studying religions and their beliefs, even if you do not share in their faith in the supernatural.
Physical and Emotional Well-Being
People need to take care of themselves. In a world where nearly everyone struggles with tremendous hardships, one must develop a deep well of internal strength and resilience. People can get bullied, lose their jobs, possessions, or even loved ones. Oftentimes, science either can't help us with these ordinary, but painful, griefs that are part of our existence, or they want to sell us pills that numb us or make us drug-dependent, if not worse. Neurological science is not simply going to find a cure for unhappiness ever. Individuals are too complex, as are their reasons for unhappiness. For example, one person living in extreme poverty and squalor might be perfectly content, while another person living in the finest luxury might be perfectly miserable. Materialism is not the key to finding true, resilient hope and happiness. And even without believing in God or sharing the religion's belief about supernatural phenomenon, the study of religion and certain religious practices may help someone create within themselves this core of inner peace. This core is important when facing life's challenges.
Developing Ethics and Values
When you've figured out how to help yourself, you naturally will end up with a strong desire to help others. But science alone is not really a good way to talk about morality, and issues of what you and other people should or should not do. Science was once called "natural philosophy", and that means it is focused on natural things only. It describes, it doesn't prescribe. In fact, it's very much against the scientific method as we understand it today to let any preconceived emotional or ethical judgments interfere with the scientist's quest for truth, the truth that is about describing natural objects and phenomena in our universe.
So then, even atheists and agnostics can find help with ethical questions and the question of how to be a good person from the study of religion. While religions teach different things, they often share common ethical principles.
For example, if you're not sure whether or not to be a vegetarian, while nutritional science can offer you an idea of whether that diet is beneficial to the body or harmful to it, it is religions that answer the question of whether or not it's right. For example, Hinduism believes people should not consume animals, especially not cows. Christianity, in contrast, teaches that mankind has been given dominion over all the animals, and that is usually interpreted as meaning that humans are given permission by God to consume any animal. In Judaism and Islam, certain animals are "clean" and can be eaten, and certain others are "unclean", including pigs, and it is forbidden to eat them. While cows are not eaten or killed by Hindus because they are seen as holy and maternal, pigs are not eaten in Judaism and Islam because they are seen as profane and dirty. By studying and comparing various world traditions and their beliefs about your particular ethical question, you can make a more informed judgment for yourself. I like to engage in this kind of questioning whenever I'm unsure of an ethical question, looking at various religions' ideas about the answer, and ultimately deciding for myself which one makes the more compelling argument. In the vegetarianism example, if I choose to follow the "kosher" way and eat other kinds of meat but not pork, it doesn't make me a Muslim or a Jew, it just means I side with them on that particular ethical perspective. Life is full of ethical choices without easy answers, so when you run into one, it's not necessarily religious to want think about ways in which ancient scholars wrote about these very same or similar issues. It's more like simply being informed by a broad understanding of history and culture.
Direction and Higher Purpose
Well, the atheist might say, isn't the "higher purpose" given to you by religion just a life of self-denying slavery to a God who doesn't sound like a good person (especially in the Abrahamic faiths that most people in the West are most familiar with)?
Not necessarily. For spiritual people, everything they do is dedicated to their God or supernatural construct, but it is ultimately also dedicated to living out values like purity, non-attachment to material things, humility, charity, compassion, chastity, and spiritual contemplation. For Buddhists one could argue that the above values and virtues are seen as ends in their own right, not simply means for getting on God's good side. But even Catholics, who think everything should be focused on God, have priests, monks, nuns, and even lay people who dedicate themselves wholly to the compassion-filled service of their fellow man as well, serving as teachers, feeding and housing the poor, caring for the sick, and championing justice.
Where religious tradition often comes into conflict with atheists is that it claims that their way is the only way, that you have to believe what they believe to be a good person, using their best saints as a model. But the truth is, while you can and should use the lives of exceptionally good people as a model for your own life, you don't have to follow any one particular teaching or hold any particular supernatural belief to do so. Examples of goodness are found in religious people of all faiths and in people with no faith. But thinking like a religious person, without the narrow confines of the religious dogma, is very beneficial, because it directs your life toward an ideal of goodness. In contrast, contemporary psychology is too often focused on the medical model of mental health. It tells you you're "sick" and need a "cure", when in reality you're probably just going through ordinary human pain, the kind various spiritual practices are designed to resolve.
For example, if you're traumatized by being raped, therapy makes it seem like you're the one with the problem for experiencing grief if it interferes with your productivity, since we're all expected in a corporate society to be cheerful little working drones who never need a break because of stress or grief, and that is not how human beings actually are by nature. Spirituality instead recognizes that human frailty is a part of human nature, and religions offer counseling, wisdom, and guidance to the suffering in a way that does not simply try to throw pills at the human condition.
So don't say, "I have ADHD, I'm sick, and I need medicine to fix me because I am broken", say instead "I sometimes get nervous, jittery, or have periods where I can't focus, maybe I should meditate more often, exercise each day, practice yoga, or chant", or "maybe I should see what's wrong with my work, study, and lifestyle habits that keep me from achieving what I need."
The label "ADHD" or other "diagnostic" labels the APA gives us don't really do any good; they just give you a star of David to wear that marks you as separate, different, sick, and unable to help yourself. Spirituality instead focuses on solutions that empower people to take charge of their own mental health. How they do this is by focusing on drawing closer to goodness, rather than on waiting for someone else to pull you up out of sickness (which you never escape usually, there's no profit in un-diagnosing people once they've been caught in the net, after all!).
Therefore, I think people, whether religious or not, can use spiritual practices and religious studies to, by changing the way they think about things, better their lives in a tremendous way. They can gain self-control, compassion, and cultivate important ethical values for living a better life.
So I think that, for the above reasons, the study of religion and the practice of personal spirituality (even if you do not claim the spirituality has supernatural effects) are important for everyone, even atheists and agnostics. Contemplation of religious truths can help you become a better person, especially if you're doing so with an open mind, rather than the way a religious person does so with a mind closed off to alternative possibilities to their own chosen faith. Explore the possibilities and mysteries without judgment, and it might also take you closer to understanding why your religious friends, relatives, and neighbors think and feel the way they do. And we all have to share one world, so understanding of other people's beliefs, even if they are not your own, is always important.