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On Being a Spiritual Atheist

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The 2011 census results were interesting, weren't they? The rising trend of atheism was a key finding, with 25.1% now saying that we have "no religion" versus 14.8% of us in 2001. As ever, I'm completely on trend, having been an atheist for almost thirty years.

A mistake that many people make is to imagine that atheists are shallow materialists, because, logically, if you don't believe that an old man in the sky sees your every misdemeanour and punishes you accordingly, then why would you adhere to any moral code all? St Paul said, quoting Ecclesiastes: 'If the dead are not raised, "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die."' In fact, many of the atheists I've met are thoughtful, moral and even spiritual people; a real force for good.

I've heard spirituality defined as 'the need to connect with something greater than ourselves'. For some people, that greater thing is nature, for others, community, and for a third group, it is personified as a deity. Jedi Knights (390,000 in the 2001 census there were; data for 2011, find I cannot) would presumably call it the Force.

It seems to me that every religion has two major strands: a pile of aggregated mythology that is cult-specific and reaches from creation myths to the ultimate fate of the 'soul'; and a core of compassionate altruism and self-knowledge that helps us live with each other and with ourselves. The second strand I count as spirituality and I am all for it. I've learnt a little bit of it from other people, from my own reading, from management courses and psychometric tests, from reading Buddhist texts and books by Karen Armstrong... all sorts of sources, and I am still a beginner. I'm not saying that I apply compassion and self-knowledge easily or well.

I make mistakes, although nobody punishes me but myself. But I have seen many committed Christians whose morals, attitudes, words and actions are so far from their avowed ideals that they have made me disbelieve in their God, who obviously is not helping them to live any kind of good life. I suspect many other people in this country feel the same, which is a partial explanation for a quarter of us having no religion.

If I had to clothe that spirituality in my own mumbo-jumbo, I could say that there is some sense in a Pagan world view. There really isn't anything much more deserving of our reverence than the sun, the stars, the moon, the earth - they give us our life and a sense of awe. I am pretty sure they weren't created by a god or goddess, but there they are, sustaining us, and its wonderful even if it isn't purposeful. It's no use praying to them though, as I don't think they have the capacity to listen or act on our behalf.

It stops you in your tracks, sometimes, being an atheist. You realise that there is no higher power for good, or evil, in this world, and that, excepting natural disasters, that it is down to us humans to do all the nice or nasty things that are ever going to happen. The fact that so many people do choose to do some good in the world, even though they have no religion, or only a nominal one, is thrilling. I expect we do it because it actually makes us feel good. Maybe because we are a successful tribe of social monkeys, our brains are wired that way.

The implication of St Paul's letter to the Christians at Corinth, quoted above, is that if we don't believe in God, an afterlife, and a reward in heaven or an eternity in hell, then we can do what we like, with impunity. For religious people, it's best to keep the rules just in case. It's a belief system underpinned by the ultimate threat. But when an atheist does a good thing, he or she does so for its own sake, not for any harp lessons in heaven. That's why I think atheists are some of the most spiritual people I know.