Book Review: The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality

Book Review: The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality by Andre Comte-Sponville

By Erin Williamson

The God Delusion, The End of Faith, and other books by the so-called New Atheists have shaped the popular discourse on atheism in the past decade. For those looking to align with a more positive outlook on atheist philosophy, look no further than Andre Comte-Sponville’s The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality. A contemporary French philosopher and atheist with a fresh perspective on religion, humanity, and ethics, Comte-Sponville writes about what it means to be an atheist and a member of the human race without God while filtering out the often scathing attacks on religion.

The progression of the argument is from less to more philosophical; however, with only moderate education in philosophy, this book was an accessible read. The author identified his thesis statement by acknowledging the imperative of church-state separation, then following with “it remains for atheists to invent the spirituality that goes with it.” Although his definition of spirituality doesn’t come until the third and final chapter, it’s clear that he means an ethical and moral framework and the interaction of humanity and the individual with his own existence.

He discusses the concepts of communalism quite a bit as an alternative to religion. He argues that religion spawned ethical codes we have today, but that our society (global society, that is) no longer needs man-made religion to serve as the foundation of those codes. While I personally disagree with this assertion, he later says that humanity has “selected” (as in natural selection) the best values to enable us to live together somewhat harmoniously, and preventing us from the famous state of nature, which seems more tenable.

He seems to characterize our society today as a product of its own history in religious tradition. As religion falls away, it will leave a society so deeply entrenched in the ethics, traditions, and history of its religious past, just without the religion itself.  But to me, a more likely reality is that religion arose from the human need for tradition, ethics, and history, and is falling away as science, skepticism, and reason can explain and justify these traditions, ethics, and history6. He attaches cultural labels to these varying but fundamentally similar codes of ethics such as “Christian” or “Jewish” but notes that one does not have to be religious or believe in God to claim cultural “fidelity.” Having cultural fidelity is an important aspect of being human, he claims,but must cultural fidelity arise from a culture of religion? The imperative of humanity is to be worthy of what humanity has made us, to live and behave humanly, and to play the role of the individual as best you can.

The second chapter addresses atheism vs. agnosticism, which is particularly helpful from a philosophical standpoint, especially for those of us who believe in some sort of spectrum of “belief” in God. He is clearly a fan of Spinoza, and references him and his pantheist/atheist perspective on God in (as?) nature. He describes several “proofs” that the religious have made for the existence of God, and debunks them by referencing other philosophers and making cogent arguments rarely found in the literature of such a heavy subject.

Comte-Sponville is the epitomic humanist in contemporary philosophy. This book is riddled with quotes such as, “I cannot help thinking that if God existed, he should be easier to perceive or feel. All you would need to do is open your eyes, or you soul. I keep trying to do this. And no matter how wide I open them, what I see is the world and what I love is humanity.” Perhaps this is merely reflective of my own branch of philosophical humanism, which differs from the practical humanism that requires active participation in the fight for church-state separation, equality, pluralism, and civic engagement.

Comte-Sponville marries the rational (“Why should we seek to explain natural things we do not understand with supernatural things we understand even less?”) with the emotional to really gather his discourse on truth, spirit, human empowerment, our own environment, and self-actualization into a startlingly honest and compassionate assessment of how atheism perhaps should exist. His refreshingly honest perspective warrants a close read, particularly of the first two chapters (the third, unless you are philosophically inclined, is rather convoluted). Few opinion pieces on atheism—in fact here I would call it humanism—will move the reader to think so deeply about his or her own existence and role in the present. For after all according to Comte-Sponville, that is all we have.

Erin Williamson is the development and communications assistant for the American Humanist Association.