The Ethical Dilemma: Is Spirituality an Atheist Sin?

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Is Spirituality an Atheist Sin? Why do many atheists express such contempt for people who say they’re spiritual but not religious? I guess I don’t understand what it means to others, but this is how I describe myself and don’t see the problem.

—Unrepentant Spirit

Dear Spirit,

Like you, I don’t really get it, just as I don’t get why some atheists are so critical of people who identify as agnostics. There’s a disturbing undercurrent of ideological rigidity in these kinds of judgments, which is something I thought most non-religious people abhor.

While the term “spirit” has a number of definitions specifically associated with religious concepts, it also includes purely secular meanings. It comes from the Latin for “breath.” To deny that atheists can be spiritual is akin to denying that they have breath, an invisible but very real difference between life and death. Spirituality isn’t tangible, but certainly everyone more or less understands the secular sense of the word. 

The same sort of objection to “spiritual” might also apply to “soulful.” Should atheists eschew both attributes? That’s exactly what our critics might assert. What about imagination, levity, humor, thoughtfulness, curiosity, creativity, joy or hope? As a humanist, I want to experience–not redact—all these rich dimensions. There’s plenty of room for them in my worldview, along with ambiguity, flakiness, uncertainty and all the other things that are harder to grasp than Jell-O.

This kind of censorship smacks of Newspeak in the novel 1984. Do we really want to hamstring our ability to express ourselves by outlawing certain words? Don’t we already have enough of that with political correctness? Why would we want to expunge terms for elusive, ethereal concepts—words we have for things we don’t have words for?

Although different people may mean different things when calling themselves spiritual but not religious, in many cases they are reacting to the (mostly, I hope) unwarranted notion that atheists are dull, pragmatic people who only believe what can be proved, and who have no sense of awe or wonder. By espousing spirituality, we are conveying that while we don’t follow any organized religion or believe in any gods, we are still multi-faceted individuals who are able to acknowledge ineffable realities and possibilities.

People who are not religious can be at least as spiritual as anyone else. Consider Carl Sagan who could envision so much in our universe, or Albert Einstein who could conceive of universal connections most of us won’t ever grasp, people who create worlds out of sounds, images and ideas through the arts, or who invent “miracles” (uh-oh, another no-no) like electric lights and smart phones. Everyone who’s alive and sentient is probably spiritual to some degree, whether they acknowledge it or not. So don’t let any thought- or vocabulary-police, be they religious fanatics or fanatic atheists, keep you from embracing your spirituality—whatever that means.


If You Have Nothing Nice to Say, Say It on the Internet: Whenever I read an online article and scroll down to the comments section, it seems within three entries they have become incredibly nasty, and beyond that they deteriorate into expletive-peppered rants that have little to do with the article in question. Many seem to be from unbalanced, hostile people with an ax to grind. Could rules of etiquette, civility and possibly even kindness prevail? What can we, as readers, do to stop the verbal violence?

—Can’t Bear to Look

Dear Bear,

Before the Internet, if you wanted to respond to an article, first you had to find the publication’s mailing address, compose a letter, and drop it in the mailbox. Then you’d wait to see if it would be selected for publication based on what you had to say and perhaps who you were. And if it did get published, you would be fortunate if it still said what you meant after someone edited it. Now you just type in your comments, hit “send,” and the author and readers instantly receive your intact message. A perfect world, right?

Not quite. As you note, it is truly disheartening to behold the bile emitted from many readers’ comments. A number of websites (such as the American Humanist Association’s Facebook page and the recent pledge, signed by many leaders of the nontheist movement, calling for civility in online communities) have guidelines and enforcement, but unless comments contain profanity or overt threats, it is difficult to locate the line between screening out crazies and censoring free exchange of ideas, however rudely and crudely they may be expressed.

A psychologist could probably explicate how frustrated, angry, isolated individuals find release in submitting tirades in the guise of comments. These individuals may enjoy inciting virtual brawls, knowing that no one can physically touch them, and feeling invincible in anonymity. But it’s a real disservice to those who were looking forward to enlightened, enlightening discussion.

It’s human nature to be more inclined to voice criticism than praise. Most readers are not moved to write if they simply enjoyed an article, but disgruntled ones are quick to charge with torches and pitchforks. This sends discussions veering off on tangents, traveling beyond the orbit of the original piece, and giving a skewed impression of the consensus. If a thousand readers have no bones to pick with an article, but ten hate it, it will be the minority whose opinion registers. The rest of the readers may then wonder if that forum is appropriate for them. Their reaction may be to ignore the comments altogether, or to hit “unsubscribe.”

What can gentle readers do? One approach is to accentuate the positive of the old adage and make an effort to say something nice. If you enjoy a writer’s work—especially if others have trounced it for reasons you dispute—take a moment to say so in a comment or a note to the editor.

Joan Reisman-Brill is a writer based in New York City and certified Humanist Celebrant. She received her BA in English literature from the University of Chicago, an MA also in English lit from the University of Michigan, and an MBA in management and marketing from New York University. She has worked in public relations, marketing and myriad facets of writing and editing for nearly four decades. She has been steadily increasingly her humanist identification and activism at an accelerating rate, and while she doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, she welcomes this opportunity to tackle the questions.