The Ethical Dilemma: Who Says You Can’s Be a Spiritual Atheist?

Joan Reisman-Brill gives advice to a closeted bigot and an atheist who has no problem using the s-word: spiritual.

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I’m A Closet Bigot: Despite being politically correct in everything as much as possible, I find myself secretly having bigoted thoughts. When my kids talk about children who act out at school, I surreptitiously probe for their race or names, suspecting they will be black or Hispanic—and when they talk about the kids with the best grades, I expect them to be white or Asian. I’m initially surprised to encounter minority doctors or lawyers or other professions that require extensive education, and just as surprised when I run into Jewish people who aren’t successful financially. Disparaging terms pop into my head when I see obese people or stereotypical gays. I truly don’t have anything against any of these groups, yet these ugly thoughts are always swirling just below the surface.

Although I do my best not to let on to anyone, it seems my inner monologue belongs to Archie Bunker. What’s wrong with me, and how can I obliterate rather than just suppress these ideas? I’m very careful never to get drunk because I’m afraid of what I might say.

—Sure Hope I Don’t Develop Tourette’s

Dear Tourette’s,

According to those who have studied such things, you are not by any means unique in your reactions. Check out social worker Abe Markman’s account of being a white man with a black family in the March/April 2012 issue of The Humanist. It seems we are hard-wired to react with spontaneous, instantaneous bias to members of different groups. But we can soft-wire the effect by getting to know people as individuals, which helps us to lose sight of the groups and our involuntary prejudices associated with them. Interestingly, these notions seem to be picked up out of thin air, so that even the most careful parents can’t entirely immunize their children from catching them—although they can certainly do their best to bring them up with positive attitudes and behavior.

It’s important that we recognize and talk about these impulses rather than pretending they don’t exist. While people decry what happened with Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, those on both sides—not just Martin and Zimmerman, but also supporters of each perspective—rushed to judgment based on stereotypes.

Rather than simply demonizing incidents of discrimination and demanding punishment, or lining up on one side or the other on “stand your ground” and racial profiling, we should be acknowledging that these conditioned responses are deeply ingrained and more widely held than we care to believe—but that they are also unacceptable in our society, and that they can and must be managed and defused.

Everyone belongs to one group or another and no one belongs to all of them. But all of us are humans, with human preconceptions and misconceptions and irrationality. We can’t will these things away, but we can will to work through them by communicating calmly and honestly with each other. Recognizing that we all have regrettable impulses, no matter how laudable our intentions, is the first step.

The fact that you recognize and abhor your secret thoughts is a positive sign, demonstrating that you would never accept them as true or appropriate. If you are really disturbed by them and in constant fear that they will surface and disgrace you, you could seek out a therapist who may have tools to help you silence or at least quiet them—or help you learn how to more comfortably co-exist with them. But I suspect if we conducted a really honest survey, we’d discover that you have company, even among the genuinely least bigoted people you could ever hope to find. That wouldn’t excuse negative ideation or make it any less objectionable, but it would help us understand what we’re up against, not only throughout our society but also within our own minds.

Who Says You Can’t Be A Spiritual Atheist? I really don’t want to re-open the frustrating and downright silly can of worms about spirituality and atheism, but something I saw in a recent issue of The Humanist really got me riled. It was the suggestion that people who call themselves spiritual have no right to call themselves atheist. Excuse me, but if I don’t subscribe to supernatural beings or organized religions, I’m an atheist, and no one can tell me I’m not. And if I feel components of my outlook could, for want of a better term, best be described as spiritual, no one can deny me that either. Since when did humanists become word police, or even worse, thought police?

—What Are You Going To Do, Excommunicate Me?

Dear Excommunicate,

While I’ve seen what you describe, please understand that the American Humanist Association encourages people to put forth various points of view without necessarily endorsing those views. In fact, you’ll find an article in The Humanist on the controversy about the term spiritual followed by an article on Sunday Assembly which is all about communally celebrating spirituality without religion.

I too take issue with this whole business of denigrating and rejecting the idea of spirituality among nonbelievers. Yes, spirituality is a loaded term, since it does include specifically religious definitions, but it also has secular meanings. By the same token, atheists would have to purge the often-substituted “sense of awe,” since a facet of the word “awe” has to do with sacredness. And one meaning of the word “wonder” is miracle—so do we abandon that as well? And since “goodbye” comes from “god be with you,” do we have to say farewell to that one too?

Beware of a brave new world in which words are negatively charged and purged. Banishing terms because they have religious origins or meanings hamstrings our ability to express ourselves, and frustrates people who wish to identify as atheists but may be groping for ways to describe their views in positive terms, beyond what they don’t believe or experience. Why would anyone want to stifle another person’s ability to describe what he’s feeling, even if the descriptors aren’t ideal—or worse, to deny those people identifying as atheists? That’s the kind of faction-making and exclusion that most of us rejected when we rejected religions.

So let’s lighten up. Let’s give people a break, and try to understand what they mean when they’re having trouble putting feelings into words, instead of faulting and dismissing them on the basis of the words they pick. Let’s not discard perfectly good terms and people, even if they are imperfect. Let’s embrace the rich spectrum of vocabulary available to us, and welcome those who basically share our views, even if not in every detail—and even if god (or the devil) is in the details.