The Magazine

An Unbeliever's Prayer

You don't need God to be satisfactorily spiritual.

Mar 17, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 26 • By GARIN HOVANNISIAN
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The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality

by André Comte-Sponville

Viking, 224 pp., $19.95

This Little Book of Atheist Spirituality would have been considerably littler if it had begun on page 134, where its creator first suggests that atheist spirituality is even possible. But we tend to forgive André Comte-Sponville. It is understandable that the eminent French philosopher should begin by unloading his own thoughts about love, death, and the universe. And besides, we enjoy the journey through his detours, paved as they are with charm, charisma, and lovely Parisian sentimentality.

Most important, we discover that Comte-Sponville is not a cranky, cantankerous atheist. He was born into Christendom, and raised there; and though he eventually defected, he was never disinfected of its moral graces. He calls himself a "non-dogmatic atheist," a "faithful atheist," even a "Christian atheist." Comte-Sponville might not believe in God, but he admires Him. An atheist he is; a heathen he is not.

In the first of three chapters--"Can We Do Without Atheism?"--he writes: "My intention is not to convert people to atheism. It is merely to explain my position and the arguments in its favor." The explanations are invariably launched with "To my way of thinking" or "I personally" or "For my part" and end up in Salzburg or Strasbourg, where their author once traded pleasantries with a priest. The personal narrative, charming beyond its candid arrogance, empowers the authorial voice. But it can also compromise the message. Consider Comte-Sponville's rendition of a speech a born-again atheist might recite at the dinner table:

Children, I have something important to tell you: I've lost my faith; I no longer believe in God! Of course, this doesn't in the least affect the values I've always tried to inculcate into you; I'm counting on you to go on respecting them!

The exclamatory silliness is enough to raise the eyebrows of the book's American audience, but to the resilient reader, it does convey an interesting idea: religious values without religiosity. The philosophy seems best captured in the biblical character of the Good Samaritan, the compassionate gentile who, more than any priest, warmed Jesus. Writes Comte-Sponville: "It is possible to do without religion, but not without communion, fidelity, or love."

The second chapter--"Does God Exist?"--withdraws even further from the book's premise, to say nothing yet of its argument. Here Comte-Sponville opens the doors to Kant, Epicurus, Lucretius, Alain, Montaigne, Pascal, Freud, and every other vagrant thinker who happens to be passing by. He unleashes through them his six choicest arguments against God's existence.

It is no compliment to Comte-Sponville that these immediately recall the arguments I recently compiled in contesting a speeding ticket in California. In a written trial by declaration, I argued that: My car's speedometer wasn't working; if it were, then the cop's radar surely wasn't; but in any case, I was driving at the average pace of traffic; I certainly wasn't speeding; but if I were, I do sincerely apologize; you can understand, I was rushing to a funeral.

I had learned, much to my delight, that state law did not require the various points of my defense to be consistent with one another. My leaking logic apparently seeped past California's courts; Comte-Sponville's does not elude ours. He claims that human mediocrity cannot suggest a perfect God and, on the other hand, that human glories suffice for a first-rate spirituality. He claims that God must be evil as he allows evil, and that God is actually "too good to be true," that "I am an atheist and happy to be one" and that "I desperately wish that God existed."

If six assassins found the audacity to target the ruler of the universe, we might hope that they wouldn't end up shooting each other. We do not expect a hobgoblin's consistency here, but we do require a theory that can survive on its own terms. These terms we find increasingly dubious, as we see that their intelligent designer is focused on proving why God can't exist more than why He doesn't.