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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As we enter the final chapter--"Can There Be an Atheist Spirituality?"--we realize that godlessness, for Comte-Sponville, isn't a mere view of reality, a true-or-false understanding of the universe, but a luscious, personal, and value-laden philosophy. We realize also that his designs of an atheist spirituality are not effected by atheism at all but by a movement of which atheism is itself an effect. Comte-Sponville is an Enlightenment man. And within Enlightenment's framework, he carves out his own spirituality, a fresh spirituality that has nothing to do with the union of self and soul and everything to do with the surrender of the self to the universe. The achievement of this oneness is called plenitude, "moments when nothing is missing, when there is nothing to either wish for or regret and when the question of possession is irrelevant."

The author experienced plenitude once in a forest. I'm afraid that I have not; my own atheist spirituality is less refined. But it has always been active. I have been known to cast a ballot for a candidate whose victory (or defeat) I knew would not be determined by it; I have cheered for my basketball team to an indifferent radio in an earless room.

I do not deny Comte-Sponville his atheist spirituality, and he is probably too tolerant to deny me mine. But they are different. They are inevitably different because a-theism--an absence of belief--contains, demands, and predicts nothing. It has subscribers in every demographic, constituency, party, and clique. Indeed, most atheists don't bother with God for the same reason that they don't bother with unicorns. Atheists, in their atheism, are indifferent.

For Comte-Sponville and me, this is a tragedy; we see in God a splendor beyond the trivial truth of his existence or nonexistence. We believe that humans run not on gyrating atoms or a selfish calculus but on something of a soul. We believe in human intrigues. But Comte-Sponville's book of atheist spirituality is different from mine because, unfortunately, there is no such thing as an atheist spirituality or philosophy or creed. In fact, there is no use at all for the adjective atheist. For atheism describes not a force, but a lack of force; not substance, but vacancy. Atheism is a hole. Atheism, like death, is nothing.

Garin Hovannisian is a student at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.