The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality

I recently noticed, on the new books stand in a Borders bookstore, a small book called The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality. By French philosopher André Comte-Sponville, it looked like a user-friendly popular book designed to cash in on the improbable success of some recent atheist books. Indeed, I picked it up to browse, expecting to encounter something more akin to New Age “spirituality” literature—entertaining, but in an eye-rolling sort of way.

It turned out to be much better, which led me to get hold of it and read it through properly. Yes, it’s a popular, non-academic book. And yes, it is concerned with those fuzzier questions about how to live life that often go under the heading of “spirituality.” But it’s also a rich, thought-provoking book that is good both for people looking for a non-confrontational introduction to religious nonbelief and for skeptics who enjoy books that prompt serious reflection.

I am not saying I agree with every theme of the book:

  • Comte-Sponville’s defense of “fidelity” to Christian tradition while denying its theological claims is welcome as a corrective to overly hostile atheist views of religion. It recognizes how labels such as “Jewish” or “Christian” stand for a history and a civilization that can be valued regardless of dogmas attached to them. Nevertheless, those of us who are attracted to the tradition of the European Enlightenment precisely because it promises a break from such traditions won’t be entirely satisfied.
  • Comte-Sponville lists some good arguments supporting atheism, and not only the usual suspects like the failure of the classical arguments for theism. But those of us who think scientific naturalism is the most serious reason to doubt God will not agree with the short shrift science gets in Comte-Sponville’s account. We’ll find his emphasis on the mainstream philosophical tradition dubious, remembering how easy it is to turn this tradition into empty metaphysical handwaving and a handmaiden to theology.
  • It’s nice how Comte-Sponville reminds readers that “spiritual” practices and mysticism do not have to come with supernatural commitments. But some of us will remain cold, suspecting that there is good reason that mysticism so regularly comes attached to religious and often antiscientific attitudes.

Nonetheless, The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality is definitely worthwhile to read and to recommend. One reason is its tone. The recent crop of atheist bestsellers have attracted much criticism for their hostile attitude. Much of this criticism is unjust, not to mention knee-jerk. Still, the unfortunate stereotype of the angry atheist has ended up being reinforced. It would be very difficult to misread Comte-Sponville as being anything but the most sympathetic of critics.

More important, I should reiterate how reading the book is a very rewarding experience, because of the intriguing questions it raises throughout. If you want a solid introduction to scientific naturalism, pick up a copy of my Science and Nonbelief; for a more in-depth defense of scientific naturalism, see my The Ghost in the Universe. But even if you’re convinced by a naturalistic big-picture view of the world, that is only the starting point for many questions, a lot of them usually discussed in a context of “spirituality.” And here, I admit that the philosophical tradition is most useful in raising the right questions and exploring some possible paths. In that context, Comte-Sponville is an admirable guide.