November 6, 2017

How to be a Spiritual Atheist.

I have an atheist friend.

He doesn’t commit to any religious belief system or institution, yet he considers himself to be spiritual. However, he has yet to find a way to sufficiently explain how he can be both an atheist and a spiritual person. He asked me these two questions, hoping I might help:

1. How does an atheist reconcile “spirituality” with a stark, reason-based philosophy?

2. Is it possible to be spiritual without being religious, or believing in deities?

Spirituality, as opposed to religion, is rooted in the notion that there is an immaterial reality—energy, for example—which is experienced as a result of our own existence, or being. Spirituality is not a belief in physical beings, like gods or goddesses, but a state of being in connection with something larger than oneself both immanently and transcendentally.

A spiritual life doesn’t require deities nor does it require adhering to a specific religious belief system. It’s possible for an atheist to view god as a non-deity, especially if god is conceived of as energy, and energy as spirit.

Atheists do not reject the notion that there is an immaterial reality (like energy), but they do reject belief in physical beings with supernatural powers. Atheists, like scientists reject religious dogma, superstition, and the pseudo-sciences practiced in more than 4,000 religious traditions worldwide—including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. All three of these religions’ adherents believe in and worship the God of Abraham, holding in common a belief in god as deity. For them, the God of Abraham is personal and anthropomorphic—a god that possesses human traits, emotions, and intentions. Their god is also a masculine god, entrenching their view in patriarchy. They view God as a noun.

However, these religions’ adherents also believe that god is a transcendent deity who exists outside of and apart from humanity, rather than being fully immersed in that which exists: the eternal realm of the spirit, or the field of energy that permeates all of existence.

For an atheist, it’s illogical to view god as a personal, anthropomorphic god who is also a transcendent deity that exists outside and apart from “existence.” However, an atheist can be spiritual—and remain rational at the same time—when god is seen and known as energy.

My friend wouldn’t dispute that existence, or being, consists of both energy and matter. All of existence is energy—even matter, which is simply a form of energy, or an observed expression of energy. Therefore, an atheist could logically understand a spiritual notion of god in these terms, with god conceived as being energy, but not as a being, since a being would imply individuality, or just a part of existence, rather than the whole of it.

In sum, by understanding spirit as energy, the animating force of the universe, an atheist can reconcile a spiritual life using science and a stark, rationality-based philosophy. The beauty of science is that the driver of any inquiry relies on being open to the magic and profundity of the unknown in order to come up with the questions that one might test using the scientific method—in essence, exploring the unknown in order to better know anything empirically about something is the terrain of science.

Our scientific understanding of energy (or god, for the sake of this argument), has revealed how intimately connected we are to that which is greater than any one of us—the cosmos. In the last century, scientists have discovered that all of existence is energy. Energy itself can neither be created nor destroyed, which is the first law of thermodynamics. Energy can only be transferred or changed from one form to another, but everything always remains energy. Energy is eternal. Transitively, if god is energy, then god too could be eternal.

The discipline of quantum physics has shown us that matter, and the atoms that matter consists of, are actually vortices of energy constantly spinning and vibrating. All matter in the universe, including every single one of us, is energy, radiating a unique energy signature, or spirit-energy. [1]

Most people practicing a spiritual life seek to intimately understand how our own “being” is deeply related to the totality of existence. In other words, we are far more than just our physical form. As more and more people become aware of the interconnected nature of our being, our experience of life becomes both immanent and transcendental—the essence of a spiritual experience.

The experience is immanent because it is directly experienced at the precise moment we become conscious of ourselves as being a part of a larger whole. It is transcendental because the moment our awareness shifts from the self to our interconnectedness, we transcend the solipsistic notion of the self and become conscious of that which is greater than I am.

The truth of what anything is, and who we are, boils down to an elegant fact: we are all energy, radiating our own unique energy signature. We are all spirit, radiating our own unique spiritual signature in a universe that consists wholly of energy.

My atheist friend can be spiritual simply by acknowledging a few scientific findings: everything is energy, and spirit or god are simply the words that we used a priori to science to describe what we already knew intuitively—that everything is one.



[1] Greene, Brian R. (2003). The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory.



Author: Dr. Matthew Wilburn King
Image: elephant archives, Orion Nebula Wikimedia Commons
Editor: Callie Rushton
Copy Editor: Catherine Monkman

Social Editor: Waylon Lewis

You must be logged in to post a comment. Create an account.

Dr. Matthew King Aug 1, 2018 9:59pm

Jed, Krystal, Travis, etc. Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts, I'm truly grateful. You can follow my most recent on my FB Author Page, which is here: http://www.facebook.com/drmatthewking If you'd like to be notified by email when new articles become available, you can sign up for my newsletter here: http://eepurl.com/dBwMWP Warmly, Matthew

Dr. Matthew King Jul 2, 2018 9:30pm

Thank you for your thoughtful comment Dallas. Indeed, we are all one; it is all one and separation is an illusion. Thank you for reading, I'm truly grateful. You can follow my most recent on my FB Author Page, which is here: http://www.facebook.com/drmatthewking If you'd like to be notified by email when new articles become available, you can sign up for my newsletter here: http://eepurl.com/dBwMWP Warmly, Matthew

Hermes Ocingeadh Jul 2, 2018 9:28pm

Krystal Garrison great words; I enjoyed reading your response. And, we do know what happens when we die; we return to the grand field of eternal energy from which we originated but no longer exist as matter in our current form. It's so elegant, and beautiful. As for the original question Jed asked; personally, I exist and experience a multitude of emotions in this human form, including joy, sorrow, anger, frustration, happiness, elation, fear, hope, etc. As with any human who practices any set of beliefs, the upside is simple - as a human I have a profound opportunity (once in a lifetime) to experience the full range of emotions that come with being human. And that my friend is the upside of being a 'spiritual atheist.' Another upside; if there is a heaven and if it is home to dogmatic, intolerant, and close minded Christians; I won't have to worry about being trapped with them for eternity : ) That's a pretty big upside.

Dallas Thornton Nov 8, 2017 7:10pm

Well written article, and an important conversation for the modern age if we hope to integrate belief systems peacefully. Holding onto dogma as the world becomes more interconnected creates friction that perhaps doesn't need to arise. I'm hopeful that humans can hold onto rich culture, tradition and wisdom brought to the table by religion through history, while finding a way to conclude, as this friend of the author did, that we are all one.

Travis May Nov 7, 2017 5:38pm

Is that how you would choose to be religious or atheist? By the upside of it? I would hope the decision is made based on our personal conviction of truth and what's real and helpful for our lives.

Krystal Garrison Nov 7, 2017 3:21pm

Great question, Jed. For me, personally, it knowing that every accomplishment I have is because of me. Because of what I've done to make it happen. It's seeing the results and knowing that I was responsible for them. Instead of "giving the glory to god", as it were, I recognize myself as the reason I was able to do something. But it goes beyond that. It's seeing the world around me and knowing that humanity can change things. It's knowing that "god's plan" doesn't dictate what happens and so we can make things better. We can change things we don't like. It also gives me a sense of peace knowing that, when I choose to help another person, I'm doing it because I want to help them. I have no motive of getting into heaven to make me be a good person. And while most Christians don't consciously do that, some only do good deeds out of fear of Hell. Which brings me to my final point. I don't fear death. I don't fear going to help. As a Christian, I was always afraid I wasn't good enough to get into heaven. I was afraid that I wouldn't live up to God's expectations. It was especially difficult whenever I felt doubts. I started to try to remove my doubts and learn more to strengthen my belief in God. Instead, the more I learned, the more I realized that the beliefs I held were illogical. I became a deist, than an agnostic, to finally realizing I am an atheist. And that it's ok to be. I don't know what there is for an afterlife. I don't know what happens when we die. But I still look at the universe in awe. I hope that answers your question somewhat. Each atheist will have their own answer to that question, though. But this is mine.

Read Elephant’s Best Articles of the Week here.
Readers voted with your hearts, comments, views, and shares:
Click here to see which Writers & Issues Won.

Dr. Matthew King

Dr. Matthew Wilburn King is an American author, international consultant, and “creative” residing in Boulder, Colorado. Matthew’s ultimate purpose in life is to live, love and learn. He has two decades of experience conducting research and development, leading projects, writing and delivering strategies in the fields of environmental governance, sustainable development, and social entrepreneurship. He’s worked for government, universities, non-profits and the private sector. He consults and advises leaders worldwide.

Matthew has been to every Continent on Earth with the exception of Antarctica, completed expeditions to over 30 countries, lived in five and studied and conducted research in four—completing his Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge.

He has published academic and popular literature for the BBC, Journal of Biological Conservation, Marine Policy Journal, Earth Island Journal, World Watch Institute, U.N. Environment Program, U.N. Peacebuilding Commission, One Earth Future Foundation, U.S. Department of State, NOAA Research, Boulder Magazine, Mantra Magazine Yoga + Health, among others, as well as given talks around the world. He was 1/365 Authors selected to contribute to Global Chorus: 365 Voices on the Future of the Planet alongside Dr. Jane Goodall, Nelson Mandela, The 14th Dalai Lama, Stephen Hawking, Maya Angelou, Justin Trudeau, and others.

He is a former US Presidential Management Fellow, a Founding Member of the Environmental Peacebuilding Association, a post-graduate Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, a Kinship Conservation Fellow, and a Fellow of the Cambridge Philosophical Society. He is the Founder, President, and Chairman of the COMMON Foundation, serving people, planet, and peace. His biggest journey, thus far, has been his current one, from head to heart. You can find him here at COMMON Foundation, King’s Newsletter, King’s Creations, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Amazon Author Profile