Today's guest post covers a topic that I have contemplated many times: the idea that valuing elements of spirituality and valuing evidence based information are not in conflict with each other. Vi La Bianca, creator of the blog "Author of Confusion," lays out a really fascinating argument that both defines spirituality and illustrates the physical manifestation of it.
CN: theoretical discussion of God and religion
When I tell people I am an atheist witch, the reaction is always one of confusion. Apart from being the stuff of Christian nightmares, it seems at first glance that these identities have nothing in common. If anything, they seem to be polar opposites. Atheists are often seen as overly pedantic killjoys who suck the magic out of everything. Witches are known as ridiculous fairytale creatures who defy natural laws with arcane spells. How can a person be both?
As much as I enjoy defying stereotypes, the incredulity can get a bit tiring. On the one hand, I’m far too spiritual to be a true skeptic; the minute I tell other atheists I am a witch, I risk being laughed out of the conversation on the spot. On the other hand, I’m not nearly spiritual enough to be a practitioner of witchcraft; my willingness to subject my beliefs to skeptical reasoning reads as a lack of reverence to magical folk. So how do I explain the intersection of spirituality and skepticism in a way that minimizes cognitive dissonance while illustrating the benefits such a worldview offers?
Why Should Atheists Care About Spirituality?
For a long time, I struggled with cognitive dissonance: I had disavowed the supernatural while also practicing witchcraft. I knew that my rituals felt right, that my deconversion from Christianity had left me with a void that my practice was somehow filling. I also knew that I no longer believed in the supernatural and that I had to admit that to myself if I was going to live an intellectually honest life.
I wasn’t alone in my struggle. Many atheists I speak with share a yearning for some kind of spiritual practice, especially those who left religion behind. We were aware we could experience the transporting joy of communal worship, ecstatic participation in ritual, a sense of connection with something greater than oneself. The practice of such rituals felt good, addictive, natural in a way we could no longer explain (back then, we simply called it God). Now that skepticism informs our worldview and rejects supernatural precepts, where should we turn for that experience? Must we swear off it altogether, denying our concrete, physical capacity to feel such things?
For we do experience what we call “spirituality,” deeply and acutely. Why? What is its purpose? As a witch, I believe spirituality is a meaningful part of the human existence, something we must practice and nurture to thrive, and as an atheist, I believe it is also completely natural, a result of our evolutionary psychology, and can be engaged without violating the tenets of materialism, as I’ll discuss later. As someone committed to growing the number of non-religious people in the world, I believe making spirituality compatible with a skeptical worldview will drastically increase the number of people who feel comfortable identifying as atheist.
Redefining An Undefinable Word
If I’ve learned one thing from conversations about spirituality, it’s that people don’t know what it is. It’s so broad and applied across such a huge spectrum of world-views that it has been effectively undefined. We’ve all heard theists use it to explain their connection to God while distancing themselves from the problematic dogma of a particular faith: “I am spiritual, not religious.” It has been used as a catch-all in the consciousness-raising circles of second-wave feminism and the barefoot neo-pagans of the 1970s and ‘80s. We could probably agree that spirituality entails “something more” but that’s about it. Where it originates, why it’s important, how to pursue it, the answers to these questions differ from person to person.
The word “spirituality” originated within Christian theology, from the Latin spiritualitas, and was taken to mean having the Spirit of God dwelling within you. So already we have an issue: just like much of our lexicon, this word was built by a particular group of people and therefore comes preloaded with their suppositions and inherent assumptions about the world. Just as they did with every other seemingly inexplicable natural phenomenon, Christians attributed this experience to God. These inferred theological undertones of the word “spirituality” could be why so many atheists recoil from it, even though very few people use it in the way the early Christians ever intended.
More recently, a series of interviews with 33 Canadian millennials revealed that “spirituality” is generally contrasted with “materiality,” which takes God out of the picture while still clinging to the supposed dichotomy of spirit and flesh. But this definition remains unsatisfactory, both for many atheists and for many witches. One group doesn’t accept the existence of a spiritual realm, and the other doesn’t accept that they are contrasted: the spiritual is the material, and vice versa.
Christina Puchalski, MD, Director of the George Washington Institute for Spirituality and Health, says, “Spirituality is the aspect of humanity that refers to the way individuals seek and express meaning and purpose and the way they experience their connectedness to the moment, to self, to others, to nature, and to the significant or sacred.” This definition feels like it’s getting closer: at least there is no direct allusion to a realm beyond the material. But it’s also very broad, saying everything and nothing at once. What is an “aspect of humanity” anyway? What creates this sense of “connectedness”?
I have yet to find a suitable definition for this undefinable word. In order to get a clear understanding of “spirituality,” we must strip the assumptions of origin and purpose from the experience and get to the core of what it is on a material level.
Spirituality As Measurable Environmental Reaction
Imagine you are on the Formula Rossa roller coaster, plunging down a 166-foot drop at 150 miles an hour. Chances are, you’re going to be screaming, and no wonder: your body thinks it’s about to die. In response to this incredibly stressful situation, your brain releases a crazy hormone cocktail of adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine into your bloodstream. Grunge writer Albert Lakey explains:
“Between them, they stimulate a series of ‘valuable’ physical reactions. Adrenaline and norepinephrine are released almost immediately after you become aware of the threat, and together they raise your heart rate, concentrate blood flow towards muscles, lungs, and the brain, give you a boost of energy, and make you more alert and focused. Cortisol arrives a bit more slowly, and helps regulate body functions while under stress.”
While all this is going on, you’re also surrounded by other people screaming, which “increases activity in the brain’s auditory centers — where sound coming into the ears is processed. But the scans also lit up in the amygdala, the brain’s fear center.” Hearing other people scream makes you more afraid, says PBS science writer Nsikan Akpan, but also might increase your enjoyment of the experience: “This is because stimulating the amygdala increases not only adrenaline but also natural painkillers called endorphins that create sensations of pleasure.”
In short, you’ve initiated a deep, inherited, physiological and psychological reaction by suspending your rationality — your logical brain knows you aren’t actually going to die — and engaging in an activity that will offer you a heightened experience. We seek out such experiences because we were evolutionarily programmed to have them. Perhaps we no longer need this reaction to survive on a day to day basis —we are no longer surrounded by dangerous wild animals and other life-threatening situations that require these specific bodily functions to survive. But the function is still there, and it enriches our experience to elicit it.
Is it logical to be afraid for your life on a roller coaster? No. Is anyone going to suggest that feeling fear on a roller coaster is a result of a lack of rationality? Probably not.
Now, let’s take this metaphor and apply it to what we call “spirituality.” Like stress, spiritual experiences flood the brain with chemicals. A few years ago, neuroradiologist Jeff Anderson put 19 young-adult members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints in an fMRI machine while they were “feeling the Spirit.” It turns out “religious and spiritual experiences activate the brain reward circuits in much the same way as love, sex, gambling, drugs and music.” Meanwhile, Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist, and author of books such as The Metaphysical Mind: Probing the Biology of Philosophical Thought, was doing a similar experiment with various types of meditation and prayer.
Newberg noted increased activity in the limbic system, which regulates emotion, as well as decreased activity in the parietal lobe, the part of the brain responsible for orienting oneself in space and time: “When this happens, you lose your sense of self. You have a notion of a great interconnectedness of things. It could be a sense where the self dissolves into nothingness, or dissolves into God or the universe.”
Spirituality, therefore, seems to be a measurable, quantifiable, physical experience that can be evoked using physical actions: meditation, prayer, worship, ritual, singing, dancing, etc. There is debate among evolutionary psychologists regarding the purpose of spirituality: it could be a pattern-seeking survival tactic, the development of cognitive imperative rituals in order to better procreate and feed ourselves, or the need for strong communities to survive in an ancient, tribalistic society.
Regardless of why nature decided we needed this function, we have it. It’s as “real” as any other brain event, and something we should be free to pursue for the same reason we ride roller coasters: to gain a heightened experience, to connect with our primitive origins, to remember that we are much deeper and more complex than anyone — Christian, atheist, or witch — gives us credit for.
How To Pursue Spirituality In A Rational Way
Once we realize that spirituality is a physical experience with evolutionary origins, the next step is to figure out how to practice spirituality in a rational, healthy way. Because there are irrational, unhealthy ways to do this.
Living in pursuit of a single kind of experience will result in an unbalanced, distracted life, whether that experience is an adrenaline rush or a spiritual high. Placing life-or-death importance on spiritual experience — such as the salvation of one’s immortal soul — robs it of its pleasurable effects and turns it into a weapon of self-harm. Indulging in spiritual experience with guilt or cognitive dissonance — as many atheists do — is self-defeating. Instead, the goal should be to practice spirituality in a way that allows you all the pleasurable, stabilizing benefits when you need them while divorcing logic from the equation. It simply isn’t about logic.
This is where my witchcraft comes into play. As a witch, I practice spirituality through the use of tools, rituals, and mindfulness. I play with my brain, tickling it with the lighting of candles, calming it with the inhaling of incense, stimulating it with a chant or silencing it with meditation. This helps me to distract myself from unhelpful thoughts or negative emotions, gives me an altered perspective of my surroundings, and inspires positive interactions. The increase of emotionality from a stimulated limbic system might let me break out of a repressed mood and be more engaged with those around me; the decreased activity in my parietal lobe might help me stave off a panic attack and focus on the task at hand. No God or soul required.
My logical brain knows these rituals are me hacking into my own brain, in the same way it knows I stand a pretty good chance of walking off a roller coaster unharmed. But this logic doesn’t affect my animal brain — that ancient part of me that is still susceptible to irrationality, hormonal fluctuations, magical thinking, that part of the brain that we all have, regardless of how enlightened or skeptical we are.
I’ve written extensively on the personal and social benefits of promoting atheism, and acknowledging this new definition of spirituality may have positive real-world consequences. According to a 2018 Pew Research survey, about 10% of U.S. adults identify as atheist. But another 36% reject classical theism in preference of a “spiritual force.” If the positive experience of spirituality is denied to atheists because it conflicts with skepticism, of course fewer people are going to embrace such a worldview.
But if we can marry the two, if we were allowed to reject God and the supernatural without losing the spiritual component of our lives, how many would identify as atheist? Could it be possible that we would close the gap between believers and non-believers in America to within a few percentage points? This would mean greater secular representation in both social and political arenas, and increased equity and tolerance for those who do not ascribe to a particular faith.
Imagine the world we could create if we harnessed the dual power of spirituality and skepticism: one that appreciates aesthetics and accuracy, rituals and resources, meditation and materialism, chanting and fact-checking, and above all the astounding complexity of the human brain.
About the Guest Blogger: Vi La Bianca (aka Author of Confusion) is a queer atheist witch currently residing in Columbus, OH. She discusses the intersection of these identities on her blog (authorofconfusion.com) and on Twitter (@authorconfusion). She is also the founder of Atheist Membership for Equitable Nominations (AMEN), an activist group dedicated to increasing political representation for nonreligious individuals. In her free time, she enjoys mixology, yoga, candle-making, and axe-throwing.