I'm no PollyAndy. I know about suffering in life. I've seen, shared, and experienced a fair amount myself. I know that some lives are too short, that unfair things happen, and that it sometimes seems like the world is headed for doom. So why title a Forum Discussion "Joyful Atheism"?

First of all, it seems like "positive atheism" is taken. There also seems to be a disagreement as to whether positive atheism means "I'm positive there are no gods" vs. "I have a positive attitude about my atheism". "Joyful" is less ambiguous, and only has 130 google matches, as opposed to a few hundred thousand.

Since I'm making up the term here, or at least taking ownership, what would it mean to describe a worldview of joyful atheism? How does a joyful atheist view life?

First, since it we have the word "atheism", it means taking joy in the absence of deity. None of those obnoxious, amoral, evil, arbitrary, narcissistic, illogical gods. No raining down on the earth with fire. No apocalypse. No being punished with eternal torture, just for not being able to guess which deity to beleive, and which set of impossible rules to follow regarding that deity's demands. Replace that with, This is the one life. We get to decide how to live it. No more wondering, "what did I do to deserve this" when things go wrong. Instead, learning to make the best of it. Let the clouds drift away, open the curtains, let the sun shine on our lives.

No more letting politicians suck up to self-proclaimed priests and ministers. Instead, calling them on whether they are serving the people.

No more waste of money and time, going to temples and rituals. Instead, choosing to use our resources in ways that we choose.

No more accepting what "is". Instead, thinking about how to create, and change, and taking our fate into our own hands.

Joyful Atheism would not mean accepting religious bullshit. It just means not letting it take countrol of our lives, or occupy our minds to the exclusion of finding our own happiness. Joyful Atheism means choosing our battles, for ones that we can win, or at least make a meaningful difference. Joyful Atheism means finding joy in the beauty of nature, the awesome spectacle of the cosmos, the joy of language and words, the excitement of discovery. Joyful atheism means friendships and love, where we can. Joyful athesim means treating and curing illness. Religion doesn't do that. Joyful atheism means learning how to be healthy, and knowing how to play.

Joyful Atheism means seeing reality, but not letting the negative control us. Joyful Atheism means spreading the joy.

How about some comments on how, or why to be joyful? Some examples? We have no shortage of complaining, no small amount of criticizing. We also need a place for some bliss.

Then go out and watch the wind blow in the branches, listen to some birds sing, or putter around the yard! Dig in the garden, hike in the woods, read a good book, go dancing!

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There is an interesting book called The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality. The first part discusses the reasons why the writer doe not believe in god. The second part is his take on how one can be an atheist and spiritual.

Here's a review of Andre Comte-Sponville's The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality. It was written by Tom Clark, founder and director of the Center for Naturalism:

The Case for Naturalistic Spirituality
Because most folks are dualists, the idea of naturalistic spirituality still seems a contradiction in terms. Spirituality is generally thought to involve "higher planes," souls, spirits, and other supernatural phenomena. How can naturalists, including atheists, take spirituality seriously without violating a core tenet of their worldview, that no separate supernatural realm exists? Very easily, as Andre Comte-Sponville artfully argues in The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality. Spirituality properly understood has nothing essentially to do with the supernatural, and is far too important a matter to leave to religionists and new-agers. To do so would have naturalists ignore central questions of life’s meaning and purpose, of how we can best live together given the ultimate nature of things, and what our relation to that nature is. None of this requires or implies god.

This book is a delight and inspiration, without the least condescension or self-seriousness, beautifully direct, personal, touching, and profound. Comte-Sponville writes with the ease and assurance of someone who has thought deeply on these matters, and indeed he’s been writing and speaking for years on godless spirituality. The Little Book is the distillation of his wisdom, which is heir to both West (Spinoza, Pascal, Nietzsche, Sartre, Wittgenstein and some modern French philosophers unknown to most American readers) and East (Buddhism, Zen, Taoism, Vedanta). Although he has no animus against faith, so long as it’s not imposed, his primary objectives in the book’s three chapters are to show that 1) we don’t need theistic religion for a viable ethics or community, 2) there are good reasons to believe god, traditionally conceived, doesn’t exist, and 3) spiritual experience is a naturalistically valid mirror of basic existential truths. We are embedded in an impersonal, self-subsistent, untranscendable and value-less reality – Spinoza’s Nature, the All – therefore values and meaning are human-relative affairs. But understanding and feeling that we are rooted in an ultimately mysterious non-human absolute can, by temporarily stripping away the self, afford us the peak spiritual experience of immanent unity. Naturalistic spirituality shows us that our lives, finite, conditioned and purposeful, open into the eternal, unconditioned and purposeless.

Living in the post-modern, irreligious age (at least in France!), we must, he says, avoid the twin temptations of sophistry, that truth has no claim on us, and nihilism, that morality has no claim on us (Nietzsche: “Nothing is true, everything is allowed”). We are therefore enjoined to follow the Enlightenment in its insistence that there are truths and ethics to be had independent of religion. These are secured by fidelity, fidelity to rationalism: “to reason, to mind, to knowledge,” and to a progressive, practical humanism: “Our primary duty…that of living and behaving humanly.” Because impersonal nature affords us no recourse, this is a contingent, fallible project, but for that reason all the more worth pursuing:

Nothing can guarantee the triumph of peace and justice or even any irreversible progress. Is that any reason to stop fighting for these things? Of course not! On the contrary, it is a powerful reason to go on paying the utmost attention to life, peace, justice…and our children. Life is all the more precious for being rare and fragile. Justice and peace are all the more necessary, all the more urgent, because nothing can guarantee their ultimate victory. (54)

Comte-Sponville provides a concise survey of the traditional arguments for god and their insuperable shortcomings, then goes on to give additional reasons for why it’s very likely (although not ultimately provable) that god doesn’t exist: there’s no good evidence he does; the untoward amount of evil and suffering in the world; the sheer mediocrity of the human animal (is such a creature the best god could do?), and the fact that theistic beliefs so patently conform to our deepest wishes. That god is all-good, and provides us with everything we could possibly want, is an excellent reason to suspect he does not exist! Given these reasons for doubt, it’s of the first importance that society keep church and state separate, allowing space for the right not to believe. He ends the second chapter saying:

Freedom of thought is the only good that is perhaps more precious than peace, for the simple reason that, without it, peace would simply be another name for servitude.

The book contains much that’s personal to the author, which makes good reading and good sense. After all, even if they are informed by philosophies and traditions, spiritual matters are deeply personal – they are one’s own grappling with meaning and existence. In the 3rd chapter, he describes a transformative mystical experience that, as he puts it, let him finally understand what as a philosopher he’d been lecturing and writing about all these years. The elements of the experience are described as suspensions – suspensions of thought, of time, of the ego, “the tiny prison of the self.” This permits an opening into the self-less present:

What a relief, when the ego gets out of the way! Nothing remains but the All, with the body, marvelously, inside of it, as if restored to the world and itself. Nothing remains but the enormous thereness of being, nature and the universe, with no one left inside of us to be dismayed or reassured, or at least no one at this particular instant, in this particular body, to worry about dismay and reassurance, anxiety and danger… (149)

He points out that mystical experiences and the spirituality they express and inspire make a personal god, holding out hope for future salvation, unnecessary. Nature, being, the all, the absolute, reality (he says use whichever word suits you) is immediately sufficient, present and perfect, that is, without defect. Faith, belief, dogma, hope and fear play no role, so religion in the traditional sense becomes irrelevant. Nor is there any conflict between our best analytical and empirical modes of knowing – what we can pin down about nature – and the personal existential realizations stemming from experiences of unity. Such spirituality has nothing to fear from science.

All told, Comte-Sponville, a true humanist and universalist, gives us a philosophically and anecdotally rich account of how those without faith can remain authentically ethical and engaged in life, even as it opens onto infinity. The human project is part of reality, but in no sense does it encompass reality, which rather encompasses us in its mystery. We have to make our peace with this, perhaps even find fulfillment in the fact we aren’t the measure of nature. Naturalists looking for enlightenment will find in this book an inspiring, profound expression of the spiritual possibilities inherent in their worldview.

My favorite is the following passage from Robert G. Ingersoll

"When I became convinced that the Universe is natural -- that all the ghosts and gods are myths, there entered into my brain, into my soul, into every drop of my blood, the sense, the feeling, the joy of freedom. The walls of my prison crumbled and fell, the dungeon was flooded with light and all the bolts, and bars, and manacles became dust. I was no longer a servant, a serf or a slave. There was for me no master in all the wide world -- not even in infinite space. I was free -- free to think, to express my thoughts -- free to live to my own ideal -- free to live for myself and those I loved -- free to use all my faculties, all my senses -- free to spread imagination's wings -- free to investigate, to guess and dream and hope -- free to judge and determine for myself -- free to reject all ignorant and cruel creeds, all the 'inspired' books that savages have produced, and all the barbarous legends of the past -- free from popes and priests -- free from all the 'called' and 'set apart' -- free from sanctified mistakes and holy lies -- free from the fear of eternal pain -- free from the winged monsters of the night -- free from devils, ghosts and gods. For the first time I was free. There were no prohibited places in all the realms of thought -- no air, no space, where fancy could not spread her painted wings -- no chains for my limbs -- no lashes for my back -- no fires for my flesh -- no master's frown or threat -- no following another's steps -- no need to bow, or cringe, or crawl, or utter lying words. I was free. I stood erect and fearlessly, joyously, faced all worlds.

"And then my heart was filled with gratitude, with thankfulness, and went out in love to all the heroes, the thinkers who gave their lives for the liberty of hand and brain -- for the freedom of labor and thought -- to those who fell on the fierce fields of war, to those who died in dungeons bound with chains -- to those who proudly mounted scaffold's stairs -- to those whose bones were crushed, whose flesh was scarred and torn -- to those by fire consumed -- to all the wise, the good, the brave of every land, whose thoughts and deeds have given freedom to the sons of men. And then I vowed to grasp the torch that they had held, and hold it high, that light might conquer darkness still.



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