THE LITTLE BOOK OF ATHEIST SPIRITUALITY by André Comte-Sponville (Penguin Books, 2007 – translated by Nancy Huston)

I chanced upon this slim volume at the excellent Judd Books in Bloomsbury (a highly recommended source for bargain books if you are ever in this part of London).

I hadn’t heard of the book previously but it proved to be an inspired and inspiring purchase. It makes the case for atheism in a concise and intelligent manner whilst maintaining a tolerance for those who believe in God or some other supreme being.

André Comte-Sponville addresses this question from an overtly philosophical perspective so it is cogently reasoned with numerous quotes about faith and belief from heavyweight thinkers like Nietzsche, Kant, Spinoza and Wittgenstein.

These are not just chosen to make the writer look smart (although he plainly is!) but to illustrate that the big questions – ‘Can We Do Without Religion? ;  ‘Does God Exist?  – are far from new and can be answered in numerous ways.

These questions are the titles of two of the three chapters in the Frenchman’s guide for the perplexed, the third seeks to respond to the query: Can There Be An Atheist Spirituality?

Needless to say, his answers to these three points are, respectively, YES, NO and YES.

André Comte-Sponville

André Comte-SponvilleWhat I liked most about the book is the clarity and compassion of the arguments. Comte-Sponville is not a man to hide behind jargon, retreat into an ivory tower or sit on a high horse. Instead, he gently lures the reader into a civilised debate without feeling the need to rant or lecture on what is right and wrong. He is just as comfortable quoting from a Woody Allen movie as from some metaphysical tract of René Descartes.

Comte-Sponville is quick to acknowledge that religion has shaped our values and guided humankind’s concept of morality but also notes with impeccable logic that “Atheists are as liable to be virtuous as believers are liable not to be”. In other words, belief in God or an afterlife, has nothing to do with whether we choose to act kindly to others or not.

On this basis, he maintains that “Our primary duty, the one from which all others follow, is that of living and behaving humanly. Religion can neither guarantee that we do so nor exempt us from needing to do so”.

The invisibility of God is one of the main reasons Comte-Sponville became an Atheist in the first place, even though he was brought up as a good Catholic. Some will see this mysterious absence as, what he calls “divine discretion or supernatural tact” but he is not persuaded by this: “To claim that God conceals himself in order to protect our freedom is to posit that ignorance is one of the components of freedom, […..] Ineffability is not an argument. Silence is not a religion”.

The bottom line is how or why a supposedly all-powerful God should fail to intervene to prevent man-made horrors and why S/He should perpetually remain aloof in the face of natural disasters and crippling diseases.

Another strong argument is in response to the oft-quoted notion that we humans were created in God’s image. Comte-Sponville believes that as descendents of monkeys we have done pretty well but that to argue that we are potential mirror-images of a deity is laughable. He uses a contemporary example to illustrate the general mediocrity and inferiority of mankind: “Spend a single day surfing channels on television, and then in the face of so much stupidity, violence and vulgarity ask yourself the simple question, How can an omnipotent, omniscient being have wished for this?”

If this makes the writer sound like a snob or a misanthropist, nothing could be further from the truth. Seeing the weaknesses of fellow humans does not mean he loathes us or that he regards himself as superior.

He gets quite Zen-like in the final chapter in which he asserts that full awareness, and humble acceptance, of our surroundings is necessary to achieve peace of mind:“sensing nature in all its immensity is a spiritual experience  because it helps the spirit break free, at least partially, of the tiny prison of the self”.

Ultimately, therefore, he makes the strong case that it is a bloated ego, personified as the enemy of truth, reason and humility, which is more likely to be an obstacle to spiritual wellbing than the “objectively insoluble” question of whether there is, or is not, a God.

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