A deeply spiritual non-believer

You may have noticed I haven't posted anything in a while. More likely, you didn't notice because you were busy eating goldfish crackers and going to raves. My excuse is that my computer is not working right now, so I've been relegated to surfing the interwebs with my phone, which makes blogging kind of difficult. Actually it makes a lot of things difficult, like, I dunno, paying my bills. Anygay, I'm typing this on a friend's computer, but updates will be sporadic until my computer is fixed and assing kick.

Where was I? Ah yes. Spirituality. Since I can't watch anything involving Flash on my phone (which lamely includes Netflix, which I'd just signed up for mainly to use the streaming player), I've been watching a lot of TED Talks on Youtube... or rather listening, since I'm usually doing technical exercises on my guitar while the talks are playing. I listened to a particularly interesting one on love by Helen Fisher (whom I've never heard of, but she's a smart cookie). It got me thinking about the "spiritual" nature of love and the way faith-oriented people sometimes like to challenge blasphemous apostates like yours truly with inane queries like, "How can you explain love?"

I realize that I still have some pretty poignant traces of my spiritual sociocultural upbringing. And really, being an atheist doesn't change my innate desire to experience self-transcendence or nebulously quantified things like love. The last time I was in love, I couldn't help but think of her as my "soulmate". I loathe the term for its quasi-spiritual implications, but it aptly described the bond that I felt. And when I'm engrossed in my guitar playing, listening to music or watching a sunset, I can't help but describe these things in spiritual ways.

The late Leo Buscaglia is one of my favorite authors. He literally wrote the book on love - called, creatively, Love. In it, he tries to encapsulate the importance of love, its innumerable varieties, its centrality to our experiences, and how we ought to approach it. His writing has been powerfully influential to my own thinking, in terms of how I approach relationships (and friendships) and deal with heartbreak. But he never quite gets around to quantifying what exactly love is, which is what Helen Fisher is interested in doing.

So in the spirit of every alien in every episode ever of the original Star Trek series, what is this "love"? What the are all these things we describe as spiritual experiences? Is our inability to rigidly quantify these emotions an indication that there is something truly transcendent of our universe? I don't think so. I think of "love" as a word that can have such a broad scope of meanings that without context, it's a nearly useless term. Most of us have been in a relationship where, in its final throes, we would say (or be told) "I love you" - but it was dry, routine, and passionless. We've likely also been in relationships where saying (or being told) "I love you" was equally vacuous, but the other way - it was infatuous, steeped in excitement and sexual passion, but lacking a more substantive emotional connection. The former relationships tend to wither piece by piece; the latter crash and burn as fitfully as they started. But sometimes, when you say "I love you", it's a sense of a deep connection, a sense of a strong friendship out of which passion springs forth rather than quivering perilously underneath. It's an expression of a range of emotions - of trust, of hope, of affection, of forgiveness, of patience.

This is usually the point at which I would launch into some detached methodological explanation of the biological chemistry that controls our emotions, just to stick it to all the gurus and theologians who can't fathom these mysteries as anything but evidence of the supernatural. But that's not really my point, and frankly unless someone has an aversion to using Google, there's no excuse for claiming these emotions to be metaphysical while being ignorant of the research done that does reduce our emotional states to our tortuously evolved biological hard-wiring. The question is, I suppose, whether our steadily improving ability to successfully quantify these things in any way reduces them. Does the fact that I attribute my emotional experiences to my biology, rather than some sort of quasi-spiritual mystery, in any way reduce their depth or salience to me? Of course not. In fact, it's really the opposite.

I read a great (and famous) book a couple of years ago called The Naked Ape, by the zoologist Desmond Morris. There's a whole chapter dedicated to sex. He describes, in a remarkably mechanistic fashion, the entire process of sexual arousal and intercourse. He later goes on to link these experiences to our culture at large (which is fascinating), which is why the descriptiveness is so important, but his dry exposition doesn't pop in my head when I'm actually having sex. When I'm touching a woman, I don't think, "Hmm, her skin temperature appears to be rising, indicating that she is becoming aroused..." Understanding the process in no way diminishes the experience; on the contrary, it's made me more keen on the subtle details that enhance it.

Similarly, I don't think that we ought to be afraid of using science to acquire a better understanding the emotional processes we've traditionally attribute to spirituality. Nor do I think that as an atheist, I have any reason to attempt to purge my vocabulary of the quasi-supernatural terminology. Spirituality is still, for me, a very important thing. Transcendence and love are still very important things. But I can still understand these experiences in a rational context. And I believe that by doing so, by understanding what they really are and how they really work, I can learn to experience them in even deeper and more powerful ways.


  1. Mike,

    It sounds like what you're saying is that it is rational to bask in experiences which are artifacts of evolutionary adaptation if and when it's the case that you arbitrarily deem it to have some super-scientific deeper meaning.

    For example, we know that couple bonding and the emotional syndromes therein associated, are simply the consequences of millions of years of the evolutionary struggles of primitive populations. In this day and age the survival of the individual, nor the survival of the species, depend on the evolutionary artifact that some refer to as romantic love. Shoot, if we want to perpetuate our biology, we can just go down and donate at a sperm bank. Our emotional illusions called love have no meaning except for the individual's subjective experience and perhaps some unspecified contribution to perpetuating our geneology. To choose to bask in our delusions of love in light of these facts is simply self-indulgent and unrational.

    Of course, I don't agree with the argument above, but it is an interesting take...


  2. oops! please correct unrational to irrational! I'm getting old.


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