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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Just Finished Reading: Spirituality for the Skeptic – The Thoughtful Love of Life by Robert C Solomon

I’m still not sure what to make of this book - which probably explains why I had to have two attempts at it. For months it has languished by the side of my bed half read and largely ignored. Only recently did I pick it up again to give it a second chance driven, largely, by the idea that I should really finish some of the books I’ve already started before embarking on any more.

I’ve read some of Robert Solomon’s scribblings before which prompted me to investigate this book. It probably helped that it had the word skeptic in the title – which actually is one of the things that confused me. The author, contrary to my previous readings and the title of the book didn’t seem all that sceptical about spirituality. Indeed it seemed to me that Solomon wanted his cake and then proceeded to eat it. It appeared, at least to me, that the author wanted the advantages of secular scepticism with all of the trappings of religion without the inconvenience of worship. In his attempted reconciliation of the philosophical with the religious (why I wonder would you want to do that?) he proceeded to not only bend over backwards to accommodate a type of spirituality in a seemingly (to my way of reading him) grey and lifeless universe but to tie himself in knots to reconcile the two. In his attempt to produce a sceptical spirituality he instead produced a meaningless mis-mash and mismatch of ideas that I frankly found largely incomprehensible.

What I think he was attempting to do, and singularly failed to do in my case, was to imbue various aspects of life with a spiritual essence in such a way that they would by-pass any of our normal sceptical guardians. In this attempt he cited passion, ‘cosmic trust’ and even rationality as spiritual aspects of life. In the synopsis on the back of the book it proposes that it “answers the need for a non-institutional, non-dogmatic spirituality that leads to personal fulfilment and satisfaction”. My question to this would be “”What need?” But beyond that I don’t think that Solomon answers his own question. By using (what I would consider) non-spiritual aspects of life or by extending them beyond their normal range of applicability he, in my mind, showed himself to be simply a drowning man in search of any non-religious lifebelts in a harshly secular ocean. He is a man desperately clutching at straws, a man who apparently sees his own secular beliefs as deeply lacking in some manner but one unwilling to abandon them completely forcing him to ‘bolt on’ aspects of spirituality that he finds acceptable. Although I don’t believe that his approach is dishonest I do think that his sceptical response (what I saw of it) was far too weak. From the way I read this book it seemed that Solomon was trying less to convince other sceptics of his case than his was trying to convince himself. Read as an exploration of one man’s need to square a particular circle it is an interesting case study. Read as a manifesto for spiritual scepticism it is, I’m afraid, an epic fail.

11 comments:

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

The term spirituality has so much baggage that it makes it difficult to discuss. When I think of someone who I consider spiritual I do not think in religious or supernatural terms. To me being spiritual means being grounded, connected with our fellow inhabitants on this big, blue ball. I tend to avoid the word spiritual for several reasons, one being the baggage, two being the false hope it may give some believers, thinking that they are close to bringing me back to the flock, three being the false belief that some believers may have in thinking that atheists are trying to have their cake and eat it too.

Now, don't get me wrong, I do think that some atheists may be trying to have their cake and eat it too, but I also understand that many atheists experience a sense of the numinous and are perhaps just trying to validate their experiences to those who would listen.

I might check this book out, but I'm not buying any new books until I finish the ones I own.

CyberKitten said...

mike said: The term spirituality has so much baggage that it makes it difficult to discuss.

Definitely. The author had to go a long way to define it as he wanted it defined....

mike said: To me being spiritual means being grounded, connected with our fellow inhabitants on this big, blue ball.

A good a definition as any....

mike said: I also understand that many atheists experience a sense of the numinous and are perhaps just trying to validate their experiences to those who would listen.

Indeed - if I understand what you mean by numinous.....

mike said: I might check this book out, but I'm not buying any new books until I finish the ones I own.

If only I had your strength of will.... OK, it *was* my birthday last week but I did still buy 6 books and receive another 7 as gifts..... [grin]

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

I have well over 50 books that I have purchased and not read yet. ;-)

Darn video games! ;-)

CyberKitten said...

mike said: I have well over 50 books that I have purchased and not read yet. ;-)

I think I have about 600-700... [grin] Fiction that is. Not sure about the non-fiction. At least another 200 or so......

Karla said...

Interesting. I must admit I have been baffled when I have explored atheists blogging communities and found people asking about how to maintain spirituality while being an atheist.

It would seem that there is something in us that just wants transcendence despite our intellectual views to the contrary.

I am woefully behind in reading this year. I have books I purchased last year, books from Christmas, and books from my birthday that I have yet to read. Then I went to this massive library book sale and bought more books! It was half price day and who could resist?

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

The extremely discounted books are the worst. It's so hard not to buy them, especially when you can get really good books for 50 cents!

CyberKitten said...

karla said: I must admit I have been baffled when I have explored atheists blogging communities and found people asking about how to maintain spirituality while being an atheist.

It could be people wanting their cake and eating it.... Or it could be that there is simply a wide understanding of the word 'spiritual'. Some people see love as spiritual.... others as the experience you get walking through a forest or watching a thunderstorm.....

karla said: It would seem that there is something in us that just wants transcendence despite our intellectual views to the contrary.

I think that there is a number of people who either need or want a transcendent experience. I don't think such a need, if it is in fact a need, exists in everyone. I think it is more likely to be an expected need that is taught to us - or not.

mike said: The extremely discounted books are the worst.

Very dangerous..... though i hardly think of the price of a book before I buy it these days...

dbackdad said...

Awe and wonder are fine, but "spirituality" definitely has too much baggage. It's hand in hand with mysticism. It's like anthropomorphizing animals or machines. It's a convenient and comfortable crutch, but that's all it is.

Karla said...

Spirituality comes from "spirit" or "Spirit" if there is no such thing the word ought to have no meaning to a naturalist. Transcendence cannot happen if all there is is natural and we are part of that natural.

Yet why would a desire evolve when it is impossible to attain the fulfillment?

CyberKitten said...

dbackdad said: Awe and wonder are fine, but "spirituality" definitely has too much baggage. It's hand in hand with mysticism.

It's definitely a label that should be used with great care and lots of caveats! It's just so open to interpretation and especially misinterpretation!

karla said: Spirituality comes from "spirit" or "Spirit" if there is no such thing the word ought to have no meaning to a naturalist.

Indeed. Taken outside of its supernatural context the word is essentially meaningless.

karla said: Transcendence cannot happen if all there is is natural and we are part of that natural.

Maybe not - but many people still want that kind of experience (even if they can't get the reality). That's why people take drugs, do sports and even have sex. All can give the *feeling* of transcendence without there being any reality to back it up.

karla said: Yet why would a desire evolve when it is impossible to attain the fulfillment?

Why not? Evolution has no plan, no direction and no objectives. There is nothing about evolution that I know of that could not produce in us desires we cannot ever fulfill.

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

karla said: "Spirituality comes from "spirit" or "Spirit" if there is no such thing the word ought to have no meaning to a naturalist."

Spirit literally means breath, which can be seen as the essence of life. There is definitely such a thing as breath. One could see spirituality as being full of life.