The Case for Spirituality


Militant atheism, as is proven by the works of Marx, Feuerbach and other Enlightenment thinkers, is not a recent phenomenon. During the last decades of the 20th century, a world where secularism led to indifference towards the holy saw the conflict between atheists and believers subside. However, following 9/11 and the dramatic increase of Islamic fundamentalism which ensued, the conflict re-entered our everyday discourse. This conflict was additionally fuelled by evangelical fundamentalism in the USA and the neoconservative politics of the self-declared ‘born-again Christian’ president Bush, who regularly qualifies his decisions on personally delivered divine injunctions.
From the large number of recent best-selling publications on atheism, I intend to focus on the following: Michel Onfray’s In Defense of Atheism, Christopher Hitchens’s God is Not Great, Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion and Sam Harris’s The End of Faith. There are three basic thematic orientations on which the debate is based: the discussion around the negative or positive effects of religion; the validity of logical/scientific proofs for God’s existence; and the evolution of religion.


According to the extreme claims of both Onfray and Hitchens (whose books have sold by the hundreds of thousands), religion is an illusion, if not a downright fraud. Priests, imams, rabbis, shamans etc. are nothing more than crooks who take advantage of peoples’ naivety and ignorance. In a particularly one-sided way, both authors focus their attention exclusively on the dysfunction and negative outcomes of religion: the brutality of the crusades, the sadistic Holy Inquisition, the religious wars in Europe, 9/11 etc.

The obvious criticism against this evidently partial approach is that there also exists a bright and positive side of religion. Brutality is only one side: civilization is the other. There’s the hatred and fanaticism against other religions, but there is also acceptance and universal love for other people. There are atrocities, but there is also sainthood. In other words, religion, as much as any other central institution with which people identify—state, community, family—has both negative and positive sides. No one would seriously propose the abolition of states, societies or science on the basis of their dysfunctions. Why should religion be any different?

Dawkins and Dennet obviously avoid the straightforward Manicheism of Onfray and Hitchens. They claim that religion’s effects can be as negative as they can be positive. According to Dawkins, however, not only are these positive effects significantly less important, but they are also insufficient proof of God’s existence—benefit and truth are two separate things. Fair enough. But try turning the argument around—as Dawkins fails to do—and you’ll see that it is equally the case that religious dysfunctions don’t prove God’s nonexistence.

Finally, Dennett is even more cautious. He supports the view that in order to appreciate the importance of both positive and negative effects we need more scientific, empirical research. My opinion on this matter is that, in order to determine what is useful and what is harmful in the relation between religion and society, we would have to take into consideration the historic and cultural context in which this develops. Specifically, what is a positive and what is a negative effect and how they are linked to each other is something that differs from one society to another. Even if a researcher focused on only one socio-economic and cultural framework, how can s/he possibly measure or value the fact that religion—independently of the existence or not of any deity—invests the lives of millions of believers with meaning? And in what way is this value undermined by the fact that the very same religion might be responsible for causing all sorts of guilts and neuroses to other believers?

As for the argument that religions play a significant role in strengthening the social status quo and are, thus, essentially conservative institutions, matters are equally complicated. As Weber has pointed out, many religious movements—especially in their nascent, charismatic phase—have a radical, revolutionary tendency. Even Marx has noted that religious movements can have both conservative and iconoclastic characteristics.


If negative or positive effects of religion cannot prove or disprove the existence of the divine, the same goes for the innumerable attempts to solve this problem through logic or scientific reason. Dennett supports the rather agnostic view that there are many concepts of God and that some of them lead to theories about his existence or nonexistence that are impossible to verify scientifically. This sort of agnostic approach—with which I agree—is not only found in theological texts, but also in the work of great thinkers such as Weber and Wittgenstein.

Dawkins tries to convince us that agnosticism can be overcome, since Darwin’s theory of evolution and its application in biology in particular provide us with convincing arguments for God’s nonexistence. In an oversimplified way, the basic tenet is that if there is a creature that has created the world, it must be even more complicated than the amazing complexity of the universe. The chances, then, of such a creature existing are miniscule. This argument, however, is hardly convincing. Why shouldn’t there be a creator more complex than the extremely complex universe?

Additionally, it is nonsensical to utilize a type of argument appropriate in understanding the natural world to prove or disprove the existence of a force that is by definition beyond this natural world. If God cannot be reached through rational thinking, as negative theology claims, then Dawkins’s reasoning—regardless of its theoretical rigor and validity—is out of place. Dawkins, of course, professes that there isn’t a supernatural dimension at all. This stance, nonetheless, is nothing more than a belief which, like other religious beliefs, cannot be scientifically verified.


Both Dawkins and Dennet rightly consider religious institutions and their progress to be similar to natural phenomena that can be analysed using historical and social research. This stance, of course, tells us nothing new: theology, psychology, anthropology and sociology of religion do exactly that. Both philosophers use Darwinian theory—in particular, the concepts of mutation and natural selection—in order to explain the evolution of species, in general, and religions in particular.

The central argument here is that religious practices change through mechanisms akin to natural selection: practices that are compatible with the evolving social and natural framework survive. Also, Dawkins introduces the concept of ‘memes’ in order to explain how religious institutions are perpetually reproduced. Like the multiplication of single genes that contributes towards the reproduction of a whole body, memes are multiplying ‘units of cultural inheritance’ or ‘memetic units’ that reproduce culture. The author, however, then goes on to mention that the multiplication of genes differs from that of memes. In any case, the concept of memes is not really stating anything novel. It is, actually, rather obsolete, since we are able to come up with an equally convincing explanation of the reproduction of culture using conventional methods known to anthropology and sociology. Both these disciplines show that cultural models are reproduced through a process of primary and/or secondary socialization.


As far as the evolution of species and religion is concerned, Darwin’s explanation is evidently much more convincing than other alternative theories that reject Darwinism and explain the infinite complexity of the world on the basis of Creationism or Intelligent Design. On the other hand, however, the explanatory superiority of the whole of Darwinian theory in no way leads to us to conclude that there is no God.

Theories have recently emerged, attempting to explain religion in a manner akin to explaining natural phenomena. These theories combine classical Darwinian evolutionary perspective with so-called cognitive science. The latter focuses on the structure of the human mind. For example, J.W. Huyssteen (Alone in the World?) considers religiosity an element that emerges progressively and is a fundamental attribute of human uniqueness; an attribute as elementary as symbolic language. D. Hay (Something There) elaborates on a similar argument. He claims that existing research in biological, psychological and social sciences has clearly shown that religious spirituality is an inherent characteristic of being human. It evolves through natural selection and it survives because it displays adaptability. Both Huyssteen and Hay believe that the uniqueness and wholeness of human religiosity confirm the existence of the divine.

Conclusively, science has limits. Neither now, nor in the future will it be able to prove the existence or non-existence of God. As science progresses, it may and, most likely, will provide more reliable explanations on how the natural world works. But it will hardly provide meaning to human life and it will never prove why one value is more important than or preferable to another. At the end of the day, scientific discourse itself is largely dependent on epistemological and ontological convictions that are scientifically unverifiable. Logocentrism, by ignoring these limits, leads to an obstinate, prejudiced and, often, totalitarian scientifism.


We have seen, then, that as far as the issue of the existence of God is concerned, the view most compatible with science and logical thinking is that of agnosticism. From the perspective of Ethics, both infidelity and faith can equally lead to authentic ways of life. The former leads to authenticity when the individual faces unequivocally and courageously the contingency of life and the inevitability of death. When this is not achieved, namely when the individual attempts to elude the angst of death through various escape mechanisms, then we cross over to non-authenticity (Heidegger).

Regarding religious authenticity, this is based on a non-dogmatic, open, direct relation with the other and with the divine. When the believer is attached to dogmas or when s/he prays expecting rewards (e.g. eternal life) then we are dealing with a mechanistic, unauthentic religiosity (M. Burber, E. Levinas). In other words, if religious authenticity is based on the spiritual and the transcendental erotic element, atheistic authenticity is based on the tragic, Promethean element. Prejudice, whether originating in religion or in science, undermines the principles and self-sufficiency of both these institutional spaces of our differentiated postmodern society.

Spirituality in our days occupies a space delimited by religious fundamentalism on one side and dogmatic atheism on the other. In the case of the former, we are witnessing an attempt to return to an idealized past—a past where religious values and beliefs enjoyed a ‘natural’ authority, namely they were predominant without the need for violence in any of social life’s areas. In post-traditional, thoroughly differentiated post-modern societies, because of secularism and individualism, this kind of total religious dominance can be achieved only through repressive mechanisms. It is obvious that a religiosity that is based on repression cannot but lead to an anti-spiritual, decadent way of life.

At the other end, militant atheism replaces the dominance of religion with that of science. Here, science knows no limits. It can potentially answer not only questions relating to the functioning of the world, but also solve ethical and existential problems. This sort of scientism leads to use of mass violence (as in the case of scientific Marxism in the U.S.S.R.) or to a barren and deeply anti-spiritual dogmatism.

The development of an authentic spirituality today—whether religious or secular—requires as its fundamental condition the overcoming of religious and scientific dogmatism.


Religious spirituality is not based on holy scripts, ceremonies or typified beliefs. In the mystic trends of all great religious traditions, spirituality is characterized by via negativa, namely the attempt to reach the divine without the use of semiotic categories, logical analysing or instrumental calculations. This is because, the more rationally one tries to approach God, the more one is distanced from Him. The divine is reached negatively, not affirmatively, namely through emptying the soul from all kinds of obstacles (passion, egoism, rationality) that limit and obstruct any direct contact between human and divine. The believer, through the development of ascetic practices such as praying, meditation, fasting etc., gradually becomes an empty container ready to receive grace. In other words, this approach leads to a non-instrumental, subliminally erotic relation between subject and God. It leads to an unconditional opening up of the believer, not only towards God but also towards other people.

The emphasis on the negative, as opposed to affirmative, plays a key role in the orthodox tradition of the Eastern Church (V. Lossky). To a lesser degree, in the guise of so-called negative theology, we encounter it in the Catholic and Protestant tradition. It is also known that elements of this negativity (in the wider sense) are also found in Islamic Sufism, Hinduism, Buddhism etc.

In today’s post-traditional context, the revival of religiosity doesn’t only take a fundamentalist, but also a spiritual shape. In a time when, thanks to globalization, religious dogmas are relativised (Robertson), people understand that no religion and no Church has a monopoly on truth. They also realise that while dogmas are divisive, experiences are uniting. In this new context then, religious spirituality has a great appeal to a number of people who are becoming less interested in consumption and more concerned with post-material values and attitudes (R. Inglehart); people who reject dogmatisms and nationalistic/religious vanities and, instead, turn to religion’s existential dimension. This is, of course, the dimension most emphasized in mystical theology and the tradition of monasticism. Nowadays, elements of this tradition—in a milder degree—are not confined to spiritual elites. They are open to everyone through meditation and similar practices.


Religion, in its positive version, promotes the development of spiritual aspects that are inherent in humans. Religion is, however, not only a medium for the advancement of spirituality. If religious spirituality is primarily focused on the relation of human and divine, then secular spirituality is focused on the relation of the subject to the Other. Here too, the negatory logic plays an important role.

I’m going to use as an example the work of Martin Buber. Buber, following a period of mystical and existential pursuit, developed a theory of ethics and spirituality in the centre of which lies the distinction between two types of relation: the “Me-It” relation and the “Me-You” relation. The first relation is based on an instrumental rationalism. The subject is related to someone else through negotiations whose ulterior motive is control and dominance. Contrary to this, in the case of the “Me-You” relation, the Other is not substantiated as an object, nor is s/m considered to be the extension of someone’s Ego. In this relation, the principal element is a mutuality in which the subject retains his/her autonomy whilst, simultaneously, opening up to and understanding the Other’s condition. It is in this kind of interpersonal space of open, non-abusive communication where the ethical and spiritual emerge. In negative terms, the ethical and spiritual don’t emerge out of holy scripts or Kantian rational analyses. Generally speaking, any attempt to codify, classify of rationalise (whether religiously or otherwise inspired) automatically prevents any sort of genuine encounter. And this is because every encounter is unique, unrepeatable. As such, it cannot be appropriated within any general category or concept. What is genuinely ethical and spiritual cannot be external, since it can only be brought about by the encounter itself.

This theory is close to that developed by Emmanuel Levinas. Levinas rejects the ‘foundationalism’ of rationalistic thought, namely the attempt to find moral principles based solely on unquestionable ontological or logical/scientific foundations. According to the philosopher, morality and goodness don’t emerge out of theological dogmas or from logico-inferential analyses. On the other hand, however, Levinas is opposed to post-modern moral relativism. The ethical and the spiritual emerge in a space where the subject reacts spontaneously to the Other’s demand for help. Goodness is the responsibility felt by a subject towards someone who is different, foreign and powerless.

From the above analysis it becomes evident that, for both Buber and Levinas, the ethical and the spiritual are not concomitant. When someone follows blindly a set of codified moral rules, s/he may appear ethical but s/he is not spiritual. The concept of ethical contains spirituality only when it is not forced, but internally inspired by a relation based on open communication. Finally, a third type of spirituality (that can assume both religious and secular forms) transposes the weight from interaction to introspection, namely from the relation of the self-Other to the relation of the subject with itself. We often find this kind of spirituality in the traditional Eastern religions, where meditation plays a central role.

In conclusion, spirituality is defined as the ultimate opposition to both religious fundamentalism and dogmatic atheism. In its religious form, spirituality develops from within a non-instrumental, non-logocentric, direct relation of human with the divine. As far as secular spirituality goes, it is based on a relation rid of any opportunistic, instrumental quests. Morality and spirituality cannot be imposed but, instead, spring out of a space of open, direct, unconditional contact. In our post-modern condition, the thirst for authentic spirituality (religious or not) leads away from dogmas, logical analyses and exploitative calculations. It leads to a negative logic that considers the overcoming of egocentric and logocentric obstacles as its fundamental condition for the person’s opening up to the divine, to the Other and/or to itself.

  • About

    Nicos Mouzelis is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics. His publications include Back to Sociological Theory and Sociological Theory: What Went Wrong?

    His essay 'The Case for Spirituality' appears in Bedeutung Magazine Issue 2/ Human & Divine, available here for purchase.