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Spiritual or atheist? More nonbelievers are saying ‘both.’

Why We Wrote This

In a letter up for auction, Albert Einstein talked about admiring “in humility the beautiful harmony of the structure of the world.” More nonbelievers say they are seeking that sense of awe. What does spirituality look like when separated from faith?

Jae C. Hong/AP
Humanist chaplain Bart Campolo, a former evangelical Christian youth minister, shown in 2015 at University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Mr. Campolo is now the humanist chaplain at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio and a ‘community builder’ for self-described religious humanists.

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Americans have long been uneasy with those who say they don’t believe in God. As a whole, in fact, Americans have consistently reported that they view atheists with more suspicion than any other group.

A decade ago, the public face of atheism was dominated by a cadre of aggressive and media-savvy thinkers who were cheekily dubbed “the four horseman” – including Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens – who often ridiculed traditional faith as “childish.”

But as the number of atheists and religious “nones” continues to rise, they are in fact wildly diverse, observers say, and many who say they don’t believe in God also consider themselves spiritual, and in some cases, even religious.

Bart Campolo, the humanist chaplain at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio, says the challenge now is to try to build communities for Americans who don’t believe in God, rooted in humility and compassion. “We should pursue lovingkindness not because God commands it, or because we’ll go to heaven if we do it, but rather, we should pursue lovingkindness because it’s the most sensible way of trying to flourish as a human being.”

In the summer of 1945, Albert Einstein typed a note to a young ensign stationed aboard a U.S. aircraft carrier out in the Pacific, responding to the passionate letter he’d received from him the month before.

A Jesuit priest had told the ensign he had convinced the famous physicist to believe in “a supreme intellect who governs the world.” The ensign was shocked, and he wrote to Einstein to offer a number of arguments against such an idea.

In his reply, a letter that is up for auction at Bonhams in New York, Einstein dismisses the tale, saying that from “the viewpoint of a Jesuit priest I am, of course, and have always been an atheist.” The “anthropomorphical concepts” in religion are “childish analogies,” he wrote.

As an artifact of America’s religious history, there is something familiar in the tone of these two atheists: the earnestness, the certainty, the near mocking tone toward “childish” religious beliefs.

But Einstein also closed his letter with a sentiment that is often overlooked in the complicated and, in fact, wildly diverse landscape of American nonbelief, including atheism and its less strident cousin, agnosticism. And many see his closing sentiment as really quite spiritual:

“We have to admire in humility the beautiful harmony of the structure of the world – as far as we can grasp it. And that is all,” wrote the physicist who changed the course of human history.

Americans have long been uneasy with those who say they don’t believe in God. As a whole, Americans have consistently reported that they view atheists with more suspicion than any other group, whether ethnic, racial, or religious – including Muslims. Even as the country has become, overall, more tolerant and more accepting of other faith traditions, atheism has long remained the conspicuous exception.

A decade ago, the public face of atheism was dominated by a cadre of aggressive and media-savvy thinkers who were cheekily dubbed “the four horsemen” – the biologist Richard Dawkins, the philosopher Daniel Dennett, and the cultural critics Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens – who railed against the “God delusion” and ridiculed traditional faith and piety as “childish analogies.”

But as with many religious communities – or in this case, areligious communities – the voices that often dominate the digital pulses of modern media often belie the steady hum of people’s daily lives and lived beliefs, and the wide range of historic institutions and moral commitments in which American nonbelievers have been more likely to express humility, compassion, and lovingkindness.

“Those who are theists tend to conflate nontheism, atheism, humanism – they don’t see that there is a spectrum of differing perspectives,” says Anne Klaeysen, a leader in the New York Society for Ethical Culture and the humanist chaplain at New York University. “And on the other hand, we have what I call fundamentalist atheists, who look at all theists as the same.”

“I am not a big fan of the so-called new atheists,” she continues. “They lack an intellectual and a moral humility about the world and about people’s beliefs.”  

Platform address on the ‘God letters’

On Sunday, the “platform address,” aka “sermon,” at the Society for Ethical Culture, a nontheistic community founded in 1876, was a meditation on another of Einstein’s “God letters,” Ms. Klaeysen says. In this letter (which Christie’s recently auctioned for $2.9 million), the physicist explains his rejection of a supernatural God, but explains how he is deeply religious.

Indeed, whether it’s the humility and awe that many feel before “the beautiful harmony” of the universe, or perhaps even the feelings of fear and trembling before its sheer cosmic vastness, many among the estimated 30 million Americans who say they don’t believe in God have been exploring what could be called nontheistic forms of spirituality.

Rather than emphasizing centuries-old objections to supernaturalism or the idea of a personal and perhaps patriarchal God, an array of American atheists, agnostics, and humanists have turned toward what they describe as a deeply felt impulse to participate in communities that mark the rhythms of life and death, and work to build moral character and a better world.

This isn’t really anything new in the American religious landscape, notes Bart Campolo, the humanist chaplain at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio and a “community builder” for self-described religious humanists.

For him, “the awe and wonder that naturally arise from contemplating the universe” is just the starting point for humanist leaders like him. Today, he and others are seeking to “encourage such contemplation and then help people practically translate those noble emotions into lovingkindness,” says Mr. Campolo, a former Evangelical pastor.

“So the question is, hey, how do we translate that, or how do we manifest that in a group when the narrative at the center of it isn’t, we should pursue lovingkindness because God commands it, or because we’ll go to heaven if we do it, but rather, we should pursue lovingkindness because it’s the most sensible way of trying to flourish as a human being.”

Like Mr. Campolo, more Americans have begun to turn away from organized religion. The millennial generation, especially, has been at the center of one of the fastest-growing religious cohorts in the nation – the so-called nones, a culturally diverse group of Americans who no longer check a specific faith tradition as part of their identities. But even those who say there is no God have begun to reject easy labels, experts say.

“So many labels try to define people by what they are not – spiritual-but-not-religious, non-believers, atheists, even religious ‘nones’,” says Douglas Hicks, dean and professor of religion at Oxford College of Emory University in Georgia, via email. “But everyone has a worldview and it is often incredibly profound. They often have layers of moral complexity that defy labels.”

‘I don’t want to be defined by what I’m not’

This has made the job of demographers and pollsters difficult. Today, the burgeoning number of “nones” has swelled to about 25 percent of the population, Pew Research Center reports. These include the growing number of Americans who call themselves “atheists,” about 3 percent of the population, and “agnostics,” or those who believe the existence of God cannot be known, and who make up about 4 percent of the population.

Surveys that try to gauge atheistic beliefs with more indirect questions estimate that the number of people who don’t believe in a supernatural God may be as high as 26 percent of the population.

“Do I make any decisions based on the possibility that God exists? I don’t,” says Mr. Campolo. “So technically, I guess, I’m agnostic. Practically, I’m an atheist, but I would never call myself either of those things, because those words in our society at this moment connote anti-religious or connote anti-anti-Christian perspectives, and I don’t want to be defined by what I’m not.”

Instead, he prefers to call himself a “humanist.” “But not because it’s a great name, but because it was kind of undefined. And so, like when I was the humanist chaplain at USC [in Los Angeles], the ‘humanists’ ended up being people who are committed to pursuing love as a way of life and who eat dinner with Bart on Sunday nights.”

As the number of “nones” and nonbelievers grow, there are signs that some of the antipathy Americans have had toward atheists have begun to thaw, recent surveys suggest.

Last Monday, Portland, Oregon, became the second city in the U.S. to extend civil rights protections to atheists, agnostics, and other “non-religious” people, after Madison, Wisconsin, did the same in 2015. Nearly a third of the population in Oregon describe themselves as “nones” – the largest single cohort in the state, followed by evangelical Protestants, who make up 29 percent, and Catholics, who make up 12 percent, according to Pew.

As many critics note, the “new atheism” movement is overwhelmingly white and male, and even plagued by a “brazen sexism” and vehement intolerance that makes women and others prefer to distance themselves from the term. And of course, every group has its trolls – eager to cast derision and mockery on people who believe differently than they do.

That said, “I’ve seen plenty of evidence of folks in the nontheist movement moving away from the four-horsemen ‘new atheism,’ and moving away from antagonism toward religion,” says Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association.

Many nontheists have used terms such as “religious naturalism” or “religious humanism” or “humanistic spirituality” to describe the underlying beliefs that support their ethical and moral convictions without an appeal to divine revelation or a supernatural God.

“Do I believe in a personal God? No,” says Robert Strock, a therapist and counselor who heads The Global Bridge Foundation, a humanitarian group in Santa Monica, California. “Do I feel like humanistic spirituality is including people that do? Absolutely, yes. I feel like I’d be a bigot if I didn’t.”

Not all nontheists, especially those who embrace the identity “atheist,” are comfortable with terms like “religion” or “spirituality,” however. And many see their role as combating the dangers of supernatural beliefs and sectarian ideologies that they see as a major source of human discord and violence.

“Spirituality is a term that I’m comfortable with, but not all of my colleagues are,” says Ms. Klaeysen, who has a doctorate in pastoral counseling and congregational development.

“How I look at it is, I think of transcendence not as an out-of-body or other worldly experience, but more of, how am I making a real connection, a connection not outside myself, but kind of a ‘super connection’ if you will, whether it is with another human, or a community, or with music, art, nature – a sense that I’m fully aware of myself in nature or as part of the universe.”

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