What is refreshing about Andre Comte-Sponville’s book L’esprit de l’atheisme is his unexpected attitude. Lately translated into English as The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality in order to emphasize its style — informal, not technical, not hostile — the book’s tone is not expected in the US, not after a history of Robert Ingersoll, Madalyn O’Hare, the Scopes Trial, and intelligent design. Perhaps because the author is European (specifically French), and in Europe bitter rhetoric has been played out, weary of wars of religion, world wars, and religious intolerance.
Or perhaps because Comte-Sponville was raised Catholic and is not, I think, hostile to what one might call the aesthetics of chant, ritual, and incense. Occasionally Comte-Sponville is proud of his non-belief, occasional cool and nonchalant about it — not militant, angry or crusading. His style is that of Montaigne, Pascal, Renan. His affable personality makes his reflections, which surprisingly culminate in a strong defense of mysticism — however we may construe it — seem eminently reasonable, acceptable, even inevitable.
There are only three chapters. Comte-Sponville covers the usual issues of society and culture in the first chapter (“Can We Do Without Religion?”) and the old proofs for the existence of God in the second (“Does God Exist?”). There are a few new insights here, especially in chapter one, where Comte-Sponville discusses the effects of the Holocaust on Jewish belief, and how a priest once confided to him that he agreed on the priority in life of ethics and behavior rather than faith or belief. The author concludes with a sense of deliberate “cheerful despair.” He is not an existentialist. He expresses faith and optimism in “democracy” and abhorrence of “terror” and “fanaticism” — perhaps too trusting in Western thinking, a point of view no longer supportable, especially when dealing with his topic. In the end, Comte-Sponville, like most atheists in the Western world, are still working in reaction to biblical ideas.
Chapter two includes the familiar cosmological proof, ontological proof, and a “physico-theological” proof. He touches upon the non-theism of Eastern thought, and revisits great Western thinkers from Epicurus and Lucretius, to the Stoics and Spinoza, to Montaigne, Pascal, Kant and beyond. He hones in on the illogical and the inexplicable, and — one of my favorite areas — the intractable nature of evil.
The author quotes Epicurus:
Either God wanted to eliminate evil and could not; or he could and did not want to; or he neither could nor wanted to; or he could and wanted to. If he wanted to and could not, he is impotent, which cannot be the case for God; if he could and did not want to, he is evil, which is foreign to God’s nature. If he neither could nor wanted to, he is both impotent and evil, in which case he is not God. If he both wanted to and could — the only hypothesis that corresponds to God — where does evil come from, or why did God not eliminate it?
Or as Pascal puts it:
We must be born guilty or God would be unjust.
But as Comte-Sponville rightly points out (reminiscent of Jung’s Answer to Job) what a terrible and stupid fate it is and what a horrible thing to throw sin into the face of so many suffering in the world.
Besides the weakness of the proofs, the obviousness of our common experience of life, of tortuous explanations, and the aforesaid enormity of evil, the author adds two other arguments: human mediocrity and Freud’s illusion concept (laid out in Future of an Illusion) wherein what we wish is projected without our being aware of it.
But for all that, Comte-Sponville is more sensitive and mystically-oriented than even the average believer in presenting the concept of mystery, of openness to being, of what both Meister Eckhart and Heidegger called “releasement” (though the author unfortunately does not mention them). He quotes Wittgenstein: “Mysticism wonders not how the world is but that the world is.” The author’s third chapter is thus a heroic structure built around the insights of medieval mystics (Eckhart and Angelus Silesius are cited), Simone Weil, Zen masters, Krishnamurti, Swami Prajnanpad. He describes the maturation of “immanensity” in our notion of the universe, or rather, our experience of the universe, emphasizing an active opening of the mind and heart, an opening of the spirit. With favor he pursues what Romain Rolland called the “oceanic feeling” and what writer Michel Hulin calls “spontaneous mysticism.”
Comte-Sponville links all this to the absoluteness of silence. Silence is the ground of being. Wittgenstein paraphrases Lao-tzu: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” This silence yields its fruits to the one disposed to it: simplicity, unity, eternity, serenity, acceptance, independence. These terms are not just an extrapolation, but Comte-Sponville’s own subchapter headings. He does an excellent job leading the reader to a refreshing sense of confidence and insight, of what he calls (in a final subheading): “Interiority and Transcendence, Immanence and Openness.” Solid grist for philosophical discussion, and not what one would expect from an “atheist.”
Comte-Sponville has written a heartfelt book, skillful and invigorating, well worth the time to the explorer of ideas.