Comfort and Spirituality in Atheism?
Updated: Dec 30, 2019
I was recently watching an interesting and polemical interview made to Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss. The interview, made by a Canadian television show, was supposed to be a talk about their documentary ‘The Unbelievers’, but I was surprised to find out that, for the most part, the interview ended up being a conversation about comfort and “spirituality”— i.e., their own comfort and spirituality. Soon I would learn that it wasn’t the only interview where they talk about this subject. On three different interviews (and probably even more), Dawkins and Krauss claim that religion is not the only source of comfort and that an atheist can also find comfort in “science”. Moreover, they both agree that this comfort or “spirituality” is even better than the religious one.
Such claims could not be left unchecked, so I’ve decided to examine their arguments to see what truth we can find in them. But, before we do this, I must point out two things that will help us understand better their statements. First, their continued abuse and misappropriation of the word ‘religion’. Not surprisingly, for Dawkins and Krauss religion is anything that is old-fashioned, mythical, supernatural, abusive, violent, stupid or irrational. Worst of all, they never distinguish between one religion and another. The morals, spirituality, logic, and historicity of Christianity are the same that the ones found in pagan religion. They just don’t see any difference at all! Of course, this is very suitable for them since then they can blame anything on religion. Secondly, their abuse on science is outrageous. Dawkins and Krauss think that science is anything that fits with their worldview. To be a true scientist you need to be an atheist. Believing in evolution, of course, it’s a must. Anyone that does not believe in evolution or is religious (even if they believe in evolution) is not a real scientist—and if you are not a real scientist, you are ignoring reality.
Let the show commence
Like Dawkins and Krauss, the hosts of The Morning Show give the impression that religion is at a disadvantage with science. In other words, religion (whatever that means) needs to accept evolution or die. But for those that do accept evolution, one of the hosts asks, can they “still take some sort of comfort in their faith, can they co-exist? To this, Dawkins replies:
“Well, they may be able to coexist in some people's minds, they clearly do in some people's minds; the question I want to ask is: if something is comforting, that's great, but it doesn't make it true. There are people who sincerely seem to think that because something is consoling or comforting that therefore it's got to be true. I mean, that just isn't logic.”
Well, because we don’t know who Dawkins is talking about, let’s suppose that these people are Christians. Does he mean that Christians believe in God just because they get comfort out of it? Or in other words, do we think that Christianity is true just because we are comforted by it? I certainly don’t think this way, and I could say quite comfortably that most Christian don’t think this way either. So, who is he talking about? We don’t know.
Now, Dawkins seems to assume that our comfort is based on a lie, but can he prove it? To do this, he would need to prove first that God does not exist, and that's something he cannot do; even Krauss admits this. Also, later on, Krauss states something that contradicts Dawkins' own argument. The physicist claims that their comfort is better because it’s real; that is, his comfort is better than ours because it's based on reality real. But, again, how can he prove it? If comfort can be based on a lie (as Dawkins believes), why should I believe that his comfort is real? Furthermore, does reality really matter when judging what produces more comfort? Well, according to Dawkins no, according to Krauss yes—oh, what a headache this is giving me.
Moreover, we should be cautious when using the word comfort. I believe that the meaning of this word has been watered-down by modernity. The word comfort comes from the Latin confortare “to strengthen much”. So, comfort is something that gives you a lot of strength. It is that which gives you power when you are weak. It lifts you up in your worst moments. But this power it’s not provided by nature or by material things. A sofa or a TV cannot comfort you; neither the sight of the Pleiades or the bacteria floating in your stomach. Yes, they might give you a time of enjoyment, but they are not going to give you comfort. So then, the source of comfort cannot come from material things but immaterial, that is, from God. He is the provider of all comfort. Whatever does not come from him is not true comfort, it is a lie.
For the idols speak delusion;
The diviners envision lies,
And tell false dreams;
They comfort in vain.
Therefore the people wend their way like sheep;
They are in trouble because there is no shepherd
Are Dawkins and Krauss trying to comfort us in vain? Perhaps. For now, let’s hear what Krauss has to say about religious comfort.
“Well, it's, first of all, realize that the universe doesn't exist so we can be happy; that's the first thing. We have to understand reality. But if we get comfort from things that are imaginary, well, it helps us in the short run, but in the long run, it leads us to act in an irrational way.”
First, how does he know that the universe doesn’t exist so we can be happy? Can he prove it? He’s assuming that just because of his materialistic point of view. That is his reality. If the universe is just the result of chance, or I would say, millions of impossibilities, then, of course, the universe doesn’t exist so we can be happy. But if you believe that there is a creator, then there is more than a chance that the universe exists so we can be “happy”—Alas! But don’t you know, Dr. Krauss, that even you find happiness when studying the universe? Isn’t the universe exciting, as you claim in another interview?:
“The fact that every atom in our bodies was once inside a star that exploded, and maybe different stars, the atoms in your left hand and the atoms in your right hand... to me it's incredible poetry, it means you are stardust, it means we are intimately connected to the cosmos…. God! That does move me. Maybe it doesn't move me to tears; maybe it moves me to the excitement of a different sort.”
Of course, I would not agree with anything in this statement (except for 'God!'), but it’s quite clear that Krauss finds some enjoyment in studying the universe. So then, is it so far fetched that the universe exists so we can enjoy it?
Now, I must emphasize that I would never claim that the universe just “exists so we can be happy”. First, I would argue that the universe exists so we can be here. In other words, we wouldn’t exist if the universe didn’t exist. God had to provide a home for us—don’t you think Dr. Krauss? Second, the universe exists, the way it is, so we can glorify Him: “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork.” (Psalm 19:1) Third, the universe exists so that we don’t have an excuse to deny Him: “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20) Lastly, I would argue that the universe does not condition our happiness, but rather it is conditioned by God. As we said before, we cannot find comfort in material things.
Krauss continues by saying that “If we get comfort from things that are imaginary… it leads us to act in an irrational way”. It is pretty clear that the “things that are imaginary” is anything related to religion (whatever that means), especially, God. But what does he mean by saying that this “leads us to act in an irrational way”? We don’t know. Whatever the case, he is shooting himself in the foot. As a physicist, Krauss should know that some things are “imaginary”; e.g., dark matter. I don’t know if dark matter exists (I doubt it very much), but one thing is for certain: Krauss believes in it. He has to. He is one of the first scientists that conceived it—or invented it. Dark matter is as dark as darkness itself; it is as imaginary as you can imagine; you neither see or feel it. Doesn’t he think then that this imaginary thing can lead him “to act in an irrational way”? Can he prove to us that dark matter is more real than God? Perhaps someday will have an answer.
Now, what about the atheist comfort? Can they get solace ex nihilo? Lawrence Krauss seems to think that it can:
“... I don't think either of us wants us to make people feel bad. I think we recognize that all of us need comfort in different ways, but what we are just trying to encourage people is to get comfort from the real world. We are not trying to take something away; I think we are trying to add. We are trying to add the wonder of reality, the poetry of the real universe, and say that you can get solace, you can get wonder from the real world; therefore, it's true, you can get comfort from religion, but that doesn't say you have to have religion to get comfort.”
And in another interview Krauss continues with the same idea:
“But the key thing is this: sure we recognize that religion provides things: consolation, community... But the key thing is that it doesn't have to be a religion that provides those things.”
So Krauss and Dawkins believe, not only that “science” (that is atheism) can add to our lives the wonder of reality, but also that you can get comfort from the real world. Real world…. reality…. What are you trying to tell us, Dr. Krauss? Are you talking about the spontaneous and purposeless emergence of nebulas, stars, planets…man? Are you telling us that we can find comfort in believing that we are just evolved bacteria that will someday die and cease to exist? Or, perhaps, are you just telling us to find comfort in believing that our unbelief will not be counted in the day of judgment? Yes, this might be it, right Dr. Krauss?
If comfort wasn’t enough, Dawkins and Krauss believe that they can be spiritually fulfilled with “science”. Even more, Krauss believes that…
“The spirituality of science is better than the spirituality of religion because it’s real.”
In other words:
“The universe is much more interesting than the myths and superstitions created by iron age peasants that they didn’t even know that the earth orbited the sun.”
Dr. Krauss, allow me to interrupt you. But as I see that you are not too familiar with the Bible, I should tell you that some of these “iron age peasants” that you are talking about were actually Kings (David, Solomon), princes (Joseph, Moses), wealthy men (Job, Abraham) and even wise men (Solomon, Daniel, Jesus). And may I remind you also—lest you forget—that it is, precisely, the science of peasants that have fed the mouths of presidents, ministers, intellectuals and...yes, even scientists like you, Dr.Krauss. Kings do not eat their meals while sitting on their throne, but you like eating your Rice Krispies on your stool (high above the clouds) while laughing at the ones that gave you your sustenance.
So, it seems that is in this same high spirit where Krauss and Dawkins find their spiritual fulfillment. But what is the spirituality that they are talking about? For Dawkins is the following:
“You could call spirituality the kind of things that we do or Carl Sagan does, but people are all too ready to confuse that with supernaturalism and that's definitely wrong. What you need is the kind of emotional response to the universe, which you could call spiritual if you'd like, but it's real and science is the way to study it as reality; don't get suckered into thinking that there is something supernatural and mysterious about it.”
For Dawkins, spirituality is an emotional response to the universe that is real and scientific. It’s hmm… scientific. Wait, what? What is scientific? The universe or the emotional responses? Well, I guess both. But wait a minute, is an emotional response scientific? Can you test it, Mr. Dawkins? Aren’t we just a bunch of unpredictable atoms colliding with each other? Can we trust that these atoms are giving you the right emotional response? And even more important, are these emotional responses real?
If I cannot trust Dawkins' emotional response, then why should I believe that his emotions are better or more real than mine? Well, Dawkins seems to think that his “spirituality” is indeed real—just not a supernatural phenomenon. Yes, more real than reality itself, the crème de la crème, the Rolex of Rolexes, the spirituality of spiritualities. But is it?
Well, let’s see what the dictionary has to say about spirituality. According to the Oxford dictionary, spirituality is “the quality of being concerned with the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.” So, something spiritual is that which belongs to the spirit. In other words, it’s something that doesn’t belong to the physical reality. Hmm….but didn’t Dawkins just say that his spirituality is not supernatural? If spirituality is linked to the supernatural, how can Dawkins state that his spirituality is not supernatural? We really need to scratch our heads here and ask: what does he really mean by spirituality? Maybe the following statement from Dawkins will help us understand:
“Well, I consider myself deeply spiritual in one sense, in the same sense like, perhaps, Carl Sagan would've done, where I feel deeply moved in a poetic way by the sight of the Milky Way, by the contemplation of the size of the universe, by the contemplation of the immense span of geological time, by looking down a microscope, as a single cell, and seeing the intricate structure of the single cell, and then reflecting that that cell is multiplied trillions of times in mine own body…”
In short, Dawkins spirituality is an emotional response to the universe. Thus, it seems that atheists are endowed with a sixth or seventh sense that religious earthlings have not acquired. Only scientists (atheists) that can have a real spiritual fulfillment when observing the universe. This is, of course, downright pretentious—and utterly wrong. All humans, whatever their beliefs are, have the capacity of enjoying and being moved by the cosmos. We can all enjoy the sun leaving its abode, the waves finishing their course on the seashore, the birds being carried by the ocean’s air currents. Can’t we Mr. Dawkins? Aren’t we all created equal? Oh, yes, that’s right, you don’t believe in this nonsense. Okay, let me be an evolutionist for a moment. Don’t we all descend from a common ancestor, all of us having the same qualities? Well, according to Dawkins and Krauss, not even religious scientists can be moved when watching the Milky Way or when studying the intricate structure of the cell. Nope, only atheist have this right.
Whatever the case, from the statement above we now know that Dawkins’ comfort and spirituality is just this: an emotional response. If this is not clear enough, let’s hear what Krauss has to say about his spirituality.
“One of the big misunderstanding and abuses in the discussions of science is that science takes away spirituality, which is really awe and wonder, in a sense of something bigger than oneself. “
And again, in another interview:
“That supernatural aspect, that spiritual aspect, I should say is really important, because, again, one of the attacks on us and on "science" is somehow it takes away the awe and wonder and spiritual fulfillment.”
So, in conclusion, the spirituality and comfort that Dawkins and Krauss are talking about are just this: awe and wonder; two emotions that all of us mortals possess.
Oh, I wonder why you didn’t tell us this from the beginning? Why not make it more clear? Why not cease altogether from using the word comfort and spirituality? Please, Mr. Dawkins, find or invent some other word that fits your description better. I beg you, Dr. Krauss, stop confusing people by trying to convince them they can find something good and spiritual in atheism. Tell them the truth, tell them that the universe is void and dark and that no hope awaits our dying and wretched bodies. You will not get a lot of converts, I give you that, but at least you will tell them the truth.
The Morning Show. Global News. 2013. https://youtu.be/wjeD-9LcfWM
The Agenda with Steven Paikin. TVO. 2013. https://youtu.be/fEClFXjx_fQ