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The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality    by André Comte-Sponville order for
Little Book of Atheist Spirituality
by André Comte-Sponville
Order:  USA  Can
Viking, 2007 (2007)
* * *   Reviewed by Alex Telander

We are living in a time when atheism is becoming increasingly popular around the world. While authors like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris write books that assess hypocrisy in religions and their links to violence and world problems, renowned French philosopher André Comte-Sponville, author of A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues, seeks to educate people about a less adversarial form of atheism which he refers to as an atheist spirituality. Though André Comte-Sponville respects others' beliefs, he does not himself accept any of today's religions. However, he feels that the ideas about being a good person promoted in most world religions are to be admired and used.

His book is split into three parts. In Can We Do Without Religion?, he dispels the idea that morality cannot exist without religion, expounding upon three key elements that human beings have instilled within them: communion, fidelity, and love. Comte-Sponville says that 'it is possible to commune with something other than the divine and the sacred' and that 'no society can dispense for any length of time without communion.' We need to be around and with other people - this is what makes us human, and allows civilization to exist and run relatively smoothly. Comte-Sponville says, 'Fidelity is what remains when faith has been lost.' This is where our 'moral, cultural, and spiritual' values come from - the automatic and commonsense understanding of what is good or bad, right or wrong. While these important societal values are often built into the foundation of religions, faith in a particular religion is not required to hold such values.

Comte-Sponville tells us that 'Love is more precious than hope or despair'. He talks about how most religions instil a driving hope for the future, for one to eventually die and enjoy an afterlife - and this is often coupled with a requirement to do certain things in this life to a creed written in a book long ago. But then why is the saying 'you only live once' also so true and often used? It's not about what happened before, or what is going to happen; these cannot be changed and affected; the now is all individuals can control. He discusses love for humanity as a whole, coupled with communion and fidelity. Comte-Sponville ends this section with: 'Is there life after death? No one can say. Most Christians believe there is. I do not. There is life before death, however. On that much we can agree, at least!'

In the second part, Does God Exist?, Comte-Sponville presents three arguments that led him to atheism: the weakness of so-called proofs of God's existence; the point that if God exists, he should be easier to see or sense; and a refusal to explain the existence of God by the Bible and automatic faith. Three other arguments which led him to atheism are: the existence and enormity of evil in the world; the 'mediocrity of mankind'; and the fact that God seems to fulfill our dreams and wishes to such a degree that it seems apparent he was created to fulfill them in every way - 'this makes religion an illusion in the Freudian sense of the term.' Comte-Sponville sums up this section with: 'Religion is a right, and so is irreligion.'

In the final part, Can There Be An Atheist Spirituality?, Comte-Sponville discusses spirituality separate from religion. Atheist spirituality for Comte-Sponville is a love, respect, and appreciation for the world in its completeness, infinity, and entirety. He illustrates this via a specific moment in his life when he was out camping with friends. While walking a trail at night, and communing with nature in the forest, he stopped momentarily, looked up, and studied the many millions of stars in the infinite black universe. For a moment, he experienced a sense of euphoria and complete happiness; an ecstatic joy that he had never felt before.

André Comte-Sponville does not seek to convert those who hold religious belief, or to turn atheists against believers. He promotes a respect for others' beliefs. He tells a story about giving a lecture on godless spirituality. Afterwards he was approached by a Catholic priest who told him how much he enjoyed the lecture. Comte-Sponville's response was, 'Surely you can't agree when I say I don't believe in God or the immortality of the soul!', to which the priest replied, 'Oh ... those are just secondary matters!'

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