Spirit-Sickness and Values through an Atheist’s Lens

September 1st, 2017  |  Published in Power & Politics

What does it mean to believe in the spirit if you don’t believe in God? Can disbelievers suffer spirit-sickness? Where do values come from in the absence of a religious framework? I raise these questions in this post, and make some personal comments, without presuming to have ‘answers’.

An atheist talking about the spirit?

“I believe in spirit-sickness,” I said to my friend, a staunch Christian, “so I guess that must mean I believeAtheist lens on spirit and values in the spirit.” She was telling me about a young person, hospitalised for anorexia, who talks about it in spiritual terms.

“How can you say that,” she asked, “when you don’t believe in God?”

I realised I didn’t really know. “I know there’s more to me, to us…” I stopped. “There’s more than body and brain. There’s a non-physical part that exists, I believe, beyond religion, even though it’s not easy to find non-religious language for it. Perhaps ‘inner self’ is as close as it gets.”

What do you mean by spirit-sickness?

My friend peered at me, mascara wand in hand, as we shared the mirror in the change rooms after a swim. As we do.

“So, what would you say causes spirit-sickness? Or, inner-self sickness?” she asked.

“Any number of things, I expect, but I’ve been most aware of it when my values have been inverted, when my right has been turned into wrong by those with the power to define right and wrong in their terms.”

Sickness of spiritThis kind of inversion happened to me in a seriously damaging way when I was employed as a psychologist in a community service. My core values were about working collaboratively with clients, subverting the role of the professional ‘expert’, and validating the knowledge of lived experience. My work was constructed by management as unprofessional, unethical, creating codependence, failing to establish clear boundaries and, in a crucial instance, breaching organisational confidentiality.

The inversion of my values was, in effect, an attack on my essence, on what I stand for personally, professionally, and politically. My ‘good’ was turned into ‘bad’, and I unpack the effects of this experience in my factional novel “Swimming with Sharks”.

For me, then, spirit-sickness arises when my deeply-held values are invalidated in a way that involves personal attack. I know this experience, from experience, but also find it hard to articulate. I’m keen to hear other people’s experiences.

What about moral values for an atheist?

Interestingly, not long after the conversation with my friend about spirit-sickness, my family had a discussion about moral values, and where they come from in the absence of a received framework.

My son told us about a conversation he had with a colleague from America. Tim and his wife, Anna, are expecting their first child. Anna was brought up in a religion she no longer practices. Tim belonged to fraternities as a student, and said they had provided a value framework of community involvement and helping others out.

The couple are in Australia without family and are interested in thinking about values as part of parenting. But, what are they, and where do they come from, without religion or fraternities or some other pre-existing source?

My immediate response was that teaching empathy surely had to be core.

“That’s pretty abstract to teach a small child,” my son objected.

“Not really,” I argued. “You can start with simple questions. For example: ‘Would you like that to happen to you?’ Or, ‘How would you feel if that happened to you?’ Or, ‘If something bad happened to you, what would you want your friends to do?’ As children get older, the conversations can become deeper, but opportunities arise from a pretty young age.”

“I don’t think you can impose a value system anyway,” I added, “although people will try. Children make sense of parents and other potential role models in ways that fit their own awareness, not necessarily in ways intended by adults. They might take on the framework you would like to pass on, or they might not want a bar of it.”

As Nikki Gemmell puts it in After, “we cannot rigidly shape our children’s lives no matter how much we would like to. We have to step back and watch them bloom into who they are meant to be…” (p.130).

Empathy crucial

How do values get shaped?

My daughter recalled a powerful experience from her childhood, possibly going back about twenty years.

She was on school camp, and one of her friends plotted a mean trick on a helper (someone older than the children but not as old as a parent or teacher). This helper, my daughter said, was socially awkward. The plot was to pull her things from the clothes line and let them fall in the mud.

Cecy didn’t actively participate in this ‘game’, but nor did she try to stop it. She was uncomfortable with the laughter, but didn’t speak out against the prank. She was, in effect, guilty by omission, for not doing anything, and she knew it.

She still remembers the bad feeling, and I felt a shudder as well.

She did, however, make an effort to spend time with the helper during the rest of the camp. She remembers that experience as the starting point of hanging out with people she noticed being ostracised at school, and later in her adult life.

My son also recalled a memorable experience of his own. He was away with friends, and a group of kids had been playing on the beach when the majority decided to move on. Connor’s particular friend wasn’t ready to go, and he was torn between wanting to stick with the crowd, some of whom were older and cooler, and sticking with his friend.

He remembers that experience as a lesson in loyalty, I think, although I would also see empathy as a driver.

Empathy learning

My daughter, picking up on the American woman’s religious background, commented that she didn’t think religion provided much of a basis for good values. I agreed in relation to institutionalised religion, although I also noted that Christian values (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, for example) can have a lot going for them. You don’t need religion to learn them but, without it, you perhaps need to be more agentic in developing them.

Cecy didn’t see fraternities as a source of good values. either Nor did I. But Connor said his American friend had explained that members of a fraternity are expected to do good works in their community. If they don’t, they become a brother in poor standing, and don’t get any beer. And thus they tend to do what’s expected!

A personal journey from authoritarian religion to analysis of power relations

These conversations reminded me of my own journey to shape a value system. I was brought up in an authoritarian form of punitive and oppressive Catholicism during an era rampant with abuses. I discarded the formalities, and the belief system, in my early twenties.

I remember the sense of being suspended in a value-vacuum. I had no respect for the ‘rules’ of my religion, and it hadn’t taught me any meaningful values. Without that framework, though, I had no articulated structure of right and wrong. I felt I was on my own.

I threw out the baby with the bathwater in a sense. I could have salvaged some of the Christian values, such as “do unto others…”, and built on them. Unfortunately, for me, they weren’t part of the legacy of my childhood. I didn’t believe in God, didn’t relate to the Bible, and basically thought Jesus was probably a decent bloke but, really, religious beliefs were too tainted to retain any sort of appeal as a bedrock of values.

Instead, I stumbled along, guided by a sense of fairness and unfairness – of the primitive (and imperfect) sort often displayed by children – until I discovered feminist theory.

Feminist thinking was my route in to recognising the importance of power relations in all their intersecting forms. My initial study of gender subsequently drew in other dimensions of relative power and privilege, including race, class, sexuality, ability and so on.

Study of power relationsMy values are now based on analysis of power. Who has it, who abuses it, who is abused, marginalised and disadvantaged by it? If I can analyse power on a situation by situation basis it can guide how I position myself. Always with the lesser powerful in challenging the more powerful. That then provides the cornerstone of my thinking about social justice. It’s essentially an exercise in redistributing power.

So, yes, I would say, I have strong values, at least as strong as those a religion could have provided. Perhaps even stronger because I’ve been active in constructing and owning them. My values are very much part of my inner-self, and my inner-self (aka spirit) can be wounded. I can, in effect, become spirit-sick, and I can also act in ways that a religious person might recognise.

The journey to shape a value system is perhaps more fragmented and precarious when it’s done outside a received framework, and available language can be inadequate, but I believe it is possible, and we can do it, and we can even guide our children to do it in their own ways.

What do you think and what comments would you make about values and where they come from?

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20 comments on “Spirit-Sickness and Values through an Atheist’s Lens”

  1. Julie Morsillo says:

    I think I see what you mean about having a value system of kindness and caring for others. I personally like the UN Declaration of Human Rights as a nice summary of social justice principles for us to live by and to promote peace and equality in the world. So spiritual-type values if you like. Then, I also like the example of Jesus, calling us to be kind to others & compassionate to those most in need, including women and children. This flew in the face of the powerful of his day and this day. Meanwhile, for me God is just a word where they left out an ‘o’, so just everything that is ‘good’ in the world and life-giving in the world, is what we want to reach for. So these caring and empathetic values are precious and needed to make this world a better place. So spiritual type values that can be incorporated into religions at their best (and not shown in relations at their worst in conservative fundamentalist forms).

    But I am still not sure what you are referring to by ‘spirit-sickness’. I could guess you might mean personally feeling sad and depleted worrying about all the misery and social injustice in the world and what you can and can’t do about that. Or perhaps concerned with your health and what that will mean when you have less energy to contribute to social justice issues. Anyway, good on you for raising the issues and being prepared to grapple with these deep values in our lives.

    • I quite like the idea of God being a word needing an extra ‘o’.
      My idea (which is more a raw experience) of ‘spirit-sickness’ is possibly not clear because I’m not really clear enough about it to articulate it. But, it occurs when values that I hold deeply are turned around and their opposite is elevated as ‘good’.
      In terms of current experience, the way refugee policy (and Centrelink policy) is framed, and the values reflected (or not) amounts to an inversion of my values (and those of many other people I know). The experience (for me) of spirit-sickness is to do with that kind of inversion, combined with a sense of impotence in the face of greater power (in this case in the form of government with its own political agenda) to effect change or to convince of the ‘wrongness’ of prevailing policies, which dehumanise, demonise, and brutalise people for the sake of scoring political points.

  2. Lynne Wintergreen says:

    Thanks for this, l enjoyed it and found it interesting.

    I raised my (now grown up) kids with values compatible with, not framed as, religion. Their Dad, a lapsed catholic, was an emphatic atheist.

    l rejected religion during a difficult childhood, in which my prayers for comfort and safety went unanswered.

    As parents l found we were mostly on the same wavelength with empathy, compassion, respect, social justice; and the kids had good instincts, which we encouraged.

    I was dismayed to find my interest in a practice of conscious gratitude as a family unsupported. At mealtimes l sometimes made a simple statement that l was thankful for the food we were about to eat, and l’d have liked this reflection on our good fortune to have become a mealtime ritual.

    I expected my partner to support me but found that without a religious context he felt it ridiculous, and the kids agreed. Thankful to what? They argued it was like saying grace but without a belief in god, pointless.

    I struggled to articulate that thankfulness is an attitude we can choose to cultivate because the awareness of our good fortune does us good. Now l would also say that it does others good, too… the opposite of gratitude is entitlement, which none of us admires.

    I continue to be thankful for the good things in my life without a deity to praise or credit. I think my kids get it now, and at least one of the three consciously practices gratitude daily, but l don’t think my ex ever understood my need for a spiritual life.

    It’s difficult to explain but undoubtedly true that at least some of us, even without religion, know ourselves and other to be more than mere flesh.

    • “More than mere flesh” is a good way of summing it up, I think, Lynne, and I really appreciate the nuance in your story. Your point about gratitude as an antidote to entitlement is worth thinking more about. In a parallel kind of way, I know I sometimes thank “the universe” or place hope in “the universe”. I’m not even exactly sure what I mean by that, except that it does have connotations for me of our connectedness with each other, and all living creatures, and the planet we live on, and beyond. That reciprocal connectedness is, for me, probably a foundation of empathy, and all that flows from it in terms of commitment to social justice and concern for our actions in the environment.

  3. Sylvia says:

    Thanks again, Joan, I will have a go at asking my son if he remembers the attack on the shrub, and what it was about! It’s lovely to explore the world of ideas with adult kids! Also lovely to explore ideas here, thanks again, hope you’re doing ok, Sylvia

    • Best for an interesting conversation with your son, Sylvia, and thanks for your comments.

  4. Tom says:

    Well said Joan, as someone who has genuinely met God as a child I can explain to you that our moral core is written on our souls and their is a void within us that compells us to seek more. Some choose to dismiss this and fill this void with material satisfaction but it’s will still leave us empty inside without faith.

    Sadly we have confused faith with religion and too many have become hypocrites. We all should live by the 5 principles of relationship being honesty, responsibility, respect, integrity and faith. We to support oyr miral core should follow the 10 commandments and Jesus’s golden rule as a guide. As a parent and good role model we try to embed this understanding as a basis expected behavior and grounding for social justice.

    To believe or not to believe is a choice we all have through the gift of free will. I even sometimes question if I would believe that there is a God when you look at man in this world if I had not met him as a child. I admire thous who have faith yet have not seen, for them I wrote even though I am dyslexic a new system called the Yeshua System built on a moral core including constitution of rights that would end poverty, address immoral corruption issues while supporting the welfare and wellbeing of mankind and the planet. Feel free Joan to contact me as you have my email address is you have any questions or would be interested in reading about the Yeshua System. Kind regards Tom

    • Thanks for you comments, Tom. I appreciate your principles of relationship (although would also perhaps like to see compassion and empathy included). I also appreciate the sound of your Yeshua System. I do not, however, believe in God, and don’t consider it’s possible to do so by choice. I respect other people’s beliefs, when genuine, but do not believe and do not expect to believe in the future. Therefore, anything built around the idea of God is not for me. I have, however, I think, found your website and Facebook page, and will connect with them with interest.
      I wish you all the best with what you do…Joan Beckwith.

  5. chiteira says:

    nice work Joan and great thinking re durability in having stuff away from Facebook.

    trying not to write my usual novel length response…

    i’m seeing some disturbing trends around empathy – people talking about “empaths” as if empathy is a special trait of a few gifted – whereas empathy is a natural part of being human that can either be developed or atrophied from lack of use.

    i see this as part of the spirit-sickness – the idea that everything that makes us human can be compartmentalised and specialised so that each part is seen as the domain of a select few – “empaths” become the only ones “qualified” to discuss feelings, priests the only ones qualified to discuss morals, teachers the only ones we can learn from, doctors the only ones who can heal….

    spirit sickness, as individuals – we all become less than whole, we lose our ability to feel, to interpret right and wrong for ourselves, to share knowledge and understanding, to take the most basic care of our own health…and that is only a very small part of what contributes to this sense of being “incomplete”.

    spirit sickness displays at a society level – we struggle to care and understand each other, connections are broken, behaviours distorted – addiction, violence, hate, freedoms are lost to immorality – freedom itself is distorted to be yet another form of oppression to be forced on others and we no longer strive to experience truth for ourselves, but chant “three word slogans” with the same faith as the religious zealot and call them “the truth” or “facts”.

    lol…i feel like i am preaching a sermon. sometimes i wonder who it is saying this stuff but i see and feel the truth of it. i see it as an ongoing process from one generation to the next – the gradual siphoning off of everything it is to be human, becoming more normalised so that we don’t see it. and if we do see it, we only see that small part that has happened in our lifetime.

    • “Empaths” eh! I have come across the word, but it grates, and I guess you have pinpointed a good reason why. I believe we all (or almost all) have the potential for empathy, but I also think it needs to be practiced and nurtured.
      I like your point about spirit-sickness at a social level. It’s what I feel has happened as a result of repressing our own capacity for empathy – towards people seeking asylum, Centrelink recipients, non-heterosexual people and the tug-of-war over marriage equality, and other groups who are demonised in the (obscure) interests of the political elite.
      We have the capacity to be so much more!

  6. Sylvia says:

    Thank you, Joan. The discussion brings to mind another incident, this one with one of my sons, when he was Primary School age. He had had a tough time, what with my severe breakdown in the throes of separating from his father, but I think home life was by then more settled. He suddenly attacked a shrub in the garden, fiercely, with a stick, destroying the shrub if I remember rightly. And he was usually a very gentle boy, not prone to temper. I didn’t intervene, I just stood close by, thinking there must be a reason for what he was doing, but didn’t try to ask him. He told me in adulthood that he was tormented in Primary School for being a vegetarian (his own choice from a young age out of compassion for animals, his own spontaneous ethics), so perhaps the outburst against the shrub was to let off steam after being bullied at school? I think my daughter would have the conversation with her kids about what such a behaviour was all about, which I felt unable to broach, thinking it would be intrusive to ask. I don’t know if I’m getting off-topic – I’m somehow juggling ethics, limitations, and actions…

    • Nothing is ever off topic as far as I’m concerned, Sylvia. When I write a post like this, my main interest is in what thoughts might be triggered in others, and I almost always find some ideas worth thinking more about. It’s all about the issues raised as far as I’m concerned, not about linear thought processes, or making points, or providing definitive answers.
      I wonder how your son might retrospectively explain what seems to have been an uncharacteristic outburst against the shrub? Would he remember it? Would he make the connections you hypothesise? Would you have that conversation now, or would it still feel intrusive?
      How different we all are…but also interesting if we can peel back some of the layers!

  7. Lou Cee says:

    In my case there was an early attempt at religious indoctrination by extended family. This was unsuccessful and my Mother tended to lean towards the philosophers. So it was a painful but natural progression as far as understanding went. Practice on the other hand….A work in progress.

    • I find I’m wondering how that would be for a child. Confusing? Or, more like having close family that speak different languages. My own experience was more clearcut, but also complex in its rigidity. The form of Catholicism I was raised with never ‘sat’ for me and I was always in trouble for being ‘sinful’ in one way or another. Painful is right, but progress is inevitable I think, because being stuck in an alien belief system is gruesome. As you say, though, developing the practices that fit best with espoused values is a (lifelong) work-in-progress. Best for yours…JoanB.

  8. Lou Cee says:

    I’m a bit confused. Isn’t this all covered by ethical frameworks such as Virtues, deontology, and consequentialism? Religion not necessary.

    • My question was really about “received frameworks” of which religion is one form, and moral philosophies of the kind you refer to are another. It would be interesting to know how often the latter are explicitly drawn on in parenting and other contexts for teaching children about values. I have a friend who taught philosophy to primary school students on an opt-in basis as an alternative to religious education. I don’t know how widespread that is, although maybe there is relevant research to be found.
      My interest at this stage, as triggered by the conversations included in the post, is more anecdotal. My own received framework (a religious one) was a poor fit for me, and the process of deconstructing and reconstructing was challenging but worthwhile. I wonder about other people’s journeys. Did they have an explicit received framework (religious, philosophical, other)? Did it ‘fit’ for them as a person? If not, how did they proceed? Etc. Etc.

  9. Mark says:

    I don’t see a need to use the term spirit to describe what you are talking about. It is simply the sense of self.

    • Quite possibly. Most of the time. Although spirit-sickness has more resonance for me than self-sickness or sense-of-self-sickness.

  10. Sylvia says:

    Your examples of teaching empathy to a grandchild reminded me of my intervention, when my grandchild, a toddler, started hitting an ants’ nest with a stick in the garden. “Don’t do that, that is those creatures’ home”, I said, or some such, hopefully gently. My daughter said she wouldn’t have stopped him, but would have been hoping he’d learn without being told.

    • Children may learn on their own, but I think the process can potentially be helped along by some gentle instructive intervention, such as you describe, Sylvia. I believe it can help to invite children in to thinking about the effects of what they are doing from the receiving end. Hitting the ground with a stick is one thing. Hitting the ground where there are living creatures is another. And, that’s not necessarily an obvious distinction to a toddler. As adult family members in relation to a child, we have influence, and they will be influenced by us one way or another, so we might as well be thoughtful and agentic about it, I think.

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