A friend suggested Michael Krasny's Spiritual Envy to me because I write a blog, "The Spiritual Life of An Atheist" (at wordpress). I don't actually think of atheism and agnosticism as that far apart so I thought Krasny and I might have some common ground. And Krasny and I, an avowed atheist, are in many respects fellow travelers.
* We share the same position--no God until proven otherwise. Krasny writes: "Agnosticism is a position that denies the existence of absolutes and hidden spiritual forces behind the natural or material world until they can be empirically proven."
* Krasny and I agree that no guiding hand in the sky is behind life's events: "I knew, unfortunately at a young age, that we were deceived if we believed a guiding hand was behind tragedy or that faith could move the cold hand of death, let alone mountains."
* We both think the popular image of God is a human self-projection writ large: "Thinking of God having needs or expectations where we poor mortals are concerned is another product of anthropomorphic imagination, that in us which insists on creating the creator."
* Neither of us believes that prayer is going to save someone's life: "Of course, I did not believe prayers would wrest my father from the jaws of death. . . ."
* We don't believe in souls: "I assume death means the end of consciousness, and that souls neither actually exist nor transmigrate, but as with most matters of agnostic thought, I don't really know because I cannot."
* And not surprisingly, we don't believe in life after death: "Though I remain agnostic, I nevertheless believe this one life is all there is."
* To our minds, religious belief is not the source of morality: "We operate by our own moral navigation system whether we like to believe we do or not. We form our codes of ethics apart from God because the authentic authorship of God's words, either on tablets or in scripture, cannot be known, and even if it could be, people could still operate in whatever ways they choose."
And we have valued many of the same authors: Sartre, Camus, Beckett, Dostoyevsky, O'Connor, Hemingway. His discussion of these writers and their works is one of the more enjoyable aspects of the book for me--kind of like a walk down the memory lane of AP Literature.
But I, unlike Krasny, don't have spiritual envy. Julian Barnes's line, "I don't believe in God but I miss him," resonates with Krasny. Krasny declares, "I would like to believe in God, to know there is a spiritual power over us." Not so with me. I have found that deep spiritual satisfaction IS possible without a belief in God or higher power. One can accept impermanence and even cosmic insignificance and still experience life as filled with meaning and joy. If you agree, then you likely will not find much illuminating in Krasny's ruminations. When considering whether to read this book, you should take seriously the appearance of "envy" in its title because Krasny comes across as a man with a lot of painfully unattended to emotional needs.
Krasny asks, "[H]ow can I or anyone else make up for the loss of a God who once felt real, comforting, close, and personal. How does one fill that vacuum?" To Krasny, "A world without God seemed comfortless." He seeks, among other things, "a release from the entrapment of life's suffering."
The principal source of Krasny's spiritual pain seems to be "time," as he devotes two chapters to its ravages: Chapter 11, "Accursed Time," and Chapter 12, "Escaping Time." "[T]ime . . . is the mother of suffering," according to Krasny. By time he really means entropy--the inevitability that things fall apart. Krasny is pierced through by the impermanence of existence: "What was there to believe in when all was impermanent? . . . I often felt as if nothingness was the very core of existence. How could life mean anything in the face of death?" Death, to Krasny, is "the ultimate cosmic joke." Perhaps this attitude is something he was brought up with. He reports that his parents "both began the descent into death's clutches frightened and helpless. . . ." When talking about the death of a friend, who despite his Eeyore-like nature gracefully came to terms with his death when the time arrived, Krasny dismisses "the choruses of rhetoric about dying a good death, and death with dignity, and the courage necessary to face death and resign oneself to it, and live in the here and now" as "yapping."
I'm not sure exactly how my acceptance of death came to be but I don't fear its "clutches" or perceive it as a "cosmic joke" that drains all meaning from life. Perhaps a straightforward acceptance of death was something I was brought up with. I had the privilege of sharing my father's death with him several years ago, and he faced his death with matter-of-factness and dignity, without the comfort of any belief in an afterlife. Between resignation and acceptance is a great emotional distance. Acceptance of impermanence is possible when one cultivates experiencing life as a privilege rather than an entitlement.
Krasny's fundamental problem may be his sense that without God "we are, after all, alone." Which is not at all true. We have this life to share with all the other people and living things on our planet. But meaningful relations with others and joy in living itself do not appear to be enough for Krasny.
He tells the story of his esteemed cardiologist friend who "had saved many lives" and also watched many people die: "`I know,' he said to me with the kind of confidence that has helped make him a trusted and gifted physician and a good and loving husband, father, and grandfather, `that were I to die today, it would be okay. I would be fine with it. I've lived nearly seventy years and had a full and fulfilling life and done most everything I set out to do. I could die without regret.'" In response to this, Krasny writes, "Does it, I wonder, get any better than that? Can one ask for more from topsy-turvy life, which can seem like a cosmic joke, doomed to conclude yet yield no answers?" I don't see how one could expect life to get any better than to feel personally fulfilled at a healthy old age by one's relationships and contributions to one's community. What more is Krasny thinking there reasonably could be? The answers are in the living itself.
But Krasny questions whether one can even find the sacred in daily life, "The kinds of activities I write of here are hardly sacred or capable of elevating me to anything beyond the quotidian--as opposed to a higher realm of consciousness that comes close to what traditionally has been called God. Or are they? Is watching a gorgeous sunset, or seeing a deer on a mountain, or looking in awe at the heavenly constellations, or seeing resplendent flowers blooming, or watching a cheetah racing gracefully not a way of feeling elevation that approaches what at least seems like a higher source?" One can cherish the sense of elevation from these experiences without searching for "a higher source."
Krasny longs for powerful insight to be imposed on him from without. "[A]gnostics need to find a way to fill time and amuse and entertain and invent for themselves while waiting for a higher authority or higher meaning that may not arrive." In this yearnful waiting, Krasny appears to cede his own spiritual agency, as if he were not the ultimate author of his own spiritual state. Krasny "would welcome a spiritual regimen, to feel spiritual nourishment or satiety or simply discover an abiding or even an evanescent faith, to experience transcendence or simply to feel the drive to seek enlightenment or follow after some trustworthy pied piper of spirituality, a guru or master strong enough to bend my cognition as well as my will." A suitable spiritual regimen would clearly do Krasny some good but passively "welcoming" it will not. The Buddha did not just happen to sit under a tree one day and have a good idea just serendipitously pop into his head. Spiritual satisfaction, in any tradition, is an ongoing practice of focus, commitment and discipline. And I would not recommend surrendering one's own good judgment over to any other person (pied piper, master, guru, whatever) in the ultimately individual quest for it.
At the end, Krasny pleads, "I still want to know how I, or any agnostic, can feed what may well be innate spiritual hunger when faced with an unremitting vision of spiritual and metaphysical uncertainty and a life fated to expire and a species and a planet all quite possibly moving toward extinction."
In answer to Krasny's quest, I invite him to read the Buddha's poison arrow parable (also called "A Brief Talk to Malukya") and to consider taking up any practices of Buddhism he comes to find nourishing, while leaving aside the metaphysical beliefs, as the Buddha himself suggested: "Whether the world is or is not eternal or the life force is or is not the same as the body, still there is birth, aging, death, sadness, regret, unease, depression, and anxiety. It is the destruction of all of this, in this very world, that I make known." (Culamalukya Sutta; Majjhimanikaya 63, which can be found in Glenn Wallis's Basic Teachings of the Buddha, available at Basic Teachings of the Buddha (Modern Library Classics) ) Coming to terms with the impermanence of existence is one of the focuses of Buddhist practice, and one does not have to buy a word of any of Buddhism's metaphysics (reincarnation, karma, nirvana, etc.) to find great benefit in its practices. (Stephen Batchelor, a self-proclaimed Buddhist atheist, has written a couple of books on this point: Buddhism Without Beliefs available at Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening and Confession of a Buddhist Atheist available at Confession of a Buddhist Atheist.)
I was also disappointed by Krasny's hostility toward atheists. According to Krasny, atheists embrace "a categorical denial of God's existence and more often a flat rejection of any and all religious ritual, practice, ceremony, and community." I'd be interested to see what statistical survey of atheists Krasny bases this latter conclusion on. Krasny deems my lot an insensitive and rude bunch. He expects "some" atheists would hold in contempt and label a "Texas fool" a believing co-worker who expressed her intent to name their sick father in her prayers. A "hardened" atheist may even defiantly respond: "I don't want your useless prayers to a God who does not exist." "It seems to [Krasny] that many atheists are like that. . . ." Elsewhere Krasny notes, "Even atheists speak of the sanctity of human life." Oh, really?! We atheists don't find children to be "a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food . . . that . . . will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout"? (See Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal.)
Because Krasny dislikes atheists so much, he posits a deep divide between them and agnostics that does not exist, as Krasny's own examples demonstrate. According to Krasny, one of his agnostic triumvirate, Robert Ingersoll "[c]uriously . . . somewhat muddied the waters separating atheists and agnostics." Another, Bertrand Russell, said that to a philosophical audience he referred to himself as an agnostic, while to a popular audience, he called himself an atheist. Since Krasny purports to pride himself on his tolerance, his caricature and dismissal of atheists would appear to violate his own code.
In the very end, Krasny admits failure at his own goals for the book:
When I began writing this book, I was looking for an equation that might give moral
credence to the Ten Commandments and explain why they ought to be believed, beyond
the reason that God gave them to Moses, and even beyond traditional legal or secular
institutionalized rationales. I wanted to see if I could make some sense out of my
personal lifetime of questioning. I didn't know what I believed. Writing this book has
not illuminated most of the dark metaphysical or moral corners that I had hoped might
So, reader, be forewarned.