God inspires atheism

Sociologist Jonas GrutzpalkMeditating atheists

Susanne Fritz: Atheists are critical of religions and reject belief in one God. Agnostics, on the other hand, consider the existence of a god to be unexplained or inexplicable. But there are many other ideas of non-denominational people somewhere between belief and disbelief - and the question arises: where is the line? Jonas Grutzpalk, sociologist and political scientist, is a professor at the University of Applied Sciences for Public Administration in North Rhine-Westphalia. At the same time, he is also a member of the Humanist Association, which sees itself as representing the interests of non-denominational people. He wrote an interesting article for a humanistic online portal that further fuels the question of the boundary between belief and disbelief. I spoke to him in the studio in Bielefeld. Mr. Grutzpalk, you developed an interesting idea in your article. Meditation for atheists - isn't that a contradiction in terms? When you think of meditation, you immediately think of religious practices, such as Buddhism.

Jonas Grutzpalk: Yes, you think about it first. I always thought about it and then kept catching myself letting such a thought flush through my head, just for the fun of flushing the thought through my head and then thought: That's something like a meditation. If you take a closer look at the word, I'm a great friend of taking words literally, you notice that it is Latin metiri, i.e. to measure something, but also to consider, then I realized, yes, of course, we can do that also. We can act out and think through something in our heads without touching a religious dimension.

"The Mistake Atheists Make Often"

Fritz: But thinking and meditation, isn't that another difference?

Grutzpalk: Yes, I think the mistake that atheists or unbelievers often make is that they say, "I don't believe all this tan-tam, I'm rational," so that you create a gap between rational reasoning and belief. And I think this rationality - it doesn't necessarily do us atheists that good. The world is not that simple. You can't say that everything that can be rationally explained is fine and the others somehow believe in ghosts, but reality is of course much more complex and we can't even know everything. We have to worry about things.

The sociologist and political scientist Jonas Grutzpalk (Tobias Killguss)

We cannot just say that it is a fact and then it will be so, we have to think things through carefully. It is also part of being human, to think things through carefully. And I think we atheists or secular humanists, for whom I am standing here now, actually have to be careful that we don't run into this trap of rationality and say that we are totally rational and you are not.

"The real strength of homosapiens: thinking things through"

Fritz: This concept of meditation also exists in philosophy. The famous philosopher Descartes called his writings meditations and then ended up with "Cogito ergo sum" - "I think, therefore I am." In this respect, it has a long tradition of immersing oneself in a topic. But that is not your approach now. From what do you derive your meditation program for atheists?

Grutzpalk: I find it exciting, the thought that I came across some time ago that the probably decisive difference between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens was that the Neanderthals' childhood is significantly shorter than that of Homo sapiens - Homo sapiens is alive yet, Neanderthals are extinct.

And the idea that follows is that if you have a longer childhood, then you can act out things, then you can pretend. And that is, I think, something that is the real strength of homosapiens to think that things could be like this or different. I can play it through. And I think you trip yourself up if you rob yourself of this possibility, which is obviously in our nature.

"Let yourself be inspired by religion as an atheist"

Fritz: Now you go very far back to Homosapiens. I would like to take you back to the 16th century for the retreat of Ignatius of Loyola.

Grutzpalk: Yes.

Fritz: You are referring to him - to what extent?

Grutzpalk: I found it exciting that Ignatius von Loyola was proposing a training program. He actually writes that too, so just as you can do sport for the body, you can also do sport for the mind. He doesn't say that literally, but roughly. And I found this thought exciting that people say: What about us? Can't we do retreats too? Can't we also practice our thoughts? Can't we also adopt this idea that we also do spiritual exercises?

Ignatius von Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order (Imago / Michael Westermann)

The idea is of course also derived from Alain de Botton, who has now said: Let's take a look, as atheists, what kind of exercises or techniques the religions have, for forms of life that we can also live. And that's where I was inspired and then took a closer look at Ignatius von Loyola and also took a closer look at this training program.

"Rewrite Ignatius of Loyola"

Fritz: What does it look like now for atheists - if you leave out the Christian?

Grutzpalk: If you leave out the Christian, you really have to leave out the otherworldly dimension in the first place. This is of course what distinguishes secular humanists from religious people: this assumption that there is a mysterious or divine reference point outside of our lifeworld.

Secular humanists would say: We cannot imagine that. So you have to leave that out. And that is what I also described in the article, how one can rewrite the instructions of Ignatius von Loyola in such a way that no reference point is then used in metaphysics. And of course that is a crucial point that you have to do.

Fritz: Can you give us an example? If I want to meditate now as an atheist, what does it look like?

Grutzpalk: I can worry about the world. I can sit down and pick one thought that interests me most. I described this in an article with the question: What does it look like with power? Who can have power? Who is not allowed to have power? What does it mean to have power? How do I live with other people when I have power or when they have power? That is such a thought that you can play it through and think it through and then come to no particular result at all, but actually enjoy the fact that you have thought it through once.

Fritz: Why actually a Christian practice? Yoga or Buddhist meditation is actually much more modern, be it to reduce stress or to focus on certain topics, as you have just mentioned.

Grutzpalk: Yes, it is actually a question that I have been asked a number of times in relation to this article. A very banal reason is that I hardly know anything about Eastern meditation practices. Well, I really have little knowledge of that. That's why I came back to the things I know. And I actually know myself ... I have studied comparative religious studies, I know the religious practices of Catholicism or Protestantism very well and then I chose that as a point of reference.

"Just sit down for a few minutes"

Fritz: How strong is the need of atheists for immersion, for meditation? What did you discover there?

Grutzpalk: Oh, that's mixed. So, there are ... the reactions were 'from - to' across the board. There were those who screamed out and said: We are rationalists, we don't need any of this, it's all trinkets. Right down to those who said: Yes, of course, I do that every day. So, I actually just sit down for a few minutes and think about something and give myself the calm and serenity to let this thought affect me as well.

"We secular humanists also live in an imaginary world"

Fritz: What role does spirituality actually play in this? Where is the line between meditation, immersing yourself in problems or unsolved riddles and where does spirituality begin for you?

Grutzpalk: Yes, of course that is a very exciting question. I would view spirituality as problematic for me if I had to assume the existence of spiritual beings for it. There is this rule of thumb in religious studies: What is a religion? Then one says "belief in spiritual beings", i.e. personalities or objects that have a spiritual quality. I would have to deny that for a humanist of secular provenance. I would say we can't believe that.

We cannot imagine that there are angels or we cannot imagine that there are spirit beings. Nor can we imagine that there is a God. So if that is what spirituality means and you have to refer to it, to such a metaphysical personality, then it becomes difficult for us. Conversely, of course, we also have to admit that people are metaphysical beings by virtue of their existence. There is a wonderful text by Heidegger - "What does thinking mean" - where he asks exactly this question. Can't we actually not be metaphysical? So, can we manage to completely deny metaphysics for us? And he says it's not possible at all. So, language alone enables us to talk about things that are not there. And that means I'm already talking about absence.

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) (imago / United Archives International)

That means that we secular humanists also naturally live in an imaginary world. And I believe that spirituality can then mean: I think about my imagined world. I can do that. I can imagine that. I can grasp what I think, I can grasp what other people think, what that means. And, if spirituality can mean that, i.e. dealing with your own thoughts and with the thoughts of other people, then that is something that is no problem at all for secular humanists.

Fritz: There is also the completely non-religiously motivated search for a spiritual connection to infinity, for example. Would that also be something for atheists?

Grutzpalk: Not for me personally. I know people who are looking for the all-one. I always find it interesting. In the Islamic context that is the tawheed, the all-one, which summarizes everything. I personally …

"I am religious-musical"

Fritz: So echoes of Islamic mysticism?

Grutzpalk: Yes, absolutely. And the success of Islamic mysticism can certainly be explained by such a search. So, I can understand the enthusiasm for this contact with the All-One. I am emotional there. I always say I'm religious-musical. Well, Max Weber always cheated his way out of religious debates by saying: I'm not religious-musical. On the contrary, I would say that I am religious-musical and I understand that. I understand how people feel, but it's not something that knocks me off my feet personally now. So, I'm not doing the search, and even now I wouldn't necessarily see it for a core stock of secular endeavors.

"The world is something very, very amazing"

Fritz: Are there atheists who can do something with Islamic, Christian, Jewish mysticism?

Grutzpalk: Well, I think what we really have in common is that some time ago we had a conversation here in Bielefeld with the religions that have just arrived in East Westphalia, where "new" is a relative term, so with primarily Islamic representatives, of course. And what united us there, and I think you have to make it clear to yourself again and again that we are always united as people, is that in the end we sit down and say: We don't know. We don't know what the world is like. None of us know that. Yes?

Religious people have the hope that their message is true, that there is a Creator God who did all of this with an intention and also designed this with love. Non-religious people do not have this hope. Perhaps they have the hope that they will find out what holds the world together inside.

But this sheer ignorance of the complexity of reality, I found it very impressive that we could all admit that to each other and say: One can only be amazed. The world is something very, very amazing.

"I see a dividing line in the mysterious"

Fritz: Somehow that sounds a bit religious anyway, even if it's not religious. Do you think that with all the different ideas that may exist among non-religious people with regard to spirituality, the line between believers and non-believers is blurring?

Grutzpalk: I could imagine. Although I ... like I said, I think I really see the main difference in this spirit being. Be it a god or several angels or whatever figures you can imagine. In any case, I would first of all want to say for myself that this is really a dividing line after all, where people say that, I can't imagine that.

I cannot imagine that there is a mysterious parallel world that I am not in contact with. I have my difficulties with that. Just as I have difficulties with such eternal truths, when people arrive and say: "Oh, I found an ancient book, there are truths in it that are only really coming out now." And then I always think: "Oh weia!" Well, I can't imagine that. So how is that supposed to work? We know a lot more about the world now than we did a few hundred years ago. How are any people supposed to have written really clever things a few hundred years ago? So, I'm extremely cautious about that. I have the scientific skepticism that rides me there.

And I think that is how many secular humanists feel that they then say: I understand a lot of the spiritual needs that I also share with religious people, but I see a dividing line in the mysterious and in the relation to something invisible to me.

Fritz: That was Johannes Grutzpalk on meditation for atheists. Thank you very much for talking to us, Mr. Grutzpalk.

Grutzpalk: Gladly.

Statements by our interlocutors reflect their own views. Deutschlandfunk does not adopt the statements of its interlocutors in interviews as its own.