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Spirituality for the Godless: Buddhism, humanism, and religion by Michael McGhee

13 May 2022

Paul Edmondson reads about learning to live without belief in God

PHILOSOPHERS should meditate. Words need time and plenty of silence to be properly digested, to feed us, and to turn into a lived-out moral action. Michael McGhee was brought up a Roman Catholic and is now a practising Buddhist. He is an Honorary Senior Fellow in Philosophy at the University of Liverpool.

He does not promote a definition of spirituality which believes in a supernatural “other” (there is no incarnation or promise of immortality here), but instead iterates the importance of a mindful humanity and a moral engagement with philosophy and poetry. For the believer, McGhee enables an analysis of how and why faith is lived out; for the non-believer, he provides access to the language and grammar of faith, “the possibility of insight”.

A 93-year-old friend of mine takes pride in her philosophical training, her passport to agnosticism/atheism, which permits her often to declare that “faith is only a matter of belief.” She accepts the moral teachings of Christianity, rejects its supernatural claims, believes in ghosts, does not want a funeral, and regularly partakes in home communion. I will lend her my copy of Spirituality for the Godless.

McGhee’s book broadly admits anyone who might identify as a “cultural” or “moral” religious person — the humanist — and explores what that might mean: transformation of the individual, the formation of an inner freedom, an empathetic mind, and a sympathetic and moral personhood that tries to cope in a suffering world.

His discussion finds roots in Spinoza, Kant, Wittgenstein, Sartre, Nietzsche, and Freud, but also in the poetry of Blake, Hopkins, Eliot, Hughes, Rilke, Yeats, Wordsworth, and Shakespeare. He cites Islamic and Judaic writers, as well as Christian and Buddhist ones. If philosophy can be understood as a spiritual practice — replete as it is with imagination, metaphor, and “self-overcoming” — then “the life of the philosopher is to be found in the integrated totality” of religion, poetry, and philosophy.

His explorations emanate from his own Buddhist practice. He asks: “How can we live well, how can we live now?”, and specifically considers “how Buddhism can offer a non-theistic contribution to an intercultural conception of the philosophy of religion”.

The following two Twitter posts caught my attention in rapid succession while I was pondering McGhee’s book. The first from Pope Francis to 18.8 million followers: “Together with #StFrancis we praise you, Father, with all your creatures who have come forth from your powerful hands. They are yours and are filled with your presence and tenderness.” The second from the Dalai Lama to 19.2 million followers: “If you are motivated by a wish to help on the basis of kindness and compassion and respect, then you can do any kind of work, in any field, and function more effectively with less fear or worry, not being afraid of what others think or whether you will ultimately reach your goal.”

McGhee’s book helps us to say to say “Amen” to both.

The Revd Dr Paul Edmondson is Head of Research for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and an Associate Minister at St Andrew’s Church, Shottery.


Spirituality for the Godless: Buddhism, humanism, and religion
Michael McGhee
Cambridge University Press £22.99
Church Times Bookshop £20.69

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