Spirituality Without God

A Global History of Thought and Practice

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Peter Heehs
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , November
     296 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Spirituality as distinct from religion is a hot topic today. Many books, conferences, organizations, and journals have arisen to study and promote new religious movements, alternative religions, spiritualities, and the rise of individualistic beliefs.

Spirituality Without God: A Global History of Thought and Practice is Peter Heehs’ attempt at a global history of spirituality without God. However, his study is limited to the nontheistic religions and spiritualities in “South Asia, East Asia, and the West” during the last 3,000 years (31). This book focuses on “religions and spiritualities that do not require belief in the supernatural.” This book was not written to prove the truthfulness, or lack thereof, of any belief system. Rather, it sets forth the “development” of nontheistic religions and spiritualities (5). Heehs describes his book as “a web of histories leading up to the recent appearance of spirituality” without God (34).

That web includes “the birth and growth of nontheistic religions and philosophies such as Jainism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, Epicureanism, Skepticism, the spread of unbelief, atheism, and agnosticism, the turn towards secularism and humanism, and the emergence of spirituality as distinct from religion” (34). 

Heehs also defines his use of the terms “religion” and “spirituality.” “Religion” refers to systems of belief that include “superhuman” beings (7). “Spirituality” is used in its current sense as the “opposite” of religion (10). This usage is a change in the word’s meaning from its former usage. Modern spirituality is seen to have three basic characteristics: “subjectivity, autonomy, and individual practice” (31).

Heehs traces the beginnings of theistic and nontheistic belief systems. In the earliest days, theistic beliefs were based on “magic.” During the Bronze Age (3300 – 300 BCE) the concept of sacrifice came to the fore across Eurasia and “the great cosmic gods were born” (34). A technological revolution between 1200 and 600 BCE laid the groundwork for what Heehs terms the Axial Age, during which philosophies and religions that “downplayed the importance of spirits and gods” arose in India, China, and Greece. These philosophies and religions (Jainism, Ajivism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, Epicureanism, and Stoicism) contained the “main characteristics” of modern spirituality—subjectivity, autonomy, and individual effort (69). The rise of monotheistic religions is also noted (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam).

The period following the Axial Age (200 BCE - 300 CE) saw the continued development of nontheistic religions and philosophies in India, China, and Greece.

The rise of theistic religions from 200 BCE to 200 CE is understood by Heehs as a moving away from worship centered in sacrifice, and towards worship as adoration of a personal deity. The “propagation” of theism is seen to accompany the rise and spread of “empire” (102). Theistic religions are viewed by Heehs as fostering “intolerance” and “violence” (137). From 200 BCE to the 1500s CE theistic religions replaced Bronze Age sacrificial religions and the nontheistic philosophies of earlier ages. Some nontheistic philosophies and religions—Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, Jainism, Samkhya, and others—survived this period of time (137). The Reformation is viewed as opening “the way” for the rise of “subjective spirituality” (103).

For Heehs, the scientific discoveries of the 17th century mark the beginning of the decline of theism. The decline in religious authority, confined to the West during the 17th and 18th centuries, was due to the isolationism of China, India, and the Islamic world. Religion held its own in the West for about half of the 17th century, but the influence of “science and philosophy” moved many religious people to “pietism, quietism, and evangelicalism,” and to “base their faith on feeling and intuition rather than scripture and tradition.” This shift prepared the way “for subjective spirituality.” The continued existence of “Epicureanism and Skepticism,” along with the rise of science, enabled the possibility of “philosophical disbelief.” It is during this time that spirituality “and godlessness … began to come together” (141).

The 19th century was a period of “political, economic, social... cultural,” and “religious” upheaval. Traditional religions were “challenged by new religions, imported religions, substitutes for religion and irreligion.” Writers such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, George Eliot, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote about “pantheism, agnosticism,” and “even outright atheism.” Nature, music, poetry, and art came to be viewed as “surrogate religions.” Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species (1859) is stated to be the “most influential book” published in the 19th century (169). Religions came to be understood more as “human creations” than divinely revealed (170). Reason overcame revelation in prominence. 

Missionary work (described by Heehs as “aggression”) and European scholarship pushed the adherents of Hinduism and Buddhism to package their beliefs as “based on personal experience.” These ideas became “components of modern spirituality” (170). 

The components of modern “godless spirituality” are “atheism, subjectivity, rejection of institutional religion, and individual striving.” The word spirituality began to express the idea of alternative belief systems, and “spirituality” began to be understood as “compatible with science” (200). It was during this period of time that the sacred began to be secularized.

In his conclusion, Heehs states that the modern world finds itself in an “unprecedented situation” given that there are “hundreds of millions of people” who classify themselves as “atheists” and “agnostics” who have “no interest” in religion, and who feel no lack of anything without it. This new situation does not mean that religion, or even theistic spiritualities have died out. The spread of Eastern religions in the West has significantly contributed to the rise of modern “Western spirituality” (227). 

Heehs’ research into godless spirituality has led him to greater “respect for religious people” (234). He also expresses concerns about the “spiritual but not religious” people who “become intolerantly” fundamentalistic in their opposition to other beliefs (236).

Spirituality Without God should be read by all professors at seminaries around the world. It is helpful for gaining insight and understanding in the rise of modern nontheistic religions and spiritualities. It would be an excellent book for use in Christian evangelism classes. It also provides an historical framework for those today who are nontheistic. It should also help build understanding between theists and nontheists.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Armand Boehme is Associate Pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Northfield, MN.

Date of Review: 
August 8, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Peter Heehs is an Independent Scholar based in India.


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