Ash Wednesday for a Non-Believer

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People are mystified by how I can be religious without believing. One thing I find incredibly affecting is the Ash Wednesday service: periods of silence, and then having ashes put on your head and being told ‘Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return’.

I had a vivid experience this time of realising that, after recent personal success, I’ve started to be a bit reliant on that personal success for my sense of self-worth, which has impacted me morally and spiritually, a little bit. I think this is why it’s hard to be rich and spiritually fulfilled (camels through eyes of needles and all that): because it’s hard not to get reliant on wealth, comfort, and success, for your sense of who you are.

The Author

I am a philosopher and consciousness researcher at Durham University, UK. My research focuses on how to integrate consciousness into our scientific worldview.


  1. Jinkun Han says

    Maybe that’s why wealthy ones oftentimes feel obligated to be involved in philanthropy work, as a mean.
    t’s hard to find an end within oneself, since (in my opinion) the process of searching for independent intrinsic values easily leads to nihilism and inaction. (which has been bothering me lately)

    Maybe that’s why most people find peace within religion – the end has become a divine figure so that prevents one from probing deeper into her inner-self.

  2. I attempted to write something one time on a sense of the sacred independent of any belief generally regarded as religious. Years ago I was much impressed with Religion Without Revelation by Julian Huxley. There is so much wrong with religion but there is still a need it fulfills. I’m not sure exactly how well Huxley’s would work to satisfy that need.

  3. Neil Macdonald says

    Religion, or if you like, a spirituality that demands more of us than self-satisfied naval gazing, draws us out of ourselves into a larger whole, and reminds us of our obligations to each other and to the cosmos. As Jinkun Han notes, it’s hard to find an end within ourselves without retreating into nihilsm.

    The older I get, the more I realize how deeply interconnected we are with each other and nature. A walk in the woods; a simple conversation with a friend; moving through a crowd; playing with a child: so many small moments in my life reveal to me how deeply embedded we are in this world.

    Philip reminds us that wealth and accomplishments often isolate us from our world and obscure those deep connections. ‘Twas ever thus, but the consequences have never been more dire than they are today.

  4. Steven Evans says

    “after recent personal success”

    Have you derived a single fact about matter or a single step towards an explanation of consciousness from your theory of panpsychism which is supposedly an ontology of matter and an explanation of consciousness?
    No, you haven’t. So you mean that you have had “success” making money and gaining attention by lying. So you are a fraud. It’s not surprising you are attracted to religion as it is also a fraud.

    “My research focuses on how to integrate consciousness into our scientific worldview.”
    Tell us even one step you have made in this direction. You are a complete crank.

    • Ryan Clark says

      I *really* like Sabine, but she clearly doesn’t have a clue what she’s talking about in this article. She blatantly conflates conscious-like behavior for consciousness itself when she complains that electrons show no sign of being conscious. It is, frankly, an idiotic mistake on her part, and I can only conclude that she has literally never read a single paper by Goff or any of his contemporaries in philosophy of mind. The ignorance+arrogance on display is almost Trumpian.

      I’ve always held physicists up as my intellectual heroes, but there seems to be a wave of arrogance combined with absolute ignorance infecting the community lately. Their ignorance of what philosophy actually is is really unfortunate. They should read some history about the founders of quantum mechanics, most of whom had great respect for philosophy, many of whom were convinced that consciousness is fundamental, and many of whom likely would have never made the theoretical breakthroughs they did had they had the attitude of some of today’s theoretical physicists.

      • Ryan Clark says

        Actually, I take back what I said about it being almost Trumpian. It’s just Trumpian. And it’s extremely disappointing.

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