Nearly two years ago, I participated in several discussions about religion on an online parenting of twins forum . In one of the discussion threads, a religious person decided to throw questions out there for atheists to try to understand an atheist POV a little bit better. I gave my answers (below) but it also spurred me to try to explain further and so I wrote the essay which follows and posted it on my first blog.
Here’s the question and answer essay:
Q. I was just wondering what it's like to be an Atheist.
A. I can't speak for anyone else, but I think it's wonderful! There is an old explanation that goes around atheist discussions that goes something like this: I believe that everyone on the planet is actually atheist, as a matter of fact, and that I am not really very different from modern theists. What I mean by that statement is that most modern theists do not believe in any of the ancient gods, such as Zeus, Jupiter, Odin or Freya, so in that sense they are undeniably atheist. I agree with modern theists that the ancient gods and goddesses never literally existed, and I also believe that the Biblical God likewise never really existed. So what it's like for me to be an atheist is very much what it is like for a theist, except that I disbelieve in one more god than they do.
I do however, believe that the mythos surrounding all of these gods does point to a vital aspect of being human; I think it is reasonable to call it spirituality. I very much value the Bible and the Christian New Testament and all ancient/sacred books, including those which pre-date the Bible and those that came after it (such as the Qur'an and the Book of Mormon) as well as books which were excluded from the sacred canon by men (such as the Gnostic gospels), the dead sea scrolls and any other ancient texts which have been or are yet to be discovered. I think they all point to something beyond literal understanding which is transcendentally human, and reaching toward it, whether through religion, philosophy, science or something else, is very important to all of us. Most of these books were written for a variety of purposes, primarily to share history and culture with future generations, but (somewhat unfortunately, but typically human) also to cement various peoples' claims to superiority and entitlement. I believe that contained in these books there is a mixture of high-minded philosophy, rich cultural stories of deep human significance, obvious attempts to explain the natural world and finally, rather base attempts to enshrine political, social and territorial goals into some sort of permanent record, and to justify the actions which people took to achieve these goals.
It is all fantastic and wonderful to me, and it's pretty much been my lifelong avocation to study religion, holy texts, and scholarly books discussing religion and its importance to human beings. It may sound corny, but being an agnostic atheist is one of the greatest joys of my life. I feel extraordinarily privileged to enjoy the intellectual and spiritual freedom of being an interested and enthusiastic student of religion.
Q. From a Christian POV, it's just unimaginable to me.
A. I can't really help with that. It took me a long time to understand that other people don't see religion as I see it, but I don't think their POV is unimaginable to me. It's just that, to me, modern theists seem to settle for such a small part of the entire amazing picture and I prefer the huge potential of a subject I can hardly contain in my thoughts all at once (well, I cannot, because the subject is too vast and splendid -thanks Cathy, excellent word!); I know many people who speak of their belief in God in this manner, and I totally get what they are saying. For me, there is no conflict with this, because I consider the use of God as the word to try to describe the indescribable to be perfectly valid and historically traditional. I'm all for that. Where our thinking diverges is where I think of God as a mythical concept that points toward universal truth, my theist friends think of God as a literal Being. I respect that most people prefer things that way and I totally understand their feelings. It isn't unimaginable to me that they would feel or think like this, it is just not the way I feel or think.
Q. Do you absolutely believe there is no God/Higher Power?
Absolutely not! I don't pretend to be absolutely� sure about anything for which there is inadequate evidence or even no evidence at all. However, as Bertrand Russell famously said in his book of essays, Why I Am Not A Christian, I cannot say for certain either that there is not a teapot orbiting the planets, invisible to the naked eye...but I do think it is reasonable to believe that a teapot in a space orbit is so unlikely that I can call myself "aorbitalteapot". I feel as certain as that about the Biblical God, whom I consider to be exactly like the gods and goddesses which preceded him...human fabrications used to explain natural events, offer the comfort of imagining a higher power watching over them in times of crisis (sort of a parental figure, which is what most of us long for when we are in trouble or afraid so I think this role assigned to God is perfectly natural and its genesis is not difficult to figure out), but perhaps most of all (and least noble of all), a higher authority upon whom ancient peoples were able to justify their own political and social and cultural ambitions. I do not condemn this aspect of it, though; in those days, life was a constant struggle for survival and as humankind began to evolve more complex brains and critical- and creative-thinking ability, it stands to reason that they would begin to use these new skills to augment their physical survival skills. I think it was wonderfully resourceful of ancient peoples, actually.
As for a higher power that may be suggested or pointed toward through the mythos, that I feel is far more likely, though not at all in the way people usually mean by "higher power". I believe that the higher power in our universe is likely within all of us and within all living things. However, it is power we are probably several millennia from understanding or being able to harness for good, because I don't think we've evolved enough yet to overcome our more primitive urges and needs. Nevertheless, my concept of what the true higher power is gives me tremendous hope for humankind. I do believe that this power is there, that we see it evolving before our eyes in the striving of more and more individuals for justice and peace. While we have not yet come anywhere close to realizing our full human potential, we are evolving steadily toward it. This fills me with joyful faith in humanity. My faith is never shaken by terrible events or human evil because I understand that evolution is a gradual process, and at this point in our evolution, cruel behaviour borne of the still-strong, primitive competition for survival, is normal and to be expected, even though I am appalled by it. It will be a long journey, but we will get there.
Q. Do you not participate in religious holidays at all?
I definitely do! I participate in as many religious (and non-religious!) holidays as I possibly can, and with great enthusiasm! I try to honor the mythos and traditions that come with every holiday. I believe that all of the holidays, both religious and secular (and a few which are both! ) belong to everyone, as they grew out of the long traditions and cultural development of all of our ancestors. I celebrate Christmas (Both Santa and the baby Jesus story, Yuletide and Winter Solstice), New Years, Epiphany (the myth of the Three Kings is one of my favorites from way back!), Chinese New Year, Lent (so refreshing for the spirit!), Easter/Spring, Passover, Pentecost, St John's day, Memorial Day/Canada Day (July 1), Independence Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving...and many others!
Q. Do you believe we all have a spirit/soul?
Not in the accepted Christian sense, no. I do believe however in a different sort of life force/spirit/soul. I believe that there is a unique spark of energy which inhabits our bodies while we are alive. It is pure and bright and joyful and a spark of the life source itself.
Q. If so, does it live on after bodily death? If so, where does it go?
Perhaps it becomes one with the universe when we die. It may also leave our bodies and join the life forces in the living things around us. I love to contemplate this when I think about loved ones who have died. I'm aware that much of what I let myself believe on this subject is what I want to believe, which is what I think most people do when contemplating an "afterlife". I have no idea what really happens of course, but if the stories others believe sooth the pain of losing a loved one (or soothes the fear of where we are going ourselves after we die), I have no quibble with any of them. I believe that is one of the purposes of the mythos of afterlife. And a perfectly sensible one it is, given our human fear of death! I marvel at the resourcefulness and creativity of our ancient ancestors! Truly, religion is one of the most wonderful, early creative inventions of humankind. I see it as the earliest sign of the leap in cognitive evolution, as a matter of fact. Wow.
Q. Were you brought up as Athiests or did you decide on your own later in life?
No, I was not brought up atheist, I was brought up a Catholic in a very open-minded, diversity-loving, widely-travelled, book-stuffed household. I attended Jesuit Catholic school right up to university, and even spent a year in a convent boarding-school pre-Novitiate (1000 miles from home) after high school where I eventually made my decision not to join the religious life (which had been my plan for most of childhood and teen years). I loved my schools and church and was always fascinated by religion, mythos and ritual, with the community of the church and with human behaviour.
I actually never believed that the Biblical mythos was literally true nor that the Biblical god was a literal Being (at least not in my conscious memory) so in that sense I appear to have been born atheist. I thought, rather, that everything we discussed and did in church was deeply meaningful ritual and poetry and art which was symbolically pointing us toward a far greater good (which I understood to be the fulfillment of human potential for good- ie as stewards of the earth, as peaceful co-inhabitants of the earth with other people, animals and other living things, as intelligent beings seeking greater understanding of the universe and our place in it). To me, the religion and the Bible and the beautiful Church rituals and glorious music and liturgies were reaching toward so much more than the literal interpretation of them.
The truly funny thing is this: I thought that was what everyone else thought, too! I thought I was completely normal in my church and that what I understood to be pointing to the greater meaning of it all, was in fact, what everyone else thought and believed! I grew up believing that everyone else considered the Bible readings and lessons to be simply our best acknowledgement (through centuries of wonderful effort and tradition) of our role as human beings and our duty to continue to strive toward fulfilling our role to the best of our ability. I received all of my sacraments blissfully, joyfully convinced that I was completely in line with the Catholic Church's teachings. LOL
It honestly never really occurred to me until I was away from home and in the pre-novitiate, that other people (other than rare cults, I mean) actually did not have the same view of religion as I did. Of course that realization was the main reason why I did not enter into religious life. I was not conflicted about it or upset; life is full of surprises and adventure and my realization only excited me even more about religion, while saving me from a mistaken turn in my personal pathway.
I love my Church, which I grew up loving and supporting always believing that my beliefs were perfectly in line with everyone else s. To this day, I feel completely at home in the Church because I perceive no conflict between my beliefs and church teaching (spiritually). I just hear a more universal message during the scriptural readings, that is all!
Q. Can you share more about your non-beliefs?
What are non-beliefs? LOL That is a question I am not sure how to answer. How about if I share a few more things I do believe?
I can tell you that I believe very strongly in the power of humankind to grow and learn and to become better people, especially as we develop the cognitive skills to understand our environment better and can learn to manage our resources so that survival is not the main concern of the majority anymore. I believe that once survival for a reasonable lifespan is reliably ensured for most people on the planet, cognitive and spiritual development will increase at a faster pace, allowing humankind to gradually approach its eventual potential. I am not talking about overnight, obviously.
As long as human survival is still precarious for a majority of human beings, the primitive pre-occupation with individual survival - with competing for food, territory and mates, and with controlling other people to ensure reproductive success - and the survival and dominance of the tribe or nationality will continue to be a dominant trait in our species. These are all concerns which are instinctive to all living things and which, to me, are very convincing evidence of our evolutionary nature; we share this preoccupation with survival and reproduction, and the fierce competition which has its roots in these, with every living organism on the planet, from the smallest one-celled organism, to the largest animals on earth.
The interesting and amazing thing is how human beings began to develop more complex concerns as tiny pockets of them settled into relative prosperity and began to enjoy freedom from extreme want. Enter: confessional (aka moral) religion. People were still strongly influenced by the still very real concerns about survival, but the small comforts and privations of small pockets of settled humanity allowed people to begin to think about issues other than killing or being killed, starving others or starving themselves, winning land/food/mates or losing them and losing the battle for survival. With the stress of these constant concerns easing slightly, they were able to think about how to make societies better, how to treat their fellow humans better and so forth. That is a huge leap in a very short space of time and with only slightly eased circumstances. Imagine how far we could go if the majority of humankind could enjoy freedom from extreme want for several generations! I have great faith that humankind will reach that happy point, maybe not in my lifetime or my children’s or even grandchildren’s, but it is coming.
This is a huge subject and it would take days to type even a brief overview, but the above is a small sampling of what I believe about the development of humanity and religion. There is so much more, so many avenues to explore, but so little time to type!
Hope that answers your questions and that anyone who tried to read it managed to stay awake!