I have a Hindu friend with whom I enjoy discussions about spirituality and religion. On a number of occasions she’s got me scrambling to clarify my own views (for myself) and to think earnestly about hers. Most recently she commented that although I’m an atheist, surely I believe in a higher power or some kind of spirituality?
My instinct is to shout out: I DO NOT BELIEVE IN ANY HIGHER POWER.
I get stuck on the “higher” part of that concept. But when I really think about it, what I don’t believe in, nay, CAN’T believe in, are deities. There is no part of me that can believe that there are deities with personalities and names and agendas who make decisions about our lives based on our interactions (or lack of interactions) with them or our interactions with each other. I can’t believe in powers that have mysterious “plans” for all of us that we will never know until things happen to us at which point we declare that such-and-such deity planned it all along. To me, that’s just as ridiculous as saying (after an event of note occurs in my life) that my dog planned that to happen for me.
I can’t believe that there are powers (above, below, or anywhere) that have rule books for us to follow. Rule books with outrageous rules like not eating certain foods at the same time, or not having sex until a ritual is performed in just such a way that this personality is satisfied that we are its personal performing monkeys.
From all I can tell, all deities are a projection of the humans that believe in them. Kind of like invisible friends that a bunch of people “see” together based on their particular set of needs, fears, and wishes. Deities are so human in their demands, systems of reward and punishment, and narrowly defined paths of “righteousness” that there is nothing particularly more powerful about them than the humans that believe in them, except for, well, the fact that the humans who believe in them believe they’re more powerful.
So, in the classic and most well understood meaning of “atheist” I AM AN ATHEIST.
I don’t believe being an atheist is superior in any way to believing in deities. I don’t think believing in deities is inherently stupid or that only uneducated people can believe in God (as, apparently, quite a few other atheists do). That would be incredibly stupid of ME as there have been many luminaries of thought in this world who believed in a God or Gods of some stripe.
Not all atheists are arrogant assholes and not all religious people are uneducated bigots, reassurances none of us should have to offer each other but DO because otherwise we fear being lumped in with the worst of our respective affiliations.
But as to spirituality…when I start talking about souls and consciousness I start sounding like a proper hippie/agnostic/whatever. I DO believe all beings have spirits. Animals, insects, plants, water, rocks, air. I believe that all souls have some degree of sentience even if humans are incapable of measuring it. Maybe souls are nothing more than commutable energy. Maybe it’s something wonderfully unchartable. It really doesn’t matter that much to me if souls can’t be quantified or qualified by math or by proof. In this way I think I understand the nature of other people’s religious suspension of disbelief.
It’s enough to me that I feel in my bones the residue of history like unsettled ghosts getting drunk 24 hours a day. It’s enough to me that sometimes I can feel energy shift in the air telling me to get the hell out of whatever place I’m in and have later discovered that horrible things happened in the very place I stood feeling the bad shit coming. It’s enough that I can feel and hear all the spirits in the world being torn to shreds with pain as much as I can feel the exuberance of joy that rushes through a thunder storm making me laugh out loud into the bright clash of sound and fury. These are the experiences that deepen my understanding of the world, that allow me to understand poetry. These are the experiences that allow me to respect people who pray to deities, to reach out to them with love because, for all the things that separate us in ideologies and philosophies, what brings us together is so much greater than any of that.
I don’t believe in literal miracles. Literal miracles always strike me as creepy human wishes made liturgical. There is no such thing as immaculate-fucking-inception. For fuck’s sake, REALLY?
(Don’t get me started on my real feelings about Santa Claus.*)
The greatest revelation I may have ever had and probably will ever have again (good god, I peaked early, my friends!) was the time I was attending math and language classes at Santa Rosa Junior College and the sky opened (as it is wont to do) and I suddenly saw everything around me in terms of math. I’m not kidding. Biggest eye-opener in my life. There is nothing that can’t be described with math if you have enough data and math skills. It verges on magical, yet isn’t magic. Math is a language more precise than words but is structured in sentences and has grammar and all kinds of requirements for agreements with subjects and verbs. Math is as beautiful and as generally misunderstood as poetry is.
I looked all around me and realized that every object, every action, every interaction, every sound, and every thought has a correlating mathematical expression and that’s as close as I ever came to believing in miracles.
This is spirituality to me: Language. Love. Math. Reason. Music. Science. Beer. Poetry. Reciprocity. Interconnectivity. Soil. Avocados. Evolution. Forgiveness.
*Philip knows. Max Knows. Jay knows. Anyone who knows me really well already knows my feelings about Santa Clause and no one wants to hear me say it out loud again.