Perhaps I Should Wear a Warning Label

Ironically, of all the big revelations I’ve made to people about who I am and what I believe, my atheism is the one thing which strikes people as dangerous and detrimental. And I know it’s not unusual.  I know I’m not alone in that.  Atheism scares people. The roots of religion in the modern world run extremely deep.

It’s as if modern humanity is only now rediscovering that it’s possible to live without believing in a god.

In some ways, ironic as it is, it’s not surprising at all.  The predominant understanding of the history of mankind is that as soon as we properly existed as humans, we worshiped something.  The fact that research doesn’t back up the teachings of early missionary anthropologists doesn’t make its way into popular culture, so we’ve been fed a story of natural human spirituality and religion for centuries.

And if we believe that we’ve always worshiped a higher power, that this belief in a god is natural and ancient and simply a fact of our existence, it’s in some ways not hard to see how a dramatic break from that can be seen as a threat.  We threaten the presumed natural order of things.  Our existence challenges the very beliefs which underpin cultures worldwide.  If humans have always believed in a higher power, then what are we?

To be fair, atheists really do threaten the status quo.  The simple fact that many people question whether atheists have a sense of morality paints a stark picture of how deeply ingrained the idea that religion is natural to human existence really is.  We stand in counterpoint to ideas which have been used to create and shape and enforce societal standards for centuries, for good or bad.  So in that sense, I suppose we can be pretty scary.

Still, it’s pretty ironic that, held up against all the atrocities committed throughout history in the name of religion, the mere lack of belief in a deity would strike so many as so dangerous.

Has anyone ever told you that your beliefs were dangerous?



Welcome to the Real World

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been part of a handful of spiritual paths over the years.  I was raised in an evangelical Protestant family, became Catholic after graduating college, began studying Wicca and neopaganism a few years after that, then became something of an atheistic pagan.  I think religions and spiritual paths, much like jobs, are left out of dissatisfaction.  Very rarely are people lured away.

As a boss, I know that for the most part employees quit when they reach a point where the negatives of a job outweigh the positives.  If they’re out searching for new jobs, they’ve already decided to leave.  And very rarely do new jobs pop up that are so enticing that satisfies employees are willing to take a chance on a job change.

Similarly, I’ve known a lot of people who leave churches and religions because they reach a point where the questions and disagreements and discomfort outweigh the benefits of staying.  If they’re actively searching for a new church home, they’ve already decided to leave the previous one.  Very rarely do new spiritual paths lure committed and faithful people away from a spiritual path they find to be fulfilling and true.

I left the familiar Protestant faith I was raised in not because the Catholic Church was offering me a better deal, but because I realized that, without my family there to provide me special opportunities and incentive to participate, I had no personal desire to continue attending that kind of church.  It didn’t fit me.  That church was centered on the idea that it was our responsibility to center our lives entirely on god, to throw ourselves into church activities and seek to convert others.  Even then, I felt it was irresponsible and counterproductive to push a faith on others, if not dangerous.  That faith did not paint a realistic picture of what I thought it should mean to be a Christian.

I left Catholicism not because paganism looked so much better, but because I stopped feeling that I was getting anything out of my church experience.  I’d lost interest in going to Mass because I didn’t come away feeling like I’d really benefited from it.  I disagreed with too much of the Church’s doctrines and felt that it did not paint a realistic picture of how humans should be treated and respected.

I stopped studying traditional neopagan spirituality because I started feeling rather silly pretending to call upon deities and beings I didn’t thing really existed.  I didn’t feel that it painted a realistic picture of the workings of the universe and the relationship between humans and the planet.

And I think I’m pretty normal in that regard.  People leave religions when they start questioning too much.  They leave when their perception of reality stands at odds with the teachings and dogmas they’re being asked to embrace.  And this is important right now because there are so many people leaving organized religion these days.  Whether you think that is a good thing or a bad thing, it’s very clearly a sign that religious teachings as they stand are not proving to be accurate when measured against the experience of current reality.

If religion fails to speak to reality, what good is it?

An Atheist’s Faith

I wrote a while back on how social activism could, really, be a spiritual path of its own.  Admittedly, I’ve been consumed with these thoughts in tandem with being consumed with social activism.  Learning about various upheavals and movements in school did not adequately prepare me for the reality of times like these, where I can see all the horrible decisions being made and I am filled with the drive to do something to resist and fight back, and yet so many people around me seem to be unconcerned.  But the deep knowledge that this fight is important, that it is vital, is all-consuming.

Anyway, as I’ve been thinking about how this new reality feels a lot like religion did as a kid growing up in the church, I decided to look up the generally accepted list of characteristics of a religion to see how closely this fits.  I may not believe in a deity, but I do strongly believe that what is going on in the world is destructive and hateful and wrong.  In fact, my belief in that fact is much stronger than my faith in a god ever was.  My participation in this feels exceedingly more fulfilling and powerful than participation in religion ever did.  If I am to have a religion, I feel comfortable in stating that my religion is the resistance.

So, the first of the 8 elements of religion is that a religion has a belief system or worldview.  Many place the whole of creation under a deity or group of deities, or at least place humanity there.  Some have a hierarchy for humanity itself.  There is usually some goal or intent placed upon humans or living beings, some reason we exist at all.

Frankly, as an atheist, none of these make any sense to me.  But the ideal which has pushed to the forefront of my life over the last few months – that of equality and basic human rights for all people – is clear and logical.

This may just be me, but I’ve always thought of the kind of activism we’re seeing now as reactionary more than anything.  People protest things or demand specific rights and concessions in response to specific events and changes in the world around them.  What has, I think, generally kept me from considering activism as a form of spiritual practice or path is the difference between fighting for or against a specific thing and working towards a larger worldview.  Now, as I think about it, I realize that activism would be better served by focusing more on the latter than the former.  Certainly the work towards justice and equality won’t end if one group of protesters get their specific demands satisfied.  There will still be more work to do, more hurdles to clear.  There will ALWAYS be more.

In fact, we will not see the absolute attainment of our goals in our lifetimes.  We know this.  The work must be ongoing, and therefore this movement almost naturally becomes something akin to a religion.  It can invade every aspect of life, this drive to fight wrongs and make the world better, in a manner otherwise only duplicated by religion.  And there is no shortage of ways to integrate the struggle into one’s life.

For atheists, the idea that humanity is responsible for its own survival and evolution can, I think, quite comfortably take the place of religious dogmas in a meaningful practice.  It requires no faith other than that which keeps you fighting and working.  And, perhaps, that’s the hardest part of this.  If our worldview is that all humans are meant to be treated justly and as equals, it suggests that we have to believe the goal is, at some level, attainable.  That our work actually gets us somewhere.  And that’s where things get difficult.  When it seems the world is hurtling towards hate and injustice and tyranny despite all we can manage to do, it’s easy to lose hope.

It is, perhaps, the one type of faith we atheists can comfortably hold onto.

Atheists in Foxholes

They say there are no atheists in foxholes.  And yet, here we are, many of us feeling as if the battle has come to our doorsteps, and from what I have seen there has been no rush to a belief in the divine.  Instead we’re rising up, pulling together, raising voices.

So, is the aphorism simply false, or is there a different kind of higher power we’re seeking here?

I wonder now if we’re looking to each other, to our collective strength, as the source of a power we can put our faith in.  In these times of threat and trouble, we’re looking to each other for protection and salvation.  I’m not sure if it’s just because we’ve reached a point in the history of our society where a belief in an actual deity is becoming uncommon enough that humans simply don’t behave the way we used to, or if it’s because the threat is coming under the name of religion, but the world seems to be pinning its hopes on humanity itself rather than god.

It’s an interesting development.  Movements grow to counter oppressive religions, we gather for marches rather than worship, we read the words of revolutionaries rather than spiritual scholars.  We seek to be motivated and inspired more than we seek to be soothed and blessed.  We have reached out to support our neighbors as a way of fighting injustice rather than a way to please a god.  We’ve replaced dogmas with missions, scriptures with manifestos.

And it is beautiful.


Should Activism be the Center of Atheist Spirituality?

In a great many organized religions, some kind of community outreach or service is a main tenet.  Whether or not the spirit of such activities are put into actual practice is a completely different subject, but for many people that is the part of religion that they find somewhat essential.  Religions tell you how to treat others.  They present you with a code and a call to action.  Feed the hungry.  Love your neighbor.  Save the souls of the lost.

In most cases, these calls to service are made in the name of a higher power.  The downtrodden and needy are part of a universe made by a larger force and, in some capacity, entrusted to humans to take care of.  Therefore it is part of the job of the faithful to act as the higher power wants them to.  Of course, in some circles the understanding of atheist thinking is that, if there is no higher power to tell them to be good to each other, humans would just go around killing and stealing and certainly not feeding the homeless.

We know this isn’t true.

Still, if the directive to do good in the world on the behalf of a higher power is a major tenet and major draw of organized religion, doesn’t that suggest that humans have a generalized need to be of service?

I’ve not reached a functional definition or system to my version of spirituality without a deity, but over recent months it has occurred to me that activism and philanthropy in and of itself do a fairly good job of standing in for religion.  After all, the survival of our society, our species, doesn’t rely on the will of a bearded man in the sky, but on our actions here and now.  I can imagine no greater impetus for becoming active in something to improve the world for future generations.

Your God Tells You Who You Are

Our sense of self has a lot to do with how we see our place in the world, in the universe.  And our sense of our place in the greater scheme of things has a lot to do with our spiritual beliefs and our picture of the structure of the cosmos and the powers within it.  So, by extension, our sense of self has a lot to do with our spiritual beliefs.  In effect, the things you choose to believe in get to tell you who you are.

That’s an interesting conclusion for those of us who don’t believe in beings.  Though I have a spiritual life, it’s centered on my own spirit, and the forces I believe in most are the forces in my own mind and soul which I seek to learn to bend to the goal of making myself a better, more effective human being.  So, essentially, my spiritual path tells me that I can be whoever I want to be.

This comes, of course, with some interesting side beliefs.  If I can be whoever I want to be, if there is no all-seeing being out there assessing me and offering up status reports, then the evaluation of how well I’m doing on the quest to be “better” is up to me alone.  The rules for what is acceptable and what needs to be changed about my life falls to me and the people around me to determine.  I get to place the power of authority where I feel it belongs.  Punishment for failure won’t wait until I’m dead, it will be meted out in this life only.

In short, my sense of self and self-worth gets to be measured on more mundane scales, and the honesty of my self-assessment becomes a key factor in how well my spiritual pursuits work out for me.  Again, the things you choose to believe in get to tell you who you are.  If you are honest with yourself, the self you believe in will paint you an accurate picture of who you are and who you can become.  If you are less than honest with yourself, the self you believe in is more likely to tell you that you’re fine the way you are and everyone else just needs to deal with it.

Somewhere Between Missionary Anthropologists and Ancient Aliens…

So, work still progresses very slowly on my Magnum Opus, and when I talk about it with people I admit to struggling with one key factor about its content.  The whole premise of the book is that, by looking at the history of mankind and the evolution of spirituality and religion as we know it, we might be able to cobble together some kind of blueprint for meaningful human spirituality.  That idea is not new.  The secondary idea is that we might also not really be working with an accurate understanding of ancient, especially prehistoric, spiritual thought.  Also, not something I would be the first to assert.  

But how do you tell someone you’re writing about how our common understanding of science might be wrong without sounding like a crackpot?  

The simple fact is that I think we make a lot of biased assumptions when we seek to interpret archaeological evidence.  And let us not forget that much of the earliest work in anthropology was done by missionaries who had an preconceived notion regarding the history of mankind and its place in the universe, not to mention a call to save the natives.

By the same token, I’m no scientist.  I mean, I could have been a scientist, I quite enjoy studying science, but my degree isn’t in science.  

The truth is, though, that what we (and by ‘we’ I mean ‘people who aren’t scientists and therefore get our scientific knowledge through the media and such’) are always several steps behind the current state of scientific understanding.  Papers are constantly being published and new research is being done all the time, much of which contradicts or alters the understandings we’ve previously held to be true.  And discoveries are being made which never make the press because they aren’t exciting to those outside the field.  What we understand about our history is constantly changing, and the more we learn the more we see the bias of the past.

So the point I think I’m making in the book is not that our previous notions about the roots of spirituality in mankind are wrong, but that they could be and that we should be critical of our assumptions.  What happens if we assume that our ancient ancestors had ritual without spiritual underpinnings?  That the presence of artistic expression doesn’t point towards religion?  That not all ancient stories can be read as myth?  It changes our view of what religion does for us, what it means in the context of human development.

Anyway, it’s a struggle to condense all that to a two-sentence blurb that doesn’t make the book sound like some kind of romp into conspiracy territory, or at the very least some kind of atheist propaganda.  But the ultimate point of the work isn’t really about science.  It’s about searching for the reason why some of us are called to ritual, to practice, even when we know there’s nothing particularly sacred behind it all.  What is it we really want, and how can we find it if we don’t want the religious baggage that might come with it?