Faith and Fairy Tales

If there’s one thing you don’t want to do in the process of indoctrinating someone to a belief system, it’s telling that someone to study science.  Science and religion are both processes by which some form of truth is sought.  Religion tends to teach trust.  Science teaches us to look at evidence.

This is why, so often, the two are painted as opposites.  As enemies.

And that is why I am no longer in the faith I was raised in.  I was taught the faith, but I was also sent to school to learn and excel.  I was encouraged to take advanced classes, to be a good student.  So I did.  And I learned.  I learned to look at the world around me.  To look for evidence.  To not ignore certain pieces of evidence.

So what I learned to question most about my home faith was its method of verifying truth.  If the truth I was taught didn’t match with the evidence in reality, how were we so sure it was the truth?

Now, I will absolutely admit to trying to reconcile the two.  I didn’t know what it was called at the time, but for a while I followed the lead of those around me and got pretty good at apologetics.  It could get complicated, but there are all sorts of explanations one can come up with to bridge the gap between fact and faith.

But over time, those structures inevitably begin to crack.

If it takes that much effort to map reality to faith, faith to reality, then is your truth really true?  If you have to exclude evidence to validate your beliefs, isn’t your truth a lie?

Useful spirituality needs to apply to reality as it is, not as we imagine it to be.

Does your belief system describe reality or fiction?

The More You Know

These days, information on just about anything is easy to find.  An argument over the lyrics of a song can be settled in seconds with a smart phone.  Rare, age-old documents can be read online even though the original sits protected halfway around the world.  If we want to know something about spiritual views different from our own, that information is likely very few clicks away.

Truth, however, is more difficult to locate than ever.  And if, as I would imagine most people believe, religion and spirituality is about finding truth, the glut of info can either help or hinder that search.

Now, I’m a big fan of the glut of info.  But our approaches to spiritual truth largely still rest on the old idea that once you’ve found what you believe to be truth, all falsehoods need to be avoided.  If you’ve found THE TRUTH, poking about in dangerous misinformation might destroy that connection.

I grew up in such a tradition.  Not only were certain topics taught as wrong or mistaken, but reading about them was a grave misdeed.  If we wanted information on those paths with which we were unfamiliar but curious, we were to trust the judgment and assessment of those on our side and never listen to those who walked those paths.

It should probably be no surprise to anyone that I ended up spiritually where I am now. I was the kid who checked out books on the paranormal and claimed I had to read them for a class if they were found.  I’ve never liked knowing information was being withheld from me.  In fact, even when I was a committed believer, I knew it didn’t make sense to simultaneously claim that our beliefs were objectively true and undeniable, that our faith would protect us from evil, and that it was wrong to learn about other belief systems because we could be lured away or something.

Censorship is never beneficial.

Knowledge is always desirable.

How much do you know about the spiritual paths which diverge from your own?

In Someone Else’s Footsteps

All through my long spiritual life journey, I can’t say I’ve ever really had a guide, teacher, mentor, or instructor.  Even when such relationships are purposefully arranged (for instance, when I became Catholic I had a sponsor who was supposed to guide me through the process), I don’t tend to use that person as intended.  Perhaps it’s because I’ve never met anyone who seemed to be further along a specific spiritual path along which I desired to tread.  Perhaps it’s because I’m too arrogant to accept that someone else can teach me more than I can find through my own research.

In any case, I know many of my friends in pagan circles have turned to mentors and teachers to guide them through initiatory paths.  It’s a spiritual process I’m intrigued by. What would I look for in a spiritual guide or instructor if I were to seek one?  And what would have to happen to make me want to seek one?

If spirituality is a journey, organized religion is something like being part of a tour group. You don’t have to worry about getting lost, the path is established and secured, and all you really have to do is get on and off the bus when told and stay with your group.  What you don’t see, though, is all the really enriching off-the-beaten-path stuff.  It’s safe, but it’s also pre-packaged, and you’re thrust together with people you may or may not wish to travel with.

In the same analogy, studying under a mentor or spiritual teacher is like hiring a guide to show you around a foreign place.  It’s not something most of us would do as travelers unless we anticipated having difficulty communicating, navigating, or avoiding danger.  A guide can take you nearly anywhere, if they’re willing to do so, and their job is to facilitate your progress more than direct it.

And that, I think, is the crux of why I’ve never felt the need for a mentor or guide in my spiritual life.  I’m confident in my own ability to pick a direction and navigate the path without assistance, and, in fact, prefer to do so.  I don’t want to be led along a well-traveled path, stepping in the footsteps of those who have gone before.  It’s not the kind of traveling my spiritual self prefers.

Do you have someone you consider a guide or a mentor on your spiritual journey?  How did you find them and what made you choose them?

Where do you expect them to take you?

Engage the Masses

The second element of a religion is that there is a community of adherents, a collective belief and practice.  Activism is like that, too, in that there is a coalition of people and organizations for just about any particular concern of focus a person could have.  And each time events draw people together to fight against something or fight for something, there emerges a community with its own name and agenda.

In fact, I think that’s one of the best things about times like this when we’re compelled to stand up for humanity as a matter of great urgency:  we come together.  We connect with each other over a desire to do good, to make the world better.  Unlike most religions, activism comes with the sense that solitary practice has little impact.  It’s not about the individual, it’s about the collective.  A necessary part of activism is to join your efforts with the efforts of a large number of others, because that’s the point at which things actually begin to happen.

This gives activists the reassurance that the small amount of change or effort we can produce on our own is backed by the larger collective, that our struggle is not solitary and that we are not alone.  In addition, there’s the added element of knowing that one’s efforts are needed by other activists, that what we are able to do is valued by those who are striving towards the same goals.  Unlike many traditional religions, activism tends to draw people into group participation and collective bonding rather than pushing them into increasingly solitary prayer and devotion.  There is no benefit to keeping ideas and knowledge to oneself in activism.  Any effort is amplified by participation, and there are no rewards for attempting to solve problems alone.

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.