Lately, I’ve been pondering whether atheist is a label that truly fits me. I’ve identified as an atheist for nearly twenty years and yet, when I experience contemporary expressions of atheism that grace the internet, bookstores, and talk shows, I am lead to question whether I fit in with the larger crowd. The conclusion that I keep on reaching is in the general neighborhood of “no.” I am struck by the intolerant tenor that has arisen within contemporary atheism and I am left wondering if I should set sail for calmer oceans. As I ponder this quandary, I’m not certain if there is a label or a movement that I am truly willing to embrace.
This uncertainty rests upon far more than simple discomfort with intemperate voices. You see, I am a deeply spiritual person. I have been for many years now, in spite of my godless ways. My spirituality is an important part of my life. At its core, my spirituality registers as a bone-deep sense of connection with that which is: people, nature, the universe, and everything. Some might wonder how an atheist managed to embrace such airy-fairy, “New-Age” sentiments. Well, as a human being, I am a deeply social creature and as an outgrowth of my social nature, it is only natural for me to seek out a sense of connection with all that surrounds me. Why should I not embrace this? It is in my nature to do so and it hurts no one. On the contrary, it has been a crucial part the process of finding care and compassion for the people in my life and the world that surrounds me.
I don’t think this sense of connection has to fit into a single, prepackaged, secular format. Different people will express this sense of connection in different ways. Some symbolize this connection as a god or a goddess, some conceive of it as a collective soul, some call it nirvana, and some call it the bond of common humanity. I’m going to say something that is almost sacrilegious among many atheists: it doesn’t matter to me how a person perceives this sense of connection. If you want to call it a god, go right ahead. I prefer not to, but that’s my taste and my taste alone. I like my coffee black. You like it with milk. So be it.
Now, I’m familiar with the standard refrain of contemporary atheists: this sense of deep, reverent connection is a byproduct of evolution… an illusion of the brain. Well, that’s fine, but you know what? I don’t care. No, it’s not rational. It’s not logical. Nor is it empirical. However, it is very much a part of my being. I would not trade it for the world. It guides me. It has helped me through some of the worst of times. It gives me a reason to live my life. I rather like this sense of connection.
I think one of contemporary atheism’s problems is that it fails to take into consideration the emotional needs of actual human beings and in the long run, this hampers the effectiveness of the movement. Lying at the heart of this issue is the problem that atheism fails to offer a viable substitute for the fulfilling sense of connection provided by spirituality and religion. Because of human kind’s highly social nature, I strongly suspect that this desire for connectedness is a basic human need. Consequently, if atheism leaves this emotional need unaddressed, the movement will fail to generate the level of public interest necessary to broaden its appeal. Thus, dismissing people’s source of emotional connection as a foolish delusion will only take the movement so far. You might convert those whose faith is on the brink of collapse, but you’ll inspire nothing but invective from those of deeper faith. In fact, equating this sense of connection with things like a belief in Santa Claus or unicorns ultimately makes atheists look mean spirited and emotionally stunted. This is a public relations disaster in the making, folks. You can do far better than this.
While I’m critical of contemporary atheists’ response to religion and spirituality, I do not trust organized religion. I see the deep connectedness of spirituality as beautiful, and yet, I fear that it can be twisted and warped into a tool of social control. Spirituality cuts to the core of our being and if some organization or group gains control over this aspect of self, we open ourselves to the social machinations of group politics, power, and conformity. In our vulnerability, we open our selves to deep emotional manipulation by the collective and its leaders. Sadly, a mechanism that can serve to create connection between people is distorted by some religions into a tool that serves the needs of one group—and its leaders—to the exclusion of all other groups. In the process, that which might serve to create bonds between human beings is used instead, to create prejudice and division. That which might serve to foster love and trust is used instead, to generate fear and hatred of those with different religions, beliefs, and ways of living.
While we are on the topic of prejudice and division, I will state that which is obvious to most atheists and agnostics: organized religion has a remarkably poor track record with minority rights. So often, religion’s function in society is to preserve the status quo. It serves as a means of passing on the traditions of one generation to the next and as such, it actively resists social change. Unfortunately, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, sexual repression, and the oppression of minority faiths are very much a part of various cultural traditions across the globe. One need not look far to find a priest, pastor, rabbi, or imam who is calling for the continued oppression of women, LGBT people, and members of less popular faiths. One need not look far to find a religious figurehead calling for restrictions on sexuality that completely defy human nature. Until organized religion cleans up its misogyny, its hatred of LGBT people, and its profoundly repressive views of sexuality, I shall question the humanitarian worth of many forms of organized religion. Similarly, until organized religion cleans up its sectarian bigotry against other religions, I shall question religion’s ability to foster peace and understanding.
Because of my distaste for religion’s tendency to generate prejudice and division, I support atheism’s opposition to the excesses of organized religion. I see atheism as a potentially useful force in opposing the oppressive actions of religion-based bigotry. However, I say potentially useful because I have seen evidence for a rising tide of intolerance, hatred, and prejudice in many corners of the atheist community. Calls for the complete abolition of religion and spiritual belief are now common among the most vocal portions of atheism. I can not help but see such sentiments as thinly disguised bigotry against all people of religious and spiritual persuasion. One need not search very long before one finds accusations of psychological dysfunction, stupidity, and general inferiority made within atheist writings, speeches, and internet discussions. This worries me and I can not abide such sentiments, regardless of who manifests these feelings. Religious or atheist: ultimately, your bigotry carries the same seeds of destruction. In a world filled with strife and violence, your hateful sentiments endanger us all.
In this din of conflict, I find myself needing to shift to a different mental and emotional space. I feel the need to look into my heart and find a place that resists the volleys of hateful rhetoric that are being slung from all directions. I refuse to look upon this as a war of words and concepts. I refuse to look upon this as yet another manifestation of “the eternal battle between good and evil” or more recently, “a battle between rational thinkers and deluded cultists.” I have grown bored by this drama and a I seek other quarters… a refuge from the intellectual and emotional posturing that so many sides of this conflict seem fond of.
While the rational part of my mind has great difficulty accepting the existence of a deity, in my heart, I am far more agnostic than atheist. Like it or not, I tend to be a person who listens to her heart. I value intuition as much as I value empiricism. My agnosticism ranges beyond notions of deities and instead, focuses upon the basic nature of reality. Deep within me, there is a whisper that says I am more than the atoms, flesh, and neurons that compose my body. I sense that there is something more to reality than a surface level that I can only touch, taste, see, smell, and hear. However, I do not know what that deeper level of reality is. As best I can tell, I do not have a reliable way of knowing. I am only one tiny human being, limited to her five senses, trying to understand a universe that transcends her limited faculties. I do not know that which is. I can only perceive, guess, and imagine.
And so, I do not see it as my place to challenge the spiritual or naturalistic beliefs of others. I place my feet upon neutral ground because I do not have the answers. Ultimately, I do not know how to unlock the riddle of existence. I make no claims to sacred belief. I make no claims of true knowledge. I possess only the meager tools of imagination, perception and thought, and within the bounds of my limited mortal existence, I approach this exploration with humbleness in my heart.
So, believe in what you will. It doesn’t matter to me so long as you harm no other in the process of exploring your relationship with this world. It is my right to guess and perceive and ponder, as it is your right. Believe in a goddess, if you find comfort there. Believe in a god, if that is more to your liking. Believe in the atoms and quarks that make us whole. If it brings you peace of mind, then so be it. I do not expect your tastes to conform to mine. So long as you do not allow our differences to divide us, I say, “go in peace.”