God Is dead, but faith never will be
I have never made peace with the atheist label.
Perhaps the word has become too vilified and tainted in misconception. Perhaps its reputation for zealous rudeness doesn’t fit my style of patient, rational persuasion. Perhaps I’m not okay with completely casting off my appreciation for the numinous.
I struggle to wholeheartedly take on “atheist” without qualifying it, so until a better term presents itself, I call myself a “spiritual atheist.”
Like a regular atheist, I don’t believe in God. And I’m comfortable saying that.
And like most atheists, I’m in strongly favor of relying on rules of logic and evidence. These are the most accurate methods to determine objective truth.
And like vocal atheists, I’m happy to criticize religion. I wrote 343 pages of harsh, well-researched criticism of the religion I was born into: Mormonism. My analysis applies to many other faiths. Religions continue to manipulate, mislead, abuse, extort, and destroy lives the world over. I will make no excuses for this brand of behavior in the name of gods; it is far too prevalent and nothing can justify it.
But here’s where I part ways with atheism: I cannot ignore the intrinsic human need to find meaning in subjective and symbolic interpretations of the world.
The prominent atheist voices want to eliminate religion from the face of the earth. I can’t get behind that plan. Not only is this impossible, but it flies in the face of logic. Moreover, vocal atheists seem too quick to judge the faithful as “stupid,” “misled,” and “irrational.” This way of thinking is deeply flawed. Not only does it make atheist reasoning less persuasive, it also ignores prevailing science about the nature of the human mind.
Human beings need spirituality. And not for the usual reasons: Of course we don’t need religion to be moral. Or to keep society from descending into a chaotic orgy pit of doom. Humanity has outgrown the need for myth to control minds and hearts.
There is more to spirituality than these needs. Deeper needs.
My explanation is hobbled by a lack of useful language. I’m forced to use loaded words like “religion” and “spirituality.” Words shape how we think, and these terms certainly carry baggage; it’s baggage that leads our thinking in problematic directions. But they’re the only words I have, so it’s baggage I hope to shed.
What I’m driving at, is that the human mind is more than the sum of its parts. As much as we’d like to, we can’t just put on Spock ears and pretend our brains function like computers. Because they don’t. No one is fallacy-free, and no one can completely distance themselves from intuition, emotion, or symbolic thinking. No amount of education or training can change the basic structure of the human creature. Nor would such a thing be desirable.
As we’re discovering through neuroscience and psychology, the mind is composed of more than just perception and conscious reasoning. Decisions come from instinct; what we think of as our “rational mind” is simply there to justify gut-reactions.
We’re also learning that the brain may be merely one of many thinking organs. The entire nervous system may be involved, and in fact, “gut reaction” is more literally true than we once thought. Our digestive system has enough neurons to make up a cat’s brain, and it operates independently of the brain. It can send messages to the brain (like “eat now” and “am sick”), but the brain can’t send signals back. There is speculation that the gut may be passing along decision-making pressures that could influence or even override the brain’s logic.
Then there’s our emotional system, a complex series of nerves and biochemicals running throughout the whole body. Emotion gives us perceptual feedback about how to interpret the world, and ought to be counted as one of the five (six!) senses. Feelings are a powerful internal force.
We’ve known since Freud that the mind has many aspects; that idea that I am “one self” is just an illusion. Ego vs id, conscious vs unconscious/subconscious, right-brain vs left-brain. Even these dualities are oversimplified categorizations of many levers and pulleys, pressures and influences. Psychologists attempt to describe these mental functions in simplistic conceptual models, and now neuroscientists are beginning to understand their fundamental complexities.
The act of thinking is much more complicated than, “I decided because reasons.” Reason may be the least significant factor in human behavior. Most of our choices come from dark internal corners that cannot be observed. This person I call “I” isn’t me at all.
We try to sculpt and craft the results of our minds into the shape of reason, but these are merely attempts. Good attempts. Worthy attempts. Admirable. Nonetheless, crude.
Facing this truth can be incredibly uncomfortable, but if we respect the science, we have to. Logic must be tolerant of illogic, because illogic makes up the most significant portion of human thought.
Accepting this reality means acknowledging our need for illogical modes of thinking. Art can fulfill some of this need. Paintings, music, and stories are certainly healthy. But we also crave something deeper, and it’s plunging these depths that I call “spirituality.” When we do so with other people, I call this “religion.” Because for now there are no better words for it.
Most people desire an exploration of subjective meaning. There are age-old questions that science cannot answer: What is my purpose? How do I cope with life’s hardships? How do I define morality and ethics? What is it all about?
And just like art, the answers are a matter of taste.
People have a need to find joy in subjective interpretation of objective perception, and this is a form of spirituality. I’m looking out my window at the pine trees in my backyard, and they’re beautiful. If I think about it long enough, I feel the beauty and the greenness. Nature itself can put me into a state of transcendence. There is nothing rational about that. But there is something spiritual. I don’t have to rely on fraudulent scripture, or deny reason, to tap into it. This form of spirituality is not mutually exclusive to atheism or science.
There are psychological benefits to spirituality. Religion is useful for creating metaphors that help us explore subjective meaning in ways that our irrational, unordered, subconscious minds can understand. The source of the symbols don’t matter. They can come from scriptures, Greek mythology, tarot cards, science magazines, or Harry Potter novels. Each of these forms of metaphor can help us, as individuals, understand our inner selves, can help us relate to the world, and can drive us accomplish our dreams.
The literal truthfulness of metaphor is irrelevant for this purpose. Our irrational side doesn’t care. Meaning matters for its own sake. Meaning is a highly-individualized, subjective experience. One person finds it in holy water, and another in crystals, another in his therapist’s office, and another through the lens of a microscope.
When it comes to subjective meaning, the “whys” don’t need to withstand the same rigor of the objective “hows.” What they need to withstand is the personal rigor of the subjective filter: “Does this work for me? Does it help me? Does it bring me satisfaction and fulfillment? Does it make me a better person?”
As I mentioned above, the field of psychology has gone a long way to model the “self.” The concept of the “inner child” is a good example. It describes a child persona in our minds who reacts to stress the way we did when we were children. There are therapeutic practices to re-parent this inner child to change present behavior and thought patterns.
There’s some science behind this. The synaptic pathways that were wired when we were children still exist. They’re not erased just because we grow up. And these old pathways still influence behavior; they fire up when a present situation reminds us of a situation from our past.
Science notwithstanding, it’s still just a model, and almost as flimsy as ages-old religious models, like the concept of a “soul” or “spirit.” The psychological metaphor works for the modern mind, but for some people, the idea of having a soul provides just as much meaning, comfort, and assistance in changing behavior. Truly, how different is it from the idea of having a subconscious or an id?
Some models work better than others, but no model is objectively better. It’s a personal decision. As individuals, the model we use must “feel right” if we’re to gain personal understanding of subjective meaning.
Here’s an example a religious concept I retained:
Mormons believe that people are gods in training, eternally progressing and learning. Even though I no longer believe this as literal truth, it’s still there operating in my subconscious. I’m not actively trying to destroy it because it benefits me. It has transformed into an idea of self-acceptance, that who I am, the presence of “me,” is powerful and I have a purpose. Even without the belief in an afterlife, the idea that I have the potential of a goddess motivates me to constantly improve myself and the lives of others. Why would I want to rid myself of that, just because it’s irrational? Doing so would itself be irrational.
I also find spirituality within science itself. I consider Carl Sagan to have been a spiritual man. I have only to listen to The Pale Blue Dot or any episode of Cosmos to recognize it – the awe and wonder he found in the observable universe.
Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason was one of the first philosophic works I read after leaving Mormonism. After denouncing the Bible, he praised science in one of the most spiritually uplifting passages I’ve ever read:
It is only in the CREATION that all our ideas and conceptions of a word of God can unite. The Creation speaketh an universal language, independently of human speech or human language, multiplied and various as they be. It is an ever existing original, which every man can read. It cannot be forged; it cannot be counterfeited; it cannot be lost; it cannot be altered; it cannot be suppressed. It does not depend upon the will of man whether it shall be published or not; it publishes itself from one end of the earth to the other. It preaches to all nations and to all worlds; and this word of God reveals to man all that is necessary for man to know of God.
Do we want to contemplate his power? We see it in the immensity of the creation. Do we want to contemplate his wisdom? We see it in the unchangeable order by which the incomprehensible Whole is governed. Do we want to contemplate his munificence? We see it in the abundance with which he fills the earth. Do we want to contemplate his mercy? We see it in his not withholding that abundance even from the unthankful. In fine, do we want to know what God is? Search not the book called the scripture, which any human hand might make, but the scripture called the Creation.
Paine was a deist, so he believed in God, but in the most remote and irreligious way possible. Replace the word “God” with “reality” or “the universe,” and the passage loses no meaning. He reflects here the same spiritual-scientific passion I see in Sagan’s work. If we want to understand “god” (or reality), we should study the universe. But not with a cold, detached eye of a robot. With a sense of wonder in the mystery and beauty of it all.
There is nothing irrational about that.
The quest for meaning, ie “spirituality,” takes many forms. Spiritual choice should be respected and celebrated.
At least, until it crosses a very clear line: Abuse.
When spirituality is used to control the lives of followers, to extract excess money (more than the cost of a therapy session or Harry Potter novel), to sexually exploit, and to manipulate and direct people towards an externally-defined, rigidly imposed system of meaning, it is abusive.
When religious organizations cover for abusers, it is systematic abuse. When “personal meaning” is turned from subjective claims (“This worked for me”) to objective claims (“This will work for everyone”), it becomes fraud. When beliefs are proselytized in ways that seek to deny others their own beliefs, it is manipulation.
These practices are spiritual abuse, and ought to be fought with every pitchfork and torch in the village.
Atheism does humanity a disservice by fighting all faith. When we ignore these intrinsic human needs, we enable spiritual abusers. If we rob people of meaning, and don’t explore healthy ways to fill the void, there will be a God-shaped hole, and someone will be there to fill it. You can bet that person will be a manipulator or abuser ready to sell name-brand meaning to reap material rewards.
The tools of religion are just tools. Yes, they are used to abuse. They are also used to heal. The focus on destroying religion will never succeed. The drive and need for symbolic meaning is too powerful in too many people.
It is better to focus effort on removing abusive tendencies from religion. In this, we have religious allies who are tolerant of atheists and those who hold other beliefs. They wish to root out evil from their midst. We share common cause.
But how can we remove harmful tendencies from spirituality?
Through metabeliefs: beliefs about belief.
We should ask, what kind of metabeliefs can allow people to mindfully, proactively build their own harmless belief systems that will help them accomplish preconceived end-goals for themselves and for their world?
After I left Mormonism, in the void and confusion of losing my entire worldview, I had to do just that.
Here’s an example metabelief: the concept of a “pseudobelief.” This is a tentative belief in something without taking it too seriously, using the belief as a means to an end, but not taking it farther than that.
For instance, I sometimes use tarot cards when I’m confused about a decision, especially when there’s not enough real information to go on. I don’t know (or care) if there are really unseen forces guiding the cards. That doesn’t matter. The symbols on the cards, no matter which cards are drawn, help me process and recognize my own deeper thoughts and feelings on the issue. All for the cost of a $15 tarot deck and a few minutes of my time.
I sometimes temporarily believe in Asphaltia, the goddess of parking, and I say a funny little rhyming prayer asking her to help me get a good spot. Does it actually work? Probably not. But it does help me relax when I’m dodging cars downtown. And that’s good enough for me. It doesn’t hurt anyone for me to pray to Asphaltia, nor for me to share my belief in ways that don’t stomp all over someone else’s beliefs in their own parking gods (or lack thereof).
And lest tarot and parking gods all seem trivial, I’ve had deeper, unexplained sp[iritual experiences that gave me guidance and comfort when I needed it most. I’m won’t try to prove that these experiences were “real,” nor do they imply anything about the objective existence of gods, ghosts, angels, or fairies.
But neither am I going to debunk, dismiss, or explain them away. To do so would be to deny a beneficial and significant aspect of my life. An aspect, quite frankly, of being human. Because it is a human skill to have spiritual experiences, even if they are just hallucinations, biochemical explosions, wishful thinking. That, in and of itself, is important.
This is what I mean by “spiritual atheist.” There’s no need to throw the baby out with the disgusting, dirty bathwater of abusive religion. If we’re striving for a mature version of humanity, one that doesn’t need to follow Priests and Imams, perhaps we should encourage independent spiritual thinking. With that comes personal autonomy. Let people believe in their woo, just give them the tools to do so without being taken in by charlatans.
Let’s not end faith. Let’s instead think about ending spiritual abuse, and give people the means to think about their spirituality in a rational way.
• Luna Lindsey was born into the Mormon Church and left the faith in 2001, at age 26. She now lives in Seattle, WA and writes about topics of interest to her, including psychology, culture, and autism. She also writes science fiction and fantasy. When she’s not busy traveling to improbable worlds, or thinking hard about this improbable world, she’s enjoying life with her improbable family. Her new book, Recovering Agency: Lifting the Veil of Mormon Mind Control is available in ebook and print.