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Archive for May, 2009

My Spiritual Atheism: A Very Short Introduction

31 May

There are moments I know the divine, when the world suddenly warms my soul and everything becomes beautiful. I’ve known it in music, in study, in suffering, and in silence. Most of all, I’ve known it in people. Sometimes I sit among total strangers and can’t help but feel as if I am among intimate lovers.

The divine is real. I cannot deny it.

***

I am an atheist.

The trouble with the term is that rejecting “God” is as precise as rejecting Italian cooking: who knows what that is? Pizza was probably first invented in Italy, but only after tomatoes were imported from the Americas. Is it Italian? What about the scandal of pasta? Similarly, the label “God” applies to so many different conceptions of the divine, each of them borrowing and modifying so many ideas from their neighbors. These conceptions have then been interpreted in as many ways as there are thinkers, so that to reject or affirm “God” altogether is almost useless. “Atheist” is too broad a denial. As a spiritual atheist, I mean that I reject the supernatural but affirm the reality and value of what most people usually mean when they say “the divine”.

Unfortunately, many Christians have accepted the idea that the divine cannot be explained without the supernatural. And if it were, they say, the divine would lose its value. If the experience of transcendent love and overwhelming awe were, in the end, entirely natural, those experiences would be less wonderful. Somehow, they think, their understanding of God can emerge from being boxed up and studied by modernity totally unchanged.

But it can’t. The scientific revolution has shown that the universe humans inhabit looks exactly as we would expect it to if there weren’t any supernatural interference. Evolution happened, and when it did, it built the machinery of the “the divine” into our brains: the capacity to seek and find transcendent love, inner peace, and total awe. It also built us with some useful but logically dishonest biases towards assigning things agency as well as focusing on the hits rather than the misses of a theory. Consequently it is no surprise that religion before modernism mistakenly assumed the natural elements had manipulable agency, and people kept this belief for a long time.

If we are to be intellectually honest in the twenty-first century, however, we must abandon the supernatural, superstitious elements of religion. Rain dances don’t bring rain. Sacrifices don’t avert natural disasters. Prayer doesn’t heal people.

This wouldn’t be so difficult except that Western religion developed to identify the divine with the supernatural. Whereas in the East, they were largely conceived of separately, in the West, God was not only the God that healed people and performed miracles–he was also the only way and reason humans could experience love, peace, and awe. For Westerners, having intertwined the supernatural and the divine so tightly turned out to be difficult–at best–when modernism began its assault on supernatural explanations. If Western religions hadn’t linked them so closely, they might have been more eager to abandon the superstitious, supernatural elements of their religion and simply focus on the divine. Instead, they interpreted the advance of modernism as an attack on more than just superstition–as an attack on the divine, which is by definition sacred to all humans.

We must be careful then, especially in the West, to acknowledge that although modernism has peeled away the supernatural elements of religion, its core–the divine–remains largely intact, regardless of the fundamentalists’ frantic suggestion otherwise. Religion is valuable because it leads us to the divine; not because it introduces us to a genie.

***

Obviously most of what I’ve said hinges on the definition of the divine. So what do most people mean when they speak of “the divine?”

First, they mean transcendent love. Transcendent love is valuing others’ interests above your own. It is no accident that the golden rule is the bedrock of all religions: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. For me, behaving in this fashion on a daily basis–practicing respect, humility, compassion, and altruism, for example–is intensely gratifying. While my ego often wants to sidestep this difficult program, there is nevertheless a part of me that doesn’t care and experiences the gratification even when my ego is throwing a temper tantrum. It is the divine–the part of me that “transcends” my ego. I suspect the process of identifying with this part of oneself as opposed to the ego is loosely correlated with what many Christians mean when they speak of salvation–they “die to themselves” (their ego’s), but find “life in Christ” (the divine). Discovering this part of themselves is like a complete rebirth, shedding the “old nature” and finding the new.

To be clear, valuing people’s interests over your own doesn’t mean you become a doormat or a people-pleaser. I’m not a doormat for people because I know that I wouldn’t want anyone to be a doormat for me. I’m not a people-pleaser because I know that I wouldn’t want people to only act to please me.

Second, by “divine”, people also mean inner peace–being unafraid of what is, has been, or will be. Christians often refer to it as a “peace that passes understanding”. When I experience it, I am flooded with a sense of “alright-ness” with myself and my circumstances. Although it is a sense of acceptance, it does not rid me of the desire to better myself and my circumstances. Instead, it shows me those desires are only one part of me. “I”, the part of me that can experience this peace, exist independently of the part of me that experiences desire. It is the “inner”, unchanging me. So while my desiring self may be unsatisfied, there is another part of me that doesn’t care–it is the divine.

Awe is the final component of what people usually mean when they speak of the divine. Divine awe is a sense of utter astonishment and wonder at the mystery of existence. Although people have intimations of this type of awe when they see a good magic trick or contemplate the opposite sex, the degree of awe that can come from observing the mystery of existence is so much larger that it is probably a different type of awe rather than a different degree. When I experience divine awe, I am forcibly humbled as I am reminded that my mind is never going to understand everything–there will always be mystery. On the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, for example, we humans will probably never have an answer, and even if we do, it will always intuitively sponsor the kind of awe I’m talking about. As a Christian, I experienced awe as I contemplated how completely “other” and “separate” God was. It is no mistake that Christians speak of their God as “awe”-some, and mysterious.

Thus completes my short list of the core elements of the divine, although I’m sure I’ve left some important things out. All of these components are properly viewed as effects of the divine, rather than the divine itself. Until we come into into contact with the divine–and by that I mean only finding it within ourselves–we can never fully know it, and our descriptions are bound to be only shadows of the real thing.

But there is a real thing.

***

My spiritual atheism is a rejection of the supernatural but an affirmation of the divine. For thousands of years, humans have mapped out the divine and many have explained it in terms of the supernatural. With the advent of modernism, however, that language no longer makes sense. But that doesn’t mean that the divine isn’t real–it only means we need a different vocabulary to describe the same reality. I call it spiritual atheism.