Born-again atheist

I was an atheist before my conversion, and that hasn’t changed, yet my life is filled with a kind of religious devotion; I feel I have been born again. I pray to a non-existent God of my own invention, and my personal relationship with this figment of my imagination has helped me to lose 110 lbs., to quit frittering away half or more of every workday on stupid web surfing, to become a devoted husband and father, to put aside cynicism and anger and be generally optimistic and friendly even towards people who used to drive me nuts.

As atheists have been raising their voices and more actively promoting their views in the public sphere over the last decade, I’ve seen evidence of a growing interest in the idea of atheist spirituality. Of course, many spiritual tools amenable to atheists have been around for decades or millennia: meditation, quiet reflection, enjoyment of nature, the philosophical or literary exploration of ethics and meaning, psychotherapy, addiction counseling. But the specific exploration of spiritual beliefs and practices independent of supernatural suppositions is relatively new.

When I speak of spiritual practices, atheist or otherwise, I refer to the intentional efforts people make to live fulfilling, meaningful, ethical lives. Everyone makes such efforts to one degree of another, but it takes a special kind of commitment, sometimes a conversion experience, to make this a central focus of a person’s life. The homogenous religious communities that were common prior to modernity offered a narrower range of spiritual practices, so the kinds of exertion appropriate for a person feeling the urge to live a better life may have been clearer than it is today. These days, there’s no telling where such an urge will take a person. If that urge were to drive me, for instance, to the self-help section at Barnes & Noble and I faced a choice among hundreds of cloyingly marketed, sure-fire methods for building my confidence, enlivening my marriage, overcoming trauma, harnessing the power of positive thinking, self-administering injections of spiritual chicken soup, discovering the color of my parachute, adopting highly effective habits, or coddling my inner child, I’d likely just head over to the café section and get a couple donuts. As it turned out, the urge leading to my conversion was not spiritual at all. I needed to lose weight and found myself in a Twelve-Step program for food addiction. My greater desire to live a better life grew from there.

The development of spiritual practices and beliefs consistent with atheism is picking up steam in recent years. Old and ancient strands seem to be merging with new efforts to form something that is not yet quite recognizable as a coherent social movement. The academic or philosophical study of religious experience from a secular perspective, on the other hand, is quite well established, having blossomed especially around the turn of the Twentieth Century and especially in the writings of William James. A secular understanding of religious experience is useful in exploring the religious experience of atheists, but the religious experience of atheists has seldom been a focus of explicit study. When James describes conversion in The Varieties of Religious Experience, he is generally talking about the character-transforming embrace of supernatural beliefs. Nevertheless, I find his descriptions quite helpful in understanding my own experience.

To be converted, to be regenerated, to receive grace, to experience religion, to gain an assurance, are so many phrases which denote the process, gradual or sudden, by which a self hitherto divided, and consciously wrong, inferior and unhappy, becomes unified and consciously right, superior and happy, in consequence of its firmer hold upon religious realities. This at least is what conversion signifies in general terms, whether or not we believe that a direct divine operation is needed to bring such a moral change about. […]Things hot and vital to us today are cold to-morrow. […][Hot things] are in short the centres of our dynamic energy, whereas the cold parts leave us indifferent and passive in proportion to their coldness.

My conversion has lifted the ennui and ambivalence I experienced for much of my life; it has vastly improved my ability to handle conflicts in myself and with others; it has given me confidence in decisions I make based on my sense of what’s right, assurance that I will not regret them, and faith that I can carry them out. For a person who spent most of a lifetime deciding daily to eat better, exercise more, wash the dishes, quit smoking, to be a better person, worker, writer, husband, father or friend–—for a person whose life was so strewn with broken resolutions to find myself just beginning at age fifty to see ambivalence fading away, to have faith in my own decisions and resolutions, feels miraculous.

Conversion is not a discrete, defined event, a change of channel, allowing us to sit back on the couch till we get bored again. It’s a watershed event in a life, but may occur quite gradually, even without notice until it is long underway. And, even then, it is not finished. James says:

in these inner alterations one may find one unsuspected depth below another, as if the possibilities of character lay disposed in a series of layers or shells, of whose existence we have no premonitory knowledge.

The state to which I’ve converted is a state of change, change in a consciously chosen direction, which was impossible when my days were littered with broken resolutions. The beliefs that I’ve adopted will continue to change.

My Conversion

I am an atheist who prays to God, to a particular God whom I call Ms. X, many times each day: when I rise in the morning and go to bed at night, before meals, before undertaking challenging tasks, facing difficult conversations, or making hard decisions. It is inconceivable that the specific God I pray to actually exists, which is exactly the point for me. I invented Her at a particular moment, for a particular reason, with a specific set of attributes that suited my purpose, and I have documentation to prove it. There was no revelation. She is the Queen of the Universe, but She’s also a figment of my imagination.

When I joined a Twelve-Step program for food addiction in 2009, at the age of forty-five, I had a thoroughly atheistic or materialist worldview. I felt, as I do now, that religious beliefs are fine insofar as they enhance the life of the believer, but that science was a better place to find explanations of how the world works.

The program I joined was extremely structured and demanding, but turned out to be a good match for me, something of a shock given how lazy, rebellious, and prone to complaining I am. Since 2009 I have entirely abstained from certain foods that tend to produce cravings and I have eaten nothing but three meals a day, precisely weighing and measuring out the specific amounts of protein, vegetables, grains, fruits and fat that my sponsor recommends. This is incovenient, sometimes awkward, at certain social occasions or while traveling, but without this rigid regimentation and the spiritual support surrounding it through other aspects of the program, I would undoubtably have relapsed into my lifelong food habits long ago. That spiritual support includes frequent talks with my sponsor and others in the program, frequent meetings, studying and working the Twelve Steps, daily meditation, writing, and service, such as sponsoring others, helping to set up chairs, working on the website, and bringing meals and fellowship to members who are sick.

After losing 110 lbs. in the first year, my weight has been stable at about 160 lbs. for the past three years. I don’t have cravings. If a passing food desire pops up, I instantly call to mind all I could lose by indulging it. I never could have expected this. And much more shocking than the fact that I haven’t screwed it up, or slacked off, or decided that I’m fixed now, or become an intolerable zealot bludgeoning every fat person I meet with the good news of my salvation, is the complete personality change I’ve undergone. Four years ago I was a gloomy, depressive cynic and grump, a perpetual complainer, exuding resentment at any person or fact of life that might require me to rise from whatever comfortable chair I was wallowing in. Today I am a perky, middle-aged man bubbling over with hope and reverence.

At first, I didn’t worry too much about the God thing. It annoyed me a bit the way other people talked about it, but I was willing to follow instructions and see what happened. I had to say goodbye to the food. I cried on and off my first several days. I don’t recall if I felt hopeful, but I must have had some inkling of hope at a deep level, or I wouldn’t have been so emotional about leaving the food behind. My old friend, my comfort through every misery, even the misery of being fat, being fat and hopeless, full of self-disgust and nauseated by all the crap I had just eaten—even then a little nibble of something could make me feel better. And now I was saying goodbye to that, possibly forever.

I heard everyone saying, just take it a day at a time, don’t worry about forever, just stay abstinent today. And that was helpful, telling myself, I just have to make it to bedtime, I get breakfast again in the morning. But I also persisted in wondering, if this new life isn’t going to be forever, why should I put myself through this ordeal today? The likelihood that I would falter, get discouraged and give up, was high. It’s what I had always done. And if that’s what I was going to do, I should just do it now, not spend another day crying, snapping at people, insisting that if my wife and son ate anything I couldn’t have, they should do it somewhere I couldn’t see them.

But at the first meetings I attended, this smart, gorgeous woman had stood up in front of the room and said how she had lost more than half her body weight more than a decade earlier. She described how the program helped her keep it off, how the spiritual work she did to stay serene, honest, compassionate, and present for her family, made it just as relevant and vital in her life today as it had been when she started.

I began to believe it might work. Maybe my motivation would outlast the initial thrill of losing weight. I looked as closely as I could manage at every part of her body, not just because she was beautiful, but for evidence—rolls, bulges, stretch marks. Did I see the faintest hint of loose skin hanging from her upper arms? It was summer, she wore a sleeveless top. I couldn’t quite tell. Could it happen to me? Could I someday not be misshapen? She had been even heavier than I was! So maybe it would be forever. Or a long time. Maybe if I was dying, I could drop the program and have my favorite foods again on my deathbed, a reconciliation with my oldest love. But if I kept eating abstinently today, maybe I could have a tolerable or occasionally enjoyable life between now and then.

My food cravings disappeared almost immediately. The crying subsided in less than a week; the irritability diminished gradually over months. But I also had to adapt to all the other major life changes: meetings, phone calls, preparing all my meals, making sure I had the food I needed available. Learning to travel for work with containers of food and finding hotels with kitchenettes was a challenge. People gave me phone numbers of others who traveled a lot. I got a nice lunch bag, lots of plastic containers, and took to packing salads with cherry tomatoes and carrots and other things that wouldn’t wilt.

I didn’t think about God much. My sponsor mentioned God often, and the daily readings she had recommended talked about God constantly. I tried to take in as much of this wisdom as I could, leaving a kind of blank in the God place. But then my sponsor noticed at a meeting that I was leaving out the word God when we all said the Serenity Prayer, and she suggested I include it. Once I started using the word God, I wanted to know what I meant by it. I decided that I meant nothing—–God was just the name of the nothing I prayed to. Prayers are addressed to a “you,” but “you” doesn’t have to refer to anything. It’s just a word, present or implied in the kinds of questions and requests that appear in prayers, and God is another word. I was able to believe that the act of prayer could affect my internal state, but I refused to believe that any being outside myself was listening.

Praying to nothing wasn’t working in various ways. My sponsor and others spoke of God as a real being, a spiritual person, a power with a practical impact in our lives. Even if I believed the impact was entirely psychological, the language didn’t work with a blank in the place of God. I decided to posit a God who had the quality of not existing. Countless thousands of gods have been invented and worshipped throughout history and have been imbued with various qualities appropriate to the needs of their worshippers. As an atheist, I needed a God who didn’t exist. I already believed that all the gods worshipped by other people didn’t exist, but my God had to have non-existence as a defining quality.

This approach began to work a lot better. I no longer had a blank in the God place. I had a being on whom I could hang all the other qualities and powers and intentions ascribed to God by the literature I was reading. A blank cannot love humanity and provide strength in the face of adversity or temptation. But a God can, even a non-existent one. Just as a fictional character can be imbued with all the qualities possessed or imagined by people, so could my invented, non-existent God. And just as dead or legendary heroes can inspire living people to admirable acts of self-transcendence, that is exactly what gods are invented to do.

My non-existent God still sometimes felt empty and excessively abstract. I wondered if the internal effects of prayer would be more powerful if I imagined a specific, comforting presence. At that point, I resurrected Ms. X., the only God I had ever prayed to regularly.

I had participated in another Twelve-Step program seventeen years earlier, in my late twenties, when I was a post-modern anarchist seething with radical critiques of all Western culture. At that time, confronted by the Second and Third Steps:

  1. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  2. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

I invented a God I could tolerate, which could bear no resemblance to the white, male tyrant worshipped by the major monotheistic religions. I had recently read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which inspired Her name. I pictured Her as a powerfully rotund, fifteen-foot-tall, black, Lesbian Goddess. She rides a magical, flying ewe named Butch, who happens to enjoy physical manifestastion as a little stuffed animal that I sometimes hold in bed or during prayers, and who intercedes for me the way icons of saints do for some Catholics. Once Butch entered the picture, I realized my Godhead had taken the form of a Trinity: the Mother, the Sheep, and the Infinite Void. It doesn’t quite map on to the Christian Trinity. For me, the Infinite Void is the impersonal law of nature that determines the course of events in the world; Ms. X is the pole towards which my moral compass points; and Butch is the Spirit-made-beanbag, the physical manifestation of God’s love that I can see and hold when I need extra comfort.

I prayed to Ms. X, after inventing Her in 1992, with more or less frequency for a couple years. I built Her a funny-looking, lavender shrine in my living room. Through a combination of psychotherapy, Twelve-Step work, and Zen meditation, I experienced a great deal of spiritual growth at the time, but not what I would call a conversion. I got well enough to make some major life changes, and then drifted away from any interest in spiritual growth for more than a decade.

When I realized in 2009 that praying to an empty abstraction wasn’t working that well, was making it hard for me to feel the real reliance and faith in God that my sponsor and the literature talked about, I turned back to Ms. X. As a middle-class professional with a family, a mortgage, and moderate political opinions, Ms. X didn’t seem like the perfect choice of deity for me, She seemed a bit rebellious and self-consciously non-comformist. But I already felt an old attachment to Her, and She continued to appeal to my need for a bit of playful iconoclasm in my relations with the Divine.

I set myself the challenge of using every bit of wisdom offered by my program without letting go of my belief in God’s non-existence. I didn’t want my peculiar solution to the God problem to cut me off from recovery and spiritual growth. At various times, as an exercise in open-mindedness, or in order to convince myself that my open-mindedness was sincere, I deliberately attempted to open myself to the possibility of God’s existence. I prayed:

God, if You want me to actually believe You exist, I’ll do it; I’m not married to my intellectual pride; You’ve given me so much, just give me a little whisper, a little nudge, a nagging twinge of conscience, and I’ll quit referring to You as my non-existent God. I have the willingness, the gratitude; it would make my sponsor and all these folks I talk to on the phone each day so happy. I’m as open as I can be, Ms. X, or Ha Shem, or whatever You prefer; I love You, I worship You, I prostrate myself before You. If the next step on my spiritual journey requires my literally believing You exist, I’m ready to take it.

But God maintained Her stately silence. Just as born-again believers know that God must exist – because otherwise, how could these miracles have happened? —– I know that the only conceivable argument that could convince me to try on a belief in God’s literal existence has, at least for now, been rendered moot: I’ve experienced all the miracles, the sense of refuge, the sense of grace, the fortitude, that any god could offer, while yet explicitly believing in my God’s non-existence.

More work than I’ve described so far was required before I could derive any kind of benefit from some of the ways people talk about God. My sponsor would say things like, “Where’s God in that?” “Have you asked God for guidance?” “God has a plan.” “Everything happens for a reason.” It’s one thing to pray to a figment of my imagination or to believe that communing with Her will bring me peace and serenity. It’s quite another to start thinking She has a plan or that She makes things happen for a reason. I’ve written at length on the ways I’ve been able to understand various pieces of religious wisdom in the context of an atheist worldview, but I’ll just use one of these for this article.

The understanding of “God has a plan” that I’ve come to is this. Ms. X does have a plan for me: in essence, that I become a better and better person. She has this plan because I attribute the plan to Her. The specifics of the plan are revealed to me through contemplation, reverie, conscience, and consulting trusted advisors. It works better for Ms. X to be the keeper of the plan than for me to be because the plans I make for myself can be based on selfish desires, fears, anxieties, resentments, misunderstandings, and unrealistic hopes, whereas the plans I ascribe to Ms. X are based on acceptance, courage, wisdom, compassion, love, and whatever other virtues any given situation calls for. I do not disown my selfish desires, fears, resentments, etc.; they continue to influence my behaviors and decisions. But my better lights no longer have to do direct battle with them in the face of every decision. I ask Ms. X’s guidance and strength and, with surprising frequency, the better motivation rises peacefully to the fore. And even when it doesn’t, Ms. X and Her plan for me aren’t harmed. My self-esteem may falter. A series of self-indulgent decisions may leave me convinced that I don’t want the best for myself, that my true desire is to watch more TV, not to be a better husband. But my conception of Ms. X doesn’t follow me into despair. She continues to want the best for me. She is never disappointed in me because my conception of a good God doesn’t include that kind of disappointment. She is unwavering in Her wish that I act according to my better aims. And when I don’t, I’ve learned to feel a gentle regret and ask Her to show me how to do better next time.

That’s what it means for me for God to have a plan. God’s plan is not a Gantt chart or a set of stage directions pointing to an inevitable happy ending. It’s not a guarantee. Outcomes will be determined by cold, harsh reality, and the best possible thinking and motivation can’t promise success. But the plan doesn’t change. No matter what happens, the plan for me to become a better person goes on. If I rebel against this plan at times, but still wish to believe that “Everything happens according to God’s plan,” then I am led to pay close attention to my rebellions, to learn from them, to see where I have grown and where I need more work. Even when I veer off God’s plan for me, I’m still on it, as long as I learn from the detour.

This little homily on “God had a plan” is an example of a kind of atheist treatment of religious adages and wisdom that I think can be useful. I recently spoke with an atheist activist, head of an organization that promotes free thought and fights discrimination against atheists. He agreed with me that religions have served and continue to serve many valuable purposes in human culture, but he feels that the net harm outweighs the good, so he believes reverse engineering of the good things only religions currently provide is an essential task in the pursuit of free thought. That might be a way to think of these atheist interpretations or treatments I’ve written, but calling them reverse engineering strikes me as disrespectful and I don’t share the goal of supplanting the original. There is, however, there’s much to be gained in tolerance and mutual understanding, if nothing else, by showing ways that explicitly religious language can yield wisdom amenable to atheism.

There are times, in fact, when these atheist homilies can even help religious people come to a better or more mature understanding of their own beliefs. Wise believers, for instance, do not expect God to provide winning lottery tickets. If they pray for financial security, they understand that God’s answer is more likely to involve their learning to handle money more responsibly or giving them the strength to face their financial difficulties than deliverance by the death of a rich uncle. Many devout believers expect exactly what I do from their prayers: not a change in the world, but a change in themselves.

The landscape of belief

My aims in writing on atheist spirituality are these:

  • To help others find spiritual paths that work for them, using my own story as an example of the unexpected variety of possible spiritual experiences.
  • To encourage the study and discussion of atheist spirituality as a distinct field of interest. I believe this study will expand and illuminate spiritual possibilities for everybody, because, when you really explore what spirituality means or could mean for atheists, and what atheists would require from any spiritual beliefs and practices they could make use of, I think you uncover something universal to all religions (and many practices and institutions not generally considered religious), something that transcends dogma and provincialism and allows people of vastly different beliefs to find their spiritual commonality.
  • To encourage playfulness, invention and seriousness in the creation of new religious or spiritual options for people who have a hard time finding something that works for them in the current crop of living religions.

As I began writing on this topic, I discovered my strong affinity with the pragmatist ideas of religious experience described by William James and John Dewey, and with philosophers in the post-secular vein who have developed those ideas more recently: Hans Joas, Charles Taylor, Robert Bellah, Jurgen Habermas. Just in the past month Chris Steadman’s new book, Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious, alerted me to an exciting branch of the interfaith dialogue movement that calls for atheists to join in the promotion of religious tolerance and understanding. There are, of course, branches of traditional religions that are quite hospitable to atheists: many forms of Buddhism, the more recent denominations of Judaism, Unitarian Universalism, as well as certain mystical offshoots of all the big religions. And religious institutions or spiritual movements that actively embrace an atheist perspective include the Ethical Culture Society, religious naturalism, and Nonviolent Communication.

We’re all aware that religious bigotry and intolerance motivate or justify, a large portion of humanity’s violence and animosity. It seems almost impossible for an important belief to exist in the world without meeting other beliefs in conflict, obvious examples being: pro-life vs. pro-choice, jihadists vs. Zionists, religious right vs. gay pride, Hindu vs. Muslim, Sunni vs. Shi’a, the New Atheists vs. religious fundamentalists. The New Atheists justify their denigration of religions and believers by pointing to all the violence done in the name of religion. Are we to believe that religions and social movements exist for the purpose of making people hate each other? I speculate, but will not attempt to argue, that, on every side, when doctrinal disputes pit us against each other—freedom fighters, fundamentalists, liberal, conservative, rational, or enlightened, uncompromising pluralists or genocidal bigots—there is something precious we are trying to protect, but our efforts to protect it may do it more damage than all the schemes of our enemies.

An old Jewish joke (quoted from The Norton Anthology of Jewish American Literature) goes:

Two people bring a dispute to the rabbi. The first tells one side of the story, to which the rabbi replies, “You’re right.” The second tells the other side, and the rabbi says, “You’re right.” Then the rabbi’s wife speaks up: “But, Rabbi, they can’t both be right.” Whereupon the rabbi says, “You know, you’re right, too!”

I choose to side with the rabbi, which means, to a limited degree, with everybody. Mapping the joke onto an arbitrary current conflict for illustration, the first party can be the American religious right, the second party Islamic fundamentalists, the rabbi’s wife is the New Atheists in a moment of uncharacteristic tolerance, and the rabbi stands for post-secular philosophers like Hans Joas or Jurgen Habermas or humanist interfaith activists like Chris Stedman.

If I were to take up arms in the culture wars, this gives you an idea the side I’d choose to join. Peace and compassion for all would be my goal, but, in this discussion of atheist spirituality, it is a secondary goal. If a person is thinking about adopting some set of spiritual beliefs or practices, I would hope they would require of these beliefs and practices that they make the world a more peaceful and compassionate place. But, first, beliefs have to fit the believer. Beliefs have to be believable and practices have to be doable given who a person is and what they already believe. Most religions for most atheists, of course, are not believable, and you can consult the New Atheist canon for an exhaustive account of why.

So, does that leave us with self-help books, expensive psychotherapy, or, if we are already perfectly well-adjusted, the pursuit of pleasure, money and prestige? Or literature? For a growing segment of the well-educated population, the arts and sciences and psychotherapy have filled the void left by religion in the formation of values and the exploration of life’s big questions for at least the past couple of centuries. I’ve alluded to philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists and neuroscientists who question the ability of the arts and sciences to fill that role. The prevailing assumption in the social sciences over most of the 20th century—that the relentless spread of secularization will make religion obsolete—has collapsed. Religion is not going away; in many places it’s on the rise. Yet, a large swath of the population cannot use the comfort, community and sense of purpose provided by religions. We understand too much about the origins of life and the universe to believe in religious cosmology. We understand too much about history, probability, causality, psychology and neurology to believe in divine guidance of human affairs or divine judgment of our moral character. But does that mean we must entrust our sense of meaning and moral purpose to whatever lessons we can glean from great novels, or self-help books?

Some conception of Truth is an insurmountable barrier for many people, deciding for them what they could possibly believe, and then casting opposing beliefs as falsehoods. I assert that is is possible to take up Belief without worrying overmuch about Truth. I find endless depths of wisdom in William Blake’s aphorism:

Every thing possible to be believ’d is an image of truth.

Truth, as opposed to images of truth, is too slippery and intolerant for the kind of belief I’m promoting. So: believe. But can we take up belief without making other people wrong? It’s hard to do. Maybe we can have compassion for the zealots and fundamentalists if we recognize as universal:

  1. the desire to live in peaceful, happy and richly meaningful coexistence and cooperation with our fellow creatures,
  2. the inescapable knowledge that this is quite hard to do, and
  3. the suspicion that other people are to blame for how hard it is.

If we could all just hold on to the first two of these and drop the third, world peace might suddenly descend upon us. But, of course, we have great difficulty dropping the suspicion or conviction that the reason our cherished beliefs haven’t resulted in world peace is that others won’t go along with them, or because others are trying to force their opposing beliefs down our throats. We end up focusing less on what we believe and more on how our vision of the good life is foiled by others, and eventually our vision atrophies into a vestigial lump of bitter righteousness. That is why I say we should put aside the Truth; we can be satisfied that our beliefs form an image of the Truth, and that the contrary beliefs of others do as well.

The point of religious beliefs and practices, I claim, is not to be right, not to get to heaven, not to worship the deity who really exists or to denounce the worship of those who really don’t; the point is to actually live in peaceful, happy and richly meaningful coexistence and cooperation with our fellow creatures, to make use of available methods and guidance in achieving this end, and to overcome the obstacles we face in this effort—most of which are internal, however much we might prefer to believe otherwise. It doesn’t so much matter what our vision is of what Charles Taylor (A Secular Age) calls “fullness” or the other thing he calls “human flourishing”; what matters is that our efforts move us in the direction of that vision. Your vision may call for you to act in the larger world in various ways, performing charity or fighting for justice, perhaps, but if a central focus isn’t on the internal work of adapting or transforming ourselves to meet our own visions of fulfillment, I would claim that our moral compass is broken: it’s only telling us in what direction other people are going.

But where can we go to get the strength, the spiritual support, to do that work on ourselves if we don’t have it already? I join Alain de Botton (Religion for Atheists) and other contemporary thinkers in warning that we tend to throw the baby out with the bathwater when we insist on purely secular approaches to self-realization and harmony.

The landscape of religious and irreligious belief is richer and more diverse than most of us ever imagine, and, at the same time, a tedious wasteland of the same old tired answers we exhausted in adolescence. By that, I mean, first, there are books and communities and ideas out there that could provide endless inspiration, hope and glorious understanding for everyone, for every possible character or predilection, for every level of education, for every brand of disappointment and alienation. No matter how cynical and persnickety you are, somewhere in the world there are people who think (or have thought) much like you do, but who have made exciting, meaningful lives for themselves, and who would probably share their secrets with you if you could find them. And, second, most people never find these books, communities or ideas, or they don’t find them at the right time, or they don’t recognize them for whatever reason.

I make extensive use of secular methods for personal development—psychotherapy, literature, philosophy, etc.—and don’t mean to denigrate them in any way, but for people like me, they are not enough. Religious and spiritual practices provide rich resources for those who can use them, but the obstacles are high. Most religions, to my mind, fall into one of two unappealing categories: 1) boring congregations in traditional religions providing meager amounts of self-transformation through an occasionally inspiring sermon; or 2) fanatical sects or cults that provide an environment for serious self-examination and personal growth, a strong community, a set of practices that infiltrate a large part of one’s life, but that also often demand that members adhere to the belief that this group has exclusive access to the Truth while the rest of the world is wrong or damned in some way.

It’s like you want to remodel your house and the only tools available are a can opener and a stick of dynamite. The stick of dynamite is certainly more effective, but the effect may not be what you were looking for. There are lots of good reasons for avoiding fanatical cults, but some fanaticism and brainwashing might not be so bad—when used to help people develop integrity, compassion, a strong sense of being able to care for themselves and others. Arguably the most powerful forces in our society for inculcating values are Madison Avenue and Hollywood. It’s nearly impossible to grow up in the US without adopting, to one degree or another, a sense that the good life consists in having lots of expensive things, drinking Coke or Pepsi, eating fast food and sumptuous food, being thin and beautiful, wearing the latest fashions, having a powerful job and one’s choice of mates, being smarter and more athletic and more admired than others, having the power to avenge oneself on one’s enemies. So, if a religious group is going to get its members to put aside these values in favor of universal compassion, service, open-mindedness, integrity, etc., some brainwashing may come in handy. It’s sure to work better than Sunday worship at the Church of Perpetual Boredom.

So, given that this is the way I happen to see most religions, how can I claim that an ideal community or set of books and ideas exists for everyone in the world? I know because of my Twelve-Step experience that it is possible to engage in a radically life-changing spiritual practice that holds tolerance and open-mindedness as central principles. In the case of Twelve-Step programs, though, what motivates us to engage so deeply is that the ravages of our addiction have shown us what’s at stake. We don’t have to believe it has anything to do with our immortal souls or our particular visions of utopia. I’m not suggesting that everyone join a Twelve-Step group, but that it’s possible for a spiritual community to offer radical transformation without sacrificing open-mindedness to others’ beliefs or a scientific worldview.

I had a strange fantasy thinking about all this the other day. What if the question of God’s existence were solved once and for all? What if God came out of the sky, in person, directly to me and as many other witnesses as I might require for corroboration, and said, “Here I am. You can start believing now.” I’d be like, “Ok, God. I’m so glad You stopped by. Tell me what to do.” Then God would say, “Well, actually, the Mormons were right. Go join an LDS church.” At this point, I’d have to respond, “Umm…you know, I’m a Jewish Buddhist Twelve-Stepping atheist, and I don’t think the LDS church is really going to work for me. So, if it’s all the same to You, I think I’ll stick with my Jewish Buddhist atheist thing, and if You need to send me to Hell, I guess that’s Your prerogative. And, no offense, but I was kind of hoping You’d have a lot more arms and an elephant head or something.” And then God would suddenly grow a bunch of arms and an elephant head and say, “Just pulling your leg about the Mormon thing. But I really do exist. So find yourself a religious community, I don’t care if it’s the Secular Humanists or the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, just worship Me in whatever manner you see fit. And be nice to the folks in all the other religions worshiping Me in the manner they see fit, even the Mormons. Mitt Romney is not their fault.”

So, what’s my point? Maybe there’s a religion you’d like if you really looked. Or something like a religion but not quite. Or something that would provide tools for building meaning and self-transcendence in your life if you approached it from a new perspective. Or maybe you already have some spiritual practice and my story might help you embrace it more fully. Or maybe the thing that would work for you hasn’t been invented yet. Maybe you need to invent it.

Relativism, Sheilaism, religious seriousness and guidance

Relativism has a possibly-deserved bad name in religious circles. Am I saying there’s no Truth? People can believe whatever they like? Or that truth depends on your perspective or culture, that people can fashion right and wrong in whatever way suits their needs? I wonder how many philosophers I can offend by expressing my feeling that any kind of generalized epistemology is a bunch of neurotic hand-wringing, and my possibly mystical belief that keeping one’s ethical theories at the personal or local level is likely to produce an ethics agreeable to just about anyone without risking the heavy-handedness of any particular brand of ethical universalism. I don’t actually have the philosphical skills to defend myself from being labeled a relativist, but I really don’t want to be boxed into that corner. As far as I understand them, I side with the pragmatists. Whether there’s some Truth out there or not, people will believe what works for them. So we can talk about beliefs that work and how they work, but, at the same time, we know people can rationalize the most appalling beliefs. And any sincere seeker knows she cannot trust solely in her own brain to find the path of wisdom.

This well-known passage from Habits of the Heart (Bellah, et al.) gave the name Sheilaism to a kind of vague, private religion, that it might seem I’m promoting:

Sheila Larson is a young nurse who has received a good deal of therapy and describes her faith as “Sheilaism.” This suggests the logical possibility of more than 235 million American religions, one for each of us. “I believe in God,” Sheila says. “I am not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice.” Sheila’s faith has some tenets beyond belief in God, though not many. In defining what she calls “my own Sheilaism,” she said: “It’s just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess, take care of each other. I think God would want us to take care of each other.” Like many others, Sheila would be willing to endorse few more specific points.

While I certainly agree with Sheila’s professed beliefs, the idea of people just making up their own religion makes me as uncomfortable as it would the most orthodox theologian. Of course, I have made up my own religion, but I’m also tied into an active spiritual community. I am the ultimate arbiter of my ethical prinicples, I play the leading role in shaping my religious or spiritual beliefs. But the thing that gives me confidence that I can do that without great risk of deluding myself and letting my beliefs be shaped by self-interest or convenience, is that I’m constantly checking in with other people, constantly taking in others’ wisdom.

As explained by the great philosopher Randall Munroe, if all my friends, many of them level-headed and afraid of heights, decide to jump off a bridge at once, the bridge may be on fire, and I should probably jump off, too. Or, more seriously, if I were a woman living with an abusive husband, my only hope for a better life might involve accepting advice and guidance that seems crazy or impossible to me even as I’m taking it. Earlier ideas of love, dependence, whatever, that allowed me to accept the abuse previously, may need to be overthrown. From a position of extreme fragility, dependence, low self-esteem, how might I find a guide to lead me out? This, I believe, is the position of anyone who accepts spiritual advice. To accept spiritual guidance is to admit that my own thoughts, beliefs, and habits are not giving me the life I want; I need external help.

But, then, who do I trust? Ultimately, myself. It’s up to me to identify those people or teachings who seem to have a wisdom I can use. The guides I choose don’t have to be wiser than I in all respects. In fact, I think one of the greatest moments on the spiritual journey of any wise person is when they realize they have something of value to learn from everyone—if I sincerely listen to the stupidest, craziest, most deluded, biggoted, offensive, degraded person I can find, they will have some gem of wisdom I can make use of. I’m not going to make myself that person’s disciple. In fact, the moments at which I can take wisdom from people like that are when I’m in especially fit spiritual condition myself. The people or institutions I make my gurus will be ones who seem wise to me in my worst moments as well as in my best.

Spirituality is serious business. We can’t accept spiritual guidance from a person or institution without granting them a certain amount of power over us. And every institution we know of has betrayed that trust with some of its followers at one time or another. We can become Sheilaists, or throw over the whole spiritual enterprise altogether so we won’t get burned. We can pick up our wisdom piecemeal, allowing other people’s beliefs or guidance no more than transitory influence over us, but then we miss out on the power of spiritual community.

A slapdash desiderata for 21st Century religions

I would love to work with others interested in the project of developing a thoughtful, well-constructed description of the qualities one would hope to find in contemporary religions, particularly in newly formed religions. What follows just an example of some preliminary musings in that direction.

A desirable religion would:

  • Invite passionate commitment and belief in its adherents without leading them to think the contrary beliefs of others are wrong.
  • Promote peace, tolerance, and appreciation of difference—including by not making enemies out of bigots and fundamentalists of other creeds.
  • Grow in such a way that people attracted to it could easily find or create local congregations, but without accumulating the kind of power and influencethat would attract adherents who might use it as a platform for personal gain. (This might require the absence of paid clergy, or, at least, some structural features that assure clergy never gain more money or power by serving the institution than they could by leaving it.)
  • Deliberately strike a good balance between stability of ideas and susceptibility to change. It should have sufficient clarity and uniformity of thought that all adherents have access to the benefits of its teachings, while allowing for innovation and incorporation of new wisdom.

What if, as an entire society, we quit having pointless arguments about whether God exists or which God or gods exist or whether religions are good or bad, and instead start talking about how to improve and expand the good parts of religions and diminish or eradicate the bad parts? Whether God is dead, has a slight cold, or whatever, religions certainly are not dead; they are living institutions, and, as such, it is up to people to make them serve their proper ends—whether they label that the glorification of God or the enlightenment of all living beings—in practical terms, their proper end is to bring peace, to speed inviduals, communities and societies on the path towards being loving, compassionate, just, happy, and abundantly creative. Fighting about how to do it is counter-productive. Our business is to be on that path and to find or adapt or create the institutions we need to do it, and let others do the same in their own way.

2 thoughts on “Born-again atheist

  1. Pingback: Spiritual counseling services | Tailored Beliefs

  2. Gappy

    Thank you for sending me this link. There is a huge amount to interest me in what you have written, and I love the image I have in my head of Ms X.

    I am in recovery myself – primarily from alcoholism, but also drug addiction and disordered eating (I now eat three healthy meals a day and abstain from sugar a day at a time.) I came into recovery a staunch atheist and didn’t quite know what to do about the God question. I know that I will never believe in a religious God. And I used to leave the word God out of the serenity prayer too – I got so much indentification reading that!

    However, I have not found it hugely difficult finding a power greater than myself. The force that moves the earth around the sun, and in fact the sun itself, fills that space for me. As does oxygen. Without these things nothing would survive. From there it’s a short step to believing that such a life giving force is a force for good. And a force for good wants me well, and wants me to be the best person I can be – a person who lives in harmony with the universe and the people in it.

    That’s my belief. It’s spritual I think, but has nothing to do with religion. I pray to ‘God’, knowing that my conception is what matters, and I find prayer to be not only comforting, but effective. I get my best ideas during the quiet time I spend in prayer.

    You know there is evidence that even the earliest humans had some kind of spiritual belief – evidence of some kind of ritual around burying their dead. I think this points to a deep human need for spiritual enquiry and comfort. Before I came into recovery I was spiritually bankrupt. I trusted nobody (least of all myself) and I had no faith in anything. Learning to build faith and trust is a cornerstone of my recovery. It has to be, because self reliance has failed me every time.

    Again, thanks for sending me the link. Isn’t the internet fantastic.


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