I’ve struggled mightily with when and if and how to bring my atheist spirituality ideas into the world. A high-powered editor, perfectly placed to evaluate the publication prospects of my work told me I need to build a platform. Without some articles published, a significant online following, or other indications that I have an audience to address, publishers aren’t going to consider my work, however well-written or innovative it may be. That’s the way it works nowadays. After a few months of writing smaller pieces for magazines or newspapers and submitting them to a couple high-profile publications, I decided to quit spending so much time trying to convince gatekeepers to let me into the conversation. Self-publishing and self-promoting is even more time consuming, but it does have the benefit of making one’s failures apparent very quickly. Every time I send out a barrage of promotional email list postings or tweets or facebook postings, I see a little spike in my web traffic, which then subsides back to zero in a day or so. All along I’ve examined my own motivations and questioned whether the time and energy I’ve been heaping on this effort and its impact on my family and job is justified in some way. I’ve answered in the affirmative because this work enlivens me so much.
Since the point of all this is to help people, I decided to try to find people locally I could help. So I advertised locally:
Spirituality and self-transformation for atheists, agnostics, skeptics and outsiders. If you don’t fit neatly into some religious or spiritual tradition, where do you find the inspiration, wisdom, guidance, support and community for transformation and fulfillment? How do you pursue your vision of a better life and world? Join us for a workshop and discussion
I took this step with a lot of trepidation because I don’t consider myself particularly empathic or skillful as a motivational speaker or counselor. I realized that I was putting myself forward as a kind of spiritual teacher, but I have no formal training, nothing but my excitement over my own experience and ideas to recommend me.
By the time the first public meeting occurred, no one had registered and I didn’t expect anyone to come. But one person did show up. I didn’t get his permission to write about our interaction. I gave him my contact information, but didn’t get his. The experience was great and convinced me, once again, that I have something important to share. I’ll try to describe what happened without violating his privacy.
He learned about the event from an announcement I placed in a newspaper. He had not visited the website. He was curious about atheism but knew little about it. He had been deeply religious in the past, but had decided that organized religions were not for him because he had seen the ways they oppress and exploit people. I asked what had drawn him to the religions he had practiced in the past and what he was looking for now. He said he was looking for Truth.
I said that I wasn’t trying to push any particular dogma, but there is one piece of dogma or belief I hold to strongly — that basically everyone has the Truth: every religion, every practice, every piece of wisdom or scripture. People figure out something that works for them, they share it with others. And with every bit of recognized wisdom in the world, some people have also figured out how to twist it to their own self-interested ends, how to use it to exploit others or to make themselves superior to others just by offering it. But the fact that a religion or a piece of wisdom has been used for exploitation is no indictment of the wisdom underlying it.
I recommended Greg Epstein’s Good Without God since he wanted to learn more about atheism, and Dharma talks by Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield and any kind of Twelve-Step group he might relate to, since those have been helpful to me personally.
We spoke for more than an hour with considerable candor and feeling on both sides. He has been struggling with serious personal issues. He clearly recognizes that the community, guidance and support he received from religions in the past was a big help to him. He told me at the end that the talk had given him some new ideas about how to find the support he needs and maybe a bit of hope.
I think the simple idea that religious (and quasi-religious) communities can provide essential support in our lives without having a direct line to the Truth may be radically new to some people. And to recognize that these communities may be full of hypocrisy and that we can criticize them for any number of reasons but still draw on the support they offer may be liberating for people who really need that kind of help — and who doesn’t?