On Fulfilling Religious Impulses Both Within And Without Religion

Peaceful Atheist is a richly written blog by a Wheaton grad who deconverted from Christianity while a student at the devoutly Evangelical school.  Here are provocative thoughts which she formulated through the process of reviewing biological-anthropologist Barbara King’s Evolving God:

In this broadest definition of religion, King includes the transcendent awareness that can be stimulated by art and poetry.  When we commune with works of art in a transcendent, consciousness-raising way, she says, “the visions of these artists give us a sense of community with beliefs and practices in other societies and perhaps in times past”.  To me, that phrase is at the core of what makes this book special.  King’s aim is not to explain away religion, but to weave a thread throughout the human experience of religion, uniting the root impulse of all religious systems.  For atheists, that means when we feel a sense of awe and wonder at the intricacies of science, the breadth of the cosmos, or the beauty of human artistic creation, we are sharing a camaraderie with people before us and alongside us who have found that same feeling of awe and wonder by praying or reading holy books or contemplating the mysteries of Christ.  This is the perspective that I have been missing in the strictly atheist universe.  I am an atheist, but I am nonetheless a spiritual being, a human with a religious imagination who is no less in search of transcendence.  I don’t want to pit myself against or even separate myself from others who share this religious impulse and satisfy it in different ways.  I want to align myself with them.  A “cloud of witnesses”, if you will.

Having experienced spirituality through many different avenues—the religious system of Christianity, through art and music, and through science—the most neglected aspect of my spiritual experience is the ways in which those avenues inform and shape each other.   My Christian life not only preceded but completely transformed my life as an atheist.  (I suspect that it would have been similar if I had been just as devoutly committed to any other religious system.)  Christianity taught me how to exercise my religious imagination.  It not only gave me sources of deep awe, wonder, and sacredness, but taught me how to experience them.  My relationship with God himself taught me volumes as well, although the term “taught” would be deceptively trivializing.  Anthropologically speaking, Barbara King says that such a relationship with an unseen person is the pinnacle of human relational ability, the zenith of the primate drive for belongingness.  Even though I most certainly do not believe in God now, I surmise that my former relationship with God, the immanence of his presence in every aspect of my daily life, most certainly eclipses on a consciousness and symbolic level every relationship I’ve ever had with a human being.

Being a Christian was a vital part of my spiritual evolution.  The things that have been once sacred to me will always be sacred to me, and I will cherish them—with fondness, not longing.  And here is the one and only way in which I might subscribe to the saying, “once a Christian, always a Christian”: I hope I never lose my understanding of the Christian religious sensibility.  No matter where I find sacredness, I align myself with all who have shared the religious imagination, and all their manifestations of transcendence, including my own of the past.

I’ve deliberately avoided any discussion of truth, because Evolving God isn’t about that.  It’s interesting and refreshing for me, as someone who usually extols truth as The Only Thing That Matters, to put that aside and explore the richness of the religious impulse.

One of the essential reasons that I think it is vitally important for atheists to come out of their closets, self-consciously own their atheism, and organize as a community around principles of rationalism is because there really are deeply engrained aspects of human psychology that people need to have met.  There are impulses for which most people people presently find no systematic outlet  for addressing outside of religious organizations.

If we are genuinely concerned that people live lives in which they strive to be as rational as possible, then rationalists need to offer substantive advice and communal support for fulfilling people’s impulses that go beyond their rational assessments of evidence for belief and moral action.  We need to form communities in which people can rationally explore their religious impulses and create constructive outlets.  We need to form centers for people to channel their charitable energies and for people to turn when they have kids and feel the need to connect them to an ethically stabilizing community.  We need to group together to provide each other and the presently wishy-washy atheists with the services that meet the needs of people that are so deep and important to them that currently they sell out their reason rather than go without them.

I’m not talking new standardized myths propagated to and accepted by all atheists or any dogmatic, stifling group-thinking.  There can be community and dialogue based on common rationalist grounds that does not stifle all independence and diversity of thought-–and there really must be if atheists are to have any hope of breaking religion’s hegemony in the meaning market (to put it crassly and bluntly).

Your Thoughts?

  • atwitter

    Oh. That’s actually a couple of very thoughtful comments.

    I think that sometimes, the atheist community is sort of alienating the, for a lck of better word, “spiritual” subgroup of atheist/potential atheists. It’s like, I think, part of the reason why the “scientific pantheists”, as Dawkins calls them, are so numerous still.

    On the one hand, the atheist community is pro-reason, and pro-scepticism, but it shouldn’t have to mean that some people will be automatically ridiculed when they say how the universe is for them awe-inspiring, and how they are moved by its beauty or whatever.

    It’s again part of the reason/emotions false dychotomy, and not only religious people but also potential atheists, and some atheists too, are falling for it, and it’s a shame.

    My favourite post by PZ Myers, I think, was the one in which he told how reading the Gilgamesh helped him come to terms with a death of a close person.

    Atheists: we’re not from Vulcan, ahahaha.

    And community is an important issue too. I remember people at Skepchick discussing how most forums for mums and about raising children are full of rabid Xians who immediately start spewing all sorts of uncool accusations as soon as they find out that you’re an atheist. That’s so wrong.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Yes, I think a large part of the problem is compartmentalization. There is a tremendous amount of non-theist or non-specifically theist art in our secular age. There is so much rich engagement of the world on secular terms, there are so many psycho-social benefits to be gained from our learning in the secular social sciences, so much powerful knowledge attained by god-ignoring natural sciences, so much human rights advancement that takes patently secular formulation—and yet atheists, by not belonging to a religion, has not established mechanisms for integrating a coherent meaning, ethics, community, identity, and ritual arrangement for people that unites all these contributions and associates them with the atheistic outlook that makes them possible.

      It’s the most frustrating irony when atheists get accused of belonging to a religion (I mean Western atheists, of course, not the Buddhists who are atheists with a religion). If we actually did have an atheistic religious identity and community that integrated, took credit for, and capitalized on all the benefits of atheistic thinking while developing the tools for uniting and growing membership, there sure wouldn’t be just 10% of us in a place like America.

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