In the course of writing about my deconversion and the problems in religion, I’ve often been asked:
“I understand what you don’t believe, but what do you believe?”
The short answer is that I don’t have any single ideology that I can point to and say “that’s what I believe.” My worldview is a combination of many ideas that make sense to me.
Let’s use this definition of belief:
To believe is to have confidence in something which is not absolutely proven.
My beliefs are the perspectives that I hold confidently, yet recognize as fallible. My strong suspicions about the nature of reality. Ideas which I live my life by, although they can’t be proven.
Humans aren’t perfectly objective and rational machines. It’s normal to have beliefs, but we do need to remember that beliefs are not facts.
With this essay I wish to demonstrate that a worldview without God is not necessarily devoid of wonder and mystery. I also want to emphasize that I do not intend to speak for agnostics, atheists, or ex-religious people as a whole. We’re a diverse crowd.
Here are 8 beliefs that I hold regarding the nature of reality and spirituality.
1) We live inside an objective reality, but nobody sees it accurately.
I believe that what we call “matter” exists in an objective way, independent of who or what perceives it.
At the same time, our subjective experience of the world — the only information we have about it — is a complete fabrication. Our brains create a representation of what reality is like, which varies from person to person.
An object seems “solid”; it has a “color”; a “texture”. Though this illusion is based on reality, it isn’t the same thing as reality. It’s the graphical interface we use to navigate the world.
We have many shared perceptions that align in fundamental ways because they are based on straightforward aspects of the objective reality. Generally speaking, we don’t have trouble agreeing about which side of the road is the correct side to drive on. We bet our lives on this shared perception whenever we hop in a car.
Complex experiences such as emotions and political views tend to be highly divergent, because there are more layers between the basic physics of the situation and the way we end up perceiving it.
2) Humans create models to explain reality, and these models evolve.
Ever since humans gained the capacity to contemplate the meaning of life and where we came from, we’ve been coming up with explanations to satisfy those questions, which is where religion first came into the picture. Creation myths were born in cultures all around the world. They give context for existence.
Many natural phenomena, such as a lightning storm, must have been totally baffling before we understood concepts like voltage differentials and ionization. The explanation of a big magical person in the clouds smashing things around might not make a whole lot of sense, but at least it was an answer.
More recently, humans learned how to gain understanding about the world through objective observations and repeatable experimentation, and have created scientific models that explain many mysteries. Meanwhile, the number of phenomena best explained by magical entities has decreased.
3) Science is the most objective model of reality we have.
The goal of science is to carefully use our subjective perceptions of reality to learn something about the underlying objective reality. This is accomplished by paying attention to measurable quantities in the world around us, which exist separately from human bias. We create models that fit the observations, and revise them when conflicting data is found. When a model accurately and reliably predicts real-world outcomes, we gain confidence in its truth (and we call it a “theory”, eg. the theory of gravity).
Religion pays attention to the esoteric ideas and tribal stories that previous humans passed down, with no evidence of their truth other than a claim to authority, a tradition of words.
I think it makes more sense to learn directly from nature rather than the stories of humans, because humans are the only things that lie. Everything else is an impartial teacher.
You’re able to read this right now because scientists and engineers learned how to control the flow of electrons, how to design logic gates, how to manufacture a display screen, and how to store and send information through complex networks of computers. That’s practical evidence of the validity of the scientific method.
Though science is currently our most adaptable and objective method of understanding the universe, it’s still an incomplete model of something that is far more complex than we can understand. Plenty of things haven’t been explained fully. As pure as the idea of the scientific method is, humans are not always pure in the way they use it. The scientific community is still vulnerable to bias, ego, manipulation, deceit, and bribery, like any other community. Still, I think it’s a more promising path than religion.
4) Consciousness happens in the brain.
I think the physical brain is what animates us, for the following three reasons (among others):
1) We observe that consciousness is a spectrum in living organisms. The capacity for problem solving, emotion, communication, social structure, and empathy corresponds to the size and complexity of an animal’s brain.
2) When we change the physical brain state, we change our experience of consciousness — whether that’s through a brain injury, drugs, or direct stimulation of neurons, we observe that molecular activity in the brain corresponds with mental states. Conversely, we can measure with an fMRI that when a person is having a certain kind of experience, it corresponds to a certain kind of brain activity.
3) If our brains stop working, we lose consciousness.
I don’t see a need for a separate “spirit” to explain the conscious experience.
5) Consciousness itself is a fundamental property of matter.
This is where I’ll get into “belief” territory that is probably not widely shared among atheists.
I am having a conscious experience, and yet my brain is only made of matter which obeys the laws of physics. Therefore, I believe that consciousness can arise from ordinary matter when it interacts in a special way, such as inside a brain. Nobody knows yet why or how this happens, or what the exact conditions are.
It seems to me that the universe is trending toward complexity. It pleases me to think of this as something that it does on purpose.
According to the big bang theory, the universe began with a massive, hot explosion of subatomic particles. Since then, the evolution of matter has been quite remarkable:
- Initial quarks and leptons condensed into protons, neutrons and electrons, and cooled enough to combine into hydrogen atoms;
- Hydrogen atoms collected into clouds of gas, and compressed via gravity to form stars;
- Stars are organized in galaxies, groups of galaxies, and clusters of galaxy groups. Stars create new elements through fusion, supernovae, and collisions, and these new elements are scattered around space;
- These elements then form things like the solar system we live in, including rocky planets with many different kinds of materials that interact in interesting new ways;
- In all the geochemical chaos on our planet, amino acids formed, and single-celled self-replicating organisms with DNA came into existence — another huge level of complexity rising from what came before it;
- From here, single cells organized into multi-cellular organisms, eventually evolving into plants and animals;
- Now humans are building an increasingly complex society, but we’re not at the end of the line — we’re changing so rapidly now that we can see dramatic change in one human lifetime.
We’re little pieces of the universe that became complex enough to invent language, and agriculture, and books, and cars, and the internet. Life 100 years ago looked nothing like it does today. Artificial intelligence is advancing extremely rapidly and nobody knows what’s going to happen next.
And we are made of universe. We are the universe thinking and learning and exploring.
6) I think higher forms of intelligence may possibly exist.
Since our entire consciousness is produced by 3 lbs of highly interconnected and organized jello inside our skulls — the cooperation of many billions of brain cells — it also seems plausible to me that other interconnected and organized information-exchanging systems could experience consciousness, even if they aren’t humans, animals, or “lifeforms” at all.
Maybe certain political and religious movements are in fact conscious entities, using the minds of individuals like neurons, in an effort to self-propagate. Maybe a forest, with millions of trees connected via subterranean fungus networks, is conscious on a slower timescale. Maybe a galaxy can have experiences.
Perhaps the entire universe is like an enormous, super-intelligent organism, with a central consciousness arising from the sum of all its interactions. It might be so much more intelligent than us that it makes us look as smart as a hydrogen atom. This entity (if assigned a human concept) would essentially be “God”. In this way, I’m open to the idea of pantheism. These ideas are nothing new to those who are familiar with philosophers like Alan Watts.
Maybe there is a consciousness so large that the birth and death of a trillion universes is like one breath. On the other end of the spectrum, maybe the proton inside my left thumbnail is actually a vastly complex and intelligent multiverse of its own. I mean, who knows? Humans define “big” and “small” in relation to themselves, but do we truly know the limits of the overall spectrum?
I think agnosticism is the most honest worldview because it admits that we know much less than we think we know.
7) No human-invented religion can possibly be true.
If there exists a God that is so inconceivably superior to us, it should be nearly impossible to perceive it in any meaningful way, in the same way that a mosquito cannot understand the complexity of a human life.
Thus, it seems arrogant to think that anyone can write a book containing the truth about this entity… or that the entity would pick and choose favorite tribes on Earth, and get offended by what I think or whether or not I have sex. That’s a very small-minded model of such a being, probably only invented to control people.
Some of the common religious ideas regarding love and kindness have value on their own. It’s not all bad. But nobody knows for sure if a greater consciousness exists or what form beyond our understanding it might take. It’s certainly not preserving our souls after we die so it can punish or reward us forever based on our religious perspectives. Since these claims are so absurd, we need not live in any fear of the afterlife, or judgment from God.
Again I’ve found myself outlining what I don’t believe about spirituality! Here’s what I do believe:
8) “Spirituality” can be any practice that leads to well-being, love, and happiness.
The way I think of a “spiritual practice” has nothing to do with the idea of magical spirits. I think of it as any activity that grounds you in the present moment, interrupts the chatter in your head, and brings your attention into your body. This has the effect of increasing a sense of peace, satisfaction, and well-being.
For me, yoga, meditation, and hiking are the most effective methods I have found. But activities like music, art, sports, travel, dancing, sex, exercise, prayer, drugs, worship, etc., are possible avenues of spirituality with varying benefits and consequences.
Different approaches work well for different people since our brains are wired differently. One person’s blissful, soothing practice might be pure torture for someone else. So we all need to explore different activities that help us become more healthy, and not insist that our way is the right way for everyone.
Of all the ideas I learned in Christianity, my favorite is the Fruit of the Spirit. I don’t associate it with the supernatural anymore, but I think that when our lives are full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control… we’re doing something right.
We should do whatever “spiritual” practices we need to do in order to increase these qualities. Not because it’s holy or righteous by some arbitrary religious standard, but simply because it’s healthy, and ultimately leads to the most enjoyable kind of life.
I hope you have enjoyed this look into my mind. These are all personal opinions and do not reflect the thinking of other people involved with Recovering from Religion or ex-Christians in general. If you want to discuss any of these ideas further, feel free to leave a comment or shoot me an email.